Fashion History Talks! with Martin Williams of Sotheby’s Institute of Art

“…a lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas.” –Charles Baudelaire


“Can anyone point this stray Edwardian in the right direction for 1906?” reads a post by Martin Williams, the dapper gentleman behind the Instagram account @disraeli81. It is a fitting question for this eloquent documentarian who, as both observer and explorer, embodies all the charm and sophistication of the bygone eras he so brilliantly celebrates in his almost daily posts. Williams is a 21st century embodiment of Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, a familiar 19th century Parisian archetype described by the famous poet as the “gentleman stroller of city streets” and, most aptly for Williams, as “the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas,” to be likened “to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”* When Williams is not capturing the majestic wonder of the English countryside, he can be found admiring the beauty of a John Singer Sargent masterpiece or the hidden nuance of a well-placed top hat. Each and every one of Williams’ posts is accompanied by a witty, romantic and often intoxicating narrative quoted from the likes of Tennyson, Saki or, my personal favorite, Williams himself. Well-versed in the art of articulation, this “stray Edwardian” brings history, and many times fashion history, to his followers with a charm and grace that feels at once fresh and sentimental. I am delighted to present Williams as the latest participate in Fashion History Talks!.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-9-46-37-pmTell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress: Now based in London, I grew up in the depths of rural Shropshire. Having graduated from university with Joint Honours in English and History of Art, I joined Christie’s in early 2004. Thereafter, I worked at Bonhams, before winding up at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in late 2009. I’ve been there ever since, devising and offering an ever-expanding range of public programmes in the fields of art history, contemporary art, the decorative arts, art business and photography. It’s a fascinating – if occasionally exhausting – job which connects me with leading art historians, auction house specialists, gallerists, collectors, journalists and enthusiasts from around the world. It also sees me travel extensively, meeting individuals and groups in Paris, Berlin, Milan, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi…

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-9-25-51-pmOne strand I’ve taken particular pleasure in developing over the years is that of fashion history. I’ve offered several series of evening lectures in the field: the History of Fashion with Dr Elizabeth Currie in 2011, Art and Fashion with Professor Claire Wilcox, Edwina Ehrman and Oriole Cullen of the V&A in 2013 and The Culture of Fashion with Dr Benjamin Wild (author of A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton) in 2016. Since 2010, I’ve also offered an annual two-day programme focusing on fine and magnificent jewellery with Daniela Mascetti, International Senior Specialist in Jewellery at Sotheby’s. The overlaps between fashion history and the history of jewellery are often overlooked and Daniela (author of the seminal texts Understanding Jewellery and Celebrating Jewellery: Exceptional Jewels of the 19th and 20th Centuries) is particularly adept at foregrounding these. For example, did you know that there were not one but two intermarriages between the Worth and Cartier families in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? You can’t fully understand a piece of jewellery without understanding the clothing it was made to be worn with.

I’m also a regular writer for the British magazine Country Life, reviewing books on art history and social history, as well as contributing the occasional full-length feature.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-9-46-21-pmWhy is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? I’m fortunate to be able to draw upon my personal interests in my professional life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been as much fascinated by the decorative arts (architecture, interiors, gardens, fashion) as by the high arts (painting, sculpture, literature). Complementing both disciplines are my passions for biography and social history: the ways in which humans throughout history have organised their daily lives and relationships. I’ve come to regard the history of dress as the best possible window into the social, political and cultural preoccupations of any given culture, generation or individual. If one knows how to interpret it, clothing can tell us so much about the period or occasion when it was worn, as well as about the men and women who designed and wore it. Besides, the beauty of historical dress – its colours, textures, shapes – is often astounding. I’m just as likely to be excited and inspired – moved, even – by a really beautiful evening gown by Paquin or Mainbocher as I am by a piece of Renaissance sculpture.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-9-51-58-pmIn your opinion, is fashion art? Absolutely. Great art is eternal; high fashion is, by its very nature, ephemeral. Yet the craftsmanship and virtuosity displayed by the finest garments – the exquisite embroidery on an eighteenth century silk waistcoat, say, or the complex construction of an evening gown by Madeleine Vionnet – are sufficient to transform them into timeless works of art as worthy of appreciation and close study as any painting or bronze. To me, fashion is art made to be worn. It’s that simple.

Portait of Elizabeth Farren by Sir Thomas Lawrence, before 1791, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Then there’s the cultural dimension I referred to above. During my final year at university, I wrote my dissertation on social and cultural influences on the representation of dress in the portraiture of the English artist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). You can’t hope to understand the preoccupations of any given era without understanding the way in which people dressed during it (and vice versa). Its surely no coincidence that innovators in the field of the arts have so often derived support and inspiration from pioneers in the field of fashion. Think of Jacques Doucet’s private collection of Post-Impressionist and Cubust masterpieces…of Leon Bakst’s designs for the Ballets Russes which galvanised Paul Poiret…of Gabrielle Chanel’s close relations with the likes of Cocteau, Stravinsky and Picasso…of Schiaparelli’s embracing of Dali and Surrealism. The list goes on and on.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: That’s a tough one! I’d have to start by listing the various decades or eras I’m particularly drawn to: the 1780s; the 1830s; the Roaring Twenties; the Glamorous Thirties; the New Look Fifties; the early Sixties. Lately, I’ve even surprised myself by developing an appreciation for Halston’s work from the 1970s – the decade often derided as the one that taste forgot! Most of all, I’m drawn like a moth to a flame to the Edwardian era, and particularly to that short window of time between 1910 and 1918. A former colleague once observed that, in the years immediately before the Great War, Western Europeans had, for the first time in history, an acute awareness of ‘the proximity of the future’. So much was changing so quickly. In society, politics, art and fashion, everything was in a state of upheaval and ferment: Votes for Women, Home Rule, the Russian Ballet, Post-Impressionism, motor cars, aeroplanes, telephones, wireless telegraphy…yet, for the privileged few, the opulent framework of a more leisurely and gracious age remained completely intact. You can see the conflicting currents of traditionalism and modernity collide to spectacular effect in the fashions of 1912, 1913 and 1914 – in my opinion, the most intriguing years in the entire history of dress. The long nineteenth century was coming to an end and the world as we know it today was being born.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-9-58-13-pmIn fashion, as in life, my tastes are fairly conservative. Like most people, I’m wowed by theatricalty and glamour. Deep down, however, I’m more attracted by the timeless principles of grace and classical elegance – yes, and femininity. In terms of favourite designers, I’d list the obvious: Lucile (who, in addition to her prodigious talent, had such a fascinating personal life); the Callot Soeurs (no other designers better understood colour and texture – and they trained Madeleine Vionnet); Christian Dior (who almost single-handedly revived the Paris couture industry after the Second World War); and Madeleine Vionnet herself (arguably the greatest designer ever). Increasingly, I find myself gravitating to designers who have yet to receive their fair share of coverage. Molyneux, Mainbocher and Augustabernard, all of whom were international fashion leaders between the wars, are figures I’d love to know more about – both personally and professionally.

Vogue editor Hamish Bowles with dresses from his private collection. ©Jason Schmidt.
I’m going to duck the question about a favourite designer working today. The fashion figure I most admire is, without question, European editor-at-large for American Vogue, Hamish Bowles. There are so many reasons I esteem him. The way in which he takes the time-honoured traditions of British tailoring and then infuses them with his own, inimitable blend of colour, creativity and wit is totally inspiring. There’s nothing hidebound or stuffy about Hamish: he’s conservative but contemporary, erudite but fun. As a fashion historian, he’s almost unrivalled in his understanding and appreciation of elegance and beauty: not just in the clothes themselves but in the women who wore them. I’ve come to believe that his approach to style and fashion is truly three-dimensional. No dry academic, he can join the dots of history, culture, décor, society and style like nobody else. Last but not least, there’s his private collection of couture, lovingly amassed and curated over a period of many years. What wouldn’t I give for a guided tour of that.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-10-04-56-pmIf you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be?  Again, I’m going to cheat: not one favourite book but three. First and foremost must be every fashion historian’s bible: Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century, written by Akiko Fukai and published by the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan. A copy of this mighty tome (since released in two volumes) was presented to me by some friends when I was still at university. The incredible breadth and sheer quality of the Kyoto collection is extraordinary. And to see so many highlights exquisitely photographed in full colour is the next best thing to visiting the collection in person (that’s on my bucket list, by the way).

Jacqueline Kennedy at a state dinner, May 22, 1962.
Next up is the catalogue Hamish Bowles and Arthur M. Schlesinger co-produced for the 2001 Costume Institute exhibition, Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. As the most famous and photographed woman in the world during one of the most febrile periods in modern history, Mrs Kennedy imposed her incredible sense of style and structured, streamlined chic on an entire generation. Beautiful photographs of selections from the First Lady’s wardrobe are complemented by superb commentary by Hamish himself (that ‘three-dimensional’ approach to fashion history, social history and biography I mentioned above). There’s no way you could hope to understand this most cultured, enigmatic and inspirational fashion icon without reading this book.


A 1912 dress by Lucile owned by Heather Fairbanks and featured in the book London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank.
Last but not least is the incredible London Society Fashion 1905–1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, co-authored by Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister and Lou Taylor of the V&A. Heather Firbank, the sister of the writer Ronald, was a young woman who amassed an exceptional wardrobe from Lucile, Redfern and their British competitors in the years around 1910. She had the most incredible sense of style, as well as ample means to indulge it, and this book is the best survey of Edwardian fashion and high society I’ve ever read. On top of that, it traces Heather’s ultimately rather sad story through her clothing. That’s the approach I find most engaging: the seamless interweaving of fashion history with broader social history and individual biography. The photography, which gives the most incredible sense of colours and textures, is breathtakingly beautiful. Reading this book, you can appreciate why the Firbank Collection was such an inspiration to the likes of Cecil Beaton and Susannah Buxton, costume designer for Downton Abbey.

I’ve included a few more of my favorite @disraeli81 posts below:


*Charles BaudelaireThe Painter of Modern Life, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.

3 thoughts on “Fashion History Talks! with Martin Williams of Sotheby’s Institute of Art

  1. I love the command of fashion history knowledge in this post. As exquisite as the artist being featured. Kudos!


  2. Anonymous

    Reading Martin William’s interview was a pleasure and reminded me of two great men in London who would have passionately agreed that dress is “the best possible window into the social, political and cultural preoccupations of any given culture, generation or individual.” I am thinking of the great Geoffrey Squire (1925-2011), the former keeper and outstanding lecturer at the V&A who also had a connection to Sotheby’s, and one of the most inspirational teachers in the field, and the late Derek Shrub, the brilliant and charismatic director of the Sotheby’s Works of Art 10 month course. Those two men inspired me and countless others. It seems that Mr.Williams is carrying the torch at Sotheby’s.


  3. A most enjoyable conversation with one of my favorite Instagram accounts. Thank you.


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