Fashion History Talks! In conversation with cultural historian Dr. Benjamin Wild

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Cecil Beaton photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1930s. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Separated by almost 700 years, the commonalities between King Henry III of England and Cecil Beaton are perhaps not entirely obvious at first glance—but then again, we do not all share the percipient gaze of cultural historian Dr. Benjamin Wild. Released last year, Wild’s book A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton was the first to study the evolving style of the famed photographer and costume designer to the stars. Beaton is a well-known staple in the fashion and dress history narrative, but King Henry III, ruler of England from 1216-1272, is not. And yet, Wild’s extensive research reveals that King Henry III, like Beaton, was a pillar of sartorial authority and excellence deserving of attention. The King, who ruled for almost sixty years, used clothing as a powerful tool to not only construct his identity but consolidate and demonstrate his power. Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.53.53 PMFrom the overlooked King Henry III (Wild’s nominee for history’s “Best dressed Briton”) to Cecil Beaton to Vivienne Westwood, Wild has explored an impressive spectrum of time in his numerous lectures, published works and fascinating blog. He sets himself apart with a remarkable ability to seamlessly slip from contemporary to historic times, relating the then with the now in new and refreshing ways. For instance, one recent post reveals that the fancy dress costumes on full and colorful display in the Brexit protests find historical precedence in the Middle Ages, when visual symbolism was key in articulating messages to a largely illiterate public.IMG_1837

The importance, power and symbolism of material culture is at the heart of Wild’s research, and he is especially interested in examining it through the lens of dress. He himself imparts “instant” visual connections to his Instagram followers as potent reminders that there is no today without the past–be it yesterday or one thousand years ago. Wild’s insights are not only refreshing they are thought-provoking and necessary. In a world that lives in the fleeting moment of the disappearing Snapchat story or a fashion industry that dictates the new and the now, Wild’s research is imperative to the changing cultural and social demographics in which we all engage but few take the time to understand. I am thrilled that Wild is the most recent participant in Fashion History Talks!.

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Cultural historian Benjamin Wild

Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. I suppose it would be accurate to describe me as a ‘cultural historian’. My early research – and the subject of my doctoral thesis – focused on the Middle Ages, more specifically the household of Henry III of England (1216-1272). I since have wandered far, chronologically and culturally, from this period, although I always tend to return to it. My most recent book, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), was far removed from the medieval period – although, one of my students did point out that the name ‘Sir Cecil Beaton’ would have hardly seemed incongruous in England’s thirteenth-century royal court. In my current book project on fancy dress costume I have returned, in part, to my medieval stomping ground. Broadly, I am in interested how material objects become imbued with meaning and act as potent signifiers of people’s ideas and intentions. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to work within a variety of institutions, from the Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, the Royal Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I have been involved in different forms of teaching. At the moment, I am preparing a short course for the Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Menswear and Masculinities’, for 2018.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.54.31 PMWhy is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Shakespeare’s remark, via Polonius, that ‘apparel oft proclaims the man’, comes instantly to mind. The phrase has become something of a cliché and, perhaps, diluted through use, but I think it is becoming more apposite. It reminds me that the conception, creation and consumption of the clothes we wear is shaped by the societies we live in. Consequently, I think we need to give time to understand the past if we wish to make sense of clothing in the present. Just think how many recent fashions have been predicated on trends of the past, and I think this reinterpretation, or regurgitation, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.IMG_1834

It interests me how people (increasingly) use their clothing as a form of psychological salve; styles from the past seem to provide a sense of security and stability that is often absent in the present. As people look to define themselves and their personal relationships (professional and personal) in a period when globalization and technological development have so dramatically transformed the role and meaning of the self in society, the clothes we wear have become more important as a means of conveying our attitudes and intent, even if the meanings they convey are not always clear. To help us make sense of this rich and complex dialogue, we need to look to the past to provide context.

Within the academic community it is (now) something of a bête noire to suggest that clothes help to demarcate social and political relationships – hierarchies, in particular – but I think this has always been a major function of clothing, and is becoming more apparent. Take, for example, those shoppers who clamour for luxury brands to proclaim their affluent status, or those who don fancy dress costumes to protest the perceived failings of government. Think also of the longevity of wardrobe staples like the men’s suit, which in recent years has been enjoying a revival across many demographics. As society becomes ever more fluidic – I am thinking here of Zygmunt Bauman’s writings on ‘Liquid Modernity’ – the clothes we wear are becoming more important as a conduit to communicate with other people, and this often means using garments to convey messages about social, political and economic standing. To understand the messages that people’s clothing choices might be carrying (however intentionally), we have to broaden our analytical framework, and a knowledge of the past is necessary for this.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 9.01.37 PMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I am inclined to fence sit and say, well, it depends on what you mean by ‘fashion’ and by ‘art’, for both concepts are mutable and subjective. If by ‘fashion’ we take a conventional interpretation and refer to a popular trend, then I would say that whilst it has the potential to be art, the overriding importance of relevance probably mitigates against this. Perhaps prior to the mid-twentieth century there was a greater elision between art and fashion, because the conception and creation of clothing, which was still largely framed by what could be produced by hand, meant there was a great deal of skill and labour involved in the manufacturing process. This is not to say that ‘art’ is defined by something that has taken time to produce, but, for me, art does have to be something that has an immediate and lasting affect; I rather like Simon Schama’s idea that art should pack a ‘visceral punch’, I think that was his phrase. The ability for art to have such an impact is likely diminished in the case of fashionable clothing that is, for most people, available quickly and cheaply. In short, I might suggest that for fashion to be considered art, it needs to be cognizant of its cultural context and communicate something meaningful (although not necessarily profound) about this.

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Evening suit owned by the Duke of Windsor, 1938-65, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jacket and vest by F. Scholte, pants by H. Harris.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: I am often asked this question, and I always flounder with an answer. So, for the record: I am not sure that I have a ‘favourite’ fashion designer, of the past or present. Is that heresy for a historian who writes and teaches about dress to say?! The nature of my historical interests means that I am more interested to see how designers engage with the ideas and work of their predecessors, to understand how the past acts to stimulate (or stifle) new creations, than any one designer or design house. It is this dynamic that often inspires my Instagram posts. If I were to name names… at the moment, I am very interested in the work of British designers Sibling (who have just announced that they are winding down their business) and Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck, for example. However, whilst the work of these designers does appeal to me on an aesthetic level, I am far more excited by the questions and issues their work raises. On a more avowedly aesthetic level, I feel compelled to mention Frederick Scholte, who was largely responsible for innovating the so-called drape style or ‘London cut’ during the 1903s, which enables me to enjoy the fit of my contemporary bespoke suits all the more.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.52.10 PMIf you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Joanne Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991). Some texts are always cited in books and papers that consider the meaning and significance of clothing; others, strangely, are not. This book is one of the latter. I think this is a great shame, for it is one of the few accessible and engaging works to show how sociological and anthropological theory can be usefully incorporated into studies of clothing.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 8.56.44 PM.pngAny current projects? At the moment, my current research is a book for Bloomsbury Academic, Carnival to Cosplay: A History of Fancy Dress Costume. This will be the first academic and book-length study of what is a remarkably prevalent sartorial phenomenon. I would care to bet (not that I am a betting man, you understand) that the majority of people alive today has, or will, don fancy dress costume at some point, regardless of their sex, status or society, however creatively and for however short a period of time. Few forms of clothing are, I think, as universal and exceptional as fancy dress.

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