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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Fashion History Talks! In conversation with historical novelist Susan Holloway Scott

“Fashion history continues to be perhaps our most tangible link to people from the past.”  –Susan Holloway Scott

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Image selection taken from Scott’s Instagram account @susan_holloway_scott_author

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Portrait of the author.

Susan Holloway Scott is not your typical costume designer. Her designs do not appear on the theater stage nor on a movie or television screen. In fact, her creations do not even require fabric, thread or a sewing machine. To truly see and experience Scott’s designs, all that is required is your imagination. Scott is an internationally celebrated author of over fifty books of historical fiction. Like any historical novelist, her well-researched books are based on real historical figures and events but she sets herself apart by enriching her books with incredibly detailed, historically-based descriptions of her character’s clothing, making her books that much more enticing for the historically inclined. Who doesn’t love a little romance and adventure with their fashion history?

Years of research and a genuine passion for history and, of course fashion history, inform Scott’s work making it a delightful and insightful read. It is a passion that informs her novels but also her Instagram page where she has a devoted following to whom she shares the beautiful historical portraiture that undoubtedly inspires her work. She is also the other half of the blog Two Nerdy History Girls, co-founded with historical romance author Loretta Chase. There you can find the research behind many of Scott’s books including her latest novel I, Eliza Hamilton, about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. So much more than the wife of Alexander Hamilton, she was a powerful, enigmatic heroine in her own right–and stylishly dressed at that! The book was just published in September by Kensington Books (available now on Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

It has been exactly two years since I started @the_art_of_dress Instagram and exactly two years that I have been following and inspired by @susan_holloway_scott_author. I am thrilled to feature her now on The Art of Dress!

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 7.05.41 AMTell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. Like many of the people that Cassidy has profiled here, my fascination with historical fashion began early. I pored over fashion books, and went to museums to draw the clothes I saw in portraits. I sewed my own clothes, and they always had historical influences (with weirdly mixed results when I look back on the photos!) I went to design school, determined to become a costume designer, but after a year I‘ll freely admit that I chickened out. I transferred to a liberal arts university, and studied art history instead.

But my obsession with historical clothing and fashion hadn’t gone away; it had simply morphed in another direction. I continued to study and read on my own, learning whatever and wherever I could, and I still do. I find inspiration not only in books and journals, but also in portraits as well as in actual garments in museums and other collections. When I began to write and publish fiction, I always use dress as a way to make my characters and their actions more real, and more sympathetic to readers. So in a way, I did end up in costume design, but I use words instead of textiles.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 8.22.40 AMWhy is the study of fashion history important to you? There is nothing more personal and more unifying than clothing. It’s one of the few things that is truly universal: everyone wears clothing, and any deliberate choice that’s made in dressing becomes a personal fashion statement. Fashion isn’t limited to Parisian couture. The 19thc farmer’s wife in Kansas tying the bow on her calico sunbonnet a certain way was making as valid a fashion statement as the French heiress in a Worth gown. Because of this, fashion history continues to be perhaps our most tangible link to people from the past.

As a writer, what a character wears and how s/he wears those clothes can reveal so much. I don’t mean a head-to-toe laundry-list, like a red-carpet description, but the more subtle things. Clothing can reveal an individual’s personal status, social rank, morality, nationality, ambitions, sexuality, taste, age, health, self-confidence, patriotism, and a thousand other things besides.

And, of course, so many of the clothes of the past were just so beautiful that they’re irresistible.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 7.13.41 AMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I believe it is. That question is probably tied in to the larger one – What is art? – which can be endlessly debated, and has no right or wrong answers, either. It’s so completely subjective. But to me, fashion is art because it represents the same degree of thoughtfulness, of self-expression, and of conscious choices, that characterizes more traditional and accepted types of art like painting, drawing, and sculpture. I know that there are critics who believe that fashion exhibitions have no place in fine art museums, but to me their sheer popularity proves how much people admire and respond to clothes and fashion. That’s proof enough to me that fashion and art should be seen not as rivals, but as sisters from the same family.

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Ensemble, Alexander McQueen, autumn/winter 2008-9, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: 

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Scott used this painted silk Robe à la Polonaise, c1780 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as inspiration for Hamilton’s wedding dress.

Since my favorite period of both history and historical fashion is the 18th century, and there are no known “designers” (except, perhaps, Rose Bertin) from that era, I’ll give the crown to all those now-anonymous mantua-makers who created such memorable garments with phenomenal skill, dedication, and creativity. As for a contemporary designer, for me it’s McQueen – both the sorrowfully missed genius of Alexander McQueen, and the house that continues with his name under his brilliant successor Kate Burton. No other fashion house combines the past with the present so imaginatively and so provocatively, and with such dedication to sheer craftsmanship. I can always be seduced by beautiful hand-stitching, beading, and embroidery.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? One? Only one? ::sigh:: Then let me make that one a book that’s out-of-print, but easy to find second-hand: Ingres in Fashion: Representations of Dress & Appearances in Ingres’s Images of Women by Aileen Ribeiro. Any fashion history by Ms. Riberio is going to be a winner, but this one (primarily featuring early 19thc French dress) is just gorgeous, with some of the most ravishing and detailed images of clothes, accessories, and jewelry to be found in any book.

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Mia Malkowski in Jane Eyre with Costume Design by Michael O’Connor.

If you had to recommend one film for the costumes alone, what would it be   The 2011 Jane Eyre, with costumes by the incomparable Michael O’Connor. Not only did the costumes perfectly reflect each character, but they were also exquisitely accurate to the period, with a lived-in quality achieved by flawless accessories.

This costume from Jane Eyre perfectly shows Jane transformation into a wealthy heiress and independent woman at the end of the film.

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“Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton)” by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.

Can you share an excerpt from one of your books that shows how you “dress” your characters? Sure! Here’s a short excerpt from I, ELIZA HAMILTON.

It’s January, 1780, and twenty-one-year-old Eliza Schuyler has come to visit her aunt at the Continental Army’s winter encampment in Morristown, NJ. Today she’ll be presented to Martha Washington, wife of the army’s commander-in-chief – and if Eliza is lucky, her paths will also cross with Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton.

I’d dressed with great care for this presentation. I wore a blue silk Brunswick jacket, close-fitting and edged with dark fur, and a matching petticoat, quilted with a pattern of diamonds and swirling flowers. My gloves were bright green kidskin, and on my head was the one extravagant hat I’d brought with me, its sweeping brim covered in black velvet and crowned with a profusion of scarlet ribbons. I had a weakness for tall hats, for I felt they added height to my small stature, and kept me from being overlooked in a crowd. Lady Washington was said to be a lady of fashion, and before the war, she’d ordered the finest of everything from London. I hoped she would appreciate the effort I’d made in her honor to dress with fashion and taste, even in the middle of a military encampment.

But I’d other reasons, too. The general’s aides-de-camp were quartered in the same house, and followed the general’s orders from his office. There was an excellent possibility that I might encounter Colonel Hamilton, and I wanted to be sure he took note of me. . . .

As we arrived, the bustle of activity around the house was like a beeskep surrounded by swarms of the busiest of bees coming and going. Soldiers and horses, wagons and sleds and sleighs, and all of them moving briskly on the army’s business. The cold air was filled with the sounds of orders given, of barked conversations, and the jingle of harnesses and the creak of wooden wheels over the packed snow. There were several small fires with men clustered about them for warmth, and bright flags on staffs that proclaimed that this was in fact the army’s headquarters.

My aunt and I climbed down from our sleigh before the house, and I followed her up the steps to the sentry. Among so many men in dark cloaks and uniforms, I felt like a gaudy parrot in my bright clothes. I also felt acutely female in the midst of so many men, and though I held my head high and pretended to take no notice, I sensed every eye upon me as I stood there on the whitewashed steps, my skirts swaying in the breeze and the bright ribbons of my hat dancing around my face. I might be short, but no one was overlooking me now….

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An earlier example of a Brunswick jacket Portrait of Lady Mary Fox by Pompeo Batoni, 1767. According to Colonial Williamsburg’s glossary of colonial lady’s clothing the Brunswick is, “A three-quarter length jacket worn with a petticoat, the Brunswick was an informal gown or a traveling gown. It had a high neck, unstiffened bodice that buttoned, long sleeves, and frequently had a sack back (loose pleats) and a hood.”

More of Scott’s books can be found for purchase here. You can also find out more about her on her website, and  author blog, as well as her history blog. She is also on Facebook and Instagram.