Fashion History Talks! In conversation with fashion historian Lydia Edwards

“Since I was four years old and wanted to be a ‘knight in shining armour’ (definitely not a damsel in distress), dress history has been present in my life.” –Lydia Edwards

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The main varying shades of ‘yellowness’ that appear in Edwards book How to Read a Dress. From left: silk twill evening dress, c.1810, @museemccord, silk & wool wedding dress, 1882, Powerhouse, evening dress 1902-03 (amazingly recreated by @cathy.hay!), Fashion Museum Bath, and crepe dress, 1960-70, @shippensburguniv.

I have said it before and I will say it again: clothing speaks, or as haute couturier Paul Poiret pointed out, they sing: “A garment is like a good portrait–the expression of a spiritual state,” he told Vogue in 1909, “and there are robes [dresses] that sing the joy of living as others that herald tragic ends.” Thus, is the power of clothing: to speak volumes without having to say a word. A person just needs to know how to “listen,” or as fashion historian Lydia Edwards points out in her new book, how to read. In How to Read a Dress: a Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th CenturyEdwards takes readers on a four hundred year “sartorial journey through women’s fashion.” Covering an impressive time span, 1550-1970, Edwards’ image-driven commentary and analysis teaches her audience quiet literally, how to read a dress. She seamlessly incorporates quotes and images from contemporary sources to underscore her analysis of each dress, emphasizing the important structural and decorative shifts that contributed to its evolution over hundreds of years. Especially exciting: many of the dresses featured in the book are being photographed and published for the first time! Edwards book is not only informative and beautiful, it is inexpensive!!, and can be found on Amazon here. I am thrilled to feature Edwards as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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This c. 1708 mantua is one of the many stunning dresses analyzed by Edwards in her new book How to Read a Dress. The dress is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. My current teaching is not fashion history-based, although I have taught art history and broader humanities programs in the past which did feature dress and material culture. I was also fortunate enough to develop and teach a continuing education class at the University of Dundee, Scotland, which focused entirely on the evolution of fashion and defining moments in men and women’s dress.

My art, fashion and theatre history PhD focused on the ‘historical escapism’ of late nineteenth-century theatrical costumes, and this transdisciplinary approach has remained with me: just as well, since I feel that knowledge across disciplines is vital when it comes to dress history. My fashion-related work at the moment sits within my own personal research, so in that sense I am an independent researcher in dress history, specializing in women’s fashion. I have been invited to contribute several public talks in connection with fashion exhibitions and collections in Australia, something which enabled me to gauge the interest of the public and assess the need for a publication which became How to Read a Dress.

Programme Name: Pride & Prejudice.

BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) with Costume Design by Dinah Collin.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Since I was four years old and wanted to be a ‘knight in shining armour’ (definitely not a damsel in distress), dress history has been present in my life. At that age I would draw hundreds of pictures of pieces of armour, sort of like a flat lay, and knew all about the different kinds of breastplates and helmets (information I have subsequently forgotten!). My next interest was ballet – almost exclusively for the clothes and shoes—and then the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice came out in 1995, when I was 11. Something clicked and all I wanted to do was wear empire-line dresses and bonnets. From then on it became an all-encompassing passion and I went from wanting to be a costume designer (particularly after meeting the late, great costume and set designer John Elvery) to becoming – by way of art and theatre history— what I am today, a fashion historian. The history of dress has therefore been with me in one way or another my whole life, and my interest has only grown as I’ve got older. I’m never bored when researching, talking about, looking at historic dress and enjoying the fact that there is always something new to learn. My passion is now to make dress history accessible and enjoyable for everyone, no matter their level of knowledge or expertise. This is how How to Read a Dress came about.

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A clip from Edwards’ book.

In your opinion, is fashion art? I’ve thought about this and talked about it with students so much, and to be honest I’m still on the fence. Philosophically, I suppose it comes down to the raw question of what ‘art’ is at all…and I won’t even attempt to answer that here. To me, fashion is beauty; and I seem to be able to find beauty even in the most unconventional and outrageous of fashions. As with architecture, fashion has a utilitarian root, but beyond its most basic functional premise it can still be driven aesthetically. So in essence, fashion needn’t be art: but it can be.

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House of Worth evening dress owned by Lady Curzon, 1902-1903, in the collection the Fashion Museum, Bath and featured in Edwards’ new book. 

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Past – Charles Frederick Worth. I’m fascinated by historicism within fashion, and his pieces are full to the brim with historical influences. These are integrated subtly within fiercely modern foundations, but they’re unmistakable. When I come across a Worth I haven’t seen before, it’s enough to take my breath away on first viewing. On that basis my favourite present fashion designer would probably have to be Vivienne Westwood, and – just for the sheer unabashed outrageousness of some of his creations – the wedding dress designer Ian Stuart. Wedding dresses are a particular interest of mine, having worked in a bridal shop as a student and made historically-themed or inspired bridal gowns for clients (and for myself!). They allow a touch of theatre, luxury, and opulence and historical styles can be appropriated in so many ways to allow that.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Looking over my bookshelves, I could have given you such a long list! But if I were forced to choose just one, it would have to be Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail, 1730 – 1930. Beautiful draughtsmanship is combined with impeccable scholarship to create a stunning insight to the construction of women’s clothes across three centuries. Anyone with even a passing interest in fashion can appreciate the gorgeousness of this volume, and it’s invaluable to anyone wanting to learn about the intricacies of dress.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 9.27.43 AMIf you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? Without a doubt, the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. There were flaws, certainly, but they were small! The designer Dinah Collin worked from original fashion plates and written sources, and her meticulous research into Regency life and style really showed in the resulting costumes. She wanted actors to view their clothes as just that – clothes, not costumes – and I think this mindset is evident in the way they wear them with ownership: they wear the clothes, not the other way around. If you watch the series alongside something less successful, I feel this achievement is particularly noticeable and admirable.

It’s cheating but I also have to mention the incredible Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1970), starring Keith Michell, and Elizabeth R (1971), starring Glenda Jackson. The costumes were designed by Elizabeth Waller (assisted by Jean Hunnisett) and were based jaw-droppingly closely on original portraits and written accounts. Quite simply, perfection.

Find more from Edwards on her fascinating Instagram @howtoreadadress

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Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Colleen Hill of The Museum at FIT

“I’ve come to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter if fashion is art. Fashion can simply be fashion – it is beautiful, it is creative, and it is important – and I think that is enough.” –Colleen Hill

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André Courrèges famous “Lunettes Eskimo” sunglasses photographed by William Klein for the March 1, 1965 issue of American Vogue and the cover of Hill’s new book Paris-Refashioned, 1957-1968, a companion to the exhibition at The Museum at FIT of the same name.

I have always been a firm believer in the inherent magic, wonder and awe of fashion–the art of dress, if you will. A dress by Alexander McQueen or Paul Poiret can move me as deeply as a painting by Odilon Redon or Casper David Freidrich. This idea that dress can and should be treated the same way as the most traditionally esteemed forms of art is at the heart of New York City’s The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), one of the few museums in the world dedicated exclusively to exhibiting and celebrating fashion, and the work place of Colleen Hill, Curator of Costume and Accessories, whose latest exhibition Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968 is currently on view until April 15th.

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Donyale Luna photographed by Guy Bourdin in a Paco Rabanne design for Vogue, April 1966.

The 1960s fashion scene is perhaps best captured in one word: Youthquake! A term that immediately evokes dancing, mini-skirted teenagers was coined by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to describe the rise of young people as fashion authorities in the 1960s. It was a period that witnessed the success of a new generation of British ready-to-wear designers who set the tone for fashion, ousting Paris from its thrown and redefining the very nature of how fashion was made, consumed and worn. A popular narrative perhaps, but one that is not entirely true as Hill reveals in her new exhibition which rightfully positions Parisian designers at the forefront of the 1960s fashion revolution, both as innovators and tastemakers in their own right. From the young ready-to-wear stylistes such as Emmanuelle Khanh and Sonia Rykiel to the upper echelons of the haute couture that included designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges, Paris’ contribution to the 1960s Youthquake is on full display at The Museum at FIT until April 15th.

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A 1966 evening dress by Paco Rabanne currently on display in Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968.

Paris Refashioned is the latest addition to the extensive resume of Hill who, with the museum’s treasure chest of over 50,000 garments and accessories at her fingertips, has authored five books on fashion in addition to curating numerous illuminating exhibitions including Exposed: a History of Lingerie (2014), Sporting Life (2011), His & Hers (2010-11), Eco-Fashion: Going Green (2010), Seduction (2008-9), and most recently, Fairy Tale Fashion (2016), my personal favorite.

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I am delighted to have Hill as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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I.D. (Emmanuelle Khanh), dress, 1966, gift of Sandy Horvitz.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Fashion as a means of self-expression has been important to me since childhood. As I began to study the history of fashion later in life, I became fascinated by how closely fashion relates to identity, politics, sexuality, sociology … I could go on! Fashion’s significance is much deeper than many people realize, and because fashion studies is a relatively young discipline, I find that there’s a vast number of topics that still warrant exploration.

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Chloé (Karl Lagerfeld), evening dress, 1968, gift of Melanie Miller.

In your opinion, is fashion art? The increased presence and acceptance of fashion within museums is a clear indication of fashion’s growing status within the artistic hierarchy. Yet certain major fashion designers – such as Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada – have distanced themselves from the notion that fashion is art. Although my initial reaction as a budding fashion historian was to disagree with those designers, I’ve come to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter if fashion is art. Fashion can simply be fashion – it is beautiful, it is creative, and it is important – and I think that is enough. I don’t know that it needs to “prove itself” through designation as an art form.

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André Courrèges, boots, 1964, gift of Ruth Sublette.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: My favorite designers for curatorial purposes tend to fluctuate regularly, depending on what project I’m working on. If I am selecting based on my personal tastes (meaning what I would want in my own wardrobe), I would select André Courrèges and Consuelo Castiglione.

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Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, raincoat, 1966, gift of Ethel Scull. 

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Caroline Evans’s books always prove to be inspirational, especially Fashion at the Edge. I’d also like to mention Joel Lobenthal’s book Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties, which I discovered at my local library when I was a child. It was my first real foray into fashion history – and I still adore 1960s fashion.

The companion book to Hill’s exhibition can be purchased here. 

**I had the pleasure of meeting Hill in 2012 when, as a graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I co-curated an exhibition with Tracy Jenkins entitled Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution under Hill’s direction.