Fashion History Talks!: In conversation with Rebecca Arnold of the Courtauld Institute

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Photograph of a woman in a diner in Harlem by Richard Avedon, 1949.

For Rebecca Arnold of the Instagram account @documentingfashion_courtauld, a picture speaks a thousand words. “We can’t know what made her look up,” reads Arnold’s caption for the image above, “only that it means we get a good view of her little hat–its feathers adding a sense of movement and drama to her figure…she is a busy woman taking a break from the city, a uniformed waitress ready for her order.” Covering a wide spectrum of fashion and dress history, Arnold’s insightful commentary accompanies striking and often candid images spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. From Parisian haute couture to the streets of New York City, her daily posts consistently ask us to expand the way we interact with the visual culture associated with the clothing we wear.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-06-42-amIt is easy to look and “like” an image in your Instagram feed, but it is another to stop and truly think about what you are seeing. Arnold uses her Instagram to share with followers the fashion and dress themes that she explores in more detail with her MA students at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art, where she is the Senior Lecturer in History of Dress and Textiles.  In her course Documenting Fashion, “visual analysis is central to the way fashion and dress history is taught,” she says, and this perspective is central to each of her posts which pair captivating imagery with insightful commentary.

When she is not teaching, Arnold is writing and researching. She has contributed to numerous academic and journalistic projects, curated exhibitions and is currently working on a book Documenting Fashion: Modernity and Image in America, 1920-60. She recently took some time to answer some questions from the Art of Dress.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-05-10-amWhy is the study of fashion history important to you? For so many reasons, it’s hard to summarise – I’ve spent my whole adult life studying, researching, writing, teaching in this field, and it’s an area that I have been fascinated by since childhood. I think fashion/dress is important in and of itself, as a means of self- and group- expression and a crucial part of so many types of histories, from autobiographies, to cultural, social and economic discussions of particular periods or themes. Studying fashion/dress history entails considering who we are and why we clothe ourselves as we do – which is an intense and personal consideration, as well as an academic pursuit. It’s about challenging the material and visual culture of our time and an important way to upend hierarchies that favour white, upper class, heteronormative values. The best fashion, and the best fashion history prompts people to rethink the world around them.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-07-37-amIn your opinion, is fashion art? Can I answer with another question? Why does it need to be, what would that change? I think it’s interesting how persistent this question is. It’s often about traditional hierarchies that place art at the top and fashion at, or very near, the bottom of an imagined scale. In many ways, I would just like to see fashion and fashion history represented, thought about, written about, as important in and of themselves, rather than having to be called art in order to add ‘value.’ Fashion as a term incorporates everything from mass-produced throwaway styles to one off pieces. Yes, some examples can be seen as having equivalent qualities to fine art. And the same applies for fashion’s representation across various media. What I would say is fashion matters, and the last fifty years of scholarship proves that beyond doubt – as does the work of so many designers, illustrators, photographers etc…

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-16-10-amFavorite fashion designer, past and present: Madeleine Vionnet, for her constant experimentation, attention to the body and how it relates to fabric, and for her concern for her workers.

Grace Wales Bonner, for her attention to detail, for her subtle but powerful exploration of gender, sexuality and ethnicity through fashion and its representation, and for the elegance and intelligence of her designs.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-32-36-amIf you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? It’s really impossible to choose just one book – I think that’s the beauty of the subject, it’s so diverse, it doesn’t fit into one text. If you can access the Berg Fashion Library then that is the very best way to start – it covers all periods and countries, and therefore allows you to focus in on your particular interests, as well as reading more widely.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-15-22-amNow that you’ve read this interview, please take some time to explore the thousands of images on Arnold’s Instagram account.  I’ve provided some of my favorite posts below but I was hard-pressed to pick even this small handful, so thought-provoking and inspiring are all of her posts.

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Arnold’s posts often relate directly to the themes and subjects explored by her students on their Documenting Fashion blog, found here.

More on Arnold and the program she teaches can be found at the links below:

http://courtauld.ac.uk/people/rebecca-arnold

http://courtauld.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/ma-history-art/documenting-fashion

http://courtauld.ac.uk/research/research-forum/research-groups-and-projects/documenting-fashion

http://courtauld.ac.uk/research/sections/history-dress

Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Anna Yanofsky of The Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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From ancient Coptic textiles to contemporary haute couture, the historic dress collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a treasure trove of culturally and historically significant pieces. I have spent hours browsing the seemingly endless online database (437,732 items have been digitized to date) and, while I have shared many pieces from the collection with you on my Instagram, there are thousands upon thousands of objects that I have yet to discover!  For most of us, browsing online is the closest we will ever get to examining these exquisite pieces up close. I can only imagine what it would be like to physically handle, examine and research this world-class collection. It is another fantasy entirely to get paid to do it. And yet for Anna Yanofsky, Collections Manager Assistant at the The Costume Institute, dreams really do come true.

The Costume Institute is the name for the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories representing “five continents and seven centuries of fashionable dress, regional costumes, and accessories for men, women, and children, from the fifteenth century to the present.” Anna has worked at the Institute since graduating (with me!) in 2012 with her Masters in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but she has loved fashion ever since she was a young girl. Her passion for the subject is inspiring and I am excited to present her Fashion History Talks! below. Thank you Anna!

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This 18th century robe à la polonaise is one of Anna’s favorite garments in the Costume Institute at The Metropolitant Museum of Art where she works as a Collections Management Assistant.

Please provide readers with a description of your job and how it relates to the history of fashion and dress: My title is Collections Management Assistant in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In my role I spend a lot of quality time with objects of all shapes, sizes, and kinds. The Collections Team is responsible for the proper storage and care of objects–which involves strategizing the placement of objects within the space we have available, and packing them archivally to suit their needs. Each object presents its own unique challenges based on its materials and structure. In addition we are constantly pulling and presenting pieces for curatorial viewings and conservation treatments.

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Marion Cotillard in Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Photographed by Tim Walker for W Magazine, December 2012.

Why is the study of fashion history important to you? My professional dedication to the study of fashion history is born of a nascent obsession with fashion that I can never remember not having. I may have been the only 8-year-old watching Style with Elsa Klensch on weekend mornings and paying for my copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar with my wadded-up allowance (four dollars because I was in the fourth grade). Fashion magazines were my ticket to an alternate universe of beauty and style. In those magazines I was not only transported through editorials, but I was also reading about art, politics, and culture. As I advanced in my education, I realized that fashion history is the study of so many topics at once: world history, design, materials, technology, sociology, and much more. A fashion object or photograph can educate you fully and deeply about a moment in history, or a culture, or an economic principle. Fashion is an entry point into looking at the world around us in a more profound way. Also, it is accessible. We all get dressed. We all express our identity and place in time and space through the clothes we wear. We are all participating in fashion on some level.

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Grès, Strapless evening dress (detail), Spring/Summer 1964,©Stéphane Piera/ Galleria/ Roger-Viollet from Another Magazine, September 12, 2012.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Some fashion is art; some is not. There are a select few designers who put ideas into clothing and treat fashion as a medium for conceptual communication. And then there are those who sell clothes in a more utilitarian way. Couture as it is traditionally constructed, with the highest attention to skilled craft, is undoubtedly artfully made–but even couture isn’t necessarily art. The complicating factor of this topic is always commerce. Clothes are made to be sold and worn and discarded for something newer and better each season. This leaves many with the perception of it as an impure artform, one created for profit rather than the expression of inspiration and creativity. However, when you see certain garments, there is little denying that they capture the essence of artistic creation as aptly as a painting or sculpture.

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Madame Grès, photographed by Crespi for Femina, April 1949.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Just one? I’ll say that ever since I laid eyes on a garment by Madame Gres I have had an utter fashion history crush on her. The pleating of her dresses is simply extraordinary in person and symbolizes a Classicism

that is eternally chic. Her designs are powerful in such a feminine way. In spite of the flow of the yards of fabric she uses, the tight pleating creates a firm structure–to her bodices especially–that leave them with a protective, almost armor-like quality. The effect is totally dichotomous. She also had a career that spanned decades successfully (from the 1930s to the 1980s), with some of her most interesting designs emerging in the 1970s. I thought that Raf Simons’ interpretation of the Christian Dior aesthetic was so beautiful and modern while still respecting the history of the house. His most recent eponymous menswear collection featured photographs from the Robert Mapplethorpe archives in a very pleasing way. I am a sucker for a photographic print in textile form! I am excited to see how he can revive Calvin Klein.

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Cover of Teen Vogue photographed by Sean Thomas, December 2016.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I know this isn’t a book, but subscribe to Teen Vogue! Their recent coverage of political and social issues has been so incredibly smart. I’ve heard a lot about how shocked people are by the fact that a fashion magazine–geared towards teenage girls, no less–could have such adept coverage of complex issues, but I’m not surprised. My consciousness was raised on fashion magazines. There is no exclusionary binary between a love of fashion and an interest in the complexities of the world. In fact, they are so much more related than people may initially think. A balance of beauty and brains are what we should all be encouraging in each other. Also, subscribing to quality content is so important in this moment. We need to financially support the sources we appreciate.

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The No. 7 issue of the environmentally conscious publication A Green Beauty features Anna’s latest article on fast fashion and can be digitally downloaded here.

 *First image of model Cara Delivigne in Christian Dior Haute Couture by Raf Simons. Photographed by Tim Walker and styled by Edward Enninful for W Magazine, December 2013.