Fashion History Talks! In conversation with author and curator Keren Ben-Horin

“Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language.” –Keren Ben-Horin

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The Fair-Isle Jumper (1923) by Stanley Cursiter. The City of Edinburgh Council. 2014 Artists Rights Society, NY/DACS, London.

T-shirts. A jacket. Blue jeans. Garments we all own–and have always owned–and yet perhaps have never really taken the time to consider. Where exactly did these staples of our everyday wardrobe come from? And what is their historical and cultural significance? A recently published book The Sweater: A History takes readers on a sartorial and around-the-world journey through the life of one of the world’s most ubiquitous garments, asking readers to re-examine a garment we might otherwise continue to take for granted.

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Vintage postcard, 1908. Collection of J.M.

As with most items of clothing, the sweater’s origin is rooted in practicability and function, being used as both protection from the elements and as a source of warmth–and weight loss. Wait, what? As the book reveals, the term sweater was coined in the 1880s from a garment used in Regency England that helped its wearers lose weight by…drum roll please…inducing sweating! Suddenly it all makes sense! Another interesting etymology discussed in the book is the origin of the term “cardigan,” which comes from the title given to James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), a controversial British officer of the Crimean War.

 

This book is full of interesting tidbits and information, many of which were provided by the book’s editor and contributing author Keren Ben-Horin. The Art of Dress is thrilled to have Keren as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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Fashionably dressed young women, mid-1920s. Collection of J.M.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? The more I study fashion history the more I appreciate the unique perspective it offers on human experiences. I get very frustrated when fashion is dismissed and thought of as frivolous and superficial, especially in academia. In my writing I use fashion to paint a narrative of social, cultural, and political change. Fashion is a very sensitive seismograph of change and it’s an accessible tool for self-expression. Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language, it’s a tactile commination tool that anyone can use to say something about who they are, what they are, and where they are in their lives.

Woman's Sweater, 1928 (hand-knitted wool)

Woman’s Sweater, 1928 (hand-knitted wool) Schiaparelli, Elsa (1890-1973)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Fashion can be art. One of the things that I have learned working on The Sweater: A History is that when it comes to sweater design, many designers use yarn the way a painter uses brushstrokes- that is, as an artistic tool of self-expression. Throughout the book we bring so many examples of designers who not only take inspiration from art but also experiment with materials and forms to produce garments that are wearable works of art. We show designs from contemporary designers like Sandra Backlund, Julia Ramsey, Alice Lemoine, and Johan Ku, who create sweaters that are keen to wearable sculptures. Another, earlier example is of course the famous Elsa Schiaparelli, tromp l’oeil bow sweater, which she developed with an Armenian knitter. The unique technique this knitter introduced to Schiaparelli combined two strands of yarns in contrasting colors alternating between the face and the back of the fabric to create patterns, the result is a tweed-like effect which Vogue in 1927 described as “an artistic master piece,” [1] and Schiaparelli herself said it was “reminiscent of the impressionist school of painting.”[2]

 

Another example that I love is a collection of elaborate, strikingly beautiful sweaters by designer Paul B. Magit which he developed with the artist Erté. When Magit approached him with this idea to collaborate, Erte was already 93 years old! They worked together and chose twelve artworks that Erté created during his twenty-year tenure at Harper’s Bazaar. Magit interpreted them into gorgeous jacquard patterns, very technically intricate, and showed them on oversized sweaters and sweater dresses.

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Fashionably dressed young women, mid-1920s. Collection of J.M.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Claire McCardell is my favorite American designer past and present. Her designs still look modern today. She revolutionized the ready-to-wear market and how young women dressed, I wished she was more widely recognized. My current favorite has to be shared between Raf Simon and Dries Van Noten. Although they are so different stylistically I do adore them equally!

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BBB Captain James Hogan wearing football uniform with the letter “Y”, c. 1906. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington D.C.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I recently finished the book Gods and Kings: the rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano by Dana Thomas. I picked it up at the sale table in the MET store, excepting not much more than a good read. The book, however, is so well researched and it rekindled my appreciation of both designers. I learned so much about their design process, down to the details of how specific clothes were conceived. It sent me down the rabbit hole that’s YouTube to watch old videos of runway shows.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? I would say Orlando with Tilda Swinton has wonderful period costumes. Another movie of hers that I love not only for the costumes (although not a period movie) is I Am Love. Her wardrobe was designed by Raf Simons and it perfectly reflects the restraint and severity of the character.

FINAL COVERcroppedThe Sweater: A History was written by Jane Merrill, Gaile DeMeyere and Keren Ben-Horin. As with many fashion historians, Keren is a wearer of many hats–all of the fashionable variety of course. Historian, author, adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Berkeley College in New York, Keren was also a fashion designer for over a decade. She recently curated an exhibition Cutting Edges: Israeli Fashion and Design, which runs April 21-July 30, 2017 at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in Manhattan.

Citations:

[1] Vogue, December 15, 1927.

[2] Elsa Schiaparelli, Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli (London: V&A Publications, 2007)

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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