Friday, 11 July 2014

Eileen Ford

Eileen Ford in 1948. Via

By now, I'm sure you will have all heard the news that Eileen Ford - co-founder of Ford Models with her husband, Jerry - died earlier this week, aged 92.

Ford Models in 1948: more here

It's staggering to look at the huge numbers of famous were once represented by Ford, and including names we now associate with professions other than modelling, such as Martha Stewart and Ali MacGraw, as well as Lauren Hutton, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington. Less mentioned in the various articles about her life are the great faces of the 1940s and 50s she supported, including Dorian Leigh, Jean Patchett, Suzy Parker, Barbara Mullen and Lisa Fonssagrives.

When the Ford Agency was founded in 1946, they weren't the only ones working to professionalise the industry. John Powers and Harry Conover already ran successful agencies. But, a woman heading up an agency - much like Lucie Clayton in the UK - did shift how both models and the modelling industry were regarded, especially thanks to such shrewd family-friendly publicity as this Life piece from 1948, showing inside the agency. This picture shows model Joan Pedersen looking after a Ford child as Eileen watches on. She also made her agency into a brand, with books, newspaper columns and modelling competitions.

Eileen Ford's biography is apparently due to be published next year. Think of all those changes, not only affecting models but also fashion and working women more generally from the 1940s to today. It should be - if she has done herself, and all of her models, justice - a fascinating read.

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Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Mannequin Glide

What do you picture when someone asks you to imagine a fashion model's walk? For me, it’s Naomi Campbell confidently strutting the length of the runway. But models haven’t always strutted. Sometimes they’ve slinked, sometimes they’ve glided and, of course, they've "catwalked". This film from 1933 talks about their “easily flowing” movements.

This is more than just wordplay. In The Mechanical Smile, Caroline Evans convincingly argues that the walk of mannequins changed in the early twentieth century, from the rolling walk, influenced by popular dance crazes of the period, through the hips-thrust forward bored slouch of the 1920s.

Clothes themselves also influence the way a woman walks. Think about how wearing a corset, or a hobble skirt, or simply a raised heel would effect the way you walk. A mannequin, as the first person to wear each round of new fashions, and probably in a more extreme interpretation than would be sold to a customer, has to work out new ways of displaying these new fashions - and making them look desirable.

The mannequin glide, however, is not just a description. Given how Evans’ explores the links between dance and the model’s walk, it’s fitting that the “mannequin glide” is also the name of a dance. In March 1939, the British Mannequins Union organised a ‘Mannequin’s Ball’ in aid of Guy’s hospital. To really celebrate the occasion, they also invented their own dance, drawn from other popular routines, and called it the “mannequin glide”. Model school owner and one of the organisers of the ball, Lucie Clayton told the Daily Mail at the time, “We felt that as fashion repeats itself we were justified in going back and picking out a Mannequin Glide out of bits of dance history.”

Rather than picturing a catwalk, let’s instead try and imagine a ballroom at the end of the 1930s, and a beautiful group of women showing off a carefully rehearsed dance routine. What are you picturing? Well, I’m pretty certain it’s not this.

This. This is the only surviving photo I’ve found of the Mannequin Glide. While it doesn’t show the elegant swan-like models gliding past each other on the dancefloor, I like it all the more for that. It reminds us that models were real women, who also liked to have a laugh and a good time. And, given that my own dance routines have often included a jaunty leg-kick or wagging finger, perhaps it's yet another pioneering example of the influence of the mannequin on the way women move.

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Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

You know that tune from Moulin Rouge – "Spectacular, Spectacular" – that’s what plays in my head every time I think about The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition currently on at the Barbican. The show has got all of his greatest hits, from striped sailors to conical bras, and a star-studded cast list. It’s got talking mannequins and Spitting Image puppets. It’s even got its own Can-Can dancer.

Needless to say, the show is brilliant fun. The mannequins – who pout and babble incomprehensible little French nothings thanks to some clever projection work – the mechanised mannequin parade and the footage, taken from films and pop videos, as well as JPG’s extravagant catwalk shows make for an all-together theatrical experience. It’s impossible not to get caught up with its energy, to believe that, yes, a tin can necklace is a wonderful thing, and that bondage outfit would be just the thing to wear to the office Christmas party. 

Much of is made of Gaultier’s inclusive idea of beauty and unconventional approach to high fashion, partly influenced by the time he spent in the creative clubland of London in the 1980s. He goes for less conventional-looking models or feisty pop starlets such as Beth Ditto or Madonna. Likewise, his happy mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ means Eurotrash's place in this exhibition is as justified as the most immaculately crafted piece of haute couture. And, unlike other designers, whose ideas often don’t translate further than the fashion market, he seems to have achieved a wider social appreciation: this is the first fashion exhibition I have been to in the UK where more than 20% of the audience were male (small steps!). 

You become so seduced by Gaultier’s charm and his madly creative world, that it’s easy to forget the world beyond the exhibition space. You believe, that when he puts a woman or a man in a corset, it’s a positive thing, a symbol of someone in complete control of their own sexuality. Taken out of context, put on a different person, and it becomes just another starlet desperately wanting to appear sexy in a corset. Once out in the mainstream, whatever Gaultier may want us to believe, it’s impossible for the outfit to retain its original intentions. 

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is a brilliant show. It will make you laugh, it will make you clap, it will leave you wanting more. It’s just that he’s such a showman, and this is such a show-stopping feat, you start wondering if – like the Duke of the Moulin Rouge – you’ve been the victim of your own Spectacular, Spectacular deception. No matter how good, with these exhibition monographs of living artists that are shown without an accompanying level of critical interpretation, there’s a sneaky suspicion you might not be being told the true and full story. But Monsieur Gaultier wouldn’t ever want to deceive his English chums, non?

Photography was allowed throughout the exhibition. These were all taken by my exhibition accomplice, Roxanne.  

Monday, 2 June 2014

Monday Detail: The Lips Print

4. The Lips Print

Hedi Slimane openly acknowledged his reference to Yves Saint Laurent when he sent this dress down the runaway for the Saint Laurent label. It used a distinctive lips print, seen on these dresses from past Kerry Taylor auctions, both from the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche label and dating to around 1971.

Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 Vichy Chic collection was described in his biography as “a tour de force of bad taste”. For the audience of the time, its forties silhouettes recalled too closely the fashions of the Occupation, made none-the-sweeter for its high camp aesthetic. Yves Saint Laurent, however, was non-repentant and declared, “There's a love affair between me and the street. 1971 is a great year because fashion is finally hitting the streets”. Of course, what was shocking once becomes softened over time – at his retrospective in Paris, I found this collection one of the most appealing and, indeed, looking at the dress above, wish it had retained the 1940s style neckline.

Marks & Spencer dress and shoes; ASOS midi skirt

Hedi Slimane, of course, divides opinion too. This particular show attracted fierce criticism for its "virtual rehashing" of original YSL pieces, but was also one of the season’s most critically acclaimed. And his influence is undeniable: the fashion for the lip print has definitely hit the high street at least, seen here on fashions from ASOS and, that safest of British high street names, Marks & Spencer. Although, I imagine the print would have been much more fun to wear back in the 1970s, when accessorised with that frisson of controversy.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Burberry Does Bloomsbury

When I wrote about visiting Charleston earlier this week, I hadn't realised the house had been the inspiration behind Burberry's autumn/winter 2014 collection. To echo the style of the house, the collection featured hand-painted everything: coats, scarves, shoes and the rather wonderful 'Bloomsbury bag' shown above, which probably would be mine if it wasn't £2,495.

Well, Burberry been putting their money where their mouth is too. The company is also now patrons of Charleston: a rare British example of a fashion house playing the cultural game, compared to the Italian and French fashion houses.

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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Last-Year Travels: Charleston Literary Festival

As deftly demonstrated by Virginia Nicholson’s book Among the Bohemians, many of the aspects we consider part of contemporary life, whether it is informal dining, the way we educate our children or seeing the decoration of our homes as a reflection of our personalities, is thanks to the pioneering examples of the ‘bohemians’ of the early twentieth century. This lifestyle is encapsulated in Charleston, the Sussex home of the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, and a destination for many of the Bloomsbury set.

Back then, the house welcomed the likes of J.M. Keynes and E.M. Forster, but now, thankfully, it is preserved for the hoi polloi and you don’t need to be terribly clever or witty or vaguely bohemian to be allowed entry, simply to be able to pay the necessary fee.

No photos are allowed within the house but its decoration still looks startling today. In the dining room, the dark walls with sponged silver details were still too much for some of the visitors in our group (I rather liked them), while throughout the house, baths and bookcases alike had been further artistically enhanced with bright colours. Sometimes this was done using very unsophisticated daubs; sometimes to build a scene of such finesse that would hang pride of place in a gallery, if it weren’t still attached to a bed. All of those various pieces were a reminder that the artists weren’t creating these pieces to sell: they were simply creating for themselves and the way they wanted to live. Around the house were examples of the immensely desirable textiles Grant designed for the Omega workshops, and ceramic tea sets he had designed for Harrods, prompts that revealed that even the commercial had a place in bohemia.

We were told how cold the house was to live in and, as rain hurled down and lighting flashed outside, it was noticeable how dark it could be too, isolated here in the heart of the Sussex countryside. The twist is that they could only afford to choose to live this Spartan existence thanks to the money of Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell’s husband, who, with the onset of the Second World War, eventually moved into the house too. They were also supported in living their ideals by a host of servants, cooking, cleaning and maintaining the apparent beautiful abandon of the garden.

Charleston had been on my to-visit list probably since I first learnt about it as a student. The reason for finally making the non-so-testing pilgrimage was its literary festival. It’s a suitably inspiring setting for such a festival, and it was fun to speculate on the number of bohemian great and great-great grandchildren and nieces and nephews were in the audience. Rachel Cooke was speaking about Her Brilliant Career (which I reviewed back here), along with Ben Watt, discussing his beautiful book about his parents, Romany and Tom (and also on my list of books I’ve read this year), chaired by the historian David Kynaston, author of several impressive – in weight as well as content – books about Britain in the 1940s and 50s.

I had found reading Her Brilliant Career unexpectedly inspiring, and had pressed it on friends, hoping they would discover that aspect too. I was pleased to here this was part of Cooke’s intention in writing the book, to show younger generations what bold, determined and sometimes difficult women could achieve. It felt good to be reintroduced to this dynamic collection of women. Along with Ben Watt’s family story, it was a reminder just what a powerful influence the war was. It seems stupid to say something so obvious, but for these young people coming of age around the war, it proved to be a huge catalyst to push them to look for something different in their lives, whether a career, a family or simply escape.

I was reminded of this post during the questions. Cooke wrote her book as a researcher, someone who was born long after the fifties was over, looking to challenge some of the lazy assumptions about the decade that exist today. Because her findings didn’t always match up with the experiences of the audience, many of whom had lived through the decade, her conclusions were pulled part and shouted down (a rebuttal in itself of the idea that the 1950s produced a generation of meek and mild housewives). As one woman rhapsodized about the difference a grammar school education had given to her and her friends, Kynaston had to gently remind her that this experience was still only open to a tiny minority of the population. Judging by the reactions of this audience, passions run high when your own personal history is challenged by ‘History’, as it is written down in newspapers and books. I wonder how the original bohemians would find the many interpretations of their history that exist today, not least in the hundreds of visitors that come and troop around their home each year.

Friday, 16 May 2014

What is British Style?

The Union Jack gets a 60s makeover. Via

In Bettina Ballard’s In My Fashion, I encountered an unfamiliar woman. It was the “English woman of fashion”, who “when she is right, she is very very right, outshining anyone at a country race meeting or pouring tea in impeccable tweeds before the fire in a country house … there is no woman in the world who can wear a ball dress and a tiara with her distinction.” Who was this woman? Certainly no one I recognise today. And, if she was doing it very very right, who, by implication, was doing it very very wrong? Do tweeds and a ball gown really define the “English woman of fashion”?

British debutantes on their way to a ball, 1953. Via

Dior agrees with Ballard. He writes, “British women know perfectly how to dress for sport and holidays. For these occasions the world has to learn from them.” And there is similar again, in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Good Taste, in an essay by Marjorie Beckett: “No one looks better in sports or country clothes. It is not just a matter of good British woollens and first-class tailoring; we choose instinctively the right accessories. Safe in the lap of tradition, we have no doubts about the right walking shoes, sensible stay-ons, the muted colours of shooting tweed…” This was written in 1958, four years after Dior’s quote and two years before Ballard’s but there is an element that still rings true today: that British women are most comfortable with fashion when they know what is expected of them. As the German journalist Karl Silex wrote in 1933, “The Englishwoman never, as long as she lives, gets rid of the idea of uniform in her clothes.” But us poor English woman – at our very best appropriate, never reaching the dizzy heights of chic! It’s hard not to feel insulted by Anne Scott-James’ assertion that “The English, alas, hate fashion” or Pierre Balmain’s statement that “What I love about English women is that they do not really care for clothes.”

Luella's take on traditional English style, via

Is this actually a sly compliment from Balmain? After all, his chief mannequin, the British model Bronwen Pugh, was praised for her “habit of slightly disarranging her hair as she entered the salon, giving herself a nonchalant air that is a sign of supreme English elegance”. There are several British writers seem to suggest this deliberate imperfection is actually an essential component of any ‘British style’. Hardy Amies writes, “Just as our great country houses always look lived in and not museums, so our ladies refuse to look like fashion plates”, while Cecil Beaton notes that English women “appreciate something with a patina on it,” as well as our love of picking out clothes “that suggest a mood and create an atmosphere”. Perhaps it’s because we are so aware of the codes of dressing, we have the most fun when we are trying to subvert them. Luella Bartley, who devoted an entire book to dissecting English style, made her name as a designer by reinventing the most British of items, ranging from the ball gown to the hacking jacket.

Teddy boy and girl photographed by Ken Russell, 1955. Via (also do read the article for some great quotes)

But these ‘essential’ items of British style are all also associated with the upper class. I doubt that in the fifties the average woman had a ball gown or a set of country tweeds hanging in her wardrobe. Karl Silex notes that it takes “an enormous amount of petty cash” to be well dressed in England. “It is all too expensive for the office girl.” Another great strand of British style is our great street style, the tribes of Teddy Boys, Mods, Punks and Northern Soulers who band together with the attention of standing out. This is a British tradition every much as dressing for Ascot. On a visit to a pub in Wapping in the 1930s, Schiaparelli remarked that the “simplicity and inventiveness of what used to be called in England the ‘lower working classes’ was inspiring.”

Who’s left out of this picture? According to Mary Tuck in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Good Taste, it’s the aspiring “Class Bs”, “the only main English social group not to have developed an individual style of their own; probably because these Daily Telegraph reading, Surrey-dwelling climbers so intensely wish to be Class A that they cultivate the Class A look with assiduous and successful care.”

When tradition meets a bit of inventive subversion, it can create a powerfully unique look. At its best, according to Luella Bartley, it “is totally natural, fiercely individual and girlishly contrary.” All very fun for us British woman, getting dressed in the morning. For fashion as a business, however, you can see the problems in exporting this style. If our style is, whether we like it or not, built around class, how do you sell it to people outside that system? Anarchic fashion that, in Alexander McQueen’s words, “refuses to bow to commerce”?

Biba's take on tweeds, 1960s, via

Ballard hints in her book that the answer might lie in ready-to-wear. And, of course, a few years later, the youthful energy of sixties British street style made a global impact. However, with popularity, comes the terror of over-commercialisation (would an American designer, for example, share this same dread, I wonder?). Kennedy Fraser feared the triumph of the bland when she mourned the death of Big Biba in 1977; the street came up with Punk. Luella wrote of her fear that British fashion is losing its edge in the twenty-first century: I’m struggling to find a convincing counter-argument.

Vivienne Westwood ball gown, at 'Fashion for the Brave', 2010

‘Style’ is now disseminated so rapidly, it can be almost impossible to tell if a photographed comes from New York, London, Paris, Helsinki or Melbourne. Does this help us be braver with our style, to step away from our uniforms, or does it make us blander? In a recent issue of British Vogue, in an article about the appeal of British models abroad, the photographer Tim Walker stated, “Because we are an island, a punk nation, we are constantly challenging accepted notions of beauty.” It’s this punk spirit, which I find most invigorating about British style, whether reading about a Teddy Girl, or designers such as Lucile who insisted on doing things their own way. And, while I don’t know how we can maintain it, I know the world would be a duller place if we lost it.

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