Thursday, 16 April 2015

Savage Beauty

 
So it's finally here! Savage Beauty, the major Alexander McQueen retrospective, has hit the V&A in London, and at last the fashion designer's legacy finds itself back home. I don't think I've ever been quite so excited about a museum exhibition (which is saying a lot if you follow this blog) and never have I spent so long anticipating and imagining what it might be like.

Well, last week I was able to find out, sweeping past corridors of white marble statues and the familiar green glass sculpture to take it all in. Submerged into darkness and with the low thump of 90s club music echoing somewhere in the distance, it felt as though we were walking into one of McQueen's catwalk shows of the past. 

Inside were a series of interconnecting rooms, each representing a theme or show from McQueen's past. We met the gothic lacey gowns completely with S&M style leather straps, the romantic Victorian inspired pieces (my favourite) and the quintessential McQueen tartan, inspired by stories of the designer's Scottish heritage, as well as his final collection complete with space age shapes and those famous armadillo heels. 
I will try not to give too much away, as I hope that if you're reading this you will get the chance to go and see it for yourself. It really is a fantastic exhibition and both met and exceed my (incredibly high) expectations. The curators and staff at the V&A have done a  fantastic job at showing each collection and idea truthfully and allowing McQueen's genius to shine through. I loved the way that some of the outfits were placed within glass cases, as if they were ancient artefacts at a natural history museum.

The room of curiosities, which forms the centre of the exhibition, left us all in awe of McQueen's sheer force of imagination. Seeing each headpiece, corset and exquisitely tailored jacket in every nook and cranny of the crowded room, made me have so much respect for Alexander McQueen. How one designer had so many new, eccentric, genius ideas in his head I will never know. The deconstructed suits, the bumsters, the feathered jackets and tribal dresses all came from his imagination. I really appreciate the care and thought that went into every aspect of Savage Beauty, and also how the clothes were left to speak for themselves, with McQueen's personal life left unexamined and a background to his designs.

If you do get the opportunity to go and visit Savage Beauty then give yourself a good couple of hours to stare and marvel at the sheer genius on display. As you might expect, there are no photos allowed, so I've included a few postcards that I picked up afterwards, all showing pieces that are on view within the exhibition. I hope you're all enjoying the start of Spring, have a lovely weekend and I'll be back soon for some more fashion history goodness! xx

Friday, 3 April 2015

Fashion on the Ration



I tend to think of WWII as being a lot more 'ration' than 'fashion'. Utility clothes, hair nets and industrial boots tend do away with any sense of high fashion. And old black and white photos do little to dispel that image of dull and dreary dresses. But Julie Summers', in her new book 'Fashion on the Ration', depicts the Second World War as a moment awash with personal style, inventiveness and the unstoppable force of Vogue magazine.

Going along to the book talk for 'Fashion on the Ration', which also lends it name to a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, I made my way to Oxford Literary Festival. Sitting in a lecture theatre in the middle on Corpus Christi College, (and feeling pretty high brow!) I listened along with a group of other attentive ears to hear Julie explaining the inspiration behind her book and some of the stories of those she met in the process of writing and researching. 
Julie talked us through some of the real life stories found in her book. From women making nighties out of unwanted silk parachutes, to altering coats so that they mimicked the emerging 'New Look' fashions, she demonstrated that sense of creativity and desire for personal style despite the relentlessness of rationing.

The idea of 'Beauty as Duty', one of the chapters of the book, was particular interesting in that it showed a woman's duty to appear primped and primed to perfection in order to send a message to the enemy that everything would continue as normal. Although, I found this whole notion more than a little uncomfortable, and from a feminist point of view this leaves a lot to be desired, there is something powerful in our use of 'war paint' as a means of warding off dull days. And it's fascinating to look at the effort that went into dabbing on a dash of red lipstick and perfecting that wave of hair as a powerful way of refusing to give in, especially in a time where clothes scarce and were re-worn year after year.
The book also discards that notion of the 1940s as being a time of drab frocks and tea dresses. As Julie, wearing an original rayon dress in fabulous terracotta, told us, the fabrics, scarves, hats and accessories of the time were often full of colour. As shown in the book, wartime adverts see women with bright greens and yellows, pinks and magentas, which were all available to buy in shops or imitate through dress patterns. I love the uplifting quality that these images produce, evoking a world where street style was perhaps more colourful and individual than it is today.

What really comes across in the 'Fashion on the Ration' is that, despite having often been denigrated as frivolous and trivial, fashion meant so much to these women. The efforts that they went through to keep their sense of style and to keep up with fashion, be it through saving up ration cards or creating new dress patterns, is pretty impressive. And it was interesting to learn that the revered pages of Vogue where just as treasured in times of war. Despite a number of setbacks, including having to relocate its London offices due to air raids, Vogue never stopped printing during the years '39-45 and steadfastly provided women with the latest trends from Paris, as well as ways to 'Make Do and Mend', giving women at home a little bit of hope and inspiration during times of such uncertainty.

I really enjoyed learning more about fashion from a historian's point of view as well as hearing about what my grandmother might have worn during WWII. If you have any interest in 1940s fashion I would highly recommend picking up this book, or heading over to the IWM in London to see some of the outfits for yourself! Have a lovely Easter! xx

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Love Is Enough



So this past week has been a busy one as I have relocated to Oxford for a new job! Everything has been very full on but I thought I should do a bit of exploring this weekend. I am very new to the city having only visited perhaps once before, so I have a lot of navigating and discovering to do!

This weekend I went to the Modern Art Oxford gallery. They have an exhibition on called Love is Enough which showcases the work of both William Morris and Andy Warhol. I've always been fascinated by both artists, although I've never thought of putting the two together. Seeing William Morris tapestries alongside Elizabeth Taylor in techni-colour pop art was a bit of a culture clash, but the reading material which accompanied the display explains a little of the reasoning behind them being brought together.

Both artists were printmakers with very organic ways of working, with Warhol experimenting with colour, and Morris looking to science, botany and wildlife for his inspiration. Morris and Warhol were also both influenced by a sense of fantasy and mythology. William Morris created several images inspired by Camelot and King Arthur, recreating the glamour and iconography in his stained glass windows and pictures of knights in shining armour. Andy Warhol's obsession with celebrity is also documented. His most famous series of prints, featuring stars such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, started out from correspondence as a child, where he would ask for their picture, and keep them all in a scrapbook.


The display also shows a connection between print making and publication, which both artists shared. Warhol started Interview magazine (still going strong today) which injected a new sense of style and glamour into a fashion mag, with unscripted celebrity interviews  as well as his own prints and illustrations. Morris used print as part of his socialist ideals and a means of uniting and gathering together like-minded people.

What's certain is that both artists had an idea of democratising art, be it through Morris' desire to allow all households to own something either 'useful or beautiful', or through Warhol's popularisation of art prints as something more mass market. As the exhibition booklet summarises "they wrote, published and, in their embrace of commercial and fine art, had influence far beyond the art world".

I really enjoyed  this little venture out into the city but I'm still not sure whether Andy Warhol and William Morris are a match made in heaven or just a complete culture clash - let me know what you think!

Either way, I hope to continue exploring Oxford and documenting just a little of what the city has to offer.


Monday, 9 February 2015

The Lady in the Looking Glass


"People should not leave looking glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime." - Virginia Woolf 





I've been finding it really hard to focus on large amounts of reading at the moment, probably because it's so cold in my house that my brain just turns to mulch! So when I discovered this tiny book, at the princely sum of £3, I thought I'd give it a read.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, I just love her writing style and the way her words flow so effortlessly. This little book contains five of her short stories, each one fizzing with thoughts, ideas, ramblings and musings. 

One of my favourites in this small collection is The Mark on The Wall, which shows the joys of what I can only describe as 'slow thinking'. The narrator pauses to notice a mark on the wall, a mark she can't take her eyes off. This leads to a chain of interconnected thoughts, as she ponders life and death and everything in between. Woolf's thoughts flit and fly at such a speed as she compares life to being 'blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour', all whilst sitting and staring at a mark on the wall. I love that Woolf conveys a mind so overflowing with ideas but so contained against a stuffy setting in a single room. Perhaps we should spend more time staring at marks on walls!

The title story of this short book is The Lady in the Looking Glass. I found this the most pertinent of all these stories, as it encompasses something I've been thinking about a lot recently. There are so many think pieces about 'selfie' culture floating around at the moment, and although first published in the late 1920s this story could easily be applied to our obsession with selfies and our online personas today. Does our reflection in the mirror validate ourselves or diminish us completely? Within the story, the image the woman presents to the world vanishes when she steps in front of the mirror. Her selfhood was simply made up of intriguing unopened letters, and exotic jewellery from her travels. Hopefully we are made up of more than our Instagram photos and Facebook likes... I'm sure Virginia Woolf would have something to say on the subject!

I don't want to get too deep and meaningful on a Monday... but if your after a short read that still has a lot of bite I'd really recommend this little collection of stories.

Have a lovely week! Xx

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ladybird by Design



Last weekend I visited the wonderful 'Ladybird by Design' exhibition thanks to a recommendation from Little Lewes. The display is being held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, which is a beautiful example of 1930s art deco architecture and really makes you feel as though you're on a sophisticated ocean liner.

The exhibition takes a look back at the many designs created for the iconic Ladybird books. Although focusing on designs from the 1950s to 70s, I'm pretty sure no self-respecting Brit of any generation could escape childhood without reading one of these. Seeing the original illustrations up close was particularly interesting as they showed the amount of detail that went into each individual image. The paintings have lost none of their technicolour glory, with bright lollipop reds, yellows and greens befitting and Enid Blyton adventure. There's something quite modern about the simple and classic way each image and book was presented, and I'm sure many of today's children's book illustrators owe more than a little to the Ladybird artists.




Whilst Ladybird books hold a huge amount of nostalgia for many of us (I know my mum learnt to read on a strict diet of 'Peter and Jane'), what's perhaps most striking is just how 'of their time' they were. The books are so gender specific it seems almost comical. We have 'Shopping with Mother' and 'Learning with Mother' as well as 'Helping at Home' (with mother!). All whilst the men are depicted going out to work or showing their sons how to wash a car. Luckily for us we can look at these books as nostalgic artefacts of a very different time, happy in the knowledge that Ladybird no longer define their books by gender stereotypes.

When viewed altogether it's overwhelming to see just how many books and series were produced. Ladybird covered seemingly every topic from party games to countries of the world, founded in an honest and almost naive attempt to educate children on every subject imaginable. They printed each book on a single sheet of paper allowing them to produce books cheaply and efficiently at a time of paper rationing, creating beautifully designed books that were available to all.

'Ladybird by Design' is free and continues until 10th May. There is also a book available to coincide with the exhibition.




Thursday, 29 January 2015

Silent Partners



I feel so lucky that I managed to catch the very last day of 'Silent Partners' at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I'd been dying to see it ever since I first saw posters about it all over the tube and knew it would be right up my street. Entitled 'Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish', the exhibition looks at mannequins throughout history, as props used for paintings and later as the main focus of the images themselves.

The first mannequins we encountered were ones used for medical study, with the ceramic body cut away to reveal neatly carved internal organs. There were also miniature mannequins used to model clothes on a tiny scale, including a Marie-Antoinette style doll with painted on rosy cheeks and a made-to-measure dress with delicate embroidery. But the majority of the exhibition focused on the use of mannequins by artists, as a means of replacing life models. These were created in France and were skilfully designed to mimic the human body, with moveable limbs and sculpted faces. A short film - a piece of early French cinema by Georges Melieres - was also on display and showed some hilarious battles between artist and mannequin.


I loved seeing the Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the likes of Burne-Junes and Ford Madox Brown and was to surprised to learn how often they used mannequins in their work. 'The Black Brunswicker' by Millais shows Kate Dickens (daughter of Charles) in an embrace with a soldier. However, as she was unmarried the artist had to make use of mannequins so that the two where never in the room at the same time!

As well as the main exhibit, throughout the museum there were a selection of photographs by Tim Walker, hidden in various rooms. Tim Walker is one of my favourite photographers, so it was lovely to see some of his pictures blown up. I had never really thought about the influence that mannequins have on his photography, but he so often references them in his work (type in 'Tim Walker mannequin' into Google and you'll see what I mean). This is why I love going to museums and exhibitions so much as you get to learn who inspired who and find out how everything is connected.

There is something eery and unsettling about mannequins, and the exhibition captured this perfectly, with the life-like dolls sitting throughout the exhibition, staring blankly into space. And, whilst I would not like to be trapped in this exhibition at night, I honestly found it to be one of the most intriguing and inspiring that I've been to in a long time.

If you missed the exhibition (like I very nearly did) then you'll be able to catch it across the Channel in Paris! For more information see here.