Tag Archives: fashion

Flowers for Mrs Harris – Chichester Festival Theatre Broadcast

Flowers for Mrs Harris - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

The reponse from the arts community to the restrictions of the COVID pandemic has been remarkable; theatre buildings may be closed for a few months but online the industry is thriving with almost overwhelming numbers of productions available to stream, remote theatre and musical events being put together and new content being uploaded regularly. The speed and dexterity with which this has all happened has been astonishing with audiences consuming it in their millions, yes millions! Some of the newer events are for charity including a screening of sell-out event Fleabag where for a few pounds, donated to support NHS workers, as well as theatremakers and staff affected by closures, you can watch one of the hot ticket shows of the last few years at a fraction of the £200 top seat price in the West End. But much of the content available is completely free to keep the community of theatre-lovers alive, and last week Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) also joined the party.

The theatre in Chichester has long been a major feeder location for the West End, transferring numerous productions in recent years including Ian McKellen’s moving King Lear, a superb version of Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, and James Graham’s last big hit Quiz which has been reworked as a three-part television drama broadcast from tonight. CFT has also had major success with musical productions including Half a Sixpence which came to London, so the choice of last year’s Flowers for Mrs Harris to launch its production screening programme is an interesting one.

Looking at the synopsis, it would be easy to dismiss Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor’s show, which premiered in 2016 at the Sheffield Theatre, as a frivolous, inconsequential thing in which a Working Class cleaner in the late 1940s dreams of owning a Dior dress, a consumerist fantasy about fashion that has little to tell us. But across the 2 hours and 15 minutes of this life-affirming production, you will be enchanted by its heart, fall in love with its sweetly self-effacing central character and be swept away by the importance of even the smallest of dreams. For this is the rarest of things, a Working Class musical.

Seeing Blood Brothers again on its recent UK tour, it was a striking reminder of how few musicals truly explore the Working Class experience and even fewer from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. The big new shows of the past few years – HadestownSix and Dear Evan Hansen – are balanced by film to stage translations of American movies such as Heathers9 to 5 and Waitress, none of which had class as a key driver. Apart from Billy Elliot, also a film adaptation, and a Spend, Spend, Spend revival which popped-up at the Union Theatre in 2015, the Working Class have been largely excluded from the modern musical. Even plays tend to be quite narrow in their depiction of Working Class characters (usually living in blocks of flats, dealing drugs or participating in antisocial behaviour), so this heartwarming depiction of a hard-working woman whose decency and humanity make her dreams come true is a tonic in more ways than one.

This production has been filmed with considerable care and with good quality camerwork. It is a broad stage at Chichester and while occasionally the intimacy of the first half looks a little lost in the expanse, on the whole the balance between capturing the myriad interactions Mrs Harris has with clients and friends that demonstrate the breadth of her world, as well as the psychological development of her character as she learns that wish fulfillment is not all it seems, are well presented in the use of wideshots and close-ups throughout the show. But the filming style really comes into its own in Act Two as the story moves to the Dior showroom in Paris, transporting the audience to the Hollywood Golden Age influence by films featuring fashion sequences including Funny Face and Singing in the Rain, as well as the warmly fantastical visuals of An American in Paris.

Director Daniel Evans draws those contrasts so well, comparing Mrs Harris’s dream and the reality of her life in post-war London with some skill. Designer Lez Brotherston takes his influence from cinema in the heightened reality of both locations, delineated by charming painted and staged backdrops of the very different London and Paris skylines. The Battersea of 1947 is overshadowed by the circular metal scale of gas towers and the close-packed terraced housing of the era. Ada Harris’s home is a represented by a welcoming kitchen table and cupboard that imply simplicity but easy comfort, a small but cosy flat where neighbours and friends drop by for tea and cake. The homes of her customers are even simpler, a scattering of clothes and props on the revolve around the central circle, all on a cobbled floor that doubles seamlessly for the streets of London and of fashionable Paris.

In Act Two, the French capital fills the stage more fully and the production really comes into its own as a fashion show transforms it with colour and beauty. Brotherston has created a grand central staircase that references the famous Chanel Steps and adds elegance to the showcase of stunning gowns that Mrs Harris finally gets to witness – and note the newness of the designs and the fresh influence of Dior in the years after the Second World War was considerable and suprising after years of rationing and austerity. The revolve is put to good use here too as a slightly expanded set of characters linked to the fashion house emerge including the head seamstress, the manager and accountant as well as a lonely young model and charming fellow customer. It is a whirl of soft-focus glamour and dreamlike appeal which on camera has the rosy glow and pizzazz of an MGM 50s musical, a cartoony vision centered around a character whose gentle charm grows with every moment of the production.

“Every woman is a princess” is this show’s mantra, inspired by a phrase in the Dior catalogue that well to do Lady Dant gives to Ada after admiring the splendid evening gown she sees in her wardrobe. And in many ways this is a classic story of Working Class aspiration, where, just like Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, Ada Harris dreams of a better life, a different kind of world that could have been hers had she been born in a different class. The light comparison in Act One between Ada and Lady Dant mirrors that between Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers, a chance to juxtapose lives and purpose.

But Wagstaff and Taylor are offering something far more complex in fact, and while Ada covets the beautiful gown, her reasons are personal and meaningful, while at no point does she express any dissatisfaction with her lot in life or desire to be anyone other than she is. It is crucial that she wants the dress purely as an object of art, not to wear or to be someone else, but to lift her spirits of an evening by admiring its cut and flow, a right she has earned by saving and working hard rather than by luck or happenstance. And that is what makes this show so heartwarming, that all she wants is a little unobtainable beauty in her life as any of us might admire a painting or scenic view.

And one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story is how it continues to subvert your expectation throughout, including an upending revelation in the final moments of Act One as the audience realises things have not been quite what they seem. There are no easy ways out for these characters, so when Ada finally has some luck in the early part of the show and you expect that she will inevitably end up in Paris, before long that dream once again has moved out of reach as fate steps in to dampen the effect of the lucky break.

The message instead focuses on hardwork and kindness in achieving your goals, that participating in community, as Ada does and her clients go on to learn, brings manifold rewards for everyone – surely a message for our times. So as Ada gives her attention and care to the sweet aspiring photographer, the grumbling major, the isolated Countess and the selfish wannabe actress as well as the equivalent workers of Dior that she meets only for a couple of days, Ada as much as any of then learns the value of that connectedness – goodness is its own reward.

What a delightful performance from Clare Burt as Mrs Harris and the camerawork ensures you really come to know and root for her by the end of the night. Her charm lies in her essential decency, a motherly approach to her customers’ chaotic lives and the hardworking acceptance of every trial and tribulation. When discussing the dress, Burt’s face lights up with a childlike wonder at discovering something quite beyond her experience and imagination hitherto, but there is incredible pathos as the audience learns more about this quiet but resolute woman whose earlier life has been unceremoniously packed away. You really feel for her as her dreams come true and generate their own set of consequences which Burt charts with care and sensitivity while never detracting from the determination and drive  to make the best of every situation, largely for the benefit of others.

The secondary cast double roles as Ada’s London clients and friends as well as their Parisian equivalents in Dior. Having been so wonderful in The Grinning Man (and a streamed version of that would be a delight right now), Louis Maskell tackles two accountants in love with an unobtainable girl. The Parisian version Andre has most of the limelight and Maskell draws out the comic nervousness of a shy young man with big wobbly gestures and a hesitancy that becomes very sweet. Laura Pitt-Pulford as his love interest is two quite different girls, the sulky and histrionic Pamela in London as well as the reluctant model who longs to forego the parties for a more homely life. Gary Wilmot is a gruff military man desperate to rediscover the foxtrot and an exuberant fashion house manager, while Joanna Riding takes on two pivotal roles as the dress-owning society Dame and the Dior frontwoman whose gruff exterior melts in Mrs Harris’s presence. Lovely work too from Mark Meadows as the gentle Arthur Harris encouraging his wife to go for her dreams and take care of herself.

Daniel Evans’s production may on camera seem a little stranded on the wide stage which offers little variation in the staging of Act One, but the transition to Paris is brilliantly achieved and by then the loveliness of the tale has already taken hold. One Man, Two Guvnors was a morale-boosting romp last week while Flowers for Mrs Harris is the sweet story of goodness and community we all need to hear. Far from frivolous, this fashion-based drama is a great choice for Chichester Festival Theatre’s inaugural broadcast, from a venue that so often gets it right. Perfect escapism.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is available for free on the Chichester Festival Theatre website until 8 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion – V&A

Balenciaga -Shaping Fashion, V&A

Making the case for fashion as a recognised and skilled art form has never been easy, and until recently exhibitions in museums and galleries haven’t helped, offering a series of pretty outfits on mannequins with very little focus on the intricacy of construction and the inventiveness of design studios. Showing the finished product isn’t enough on its own, and many a show has fallen foul of the clothes-horse approach that just show a series of lovely frocks with no real explanation of why they’re important and influential, reinforcing the idea that fashion is all about surface frippery. The Alexander McQueen show changed all that with its combination of design, story-telling and careful curation, and it’s clear from the V&A’s new exhibition focusing on another fashion icon that they’ve learnt some important lessons.

The V&A’s impressive Balenciaga exhibition is a slightly different beast from the touring Alexander McQueen show from 2015, and where there is less show-stopping glamour in the room as well as in the arrangement of the garments, the Balenciaga show has deeper academic and historical depth of content that should please the fashion-lovers as well as the expert seamstresses or designers. Emerging on the other side, the visitor can genuinely say they’ve seen beautiful outfits but, crucially, that they have also learnt about the detailed construction and engineering process that sits behind the creation of every garment, helping you to understand why designer clothing is so special.

Fed through the exhibition is Balenciaga’s experience as a tailor – an important contributory factor in his success. What the V&A does so cleverly is clearly demonstrate this at every point in their argument about his influence on contemporary and modern designers. It is a tell and show exhibition in which the detailed signs explain the skill in each themed section – be it a type of cut or particular means of construction – and then shows you two types of evidence.

Balenciaga Tulip Dress, V&AFirst, the finished garment often with x-ray images demonstrating the hidden engineering or weighting within to main shape, but also – and this is the clever bit – a recreation of that technique made by the V&A now to demonstrate its current applicability. In many cases, this is accompanied by a video of the creation process so you can see how these styles were made. It’s such a smart idea, giving the visitor a proper insight into the importance of the techniques Balenciaga pioneered, which also showcases the talent of the fashion gallery staff at the V&A who are undoubtedly experts in their field.

Famously aloof, the V&A attempt to break open Balenciaga’s process with a series of early cases looking at design beginning with fabrics which, unlike most approaches in female fashion, came before the sketch as Balenciaga, with his tailor training, found that the choice of material would determine how it could be cut and shaped. These decisions early on would then affect every subsequent aspect of the creative process, moving, as the exhibition then does, from cutting to sewing and construction.

It is here in the ‘Workrooms’ section that we learn about the creation of the famous 1965 tulip dress that sought to flatter the figure while actively offering a new shape – contrary to the popular fitted jacket and full skirts of Dior’s New Look. But while this high-neck peach silk evening gown looks loose and comfortable, constructed from an entire sheet of fabric at the front, and with a fitted bow at the back, Nick Veasey’s accompanying X-ray shows an inbuilt corset structure around the torso which is entirely invisible from any angle.

And these revelatory images appear again and again throughout this exhibition, unveiling the hidden expertise within the dresses in which Balenciaga determined how the finished item should fit and look even when it appeared on a live woman. Equally fascinating is the 1954 reddy-pink gown with ties under the full skirt that fit around the knees to keep the lower half of the dress in place as you walk. It’s one of the more stunning pieces in this collection both for its striking colour and, using the X-rays, you see a combination of corsetry, hoops and padding that created what feels like a modern gown but with nods to a more glamorous age of bustles and Embassy Balls.

Balenciaga Green Dress, V&AThis taps into one of the V&A’s core arguments, that Balenciaga’s approach has left a lasting fashion legacy, and in these carefully chosen pieces, you can see how his designs combined a sense of past, present and future that give them a timeless appeal. Even now a semi-voluminous green dress near the start of the exhibition that uses ballooning to create three layered sections down the body, with a puff sleeved cape in the same hue, looks slightly futuristic, and could be something one of the more Avant Garde starlets might wear on the red carpet. But at the same time, it all feels like the 1960s and, further back, references the empire-line fashions of Regency England.

Balenciaga’s interest in architecture also becomes increasingly clear, whether it manifests in the ruched sleeve of a tan coat with one single piece of ribbon holding the sculpted layers of material in place so they drape the arm, or in the lasting design of the babydoll dress introduced in 1958 that subverted the idea of designing specifically for the female-shape. By adding volume all over the body and not just in the full skirts of contemporaries, Balenciaga actively moved away from ideas of traditional feminine allure to demonstrate different ways to look good, which had little to do with uncomfortable figure-hugging styles, giving the body more freedom and, importantly, better comfort.

But Balenciaga also offered glamour, so the next step was to add embellishments to the clothes themselves and there are several examples of dresses cut in quite a simple style with jewels, feathers or embroidered patterns to make them special. Highlights include a cream hour-glass shaped shift dress sewn with a classic floral pattern, mixing garden flowers connected by green vines. Nearby is a silver and pink evening coat made of dyed feathers, while behind it is a red coat combining encrusted 3-D ‘jewels’ and embroidery. It’s clear Balenciaga was a designer who knew his customers and created items for all the occasions she might attend.

Balenciaga Embroidered Dress, V&AOne of the other things you may notice here, unlike most designer exhibitions, is that Balenciaga’s outfits look as though they could fit a modern-sized woman, with a realistic sense of the female figure rather than the impossibly-tiny items you usually see in these shows. Many of these designs are deceptively simple and the minimalistic ethic is one that has been much imitated.

The second section of the exhibition looks at the showroom and the Balenciaga salons in which customers were given an opportunity to see the clothes on live models employed by the fashion house to sell direct to customs – quite different to a runway fashion show. There are videos as well as examples of the outfits showing the sale process in which customers sat with pads noting the number of the item they wished to order.

In the middle cases that form the inner circle of the show, there are examples of clothes that made it into everyday wear, all with simple and practical approaches to design that challenge the traditional silhouette. Whether it’s the long-sleeved loose-fitting shift dresses that now look so elegant, but at the time were practically scandalous, to the classic floral day dress and tailored suit, practicality, comfort and style typify Balenciaga’s design that simultaneously reflect the changing role of women in the post-war era.

Once the garment is sold, and it becomes the property of the customer, it might be interesting to note that alterations were made that actively subverted the designer’s original intentions. Among the star pieces here are contributions from Ava Gardner’s collection, herself a lover of the Spanish style that infuses Balenciaga’s work, including a pink dress discovered to have a separate corset inside and a 1964 lace evening coat that she added feathers to after she bought it.

The final part of the exhibition upstairs in the lovely mezzanine gallery considers the Balenciaga legacy in other designers’ work, so expect lots of red carpet-esque dresses and crazy pieces that espouse the values or style principles of Balenciaga. Although this is in some ways the core of the argument about how Balenciaga ‘shaped fashion’, for me, this was the least interesting part of the show, moving away from the main work and showcasing a series of less interesting and tenuously connected items -several of which have done the rounds at numerous fashion exhibitions, including the red and white puff dress that looks like a ball of feathers.

Nonetheless, this exhibition helps the V&A to establish its position as the leading curator of fashion history, that doesn’t just rely on the pretty clothes but takes a more rounded approach to presenting material. With a strong central argument and the careful presentation of evidence including video and recreated gowns, the V&A easily prove the case that Balenciaga shaped fashion, and that they are shaping the fashion exhibition.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A until 18 February and tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined – The Barbican

vulgar

Taste is a very personal thing, something we use to assess our attitudes to the outside world, to determine whether something is decent, appropriate or aesthetically pleasing. But, our tastes can also be used against us, to define what we kind of person we are and the effectiveness of our judgement. To have good taste is not just about individual satisfaction but it sends an outward signal to the world about who we are – one key element of taste is a sense of collective agreement, having others to reinforce your ideas. With this in mind the Barbican has opened an exhibition it claims celebrates the antithesis of taste, vulgarity.

Having now seen the exhibition, I have to admit to being to being rather perplexed by the use of the word “vulgar” in association with the exhibits and arguments on display here. It opens with a determination to reclaim the word and return it to its earlier associations where it meant commonplace or vernacular, and a determination to show how fashion ‘revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste.’ There is very little here that, to my mind, fits our notion of the word vulgar which, aside from its original meaning, now has a prevailing association with the coarse, crass and crude.

While I see what the Barbican is trying to do, it seems the word vulgar was chosen more for its intriguing appeal on a poster than for its actual and clearly defined application to the exhibits and themes of this exhibition. It may get people through the door but the concept feels over-intellectualised which for all its reasoning and the explanatory text by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, just doesn’t make sense in the context of what you see. Instead, what this show is about are the perhaps less attention grabbing concepts of populism and fashionability, exploring the line between societal changes and clothing, and whether fashion creates or reflects new modes of living, particularly when dealing with the outrageous or unconventional.

A centrepiece on the Ground Floor is a large collection of dresses from or inspired by the eighteenth-century fashion for large hooped skirts, ruffles and shaped bodices that transformed the female form by extending the hips, flattening the bosom and slimming the waist to almost unnatural proportions. The argument here is that etiquette books offered young women a modest and genteel guide to dressing appropriately suggesting that extravagance in size and adornment of dress was the antithesis of good breeding and elegance. Yet, these are quotes from the late nineteenth-century guides while the pieces on display are clearly eighteenth-century, more than 100 years before when the way taste and fortune were displayed was quite different.

Those considered to be leaders of ‘polite society’ such as the famous Duchess of Devonshire and the Whig crowd, certainly took fashionable interpretation to excess with enormous expensive dresses and unmanageably tall wigs that often represented their political allegiances, and what this exhibition doesn’t tell you is the fame and recognition that excess created was used to promote interests in politics, science and patronise the arts. By the definitions of this exhibition and guides from a century later, these people were ‘vulgar’. But the historical record doesn’t really back this up. In fact while the extravagance of “The Ton” – the nickname for the Duchess and her cronies – was gently mocked in the press, their influence on fashion, concepts of taste and modes of living among those considered ‘well-bred’ was more celebrated than derided. And the purpose of such styles was to display their wealth and influence.

It created a trickle-down effect through society that only suggests vulgarity in the old-fashioned sense – the popularisation of something that was once the preserve of an elite. And as this room goes on to show, the effect of that influence continues to resonate in fashion today with stunning modern pieces by John Galliano, Gucci and Vivienne Westwood who have frequently drawn on the eighteenth-century shapes and fabrics for inspiration. Sitting alongside some beautifully embellished wide-hipped ‘Mantua’ originals, Westwood created a spectacular jade green full-skirted Watteau dress with black trim inspired by the era. You can’t wear it to Tesco but it’s hardly vulgar in either sense, haute couture is certainly not populist nor can the artistry, detail and beauty of it be considered coarse or crude.

Rather than shoe-horning these clothes into a pre-set definition of vulgarity and taste – labels which of themselves change over time – adding more historical context can explain a great deal about why particular fashions and preferences for excess or simplicity emerged, based on the social, political, economic and cultural experience of the era as well as how they were used by individuals to create personal influence. And that is something clearly missing from this show.

One of the issues here is that most of the clothes on display are specifically avant-garde or haute couture where there is an argument that they are created as pieces of art, not intended to be widely worn, self-selected for this exhibition by virtue of their outrageousness, and thus not representative of “fashion” in the sense of a ready-to-wear designer collection or a high-street off-the-peg offering. And while some exhibits represent those categories, the distinction (ie. the purpose of creating that specific item), is not made clear enough, never mind whether it can be classed as vulgar or not (in whatever sense).

If you take away the entire structure of this exhibition, you’re left with a collection of interesting and eclectic items which are actually nice to see. Borrowing from Pop Art influences there is a Moschino evening gown that looks like it’s made from sweet wrappers, while sitting next to it a short yellow number is also printed with packaging images, while a paper dress from the 60s has a pattern of Campbell’s soup adverts (which you can also see in the V&A’s Records and Rebels show). These, as I suggest above, showcase the intersection of design and populist influences from the fun movements of the times, but are arguably not created to be widely worn.

Similarly the show opens with some beautiful Grecian inspired dresses which the blurb rather pretentiously interprets as ‘the imitation of classical culture… reimagined in a vernacular tongue’, as well as later displaying some puritan lace collars and seventeenth-century stomachers that defy the label of vulgarity. Like the eighteenth century clothes this suggest an ongoing interest in the way in which draping, cut and shape can create a fluidity around the body that again reflects the political attitudes to femininity in the era they were created rather than a mere vulgarisation of ancient styles.

And then there’s the outfits that are truly avant-garde, created as part of a wider collection and never seriously intended to be worn. In a section on royalty entitled ‘impossible ambition’ there are Dior outfits inspired by the short-like pantaloons and ermine trimmed jacket worn by Henry VIII in his famous Holbein portrait, as well as a Viktor and Rolf flared red dress with accompanying wheat and flowers headpiece inspired by Van Gogh in a section on ‘Too Big’, while a Walter van Beirendonck elephant skirt is reminiscent of those emu costumes with fake legs that 70s comedians used to wear at the Royal Variety Performance. Yet, none of this is vulgar; silly yes, playful certainly, but vulgar not really.

For the most part, the Barbican delivers excellent value with its art and photography exhibitions which are usually smart and informative without being pompous, and I think that is the problem here – the intellectualising in the written descriptions is just a bit too pleased with itself, a tad smug. This attempt to unpack the concepts of taste and vulgarity could have been achieved more simply and in a way that matched the outfits chosen with the historical, social and cultural context of their creation. So go for the clothes, enjoy the chance to see detailed craftsmanship, artistry and glamour of designer work, but don’t worry about the concept – it doesn’t make any sense anyway.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican until 5 February 2017. Tickets cost £14.50 and there are concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


Vogue 100: A Century of Style – National Portrait Gallery

The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty by Cecil Beaton

The National Portrait Gallery has had a very nice line in fashion photography over the years including an impressively insightful David Bailey retrospective in 2014. To celebrate the centenary of Vogue Britain, established in the midst of the First World War, the NPG presents a glamorous walk through the decades of a magazine that has reflected a changing taste in clothing as well as the political, economic and cultural influences of the day. Last year’s Alexander McQueen show at the V&A – arguably the greatest fashion exhibition ever to hit London – has changed how the history of fashion is presented and, although there are no clothes on display here, its influence can be felt in the in both the curation and more dynamic design of this exhibition.

London’s art scene is doing a roaring trade in photography exhibitions at the moment; some such as the Imperial War Museum’s Lee Miller: A Women’s War, can be seen viewed as a companion piece to the Vogue show, covering some of the same images including those of Miller in her early days as a model as well as her military work during the Second World War. Other shows such as the brilliant Strange and Familiar at the Barbican cover much of the same period but offer two very different interpretations of the world. Haute couture fashion is often seen as ‘aspirational’ and much of the material on display at the NPG reflects how women wanted to look in particular decades and the pages of Vogue can be interpreted as a history of how Britain wanted to be seen – whereas Strange and Familiar shows us who we really were – and seeing both in quick succession is an eye-opening insight into the last 70 years.

Vogue 100 actually starts in the here and now with modern covers and unexpectedly a film showing models in close up, playing in a mirrored alcove so everywhere you look are reflections upon reflections (one of the elements surely inspired by the McQueen show). Then you can trace a path back through the decades of celebrities and approaches, ending up where it all began in 1916. Trendy as it may be, it wasn’t clear what this backward-looking approach was supposed to give us, so instead you can defy the crowds as I did and march yourself all the way back to the 1920s (there’s no exit here you will still have to walk back anyway) and start from there, seeing the developments in fashion, photography and in the magazine’s approach to the cultural world it represents unfolding before your eyes.

Whichever way you chose to go this is clearly an exhibition about the artists that have made Vogue what it is today rather than the story of its production, editorship or backroom dramas. Instead we see how popular culture was presented and influenced by the pages of this magazine through the choices of models, designers, photographers, celebrities and actual artists who drew works for the early spreads or, like Picasso, were featured in the magazine itself. In the unique world of Vogue this walk through the twentieth century sees hemlines rise and fall as quickly as empires, and economic shifts in the aftermath of war and depression that affect fabrics choices and shoot locations.

The 1920s and 30s show a selection of early prints in decorated glass cases which is a nice touch reflecting the particular style of each era and the major players of the day. From a dancing Fred Astaire to stylish swimsuits for men and women (an image recently used as the cover for a novel about Hemingway), from society “it girls” to Horst’s famous corset images – which you may have seen in Horst’s own retrospective at the V&A last year – this decades represent a stagey look to the images with models in formal, often classical poses against pillars or architecture that infer the silhouette of the outfit. Often ‘moody’, the use of lighting creates contrasts of light and shadow that add considerable atmosphere to the black and white prints, as well as an elegance that colour photos just never seem to emulate.

On to the 40s and the décor becomes a bold striking red as the NPG contrasts its war coverage of pilots and military workers with the New Look that Dior introduced after the conflict. It’s an interesting approach that offers both sides of the magazine’s work, although the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition on Lee Miller has all the best images actually. On the fashion side the increased use of sites of destruction to contrast the outfits is apparent particularly in Norman Hartnell’s work where elegantly dressed ladies stand in front of bomb sites as though to suggesting ‘fashion is indestructible’. Here also there is a greater saturation of bold colour advocated by those like Cecil Beaton who was a major influence on Vogue’s unfolding style. His 1946 image of a model dressed entirely in shades of red with red accessories against a red background entitled ‘The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty’ is a memorable example of this dynamic approach.

The full-skirted elegance of the 50s gives way to a much more relaxed approach to modelling in the 1960s as formal poses are replaced with ‘action’ shots of fashion in everyday lives. Twiggy of course will be familiar, careering along on a scooter or Jean Shrimpton relaxing in a series of coats for one shoot. New photographers were also part of this freer style with David Bailey in particular starting to document the more liberal times on location and with more experimental images.  By the time we reach the 70s and 80s it’s those experiments with colour and composition that seem to take precedence, and some of the more memorable images here are Claudia Schiffer on the back of a motorbike which in colour is a study in monochrome, and a model in a 20s-esque red bathing suite leaning on a swing which we learn was fashioned ad hoc on location, and harks back to that early image of the bathers on the platform.

Onto the 90s and the rise of the supermodel with that famous cover, and in more recent images you should get used to seeing that darling of British Vogue, Kate Moss who is everywhere. From the ‘heroin chic’ pictures that launched her more simple ‘every-girl’ look to the African Queen image of her in a desert, there’s no doubting her influence. As more and more magazines sought to challenge Vogue’s dominance, the photoessays become increasingly outlandish and surreal including a 40s bomber shown coming through a chintzy living room wall to advertise a khaki inspired trend and a stunning pink powder-puff shot of Lily Cole. Colour also continues to dominate as digital images allow even greater opportunities to retouch the pictures in pre-production, enhancing their fantasy-like suggestion and getting to the heart of that aspirational life Vogue has always wanted to present.

Vogue 100 doesn’t claim the magazine has profoundly changed the world, but for 100 years it has reflected society’s changing values while offering entertainment and escapism to its readers. While this show doesn’t tackle the story of Vogue itself or any of the controversies its pages unleash such as the size zero model and the doctoring of images by airbrushing to extremes it’s an interesting version of a history the magazine wishes to present. It has attracted important photographers including Horst, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier who have forwarded an artistic aesthetic that lifts what could have been a catalogue for expensive clothing to something more meaningful and inventive. And yes, it is all glossy photos of a world that doesn’t exist, but view it as an expression of a changing fantasy life and see it in partnership with the coincidentally contrasting show Strange and Familiar at the Barbican and both shows take on an added resonance that only adds to our understanding of the Britain we live in.

Vogue 100 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 May. Tickets are £17 without donation and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – V&A

new-savage-beauty-banner

Image: Copyright V&A

 

Fierce and fantastical are the only way to describe this brilliant exhibition at the V&A and you can see why pretty much everyone in London is trying to get a ticket. If you’ve ever thought that fashion was a frivolous pastime with absolutely no artistic value then this McQueen show can absolutely change your mind, it is beautiful – both the clothes and the setting.  Wandering through the rooms is like being in some enchanted fairy-tale land, becoming more wide-eyed with astonishment as each new and distinct section unfolds around you.

It’s not that long ago that the Constable paintings filled these rooms and this exhibition presents McQueen’s clothes like high art to be admired and felt. Some have complained that there’s not enough biographical detail about McQueen himself and where his inspiration comes from, but in way that’s also a good thing because unlike paintings, clothes are often used to say far more about a person. The way you dress day-to-day is indicative of your personality and in some sense synonymous with the way you present yourself to the world. You may have books and art and objects in your home which reflect your taste or interests, but none of these are seen as frequently or as widely as your clothing. If you accept that, then you have to apply that idea to this exhibition – McQueen wasn’t making clothes he would wear but ones he hoped would appeal to a wide female audience. They may be his vision but there is something the viewer or wearer must bring to them as well, so in some sense this is about your interaction with the clothes. It’s like a Saatchi Gallery art exhibition in that sense, no real information just you and the stuff with no artist in the way, which I respect.

So the exhibition’s beginnings are surprisingly tame and modest, showcasing some early tailored items from McQueen’s student and early collections in London. Although these aren’t the showstoppers we’ll see later, actually this is quite a shrewd move because you instantly get a clear sense of his aesthetic and approach to designing without being distracted by the more dramatic outfits created later. You learn how McQueen designed for women from the side because it was easier to see the body shape and creatively disguise problem areas, as well as his interest for sharp lines and powerful shapes. There’s also a clear reference to Victorian styles so plenty of frock coats in various forms, some with human hair apparently sewn into the lining which I was pleased not to see at 8am.

Then things take on a more exciting pace as the next room is decorated with tarnished mirrors and gilt to present some of the slightly harder-edged collections themed here as Romantic Gothic. There’s something quite Phantom of the Opera about this room combining a highly ornate and elaborate staging with a sense of darkness and danger. Each dummy wears a leather face mask and is surrounded by mirrors underneath, behind and to each side giving a view of the outfits from every angle as well as a disquieting sense of distortion to underline the style of these pieces.  There is a grand theatricality about the outfits in this room and there’s certainly nothing romantic or wistful about them, but they also maintain McQueen’s sharp lines and powerful silhouettes.

The next section is a complete change again to focus on McQueen’s interest in natural history and animal life. The walls are corrugated with bones and each dress is couched into a recess that seems to have been gouged into the wall, all rather like a primitive cave dwelling. The clothes also reflect this tribal feel with earthy colours, animal fabrics like pony skin and strong shoulder-lines. Weirdly each mannequin has a curved plastic shape on its face that looks like a trunk or a tusk to emphasise that primeval feel. Sound and projection are used to good effect here to add atmosphere, as well as clearly distinguishing the tone of the section.

Up next was my favourite room, combining McQueen’s Scotland-inspired pieces from The Widows of Culloden (2006) with The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008). There’s a lot of competition but my favourite dress in the whole exhibition is a knee-length full skirted white tulle number with patterned red stones filling the bodice which nods paradoxically to the decadent purity of the eighteenth-century style, yes I could definitely wear this dress. It sits alongside a suite of similarly inspired outfits combining ruffles, feathers and elegant draping effects which are pure romanticism, striking an interesting contrast to the political statement of the Scottish pieces facing them where innovative technique in the cutting and use of fabric is clear.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is a completely new section for the London shows and is rather like reaching the centre of the maze. It is floor to ceiling stuff and everywhere you look there are countless examples of McQueen’s work; from clothes to Philip Treacy hats, to shoes and facial ornaments- including the beautiful butterfly headdress adoring some of the advertising material. All interspersed with fashion show footage. Luckily there are seats so you can sit down while trying to take it all in. In the penultimate rooms the focus is on romanticism and nature featuring outfits incorporating shells, feathers and antlers, plus ruffles and lots of floaty fabrics but still retaining that trademark structure. Most outstanding is a dress made entirely of 3-dimensional flowers which is crazy but also beautiful, while the final room has a futuristic feel with the last collection entitled Plato’s Atlantis.

As you wander out blinking into the shop, it’s pretty clear that this has been no ordinary V&A exhibition. In fact given the V&A’s poor form in its costume displays, with Hollywood Costumes, Ball gowns and Grace Kelly all being very badly curated, it’s clear that this is a touring show and, honestly, a relief. Tickets are still available and the museum is opening from 8am till late to facilitate extra time slots. I booked about 3 weeks in advance for an 8am entry (if you’re prepared to book a month ahead there are lots of tickets for any time) which I would highly recommend. At that time, the cumulative number of people is incredibly small so you can get close to each item and take your time, and you can just toddle off to work afterwards knowing you’ve had your culture fix before 10am. An 8am start also enhances the dreamlike quality of this wonderful exhibition. As I said at the beginning this is fashion at its most artistic, one of the best fashion shows I’ve seen, brilliantly designed and completely enchanting.

McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the V&A until 2 August. Tickets are £17.50 including booking fee and a range of reasonable concession prices are available for OAPs, students, disabled visitors and art fund members. Day tickets are also available from 10am and no photography is permitted in the exhibition.


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