Beast

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The Winter Mode room at Fashioning Winter shows how popular fur was becoming in the 1910s-20s as a trim on garments, with an elegant Belle de Chamonix skating in her white fur. It also includes a cartoon strip from ‘The First Book of Eve’ by Anne Harriet Fish, demonstrating the dangers of leaving the snarling head on one’s accessories.

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By the end of the twentieth century, designers were looking for new ways to modernise the use of fur, leading to experimentation with colour and treatments. In the documentary ‘Unzipped’, Isaac Mizrahi finds inspiration for his AW 1994 collection while watching the 1922 silent film, ‘Nanook of the North’. He was particularly attracted to the ‘beast’ fur worn by the Inuit in the film, which ultimately appeared on the catwalk in the form of abbreviated chubbies paired with sweeping floor-length gathered skirts in rainbow bright colours.  Where do we look for innovation in the twenty-first century?

Fashioning Winter is also showing an exceptional piece by the designer, Bea Szenfeld. A mannequin at the bottom of the Stamp Stair is largely obscured by the animal draped over its shoulders. The animal – perhaps a female lion or a snow leopard – has been handmade entirely of paper. It is utterly beautiful and it stops visitors in their tracks.

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The piece comes from the designer’s SS2014 collection, ‘Sur la Plage’, which took inspiration from the fragility of nature. There is both irony in the piece – one of nature’s supreme killers made of paper – as well as recognition of the dangerous culture of disposability that has applied equally to animal species and daily resources.

In the span of a century we see fashion’s appropriation of the ‘beast’ move from frivolity to thought-provoking statement. Does it work? For my money, a garment that makes a statement works if it is also beautiful and maintains a certain dignity. I find the paper leopard fascinating.

Snow queens and shoppers

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Looking back at early twentieth century winter magazine covers, there’s a clear sense of narrative attached to the visual. It may be as simple as the “Vogue” lady completing her Christmas shopping before the snow storm sets in, or an evocation of a well-known fairytale like “The Snowqueen” but these covers were clearly using story-telling to attract the reader.

Though today’s magazines have moved away from this for cover shots, the idea of a narrative behind a catwalk show or a magazine shoot still has powerful currency. At Somerset House’s Fashioning Winter, Shonagh Marshall’s exhibit, “Fashioning Narratives” explores this, drawing on catwalk shows by John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs. Though separated by almost a century, the lines and silhouettes are strikingly similar to the Vogue image above, but each adopting a distinct narrative context.

Though catwalk shows are used in this context, the narrative has been used to powerful effect in the December issues of US Vogue, where Grace Coddington’s styling frequently references fairytales to stunningly beautiful effect.

At its best, fashion can make us dream, escape the mundane, explore different characters, express emotion, ignite our imagination. Why does winter have a particular resonance though?

Metamorphoses in white

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The curated collection of objects on a common theme is often used by designers and artisans for inspiration. Last winter, Hermes’s Monde d’Hermes celebrated the pleasures of winter with a series of breath-taking pictures of snow. They were taken by the Japanese photographer, Yoshihiro Hagiwara who returns to Northern Japan every winter to photograph derelict factories covered in blankets of snow. The photographs transform the subjects into astonishingly beautiful abstract plays of light and shade that seem reminiscent and ghostly but not quite recognisable.

The same kind of metamorphosis can be seen at work at Fashioning Winter’s White Perspectives exhibit, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov. It transports us to a world in which snow leopards are made of paper, classically-inspired clothes drape with the elegance of Wedgwood and in which mother-of-pearl and even teeth sparkle unexpectedly on clothing. It considers the ways in which materials and technologies have evolved, suggesting new uses and the refreshing ways that fashion has offered new interpretations for the traditional.

At ground floor level we see a Gareth Pugh ensemble (AW 2014), at once futuristic and classically-inspired, hanging next to a Jean-Paul Gaultier white lace dress (SS 2009) which turns a historic embellishment into twenty-first century couture. The former recalls sculptural sheets of recycled plastic, the latter, a traditional wedding fabric re-interpreted.

This, most conceptual of exhibits is so stimulating, inviting the viewer to reconsider what white means to them – a visual form of word association (more to come on this). What does white suggest to you?

What’s practicality got to do with it?

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One of my favourite exhibits in Fashioning Winter is the Winter Mode room in the East Wing of Somerset House. It shows a series of fashion illustrations from magazines of the 1910s and 1920s. The illustrations were original artworks by artists such as Iribe and Thayaht and show beautifully the line and shape of the Belle Epoque and flapper age. Though it includes more practical and sporting styles, it is the totally impractical that always draws my eye.

This illustration shows an incredible opera coat in white velvet encrusted with pearls and designed to drape and trail behind the wearer. It is utterly gorgeous but utterly impractical even for the use shown in the illustration. But to focus on its impractical nature misses the point of such a garment. It is fairytale embodied: all our winter, Narnia, Snow-queen, frost-glinting, ice palace fantasies made real.

Who on earth would wear or want such an item? Oh me, please.

Fairytale and fantasy

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What makes for a compelling catwalk vision? Fairytales can be powerful touchstones, holding profound resonance for many and offering a broad range of interpretation, from petal-strewn flights of fantasy to the darkest shades of human depravity.

Somerset House staged a fascinating conversation between curator, Shonagh Marshall and writer, Camilla Morton, each bringing their experience of McQueen and Galliano respectively and their use of fairytale and fantasy in their catwalk shows.

It highlighted the evolution of the catwalk show from an exclusive and elusive experience to an internet event available to all, and its role showcasing the designer’s concept in its purest form, sometimes bearing little relationship to more pragmatic designs that went into production.

They contrasted the two designers’ relationship with narrative. Galliano drawing on a narrative as essential part of design process, even to the extent of placing himself within the narrative at the close of his show. By contrast, McQueen used fairytales and fantasy elements to shock and disturb, heightening the effect by drawing the audience directly into the fantasy. It seems particularly timely that today we hear the news that a new translation of the Brothers Grimm’s fairytales is available, taken from their original and darkest version and including elements of human cannibalism and mutilation.

The event also highlighted curators’ role in creating narratives for exhibitions. Certainly, those exhibitions that have most impressed me have provided either a cultural or narrative context for the clothes. Part of what is so interesting about the history of fashion and dress is the way that it crosses boundaries between the purely practical, the expression of social norms or “tribal” custom, and individual self-expression. One of the most interesting aspects of the Fashioning Winter exhibition is the contrast between the nine individual displays by the different curators and how each interpreted the theme in utterly different ways.

Are the days of those fairytale blockbuster shows over now that YouTube grants immediate and global access? After all we don’t all share the same fairytales. Karl Lagerfeld is a designer working with a similar narrative approach at Chanel but clearly chooses themes that are much more global in their appeal – climate change, supermarket consumerism, etc. And will we see a new side to Galliano’s genius now that he is at the more conceptual Maison Martin Margiela?

Goatskin in the trenches

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One of the smaller installations at Somerset House’s Fashioning Winter is devoted to the winter kit issued to soldiers in the trenches of WW1 in 1914 and 1915 and is curated by Benjamin Whyman of the London College of Fashion.    Three yellowing newspaper articles poignantly depict soldiers departing for the front kitted out in goatskin jerkins over their uniforms.  These, together with woollen balaclavas and sandbags filled with straw, were intended to help the soldiers withstand the bitter conditions.  These reports seem designed as propaganda, describing the effect as “teddy bear” though the reality was more likely to be lice-infested, heavy and damp.   Certainly, while striding into a bitter wind walking across Waterloo Bridge, I was glad to be benefitting from more modern forms of insulation.

There is a reference to the jerkins in the work of one of the war poets, possibly Siegfried Sassoon but I haven’t found it yet, perhaps someone else will know it?

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Fashioning Winter begins!

Somerset House in London is about to begin an innovative new fashion exhibition celebrating some of the ways that winter has inspired fashion through the years.  From practical gear for skiing and skating to the fairytale fantasies of McQueen and Galliano, the challenges and romance of winter weather have thrown down the gauntlet to designers through the decades.  Who hasn’t had the experience of staring grimly from the window at (yet another) day of rain and wind and wondered how to maintain some semblance of style whilst keeping warm and dry?

As a fashion fan, I’d always intended to visit this exhibition but what I hadn’t expected was that I’d actually become involved. As an exhibition volunteer I’ll be spending afternoons there, exploring the nine separate installations around Somerset House, and helping other visitors enjoy it too.  How does the exhibition turn out in the end?  How does it evolve?  What do visitors make of it? What might it inspire?

That’s what this blog will be about.

Fashioning Winter is at Somerset House from 11 November 2014 to 11 January 2015.  See Somersethouse.org.uk