Christopher Breward looks at three texts that take the study of costume out of amateur hemline histories and into the academy.
Publications in the field of fashion have expanded dramatically over the past two decades. Where serious dress enthusiasts previously found their reading material limited to the illustrated "hemline" histories produced by specialist companies such as Batsford, or articles in the antiquarian journal Costume , researchers of clothing cultures in the 21st century have been rewarded by a proliferation of scholarly texts. Their supercharged content reflects the new respectability of a field now recognised across a range of established disciplines whose attitude towards fashion was once suspicious to say the least. Social and economic historians, sociologists, social anthropologists, art and design historians and those engaged in the broader project of cultural studies have all come to value the potential of garments as carriers of a more profound significance than the simple decorative and social function once ascribed to them.
The migration of fashion studies from the realm of the supposedly "amateur" to the academy has not, however, come without a price, and the review pages of fashion periodicals are peppered with the aggrieved complaints of a generation of costume historians who perceive the expansion of new publications as a dilution of what they consider to have been a privileged vocation. This unfortunate divide can perhaps be caricatured as a split between those who value the practical skills of the curator and the rise of an academic hegemony that prioritises abstract theories about fashion's copious meanings. It is interesting, then, that the three titles reviewed here represent something of a bridging between these two positions. Furthermore, all are written by practising curators of dress and, in some respects, represent a parallel fracturing of the accepted ways of portraying and interpreting garments in the context of an exhibition. (In the world of the museum, recent debates about practice and theory have been as vociferous and productive as those occurring among fashion academics in the university.) Visually driven and concerned as much with presentation as interpretation, the authors of these books "curate" their subjects in the manner of a display case, with subtly differentiated results.
Dress in Detail from Around the World is the most beautifully produced publication of the three. It is part of a series of texts that subjects the spectacular fashion collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum to near-microscopic analysis. Like its predecessors, Historical Fashion in Detail and Modern Fashion in Detail , it is constructed around a series of stunning photographic close-ups of aspects of garment construction. A short introduction by Verity Wilson, curator of the Asia department at the V&A and an expert on Chinese dress, establishes the criteria on which the items have been selected and underscores the extent to which their seemingly arbitrary inclusion in the museum's holdings is a consequence of outmoded colonial hierarchies of objects. Interestingly, many of the V&A's "world" artefacts were acquired and displayed long before the more familiar examples of western fashion that currently draw the crowds to the museum's costume court. Their "exotic" surfaces served in the 19th century to inspire the aesthetic appropriations of contemporary artists and designers or to prove the supremacy of European civilisation. In the present they act to "celebrate diversity and difference and honour the women, men and children who made and wore" them.
To a great extent, the arrangement of the book works against either illuminating context and use, or providing a meaningful chronology. Items are arranged by descriptive themes that suggest a formalist appreciation of technique and aesthetic quality and a nod towards a comparative analysis. Details relating to the categories "Necklines", "Fastenings", "Cuffs, edgings and seams", "Contrasting fabrics, linings and pockets", "Pleats and gathers" and "Applied decoration" are photographed in sumptuous colour against a plain black or white background, facing a single page of supporting information, which includes line drawings of the garment and a short textual description of materials, construction, provenance and intended function. This format lends itself to the particular needs of the theatrical costumier and designer seeking information and inspiration for the production of replicas or homages (designers including Vivienne Westwood, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen have credited collections such as those held by the V&A as an important source for the creation of new hybridised looks). It also aids the commercial requirements of the dealer and collector who seeks in the details of cut and decoration validation that an item is the real thing. For the lay reader, the book offers the sensual pleasure of close examination otherwise denied to the museum visitor who is generally kept at arm's length from the exhibits.
While the collection confirms the strange beauty of clothing produced beyond the constraints of the western fashion system, many of the images reveal the surprising relationships that connect geographically and chronologically diverse examples in a global network of influence. Amid the loaded details of embroidery, appliqué and weave, the close-up of a cotton-and-polyester mix pocket with black plastic button of a woman's Mao suit bought in China in the 1980s is perhaps the most starkly powerful item, its utilitarian neatness bespeaking the turmoil of a century of revolutions.
Andrew Bolton's The Supermodern Wardrobe might well have used the Mao suit as its starting point, for this ingenious book focuses on the fetishisation of function in contemporary urban dress. Instead, its first image is of the interior of Charles de Gaulle airport, photographed by Andreas Gursky in 1992. Bolton was also based at the V&A during the writing of this book, as research fellow in contemporary fashion funded by the London College of Fashion. That he should have chosen to open his volume with a representation of one of those transitional spaces that seem to symbolise the "meaningless" vacuity of modern existence, rather than an item of clothing, arguably places him in a different curatorial category to that which produced the object-centred Dress in Detail from Around the World .
Bolton is an anthropologist by training and believes that "most clothing is defined by the contexts in which it is worn". The "supermodernity" that he views as being one of the most significant impulses defining the direction of fashion design in the 21st century is a concept borrowed from Marc Auge, who, in his book Non-places , challenged traditional notions of space and sociability, positing a problematic scenario of fragmented experiences, surveillance and the threat of violence, which supposedly characterise our attitudes towards metropolitan living in the new millennium. Through this dystopic prism, Bolton presents an overview of the innovative clothing products of a new generation of designers. Companies including Vexed Generation, Mandarina Duck and Samsonite are shown to work between the categories of fashion, product design and engineering, producing technically sophisticated solutions to the problems of portability, street crime and pollution. The garment styles that arise look back to the democratic utopianism of high modernism while playing with the hi-tech imagery of militarism and science fiction. This design language is a popular one with today's fashion and design students, who are more likely to seek inspiration from the content of a computer game or Manga comic than the V&A's dress and textiles collections, and it is this audience that Bolton bears in mind through the strong visual content of his book and in his careful attempts at contextualisation. In this sense, The Supermodern Wardrobe shares in the rhetoric of contemporary relevance and cross-disciplinary elucidation that has driven other recent examples of curatorial innovation, such as the reorganisation of the V&A's British Galleries or the displays of the Imperial War Museum of the North.
If Bolton's book is an acknowledgement of the intellectual and aesthetic requirements of tomorrow's designers and fashion theorists, Catherine McDermott's Made in Britain is a more familiar showcasing of stylistic trends arranged along the lines of a trade show or fashion magazine advertorial with distinctly populist appeal. McDermott has an established reputation as a freelance curator of such blockbusters as "Erotic Design" at the Design Museum, "Vivienne Westwood" at the Museum of London and the exhibition devoted to Princess Diana's life at Althorp. Made in Britain offers a similar celebration of the characteristics of contemporary British fashion. These are placed in the context of a broad-brush historical introduction that, through the adept selection of a series of nine iconic images, establishes the central themes of rural romanticism, class differentiation, sportiness, eccentricity, respectability and streetwise credibility that McDermott then proceeds to weave through her survey.
The book combines reviews of established British brands (several of which have reconfigured their look for a newly competitive marketplace) with promotions of younger, less well-known designers, and pays appropriate attention to the influence of the UK's art schools, its traditions of innovative retail practices and the fearsome reputation of its urban subcultures on the status of British fashion design abroad. While McDermott's approach is sometimes closer to that of advertising copywriter than critical analyst, Made in Britain is a gutsy appreciation of an important, though struggling sector of the British economy. Together with Dress in Detail from Around the World and The Supermodern Wardrobe it will sit well on the coffee table of any chief executive, magazine editor, design museum director or art college head.
Christopher Breward is professor in historical and cultural studies, London College of Fashion, London Institute.
The Supermodern Wardrobe
Author - Andrew Bolton
ISBN - 1 85177 343 6
Publisher - V&A Publications
Price - £25.00