Wear When: Representations of Costume and Fashion

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Clothing is relatively inexpressive on a hanger. It can hint at its conceived form and utility; it can suggest its potential for movement. But it is not until a garment is viewable in four dimensions, supported by a body and moving through space, that it is truly activated. Studying clothing is therefore a complicated task, as it often requires one to imagine movement or to mentally add volume to a limp structure.

There are times when two dimensions can help in this task. Fashion, or costume, illustration is a centuries-old genre that has always been utilized for a specific, though evolving, purpose: to animate representationally that which cannot be animated physically. This exhibition is an attempt to demonstrate the ways in which artists have undertaken this illustration (or, more recently, photography), and to trace the contexts in which they worked. The items on display range from historical costume books to Parisian fashion plate portfolios to designs for the ballet; from glossy magazine page spreads to, finally, contemporary visual critiques of the genre itself.

Curated and designed by Anna Fishaut

Costume Books

Beginning in the sixteenth century, artists began producing historical costume books for the aid of other artists and for the enrichment and enjoyment of the educated elite. The three examples shown here, by Michel François Dandré-Bardon, Auguste Racinet, and Friedrich Hottenroth, present a range of types. Dandré-Bardon’s, from 1784-86, is a set of schematic, annotated line illustrations meant to guide the neoclassical painter toward authenticity of detail. Racinet’s work was conceived as an encyclopedic account of international costume through the ages, Hottenroth’s as a detailed study of one specific segment of his home country’s population. The latter two books were published in segments and conceived as collectible.

On display:
Costume des anciens peuples Costume des anciens peuples, à l'usage des artistes
Michel François Dandré-Bardon
Paris, A. Jombert, 1784-86
GT110 .D3 F V.1/2-3/4 ARTLCKS

In the decades straddling the turn of the nineteenth century, Neoclassicism was the style of choice for painters in France and beyond. For aid in creating a sense of authenticity in their works, painters often consulted costume books—a genre dating back to the sixteenth century—that contained representations of clothing and other accoutrements. Michel François Dandré-Bardon’s Costume des anciens peuples was one such work, a six-volume set that treated “les usages religieux, civils, domestiques & militaires des Grecs, des Romains, des Israélites & des Hébreux, des Egyptiens, des Perses, des Scythes, des Amazones, des Parthes, des Daces, des Sarmates & autres peuples tant orientaux qu’occidentaux, &c.”

Dandré-Bardon was himself a well-established painter in the Neoclassical style. He was also a professor at the Académie Royale, and as his teaching career progressed he turned more and more of his personal artistic attention toward it. That Costume des anciens peuples, a work useful in academic settings, was a product of his late career is therefore no surprise.

The primary sources for Dandré-Bardon’s illustrations were surviving sculptural fragments, reliefs, architecture, and descriptive texts—though it must be assumed that, as a draughtsman with a famously creative hand, he took some liberties in his development of detail.
Le costume historique Le costume historique
Auguste Racinet
Paris, Librairie de Firmin-Didot et cie, 1888
GT513 .R2 1888, F V.1-6 ARTLCKL

An idiosyncratic history of dress across time and space, Auguste Racinet’s six-volume compendium (previously published in twenty livraisons in 1876) is the ne plus ultra of European costume books. Racinet’s history focuses upon what he considers traditional clothing, not “fashion” in the mode for which Paris had become so famous. His section devoted to French costume of the 1880s does not treat contemporary Parisian style but, instead, the clothing of Alsace-Lorraine, Brittany, the Landes. This seems to underscore his goal for the entire project: to root dress in local history; to interlink clothing with social structure, custom and, in some cases, ritual.

This linkage becomes tenuous in its accuracy at times as he expands his study to areas such as India, Japan, Tunisia, and Mexico. Racinet’s firsthand knowledge of non-European cultures, especially historical ones, is quite incomplete, more anecdotal than comprehensive (with the cultures themselves oftentimes selected according to their historical or current French colonial status). His choices of which items to focus upon and how to describe their social importance are, if not arbitrary, then at least based upon very western assumptions.

The opulent illustrations for which Le costume historique is prized were edited but not drawn by Racinet. They are a pastiche of direct copies from artworks, manuscripts, or earlier costume studies, or commissioned works created by professional illustrators. Often Racinet added color afterward in order to achieve a pleasing (though not necessarily accurate) aesthetic effect. The plates’ production marks the first instance of chromolithography’s use in a costume book.
Deutsche Volkstrachten Deutsche Volkstrachten, städtische und ländliche …
Written and illustrated by Friedrich Hottenroth
Frankfurt am Main, H. Keller, 1898-1902
GT900 .H62 V.1 1898-1902 V.1-3 ARTLCKS

Like his French contemporary Auguste Racinet, the German scholar Friedrich Hottenroth undertook a years-long project to recount the history of dress chronologically and geographically through detailed images and exhaustive description. Hottenroth’s self-illustrated Trachten Haus- Feld- un Kriegsgeräthschaften der Völker alter un neuer Zeit (1884-1891) was his answer to Racinet’s monumental Le Costume historique.

The work shown here, Deutsche Volkstrachten, is a slightly later study with a more local and personal aim: to recount the history of German folk and peasant costume. It is a history not without biases, however, and it is appropriate to approach Hottenroth’s work with an awareness of its social implications. In discussing this costume as an entity separated by time and by class, Hottenroth was developing a structure that allowed for simultaneous cultural identification and social remove by his readers. The middle- or upper-class intellectuals who collected his volumes would be able to consider their own national heritage while maintaining a comfortable stance outside of and above its more humble aspects. Indeed, one of Hottenroth’s aims was to illustrate how upper-class fashion tended to influence the dress of the peasant classes.

Despite this complicated context, the illustrations that accompany the text are a lovely set of specimens. But as with the text, their historical accuracy is mixed. Hottenroth’s sources ranged from artworks dating to the appropriate time period to prior costume histories to, in fact, drawings contained within the works of his colleague Racinet.

Modern Paris

By the eighteenth century, Paris had become the unquestionable center of the fashion world. While contemporary scholars were still very interested in unearthing the history of dress, as the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth the designers and artists themselves became more and more focused solely upon the contemporary, and often upon the explicit merging of high fashion and commerce. Here, Sonia Delaunay’s portfolio includes prints representing works she displayed and sold in her Parisian boutique. Enrico Sacchetti’s set of plates embodies the high-fashion lifestyle, both sympathetically and critically. Mikhail Larionov and Nataliya Gonchorova’s collection demonstrates the merging of couture and theatrical costume in an entirely innovative way.

On display:
Robes et femmes Robes et femmes
Enrico Sacchetti
Paris, Dorbon, 1913

The images in Enrico Sacchetti’s Robes et femmes occupy a complex zone in the world of early twentieth century fashion illustration. Evocative of Paul Poiret and Paul Iribe’s iconic Les Robes de Paul Poiret racontées par Paul Iribe (1908), they feature high-fashion ensembles worn by highly expressive models. Sacchetti was quite familiar with, and interested in, the worlds of fashion and costume design, having moved to Paris in 1912. His artistic career to date, however, had been spent exploring the boundaries between portraiture and caricature, and his illustrations of political and social figures tended to have a sharp edge.

Here the effect is similar, despite the smooth gloss of glamour. The images appear to embrace the new age of fashion, with its loose, flowing layers, its often plunging necklines, and its dramatic headdresses. Yet one can sense that Sacchetti is offering an additional, more critical interpretation as well. His models are made anonymous, denied identifying facial features or turned away from the viewer, and the designs’ decadence seems to imply not only innovation but excess. It is clear that fashion was then, as now, an active element in the discourses surrounding class and gender.

Sacchetti’s portfolio was published at the request of the French critic Muret in a small run of 300 copies. Each lithographed plate was hand-colored by the artist.
Sonia Delaunay Sonia Delaunay; ses peintures, ses objets, ses tissus simultanés, ses modes
Sonia Delaunay
Paris, Librairie des Arts décoratifs [192-?]

The exploration of how forms and colors interacted and moved in the world was a project to which Sonia Delaunay, in one mode or another, devoted her entire career. It’s not surprising, therefore, that once she began using fabric in order to construct collages and to print textiles it became one of her primary artistic media. Textiles patterned with modernist, abstract images could shift and flow and reveal new images; the silhouettes of her intricately draped costumes and fashions could act as geometric forms moving in space.

Indeed, Delaunay’s greatest professional successes came in the realms of textile, fashion, costume, interior, and accessories design. It was this success that led her to open her Paris boutique Simultanée and to pursue fruitful collaborations with key figures of the Avant-Garde, most notably the writer and playwright Tristan Tzara, for whom she designed theater costumes.

The large-scale portfolio Sonia Delaunay; ses peintures, ses objets, ses tissus simultanés, ses modes was produced in the mid-1920s as an ode to Delaunay’s work in fashion and design. Her images, printed in pochoir, were juxtaposed with poetry by Tzara, Joseph Delteil, Blaise Cendrars, and Philippe Soupault—a monumental mid-career tribute.
Gontcharova [et] Larionow Gontcharova [et] Larionow; l’art décoratif théâtral moderne
Valentin Parnakh
Paris, Édition "La Cible," 1919

Mikhail Larionov and Nataliya Gonchorova, two artists of the Russian Avant-Garde who had met as students and worked in partnership ever since, began designing sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes in Switzerland in 1915. This was a development that had been years in the making. As the artists had, over the years, combined a futurist style with a neo-primitivist nod toward their Eastern European origins, they had also begun to push their artwork past the boundaries of traditional media and into a hybrid of painting, performance, manifesto, film, and fashion.

Therefore when the artists began to work for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, their impact was substantial and immediate. Their melding of traditional Russian styles with avant-garde abstraction came to life in the form of elaborate headdresses, brilliantly colored fabrics, and geometric costumes that were at times so elaborate as to restrict the dancers’ movement.

The drawings for the costume designs were remarkable enough to themselves become the centerpieces of several exhibitions, including one in 1919 at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris. It was in conjunction with this exhibition that L’art décoratif théâtral moderne was published. The highlight of this publication was a set of pochoir prints that featured, most notably, Larionow’s designs for the ballet Histoires Naturelles. These designs moved the concept of costume entirely out of the utilitarian realm: meant to evoke mechanical toys, they were angular, rigid, and entirely untraditional.

Fashion Spreads

In mid-century America, magazines—especially the frontrunners Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—were the main point of contact the middle class had with runway fashion. While the clothes themselves varied in their accessibility, the magazines were affordable and, more and more, targeted in their imagery toward daily suburban and urban life. At the same time, fashion imagery was entering a new era as photography, especially that overseen by the legendary Alexey Brodovitch, moved innovatively away from the documentary and toward the interpretive.

On display:
Ballet Ballet; 104 photographs by Alexey Brodovitch
Alexey Brodovitch, text by Edwin Denby
[New York, J. J. Augustin, 1945]

By 1935, when Alexey Brodovitch began his series of photographs that would be published as Ballet in 1945, the famous Ballet Russes, directed by Sergei Diaghilev and designed by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Léon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov, had disbanded and reformed as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Though Diaghilev was no longer alive and the Ballet was under new leadership, several of the key choreographers and dancers were the same, and the company’s avant-garde approach to the traditional medium persisted.

Brodovitch’s photographic treatment of this legendary subject was groundbreaking. In his documentation of eleven separate performances, he privileged movement over focus, atmosphere over clarity. He often shot directly into stage lights and then modified the contrast, making the whites spectral and the blacks vast. When the photographs were assembled into book form, the 104 gravure images were printed edge-to-edge; the wide page spreads suggested the enormity of the stage or the flow of bodies in sequences of movement. This was an approach that Brodovitch would bring to his editorship at Harper’s Bazaar: an emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of bodies and clothing in space; an interest in the beauty of the je ne sais quoi.
Harper's Bazaar Harper’s Bazaar
[New York : Hearst Corp.], 1867-
August 1958

The concept of the fashion magazine spread was long established before Alexey Brodovitch became art director of Harper’s Bazaar in 1934; indeed, its lineage can be traced to the fashion plates of the late eighteenth century. The designer Paul Poiret, in partnership with illustrator Paul Iribe, had revitalized the form at the turn of the twentieth century with brilliantly colored pochoir prints that suggested not only modern elegance but an entire fashion lifestyle. In the 1920s and 30s Vogue had helped make style a part of daily life by de-emphasizing its statically upper-class connotations. Brodovitch’s innovation was in typography and page design. He allowed images to overlap, to bleed to page edges, to repeat.

Of course, by this time fashion was being represented commercially not through drawings or pochoir prints but through photography—and no photographer was a more natural partner for Brodovitch’s vision than frequent Harper’s contributor Richard Avedon. While the highlighting of the clothes themselves would never become irrelevant, Avedon was happy to play with focus literally and figuratively, allowing blurring to capture movement, sometimes introducing surprising backgrounds and props and often allowing starkly white space to surround his subjects. Brodovitch, in turn, was happy to design Harper’s Bazaar along these same models: allowing focus to vary; capturing the feel of fashion as much as the look.

The August 1958 issue, produced near the end of Brodovitch’s tenure, includes a cover image and interior feature by Avedon.

Vogue 1928
[New York, Condé Nast Publications, etc.], 1892-
April 1, 1952

By 1952 Vogue had intentionally widened its image to appeal to audiences far outside of society’s upper echelons. Most notably, under the art direction of Alexander Liberman, fashion shoots had moved more and more out of the studio and into the real world. Models posed in the driver’s seats of convertibles, amid the action of cocktail parties, hailing cabs on the streets of Manhattan. Equally importantly, Irving Penn, a presence at the magazine until very recently, had been hired in 1943 as assistant art director and staff photographer. His still lifes and stark detail shots were counterpoints to the often more elaborate images of photographers such as Frances McLaughlin and John Rawlings.

The graphic design of the magazine itself was never as edgy as that of Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar. This is partly because Vogue’s editorial staff had decided to give more attention to the innovative content of the photographs themselves—rather than their layout on the page—and partly because the magazine had always devoted much of its design energies toward the singular image on the cover. The April 1, 1952 issue on display is evidence of that focus. It is a striking image in color and composition—and, interestingly, it refers back to an April 1 cover that had been designed by legendary illustrator Georges Lepape twenty-four years earlier.

Contemporary Commentary

While fashion illustration and photography endure today with the continued aim of animating clothing spatially and temporally, it is also quite common to encounter works by artists who are questioning what information images of clothing actually impart to their viewers. To this end, Tanya Marcuse presents a series of “fashion” photographs that emphasize clothing’s bodilessness, while Boram Hong illustrates empty dresses engaged in activity and provides a paper dress that is meant to be burned after wearing—an inversion of our fashion expectations.

On display:
Undergarments and Armor Tanya Marcuse : Undergarments and Armor
[photographs and text by] Tany Marcuse ; essay by Valerie Steele
Tucson, AZ. : Nazraeli Press, c2005
TR655 .M336 2005 V.1-3 ARTLCKS

Tanya Marcuse assembled Undergarments and Armor from photographs she took at several museums in the United States and England, most notably the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her project seems to have been threefold: to capture the sense of bodily remove that any costume in storage evokes; to draw a striking comparison between two historical “uniforms” that carry the metaphorical weight of gender; and to visually deconstruct the notion of modern and contemporary fashion photography.

This last element is the most evocative in the current context. If fashion or costume imagery has, through the centuries, been created with the aim of animating a limp fabric shell or contextualizing that without a contemporary equivalent, then these photographs lie outside of that convention. Instead, because the manequins on which the garments are draped are headless and contextually blank, the images only hint at former presence in all its anonymity.
Dress Dress
Boram Hong
Seoul, Korea : Boram Hong, 2005
N7433.4 .H663 D74 2005 F ARTLCKL

Wear this dress made for you carefully.
If it is teared, there is no meaning.
Move to transfer your body shape
to the paper dress.
Take off the wrinkled dress slowly.
Hang your dress on a clothes rack.
Get into the dress
and burn it with an incense stick slowly.

Boram Hong’s artist’s book Dress is composed of several parts: a bound set of line drawings, a book demonstrating a dress’s progressive burning, a candle, and full-scale dress made of paper. It is, if taken literally, a kit for a (self-)destructive performance. Less literally, it seems to be a simple visual exploration of how clothes interact with the people (or models) who wear them—and specifically, how the dress, the most iconically feminine of clothing forms, continues to be a sign both intensely specific to its wearer and so anonymizing as to preclude individual identity.


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