Nature and Dark Romanticism in Art and Fashion Design

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Olivia Terry, Third Year BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History student shares her research into nature and dark romanticism in the work of an artist and fashion designer.

Back in the spring of 2020, I was in the midst of writing my presentation for the second year module After Modernism: Postmodernism and Beyond, when university as we had known, changed. The pandemic seemed to have loomed in the background for so long, and then with breakneck suddenness, everything was moved online. Unfortunately, in all of the chaos of transition, I never got to share my research to my classmates, yet when I reflect back on my time at Brighton, I consider it to be my favourite presentation.

Fig. 1. Anna Dumitriu. The Romantic Disease Exhibition. Pictured: Where There’s Dust There is Danger, Rest! Rest! Rest! And Pneumothorax Machine. 2014. Waterman’s Gallery, London. Still from The Romantic Disease at Watermans. 2014. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/93513389

I was assigned the topic of fashion and nature. Ironically, months prior to the pandemic taking over every aspect of our lives, I chose to focus on disease, when I read about a 2014 postmodern exhibit titled The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis (see Fig.1). Anna Dumitriu, a British bio artist, combined science with art to create an exhibition that redefines the division between art and nature, by introducing disease to her collection. Textiles in the exhibit were literally impregnated with extracted DNA of sterile Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Centered around mankind’s relationship with the disease, Dumitriu simultaneously played scientist while creating an exhibition that inspired strong feelings of romanticism and horror, similar to that of postmodern fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. The artists differ in their approaches to communicating nature as a theme, but the end results are blaringly similar: nature is at the heart of beautiful suffering.

The exhibition featured a 19th century altered maternity dress known as the Romantic Disease Dress (see Fig. 2).

Fig.2. Anna Dumitriu. The Romantic Disease Dress. Victorian Maternity Dress stained with natural dyes. https://www.a-n.co.uk/media/5039835/

It had been stained with walnut husks and embroidered with madder root and prontosil dyed silk. Madder root dyed flowers decorate the neckline and safflower dyed bows were placed on the cuffs. Walnut husks, madder root and safflower, were once used as ancient remedies for tuberculosis. The dress is also stained with extracted DNA of killed TB. Dumitriu chose the maternity dress because TB was once thought to be genetic, so infected individuals were discouraged from marrying, and in some cases, pregnant women with TB were given forced abortions. The dress combines fact and feeling, making it a powerful piece. It uses historical remedies and strains of TB, while representing the emotional toll and extreme loss of the disease.

Similar to Dumitriu, Alexander McQueen dramatizes the killer side of nature, while still communicating beauty.  His Oyster Dress (click to see an image) brilliantly combines nature and romanticism: Originating from the 2003 “Irere” collection, the dress seems to be a “poetic rendering of a disaster at sea.” (Met Museum) A layered sand coloured silk organza resembles the curved lip of a mollusk, and tossed over the shoulder, is reminiscent of a shredded fishing net. The dress and mannequin both invoke dramatic feelings surrounding a tragic disaster at sea.

Both Dumitriu and McQueen’s work stem from nature. While Dumitriu chose to explore nature at its most microscopic level, her exhibits share similar postmodern elements such as unconventional materials, nostalgia, romanticism, and horror as McQueen. While their creative approaches differ dramatically, both create highly emotional art that communicates the cut-throat beauty of nature.

Drawing with the Dress Detective: Learning to See

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Rachel Ng, Third Year BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History student discusses her experience of attending a workshop with Dr Ingrid Mida on observing a garment through drawing.

Screen grab from the drawing with dress detective workshop. The image illustrates Ingrid Mida handling dress and a detail of a drawing

Figure 1: Screengrab from Drawing with the Dress Detective: Learning to See, 2021.

Author of The Dress Detective and Reading Fashion in Art Dr Ingrid Mida recently hosted a drawing workshop online via MS Teams. Her ‘Slow Approach to Seeing’ methodology demonstrates how to analyse a garment, focusing on slowing down and using drawing as a tool for learning. In her 2020 book Reading Fashion in Art, Mida states that ‘[…] drawing as a method of slowing down can help identify specific elements of dress as well as the nuances of an artist’s process’. (42) The workshop allowed us to understand the difference between looking and seeing and how one can look but not really see.

Mida describes: ‘For me, drawing facilitates seeing and a deeper level of engagement with a thing. I record the path of my eyes on the paper as I study the object or artwork, and even if my drawing bares little or no resemblance to the thing I am looking at, when I finish a drawing, I feel like I have touched that thing’. (2020: 42) To fully understand this process, we were asked to complete three short drawing exercises to warm-up for a larger drawing piece later. The short tasks allowed us to break down any expectations we may have had about the ways in which our drawings may have looked. Instead, we were encouraged to focus on the process over product. We were drawing a Chinese dragon hat. We started by using two pencils in one hand, focusing on the aerial view of the hat. Then we were asked to draw with our non-dominate hand, focusing on the side view. Lastly, we looked at the front view, drawing in one continuous line without glancing at the paper. As you can see in Figure 2, my drawing did not look too much like the hat, but then again it wasn’t supposed to. For our final longer task, we drew a jacket and then had a discussion which revealed the details people picked up on, that might have been otherwise overlooked. For example, the piece’s overall construction, hidden buttonholes, and the lack of pattern matching. This process has allowed me to think differently about the next time I view a garment and how drawing can really help to highlight the details that may point to the wearer’s intentions, such as the points of stress on a piece.

line drawing of mask illustrating the process of drawing

Figure 2: Side-by-Side Comparison of a Continuous Line Drawing with Object, 2021. Pencil on Paper. Photograph. Author’s Own Image.

Due to the pandemic so much of our lives now inhabit the internet and screen time. People’s attention span has dropped, and this workshop has reminded me of how much you can easily miss when you do not slow down and really focus on something. This method can, of course, be challenging for people who have expectations of how they want a drawing to turn out, but as Mida said in her talk, you have to let go of expectations and return to a childlike mind to fully appreciate this method of research. What resonated most with me was her closing statement, ‘wanting to discover the information has to be more important than the drawing’.

It was great to be able to put a face to the well-renowned author and gain a better understanding of how to break down and construct garment drawings. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and will be using this approach in the future.

Screengrab showing tips on drawing from a garment

Figure 3: Screengrab from Drawing with the Dress Detective, 2021.

Museums and Social Media: Is Instagram damaging to museum practice?

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Susanna Connolly, Third Year BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student assesses the use of Instagram in current museum practice.

Tate one-minute challenge Instagram post, 29 March 2020

Over the past decade, museums have begun to embrace social media as a promotional tool and a means to encourage engagement within the museum setting. Critics, however, are concerned about how engaging in social media devalues the museum experience and undermines museum authority. This discussion has become more relevant with the global pandemic forcing many museums to re-evaluate their practise and broader role within their community. Within this piece, I argue that utilising social media platforms such as Instagram can be extremely beneficial in creating and consolidating connections with museum artefacts and audiences.

Instagram is a social media platform that is centred around the posting and sharing of images. Designed to be accessed predominantly through mobile phones, the platform encourages personal photography grounded in individuals’ everyday experiences. The rise of Instagram has been closely entwined with the selfie phenomenon and as a result, holds negative connotations with critics believing the site fuels superficiality and vacuous entertainment.

With the events surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020, museums and cultural institutions were forced to close their doors to the public. In doing so, these institutions had to re-address relationships with its visitors with social media platforms to reconsider how to overcome physical barriers to access. I decided to use the @Tate Instagram page to examine how museums used social media to encourage interaction, engagement, and education with their collection.

Over lockdown, Tate sought to engage their audience by organising various art related challenges and promoting entries on the Tate Instagram page. An example of this was the one-minute sculpture challenge. Posted on the 29th March, Tate challenged followers of their Instagram page to create a one-minute sculpture and post it on their personal account, tagging Tate so that entries could be shared on the Tate platform.

Tate shared 86 responses to the challenge which are pinned permanently to the highlights section of their account. The entries featured responses from a diverse range of participants, suggesting how social media can be an accessible site to engage with art and art institutions. The quality of responses was also varied, implying that difference in art ability was welcomed and encouraged. The one-minute element of the challenge made it easy to engage with and informal which encouraged participation. As mentioned in the announcement, the challenge was inspired by the work of the artist Erwin Wurm, and information of his art practice alongside photos were also shared on the Tate Instagram page. This is an example of how Tate was able to use Instagram as a platform to reconcile accessible forms of art education while encouraging audience participation and entertainment.

A benefit of utilising social media platforms is that they can eliminate not only physical barriers to access but social ones too. Anyone with an Instagram is invited to participate within the one-minute challenge. This active engagement centres the viewer within the experience and consolidates informal learning. The immediacy of social media allows for objects to be re-framed within current cultural contexts, making them more relevant, and draws out different understandings of the artefacts. Involvement within challenges such as the one-minute challenge was a much-welcomed escape from the anxious realities many of us were facing during the first lockdown. Within these uncertain times, museums can provide a sense of community and escape, vital for collective mental health. With this considered I would argue that museum social media profiles foster interactions with the audience, which in turn, can be beneficial to both the public and museum practise itself.

The Digital Dress Historian: Is Social Media Expanding the Field of Fashion and Dress History?

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Elena Field, Third Year BA Fashion and Dress History student shares her research and reflections on how social media expands dress history.

Bernadette Banner. 1890’s Ball Gown Instagram post. 5 October 2020. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/bernadettebanner/

In Doing Research in Fashion and Dress: An Introduction to Qualitative Methods, Yuniya Kawamura states that ‘it is the responsibility of fashion/dress scholars to elevate the importance as well as the interests of the topic in academia.’ Through my own personal experience, I have seen that one way this is being done is through the circulation of research on social media platforms, which has in turn created global dress history communities. Amanda Sikarskie, in her Digital Research Methods in Fashion and Textile Studies, has termed these communities as ‘the crowd,’ claiming that members are able to help each other through sharing knowledge. Social media can also aid academics when conducting research, as hashtags may link them to different primary and secondary sources relevant to their research that they might have been unaware of. Online events and discussions additionally provide a platform on which dress historians and museums can collaborate. This is especially important for museums in the time of Covid-19, as they are able to directly engage with visitors.

I am particularly interested in how YouTube offers a means for historical dressmakers to contribute to dress history studies. To give an example, the Costuber and Dress Historian Bernadette Banner uses her YouTube account to post videos on a variety of dress history related topics, from pointing out inaccurate costumes in television series and movies to making her own historical outfits, such as her video on making an 1890s ball gown. Hilary Davidson, in her essay The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice, argues that making historical dress is a form of research, in which the dress maker can develop a deeper understanding of a garment’s construction and embody the seamstress who would have made the original piece. Therefore, it is my opinion that Costubers like Banner are actively contributing to academic research in the field of the dress history, as well as sharing it with the wider public through digital platforms.

Cheyney McKnight. Not Your Momma’s History Instagram Post. 14 October 2020. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/notyourmommashistory/

The combination of social media and historical dress, especially in the case of donning historical clothing for re-enactment purposes, is also a way to decolonise history. One predominant example of this is Historian Cheyney McKnight, who uses her social media account and company, Not Your Momma’s History, to navigate her discussion on black history. An example of her work is the project #slaverymadeplain, a series of performance art, where McKnight dressed as an enslaved woman in public in order to prompt a discussion with passers-by into how the effects of slavery are still relevant in American politics and African-American lives. A discussion on this subject is continued on her YouTube account where, through her use of historical costume and re-enactment, she has created content on such topics as her life as a black re-enactor, harassment and sexual assault experienced by African-Americans and slavery.

Though there is always a question over the historical accuracy of the content published on social media, it can be deduced that social media  should and is being used to expand the field of dress history and its academic standing, concurring with Yuniya Kawamura’s statement.

Investigating a Retro Marks and Spencer Biscuit Barrel

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Kay Lawrance, Third Year BA Fashion and Dress History student, shares her research into a charity shop find.

M&S biscuit barrel

Marks and Spencer Biscuit Barrel. c2004-2014. Stoneware. 18cms x 15cms diameter. Personal photograph.

As part of our Third Year module The Past in the Present: Retro, Vintage and Revival, we were asked to choose and research an item directly related to the themes of the module.  I chose this stoneware biscuit barrel produced for Marks and Spencer.  The exact date of production is unclear, but from the style of the backstamp, it was produced sometime between 2004 and 2014.  I bought it from a charity shop a few years ago so I am unable to date it any more precisely than that.

At the time this was produced there was a trend in homeware and home furnishings which is commonly called Mid-century Modern.  Interiors were heavily influenced by the 1950s, with Ercol furniture becoming desirable, and the sludgy browns, dark teals and mustards of this biscuit barrel reflect that.  The Pantone colour of the year 2009 was Mimosa, a sludgy yellow, and 2010s was Turquoise – slightly lighter than the mugs on the biscuit barrel but a similar shade.  In 2009, Sanderson, manufacturers of furnishing fabrics and wallpapers, released a design by Fiona Howard called Dandelion Clocks which they describe as ‘a fun and funky 50s retro design‘, available in similar colours.

The underglaze design on the biscuit barrel is printed with a black outline and colour infills that are deliberately mis-aligned.  This captures the style of the scourer pot in the image below, which, coincidentally, I also bought in the same charity shop as the biscuit barrel, but at a different time.  This small scourer pot by the Toni Raymond Pottery in Devon was produced somewhere between 1956 and the mid-seventies.  However, unlike the M&S biscuit barrel, the designs were all hand painted and the “approximate” painted infills were part of the style.

This images is a scourer pot and is copared with the M&S biscuit barrel

Toni Raymond Pottery Pot Scourer Holder. c1956-1976. Ceramic. 7cms x 9cms diameter. Personal photograph.

In Retro: The Culture of Revival Elizabeth E. Guffey suggests that the term retro ‘serves as shorthand for a period style situated in the immediate post-war years’ or ‘material culture at mid-century’ and that is exactly the feel of this design (2006: 9-10).  She describes how ‘retro does not seek out proud examples of the past; it shuffles instead through history’s unopened closets and unlit corners.’ (2006: 14) Although the pottery produced by studios such as Toni Raymond was hugely popular, it was domestic and reasonably cheap and not what I would describe as a “proud example of the past”.  Many homes had a piece, or something similar, but it was usually something as useful and at the same time as unconsidered as this scourer pot.  Items that were used and seen have become an almost half-forgotten memory.  I was struck by what Guffey wrote about the word nostalgia originally being used to describe a kind of homesickness, but that it has now come to mean a ‘bittersweet yearning for things […] of the past’ (2006: 19), a kind of time sickness, and it seems to me that this is captured in the feeling of this design.  And yet, the retro design is just slightly too good.  The misaligned print is too precisely done.  The edges of the infill are too sharp to be hand painted.  It is a knowing copy designed to be read by knowing consumers.

 

Developing subject expertise – from undergraduate to postgraduate study

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Slyne and Co pearl satin and gold lame lace gown, circa 1937. Photo author’s own and taken with the permission of Caroline Quinn of Dirty Fabulous, Monaghan.

Emma Kelly, 2018 BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History graduate reflects on her journey as a student from undergraduate to postgraduate study, finishing her MA during lockdown and developing subject specialism along the way. Congratulations Emma!

I graduated in 2017 from BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History and have recently completed my MA in Design History and Material Culture at National College of Art and Design, Dublin.  What I most enjoyed about my time at Brighton were studying the rich and varied topics covered in the lectures and seminars and how tutors encouraged primary research including visiting archives and using the University’s Dress History Teaching Collection. Working with the collection was amongst the highlights of my three years of study, uncovering stories of the trends, makers, sellers and wearers of fashion. One of my favourite projects was researching Bradleys of London, beginning with a 1930s ensemble from the department store. I encountered Bradleys again during my postgraduate studies whilst researching Sybil Connolly, the Irish couturier who worked at Bradleys in the 1940s. What I wouldn’t do to spend an afternoon back in the collection!

Throughout my undergraduate studies, I was fascinated by Irish dress history, though I never had the chance to delve into the topic. So much of the material discussed in lectures and seminars centred on Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union. In comparison, the field of Irish dress is very underdeveloped, a problem I first encountered during my undergraduate and an issue that remains to this day. Touching on the topic briefly in my BA dissertation made me all the more determined to focus on the field in my future work, beginning with a Masters.

I decided to return to Ireland for my postgraduate studies, informed not only by my desire to tackle Irish dress but also the uncertainty caused by Brexit. In September of 2018, I began my study on the Design History and Material Culture MA at NCAD in Dublin. I was immediately drawn to its multidisciplinary nature and the freedom it offered to tackle a wide range of topics. My tutors were extremely supportive of us pursuing our own research interests and developing our own writing style. Every assignment offered up a new opportunity to tackle a different theme, topic and time period, whilst also allowing me to call upon my experiences from Brighton, particularly my work with the Dress History Teaching Collection.  One of my first assignments centred on a Ballet Russe inspired satin and chinchilla tunic dress from the mid to late 1910s and enabled me to research a Dublin-based dressmaker, Mrs McAsey, the influence of and the reaction to Parisian fashion in Ireland in the 1910s. An essay focused on a 1950s Sybil Connolly suit offered an opportunity to examine the presence of Irish fashion in the domestic and international print media.

My thesis, echoing some of my undergraduate and postgraduate work, began with a dress, a satin 1930s gown attributed to Slyne and Co, a Dublin-based fashion establishment. Set to the timeline of 1885 to 1937, my thesis centred on the business as a multi-faceted, female-led establishment located on the main shopping street which sold custom creations, copies and ready-made goods in line with the latest Parisian and London fashions.

Finishing my Masters in lockdown was not expected and definitely had an impact but I have been so lucky to have studied on two amazing programmes that have equipped me with strong research skills and a deep understanding of my field that were called upon time and time again.

Slyne and Co pearl satin and gold lame lace gown, circa 1937. Photo author’s own and taken with the permission of Caroline Quinn of Dirty Fabulous, Monaghan.

Winning the prestigious Design History Society Student Essay Prize 2020 in the postgraduate category

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Karen Fraser MA History of Design and Material Culture graduate (2019) reflects on winning the Design History Society Annual Essay Prize 2020.

Family photographs in the author’s cousin’s home, Vancouver. Personal photograph by the author. 9 Feb. 2016.

In July, I submitted a revised version of my dissertation, “‘That link to life, so to speak’: Older Women’s Expressions of Keeping through Photographs and Jewellery”, to the Design History Society (DHS) postgraduate essay prize, relieved to have made up my mind for the final time about how the sentences should flow. The prize provided the motivation I needed to reduce my 20,000-word dissertation by half and incorporate the feedback I had received from my assessors. I also reflected on comments from other readers – relatives and friends who wanted to know what had consumed my attention for so many months – and edited my work with those in mind as well. I was partial to the section on photographs and ended up leaving out jewellery for my essay prize entry.

In my dissertation, I took an anthropological approach to material culture in later life, studying what women keep and use to construct their homes in seniors housing, formerly known as sheltered housing. I interviewed three residents of a block of flats in Hove and took photographs of some of the objects they spoke about. I listened back to our recorded conversations and pored over the transcripts to identify common objects that held meaning for the women. My supervisor, Louise Purbrick, encouraged me to focus on photographs to start with and then to consider another set of objects, such as jewellery. I became very interested in how these objects emerged in our conversations and how the material forms of photographs and rings embodied the women’s descriptions of their meaning. What was particularly striking to me was the power these objects had in communicating the presence of close family members, especially during a time in the women’s lives when loss was a common experience.

My interest in the movement of objects in families and what happens when people make decisions about what to keep, gift to someone else, or throw away stretches back to when I was living with an older cousin of mine and her husband in Vancouver, Canada. They were in their late seventies when I took up residence in one of the basement suites in their Arts and Crafts-style home. So many objects there held family history and were rich with personal and shared memory. When it came time for my cousins to move into a residence with more care, it became important to decide which objects would help them create a meaningful new space in which to live. I took part in this difficult, emotional experience and ended up being the recipient of many items. Later, engaging with anthropological theories related to gift exchange for my dissertation, I developed an understanding of how things circulate when we are sensitive to the ways that objects and people are interconnected.

Though my research interests have their roots in Canada, they really developed in Brighton. I am grateful to my landlady’s mother, who generously offered to be my first participant and share stories over tea in her flat. She connected me with the two other women in my study who also shared their stories with me. Now, I hear little clips from the interviews in my head when I look at everyday objects, especially photographs. I am currently teaching an undergraduate course for the first time, and as I experience the pressures of the job and facilitate classes from home, I find comfort in the meaning I know to be in the things that surround me.

Karen Fraser in the garden at Charleston. Photograph by Natalie Carman. 28 Aug. 2019.

I am also grateful to the students, academics, and staff on the MA History of Design and Material Culture programme at the University of Brighton. It was rewarding to work with people who are engaged in furthering our understanding of design history and material culture. The opportunities I had to share my work-in-progress, whether through informal conversations or at the Brighton Postgraduate Design History Society symposium, expanded my ideas and improved my work. Finally, it was wonderful to connect with members of the DHS on Zoom at their AGM in early September. I am thankful to the Society for facilitating this annual prize and generously supporting students.

Winning a Breakthrough Award: Susanna Connolly reflects

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Susanna Connolly won the Anne Clements Breakthrough Award in 2019-2020. She is currently in her Third Year of study on BA History of Art and Design.

Furniture: Japan. Two easy chairs with bamboo frames and woven or strip seating, 1949.
Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives

Earlier this year I was shocked and honoured to have won the Anne Clements Breakthrough Award. Having been unaware of the award beforehand, I was surprised to have received the news and have been asked to share my experience about it on this blog.

The Anne Clements Breakthrough Award is a £500 cash prize, generously donated by Anne Clements herself, who previously had a career in design history. It is given to well-performing second year students to provide motivation as the course enters a more challenging and rigorous stages. The Award also serves to celebrate the student’s progress and offer recognition of hard work.

The Award is organised through University of Brighton’s Philanthropy service and is part of a broader university-wide scheme to encourage students through their second year of study. A celebration ceremony is usually held in December to invite donors and students to meet each other and others across the university. Sadly, due to the current climate it is unknown if this year’s ceremony will be taking place.

Winning the Award has helped boost my confidence dramatically and made me feel more secure in my choice to pursue a career in the arts industry. I have been enjoying the course immensely so far and am very grateful for Anne Clements’s generosity in supporting careers in art and design history. I thoroughly enjoyed the second year of study as the course began to focus on the art movements of the 20th century. A key reason for me choosing the Art and Design History course at Brighton was its focus on modern art and I found the core module, Modernism, Ideology and the Avant Garde, fascinating. An aspect I really appreciated was how we explored Modernism across the globe and not solely about its impacts in Europe. I did my presentation on Modernism in Japan, specifically in advertising, a subject I doubt I would have come across had I not been on the course.

I plan to use the prize money to help continue my studies and pursue a Master’s degree. In these uncertain times, it has become increasingly important to demonstrate solidarity with the arts and education industries which have been especially vulnerable due to the current global crisis. I am inspired by Clements’s support to those in her field and am once more thankful for the opportunity to study a subject that interests me deeply.