When the second year of my studies came to its end, I did not immediately have a clear idea for my final year dissertation topic. I did know that, ideally, I would want to incorporate aspects of art history into a topic centred on fashion, in the same way that in studying Fashion and Dress History we had extensively studied its relationship with broader culture and the history of art and design. Throughout my studies, I had held a particularly keen interest in the dress practices of women in artistic circles and subcultural groups from the nineteenth century onwards. The women associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement were something I was curious to look into for a long time. At the same time I wanted to draw my research closer to the modern day, and to look at the much discussed subject of Pre-Raphaelite women from a fresher angle. I soon had the idea of doing this by basing my research in the historical revivalism typical to the fashion imagery of the late 1960s and early 1970s, noting its visual correlations to Pre-Raphaelite images of women a century earlier (see images 1-2 and 3-4).
Additionally, I wanted to bring in the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and spirit over wider hippie culture, which was heavily represented throughout popular culture of the time, particularly in popular music. The same kind of lyrical and visual evocations of women seemed to accompany hippie culture as had been typical to the Pre-Raphaelites a century earlier. In my dissertation I delved into this particular fabled feminine stereotype which, while drawing from history and its conventional images of soft and submissive femininity, seemed regularly to emerge in tandem with seemingly progressive, bohemian cultural movements. Throughout the course of my research process I kept encountering one theme after another, the discussion of which seemed to be crucial in order to present a thoroughly informed analysis of this ‘Pre-Raphaelite femininity’, which could so often be found pictured in Western visual culture since at least the mid-nineteenth century. There was the matter of femininity, feminism, fashion, art, historical revivalism, hippie culture, popular music, etc., etc.… I confess that at times it was difficult even for me to keep track of what I was actually arguing.
Ultimately, however, the general theme which rang out from all the different parts of my research was the idea of myth, in two ways. Firstly, in the sense of this mythical idea of feminine beauty, taking shape in images of women as sprites, enchantresses and medieval maidens, and secondly, in the sense of the very concept of femininity being a cultural myth itself; an idea recurrently discussed within works of feminist gender theory. At the core of my dissertation were female musicians of the 1960s and 70s who often seemed to encapsulate this timeless image of women as mythical creatures, especially insofar as this was evident in the style, songs and persona of musician Stevie Nicks. As a highly successful woman in a field which has historically favoured men and the male perspective, Nicks functioned as the perfect way to prove, pinpoint and bring together the larger themes discussed in my dissertation.
While my dissertation largely discussed fashion, dress and style, it turned out to be a broader examination of visual culture and popular representations of gender. Having at times seemed like a dauntingly difficult task, handing in the finished dissertation felt fantastic and I was ultimately very happy with the end result. Furthermore, my dissertation supervisor, Annebella Pollen, who had been a tremendous help throughout the process of writing and editing it, offered to nominate my work for the annual dissertation prize held by the Association for Art History, an organisation dedicated to advocating the study of the subject. I was delighted to learn recently that my work had been selected as the runner-up for the 2017 prize. It felt especially rewarding to receive recognition from a renowned body such as the AAH, whose annual conference will be held at the University of Brighton in 2019.
Having received such positive feedback for my dissertation from my tutors as well as the AAH has been encouraging in terms of applying for further study, with the aim of building a career in fashion curation. Since graduating from the University of Brighton, I have done volunteer work at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, alongside working in fashion retail. While I have opted for a break from academia for the present year, I am applying for a number of Master’s degrees for the coming autumn. Hopefully, having been shortlisted for the AAH dissertation prize will be helpful in terms of applying for further study as well as, eventually, in securing future employment.
Read Elina Ivanov’s dissertation: ‘“West Coast Ophelia”: Stevie Nicks and Representations of Pre-Raphaelite Femininity in Fashion and Rock Music of the 1960-70s’ here.
The 2019 Association for Art Historians Annual Conference will be held at University of Brighton. The Call for Sessions is here.