Category: Reflections Page 2 of 6

Queer Looks in the Museum

Zoe is one of a group of young volunteers working on the  Queer Looks oral history project which is collecting stories and clothing from LGBTQ+ communities in Sussex, garments which will be displayed at Brighton Museum as part of an exhibition of the same name.  Here she is talking  about her experiences on the project.  

“Being involved in an exhibition for Brighton Museum looking at the last 50 years of LGBTQ+ dress, was a very exciting prospect. Historical dress and LGBTQ+ history is a combination that I’d not encountered in a museum before. As a group of young people from Brighton, we brought an accumulation of various backgrounds and experiences, eager to help shape this project and work on our ideas for what the  ‘Queer Looks’ exhibition would achieve. The continuing thought process throughout agreed upon essential goals like making the exhibition valid and authentic. Also importantly, properly communicating the stories of the people kind enough to tell them. I felt that this project could potentially be challenging yet exciting to work on as it would reflect the stories from within the community.

The Queer Looks Young Project Team at their pop up ‘look book studio’ promoting the forthcoming display. Brighton Museum, March 2018.

Initial tours around relevant exhibitions, a trip to the fashion stores and a variety of workshops gave us a real insight into what it takes to put on a fashion display. We focused in particular on how to use social media to promote our work, oral history interview techniques and photographic skills, giving us a thorough foundation for interviewing older members of the LGBTQ+ community across Sussex. I personally enjoyed learning about museum curation in the context of a fashion display and the logistics of translating oral histories through exhibiting people’s donated clothes and their stories told. Along the way we also learned a bit about things such as conservation issues, archives, informed consent and overall limitations and freedoms. It was apparent that curating a successful exhibition takes more work than I initially thought given the behind the scenes work, both collaboratively and individually for every item that goes on public display.

During the conducting of oral histories, we gathered the stories of people living in Brighton and Sussex. This was by far my favourite part of the project as this required us to speak to individuals in our own community from as vast a range of people as possible who all identify as LGBTQ+. The interviews gave us an opportunity to ask people about the meaning of dress to them and to talk about their donated outfit. I found it so insightful that people have an endlessly different experiences from one another and that dress can mean so many things to different people. The importance of it can range from outward fashion expression, to capturing someone’s true identity. This is what gave the project’s significant context, that behind the exhibition being curated, the outfits weren’t just a donation, they had a meaning and a story.

This experience has given me insight into the procedure for researching and selecting garments for display as well as gathering oral histories, alongside skills such as social media and marketing.  I feel that the work put in so far from the young project team promises to deliver an authentic and impactful exhibition.”

Queer Looks is part of Wear it Out, an HLF-funded project with Brighton Museum and London College of Fashion.

Primavera in December: Installing the Birdsong Festive Pop-up shop in Hoxton, London

One of the most rewarding elements of studying at LCF is being able to communicate a shared passion for curation both within and outside the University. Lecturers on the MA Fashion Curation course invite students to flex their curatorial muscle outside of tutor-led assignments, offering valuable real-world experience and a chance to put ideas into practice.

In December, several of us were invited to install Birdsong London’s festive pop-up shop in Hoxton. Established in 2014, Birdsong is a female-run fashion brand that works with local women’s groups to offer migrant and refugee women an opportunity to receive a living wage for their work. Their mantra is to connect women from worker to wearer, ensuring everyone is offered a fairer deal in the process. Their brief to CfFC was to curate a space that would complement Birdsong’s clothes and accessories with a dash of festive flair; transforming a stark white room into an inviting retail space. Together, we decided on a Primavera-inspired scene and set out to create a sumptuous, scented banquet scene to last for the five days the shop would be open.

Matthew Whaley and I were handed the task of sourcing flowers, foliage and fruit to conjure a table-top feast, worthy of Sandro Botticelli himself – for £40. With the need to maximize our budget we bought winter fruits in bulk from a local grocer and opted for long-lasting eucalyptus branches to fill the room with a rich, woody scent. We arranged our finds Renaissance-style, amidst silver chargers and goblets sourced from local charity shops and finished the arrangement with candles to complete the decadent mood. Annabel Hoyng focused on merchandising Birdsong’s eclectic range of stock: everything from the softest hand-knitted sweaters to Frida Kahlo bodysuits and painted denim from local artists.

MA Fashion-Curation students Annabel-Hoyng and Matthew Whaley put the finishing touches to the Birdsong Festive pop-up in Hoxton. ©Natalie Tilbury

One of the finished displays featuring Birdsong designs. The organic cotton t-shirts (far left) are hand-painted by women at Mohila Creations; a group of low-income migrant mothers based in Tower Hamlets. ©Natalie Tilbury

A detail of the banqueting table laden with clementines, pomegranates and holly. All props were sourced from local charity shops, grocers and florists.
©Natalie Tilbury

Whether you are just starting out in a career in curation, or working in a museum, tight budgets are, and will continue to be, an undeniable reality. It is the way we handle these challenges with innovative and inspiring solutions that will stand us apart from our peers. Important too is understanding what feels right for the brand or institution you are working with. Everything we sourced for Birdsong was from Hoxton’s charity shops, florists and grocers; further supporting one of the communities in which they work.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! Treat every opportunity as a chance to show what you can do, rather than a drain on your time, and your postgraduate experience will be more rewarding than you ever thought possible.

Natalie Tilbury
MA Fashion Curation 2017/2018

Balenciaga symposium at the V and A Museum

The V&A hosted a symposium celebrating Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga’s influence on fashion to coincide with an exhibition about the designer. MA Fashion Curation student, Xinyi Li, attended the day.

The symposium of the exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at V&A provided enriching insights into not only the making and curating of the current exhibition, but also multiple perspectives into Cristóbal Balenciaga’s métier and life.

The book ‘Balenciaga My Boss’ about the family’s generations of friendship and partnership with Balenciaga about the family’s generations of  friendship and partnership with Balenciaga, has been released in English

To start, V&A senior curator Lesley Miller and the exhibition’s assistant curator Kirsty Hassard set the day’s theme with the keyword “Legend.” The following speakers’ practices contributed significantly to the making of the exhibition.

Conservator Joanne Hackett presented behind the scenes experience of conservation and installation of the garments. She spoke of the importance of investigating the characteristics of each object in terms of its materiality, volume and fit, and in turn, sculpting customised mannequins for presentation.

Slide showing customised mannequin in hourglass shape constructed to display Anne Bullit’s gown

Nick Veasey introduced us to his practice as an x-ray photographic artist. Prior to this collaboration, he had prominently worked with objects that are mechanical and structural, but clothe and textile. Thus, during the collaboration, he had discovered many techniques of x-ray photographing garments, such as the use of balloons to create volume, while remained invisible in the photograph. Due to the special conditions of this job, he built a special mobile x-ray studio from a truck, which was divided into shooting area and development area.

Photographs showing X Ray artist Nick Vessey working at his X ray mobile studio

As Balenciaga’s trusted dressmaker in San Sebastien Juan Mari Emilass life long work and relationship with Balenciaga could be closely observed through the precious letters, paper patterns, documentations that he had kept over the years.

Balenciaga’s dressmaker in San Sebastien, Juan Mari Emilass shows his collection of papers that document the relationship.

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The Art of the prima donna – part 2

I took part in the preliminary research for the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power & Politics four years ago at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I was investigating early opera in seventeenth-century Venice and I was fascinated by a soprano, Anna Renzi, considered by many the first prima donna, as she was the first woman to sing opera for a living, she wasn’t a courtesan. Very little evidence of her life has survived and only one portrait from a book that was dedicated to her.

Anna-Renzi – c. 1600 after 1660

Although I stopped working at the V&A, I continued to investigate the history of prime donne and I spent three years buying all the books I could find as well as going to operas and recitals almost every week. I wanted to understand why these women are so fascinating and why they were (and some still are) so worshipped by audiences. As an avid theatre goer, I was also suffering the impossibility to experience the performances of past prima donnas: the only clues we have are written accounts from the audience and illustrations, and for a few of them surviving letters give a glimpse of their own thoughts and feelings

Giuditta Pasta, 1797-1865, one of four prima donnas I played in the performance-lecture

As a historian, I kept digging for evidence about prime donne to create profiles as complex as I could. As an opera-lover, I was eager to find any hints that could help me get a physical sense of their performances: how they moved, what they wore, how they talked and acted, how they interacted with the audience. Although we do have scores and libretti, some of which were written precisely for certain performers, every new recording is an interpretation that mirrors the intentions of the singer, the conductor and the producer, distancing me even more from past prime donne.

Introducing the performance-lecture in a black catsuit

Earlier this year, when the V&A was programming events in conjunction with the exhibition, I proposed to give a lecture on the history of prime donne that would also include performances, where I would be interpreting the singers myself. I had not a clear idea of what I was going to do; no one did in fact but my academic prowess was a guarantee that I would deliver effective research. My only certainty was that I wanted to become part of their history, to use my body as a channel for these prime donne to come back to life.

Maria-Callas, 1923-1977

I selected four prime donne and four arias and I started to rehearse lip syncing: somehow all my knowledge came together, all the observations – gained through years of attending theatre – on how singers move on stage and how their bodies have to be in specific positions to produce certain notes. My body was almost unconsciously adjusting itself to the role. Then I found an interview of Maria Callas where she says that movements are inscribed in the music, if one listens carefully, one will find all the information there. So that’s what I did: I never watched any video of performances of the selected arias and I only used the intuition of my body, my ears and, obviously, my research.

Francesca Cuzzoni, 1696 -1778

Costume played an essential role in the performance: I was adamant that I would use costume not as a form of drag but as a tool to trigger the audience imagination. When I ‘played’ the lecturer, I wore a black catsuit, on which I wore individual pieces of costume when performing each of the prime donne. For Maria Callas, the ‘costume’ was no more than a chignon, lipstick and a pearl necklace, yet it was extremely effective. I also used different lights for the lecture mode and performances.

Maria-Callas, 1923-1977

Giuditta Pasta, 1797-1865

I not only lip synced to arias associated with each prima donna, but I also enacted them: I wrote short monologues by joining researched facts with my personal understanding of the character of each singer. A combination of fiction and factual: imagination was the only way that I could fill the lacks in the surviving evidence and performing was the way through which I investigated my own imagination. I view this event as a total work of research, where textual and audio-visual sources are managed through physical knowledge.

‘Playing’ the lecturer

The theatre was full, more than 200 people attended, and the response was extremely positive: despite many enquired what the event was – whether a lecture or a performance – everyone after acknowledged the success of the format. The greatest, and most frequent compliment I received was that people learnt a lot and were also entertained. I think this is a very effective way of presenting research on a topic that is entirely performative: when the lecture takes on the same form as the topic, it appears to gain consistency and it becomes more accessible. The next step is to continue to work on this performance and turn it into a fully-fledged theatre show, as well as to apply this format to my other great passion, showgirls and popular music divas.

Find out more about the Art of the prima donna

Read more about Matteo’s research 

Matteo on Fashion Curation

Liberty by design

By Liberty Archivist, Anna Buruma

Once I was asked to do a short presentation to the studio about significant past designers for Liberty. It made me reflect on who these designers were and what made them so significant. It made me realize that perhaps it wasn’t always the designers who were significant. Traditionally the buyers at Liberty had enormous power and it was they who commissioned designers to produce patterns for Liberty’s textiles.

Liberty Fabric. Image courtesy of Liberty Archive.

In the late 19th and early 20th century it was John Llewellyn who, while managing the silk department, commissioned the top designers of his day. People like CFA Voysey, Lindsay Butterfield and the Silver Studio created Liberty’s celebrated Art Nouveau look. During the 1950s it was the two descendants of the founder, Arthur Stewart Liberty and Hilary Blackmore, who commissioned Robert Stewart, Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag, etc. It was they who encouraged young designers like Althea McNish and Colleen Farr straight from the Royal College. Colleen Farr started Liberty’s first in-house textile design studio. Arthur Stewart Liberty employed Bernard Nevill when she left and Susan Collier when he finished. These designers were the ones who moved the look of Liberty forward. They didn’t necessarily create bestseller patterns, although sometimes they did, but they did get Liberty spoken about in the press and in the long run that got people through the door.

The present studio is very young and there are only a few who have been there more than two years. This makes the archive so important, as it shows what Liberty design stands for. It is much more complicated than the beautiful paisley or the small dense floral. There isn’t one Liberty look, there are magnificent geometrics, there are witty conversationals, large blousy flower designs, extraordinary abstracts.  My colleague and I have our desks in the studio, and we are part of the design team so we can alert them to things when we find something new and can respond to any of their questions immediately. Last summer the database was upgraded and now, rather than it sitting on just two computers, I have been able to make it accessible to the designers on their own computers, which means they can browse themselves rather than always seeing it through our eyes. It will be interesting to see if it will make a difference to what they produce in the future.

On a typical working day I am sitting at my computer, creating new data for recently digitized images or adding these to existing data. Nearly all the designs in the Liberty archive are now on the database and we are concluding the digitization project this year. There will always still be data for designs that have no image and these may never be filled. The cataloguing of the Liberty archive can go on and on for many years to come.

Anna Buruma is the in-house Archivist at Liberty’s and Curator for the Museum and Study Collection at Central St Martin’s

Liberty interviews  Anna Buruma

Reflecting on different views

When an exhibition travels from one venue to another, your awareness of the changes that exhibition undergoes is heightened. So often, your thinking around the themes shifts and you see the objects in a completely new way. And in a different light, objects take on different hues of meaning and symbolism.

By Ben Whyman and Laura Thornley

The Vulgar? Fashion Redefined. Winterpalais, Belvedere Museum, Vienna. ©Belvedere

In March 2017, CfFC staff worked with The Barbican Art Gallery and the Belvedere Museum to install The Vulgar: fashion redefined at the Winterpalais in Vienna. Prof Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillip’s exhibition, displayed in the Barbican Art Gallery (October 2016 – February 2017) was re-presented in a completely different environment: from the brutalist concrete walls of a London gallery (with all its associations), to a Baroque palace in Vienna (with all its associations).

Even the title of the exhibition changed, becoming Vulgär? Fashion redefined. The question mark is important to note. The word’s cultural significance shifts as it is translated into another language, drawing out its nuanced meanings. The question mark calms some of the word’s violence. It became, in a very real sense, another exhibition, proposing different questions to reflect on.

The Vulgar? Fashion Redefined. Winterpalais, Belvedere Museum, Vienna. ©Belvedere

The number of exhibited objects decreased and some were changed, resulting in a different proposition. Travelling an exhibition into another venue places demands on space and positioning. Groupings of objects separated by walls in London, now shared the same spaces. New conversations emerge between the themes and new angles tell different stories. The elaborate Baroque backdrop presented challenges and clarity. The concepts don’t need to work as hard in this space, the history of the word is written in the walls, proposing new challenges to our notion of taste and assimilation, exclusion and mimicry.

We were working with different light in Vienna. With blinds drawn and reduced lighting (to protect the gold gilt Baroque interiors), pier mirrors and glass chandeliers, we were working with reflected shadows to craft new angles, drawing out alternative silhouettes, different meanings and propositions. It is this reflection of spaces and refraction of light that was so appealing as we installed the exhibition. How do you view a mid-18th century mantua from the Fashion Museum, Bath’s collection, next to a Gucci men’s embroidered suit from spring/summer 2016, within a gold-gilt Baroque interior? When you look into one of the many mirrors, the exhibition reflects back at you – how do you re-view it? As we viewed the mantuas and the Gucci suit, a mirror reflected puritan-inspired Dior and Givenchy gowns looming behind them – another reflection on a reflection.

Ben Whyman and Laura Thornley work at the Centre for Fashion Curation

The Vulgar: fashion redefined is at Winterpalais, Belvedere Museum, Vienna 03 March 2017 to 25 June 2017


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