Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Daffodils and memories

1940s lady - hand tinted photograph, originally uploaded by Trevira.  

This beautiful photograph is a hand tinted 8x10 dating from the 1940s, possibly during the Second World War.  A very stylish and attractive woman sits in a picturesque country setting, surrounded by daffodils.  She looks so happy. 

Its only when you turn it over that this photograph zaps you with something quite unexpected and moving.  On the back is written: "Looking at this now - I realise I was carrying my daughter - how I wish those times could have given me the courage to ignore the moral issues and let nature take its course." 

Suddenly its hard to look at that picture in quite the same way.  I imagine this woman was going through her photographs some years later and felt the need to record her regret at the loss of her daughter, perhaps for herself or for her family.  Or just to memorialise her child.  Her daughter was there in that photograph, only we couldn't know that by just looking at the picture, and neither did she at the time. 

I found this photograph among a whole boxful from the same family, and bought as many as I could afford.  Its clear that they later had a son whom they doted on, and enjoyed many happy times and holidays together as a family.  I would like to add some more pictures of the family here, or at least links to them, but trying to do both things resulted in me losing all the text I had written in a mass of tangled HTML.  So I daren't! 

Shuffling through the pictures you would assume this was a very happy family living a very uncomplicated and picture perfect life, but that little note is a sharp reminder that things aren't always that straightforward. 

Monday, 22 March 2010

Ossie Clark in motion

Ossie's sketch of ruffled chiffon dress with tie neck, c. 1968-9, from Judith Watt, Ossie Clark 1965-74, page 79.

Ossie Clark's fashion shows have become the stuff of legend. According to Ossie's long-term friend from his student days, Norman Bain:
These were the first fashion shows that were like happenings, pop concerts and theatre. The feeling was that of a Parisian salon: everybody was there together, writers, artists, actors, dancers. (Quoted in Ossie Clark 1965-74 by Judith Watt).
Excitingly, British Pathé has three films of Ossie Clark and Alice Pollock's early fashion shows from 1968 and 1969. Alice Pollock was a fellow designer and owner of the Quorum boutique where Ossie became her business partner, and she should not be overlooked!

The earliest film has an issue date of 25 January 1968 so its quite possible it was shot in late 1967.

It starts with a fashion show at Maxim's in Paris 'by' Elizabeth Taylor, who, the narrator declares, was planning to open her own boutique there with Richard Burton. The narrator notes that this was "Mia Vicki's collection with several numbers dreamed up by Elizabeth Taylor." (I've found a couple of brief references online to 'Mia & Vicki' with no useful information).

The rather gauche sexiness of the designs is underlined by Richard Burton's approving comment "at last girls look like girls." This was fashion explicitly intended to appeal to men.

This show presents an interesting contrast with the Ossie Clark and Alice Pollock fashion show that follows it, as the commentary notes: "It seems that minis are in for a knock from maxis, from the bare truth to keeping the guys guessing." The glib narration has hit on a crucial point - Ossie Clark and Alice Pollock designed for women, not simply to make women more appealing to men.

Of course there's sexiness - sheer chiffons worn without underwear and the odd flash of a breast (sorry, maybe that's the next film, stay tuned!), - but these were garments that didn't beg for male attention and approval but kept the power and sexual autonomy with the wearer. I'm sure that only a small minority of their customers opted to wear those more revealing numbers as they were shown on the catwalk, but it was up to the customer how much they bared, which was hardly possible with the cutaway swimsuits in Liz Taylor's show.

See what you think:


Judith Watt notes that:
The show at the Revolution Club, just behind Berkeley Square in Mayfair, in 1968, saw Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones in the audience. Patti Boyd, who only did runway shows for Quorum, wore a cream chiffon dress with a print of blue birds and irritated her husband, George Harrison, in the audience with the rest of the Beatles, by going bra-less. Cynthia Lennon was there too. (Ossie Clark 1965-74, page 84).
Well Cynthia certainly wasn't at the next Revolution fashion show - the following film is dated 11 August 1968 - because John Lennon is shown with his "friend" Yoko Ono, both looking equally bored. This might possibly be because Ossie's shows tended to run at least an hour or two later than billed, and I'm sure they were captivated once it actually started - as I hope you will be too:


Ossie Clark's own notes on this fashion show, written as a 'stream of consciousness' exercise in recall in 1988, are as follows:
'Revolution Number 9.' Pattie Boyd models show at the Revolution and in the press.
'Come on, mother! We're late,' - John Lennon with Yoko looking like a porcelain doll. Kay, Carol tells, a light fell over the stage, like fell over, and he steadied the chair she stepped on, JL. (The Ossie Clark Diaries, page lxiv).
Sadly, John Lennon's moment of gallantry wasn't captured by the newsreel cameras.

This last film is dated 15 May 1969 and consists of unused footage of a fashion show at the Chelsea Town Hall. Well actually, after several viewings I've worked out that there must be footage from another fashion show at another venue spliced in - watch out for the disappearing catwalk and change of decor.

I'll have to warn you that this has no soundtrack and lasts for about four minutes, but I find it mesmerising nonetheless:


What is striking about all these fashion shows, among other things, is the charismatic personalities of the models. They all seem to be 'doing their own thing' as the now quaint 60s phrase has it. Some are live-wires, some are demure and some are theatrically vampish (indeed, some seem to be more than a bit stoned!)

You get a strong sense of a variety of distinct personalities rather than a sequence of clones stomping along like well-drilled soldiers in heels, as we're now accustomed to seeing these days.

And they were personalities, especially selected for their individual qualities and encouraged to express themselves as they saw fit - many became part of Ossie's intimate circle of friends and were valued for their character as much as their beauty.

I'll let Lady Henrietta Rous explain this more fully (she does it so well):
Ossie stated that he wanted 'to make a woman aware of her body', and in pursuit of this ideal he brought in a new style of model. They were no longer 'tall things that swayed at you as they walked down the cat walk,' but characters in their own right. Gala Mitchell, with her sculptural bone structure, big eyes and theatrical style, looked particularly good in leather jackets. Others who modelled were KariAnne Jagger (Mick's sister-in-law, whose captivating dances on the stage inspired the Hollies' song which begins "Hey Carrie-Anne, what's your name now, can anybody play?"); Amanda Lear (Salvador Dali's muse and as good a performer as KariAnne); and Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, whom Alice had discovered walking down the street.
But perhaps what thrilled me most about seeing these films was the chance to see Ossie Clark's (and Alice Pollock's) clothes in motion.

As you can see most vividly from his sketch at the top of this post, he always thought in terms of how his clothes would work on the female body, and also in motion. Its a privilege to see them how they were intended to be seen.

A note on prices

The first film mentions a few ensembles and prices so I've used to establish what they might cost (nearly) today:

The white leather suit named 'Daz,' priced at 25 guineas, would be approximately £341 at 2008 prices.

Patti Boyd's outfit called 'African Queen' at 9½ guineas, would be approximately £130 at 2008 prices.


Lady Henrietta Rous (ed.) (1998) The Ossie Clark Diaries: In Doze Days. London: Bloomsbury.

Judith Watt (2003) Ossie Clark 1965-1974. London: V&A Publications.

I'd also recommend:

Peter Schlesinger (2003) A Chequered Past: The 60's and 70's. London: Thames & Hudson. This book has some wonderfully candid photographs of many of Ossie's friends and favourite models, and is a visual and gossip-rich treat!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Spring is nearly sprung

'Nellie Lemon holiday 1935', originally uploaded by Trevira.

There's been a spell of bright sunny weather recently, and the days suddenly seem to have grown that bit longer. Like most British people, I am obsessed with the weather and we tend to get unreasonably excited at any breaks in the cloud.

This sunshine immediately made me think of the picture above, which is easily one of my absolute favourites from my collection.

Meet Nellie Lemon enjoying her holiday at the South Devon Holiday Camp in Paignton, South Devon, sometime in 1935. Not only is she blessed with the most delightful name, but she is captured at the perfect point mid-swing, her face reflecting the simple bliss of simple pleasures. In the sunshine. On holiday.

Nellie's outfit - of a geometric diamond print dress worn with a scarf at the neck and a beret artfully angled to one side, and what might be white leather shoes punched with cooling holes on the vamp - is equally perfect.

I'd challenge any photographer to sum up the best of an English summertime any better than this, an amateur snapshot from 75 years ago. Even the backdrop, of neat little chalets backed by gently rolling hills and trees, is perfect.

Nellie's photograph is my image of what an ideal summer should be (I've overused 'perfect' so I can't possibly use it again!)

This picture comes from an album chock full of entertaining and arresting photographs. The star (and possibly the original owner/author) of it is a very handsome young man called Maurice, who definitely deserves a post of his own sometime.

I'm not sure that Nellie appears in any other photos apart from this one, but as far as I'm concerned she is the star today.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Message Wearers

Photograph by Oliviero Toscani from the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 5 December 1975. Original caption: "Got the message? Back row, from left: Helena Axbey wears a Scratch 'n' Sniff "smelly, £1.80; actress Prunella Gee plumps for Turners on the Strip; model Marianne Desnaux wears an embroidered shirt, £3 from Ace, Kings Road; model Nicki Debuse in Anthony Price's Pink Pussies shirt, £3.25 at Jean Machine; Princess Elizabeth Galitzine sports an Apicella design. Centre row, from left: Alan Pascoe in an original Mods shirt, £1.50 from Scott Lester; art director Geoff Axbey in a Bell telephone shirt, Don Grant in the Hesketh Racing shirt, £2.30; Diana Hyslop in a Marvel Comics number, £1.25; actor Tim Curry wears a Voltar T-shirt, £3.25; Sarah Fox-Pitt of the Tate Gallery in their Coffee Shop shirt, £1.50. Front: Marilyn Cole in a Lips shirt, £9 from Howie, Fulham Road; Ralph Steadman promoting his book; Penthouse Pet Val Mitchell; Enzo Apicella turns Killer for £3.25; Thea Porter wears a rare Yugoslav T-shirt."

This is terribly bad form for someone aspiring to write a blog, but this will be another post I haven't actually written myself.

When I lived in Brighton a few years ago, I came across a load of old 1970s Sunday supplement magazines scattered over the pavement near a paper recycling bin. Of course I had to take a look, and among them was a Sunday Telegraph Magazine from 1975 containing the following piece.

Its a wonderful report on the history and language of the t-shirt written by Anthony Haden-Guest with some great quotes from people involved in their design and production (such as Anthony Price) and some observations about t-shirts spotted out and about at the time that ring lots of bells for me.

I would have been nine in 1975, so I certainly wasn't in the market for the £9 Howies 'lips' t-shirt (about £56 in today's money, according to but I did have a scratch 'n' sniff t-shirt with a large strawberry on it - see little Helena in the picture above wearing an apple version - and I'm ridiculously pleased to see it featured in this article. That t-shirt, worn with some very wide C&A jeans with three buttons on each back pocket and two-inch deep turn-ups, and some no-brand canvas basketball boots, was my summer holiday uniform that year.

Enough of my memories, let's get to that article. This is a faithful transcription (I hope), and any emphasis/italicisation was in the original piece.

Anthony Haden-Guest, "The Message Wearers," Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 5 December 1975, pp. 36-40

Coco Chanel said it, and cannot be topped. "It doesn't matter how much it costs," observed Mademoiselle, "as long as it looks cheap." Quite so, and here, stepping through late sunlight down Sloane Street, come three girls. They are, all three of them, wearing T-shirts. The dark one, whom I know slightly, is wearing a ravelled item with the device of a Los Angeles radio station, and the shortish blonde is wearing something pink and frilly with shoulder straps (which does not iron out into that basic cotton T, but is one of the numerous descendants of the T-shirt nonetheless). And the tall girl, also blonde, is wearing a puce number with the following written on it, in italic script: This is not a T-shirt.

T-shirts. Words and images, swirling and swanning by. The banal and the opaque. The repetitive images - Marilyn, Mickey Mouse, Mao - merging with political slogans, holiday souvenirs, erotica, and the names of obscure American colleges. Household products jostle with rock groups. T-shirts urge love, make dreadful jokes, and communicate Christian names. The ordinary old stretch-cotton T-shirt has spawned a progeny of sequins, glitter, and - in at least one esoteric case - rubber. What started as just low-budget stuff has, unbeknown to itself, burgeoned into a . . . language.

It has, like all languages, its complexities. When Melody Bugner wears the I'm backing Joe Bugner T-shirt, executed to her own design, her message comes through loud and clear. So, too, when idolatrous garments are worn by the hirelings or fans of the Tate Gallery, Elton John, Marvel Comics, the BBC Proms, the Wombles or The Economist. Maria Schneider, the French actress, likewise demonstrates her respect for guitarist Eric Clapton by sporting his likeness, just as Charo, current wife of musician Xavier Cugat, sensibly wears her own. Elizabeth Taylor's message - I am not Elizabeth Taylor so please stop following me - was more complex. And what is one to make of the legend masochistically flaunted by fast bowler Dennis Lillee, Hit me for six?

Things are even less simple out in the streets. A Coca-Cola T-shirt seldom indicates that the wearer works for that corporation, but there are corporate T-shirts. A travel T-shirt - Bournemouth, say, or Bermuda - may mean, like a book of matches, that you have been there: or that you would like people to think you have been there, or that the idea of going there is a hilarious joke, or just that you like the image on the shirt.

Some people wear T-shirts because they have bad taste, and some to show what good taste they have by wearing bad taste, like rhinestone-studded images of Elvis Presley. That young man wearing an Ohio State University number is usually a Frenchman who would be hard put to it to locate Ohio on a map; but there is a chance he may actually have been at Ohio State. I assume that the T-shirts lettered Hermès, Vogue and Pierre Cardin are a street-satire, though I am not entirely certain; but I am certain that the shirts that have, at the bottom, a trompe l'oeil rendition of a Gucci belt is a joke, and quite a good one at that.

But what of that plumpish lady I once met who bore emblazoned across her frontage a line from a recent hit: Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Ted Polhemus, the American author of a book on fashion-as-language, who was working until recently at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, notes that "the interesting, and important thing about wearing T-shirts is how much unification of image there is in semiological terms. I saw a girl walking down London's King's Road wearing a T-shirt with people making love all over it. You know, one of those Tantric paintings. What can you say to a girl whose T-shirt shows that? You can't say anything, right? It's an anti-sexual gesture."

Semiology is, of course, the science of sign language, and Polhemus goes on to note that, vis-a-vis T-shirts, the signalling extends beyond the image. "Some people just can't wear T-shirts. They iron them. They always look new. T-shirts should have holes ripped in them. In fact, I used to run a service ripping holes in friends' T-shirts . . . "

It is, in a way, surprising that the language of T-shirts has been massively ignored by fashion historians. Oh yes, the fashion mags (especially the tabloids) do their stuff. But in the hard-cover tomes the T-shirt seldom rates a mention. One recent such I scanned runs from Tabard through every manner of Tricorne and Tunic to a Byzantine something called a Tzitsakson. But T-shirts? Never. The late, and usually commendable, James Laver noted with asperity that jeans and the T-shirt lead us to a world in which, as in Red China, all distinctions of class or sex would be abolished. Even Coco Chanel was, as they say, parlant d'autres choses.

Which is regrettable, because it is self-evident what T-shirts have become . . . Mass Couture.

There was nothing stylish about the T-shirt's origins, as the upper half of "combinations", but it was charged with a certain frisson. A bit, one imagines, like a blonde in undies; but also a bit like her shopping in curlers. It was this dual brutish aspect that was exploited by the inarticulate Marlon Brando, who, according to Cleveland Amory's International Celebrity Register, "made a torn T-shirt a symbol of virility". The film was A Streetcar Named Desire, the date was 1947, and it did not take long for the image to register; the undershirt to encroach on the shirt. It happened, inevitably, in California.

"It was an outgrowth of the Hot Rod culture," says Malcolm MacPherson, a London correspondent for Newsweek. "It was in the early Fifties. They stopped drag racing on the freeways, and guys were going to the Santa Ana airstrip. You'd see them wearing T-shirts with the names of, you know, automobiles."

The thing burgeoned. Britain was in one of its phases of acute Americanophilia, and the transatlantic passage of the T-shirt happened so. Marshall Lester, son-and-heir of Scott Lester, who manufactured flags and badges for retail stores, was doodling on a white vest. English, and in his early twenties, he was doodling things American, cities, cars and such, and getting some of them wrong ("Boneville" for Bonneville). But he had them printed and sent them for sale. Just to see.

A couple of days thereafter was the first of the Brighton Mods-and-Rockers riots. Marshall Lester watched it on television. The Mods were wearing his T-shirt. He saw.

Alan Conway, incidentally, a Lester associate, claims that the blood which was soon to be shed on such T-shirts inspired tie-dyeing. Arguable, though tie-dyeing was certainly the next Big Thing. Chester Martin, a doyen of the field, had managed to acquire a stockpile of the original three-button combination tops, and had them dyed in hip colours. They were to become a basic element in the uniform of another Sixties movement: The Hippies.

The advertisements-for-myself potential of the T-shirt was not overlooked by the Underground. T-shirts proclaiming love, peace, revolution and dope. Coca-Cola and Walt Disney were unamused to find their iconography metamorphosed into, say, Cocaine and Mickey Rat.

Visual inventiveness manifested itself here and there. Already in 1963 painter Allen Jones had produced what may have been the first colour-printed T-shirt. Mr Freedom was creating the first real up-market T-shirts; stylishly brassy pieces exploiting a largely American pop iconography of junk foods and comic strips. "We appreciated American stuff," notes designer Anthony Price, "and they didn't, until we had done it."

The mass merchandisers began to move in. Record companies tried to transform the uncommitted into fans with free T-shirts, and fans into mobile hoardings. "T-shirts really boomed in 1966," Alan Conway says. World Cup Willie: Carnaby Street: Swinging London souvenirs. "When the mass market got involved everything became very tatty," says T-shirt designer Peter Golding, "The quality was terrible". Alongside Swinging London, the British T-shirt waned.

But it never died. In spite of fashion journalists, like jeans, it was simply too useful to die. There has been growth, and diversification. At one end of the scale are Marshall Lester, the biggest, and bigger than most American firms, selling projected millions this year. At the other is a small group of designers, and they are bullish. "There's a rebirth," proclaims Peter Golding, "because it used to be you'd have to do millions, but now it's your custom tailoring. And you can do the very best, and it still shouldn't cost more than £10."

Or there is Malcolm McLaren of the shop formerly entitled Let It Rock, but now called Sex. McLaren has organised a small exhibition of his own T-shirts, including the aforementioned rubber one, and one covered with names of which the designer approves disapproves (your correspondent found himself in the latter category, sandwiched between Alan Brien and Playboy's London boss, Victor Lownes). Oh yes, and they come carefully pre-torn, or with weakened seams for tearing.

Contrariwise, Anthony Price, who has attracted attention for his Fifties T-shirt look, remarks, "My friends and I were into that James Dean stuff years ago. It's just that now it's commercial. I won't try and sell anything until two years after we're finished with it. It's just a matter of waiting until Mr Average is ready for it."

What is Mr, or Miss, Average ready for right now? "I think the days of being extreme are gone. People don't want to be looked at any more," says Price. And certainly the street look is now a less ornate one; a hearkening back to basic Americana. College shirts and football numerals. "After all that glitter," muses Andrew Bailey, former London Editor of Rolling Stone, now with Bell Records, "It's quite nice to look like a clean-cut college boy. Even if it's not a college you went to . . ."

And things to come? "Los Angeles is always first, and Paris," says John Dove of Wonder Workshop firmly (Dove has designed some splendidly garish pin-uppy designs). "London's bad-taste level is about one year behind. And Germany's bad-taste level is two years behind us. We sell a lot to them. Rock-n-roll stuff, and they're really into glitter. Next I think Pop is going to be coming back. I foresee a big revival."

Or, to be accurate, a revival of a revival. The T-shirt has accumulated a history. "I still wear my 1973 Rolling Stones Tour T-shirt," says Andrew Bailey. "It's like a - campaign ribbon." The T-shirt as memoir, but there's more to it than this. There are T-shirt collectors who have amassed hundreds, and not merely the rare expensive item, like the early Beatles number recently sold for £85. But T-shirts collected for their associations, their sheer power of image. The classics.

Like the T-shirt with the image of the slung Nikon camera, and the one from Biba's which had the bust-size in sparkly numbers. Or, for that matter, the one with two fried eggs positioned over the boobs; or a close focus photograph of the torso (the T-shirt, that most physically revealing of upper garments, is still oddly obsessed with physicality). Or the Mona Lisa T-shirt, or the defunct line of Private Eye T-shirts, or the T-shirt across the front of which breaks one of Hokusai's woodcut waves. Or the T-shirt which carries a trompe l'oeil rendition of a dinner-jacket and black tie. Or the one which said I'm backing Britain, or that more recent political classic which bore the legend Gather Strength and was to have been worn by four young women from the Amalgamated Textile Workers' Union lined up in a comradely way alongside leading Labour politicos, until they noticed the labels said Made in Portugal.

Innovation, meanwhile, continues. Consider the "smellies", as developed by the 3M Corporation of Minnesota. In our picture (back left) Helena Axbey is wearing a Scratch 'n' Sniff apple, as marketed by Scott Lester. Scratch, and, yes you do sniff apple, and Conway assures me that the shirt will last many hard washes.

Nor does it stop with apples. There's oranges and strawberries. "We're hoping to do something for Coca-Cola. Do you want to smell it? Amazing, isn't it? We've got chocolate, petrol, gas. The gas is revolting. We wouldn't use it on a T-shirt. They can make the smell of anything. Except beer and coffee . . . "

Now upon us also is the iron-on. Images are published in U.S. newspapers which can be ironed on to the T-shirt directly. Just so. Coco Chanel was right. Mass couture. And it is only occasionally that my mind drifts to this cartoon published in last June's The New Yorker.

[I neglected to photograph this. The cartoon shows a young man walking along a beach crowded with people wearing slogan t-shirts. His t-shirt is blank and his girl companion says: "Nonsense! I think it's refreshing to see a T-shirt that doesn't say anything."]

Friday, 12 March 2010

Dr Cunnington knows best

The Gallery of Costume in Manchester reopens tomorrow after an extensive renovation lasting two years and costing over £1 million.

Full disclosure: I have worked as a volunteer at this museum for several years, so its hard to be impartial about it (although I will try!)

The Gallery of Costume is housed in a beautiful 18th century mansion set in the north eastern corner of Platt Fields park, and the improvements have scrupulously respected its architectural integrity and features whilst introducing a welcome sense of space and light.

I'm not going to go on about the building and estate itself (although those that are interested can find a fascinating history of it in the newly republished Fabric of Society, details below) but the couple whose collecting passion and pioneering research formed the basis of what is now one of the most important collections of dress in Britain.

Dr C. Willett Cunnington and his wife Phillis (also a physician) began collecting Victorian dress in the 1930s, and discovered, after making enquiries about it, that there was little or no academic interest in the subject. However, they persisted in their acquisitions and soon accumulated a sizeable collection - not just of garments but books, catalogues and periodicals, fashion plates and photographs - and their research efforts culminated in a series of co-authored books on costume history and theory that helped legitimise the study of dress as a subject of serious enquiry.

The Cunningtons felt strongly that there should be a national museum in Britain entirely devoted to costume and, as they approached retirement from their practice in medicine in 1945, they put their collection up for sale. Their offer was taken up by the City of Manchester Art Galleries, which decided that the now empty Platt Hall would be a suitable venue for it. The Gallery of Costume was launched.

Dr C. W. was quite the media star already - he had "built up a reputation as a lecturer and broadcaster with a flair for racy anecdote, and a gift for summing up the spirit of an age" (Fabric of Society, p.16). And guess what? He can be found in TinTrunk's favourite film resource, the British Pathé archive!

This 1931 film is narrated by Dr C. W. Cunnington himself, as he gives you a potted history of 19th century fashions, worn by real live models (something that no modern curator would permit!) in an elegant garden setting. You can hear evidence of his humour and practised delivery, no doubt honed over numerous lecture appearances, in this delightful short:


In 1938 Dr C. W. appears before the camera brandishing a "kind of felt" corset of 1780, and relishing the arrival of a print dress "worn over a hundred years ago" that comes bundled up in brown paper.

I wonder if his wife Phillis was one of the women present in that shot. It does seem that she didn't have quite the media exposure that her husband seemed to enjoy, although perhaps it suited her to stay in the background. There's more non-conservation-standard modelling of antique garments too:


This last film, from 1947, must have been shot during the early days of the Gallery of Costume and begins with a fashion show by designer Rosalind Gilbert. The narrator draws parallels with elements of her designs and historical fashions, and the film then cuts to shots of the Cunnington collection, again being modelled by real live human beings. I won't comment on the curious scene of the woman undressing while being spied on by two little girls (don't worry, its perfectly SFW), except to note that those were obviously much more innocent times:


The newly refurbished Gallery of Costume has a fabulous new exhibition on the ground floor covering 20th century fashions - Suffragettes to Supermodels - but if you are visiting, you must venture upstairs to the first floor where Eleanor Thompson has curated an intriguing show of 19th century dress which unpicks Dr C. W.'s theories on women and fashion with a 21st century perspective. Whilst respecting his legacy, it has some illuminating insights into his approach and attitudes to women.

The Gallery of Costume will be open from Wednesday to Saturday every week, 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm.

Gallery of Costume
Platt Hall
M14 5LL

Tel: 44 (0) 161 245 7245

Further reading and exploration

A selection of the museum's photographic collection of over 25,ooo images, can be seen here on flickr.

Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt, Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes 1770-1870, recently republished, I will add details as soon as I know them! [This is an excellent book which features numerous items from the Gallery of Costume's collections in a varied selection of essays about all aspects of dress history, from high fashion to workwear].

The reopening of Manchester's Gallery of Costume. BBC Radio 4 interview by Jenni Murray with Moira Stevenson, head of Manchester City Galleries.

Manchester's Gallery of Costume to reopen after two-year, £1.3million revamp.

Preview of Manchester's Gallery of Costume.

Clothes show returns after £1.3m revamp. [The first, and currently only, comment made me laugh, by the way].

Hats off as revamped clothes show opens.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Clothes make the film

Corinne Griffiths in Outcast, 1928, originally uploaded by Trevira.

This post is a bit of a cheat because I haven't written it. It is an article transcribed from an issue of Picturegoer magazine from August 1926 (found while researching at the excellent Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture), which explores the growing influence of Hollywood on women's fashions.

There's little mention of costume designers, apart from Cora McGeachy and "the well-known New York costumier" Madame Frances.

Cora McGeachy suffers the indignity of being called "Cora MacCreachy" on IMDB, and is credited with only one film, Irene, which is discussed in the article below (incidentally, Irene is available on DVD at Grapevine Video). supplies another credit: she was the costume designer of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923 (Summer edition) on Broadway.

Madame Frances apparently employed the young Travis Banton who went on to great things at Paramount.

Hollywood costume designers really hit their stride in the 1930s, with designers such as the aforementioned Travis Banton, Howard Greer and Adrian not just following Paris' lead but creating and launching their own trends.

Indeed, it was necessary for costume designers to create their own fashions, in a sense, since the amount of time involved in film production meant that if they tried to conform too closely to current styles there was the ever-present danger that by the time of release the costumes would be hopelessly out of date. Not to mention the extended period that films might be shown on the circuit - according to this article this was "roughly three years."

So this article is an interesting snapshot of a time when Hollywood still deferred to Parisian authority with regard to fashions - there's mention of the director Frank Tuttle having costumes sent from Paris - but was growing in confidence in its ability to create glamorous costumes of its own. Please enjoy Josie P. Lederer's entertaining report on film fashions in 1926. (I've added links to more information whenever possible, and my comments are in square brackets).

Josie P. Lederer, "Clothes make the film"

For the very latest modes see the movies; they’re nearer than Paris – and cheaper.

As long as there are women in the world, and in the picture theatres, just so long will the title of this article hold good.

For women form the majority of film patrons, and for them and because of them the fashion film was invented. Ever since The Dressmaker from Paris featured a mannequin parade, and registered a great success, every producing company in the U.S.A. has seen fit to make similar specimens.

There is no reason why they shouldn’t. These fashion films fill a very definite want on the part of Mrs. And Miss Suburbia, who go to the movies instead of to Paris to see the latest thing in gowns.

There are over a dozen of these films due for release within the next three months and they are all sure to delight film fans.

The stars, however, are not wildly enthusiastic over them.

Naturally they like the idea of wearing pretty and sumptuous clothes. But, even when they know they are capable of wearing them well, they feel a tiny bit aggrieved at the thought of the success or failure of the film depending, not upon themselves, their director, or their acting, but upon that hitherto unknown quantity, the dress designer.

It is not a question of dollars alone. Battles wage between the great companies, and the bone of contention is the cleverest and most original sartorial specialist. The object is to secure his or her exclusive services.

That is what occurred in Irene, a film famous for presenting the first fashion parade photographed in natural colours – a charming idea beautifully carried out.

Cora McGeachy, Colleen Moore vows she has found somebody to whom the commonplace is anathema, and who designs clothes which fit the personality of the wearers as well as the spirit of the story.

Irene creations are certainly lovely, from Dame Fashion herself, who introduces the parade, to the various fancy costumes depicting “The Seasons,” and the girls dressed as water lilies, who inhabit the ornamental lake which forms part of the setting.

Colleen Moore’s prettiest is a palest green confection trimmed with row upon row of ostrich feathers, and topped by a large gauze hat with a crown composed entirely of tiny pink roses.

She also wears a striking cigar-brown walking costume; from one of the huge fur-edged sleeves of which peeps the head of a live puppy. The rest of him reposes in a pocket in the cuff specially made for that purpose.

Paramount’s Mannequin, despite its title, has no wonderful fashion parade, but features Dolores Costello and one of the prettiest garden party frocks extant. Picturegoers with imitative minds and clever fingers will doubtless rush home to make one exactly like it.

It is composed of very fine, hand-painted lawn, and its most striking feature is a huge flat bow of black velvet ribbon at the left side of the low waist, held in place by the diamond arrow which plays so dramatic a part in the story.

Mannequin belies the promise of its title, The American Venus, presented by the same company, is little else but a beauty and fashion show. Frank Tuttle, its director, sent to Paris for the costumes, and all the newest and smartest ideas in street and ballroom attire are seen, as well as the snappiest of bathing beauties and bathing dresses.

Louise Brooks, in particular, wears some styles well worth noting, and Dorothy Matthews and Ruth Baren are easily first in the fashion show itself.

Every Gloria Swanson picture is a fashion picture, for the star’s clothes made her reputation and many look to them to support it.

Gloria’s gowns, however, are not for the million. She spends more upon them than any other star; her bills aggregate over 125,000 dollars per annum for film clothes alone.

Then there are her film jewels, which are usually hired at about ten per cent of their actual cost. She wears some 25 pairs of shoes in a picture, and her off screen wardrobe contains nearly fifty walking dresses alone, and over two hundred hats.

The second-best-dressed star is probably Corinne Griffith [featured in the photo above], and she has tried to beat her own record in Mlle. Modiste. After personally combing New York for clothes for this film, she and Madame Frances (the well-known New York costumier), put their heads together and evolved a dazzling wardrobe.

Mlle. Modiste’s hats were made especially for her by Peggy Hoyt, and Corinne spent three days matching up shoes, sandals and evening slippers to her gowns.

The forty gowns Constance Talmadge is to wear for her new crook comedy [this might be Venus of Venice] will prove a potent incentive to fashion fiends to go and see the picture.

And although the dresses in Natacha Rambova’s When Love Grows Cold are outlandish in the extreme, they contain some striking and easily modified ideas, and are worth the admission money. They are very different from Natacha’s ordinary attire, which is striking but severe, and for which Poiret is usually responsible.

Jetta Goudal goes down in movie history as the girl to introduce bouffant gowns into Cecil De Mille productions. That worthy’s heroines had, until the advent of Jetta, been slinky of outline, but “la Goudal” is nothing if not individualistic in her attire.

Interesting facts concerning film favourites can be learned from the studio costumiers who design, fit, and make the film frocks and frills that magnetise so many feminine fans into kinemas.

Most studio designers are agreed that Anna Q. Nilsson, though she is one of the tall stars of filmland, is also so perfectly proportioned that any and every style becomes her.

She can wear hoops or hobble-skirts equally well. The long, flowing gowns and picture hats she affects in the opening reels of
The Greater Glory are a complete contrast to the skin-tight clothes she dons later on in the story.

She looks as well in sporting attire as she does in period garb, and made an excellent boy in
Ponjola and Miss Nobody.

Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett and Dorothy Mackaill would seem to be the young girl’s ideal fashion models.

Constance Bennett has a natural flair for costumes, and the simplest frock, worn as she wears it looks wonderful.

Norma Shearer concentrates very seriously upon her clothes, because her mail tells her how many girls look to her to show them Dame Fashion’s latest whim.

Dorothy Mackaill is a feminine Lon Chaney in that she loses her own personality directly she dons the clothes of the film character she is creating.

She has a slender, graceful figure, and many of her
Chickie and Joanna gowns were eagerly copied by youngsters of her type all over the world.

Fashions come and go so rapidly that it takes an expert to decide what is and what is not a filmable gown.

The life of a big screenplay is, roughly, three years, so that anything that might “date” too definitely must be ruthlessly discarded.

The Fashion picture’s life must, necessarily, be shorter than this, but even then, it justifies its existence, as well as the thousands of dollars spent upon its costumes.

For in the eyes of four-fifths of those who sit in kinemas, clothes, without a doubt do make the film.


I must end with a link to a great article from one of TinTrunk's favourite blogs, The Bioscope, which addresses the subject of fashion on film in the silent era: Catwalks and pavements.