Red (Carpet) Revolution

Cate Blanchett in Alexander McQueen at the premiere of 'Robin Hood' in Cannes, 2010. Source: Getty Images.
Cate Blanchett in Alexander McQueen at the premiere of ‘Robin Hood’ in Cannes, 2010. Source: Getty Images.

Does hearing the inevitable ‘Who are you wearing?’ during the Red Carpet season fill you with excitement or dread?

I shall dispense with apologies for my blog hiatus and get back to it with some thoughts I’ve been having about the growing ‘revolution’ on the Red Carpet, whereby celebrities are beginning to question the objectification women receive during awards season. The most recent discussion is from the NY Times, On the Red Carpet, a Revolt Builds Over the Pageantry, and points to some of the more absurd practices of which I was blissfully unaware, namely the E! network’s ‘mani-cam’:

At this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston made headlines, of a sort, by taking the revolutionary step of refusing to stick their paws in E!’s Mani Cam.

For anyone who has tragically missed this gimmicky red carpet arriviste, the Mani Cam is a camera-mounted box lined with red on which actresses are exhorted to show off manicures and borrowed jewels. Already armed with a “Glam Cam,” showing 360-degree views of stars’ outfits, E! rolled out the Mani Cam in 2012. And the host Giuliana Rancic instructed actresses to walk their fingers through it “like a runway.”

Results have been mixed. Jena Malone stuck her tongue out at it. Elisabeth Moss gave it the finger. Then came the three A-listers’ snubs, which CBS News reported as a “sign of a growing gender-equality push in Hollywood.” Which goes to show just how low the bar can be for what passes as a gender-equality push in Tinseltown.

Without a doubt, the emphasis placed on beauty over talent and work is problematic for women well beyond Hollywood, but certainly that is the site of its most prevalent display. It is fascinating to watch a group of people whose body/look is such a critical part of their success, take a stand and start to say, ‘What about my WORK?’ My favourite response is that of Cate Blanchett (always looking sublime as above, a reflection of her power as an actress) who last year ‘called out a camera operator who was scanning the length of her dress. Crouching down, she asked, “Do you do that to the guys?”’

Cate Blanchett schools a cameraman. Image: Matt’s GIFs

And yet, as a fashion historian, this outrage is beginning to sit uneasily with me. It seems a bit disingenuous to kit oneself out in stunning couture, then become incensed when the public wants to know more about it. Especially when many of these gowns and accessories are not paid for, but worn as a sort of advertisement. ‘Who are you wearing?’ doesn’t just feed the public desire, but promotes the designer whose artistry (or failure) is making its way down the carpet/runway. But setting even that issue aside, what unsettles me more is that with these challenges, fashion is yet again being framed as a frivolous, worthless distraction from the more important matters at hand.

For example, the wonderful organisation Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls has promoted the hashtag campaign #askhermore to instigate better questions for women – and without a doubt this is much-needed. My favourite example of this problem, which I simply must interject, is that of Scarlett Johansen being interviewed for an Avengers press junket in London:

Reporter: “I have a question to Robert and to Scarlett. Firstly to Robert, throughout Iron Man 1 and 2, Tony Stark started off as a very egotistical character but learns how to fight as a team. And so how did you approach this role, bearing in mind that kind of maturity as a human being when it comes to the Tony Stark character, and did you learn anything throughout the three movies that you made?

“And to Scarlett, to get into shape for Black Widow did you have anything special to do in terms of the diet, like did you have to eat any specific food, or that sort of thing?”

Scarlett: “How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the like, “rabbit food” question?”

Ask better questions, indeed. But is ‘Who are you wearing?’ a poor question? The NY Times suggests that this is a consensus for many:

“We kept getting messages and tweets like, ‘God, why do they ask these questions on the red carpet?’ ” said Meredith Walker, Smart Girls’ executive director. “Our viewers and followers are interested in these women, interested in deeper questions that help us learn anything interesting. They don’t want that time wasted hearing them saying what they’re wearing and all this stuff that really doesn’t matter.”

So, when we ask ‘Who are you wearing?’, we apparently don’t learn anything interesting. And it is a subject that simply doesn’t matter. So much so that Jezebel’s suggested solution is simply trolling the asker (which might be pretty entertaining).

Or, we could change the question. How about: ‘Why are you wearing that particular dress?’ No, not a catty, Joan Rivers resurrection ‘Why are you wearing THAT?’. But a genuine, ‘What made you choose that? What does it say about your life right now, your career, how you see yourself tonight?’

Because fashion is about identity. Many do not actively think of it this way, when they throw on jeans and a t-shirt (does it promote a sport, a beer, a comic book, a political agenda? It says something.) “Who are you wearing?’ is in fact a boring, shallow question when it is being delivered by-and-for people who aren’t thinking it through. It is framed within the context of superficiality, instead of exploring the artistry of the designer, as well as the expression of the wearer.

Of course, for many, there was a stylist who got them there (and as evidenced by the Crafting the Look conference, styling is a much overlooked and important aspect of sartorial theory). But I have no doubt that the majority of these smart, talented women had some voice, some choice, in how they adorn and present themselves on their big night. It isn’t the Hunger Games after all… well maybe it is a little.

Here is another case in point. I have a an uneasy enjoyment of the blog Tom + Lorenzo: Fabulous & Opinionated. I think it is one of the very best sources to see the latest trends, and especially, the most recent couture. I love the way they engage with popular culture (reviewing everything from Paris Fashion Week to style in the latest episodes of Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and even Dr Who). That said, I often find myself in disagreement with their criticism, and that of course makes me feel uncomfortable because… am I tacky then? Are they? (Ha, ha.) In any case, one of their most recent takedowns was poor Rosamund Pike, looking admittedly hapless at the SAG awards:

Rosamund Pike in Dior Couture (Spring 2014). Source:
Rosamund Pike in Dior Couture (Spring 2014). Source:

Here is what they had to say:

We’re sorry, but she’s weird. She chooses insanely unflattering, tackily attention-seeking outfits and then poses like she’s doing performance art or something.

This dress isn’t horrifying, but it’s clearly FMO – For Models Only. You need a runway, only 90 seconds of exposure time, and an accomplished dress-worker to make this look good. And even then, the tent-like shape and mullet hem can’t be pulled off.

Plus she’s got the seaweed hair, a pale face, and a slash of almost orange on her lips. Everything here is so off that we feel like we should be backing away from her slowly, like we can smell the crazy.

Ok, it’s kind of funny, in a ‘Mean Girls’ sort of way. Some of the photos there are definitely awkward. But their criticism is interesting to me because it highlights the schism between what can happen on the runway, and what we should see in ‘real life’. Outside of the fact the Red Carpet really is a sort of runway, I applaud anyone who experiments with fashion and is brave enough to give it a go in other contexts – and really, the Red Carpet is a pretty safe context to be avant-garde, if you don’t mind catty take-downs by fashion bloggers.

Plus, I really like this dress, and kind of like the look altogether!

Back to the point – T+L’s commentary begs the question – what happens when clothing made for fantasy takes a stab at reality? To bring it home: that’s what Artistic Dress was all about! With its roots in painting and fancy dress, it crafted a different kind of look that was meant to express creative ideals. An apropos example is this gorgeous 1873 carte-de-visite of the actress Ellen Terry looking very unconventional with cropped hair and in a comfortable Artistic Dress.

Samuel Walker, 'Ellen Terry', 1873. Photograph [carte-de-visite]. Collection of the National Trust, Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Smallhythe Place, Kent.
Samuel Walker, ‘Ellen Terry’, 1873. Photograph [carte-de-visite]. Collection of
the National Trust, Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Smallhythe Place, Kent.
We can imagine Samuel Walker has captured her in an intimate, candid moment while she was perhaps studying her lines – which is what the popular postcard undoubtedly was meant to express to fans that purchased it. Her styling expresses her creative, artistic identity, intentionally crafted. Artistic Dress wasn’t necessarily frivolous, just like the sartorial choices of many celebrities – and people on the street – are conscious decisions related to the context in which they find themselves. Of course they are.

So ask better questions, yes. And yes, we can and should make these follow-ups after a considered question about their work. I realise time doesn’t usually permit, but let me have my fantasy here. Rosamund Pike: why did you choose that dress? Was it your choice, or did you discuss it with a stylist? What does it say about who you are, and your hopes for tonight? How does it make you feel?

The next issue is… are they prepared to answer better questions?

Today’s red-themed post in honour of ‘Go Red for Women‘, the American Heart Association’s campaign to raise awareness about heart disease and women.

Tableaux Vivants Redux!

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'More than just a Punk'. Photo by Paulina Brozek.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘More than just a Punk’. Photo by Paulina Brozek.

Last week was the second annual Artistic Dress Tableaux Vivants at the Glasgow School of Art. Performed by (fantastic) students in my ‘Artistic Dress: Fashion, Style and Identity’ elective course, this year was just as clever and fun as last. I talked about last year’s event briefly in this post, which includes a bit of background on how tableaux vivants, or ‘living pictures’, played a role in the more didactic activities of those associated with the Artistic Dress movements. Because it is end of term, and it was a tiring one, I’m going to take a bit more of an informal (even chatty) approach to this post so I can simply share the stellar job my class did this year.

Students in the 2012 Artistic Dress class recreated the heyday of the GSA. Mackintosh lives!
Students in the 2012 Artistic Dress class recreated the heyday of the GSA. Mackintosh lives!

I must say, first, that last year set the bar very high. For never having done this before, the students pulled it off without a hitch, and everyone loved it. I was excited to see what my students might dream up this year, and was not disappointed. Before I share the results, however, I must really say how fortunate I feel to not only teach a subject I love, but to do so a place full of history, with a staff that supports creative approaches to learning, and students who dive in and take their study beyond the classroom, enthusiastically engaging with the material. The GSA is an amazing place.

My class was tasked with the following project: to create research-based tableaux vivants that expressed notions of Artistic Dress, whether examining historic fashion movements, or exploring new possibilities of what the term could mean. To achieve this, they had to do more than simply find a fun example and dress up, but they really had to research and justify their choices (their grade is actually based on a journal that is a sort of essay/portfolio of their work on the project). So while it might just look like a fabulous fancy dress night, there is actually a great deal of consideration behind these tablueax. The results were so well done that I honestly can’t pick a favourite (and shouldn’t anyway), so I’ll relate each in the student’s words, then give a few thoughts about them.

I was pleased to discover that one group did in fact want to explore more traditional notions of Artistic Dress, perfectly suited to use the beautiful Mackintosh Library:

The Artistic Dress — Different Times, Different Places Mackintosh Library

Artistic Dressers:
Anna Broger
Paulina Brozek
Kelly McEwen
Sophie Warringham

Exploring different varieties of ‘artistic dress’ from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Focusing on what influenced the artists and designers and how they represented it in ways of dress and fashion. From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Symbolism in Poland to the Kunstkleid from Vienna, we exhibit the results of our research.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Artistic Dress - Different Times, Different Places'
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Artistic Dress – Different Times, Different Places’

This was comprised in three quietly beautiful scenes: Pre-Raphaelites sketching and embroidering (above: Rossetti and Siddal come to life in the Mac Library – goosebumps much?); the Arts & Crafts evoked by the adoption of folk costume (modelled on the student’s own Polish national dress, below):

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Artistic Dress - Different Times, Different Places'.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Artistic Dress – Different Times, Different Places’.

…and a re-imagining of a Secessionist after research on Gustav Klimt and Emile Flöge – and here I must give extra kudos to Anna Broger as it was the first dress she has ever attempted (below), and she even did her own hand embroidery. It was lovely!

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Artistic Dress - Different Times, Different Places'.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Artistic Dress – Different Times, Different Places’.

I must also note that the Mackintosh Library currently houses the GSA Special Collections (we have a more functional concrete library across the street). It is often thought of as a ‘mere’ museum space, frozen for the tourists who pass through on tours several times a day. But I use it regularly for sessions with my students where, under staff supervision, they sit and view original design periodicals and sources in this magical environment. So yes, that is an original Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration Anna is (very carefully) holding and reading (being Austrian, she is doing a better job than I would). Not a bad way to spend two hours, is it?

I should mention that this two-hour event is always open to the public, and before our visitors reached the library, they had to pass through the rather bohemian recreation of Weimar’s inter-war avant-garde, constructed in the famous niches of the first-floor corridor:

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'Totentanz Weimar'
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘Totentanz Weimar’

Totentanz Weimar Germany. Weimar, desperate optimism.
First Floor, west corridor

Artistic Dressers:
Christopher Barton
Jamila Brown
Erin Colquhoun
Zsofia Dukai
Hilary Macaulay
Mylene Podvin

He becomes she, she becomes he, art becomes life, and life becomes art. Playing on the symbiotic relationship between Art and Weimar’s transgender community we will explore the life death dance and sex in interwar war Berlin. By recreating Berlin’s infamous Eldorado club we hope to illustrate this golden age of social liberty and sexual freedom through tableau. We hope to represent the exploitation of the androgynous nature of 1920’s clothing (straight lines and suppressed femininity) by the transgender community, and how performance costume explored these blurred roles and pushed the boundaries of sexual representation through dance.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘Totentanz Weimar’

The images really don’t do justice to this scene, for which the students built café tables and researched some rather unique and specific characters to portray. In addition, Christopher Barton made a short film which was projected onto the opposite wall, creating a darkly rich mood for the scene. If you love this period, take a moment to view it here:

From here guests wandered down two flights to the Mackintosh lecture theatre in the basement… if they were brave enough to pass directly through the rather questionable-looking punks congregated on the lower landing.

More Than Just a Punk
West stairwell between ground floor and basement

Artistic Dressers:
Rachel Blair
Amy Bond
Hannah Dykes
Franz Maggs
Elinor McCue
Yoshimi Tanaka

We are expressing and displaying a variation of the diversity of “punk” through Glam Punk, Horror Punk, Street Punk, UK Punk, and American Punk, with political and musical influences. A controversial yet confident stance performed through artistic sartorial expression.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'More than just a Punk'. Photo by Bruce Peter.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘More than just a Punk’. Photo by Bruce Peter.

I was excited by all the tableaux for various reasons, but this one was of course a bit more personal… every time I walked through, I felt like I was  heading back into my youth, to the club… they looked like old friends, and with the Ramones and Sex Pistols blaring, the effect was bold.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'More than just a Punk'.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘More than just a Punk’.

In some ways, it was a simple set up, with an array of DIY posters simply stuck on the wall. But what was really great is that every time you passed through, the group had changed positions, arranging themselves so you had to step over and around them to make your way past. It really evoked that sense of potential threat, and they commented later that more than a few people hesitated before proceeding up the stairs with caution. Fun!

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Factory'. Photo by Paulina Brozek.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Factory’. Photo by Paulina Brozek.

Finally, the last tableaux was perhaps not as intimidating as the punks, but it was every bit as edgy. With just a bit of aluminium foil, the dark-panelled lecture theatre was transformed into Andy Warhol’s Factory.

The Factory
Mackintosh Lecture Theatre, West wing basement

Artistic Dressers:
Ruth Crothers
Ruth Leslie
Checkie Leong
Ava Marr
Olivia Qi

A representation of the distinctive, artistic dress within Andy Warhol’s ‘Silver Factory’. Particularly focusing on the Avant-Garde and bohemian style of members such as the artist Andy Warhol himself, socialite and actress Edie Sedgwick, photographers Billy Name and Gerard Malanga and artist Brigid Berlin.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Factory'
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Factory’

Again, pictures don’t do justice at all, but like the others, these students carefully researched and chose the ‘characters’ they wished to recreate, and incorporated sound and video to really bring the artistic party of the Factory heydey to life.

Every group really outdid themselves this year, and I am very pleased. My only disappointment – and I moaned to them about this – was that there was no Steampunk! Perhaps I’ll get lucky next year.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013. Well done everyone!
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013. Well done everyone!

Oh yes, and I decided to join in the fun too… I attempted to do my best Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. I need more colour in my wardrobe to truly pull it off.


See the complete set of this year and last over at flickr.

Special thanks to the generous support of the following GSA staff: Jenny Brownrigg, David Buri, Duncan Chappell, Delphine Dallison, Juliet Fellows-Smith, Rachael Grew, Talitha Kotze, Nicholas Oddy, Bruce Peter, Sarah Smith, Peter Trowles, and Susannah Waters.

Failing the Basics

A failed comparison from the MTV website.

I had an outraged email from my friend and fellow researcher in fashion history, Emily, regarding this 2008 post on the MTV website. Their caption for the image above states: Thomas Gainsborough’s “Mrs.Charles Hatchett” exemplifies the Victorian style used by steampunkers today.

I’ll set aside my own rants and quote Em here, who says it all, really:

How does a GAINSBOROUGH portrait from 1786 exemplify VICTORIAN fashion used by steampunk. How?? How does it do this?

If ever evidence were needed of MTV idiocy… dear god, Thomas G is writhing in his grave. Not to mention Mrs Hatchett. And a whole host of Victorians who wouldn’t have been seen dead with such a peculiar hairstyle. Although it has curious affiliations with mullet perms of circa 1980 something…

Indeed. Furthermore the second photograph is NOT Steampunk! It is some glammed-up pseudo-18th century concoction of some couture stylist, and kind of interesting, but certainly not Steampunk. Now, I will refrain from an in-depth analysis of what Steampunk IS, but for those readers who may not know, a quick google will fix this, as will a quick trip to Also, I welcome great links in the comments below.

But I thought this worth mentioning here for two reasons. First, it shows the value of not just a basic education in art and fashion history, but in history in general (1786 = Victorian?!). Secondly, I am in fact very interested in these anachronistic interventions in contemporary fashion, and how this might be seen as a continuation of Artistic Dress. From the PhD conclusion:

Kambriel, 'Midnight Bustle Dress', 2005. Image from 'Gothic: Dark Glamour'

On 5 September 2008, the exhibition Gothic: Dark Glamour opened at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Curated by fashion historian Valerie Steele, it was the first in-depth critical and historical analysis of ‘Goth’ fashion from subculture to a highly theatrical and artistic mode of dress and self-expression. The exhibition and accompanying text trace the ‘genealogy of the gothic sensibility’ over the past three centuries through various cultural phenomena, including the gothic novel, the Romantic and Decadent movements, Victorian mourning dress, German Expressionist cinema, the Hollywood horror film, and the development of the Goth music genre over the past 25 years.[1] In exploring the history of this alternative sartorial movement, Gothic: Dark Glamour reveals the critical influence of the Victorian era to Goth fashion, citing several sources of inspiration which were likewise influential to nineteenth century artistic practices: medieval art and architecture; d’Aurevilly’s and Baudelaire’s writings on fashion and Dandyism; the transition of costume (fancy dress) into couture; interest in exoticism; and, perhaps most notably, the English fashion for wearing black.

The non-normative perception of contemporary alternative fashion trends, such as those exhibited in Gothic: Dark Glamour, is not a new phenomenon, and in fact echoes the reception of Artistic Dress in the nineteenth century. This, coupled with the shared sources of inspiration, suggests the importance and relevance of Artistic Dress as a catalyst for an increasingly avant-garde mode of sartorial self-expression that continues into the present day.

I’m a big fan of Valerie Steele’s approach, and she will no doubt get many a mention on these pages. But for anyone interested in this subject, I highly recommend checking out the exhibit site, and the catalogue is fantastic. Particularly as she places the amazing couture of designers like McQueen (and let’s all take a minute to swoon over their Autumn/Winter 2012 Collection, an example is below) with the likes of Indie/goth designers like Kambriel (image above), who has, all on her own internet-based savvy, earned loyal clients like Neil Gaiman and (quintessential Steampunk) Amanda Palmer–and who, it should be noted, makes excellent Steampunk ensembles. I remember chatting with Kambriel several years ago on LiveJournal, and she is a lovely and talented woman – I’m glad she is doing so well!

I just thought this was an interesting tidbit, and worth sharing and thinking about these two examples of people getting it completely wrong, and very right. And I hope whoever wrote that nonsense at MTV has long been dismissed.

Alexander McQueen, Gown from the Pre-Autumn/Winter 2012 Collection.

[1] Valerie Steele, Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press, 2008).