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).