Quantities of Quant

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Until 16th February 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the career of Dame Mary Quant whose work as a fashion designer led her to become a powerful role model for women. Spanning twenty years from 1955 onwards, the Mary Quant exhibition displays clothing from her experimental brand Bazaar, Parisian couture and her success across the pond. Popularising the mini-skirt, hot pants and other fun fashion trends, Mary Quant revolutionised fashion throughout the world.

Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th February 1930 in Blackheath, London to Welsh teachers Jack and Mildred. Her early life was marred by food and clothing rationings due to WWII, however, she was determined to become a fashion designer. Her parents, who studied at Cardiff University in order to earn first-class degrees and become teachers, were disappointed with their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to think about more conventional career choices for women. As a compromise, Quant attended Goldsmiths College to study illustration with the intention to train as an art teacher. College life introduced Quant to new and exciting people and prospects, resulting in an apprenticeship at Erik, a high-end Mayfair milliner.

Mary Quant’s ambitions to become a fashion designer were realised shortly after meeting her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (d.1990) in 1953. The couple married in 1957 and later had a son named Orlando (b.1970). Two years before they became husband and wife, Quant and Plunket Greene teamed up with a friend, Archie McNair, to open a boutique called Bazaar. The shop was situated on the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road in Chelsea in a building above the basement restaurant Alexander’s, owned by Plunket Greene.

Quant began sourcing materials, quirky garments and jewellery from wholesale warehouses and art schools to fill her new shop, as well as producing unique works of fashion. Bazaar was described as “a bouillabaisse of clothes … and peculiar odds and ends,” and stock sold out during the opening night. Encouraged by this, Quant continued to make masses of dresses in her own home to sell in the shop. Every day, she bought fabric from the department store Harrods in Knightsbridge, opposite which, three years later, she opened her second boutique.

Whilst Bazaar was successful, allowing Quant to purchase expensive fabrics, the constant repetition of selling during the day and making new stock overnight was exhausting. Nonetheless, Quant persevered and was rewarded with a flourishing business. Due to making each garment by hand, there was usually only one of each design. The examples shown at the V&A are labelled with the name of the person who wore the piece. It was not until the 1960s that Quant began to work with machinists, who were able to produce her garments more rapidly. By 1966, she was working with 18 different manufacturers, which allowed her to mass-produce her popular designs.

Quant’s designs were influenced by London’s youth culture, which included dancers, Beatniks and the Mods (Modernists). Her clothes were modern and totally different from the acceptable style of dress for women during the war years. Simple and easy to wear, Quant aimed to produce clothes that were “relaxed … suited to the actions of normal life.” More women were going to work and needed appropriate clothing but Quant believed that did not mean they could not be stylish too.

As can be seen throughout the exhibition, Quant experimented with scale, proportion, and style. She incorporated features from the clothing of previous decades and centuries with modern ideas. Collared shirts and bodices were combined with short skirts, bright fabrics, and tights. Quant also recreated some of the clothes she wore as a child, altering parts to make them suitable for an adult. She also styled dresses on men’s clothing, for example, long male cardigans or jumpers.

By “borrowing from the boys”, Quant introduced tailoring cloth, which was intended for suits or military uniforms, to women’s clothing. In doing this, Quant broke fashion hierarchies and gender rules; no longer were certain materials reserved for particular people or classes. Items that were once only considered wearable by the upper classes were suddenly available to everyone. With clothing slightly bordering on satire, Quant allowed women to dress as bankers or barristers as well as the more feminine secretary.

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In 1963, Quant launched her Ginger Group collection, which was mass-produced and available in 75 outlets across the UK. The name comes from a political term for a pressure group, using the term ginger as a verb meaning to “pep things up”. Whereas Quant’s clothing was already popular, she wanted to produce modern and edgy clothing for a wider clientele.

Quant’s inspiration for the first Ginger Group collection was American sportswear. Rather than all-in-one dresses, she designed items that could be paired together with different things, thus the wearer could mix their wardrobe up without exceeding their bank balance by buying several outfits. The name of the collection led itself to an unusual “ginger” colour palette, which involved a range of red and orange tones.

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Ginger Group Crêpe Dress, modelled by Patti Boyd with the Rolling Stones

Having conquered London and the rest of Britain, Quant set her sights on the United States of America. In 1960, Quant and her husband flew out to New York, just two years after the first commercial transatlantic flight. American journalists had previously written about Quant’s “kooky” look and she was welcomed to the States as a celebrity.

During her first trip to America, Quant pitched her ideas to US department stores and met fashion editors interested in her “ready-to-wear” system. Rapidly, her clothing was purchased and displayed in store windows throughout New York.

In 1962, Quant signed a contract with the American department-store chain JC Penney. When her Ginger Collection launched the following year, her clothing was suddenly at the forefront of the mass market. By 1965, Quant was regularly flying between London and New York.

Quant shared the success of her Ginger Collection with the manufacturer Steinberg & Sons, who assisted with production, supplies, and exports. By 1965, Quant was producing 50 designs a year for the Ginger Collection as well as her other dresses. Working six months ahead, Quant produced sketches for future lines, which were costed and approved at the Steinburg head office before being sent to their seamstresses. The V&A includes a couple of Quant’s sketches in the exhibition.

In 1963, not only was Quant working on her Ginger Collection, she was establishing her Wet Collection too. A new material called PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was gradually making its way into the fashion industry. It had previously only been used for protective garments but Quant was fascinated by “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours … its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger.” The Wet Collection was launched at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and only contained garments produced in this plastic-coated cotton material.

Despite being unlike anything they had seen before, fashion editors and buyers were inspired by the “space-age” look and orders flooded in. This collection earned Quant her first magazine cover for British Vogue, which featured her bright red PVC rain mac. Unfortunately, there was a delay in launching the collection on the high street due to a problem with the seams of the garments. Standard sewing machines could not tightly seal the seams and often caused the material to rip or melt. Specialist machinery was needed, which was eventually found through collaboration with Alligator Rainwear in 1965.

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In 1963, The Sunday Times had awarded Mary Quant with an International Award for “jolting England out a conventional attitude towards clothes” but in 1966 she received a more prestigious award. Wearing a cream wool jersey dress with a low waist, short gathered skirt, high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with blue top-stitching and brass zippers, Mary Quant arrived at Buckingham Palace with her husband and their business partner. Hours later, Quant left with an OBE (Officer for the British Empire) as an award for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade and supporting the British economy.

Already known across the world, this event promoted her clothing further in international newspapers. Using the opportunity of all the media attention, Quant began to produce other items under her brand name. Recognised by her big Daisy logo, Quant began to sell makeup (male and female), hats, bags, stockings, underwear, colouring books, knitting patterns and so much more.

In 1966, Quant trademarked her daisy emblem, which became easily recognisable, attracting more customers to her brand. This was one of the first designer logos and it helped to establish the authenticity of her clothing and mark them apart from rival brands. The daisy logo lent its name to Quant’s next big idea, the Daisy doll. Quant moved to the toy market in 1973 with “the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy enabled the next generation to connect with her brand. The doll wore miniature versions of Mary Quant designs and the launch at the Harrogate Toy Fair involved models dancing down a catwalk wearing life-size versions of Daisy’s wardrobe.

“The shock of the knee”

Of all Mary Quant’s designs, she is undoubtedly known best for the miniskirt. Since the war years, the length of women’s skirts had gradually shortened to knee-length, however, Quant took it even further. Based on children’s pinafores, Quant rose her hemlines well above the knee causing scandal amongst the older generation. The teenage dance scene of the 60s, however, embraced the new fashion and by 1966 many young women were wearing the newly titled miniskirt. The style also became an international symbol of London’s youth and women’s liberation.

With the miniskirt becoming accepted in society, Mary Quant used a new type of wool jersey to produce a new style of her signature minidresses: the Jersey Dress. In keeping with her previous sporty theme, the machine-knitted dresses allowed for fluidity of movement at the same time as being fashionable. They were practical, affordable, and most importantly, crease-free.

Quant experimented with different shapes and colours. Some jersey dresses had a skater skirt, whereas others were more like long jumpers or shirts. The material allowed for embellishments, such as buttons, collars, and zips, which also became a recognisable element of her brand.

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The miniskirt was not the only new fashion Quant introduced to the modern generations. Already mentioned are her PVC rainwear but one of her greatest ideas were tights and long socks. Previously, women had to suffer fiddly suspender-belts and nude coloured stockings but Quant wanted to change this. Marks and Spencer had already introduced tights to the market, however, at 12 shillings a pair (three times the price of stockings) they had not yet caught on. Quant proposed brighter coloured stockings and tights – bright mustard yellow, ginger, and prune – that would match her miniskirts and jersey dresses.

Partnering with the Nylon Hosiery Company, Quant designed stockings and tights that enabled women to dance, run and move. The company developed a technique of making self-supporting long stockings that joined together at the top; therefore, women no longer needed to use suspender-belts.

Another of Quant’s contributions to fashion is trousers for women. Historically, trousers were a male item of clothing and, whilst Quant did not invent the female version, she pushed to make them more acceptable. Women, particularly students, were comfortable wearing trousers, however, most only wore them to informal occasions or at home. Quant wanted to make trousers acceptable for women in the workplace, at parties and other formal events. Not many Mary Quant trousers exist today, however, the result of her determination to make them a regular part of female fashion can be seen in every clothes shop today.

The last of Quant’s major contributions to fashion were hotpants and loungewear. Combining the miniskirt and trousers, Quant produced extremely short shorts that bemused department stores; which section should they sell them in?

“As I love breaking down barriers all this was great fun. Quite soon this collection was promoted as ‘underwear as outerwear’ and vice versa.”
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant, 1966

Never before had people worn such revealing clothing but the trend caught on quickly amongst the younger members of society. Today, shorts and hotpants are acceptable forms of clothing for women but in the 60s and 70s, this was a risky, although successful, move for Quant.

Loungewear combined trousers, jersey dresses, and hotpants to create stretch towelling one-piece suits. Some had full-length legs that included feet (a precursor of the “onesie”) and others were short zip-up versions. Their purpose was to be worn when lounging at home, which was a foreign concept in Britain at the time. Women only had dressing gowns, which were worn last thing at night and first thing in the morning. The thought of laying around during the day was alien enough, let alone having special clothes in which to do it.

Quant’s inspiration for loungewear came from Babygro (invented in the US in the 1950s). This was the adult version of a baby’s outfit. When reflecting on her designs, Quant once said, “I didn’t want to grow up, perhaps that’s something to do with it.” This explains many of her designs, not just loungewear.

Most of Mary Quant’s greatest fashion achievements occurred within the twenty years shown in the exhibition. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she decided to concentrate more on homeware and make-up than only clothing. This included the duvet, which she dubiously claims she invented.

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In 1988, Quant designed the interior of the Mini (1000) Designer. Dubbed the Mini Quant, it featured black-and-white striped seats with red trimming and red seatbelts. The steering wheel featured her signature daisy.

In 2000, Mary Quant resigned from Mary Quant Ltd, selling the company to a Japanese business; there are currently over 200 Mary Quant shops in Japan. Nonetheless, her fame lives on in Britain and she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion. Quant is also a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and the winner of the society’s highest award, the Minerva Medal.

The Mary Quant exhibition is a must-see for those who grew up wearing or being influenced by Quant’s designs. It is also interesting for the younger generations who were not around to experience the fashion first hand, but who benefit daily from her contributions. Mary Quant is a phenomenal woman who single-handedly became known and loved for her designs long before they were mass-produced. She knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age and she made her dream come true.

The V&A are exhibiting Mary Quant until 16th February 2020. Standard tickets are £12, although concessions apply. The exhibition takes place on two levels but it has been made wheelchair friendly.

Designer of Dreams

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Christian Dior with model Sylvie, circa 1948

Despite being extended until 1st September 2019, tickets for the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams – the largest Dior show ever staged in the UK – have sold out and those lucky enough to attend are still made to queue while they wait for the crowd to abate. So, what is it about the man that has caused the entirety of London to flock to the museum? Spanning from 1947 until the present day, the exhibition explores the history and impact of one of the leading fashion designers and fashion houses of the 20th century. Most importantly, perhaps, the V&A focuses on Dior’s relationship with Britain.

“I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.” – Christian Dior, 1957

The exhibition opens with a brief biography of Dior’s life before delving into his extensive wardrobe. Christian Dior was born on 21st January 1905 to a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer and owner of the firm Dior Frères, Maurice Dior (1872-1946) and his wife Madeleine Martin (1879-1931). For the first five years of his life, Christian lived in the seaside town of Granville on the coast of Normandy, France, until the family relocated to Paris. Here, he grew up with his four siblings; an older brother Raymond, and three younger siblings, Jacqueline, Bernard and Ginette, who changed her name to Catherine. Catherine Dior (1917-2008) was Christian’s closest sibling who helped to preserve her brother’s legacy after his death. She was also a member of the Polish intelligence unit based in France during World War II and survived capture, torture and a year in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

Despite his wish to study art and architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Dior’s parents insisted he enrolled at the School of Political Science in Paris, in the hopes that he would become a diplomat. Dior withdrew from the school after three years and completed his military conscription. In 1928, his parents relented and provided money for their son to open an art gallery with his friend Jacques Bonjean (1899-1990). Unfortunately, this business venture was short lived as the Great Depression, the loss of the family business and the death of Dior’s mother, meant the gallery had to close.

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This failure did not put Dior off pursuing an art career and he soon found himself working for the Paris-based fashion designer Robert Piguet (1898-1953). From 1937 until he was called up for military service, Dior worked as a modéliste (in-house designer) and was given the opportunity to design for three Piguet collections. Although the Second World War disrupted his career, these few years with Piguet set him up for the future. “Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”

After leaving the army in 1942, Dior began working for the fashion house of Lucien Lelong (1889-1958) as one of the primary designers. Although the fashion house aimed to preserve the French fashion industry, Dior spent the remainder of the war designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators.

When the war was over, Dior received a job offer from Marcel Boussac (1889-1908), the richest man in France, to design for the Paris couture house Philippe et Gaston. Dior, however, had dreams of opening his own fashion house and turned the offer down. On 8th December 1946, with financial help from Boussac, Dior founded his fashion house, presenting his first collection on 12th February the following year at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

“I have never seen such a crowd at a dress-show. Both showrooms were crowded and smart women were sitting all the way up the stairs, where they could only get a short glimpse of the manequins as they passed.”
– Betty Kenward, Tatler and Bystander, 1947

Originally named Corelle (which means circlet of flower patterns in English), the line was renamed New Look after the editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow (1887-1961) declared, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!” This new look was more extravagant than the clothing worn during the war years, which had been restricted by rations on fabric. The skirts were also much longer, which initially received criticism from women who had grown used to showing their legs.

Dior introduced boned, bustier bodices and wasp-waisted corsets, combined with petticoats to make the skirts flare out, giving the women’s bodies more shape. One of the most famous designs from the collection, the Bar suit, was inspired by the bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. It comprised a sculpted jacket and a pleated, full skirt, which quickly became the emblem for the New Look.

“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body.”
– Christian Dior, 1957

In his lifetime, Dior designed and launched 22 collections, which comprised more than 150 different looks. Each line had a title that reflected the type of style Dior had been inspired by or invented, for example, Zig-Zag, Verticale, Sinueuse, Tulipe and Flèche (arrow). Each one complemented the curves of the female figure and the movement of the human body. Each season was hotly debated in the fashion media, however, Dior’s designs continued to awe and inspire the public.

Dior’s first fashion show in Britain took place at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1950, which was so popular he began touring the country, showing his collection at various grand locations, including Blenheim Palace. Many of these events were held in aid of charity and attracted huge crowds of guests. The funds raised from his first show went towards creating the Museum of Costume (now the Fashion Museum, Bath). Another show raised money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday

Only four years after opening his own fashion house, Christian Dior received his most prestigious commission. “Does Your Highness feel like a gold person or a silver one?” is what Dior asked Princess Margaret (1930-2002), the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) when asked to design a dress for Margaret to wear on her 21st birthday. As immortalised in the photograph by Cecil Beaton (1904-80), Princess Margaret opted for gold, which was the colour used for the golden straw embroidery and sequins that embellished the skirt of the dress.

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The dress, which is worn by a pale-faced mannequin at the V&A’s exhibition, was an adaptation of one of Dior’s recent designs Matinée poétique. The asymmetric shoulder line, buttoned bodice and full skirt were made to suit small-waisted women, such as the princess.

If Dior was not already an international sensation, he was known worldwide after designing what would become Princess Margaret’s favourite dress. The following year, he began producing ready-to-wear versions of his haute couture garments to be sold at prestigious department stores, such as Harrods in London and Kendal Milne in Manchester. To do this successfully, Dior established the business C. D. Models, which was renamed Christian Dior London Ltd in 1954. Through this company, Dior established licensing deals with a range of British manufacturers, allowing him to use certain fabrics, such as Ascher and the Cumberland Mills.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Princess Margaret was not the only famous person Dior designed for, although she was probably the most important. When the novelist Emma Tennant (1937-2017) became a debutant, she ordered a red strapless gown. Nancy Mitford (1904-73), the author of Love in a Cold Climate, ordered the Daisy wool ensemble to wear when she had her portrait painted by Mogens Tvede (1897-1977). Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) ordered a number of Dior dresses, including her wedding dress, and Dior also designed a muslin embroidered wedding dress for a nineteen-year-old Jane Stoddart.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dior experimented with a huge range of styles, however, he continually returned to historic periods in his designs, particularly the Belle Époque from the late 1800s. He particularly liked the tight-waisted styles and elegant silks worn by people such as the French Empress Eugénie (1826-1920), the wife of Napoleon III (1808-1873). Dior was also inspired by the neo-classical architecture of buildings such as Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, Petit Trianon, and his own premises on Avenue Montaigne.

The V&A carefully replicated Dior’s favoured architectural style to create an 18th-century scene in which to display these historical dresses. The outfits would not look out of place in the royal court at Versailles despite being made during the twentieth and twenty-first century. Although Dior is no longer alive, his fashion house continues to draw on his original ideas and preferences.

Dior also took inspiration from places he had visited around the world. In the 1920s, as a young man, he travelled to London, Athens, Leningrad, Istanbul and the Balearic Islands. Some of his first designs were based on the architecture and fashion he saw on his trips. As his fame grew, Dior’s fashion house expanded to other countries, spanning from the Americas to Japan, which gave him several more styles to play with. The V&A focuses on five of the countries that inspired Dior: China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico.

“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

Growing up in Normandy and Paris, Dior was always fascinated by plants and gardens. His mother was proud of the family garden and the young Christian enjoyed studying all the flowers. It was only natural that flowers would become a stimulus for his designs. The shapes of the dresses in his New Look collection were influenced by the shape of an inverted flower, however, they were not what people would call “flowery”.

Dresses in his later collections had stronger floral themes, often involving embroidery and colour to make the shapes of petals. If the dress was not decorated with flowers, it resembled a flower itself. After Dior’s death, the successive designers at House of Dior continued to return to Dior’s garden theme.

Clothing was not the only thing that Christian Dior focused on. Even before he had set up his fashion business, Dior was determined to launch a perfume. In 1947, he and his childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche released their first scent Miss Dior, named after his youngest sister. It is said that while Dior was thinking of potential names for the perfume, Catherine walked into the room and his colleague announced: “Ah, here’s Miss Dior!”

“Perfume is the finishing touch to any dress.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

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Miss Dior flacons

Miss Dior was released in several different formats: travel sets, vaporisers, and a variety of shaped flacons, including one in the shape of a dog. Dior did not stop there, however, and released more perfumes, such as, Diorissimo, which is scented with lily-of-the-valley. In more recent years, The House of Dior has issued Eau Sauvage, Poison and J’adore.

Sadly, Christian Dior died from a heart attack on 24th October 1957 at the age of 52 while on holiday in Montecatini, Italy. His death being totally unexpected has led to a number of rumours about the cause of the heart attack. Some claim the attack was brought on after choking on a fishbone, whereas the Time’s obituary stated he died while playing a game of cards. Another source spreads the rumour that the heart attack was caused by a strenuous sexual encounter. To this day, the true circumstances remain undisclosed.

Despite dying at the height of his career, his fashion house did not suffer. The running of the company fell to Dior’s apprentice Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008), who would eventually go on to found his own fashion label. Over the years there have been a number of other worthy designers who have kept the House of Dior at the top of the fashion leaderboard.

As part of the exhibition, the V&A explores the works of the six creative directors that have led the House of Dior since 1957. Each designer brought new ideas to the table whilst also retaining the renowned visions of Christian Dior.

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Yves Saint Laurent working for Christian Dior, 1950s

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent was appointed creative director at the House of Dior when he was only twenty-one years old. Before Dior’s death, he had worked as the designer’s assistant, however, his new role meant he could design his own line of clothes. His first collection in 1958 was a great success, which was followed in 1960 with the Silhouette de demain (Silhouette of tomorrow) line. Saint Laurent introduced the concept of skirts worn over trousers and geometric style cuts. Unlike Dior, who emphasised thin waistlines, Saint Laurent’s waists were elongated and were matched with turtle necks, hats and coats. His time as creative director, however, was short-lived, being called up for national army service in 1960.

Following Saint Laurent was Marc Bohan (b.1926) who was the House of Dior’s longest serving creative director from 1960 until 1989. Bohan had worked for a number of other fashion houses, such as Piguet where Dior had worked earlier in his career, before joining the House of Dior in 1958. As creative director, one of his most successful collections was the Slim Look, which was considered to be “a complete triumph” according to the New York Times. The Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was so taken with the design, she ordered twelve dresses.

Bohan’s aim was to design dresses that women loved to wear. He famously remarked, “N’oubliez pas la femme,” which means, “Don’t forget the woman.” He stuck to this ethos throughout his time at the House of Dior, believing that it was important to make a woman feel good and comfortable in what she wore as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Bohan eventually left the company to become the director of the London house of Norman Hartnell.

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Dior by Gianfranco Ferré

Despite being a leading fashion designer in Milan with his own fashion line, the next creative director Gianfranco Ferré (1944-2007) joined the House of Dior in 1989. Ferré was very proud to be chosen to work for Dior and helped to breathe new life into Parisian haute couture. Although he experimented with fine fabrics and embellishments, he tried to retain some of the original features of Christian Dior’s designs, such as the tight waits and full skirts. His first collection at Dior, Ascot-Cecil Beaton, won him the Dé d’Or (Gold Thimble) award.

Gibraltar-born John Galliano (b.1960) was the next person to take the reins as creative director. During his 15-year stint, Galliano pushed the boundaries of haute couture, creating eclectic designs based on extensive research throughout the world. Rather than merely creating clothes for women to wear, Galliano designed imaginative sets for fashion shows, which transported the audience to other worlds complete with imaginary characters that complimented his extraordinary designs.

Galliano brought the House of Dior into the twenty-first century, mixing in elements of subversive social themes with fashion. Simultaneously, John Galliano was the head of his own eponymous fashion company, which he left in 2011 at the same time he left Dior. He is currently the creative director of Paris-based fashion house Maison Margiela.

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Christian Dior by Raf Simons (b.1968), wool coat, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2012

Raf Simons (b.1968), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, joined the House of Dior as the next creative director in 2012. In stark contrast to his predecessor Galliano, Simons was a minimalist, focusing on the cut and line of his garments. His aim was to produce modern, practical clothes for contemporary women. He was obsessed with detail and gave ateliers precise instructions about tailoring. His clothes attracted a younger, newer generation to the works of Dior and the House received many more clients.

After Simons left to work on his own brand in 2016, the House of Dior employed its first female creative director: Maria Grazia Chiuri (b.1964). Her first ready-to-wear collection of t-shirts featuring slogans, such as “We Should All Be Feminists,” caused debates amongst the fashion world. Chiuri believes the role of a designer has changed in the past decade; rather than only creating pretty dresses, the designer is responsible for allowing the public to have a voice.

“I strive to be attentive and open to the world, and to create fashion that resembles the women of today.”
– Maria Grazia Chiuri

Although Chiuri draws on the designs from across the history of the House of Dior, she aims to put the needs of contemporary women first, focusing on both feminity and feminism. She has been inspired by many women of the past, such as the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who are the faces of early feminism.

“The ballgown is your dream, and it must make you a dream.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

The exhibition ends with The Dior Ball, which shows off dozens of evening dresses and ballgowns produced by the House of Dior over the years. Christian Dior loved designing clothes for balls and parties because he could be as imaginative as he wished without the restraint of the practicalities of everyday-wear. The gowns took finery and excess to the extreme, which has been replicated by the successive creative directors.

Set out on revolving platforms in a room with changing lights and enchanting music, walking into the final room of the exhibition is like stepping into a fairytale. Many of these stunning dresses have graced the red carpets at film events over the past seventy years and it looks like stars will be continuing to chose Christian Dior for numerous years to come.

The V&A has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 200-or-so of Dior dresses up close, which, unless you can afford to buy one, is as close as you are ever likely to get – that is if you have managed to secure a ticket. Extra tickets for Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will be released monthly, for the month ahead. Very limited tickets are available to purchase daily at 10am from the Grand Entrance on a first-come-first-served basis.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

For the first time ever, the possessions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have left Mexico and arrived at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to help tell her powerful, yet tragic story, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Beginning with an introduction to her family and ending with an impressive collection of clothing, Kahlo’s personal belongings, which were not discovered until 2004, reveal how she assembled her personal identity and coped with her many hardships.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6th July 1907 and would grow up to become a painter of surrealism and folk art based on her strong opinions about identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Unfortunately, life was not going to be easy for Kahlo, particularly where her health was concerned.

Kahlo’s parents were the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932) of indigenous descent. Although she had three sisters and two step-sisters, it appears that Frida was the favourite. Whilst her siblings went to a convent school, her father insisted she was enrolled into a German school. The reason for her father’s favouritism was on account of her disabilities as a result of Polio, which she contracted when she was six years old. As a result, her right leg was much shorter and thinner than the left.

Unfortunately, children were no better than they are today and bullied Frida about her defects. Isolated from her peers, her father took it upon himself to teach her about literature, nature, and philosophy, which set her in good stead for her political future with the Communist party. Guillermo also taught his daughter about photography, thus introducing Frida into the world of art and composition.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood took place during a time when women were not given equal opportunities and were regarded as weaker and lesser than men. Therefore, Kahlo’s determination to go to school to train to be a doctor shows her strength of character. Unfortunately, this dream of hers was never to be fulfilled. On 17th September 1925, whilst on her way home from school, Kahlo suffered near-fatal injuries after the bus she was travelling on collided with a street car. Lucky to survive, unlike many of the other passengers, Kahlo suffered fractured ribs, leg and collarbone and an iron handrail impaled through her pelvis.

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Plaster corset painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo suffered from pain and illness for the rest of her life as a result of the crash, however, it opened up an entirely new career path for her. During her recovery, Kahlo spent the majority of time in bed, her back held up by uncomfortable plaster corsets, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Lying on her back with a specially crafted table over her legs, Kahlo stared at herself in a mirror positioned above her bed and began to paint her self-portrait.

Self-portraits make up the majority of Kahlo’s paintings, using them as a means of exploring her identity and existence. Although she never painted the terrible traffic collision, Kahlo expressed her feelings and pain through her artwork. Many of these are made up of several surreal elements, commenting on different aspects of her life.

The V&A does not display many of her paintings, however, except for a still life at the beginning of the exhibition, the few that are shown are self-portraits. These are spread throughout the gallery in order to expand upon the personal objects and periods of her life.

Frida Kahlo can be recognised by her black hair and a striking monobrow, as well as the fine black hairs between her nose and lips – an element many female artists would choose to omit when painting their self-portrait. Although she utilised make-up and carefully styled her hair, Kahlo was not one to be oppressed by female stereotypes. Her strong facial hair was a part of her and she wore it with pride and never let it bother her, even when some young American boys heckled her in the street, asking where the circus was.

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Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

A few of the cosmetics and medications Kahlo frequently used are in display cases along with her sewing box, hairbrush and jewellery. Visitors can also see remnants of paint tubes and brushes personally used by Kahlo shortly before her death in 1954.

These belongings open a window into Kahlo’s life, which the symbolism in her paintings does not quite achieve. Whilst her self-portraits are a visual description of her appearance and cultural identity, the personal items reveal the true woman behind the paintbrush.

Kahlo typically included Mexican components in her paintings as well as the occasional post-colonialism reference. The colours, style of clothing and atmosphere are the type she experienced growing up in Mexico, which she endeavoured to hold onto despite the rise in Americanisation. Kahlo often painted exotic plants native to the country in the backgrounds and foregrounds of her portraits and sometimes included likenesses of her pets, which were also endemic to Mexico, for instance, spider monkeys.

Whenever Kahlo was unwell, her paintings reflected the pain and frustration she was feeling. Kahlo represented herself as wounded and broken, or like a child, depending on how the circumstances affected her mentality. Toward the end of her life, expressing the pain she was in became a common theme for Kahlo.

In The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo paints herself in the nude, her stomach and torso split apart to reveal a broken column that could topple at any moment. Her arms and face are attacked by nails, which, although draw no blood, express the pain and distress she was under at the time. The metaphor of the broken column alludes to the state her spine was in by the 1940s. Her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for any length of time due to the pain and lack of strength in the bones. Despite undergoing several operations throughout her life, nothing had cured her spinal problems and she was soon due to undergo an operation to fuse a bone graft and a steel support to her spine in order to straighten it. Regrettably, this procedure was also unsuccessful.

Despite this, Frida remained mentally strong, as emphasised by her stoic facial expression in the painting and upright posture. The tears on her face represent how she is feeling inside, but the vacuous facial features do not give any of that away. Her eyes look straight ahead at the audience as though she is conveying her spiritual triumph through a glance, challenging herself and others to accept the situation as it is and learn to endure and live with it.

Whilst Kahlo was recovering from the bus crash, other people her age were finishing school and attending university. Although she had missed out on her chance to attend herself, once she was released from bed rest in 1927, she regained contact with her friends and joined them in their involvement with student politics. This quickly led to joining the Mexican Communist Party where Kahlo was introduced to many notable people, including the most successful Mexican painter at the time, Diego Rivera (1886-1957). As well as her politics, Rivera was interested in her artwork stating, “it was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

Despite the age gap, Rivera and Kahlo became a couple and were later married in 1929. Kahlo’s parents regarded the match as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove,” however, Kahlo’s father was pleased she had married a rich man who could support her expensive medical treatment. The pair moved to the state of Morelos where Rivera, as a mural painter, had been given a commission. Unfortunately, this meant Kahlo was exposed to the fighting of the Mexican civil war. It is believed this sparked her preference of traditional peasant clothing and Mexican style art, now that she was more aware of the importance of Mexican identity and history.

Rivera had to move around a lot depending on who commisioned him for a mural. In 1930, Kahlo went with him to San Francisco in the United States where she was introduced to a number of American painters. Whilst the trip was by no means horrible, Kahlo was unimpressed by American life, which she regarded as boring, and made her even more determined to express her own heritage in her artwork.

One of the paintings she produced at this time emphasises her longing for her home country. Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (1932) shows the artist standing on an imaginary boundary stone between her country and the country in which she was currently residing. She paints herself in traditional clothing, holding a Mexican flag, indicating her loyalty to her country.

Facing towards Mexico, a handful of crops grow in the foreground, symbolising Mexico’s agricultural history, however, the background is the type of scene Kahlo saw whilst in America. Tall buildings obscure the sky and chimney stacks pollute the air with smoke. On the left, a pre-Columbian building lies partially ruined and being struck by lightning, suggesting that America has destroyed the indigenous origins of the country.

Kahlo’s marriage was not much of a happy one. A number of times, Kahlo fell pregnant but feeling unable to carry and care for a baby, had the pregnancies terminated. Later, she decided she would like to try to carry a baby to full term, however, in her weakened state, her body was unable to cope and resulted in miscarriages. Whilst the loss of an unborn baby can be hard upon a couple, it was Rivera’s womanising ways that caused the most strain. After he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, she moved out and began affairs of her own, with both men and with women. This included Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who was living in Kahlo’s house after seeking asylum in Mexico. Eventually, Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in 1939, however, they remained on friendly terms.

The Two Fridas (1939) was painted shortly after the couple’s divorce. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has painted herself twice; on the right is Frida wearing traditional costume and on the left, she wears modern clothing. Both Frida’s are holding hands and their hearts, which are visible on top of their chests, are joined together by a single artery.

Kahlo admitted that the painting represents her broken heart and loneliness after her separation from her husband. Torn between her traditional Mexican values and the modern developments occurring throughout the country, she felt lost and unable to determine her own identity. Without Rivera, Kahlo had lost a little bit of herself.

Sadly, for Kahlo, divorce was soon to be the least of her worries. As previously mentioned, Kahlo’s spine was rapidly deteriorating during the 1940s, however, to make matters worse, in 1953 her right leg, already disfigured from Polio, developed gangrene and had to be amputated below the knee. She had a prosthetic leg made so that she could still move about, albeit slowly and in pain. The V&A displays her prosthetic wearing one of her bright red leather boots. Co-curator Circe Henestrosa declared, “this is my favourite object in the exhibition. It is really modern, and it symbolises her whole attitude. Far from letting herself be defined as an invalid, she intervened as a rebel act. She was comfortable uncovering her disabilities.”

On the night of 12th July 1954, Kahlo was in bed suffering from severe pain and a high fever. Having anticipated her death days before, Kahlo had produced a sketch of the Angel of Death annotated with the words, “I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida.” When Kahlo’s nurse came to check on her at 6am the next morning, she was dead.

According to Wikipedia, the Tate Modern has listed Kahlo as “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”, and art historian Elizabeth Bakewell concurs that Kahlo was “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures”. Kahlo’s fame has increased posthumously both as an artist and an unconventional personality. She is admired by feminists and people of the LGBT community on account of her bisexuality.

The V&A exhibition culminates with an extraordinary selection of Kahlo’s clothing, which was discovered in 2004 locked away in her personal bathroom of her house-cum-museum. All the outfits are full of bright colours and displayed on shop dummies created to look like Frida Kahlo, complete with her traditional braided hairstyle.

The style of dress is called Tehuana and comprises of several pieces. The blouses, or Huipile, were typical in Mexico and Central American countries and were usually made by hand. The embroidery is intricately beautiful and must have taken days or even weeks to produce; no doubt these items are one of a kind.

The skirts are floor length and equally delicately decorated. The material would have been perfect for Kahlo to cover up her disfigured leg and, later, the prosthetic leg. The skirt and Huipile were combined with various shawls or rezbos, which were wrapped around the shoulders. Although this was the traditional garb of Mexican peasants, the colours were fit for the elite.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
-Frida Kahlo

The V&A has done a wonderful job, as always, with Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Rather than concentrating on her artwork, the museum looks at her entire life from birth to death. With only a limited selection of paintings available, visitors learn more about Kahlo as a person rather than a painter. They discover her passionate determination, her background, the future she paved for herself and, most importantly, the way she wished to be seen by the world.

Most people who visit the exhibition will likely have already heard of and know a little about Frida Kahlo. This is a great benefit because the museum does not elaborate much on certain events of her life. Another downside, as overheard whilst walking around the exhibition, is some of the information about certain paintings or photographs is far too low and small to read for many people, resulting in crowds bending over to get a closer look. Whilst there are booklets with large print available, there are not enough for everyone, especially as the tickets are usually sold out by mid-morning.

The V&A will be showing Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up until Sunday 4th November 2018. Tickets cost £15 and can be booked online, which is strongly advisable to limit disappointment. 

Tiddely-Pom: Exploring a classic

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bump, bump, bump … Is that the sound of a teddy bear being dragged down the stairs? No! It is the sound of a famous bear of very little Brain making his way into the Victoria and Albert Museum. In a unique exhibition, the Best Bear in All the World is celebrated in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic along with all of his friends. Now in his 90s, Pooh has become a timeless character with universal appeal, however, without the creative partnership between author A. A. Milne and illustrator E. H. Shepard, Pooh’s legacy would not have come to anything at all.

Pooh knew that an Adventure was going to happen …

Stepping through the tall double doors, visitors are instantly transported to the fictional setting of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). From above, Winnie-the-Pooh dangles at the end of a string amongst a barrage of large, pretend, blue balloons – an allusion to the narrative in which Pooh attempts to steal honey from the bees at the top of a tree. Wall illustrations and huge three-dimensional letters warmly welcome everyone Hallo, and thus, the spellbinding adventure begins.

Winnie-the-Pooh first appeared in a book titled When We Were Very Young in 1924. It contains a selection of poems aimed at young children by the author Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956). It was also the first instance that Milne and E.H. Shepard collaborated together. The pair had met through the British satirical magazine Punch, which Milne was the assistant editor.

Previous to his child-oriented books, Milne had successfully written humorous verse, social satires, fairytales and plays, however, Pooh was destined to quickly overshadow these works. Likewise, Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976) had also achieved a lot before the advent of Pooh. The Punch contributor was already well-known for his pen and ink drawings, including the anthropomorphic illustrations of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (1908).

The Trinity College, Cambridge graduate, Milne, first experimented with juvenile stories after the birth of his only child Christopher Robin Milne in 1920. The name Christopher Robin has become synonymous with Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters, such as Eeyore and Piglet, but what some people may not realise is that the character was based on the author’s son. By observing Christopher playing in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, near the family’s weekend retreat, Milne concocted ideas for the adventures the fictionalised boy would go on with his favourite zoomorphic toys.

In order to produce the illustrations that would soon be greatly adored throughout the world, Shepard was invited to spend time studying and drawing Christopher’s toys. Sketch after sketch was produced – some of which are on display – until the perfect versions of the characters had been attained; thus, Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo were born.

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A map of the Hundred-Acre Wood

Shepard also spent time in Ashdown Forest drawing the trees and landscape and inventing homes for the funny creatures. The illustrator put in a considerable amount of effort to produce a clever and detailed map of Pooh’s home, The Hundred Akre Wood [sic], which helped to create a consistency throughout the illustrations in Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequel The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

What made Winnie-the-Pooh successful and cause A. A. Milne, to be regarded as the “laureate of the nursery”? Milne’s writing follows the first, although unofficial, rule of children’s fiction: get rid of the parents, then we can begin. Being the only human character, it is likely that children mostly relate to Christopher Robin, an adventurous boy who is usually much cleverer than his silly old bear. However, Milne has given human traits to all the toys/animals.

By using a mixture of thick and thin pen nibs, Shepard subtly conveyed the facial expressions and personalities of each character. Pooh is often striking a pose of mild bewilderment for he is a “Bear of Very Little Brain, and Long Words Bother Me.” Likewise, Piglet often sports a look of surprise at all he encounters.

Milne also gives his characters minor vices, proving that even fictional beings are not completely perfect. The rotund Pooh is a strong example of gluttony with his penchant for honey. As the cupboards in Pooh’s house midway through the exhibition reveal, he can get through ten jars of honey in four days. Bother!

Eeyore is full of self-pity and has since been diagnosed with depression by older readers, whereas, Tigger, the hyperactive tiger, is the vainest of the bunch, falsely believing that there is nothing that Tiggers cannot do – a claim that is disproven time and again. The names of these characters have become adjectives used in everyday life. Melancholy folk are often regarded as Eeyorish, and the sanguine, Tiggerish.

Other vices that appear are idleness (“What I like doing best is Nothing“), evasiveness, self-preservation, and suspiciousness. Being small and defenceless, Piglet is prone to the latter. He has many fears that he bravely faces in quite a few of the stories.

Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, and Roo are secondary characters but each has their own flaws, although, of course, they have virtues, too. Rabbit’s personality is not dissimilar to the stereotypical old man. He is usually portrayed as irritable and has little time for the other toys.

“Hallo, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”

Owl is considered by the others to be wise and is often sought out for advice. Readers will instantly pick up on the inaccuracies of Owl’s intelligence and chuckle as Pooh and friends innocently believe his every word. “Owl hasn’t exactly got a Brain, but he knows Things.”

Kanga is the “mum-friend” of the group and always looks after everyone, including her excitable child, Roo. Whilst Rabbit is making plans and Tigger is causing hullabaloo, Kanga tries to keep everyone in check, although some may accuse her of spoiling all the fun.

Yet, it is not only a good set of characters that make a book an international sensation; the storyline has to attract the minds of its target audience, too. The overall theme is childhood innocence, which would both resonate with youngsters and amuse the adults doing the reading. Each story has its own issue from mishap and misunderstanding, and friendship and falling out, to problem-solving, and learning to read, count or write. In their own special way, each adventure in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner is as educative as it is entertaining.

As for the written storyline, Milne simplifies the language for the benefit of children, even going as far as to invent words that youngsters may use instead of correct terms and phrases. Many of these are words Pooh has misheard Christopher Robin pronounce and some are spelt phonetically rather than accurately, for example, Hallo, and Hunny.

The animals’ ability to spell is atrocious, as emphasised in both the text and the illustrations. Wol and Eor replace Owl and Eeyore, and letters are often switched around in the simplest of words. Fortunately, the intelligent reader can determine what these words are meant to say. Milne spices up the text even more by including random capitalisation of nouns. This adds to the child-like narrative and alludes to the characters learning the correct way to read and write.

Poetry is a common feature in the Pooh stories, which adds further hilarity to the story. On his walks around the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh hums to himself “umty-tiddly, umty-too,” and makes up songs about nature, friendship, and the world around him. The majority of these are nonsense rhymes due to the fact that Pooh thinks Good Thoughts to himself about Nothing … However, the poems rhyme and have since been added to music by Harold Fraser-Simson (1872-1944), a neighbour of the Milne family in Chelsea. Now everyone can sing Tiddle-um-tum and tra-la-la. 

Unfortunately, Milne’s style of prose did not sit well with everyone in the 1920s and 30s. Despite its growing success, Constant Reader, a.k.a Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) claimed in The New Yorker that the word hummy “marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

The books’ harshest critic, however, was the real Christopher Robin, who purportedly hated the stories. Despite this, his restoration and renaming of Posingford Bridge, now Pooh Sticks Bridge, suggest he may not have been as averse as the media claims. A cardboard replica of the bridge is included in the exhibition for visitors to cross over, whilst pretending to play Pooh Sticks over an animated, digital river.

It is clear from the family photographs displayed in a nursery setting that Milne loved his son very much, and it is unlikely that he would have wished to upset Christopher by borrowing his name and toys for his literature. Pictured sitting on his father’s knee, and in another, with his mother Daphne, Christopher Robin poses for black and white photographs. He is also pictured in the woods with his toy bear who was about to become famous throughout the world.

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Teddy bear, manufactured by Margarete Steiff, 1906 – 10. Museum no. MISC.10-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Examples of bears that were similar to Christopher Robin’s are on display, including ones made specifically for the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017). Another bear, similar to the one belonging to E. H. Shepard’s son, sits beside Christopher’s. The reason for this is Shepard used both bears as visual references when developing the iconic illustrations.

Throughout the writing and publishing process, Milne and Shepard were in close contact, with letters being sent back and forth containing new ideas and suggestions. A few of these have been acquired by the V&A, and visitors are invited to read them if they are able to decipher the tiny, almost illegible, writing.

By working together on Winnie-the-Pooh, the original book became one of the first of its kind in which text and illustration worked together. Traditionally, an illustrator was given a completed manuscript to draw scenes for, which would then be placed in strategically positioned sections of the page. What Milne and Shepard achieved were instances where text and illustration combined to make a complete image. In some instances, Milne refers to the pictures or refrains from mentioning the character’s name because the reader can already see to whom is being referred.

The entirety of the exhibition is made up of temporary walls containing enlarged versions of E. H. Shepard’s illustrations. By making them life-size, the museum has created a playground for children where they can walk through tiny doors, ring bells, open cupboards, climb into Piglet’s house and slide back out, sit at a table in a pretend forest and draw their own trees, and so on.

Whilst the children are having a fun, enjoyable experience, the adults are able to study some of the original manuscripts and illustrations. Over 270 drawings, letters, proofs, and photographs make up this extensive collection. The museum has gone even further to explain the techniques Shepard used to create atmospheric scenes, suspended animation, and the all-important human traits. Artists and illustrators may benefit from taking note of the use of lines and shading, and the clever trick of adding white gouache to create a snowy effect.

Before the exhibition really gets underway, a corridor fitted with a lengthy glass case reveals the many faces of Winnie-the-Pooh from the 1920s up until the present day. Winnie-the-Pooh had only been on bookshelves for four years when the father of the licensing industry Stephen Slesinger (1901-1953) began designing products featuring the increasingly popular illustrations.  The ‘Teddy Toycompany founded by B.C. Hope and Abe Simmonds made some of the earliest Pooh merchandise, including a golden teddy bear.

The commodification of Pooh escalated further in 1966 when Disney produced its first animated film based on Milne’s stories. For this, art workers simplified the black and white drawings to fit their house style and gave Pooh the red t-shirt he is often seen wearing today. Alongside the film came a whole host of paraphernalia with new ideas being developed every year.

The books themselves have been translated into over 30 languages, including Latin. Not only that, new books have been published with simplified stories containing updated illustrations. Pooh has also been the face of cookery books, political satire, and a whole host of other things. Examples of these are situated in the primary section of the exhibition.

The final section of the exhibition reveals how E. H. Shepard’s black and white illustrations became the coloured versions that many children are familiar with today. Disney had already brought the stories into the colour world and determined the shades of each character, specifically Pooh and his redshirt. When the publisher Frank Herrmann (b1945) decided in 1970 to add colour to the originals, Shepard was already in his 90s and rapidly losing his sight. Nevertheless, with the aid of enlarged copies of his drawings, he developed coloured versions, however, due to the popularity of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh, had to conform to the colours the public had grown to expect.

25463903_10212824881688294_1466548422_nThe coloured versions are bold and bright like many illustrations in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, this removed the delicacy of the original hand-drawn lines, making them less detailed and gentle. This may have been the norm for illustrations of that era, however, in hindsight, the originals were already perfect.

Here, the exhibition comes to an end. After a superb adventure through the minds of both the author and illustrator, visitors are much more informed about the silly old bear and his origins. Winnie-the-Pooh is much more than a story for children, he has found a permanent home in the world and it is difficult to imagine a life without him.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has excelled in its curation of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. Not only is it a grand display of illustration, it is like entering a different world. It is hard to believe that the same gallery hosted the Pink Floyd exhibition mere months ago.

Suitable for anyone between the ages of two and 102, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is worth the visit. It brings fresh insight into children’s literature and will hopefully ignite a passion for reading within the younger generation.

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So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the hill, a little boy and his bear will always be playing.

This multi-sensory and playful exhibition, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classicwill be open at the V&A until Sunday 8th April 2018. Tickets are £8 but children under the age of 11 are free when accompanied by a paying adult. 

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design

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The Sackler Courtyard, Victoria and Albert Museum, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A), 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, is regarded as the finest museum of art and design in the world. With over 2.3 million objects from the past five millennia, the museum is constantly expanding. Housing hundreds of collections including post-classical sculpture, fine art, silver works, ceramics, furniture, musical instruments, oriental art, and the National Art Library, it is unsurprising that the content and building is forever increasing.

From its early beginnings in 1852, the museum has undergone numerous extensions, the very latest being completed this year. Exhibition Road, South Kensington, is home to several important locations, specifically the V&A’s neighbours: the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. A new, user-friendly entrance has been designed and built, providing easy access from the road to the contemporary Sainsbury Gallery. This quarter of the museum will be home to temporary exhibitions.

Rather than having an entrance directly from the pavement, the Amanda Levete Architects have paved an ultra-modern courtyard, incorporating arches from the 19th-century building. This open-air area contains a glass-walled cafe to serve the anticipated 3.4 million visitors who use this new entrance each year.

Although people visit the V&A for its extensive collections, the building itself is a work of art. The original founders aimed to exhibit the best and most innovative design in the actual fabric of the building, as well as in its contents. The idea for the museum was introduced by Prince Albert (1819-61) the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). After the very successful Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park – the first World’s fair – Prince Albert urged for the £186,000 to be spent on developing a cultural district in South Kensington; “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert’s ambition was to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry.”

In 1857, construction began on the building that would become the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). It was not to only contain galleries but be the residence of government departments and colleges, including the Central School of Practice Art (Royal College of Art). The original building was a temporary iron structure that stuck out like a sore thumb. It was also quickly evident that it would not be large enough to accommodate the sheer number of exhibits. Thus, a new elaborate plan was drawn out and construction began on a permanent structure.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the museum expanded with new rooms being constantly added to the structure. Henry Cole (1808-82), the first director of the museum, had very ambitious decorative schemes and wanted the building to represent the best of British design. With a distrust for foreign builders, Cole employed leading English artists and designers of his own choosing to work on the building.

Amongst the many workers were two painters and sculptors: George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and Frederic Leighton (1830-96), dominant figures in late Victorian art. They were commissioned to produce canvases to display inside the gallery as well as design intricate mosaics. These mosaics made up the thirty-five portraits of significant European artists that adorned the South Court. This was later affectionately named the Kensington Valhalla after the Norse mythological term for the resting place of heroes.

Specific rooms within the museum were assigned to various artists to decorate. One interior designer of particular note was William Morris (1834-96) who was known for his distinctive designs, craftsmanship, and paintings, amongst many other things. Another name worth knowing is Owen Jones (1809-74), who was commissioned to produce decorations for the Oriental Courts. He wanted his designs to complement the objects on show, therefore took great care to depict Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art styles.

Godfrey Sykes (1824-66), a Yorkshire-born designer, was very active in the development of the South Kensington Museum. He was the head of the decorative design team responsible for the majority of the museum’s ornamentations and ornate trimmings. The museum was the last building he worked on before his early death at the age of 42. Some of his best work includes terracotta columns in the Lecture Theatre and a tiled frieze in the Centre Refreshment Room. These, however, were not necessarily created by Sykes himself. Although he produced the designs, others would have been responsible for the modelling, including a man named John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), the father of the world-known writer, Rudyard Kipling.

Sykes was known for his sense of humour, which he used to great effect in his “inhabited” alphabet with witty touches. Each letter contained an illustration of a person or persons interacting with the letter. These are located throughout the museum and are often used in relevant books published by the Science and Art Department.

The director, Henry Cole, and evidently the brains of the construction, retired in 1873. Although building works continued for another decade, work eventually stopped, leaving the museum in a chaotic, unfinished mess. Although able to function as an institution for the great collection of objects, the public was unhappy with the sorry looking appearance of what had promised to be a grand building. After much campaigning, an architectural competition was announced in 1891 to find a final design for the museum.

The winner of the competition was the young Aston Webb (1849-1930), an English architect who would later go on to design the facade of Buckingham Palace. Although some critics preferred the design submitted by the runner up, John Belcher (1841-1913), Webb’s proposal was far more practical.

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Design for the completion of the South Kensington Museum, Aston Webb, 1891

It was an additional eight years between the competition and the beginning of construction. Aston Webb finalised his design proposal thinking carefully about the general floor plan as well as the appearance of the exterior. Similarly to the original designers, Webb wanted to show off the splendour of British art and emphasise the importance of the museum. The facade of the building includes statues of significant people involved with the museum.

… a statue of Queen Victoria supported by St George and St Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen. The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge. …The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.

-Aston Webb

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Left to right: Statue of George Frederic Watts by Richard Reginald Goulden, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 – 6; statue of William Morris by Arthur George Walker, Exhibition Road façade, 1905 – 6; statue of Alfred Stevens by James Gamble, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 –6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, Queen Victoria had died before the completion of the museum and never got to see herself immortalised in stone above the Grand Entrance. She did, however, take the opportunity to lay the foundation stone for the new structure, and thus renamed the South Kensington Museum the Victoria and Albert Museum. King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, officially opened the V&A on 26th June 1909.

Aston Webb’s design was the last major construction the museum undertook – the new Sainsbury Gallery being rather minor in comparison. Yet, plenty of change has occurred over the past century.  Between 1910 and 1914, the then director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith (1859-1944) objected to the ostentatious design on the museum. He believed that the focus should be on the items in the collection and that visitors did not want to be distracted by the surrounding architecture. The way forward, in his eyes, was to create modest and neutrally decorated display spaces.

Harcourt Smith ordered the destruction or covering up of the supposedly inappropriate decor. Fortunately, the First World War halted the procedure, thus saving many of the original features. It was not until 1973 with the appointment of Sir Roy Strong (b.1935) as the director that the work conducted pre-war was reversed. Strong managed to restore some of the original interiors and reinstate the 19th-century collections. Unfortunately, some of the initial features are lost forever.

Beginning as a dream of Prince Albert’s, and quickly becoming a reality, the Victoria and Albert museum is continually becoming more diverse as knowledge is widened about past works of art and cultural representation. The V&A is not meant to be a historical museum, therefore it also keeps up with the times, displaying modern and contemporary exhibitions amongst the ancient. A recent exhibition illustrates how variegated the V&A’s collection can be. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (closing on 1st October 2017) is the first audio-visual display put on by the museum, showing the beginnings, middle and end of the iconic British band.

Despite the various extensions over the years, the Victoria and Albert Museum remains one of the most difficult buildings to understand and navigate. However, this is one of the great appeals of the museum. It is a unique building with an unequalled collection. It is possible to visit the museum several times and see something different on each trip. As the collection continues to grow, the V&A will never lose its appeal; there is something there for everyone.

Any visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum is likely to be bemused as to what exactly the central thread that animates these discrepant if marvellous collections. The answer is that there is none. For over a century the museum has proved an extrememly capacious handbag.

-Sir Roy Strong

 

Fairy-Truths

A recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood displayed a range of photographs recreating some of the world’s most famous fairytales. Sonya Hurtado, a Spanish freelance photographer, uses child models as the focal points of her surreal art work, thus her simply-titled series of work, Tales, is rather in-keeping with the rest of the museum’s collection.

Tales is made up of twelve images in which Hurtado explores the imaginary world of childhood. Despite the happy, carefree demeanour society likes to believe children have, they are often victims of isolation, fear and despair. This display is not for children, but about children. It tries to reveal to the average adult the complexity of a child’s mind and their confusing emotions.

Using fairytales as the subject matter conveys a sense of innocence with an underlying darkness. These tales were not always the “happily-ever-after” stories children are told today; many originate from disturbing, violent backgrounds that would never get approval from publishers of juvenile fiction today.

However, it is not these ancient versions that Hurtado is depicting in her photographic compositions. Instead, she argues that the contemporary narratives are just as disconcerting. From the outside, they may appear fun, happy and enjoyable, but after deeper thought and consideration, worrying issues come to light.

Take, for example, Rapunzel: locking a girl in a tower is not something society would find acceptable. It would be labelled child abuse, and the villain arrested. No doubt a man using said child’s hair to climb up the wall would also be frowned upon. Similar concerns crop up in most fairytales. Hansel and Gretel: abandoning children in a forrest. Cinderella: child/slave labour. Little Red Riding Hood: is it acceptable to send a child out on a journey alone through the woods? Snow White: the queen tries to kill her, for goodness sake!

By manipulating and contrasting shadow and colour, Hurtado lets the atmosphere speak for itself, and reveal the more sinister side to fairy-tales. Her photographic works almost look like paintings due to the many components and vibrant tones. Many of the outcomes are inspired by imaginary stories as well as real life scenarios, thus making the viewer more conscious of the darker interpretations.

Tales is not an exhibition curated solely for aesthetic purposes, it creates awareness of the vulnerability of children of the present day, as well as educating its audience on the origin of fairytales. As a result, the Museum of Childhood was the perfect location for such a display. In a place where visitors are already geared to learn and discover, I expect the artwork was greatly admired and studied, and perhaps left a lasting impression on newly opened minds.