Monday, 31 October 2011

The tomb of the unknown craftsman

So from Unknown Stuntmen, to Unknown Craftsmen, I visited Grayson Perry's exhibition at the British Museum. The British Museum allowed Perry unlimited access to its archive, from which he has selected a series of objects from across continents and time periods. He has then presented these objects alongside his own work, much of which has been specifically made for the exhibition, building on the elements of craft he found in the archive and manipulating them to communicate our present.

One of the best things about the presentation of this exhibition is how clear and helpful the notes are throughout, giving the visitor just the right amount of information, without prescribing a specific reading of the object in front of you. It is also the artist, Grayson Perry himself,  who speaks through the notes, taking away any facade of 'objectivity' and reinforcing the very personal nature of the curation.

At the entrance to exhibition, he tells us that he is an artist, not a historian, emphasising that what we are seeing has no nationalist, ideological or political agenda. This is of course an important thing to set straight in advance, because it is key that we enter into the space he has created without a set of constructed ideas about time, history and geography. Rather, we are urged to rely entirely on our imaginations, emotions and, to a large extent, our memories.

In doing so, however, Grayson Perry is therefore making some very clear connections to post-modernist historical theory, who encouraged historians to re-think the 'craft' of thinking about the past in exactly these ways. Moreover, by drawing upon the historic myth of the 'Unknown Soldier' in the title of the exhibition, he makes direct allusions to some very specific aspects of history.

Importantly, the objects are not grouped according to region or date, but loosely around themes. This allows many of them to be seen in extraordinarily new lights an 'frees' them from their historicity. For example, one of my favourites was an clay moulded sculpture (cant remember the date but think it was around 1400 or so ) which looked, amazingly, like man's first exploration of shape and form, and simultaneously could have been a modernist sculpture.

The theme of navigation is cleverly highlighted with some very odd maps from the 1500s. A map of 'eastern hemisphere' looked totally incomprehensible and like some kind of curious mechanical system, reminding us of the fundamental need for humans to systemise and externalise their internal methods of thinking about movement and navigation, whether emotional or physical.

The pinnacle of the exhibition arrived, for me, in the pilgrim traveller figures that 'could be our parents' and the 'ship' of life navigating us through a journey towards the end. Each of these sculptures was made in industrial iron, and laden with intricately formed figures of artefacts and objects that clutter our daily lives. For example, mobile telephones and even 'blood, sweat and tears' contained in chemical-like bottles. At the centre, core of the ship was a flint axe head from 1200, weighing down the middle. What was most fascinating for me was how this ship, which takes up a big part of the last room on our journey through Perry's imagined history, resonated an 'aura' of temporality. There was a real sense that this art work contained everything, totality, experience and age and I dont think I have ever felt that quite so strongly from a piece of sculpture before. It made me think of Walter Benjamin and Emmanuelle Kant, who wrote of this very subject; history as an experience and the collection of history through old objects and 'tat'.

On the subject of the contemporary, Perry was rather too judgemental for my liking, frequently casting cynicism on our use of modern tools such as smartphones, Facebook and our interest in celebrity. I felt that this was slightly unbalanced, considering the reverently non-judgemental attitude he took to the past. In the case of sex and the presentation of women, he seemed to suggest that our current concerns about the sexualisation of the media could be undermined by looking at its presence in the past, but I didn't really buy this. He seemed to be saying that we shouldn't judge the past or make any criticisms of it.

Whether he styles himself as an artist, craftsman or historian, Grayson Perry's exhibition was hugely inspiring from any of these angles because it most relates to human experience and the core of our sensuality that makes us want to style, to make and to craft. I would highly recommend it.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Cult of the Unknown Stuntman

Falling in love with Ryan Gosling is something all good fashionietzsches have recently been going through together. I fell hard, as you will have gathered from my previous post on the film Drive. As one fellow-theorising genius has recently demonstrated, he even makes an adorable feminist.

My 'discovery' of the Gosling charm obviously led to me the rather embarrassing point of ordering his back-catalogue on Amazon. However it reached a low point recently as I found myself half way through the appalling The Notebook, thinking, 'what is wrong with me?'

Well, today, taking a 'break' from writing my first chapter of my PhD thesis, I made a lucky discovery on ITV4 (see above clip). Made in 1981, this hilariously 'hyper-masculine' programme The Fall Guy is based entirely, as the lyrics to the song state, on the 'cult of the unknown stuntman'. The set, the acting and the soundtrack might be radically different to Drive, but there are clear similarities too. The main character is as mysterious, elusive and 'emotionally complex' as the driver in Drive. He even wears an all-American varsity-style jacket.

Friday, 21 October 2011

'what do we want?: TRI-BLEND'

"When do we want it?: NOW"

This was the pathetic chant of a group of our nations desperate youths last year at the opening of an American Apparel Rummage sale. It was a sad sight that a group of people could get so politically motivated over some quite bland cotton t-shirts. Remember this?

This year, the sale passed without such a curfuffle. Instead, this week the newspapers are full of stories of a protest against capitalism in London. What a difference a year makes!

Friday, 14 October 2011

The new CSM building: A Panoptican

One of the most influential factors in how we work comes from the built environment, which shapes and dictates our movement and our productivity. Speaking to a fashion student at the LCF about the merits of 'open-plan' offices and studios recently got me thinking about panopticism, Foucault's principle of 'a new political autonomy'. This theory is a recurrent theme in a lot of Foucault's work and underpins his essential discourse on governance in the modern state. In Discipline and Punish, a cracker of a book, he sets out his ideas on panopticism, using the Victorian prison as a case study, showing how it was designed in a panoptic shape, so that prisoners could be seen from angles. I couldn't help but think of this theory when I watched this clip on Vogue Tv today, of Prof Louise Wilson talking about the new CSM building at Kings Cross. As Foucault states, 'the seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building into which the exercise of power may be exercised'. How will the glass, panoptic-like building of the CSM building influence, shape and govern the work of fashion students in years to come?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Breaking Belgrade

There is nothing fashionietzsche loves more than a city break. As Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin had us understand, the whole city is an archive, and last weekend my archive was Belgrade. One of the most exciting things about visiting Belgrade was that there was very little written about it and there is nothing better than 'discovering' a new city.  Here are a few things I especially enjoyed:

1) Architecture: Frankly I couldn't get enough of it. 1930s simple modernism standing adjoined to 19th Century Austro-Hungarian ornamentation, next to uncompromising stark communist buildings. Fascinating.

2) Ethnographic Museum: Absolutely worth a visit if you find yourself in the city. A great museum of material culture, covering Balkan dress, architecture and interior design. I particularly loved the downstairs display of slavic folk costume from 19th century, which was extremely detailed and strictly governed according to codes of gender, rank and status:

There was also a brilliant section in the museum on children's dress, which was particularly interesting because it was in many cases merely a scaled down version of adult clothing. This reflects the fact that there was no division in society between adult and child in these communities, with children being heavily involved in the adult routine of the day. Also, is it just me, or do the children in this photo (above) mimic the toy they are holding? You probably can't see it in this picture, but there is something rather eery about the similarity in their expressions and got me thinking about the significance of dolls in early childhood.

Oooh there's nothing like a city break for ones pseudo intellectual bones!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

the archive

Interesting clip here from Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton where he discusses the importance of time in fashion design and 'evolution not revolution'. It made me think about how much fashion brands rely upon the archive, that library of the brand's history and heritage, and the rather complicated relationship designers have with the past. Karl Lagerfeld, as it is well known, has always claimed that he looks forward, not backwards, with each collection, and yet he still clings to the essential, defining characteristics of Chanel from season to season. There is also an interesting contrast here with the way Tom Ford used the Gucci archive- as seen here on that Guardian video I posted last week. Surely his approach was more revolution, not evolution?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Big fans of Chanel, im sure

Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter, 'Minister of Magic')

Theresa May, Home Secretary

I have always been interested in the concept of binaries and see something slightly dark in the underside of Chanel's pearly pinks and woollen twinsets. Lagerfeld's Chanel shows are always so aesthetically satisfying because they are so controlled, governed and regimented down to the very last tuck, pleat or bow. At the same time, I cant help but see a bit of the Dolores Umbridge/Theresa May in there- a sickly sweet image with a sinister glint in the eye. 

Chanel show

As if the fashion world wasn't already beginning to doubt itself and its irrational commitment to the 'fashion calendar', the recent battle between the 'Big Four' over scheduling has just added fuel to the fire. So we are all thinking, 'we don't need Fashion Week, if anything, it only threatens the exclusivity of high-fashion, allows high-street to do quick copy-cats, has become a celeb-focused ceremony and costs an astronomical amount way out of proportion and, often-times, doesn't even manage to pay for itself in returns'.

And then you see a Chanel show and you think again. The whole aesthetic of the show glinted like pearl at the bottom of the ocean- soothing, calm and ethereal. It was enough to soften the most hardened of pragmatists. (But then again, im not paying and im sure this debate will continue.)

Just one thing bugged me about the Chanel show:

Everyone talks about how closely linked the worlds of fashion and music are, but in my experience, the most tasteful fashion designers have the most boring taste in music. Surely Lagerfeld, who has the ability to present such consistently inventive designs each season, could stretch his imagination to something a bit more interesting and unexpected than Florence Welch. Talk about predictable. It reminds me of that really horrible moment when, at the peak of my love for Viktor and Rolf, they recruited in La Roux, a girl with the most irritating pop voice in the world, as some kind of bizarre collaboration in June last year. Surely it is possible to have a taste in both fashion and music?? Even Marc Jacobs' selection of Sonic Youth in 2008 smacked of someone making a very calculated choice in proving themselves at the height of social distinction. He wasn't displaying a music taste: he was displaying his height in the ranks of cool.  There is rarely any creativity in the selection of music to accompany fashion shows, which I always find very disappointing.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Fashion that 'hints of the home'

Reading a review of Stella MacCartney's S/S 12 collection in the NY Times, I was struck by the following statement:
Ms. McCartney also does not have that designer problem of reducing a woman’s life to one or two moments: work, a fancy party. She also makes outfits that strongly hint of home, like a piped pajama shirt worn with a matching foulard-dot pantsuit, or a loose sweater or easy all-in-one to wear to a casual dinner.
- Caryn Horyn, NY Times

It made me think of this clip from 1946, which i found on the British Pathe film online archive, (an amazing source for old fashion clips and presentations).


As amusing as it might be, there is something very oppressive about the image of these ladies prancing around in latest fashions in a purely domestic setting (the phrase 'all dressed up with nowhere to go' comes to mind!). The narrator's comments on the 'orchid stones- the earmark of a woman who always wins' and the tailored jacket 'for the man eating woman' sound kind of sarcastic and rather darkly reinforce their trapped existence within a very limited domestic sphere. Never has fashion so strongly appeared to be a medium through which to dream, as the women flick through magazines and float around, posing for each other.

Watching this clip made me realise what an important and significant thing it is for women's fashion to no longer speak of only one dimension. As Cathy Horyn says of Stella MacCartney's collection, its important for designers to recognise that women don't dress for merely one or two contexts. I would be wary of celebrating the return of fashion to clothes that 'hint of the home' and think we should appreciate what an important step it was for women to move out of the home, onto the catwalk and start presenting themselves in clothes which they would be wearing out at parties, in the workplace and not just in a domestic setting.

Monday, 3 October 2011


I am utterly in awe of the creative minds and skills that came together to produce something so complete as Drive, which I saw yesterday. Here is a film where everything is 'just so' : the soundtrack, the gestures, the acting, the set design, the lighting and the costume all speak in the same language to deliver a haunting and penetrative atmosphere which is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Nothing could summarise the film's mood more than it's amazing soundtrack, which I downloaded today, but the image of Gosling slowly, calmly, clenching a leather-gloved fist would do pretty well as a visual summary. I've always felt there was something sinister about the ultra-masculine accessory of the driving glove, an idea this film hit home with maximum effect.