14 December 2020
Clothes mean more than bodies
‘If we should not judge books by their cover, can we judge people by their clothes?’ In anticipation of the fashion competition due to be launched by the British Library and British Fashion Council in the New Year, here are some thoughts on the importance of fashion. For those looking for the inspiration, it can be found anywhere: mythology, paintings, even literature.
In mythology, Strife threw an apple marked ‘To the fairest’ among three goddesses: Juno (queen of the divinities), Pallas Minerva (goddess of war and learning) and Venus (goddess of love). To settle the matter they went to the shepherd Paris, who reasonably said he couldn’t judge their beauty with their clothes on.
For the artists of the Renaissance such as Rubens, this was an excellent excuse for studies in the nude.
The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens
But not everyone thought like Rubens. One contemporary critic said that Rubens had made the goddesses ‘too naked’.
Among the poets, Ovid has no description of the goddesses. Fifteen hundred or so years later the Valencian poet Joan Roís de Corella wrote his version of the Judgment of Paris. Corella (or doubtless his sources) tells it as follows.
Paris says, ‘It will not be possible for me to judge this case unless I can contemplate your persons without any veil …’
First up is Pallas Minerva, who says,
‘As the ambition of vanity of human praise has captured us and made us subject to the judgment of this young man, we are obliged to obey the laws which he as judge determines.’
And, while talking, she began to untie the belt of a skirt of dark red damask, whose decoration was picked out with great skill in emeralds, which, mixed with sapphires, dazzling human sight, transported her from this world. And the skirt was sprinkled with foliage of green and fertile olive; the olives, covered with black and green enamels, which invited the viewers to stretch out their hands to take the fruit of the painted tree. And on her shoes, of purple satin, were embroidered sharp-flowered thistles, which made show of true spikes, so that you would not dare to pick the raised olives from the broad skirt. And a motto in golden letters among the thorns clearly read, ‘Open your eyes to the harm which can ensue.’ And the excellent queen bore on her bosom a gleaming carbuncle which hung from her neck on a cord of golden thread, so fine that human sight could grasp only its colour and not its quantity.
The other goddesses follow suit. Juno feels that as queen of Olympus she shouldn’t have to demean herself before younger women: but she still wants to be the fairest. Venus locks eyes with Paris as she drops her cloak. You’ll remember that Venus cheated by promising Paris Helen of Troy. And that led to the Trojan War.
Detail of a miniature of the Judgement of Paris, between Athena, Juno and Venus, in Christine de Pizan ‘L’Épître Othéa’. Harley 4431, f. 128v
So it’s clear that although Paris thought the goddesses’ beauty was in their bodies, for Corella their clothes were much more worthy of attention. I think this isn’t unusual in medieval texts, probably because the medievals thought clothes could bear social or symbolic meaning which bodies couldn’t. Corella says nothing about the body, he says little about the cut of the clothes (which by the way are medieval rather than classical), he says little about the cloth that makes the clothes, but says a lot about the metals and jewels which adorn them, and even endows each garment with a verbal message picked out in gold.
So that’s the importance of fashion.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Joan Roís de Corella, Proses mitològiques, ed. J. L. Martos (Alacant, 2001) YA.2002.a.20285
Marisa Astor Landete, Valencia en los siglos XIV y XV: indumentaria e imagen (Valencia, 1999) YA.2002.a.17891
Isidra Maranges i Prat, La indumentària civil catalana, segles XIII-XV (Barcelona, 1991) Ac.138.dc.
Fashion competition details will be available in January, via this link, which also has information about previous years’ competitions and related activities.
18 November 2019
British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the European Studies team
Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library
The British Library has, for the third year running, worked with the British Fashion Council on the Research Collaboration Project. This year Glaswegian radical designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year, followed in October by a Masterclass organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition. Charles Jeffrey, considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the BL resources. The show and tell, being the interactive part of the Masterclass, gave curators opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of the visually intriguing collection items.
‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – The British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission
In this blog post the European and Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’, as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief.
Ferdinando Ongania, Dettagli del Pavimento ed Ornamenti in Mosaico della Basilica di San Marco in Venezia, Venice, 1881 (74/tab.1283)
Ferdinando Ongania and his Venetian workshop spent more than 10 years (between 1881 and 1893) publishing the 18 volumes of La Basilica di San Marco in Venezia. Inspired by John Ruskin’s work, Ongania commissioned studies to historians, architects, and archaeologists, and put together an exceptional body of photographs and illustrations. His work depicts every single detail of the exterior and interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica, from the architecture to the sculptures and the decorations. The British Library owns the full set, but the volume I chose for the show and tell focuses solely on the mosaic floors, whose drawings I find particularly inspiring for the kaleidoscopic richness of the details and beauty of the colours.
Valentina Mirabella – Curator, Romance Collections
G. Darcy, Or et Couleurs, Paris, A. Calavas, [n.d.] Probably 1920/1921? (fF5/3743)
The designs in the albums contain a variety of geometric motifs, flowers, plants and birds typical of the Art Deco style. Art Deco fashion, which started in France in the 1920s, and took its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, was inspired by new artistic movements, most notably Cubism and Fauvism, by the bright colours of the Ballets Russes, and by the “exotic” styles of Japan, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art, among others.
The technique of “Pochoirs”, or stencils, used here, was at the height of popularity in France during the 1920s. It was frequently used to create prints of intense colour and the brilliant effects of gold and silver, as expressed in the title of these collections of plates. The full title explains further that the plates were made in the “new taste” for use by “Fabric makers, Decorators, and ornaments designers” – it was for sale at the bookshop of the Arts Décoratifs.
A particularly interesting feature of this item is that it comes from Nottingham Public Library, which acquired it very soon after its publication. It was quite successful, and was borrowed 25 times between 1922 and 1930.
I chose this item because of my interest in the Art Deco movement and the pochoir technique. The plates are very beautiful of course, and the colours are still incredibly vivid, but most of all I think it is fascinating to have a real proof of interest from readers (presumably amateur decorators and fashion lovers) in the 1920s.
Sophie Defrance – Curator, Romance Collections
The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January 2020 when during the reverse show and tell students will reveal their work inspired by the British Library collections.
For featured American collection items please see the parallel American Collections blog.
20 March 2019
Documenting Georgian Costume in the 19th Century
Interest in the Caucasus increased considerably in Europe and especially in Great Britain in the 19th century. A number of scholars, travellers and adventurers were attracted to this mountainous region by the Black Sea. As a result, several works were published about the Caucasus and about Georgia. Of these, Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia during the years 1817,1818, 1819 and 1820 remains one of the most impressive.
Sir Robert Ker Porter was a man of the most varied talents. He was justly described as distinguished alike in the arts, in diplomacy, and in literature. He published the record of his long journey, which extended from Georgia to modern-day Iran, in 1821. It is a substantial work in two volumes, full of interest and illustrated by the author himself with drawings of the landscape, people, buildings and antiquities.
Engraving of a portrait of Sir Robert Ker Porter by George Henry Harlowe, from Porter’s collection of manuscript sketches, ‘From Travels in the Caucasus, Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia, etc., with notes, maps, plans, surveys, views, and other drawings of interesting objects’. Add. MS. 14758
The British Library is fortunate to hold not only two copies of Porter’s Travels, but also a large number of his original sketches, some of which were not reproduced in the published book. The British Museum acquired them after his death when they were offered for purchase by his sister Jane (who also pasted the above portrait into the album). Several sketches in this manuscript depict people in Georgian national costume. One of the portraits is unfinished, two show ethnic minorities living in Georgia and another depicts the dress of a Georgian living in Persia. These sketches combine ethnological accuracy with a talented artist’s eye for detail, character and even emotion. They portray people from different social classes, different regions, males and females and show the variety of Georgian national dress.
One portrait, the ‘Immeretian Prince’ (Imereti is a province in western Georgia), depicts traditional Georgian male dress, the chokha, the most typical garment worn in the Caucasus. Together with the sketches, Porter’s description provides us with a complete image of Georgian men’s attire in the 19th century:
The vest, which is cloth also, of a different colour from the shirt, has sleeves to it, sitting easy to the arm; and over this is the tunic or upper garment, coming down as low as the knees, but opening before; and bound round the waist with a cloth sash, universally white; to which is attached the wearer’s sword. The skirt of the tunic meets the termination of the full short trowser or breeches, which descend no lower than the knees; the leg being covered with a sort of stocking, and a close-laced half-boot, usually black or scarlet, with a very pointed toe. All these various garments are of cloth, of as various hues; and, frequently, very handsomely ornamented with gold lace or embroidery’ (Travels…, vol. 1, p. 134).
The ‘Immeretian Prince’ (MS. Add. 14758, vol. 2, fol. 186r.)
Porter also provides an important record of the attire of Georgian women:
The dresses of the Georgian ladies bear a full proportion, in point of cumbersomeness and ornament… A bandeau, round the forehead, richly set with brilliants and other costly stones, confines a couple of black tresses, which hang down on each side of a face, beautiful by nature, as its features testify, but so cased in enamel, that not a trace of its original texture can be seen; and, what is worse, the surface is rendered so stiff, by its painted exterior, that not a line shows a particle of animation, excepting the eyes; which are large, dark, liquid, and full of a mild lustre, rendered in the highest degree lovely, by the shade of long black lashes, and the regularity of the arched eye-brow. A silken shawl-like veil depends from the bandeau, flowing, off the shoulders, down the back; while a thin gauze handkerchief, is fastened beneath the chin’ (Travels, vol. 1, p. 135).
‘A Georgian lady’ (MS. Add. 14758 vol. 2, fol. 187r.)
Frescoes, sculpture, tombstones and the illustrations of other travellers to the region also preserve a record of Georgian costume. However, the images created by Porter constitute the first scholarly attempt to document traditional dress in full detail and with scientific accuracy. Porter's legacy, both in text and image, remains of a great importance for the study of Georgian life in the early 19th century.
Professor George Kalandia, Director of the Art Palace of Georgia
Anna Chelidze, Curator, BL Georgian Collections
G. Poulett Cameron, Personal Adventures and Excursions in Georgia, Circassia, and Russia. (London, 1845) 1425.e.7
Laurence Oliphant, The Trans-Caucasian Campaign of Turkish Army Under Omer Pasha. A Personal Narrative (Edinburgh & London, 1856) 9077.d.30
Robert Ker Porter, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia… during the years 1817, 1818, 1819 and 1820 (London , 1821-22) 1786.d.11
John Buchan Telfer, The Crimea and Transcaucasia… being the narrative of a Journey in the Kouban, in Gouria, Georgia, Armenia... and in the Tauric Range. (London, 1876). 2356.g.10
Christopher Wright, ‘Painting Persepolis’, consulted 04/03/2019.
18 January 2019
You can’t go out dressed like that! A crack-down on extravagance in 17th-century Lisbon
A recent acquisition lays down the law on who could wear what in the streets of Portugal.
Pregmatica e ley por que Sua Alteza ha por bem pellos respeitos nella declarados prohibir os trajes, vestidos de Seda com ouro, guarnições de fitas, ouro, prata, dourados, bordados coches de seis mulas, & o mais que nella se declara (Lisbon, 1677). RB.23.b.7984.
The decree stretched from from Portugal to the Cape of Good Hope.
Prince Regent Dom Pedro, responding to requests from Parliament, wishes to halt the harm to the state caused by excessive expenditure on finery, the decoration of houses (I think he means the exteriors), the design of coaches, the clothing of lackeys and the increase in their numbers, extravagant expense on funerals. The finest families are being reduced to penury by this profligacy.
He forbids the use of gold or silver (real or imitation) as decoration (except in a few cases, in small amounts, and when the fabric was made in India), the wearing of long gowns except by the clergy and the university students of Coimbra and Evora, and clothing made from fabric not manufactured in Portugal.
Coaches with more than four mules or horses are banned.
An elaborate 17th-century coach from the Museu Nacional dos Coches in Lisbon (Photo by cytech from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0])
Anyone disobeying this law will not only be fined, but will be forbidden to enter the presence of the king or any royal official.
Sumptuary laws, as they’re called, in the west go back to the Romans. Their purpose seems to have been sometimes to protect local industries by restricting imports, and sometimes to stop common folk aping their social betters. On a higher moral level, both Christianity and pagan Stoicism were against ostentation in dress.
Silk was a common focus, though we have it on good authorities that in silk-producing areas such as Valencia even the poorest went in silks.
Such restrictions might seem outdated to us, but clothes are still a bone of contention in some areas: do you recall when in 2004 the exclusive Burberry brand was allegedly taken over by ‘chavs’?
The baroque period is often described as one of display, but not everyone saw its down side.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Juan Sempere y Guarinos, Historia del lujo y de las leyes suntuarias de España (Madrid, 1788)
Alan Hunt, Governance of the consuming passions: a history of sumptuary law (Basingstoke, 1996) YC.1997.a.188
14 September 2018
‘In constant movement without an end’: the warp and weft of fashion research
Today marks the opening of the 35th London Fashion Week. The event will feature over 250 designers, whose avant-garde and experimental ideas will once again trickle down to our own wardrobes. ‘Where do designers find inspiration?’ we ask ourselves time and again. Can the key to finding new ideas for fashion design be found in library collections?
Under the Northern Lights collection by Elisabeth Nilsson - London Graduate Fashion Week, June 2018 (reproduced with permission).
Research is the foundation of any design process and a library is a wonderful resource to begin the search. While looking through a book or magazine, you may stumble on an image or a subject you may not have initially considered. There is something special about leafing, smelling or touching the book; experiencing the full potential of the visual stimulus it can offer. After all, books are objects that are themselves crafted and designed. Designers are always looking for something to utilise, from visual and literary to conceptual or narrative sources; obscure references that will make their work unique.
‘Things don’t come out of nowhere, they must come out of somewhere!’ says Vivienne Westwood, the iconic fashion designer. As an avid reader herself, in her 2017 talk at the British Library, Reading is important: Get a life!, Westwood reveals that she thrives on curiosity, finding out everything possible around any given subject, from classical Chinese poetry to mythical anthropology.
Last year the British Library organised a masterclass and show-and-tell to attract fashion students and for them to take part in the fashion design competition. They were encouraged to explore the Library’s collections for their inspiration and research. A final year student from University of the Creative Arts in Epsom, Elisabeth Nilsson, delved into the British Library European Studies Collections. Being Swedish herself, it was no surprise that Nordic themes were main inspiration for her two collections, Once Upon a Time and Under the Northern Lights.
Portrait of John Bauer from John Bauers bästa: Ett urval sagor ur Bland tomtar och troll, åren 1907-1915 (Stockholm, 1937) L.R.400.c.6.
The Once upon a Time collection was inspired by the life of Swedish illustrator John Bauer and his curious folklore painting, his family, and the jewellery that appear frequently in his illustrations. The collection features a masculine silhouette with subtle feminine undertones. The bold and structured shapes create the angular gaps that let the lighter fabrics flow through. Deep tones of black and blue colours are directly drawn from the illustrations of midnight, starry skies, while the texture is informed by Bauer’s portrayal of grotesque but humorous trolls.
‘Riddern rider’ (‘The knight rides’), from Harald Torsten Viking Schiller, John Bauer sagotecknaren (Stockholm, 1935) Ac.4624.
John Bauer was best known for his illustrations of the first eight volumes of Bland Tomtar och Troll (‘Among Gnomes and Trolls’), first published in 1907. He was born in 1882, in Jönköping. Throughout his life he suffered with depression and struggled with the direction in life. It is evident that Bauer was a prolific researcher himself, as some details of his work can be traced to the original folk costumes and medieval ironworks. Renaissance Italian painting was major influence on his artistic style. Furthermore, his work was greatly informed by his travels throughout Germany, Italy and Lapland, where he spend time with the Sami people. In 1918 John Bauer’s somewhat troubled life came to an abrupt end when the boat he and his family were travelling in sank.
Design development and an illustration for the Once Upon a Time collection by Elisabeth Nilsson (reproduced with permission).
Elisabeth’s examination of every aspect of Bauer’s work and life is reflected in the sombre mood of the collection. She captures minute details, such as the artist’s tailored clothing, or jewels worn by trolls. It is precisely those details that trigger further searches for new references. Such as luxurious and finely crafted Art Deco style jewellery popular at that time. The bold combinations of well-defined lines and geometric shapes featured in decorative pieces, lend themselves well to Elisabeth’s further development of ideas and forms.
Inspirational images of Art Deco jewellery and trolls for the Once Upon a Time collection by Elisabeth Nilsson (reproduced with permission.)
Inspired by Bauer, Elisabeth continued her exploration of the semi-nomadic Sami people. For over thousands of years, this indigenous ethnic group has inhabited Sápmi, the region that stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The first detailed description of Sami culture can be found in Johannes Schefferus’ Lapponia, published in 1673. The Sami are mostly associated with reindeer-herding, but their crafts – duodji, and traditional clothing, gákti – are worth noting. Colours, patterns, ribboning and embroidery are used to personalise the characteristics of the wearer, such as their family background or marital status.
Title-page of Johannes Schefferus, Lapponia, id est, regionis Lapponum et gentis nova et verissima descriptio … (Frankfurt, 1673). 1477.b.9.
The Under the Northern Lights collection is informed by the innovative approach to the traditional Sami way of life. The juxtaposition of modern and traditional is reflected in the experimentation with fabrics and textures. Man-made reflective fabrics and metallic fibres are combined with natural wool and fur. This is further emphasised with the use of appliqué, embellishment and pleats. The Nordic concept is tightly held together by limited palette of blue, grey and white colours. The oversized silhouette is exaggerated by playful use of giant zig-zag embellishment and inside-out details. Perhaps Elisabeth’s approach to fashion research and design development echoes ‘the traditional Sami conceptions of time as a circle, to be cyclical and in constant movement without an end’ (Lundström: p. 14).
Under the Northern Lights collection by Elisabeth Nilsson - London Graduate Fashion Week, June 2018 (reproduced with permission)
Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager
Richard Sorger, Jenny Udale, The fundamentals of fashion design (London, 2017) YC.2018.a.9712
Simon Seivewright, Richard Sorger, Research and design for fashion (New York, 2017) YC.2017.a.12940
Martin Allwood (ed.), Herman och Ove Ekelund berättar om Torestorp och John Bauer i Mullsjö (Mullsjö, 1971) X.419/471.
Elsa Olenius (comp.), Great Swedish fairy tales. Illustrated by John Bauer (London, 1974) X.990/4150.
Cornelie Holzach (ed.), Art Déco Schmuck und Accessoires : ein neuer Stil für eine neue Welt = Art Déco jewellery and accessories : a new style for a new world (Stuttgart, 2008) YF.2009.b.395
Jan-Erik Lundström, Contemporary Sami art and design (Stockholm, 2015) YD.2016.a.180
Consuelo, Griggio, Sápmi skyar = Sápmi skies (Harads, 2015) LD.31.b.3978
European studies blog recent posts
- Clothes mean more than bodies
- British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the European Studies team
- Documenting Georgian Costume in the 19th Century
- You can’t go out dressed like that! A crack-down on extravagance in 17th-century Lisbon
- ‘In constant movement without an end’: the warp and weft of fashion research
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