Exhibition Reviews – Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (V&A) and Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies (Imperial War Museum)

Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.

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Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.

Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!

Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.

Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.

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2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.

To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.

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Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot.  This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.

The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.

Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.

 

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A until 12 March 2017 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear

Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017

http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/real-to-reel-a-century-of-war-movies

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Exhibition Review: Vogue 100 – A Century of Style

I have to admit that I have an ambivalent attitude towards Vogue and other fashion magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Tatler, Town and Country). Sure it’s sometimes nice to look at pictures of wonderful clothes and jewels, stunning locations and even read an interesting article or two. I can also find some inspiration among its pages for how to style my clothes, visit a particular place or even read or see something as recommended by a magazine.

However, what gets my goat is the is not the amount of adverts but rather the subliminal messages that the likes of Vogue peddle – that one has to be rich, be of a certain size or age to be fashionable; the obscene price tags attached to clothes, accessories and beauty products and the pointless vacuity of the parties and events featured where everyone seems to look the same. Crucially what is galling is the celebration of mediocrity and nepotism; the glorification of certain individuals who owe their newsworthiness for who their antecedents are rather than for any real talent, ability or hard work.

So I approach Vogue more from a historical perspective and hardly buy the magazine unless there are articles or features that really interest me. One of the times where I made an exception was to buy this month’s issue which celebrates the magazine’s centenary. The interest in how the magazine has evolved and chronicled the transformation in society is what drew me to visit Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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One can see the effort put into staging the exhibition with thoughtfully curated photographs, footage and old magazine issues that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. Despite the sheer number of people when I was in the exhibition, it was well organised with a good layout and what impressed me was that I was still able to navigate the space without any problems at all and I was able to view and appreciate the displays without having to stand on tiptoe or strain my neck.

Displays are arranged by decade with iconic images placed side by side with more obscure ones giving the public a taste of what it was like during the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s and down to the present through the eyes of the magazine. While the magazine does make forays into current events, society, politics, art and literature it’s always fashion that takes centre stage charting the looks that have entered the public consciousness from the flapper fashion of the Twenties to make do and mend in the Forties to the power suits of the Eighties and grunge in the Nineties.

More than anything, Vogue has always been known for its photography and from its inception in 1916 has worked with the best photographers of the age as well as being credited with launching the careers of the likes of Cecil Beaton and Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon). It was also through photography that Vogue attempted to show that it wasn’t just about fashion and frivolity as demonstrated by the images taken by Beaton and Lee Miller during the Second World War.

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As this blog focuses on British history from 1870 to 1939, most of my time in the exhibition was devoted to examining the displays from 1916 to 1929 and from 1930 to 1939. While there were portraits of famous personalities of the age such as the writer and society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, actresses Sybil Thorndike and Marlene Dietrich, theatre designer Oliver Messel and Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor); fashion photography was the main focus. During this time, the photos centred on the clothes rather than the settings and who was modelling them. The likes of Baron Adolph de Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton produced ground breaking photographs that served to enhance the subject rather than overwhelm it.

The exhibition over all doesn’t really reconcile the fact that while Vogue features, celebrates and encourages creativity on one hand, on the other it celebrates this unrealistic image and lifestyle that hardly anyone can realistically attain. However, therein lies a certain irony where in the 1916 to 1929 and 1930 to 1939 galleries, Vogue manages to subvert our popular notion of flappers and extremely thin women as exemplified in the illustrations by featuring women – such as Maxine Elliott and Edith Sitwell –  who do not fit our notion of the typical 1920s woman, or by showing the photograph of a “Modern torso” by Arnold Genthe where the body with its gentle womanly curves was out of step with the models wearing the latest fashions by Schiaparelli or Vionnet.

Perhaps therein lies the rub that no matter what Vogue may claim, in the end it has become nothing more than an aspirational lifestyle magazine that has held a mirror to the last 100 years albeit through a very narrow prism, and I feel that it has retreated a long way from the early years when high fashion and society  gossip was combined with serious reportage and ground breaking photography.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 21 May 2016

Photos of the exhibition catalogue, blogger’s own

Vogue 100: A Century of Style was at the National Portrait Gallery (London) from 11 February to 22 May 2016 and will be at the Manchester Art Gallery from 24 June to 30 October 2016 http://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/vogue100/

For a review of the exhibition from a different perspective: https://haggartymuseumgeek.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/fashion-art-or-vanity/

Exhibition Review: The Fallen Woman (The Foundling Museum)

In a quiet London square not far from the British Museum is Coram Fields, home of the Foundling Museum and the site of the original Foundling Hospital, started in 1741 by a philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. He had been shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the London streets and he agitated for seventeen years for the foundation of a foundling hospital. The museum explores and exhibits the work of this first children’s charity through art, music and the power of the individual to change society, and until 3 January 2016 has a small but moving exhibition dedicated to the fallen woman and her child in Victorian England.

The woman who engaged in sexual activity outside the marital tie both horrified and fascinated many in this period. There was much emphasis on the purity and innocence of womanhood and the woman as the angel of the household and moral example to husbands, children and servants: and as that moral guardian they were regarded as even more culpable than men if they strayed. Men, it was held, could not help themselves where sex was concerned – women should know better.

Women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant in the nineteenth century faced huge social stigma and ostracism, often being turned out of their employment and disowned by their families. Of course with the numbers of women working outside the home, especially in domestic service, it was inevitable that many women would find themselves sexual prey for fellow servants or the men in their employers’ family: and while some of pregnancies arose from mutual relationships others were described as ‘seductions’ but were the result of outright rape – lured into a house and plied with drink or tricked by a man into entering an empty building before being assaulted occurring many times in the women’s testimony.

Part of the exhibition shows the completed petitions submitted to the Governors of the Foundling Hospital by unmarried mothers who hoped that their children could be admitted to be cared for, and sad reading some of them make – harrowing details about how they became pregnant, their relationship with the child’s father – and the process for these women was no means straightforward at a time for them of huge emotional distress. Even the Foundling Hospital subjected the petitioners and their stories to detailed enquiry to find out whether they were true or not, and this was an organisation dedicated to helping such women. It was heartening to read that not every woman was wholly abandoned by those she knew once she found she was pregnant – there are testimonies that such and such is a good daughter or a good servant who will be employed again.

Deserted - A Foundling Frank Holl 1893

Other displays in the exhibition include paintings from leading artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Smith, George Frederick Watts and Robert Dowling as well as newspaper illustrations and stereoscopes that depict what the ideal role of women was in society, the dangers posed to women when it came to dealing with the opposite sex and the consequences of not adhering to society’s rules. Some of the paintings made use of devices such as Biblical analogies to direct the viewer to the moral message behind the painting. Examples of these include Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast which depicted a father in fury ordering his errant daughter carrying her child out of the house. The warmth inside the house is in contrast to the storm raging outside which is an obvious metaphor for Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Other paintings made use of symbolisms such as for instance with Alfred Elmory’s On the Brink which showed a woman alone in a casino, having unsuccessfully gambled the money she had with her. A shadowy man stands behind her clearly offering a proposition which she’s considering. Next to her are two pots of flowering plants – a passion flower and lily respectively both representing desire and purity. The message here is clear; the viewer is lectured on the evils of gambling and how it had helped bring about this woman’s ruin.

I found the exhibition carefully curated and the objects displayed under four main themes – the main role and expectation of women in Victorian England, the dangers a woman faced outside the home, the consequences if she stepped out of line and the role of Foundling Hospital. The exhibition does take great pains to point out that the cliché of the unmarried mother turning to prostitution is mostly a device used for fiction and did not happen often. The reality was mostly more prosaic; the woman ended up either giving the baby up for adoption or in some cases; she kept the baby with help from her family or employer. Other cases resulted into mothers being reunited with their babies after having regained some modicum of respectability through marriage or employment.

Today if a woman falls pregnant and she’s not married no-one bats an eyelid and life goes on. A woman has the freedom to choose whether to carry the pregnancy to term or not, give the baby up for adoption or not and to marry or not to marry the father of the child or simply carry on as a single mother. Pregnancy out of wedlock does not carry the same stigma as it did even 40 years ago and this exhibition is a timely reminder of how far women and society’s attitude have come from the Victorian era.

Image:

Deserted – A Foundling by Frank Holl (1893)

The Fallen Woman is on at The Foundling Museum until 3 January 2016. Admission included with ticket to the museum. For more information please go to http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/

Exhibition Review: Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom (Museum of London Docklands)

In Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet observed that the advent of technology allowed more women to go into work and not just in the traditional farming and cottage industry sectors but into the white collar sector that was previously the domain of men. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, typewriter and adding machine provided employment opportunities for women to the point when certain jobs such as telephone operator, typist, secretary, bank teller and bookkeeper became female dominated and seen as “women’s work”. Owing to their nimble fingers and dexterity, women were seen as the ideal gender to operate and manipulate these pieces of machinery.

In the same way, technology also allowed women to pursue hobbies other than the usual sewing, drawing, painting, music and others that were deemed appropriate to their gender. Photography is one example and with the invention of the hand held camera, many men and especially women took to taking photographs with enthusiasm. Queen Alexandra of Britain and the four daughters of Czar Nicholas II of Russia were examples of women who enthusiastically embraced the wonder of photography, becoming proficient with using a camera and it is through them that we have had glimpses of the less formal and human side of the restricted and regimented lives of the British and Russian ruling families.

Just as the invention and development of the telephone and typewriter enabled women to enter the workforce the camera allowed women not just to excel as amateur photographers but also enabled some to pursue photography as a profession. An exhibition currently running in the Museum of London Docklands entitled Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is devoted to the works of one such woman.

Christina Broom or Mrs Albert Broom (as she was professionally known) turned her hobby into a business when an accident forced her husband to retire early from his job at the family’s ironmongery business. Largely self-taught and with a canny nose for business, Broom spotted a gap in the market for picture postcards and in 1903 she and her husband set up a stationery shop which sold postcards among other objects. Their stationery business eventually grew into one where they sold their own postcards: with Christina taking photographs of London landmarks, daughter Winifred serving as assistant and husband Albert writing the captions and taking orders.

With initiative, tenacity and an entrepreneurial spirit, Christina Broom expanded her business becoming in effect Britain’s first woman press photographer. She went from photographing London landmarks to covering events of national importance as well as securing the all-important accreditation from the Royal Household and the Army to cover important ceremonial events and record soldiers as they prepared to go to the Front during the First World War.

Drawn from the Museum of London’s collection of Christina Broom’s own negatives and papers as well as being supplemented by those from the Royal Collection and other collections in the UK and in the US, the exhibition traces Broom’s life and times and divides her work into three main categories – her coverage of the suffragette movement’s activities in the years before the First World War, photographs of soldiers during the war and lastly, those of royal ceremonial and other London spectacles. Alongside the photographs are also displays of Broom’s business cards, her accreditation passes issued by organisations such the Royal Household and the Metropolitan Police, magazines and newspapers that featured her photographs, postcards she produced, adverts for the Broom stationery shop, purchase orders and receipts.

All in all, the exhibition has been thoughtfully curated to give the visitor a chance to see a world that is now unfamiliar to us through the eyes of a woman who witnessed it all and captured them for posterity with her camera. The images though from mostly a hundred years ago can seem modern in the way they demand the viewer’s attention and how Broom established a rapport with the people she photographed which could be seen as one advantage she had over male photographers, giving her photographs a much more personal and intimate air.

The photographs also highlight Broom’s attention to detail and the high standards she set for herself. Writing in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition Anna Sparham noted that when it came to photographing soldiers or the staff at the Royal Mews for instance, Broom refrained from using feminised props and artificial lighting for her photographs: preferring instead to take them in a straight forward way, carefully directing her subjects and relying on eye to eye contact to produce photographs that capture the sitter’s personality despite them wearing their uniforms and carrying the props that denoted their role: be it the head coachman or a lowly private. What came over very strongly in the exhibition from her work with the army and the Royal Household is that Broom did not have the privileged access she did because as a woman photographer she was a novelty, but because she was a person dedicated to her craft photographing men equally dedicated to their profession as soldiers and royal servants.

Christina Broom

Increasing ill health forced Christina Broom to curtail her photography and her daughter Winifred attempted to continue the family business but changes in regulations allowing freelance photographers access to the army during the Second World War meant that she would be unable to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Instead, on the suggestion of Queen Mary, Winifred Broom sought to keep her mother’s memory alive by donating all the negatives and family papers to various museums and institutions with the Museum of London acquiring the last of the Broom negatives and papers still in private hands in 2013.

Christina Broom book

Christina Broom’s story is all the more remarkable given she lived in an era where it was not exactly respectable for women to go into trade and become the sole breadwinner. But armed with only her determination; a cumbersome box camera, tripod, glass negatives and reliant on public transport; Broom would go on to carve a successful business and career that against all odds would secure her a place in British history as this country’s first woman press photographer.

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is on at the Museum of London Docklands until 1 November 2015. Admission free

Catalogue edited by Anne Sparham is available at the museum shop.

Notes:

  1. The bloggers visited the exhibition last 11 July 2015
  2. Photo of Christina Broom from https://www.pinterest.com/kathrynfhinds/early-women-photographers/

3. Photo of catalogue is blogger’s own