Exhibition Review: Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style (Fashion Museum, Bath)

The strong interest in what female members of the British royal family wear continues with the latest addition in the person of the Duchess of Sussex. The coverage of her wedding gown and the ensemble she wore to her first official engagement demonstrates that this interest in royal fashion has not abated and is exacerbated by the presence of blogs, social media and the omnipresent 24/7/365 news culture.

This interest is not new however as demonstrated by an on-going exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath entitled Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style, featuring clothes worn by Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret; each a wife or sister of a monarch. As public figures and being royal there are expectations to be met such as being above politics, so they should be seen and not heard. What royal women wear should be above fashion and be suitable for the occasion and the people they will meet: hence the bright colours in order to stand out, hats must never obscure the face, bags should never get in the way of shaking hands and accepting gifts from well-wishers. Even shoes are selected with comfort in mind.

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The exhibition is a small one with the clothes drawn from the museum’s own collection and loans from the Royal Collection. What was interesting is the information regarding how the museum was able to acquire dresses with royal provenance. Some like Princess Margaret’s were donated to the museum by the princess herself, while others such as a gown worn by Queen Mary were given by one of her ladies-in-waiting. Displayed chronologically, the clothes are a mini-history of royal fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s as well as highlighting how the four royal women featured used fashion and clothes to create their image and assist in their performance of their royal duties.

The women featured fall into two headings. Trendsetters like Queen Alexandra when as Princess of Wales she popularised tailored separates for day wear and jewelled chokers (to conceal a scar brought about by scrofula) for evening, and later Princess Margaret whose fashion choices generated headlines and epitomised glamour, especially after the austerity of the Second World War. Or in the case of Queens Mary and Elizabeth, their style was an integral part of their identity and as such instantly recognisable. Queen Mary remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that went out of fashion even during her lifetime, while Queen Elizabeth, with the help of designer Norman Hartnell, became known for her sparkling evening gowns which were heavily embroidered and beaded and in the distinct crinoline shape.

One of the interesting highlights of the exhibition was how clothes were not only re-worn but even recycled. Queen Alexandra’s wedding gown is virtually unrecognisable in the photographs of her on her wedding day but this is not unusual, as wedding dresses during this period were worn more than once – first on the wedding day and then reworked. As the wedding dress was the most expensive outfit in the entire bridal trousseau, it made sense for the gown to be designed in such a way that it could be worn again and again.

A second example of this clothes recycling was the dress worn by Queen Mary for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. Designed by Norman Hartnell and described as “gold lame and turquoise cut velvet”, it originally had long sleeves and a high neck. The gown was later altered with the neckline adjusted and the sleeves cut to create the floaty panels around the upper arms. Both gowns demonstrated how clever alteration can result into a new dress created out of an old one.

Another interesting highlight was with regards to the change in Alexandra’s wardrobe after 1892 which marked a turning point. The death of her oldest son the Duke of Clarence hit her hard and after a period of deep mourning, she decided to wear half mourning for the rest of her life in his memory. This was in marked contrast to her mother-in-law Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Her choice is reflected in two gowns in dusky blue and mauve – two popular colours associated with half mourning, and they give us a good idea of the colour palette in Alexandra’s wardrobe during the last three decades of her life.

While the clothes are well presented, it’s a shame that apart from a hat and two pairs of shoes that belonged to Queen Mary as well as a glove that belonged to Queen Alexandra accessories are absent, which prevents the viewer from getting a more rounded picture of each woman’s taste and look. However this is a minor quibble more than anything. What is disappointing was there is nothing on display from Queen Elizabeth’s famous “White Wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell for the state visit to France in 1938. More than anything, the “White Wardrobe” represented a crossroads in Elizabeth’s over all look that marked the beginnings of the popular and iconic images of her as queen consort and queen mother.

The exhibition closes with a surprise loan from the Countess of Wessex which brings the exhibition fully to the present and demonstrate that while fashion have moved on, the demands of royal dressing have not. There is also a film showing the four featured women out and about performing their public duties which gives us a glimpse of them and their clothes in movement.

Certainly this exhibition leaves me wanting more but while small it is packed full with interesting information and trivia and as the surprise loan demonstrates, the public’s fascination with what royal women wear continues.

 

Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style is on at the Fashion Museum Bath until 28 April 2019. Admission included in the ticket price.

For more information please visit: https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 23 May 2018 and photos were taken by the bloggers.

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Exhibition Review – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style (V&A)

Glamour is not something we associate with travelling nowadays, with shrinking legroom, tight security, baggage restrictions and the ingenious ways by which airlines (especially budget ones) routinely fleece their customers. However, that wasn’t the case as during the early decades of the twentieth century, long before air travel became a reality, travelling by sea was the only way to cross continents and travel lengthy distances. The great liners of the day with names such as Olympic, Mauretania, Normandie, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the United States plied the world’s oceans and became a byword not just for technological prowess but also for glamour and beauty.

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Organised with co-operation from the Peabody Essex Museum, the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is the first exhibition to provide a comprehensive exploration of these “floating palaces” and operates on three levels: first it looks at the glitz and allure of travelling aboard a liner. As one enters the exhibition space, the visitor is treated to a recreation of that glamorous world where the interiors are as luxurious and lavish as any great palace or hotel as manifested by doors and panels from the SS France, the panel which adorned the grand staircase of the RMS Olympic as well as the furniture and panels from the RMS Queen Mary and the SS Normandie. Customer service was also paramount as the liners ensured that not only did their visitors travel in comfort and style, but every need and whim was anticipated;  for example. the Queen Mary having a room that could convert into a Roman Catholic chapel and a door that doubled as a menorah for use by Jewish passengers for Sabbath services.

Nowhere is the glamour of ocean travel shown more clearly than in the “life on board” section where the displays are meant to evoke the travelling experience for first class passengers. Ocean liners emulated grand hotels not only in terms of interiors but also in terms of food and service with top chefs acting as consultants. The entire on board experience was deliberately designed to replicate how the rich and powerful lived on dry land to make travelling as appealing and convenient as possible.  There were also activities on board such as sports and games for young and old alike but the main highlight is the fashion featured – a Christian Dior suit belonging to the actress Marlene Dietrich as well as a small selection of gowns worn by socialite Eleanor Grigsby as well the luggage in which their clothes were packed – dressing cases full of cosmetic bottles and Vuitton trunks that covert into chests of drawers – no slinging a soft bag into the overhead locker for these travellers. These clothes emphasised how much being on board was also to be seen and nowhere is this more apparent with the recreation of the “grande descente” where female passengers wearing their best gowns and jewels would descend the grand staircase of a liner on their way to dinner.

 

 

 

Secondly, the exhibition also takes a look at how technology has transformed how people travelled by sea. From its beginnings via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, ocean liners were initially used to transport mail and cargo gradually extending to transporting people especially those who were emigrating for a better life. However it was not a pleasant experience and as the nineteenth century gradually grew to a close, advances in ship building and technology made it possible for travelling by liner to be glamorous and aspirational rather than dirty and dangerous. Models and illustrations from the period demonstrate how much attention was paid to the design of the ship and its engines not only to make the liner look aesthetically pleasing but to ensure that safety, comfort and speed were not compromised.

Speed also comes in to what I consider the most important aspect explored by the exhibition – how ocean liners were used as tools to promote nationalism, national identity and national pride. The Blue Riband which was awarded for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic became fiercely contested and it was understandable that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would be exulting over German liners wresting the Blue Riband from their British rivals in 1898 and holding on to it until 1903. In a way, the competition for the coveted Blue Riband reflected the growing Anglo-German naval rivalry during this period as well as Germany’s dream of possessing a powerful navy to ensure its “place in the sun.” Nowhere is this ambition more apparent in a painted panel that was part of the Kronpriz Wilhelm’s interior which depicted allegorical images of the sea and rather unsubtly pointed out that Germany’s future lay with its mastery of maritime power.

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Increasingly as well, the state was taking an active interest in the liners and what they could achieve for the nation. This was especially true as during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liners were increasingly being built with government subsidies on the understanding that they would be requisitioned for public use in the event of war or any national calamity as was the case during the two World Wars where the likes of the Mauretania, Britannic and Queen Mary were used either as hospital ships or to transport troops and supplies to the front.

National identity and national pride were also heavily invoked especially during the 1930s. As demonstrated by two rival liners – the Queen Mary and the Normandie, which were seen by their respective governments as a way to promote Britain and France. Queen Mary, the first of the liners built by the merged Cunard-White Star Line drew heavily on a more restrained style in keeping up with the British national character to give prospective passengers a feel of being in a stately home at sea. Its interiors, fixtures and furniture made from materials sourced not only from all over Britain but also from its empire as a way of showing that the colonies were not a financial drain on the state but rather an important source for raw materials, and that the empire was of mutual benefit economically for the mother country and its dependents.

 

The Normandie on the other hand was unashamedly Art Deco in style and reflected continuing French influence in Western art and design by commissioning panels, sculptures and interior decoration from leading French artists. It was also a perfect showcase for the best of French industry as the likes of Lalique, Aubusson and other leading companies provided the liner’s furniture and fixtures. Both liners could be seen as floating representations of their respective countries at sea.

 

The Second World War put an end to the golden age of the ocean liner and the advent of airplanes such as the Boeing 747 and the Concorde rendered long distance travel by sea redundant. But the liners still provide inspiration for romance, dystopia and nostalgia as demonstrated by films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Titanic (1997). In addition, the liners themselves were a potent symbol for optimism in scientific and technological progress.

The exhibition is not without its weakness; more could have been said about those travelling in second and third class as well as the staff that saw to the needs of the passengers. But that’s a small quibble, the V&A has managed to give its visitors a slice of that glamorous life at sea that has passed into the annals of history and one that we will never see again.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 14 April 2018. Photos also taken by bloggers.

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is on at the V&A London until 17 June 2018 after which it will transfer at the V&A Dundee from 15 September 2018 to 24 February 2019. For more information please visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style and: https://www.vandadundee.org/exhibitions/ocean-liners

Exhibition Review: Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (V&A)

Long before there was Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig, there was Winnie the Pooh. For over 90 years, the bear with very little brain and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin have entertained and enchanted both children and adults alike.

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The exhibition is subtitled “Exploring a Classic” and it opens with the enduring legacy of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. There are merchandise dating from as early as the early 1930s with soft toys, puzzles and a child’s tea set that was presented to Princess Elizabeth of York, down to those based on the Walt Disney adaptation from the 1960s with toys, clothes, spin off films and TV specials. Pooh and his friends have also become iconic as demonstrated by editorial cartoons heavily based on the illustrations from the books. The stories themselves have become the inspiration for two self-help books that became bestsellers during the 1990s – The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Crucially, the Pooh stories themselves have gone global with translations in various languages and they have never been out of print.

From the enduring legacy, the exhibition moves towards chronicling the history behind the books and the collaboration between A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, both of whom worked for Punch magazine; the former as an assistant editor while the latter was an illustrator. Milne wrote the Pooh stories based on his son Christopher Robin and his menagerie of soft toys. Already an established writer, Milne relished the challenge of writing a children’s story believing that “[a] writer should take his job seriously even though he’s taking it to the nursery.”

The use of simple words and dialogue belied a quick witted verbal humour which appealed not just to children. In addition Milne’s use and misuse of language, grammar and punctuation facilitated his storytelling as they were there for both dramatic and humorous effect. But Milne’s prose is only half the story – as the exhibition shows, the success behind a children’s book is a harmony between text and illustration and this is where E.H. Shepard comes in. His technique and pared down drawings draw attention to the narrative; in addition he also used subtle details to synchronise his illustrations to the text.

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All of these are presented through displays of letters, manuscripts and drawings that illustrate how the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends came to life. One of the key highlights for me was the map of the 100 Acre Wood which was based Ashdown Forest, not far from the Milnes’ country home in Sussex, where Christopher Robin Milne used to play as a child. The drawings by Shepard, many of them works in progress, illustrate the creative process by which both men worked together to synthesise drawings and text.

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The exhibition has something for everyone – the drawings, books, merchandise and soft toys will appeal to those who grew up reading the Pooh stories or who discovered them after watching the Disney adaptation, while the large scale recreation of several key scenes from the books not to mention the multi-media displays would appeal to children who are just beginning to discover the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. If there’s any exhibition that would appeal to anyone between the ages of “two and one hundred and two” then this certainly is it.

 

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is on at the V&A until 8 April 2018. For more information please visit the exhibition website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

The blogger visited the exhibition on 7 February 2018

Photos from the exhibition taken by blogger

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity review

On paper, the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was part of the art establishment – a Royal Academician, a knight of the realm and a member of the Order of Merit, with a lucrative career that brought him fame and substantial financial rewards. Scratch the surface however and you find a Dutchman (born Lourens Alma Tadema), whose artistic career took him from his home country the Netherlands through Belgium and finally to Britain where he spent the last 40 odd years of his life.

The exhibition Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is a comprehensive survey of his life and career and using the Leighton House Museum as a venue was an inspired choice as it gives one an idea and feel of the studio-residences that Alma-Tadema created in London with his family. The ground floor rooms display paintings from the beginning of Alma-Tadema’s career, where his early paintings were heavily influenced by artists from the Golden Age of Dutch art such as Rembrandt, David Teniers the Younger and Nicholas Maes, as exemplified by portraits that he painted of members of his family. In the 1850s, he turned to historical painting, specialising in medieval subjects. Following his marriage to a French woman (Pauline Gressin Dumoulin) and during their honeymoon in Italy, the places they visited such as Rome and Pompeii provided new inspiration for his art – everyday life set in ancient Rome with titles such as Pomona Festival and The Flower Market. While Alma-Tadema ensured that his rendering of the interiors and clothing were as accurate as possible, some details especially the faces are very contemporary, as if the people depicted are playing at dressing up.

Alma-Tadema’s development as an artist is chronicled in the upstairs room. In 1869, his wife Pauline died and while in London seeking medical treatment he was invited to the home of the artist Ford Maddox Brown where he met Laura Theresa Epps and promptly fell in love with her. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and his growing feelings for Miss Epps influenced his decision to settle in Britain permanently and he married her in 1871; following which they acquired their first marital home near Regent’s Park (Townshend House). Laura became an artist in her own right and throughout the second floor there are paintings by her which show the influence of the Dutch masters and her specialisation in genre painting. There are also portraits that Alma-Tadema did of his wife and children that underscored them as a close and loving family unit.

Once Alma-Tadema settled in Britain, he became acquainted with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite movement and his colour palette changed; the darker tones of his Dutch and Belgian years giving way to the light hues influenced by his trips to Italy and his association with Pre-Raphaelite artists. By the 1880s, he was well established in his adapted country – garlanded with honours and awards as well as his paintings being well-received. In 1883, the Alma-Tademas bought a large house in St John’s Wood (located in Grove End Road) which also housed his studio. The interior of the house was done in the Roman style which served as his backdrop for many of his paintings.

During this period, Alma-Tadema also was commissioned to paint portraits and his portrait of the Polish pianist and future prime minister and diplomat Ignacy Jan Paderewski is a stark contrast to his historical paintings. While the colours are unmistakably Alma-Tadema, the rendition is almost impressionistic which showed that Alma-Tadema was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. The same versatility can also be seen in the few landscapes that he painted, mostly while on holiday in Italy and from the view of his house in Grove End Road. The Italian paintings especially are notable for the skill with which the painter depicts the sunlight on flesh, marble and sea: paintings such as A Solicitation emit a tangible sunlit warmth and ease.

Sir Lawrence AlmaTadema Coign of Vantage 1895 Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Despite his dabbling in portraiture and landscape painting, Alma-Tadema was primarily known for his historical painting. There were recurring elements in his work such as the prevalence of blue skies, white marble and vistas as exemplified by A Solicitation and Pleading. By the later phase of his career, Alma-Tadema had crystallised the elements that characterised his work: the sea, alluring women, classical sculpture, rich textures and flowers. He was known for his attention to detail and accuracy to the best of his ability (which was aided by trips to Italy and Egypt as well as informing himself of new developments in archaeology) all of which are evident in his most famous works such as Coign of Vantage, The Triumph of Titus: AD71 and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The latter is particularly interesting as it pretty much encapsulates almost all of Alma-Tadema’s elements and USP. However, I find the study much more interesting and convincing than the finished product; while the actual painting is technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing there is none of the sense of urgency and panic as the guests are being suffocated by the avalanche of the flowers streaming over them: they seem to be wholly relaxed about their fate.  In contrast however, the study for The Roses of Heliogabalus has more of the sense of the violence and suffering inflicted on the guests as demonstrated by the contortions of the body as the guests struggled to escape the shower of rose petals that threatens to engulf them.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888. Perez Simon Collection

By the time of Alma-Tadema’s death in 1912, his paintings and style had fallen out of fashion, supplanted by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, post-Impressionism and Cubism. For most of the 20th century he fell into obscurity but while Alma-Tadema wasn’t exactly a household name, his paintings gained a second lease of life in cinema. They became influential in how filmmakers brought the ancient world to life in cinema; one look at The Death of the First-Born and I was immediately reminded of the same scene in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) where the same muted colours and subdued lighting used by Alma-Tadema found its way into the film. More recently, Sir Ridley Scott was also influenced by Alma-Tadema for his film Gladiator (2000) where the scenes of gladiatorial combat are reminiscent of A Pyrrhic Dance and the costumes worn were inspired by the women depicted in various paintings dotted around the exhibition.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Pyrrhic Dance 1869 Guidhall Art Gallery City of London

While some might think that Alma-Tadema’s paintings are clichéd and only fit to decorate biscuit and chocolate tins, this exhibition shows that he was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. That said, his main body of work was all about the ancient world and the way he brought it to life does show that Alma-Tadema was indeed an artist “at home in antiquity”.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Finding of Moses 1904. Private Collection

 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is on at the Leighton House Museum until 29 October 2017. For more information please visit the website https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum/almatademaathome.aspx?gclid=CIWW4KCZ8tYCFeaT7QodjWsNxg

 

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 4 October 2017. We would also like to thank Ana Garcia of the Marketing and PR Department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for permission to use the images in this blog.

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

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/