Friday, 23 December 2016

Paintings and carpets

My pretty hatbox

Christmas is round the corner, in only two days,  and this means I need to do quite a bit of tidying up and sorting, as I will have (unexpected) guests.  I live in a very tiny flat and tend to store in boxes what I do not immediately need, promptly forgetting the content of each box. And so it was that I found, under a pile of other boxes,  my long lost hat box which is however quite impractical as it does not hold that many hats at all, but it is very  pretty. It's back in use, now, with only one hat in it.
And then I found the catalogue of an exhibition I went to see in 1997 at the Queen's Galleries, of the beautiful Padshahnama (Chronicle of the King of the World), now in the Royal Collection Trust. The Chronicle  narrates events related to the reign of the emperor Shah Jahan, who lived in the late 17th century. He is the one who built the Taj Mahal at Agra as a tomb for his beautiful wife Mumtaz. The Chronicle  includes forty four splendid miniature paintings, made by the very skilled and talented artists employed at the court of the emperor.
The paintings went on display in a special exhibition in 1997 and I was one of the thousands that queued up to see it.  They were breathtaking, with their vivid colours, richness of detail, all executed by true masters.
These days some people carry such a negative view of Islam as to forget all the wonderful things that the Muslim world has given us by way of art (as also science, but that's a topic to be explored in  another post). Mughal painting from India is one of such gifts. The Mughals were enlightened rulers and great patrons of the arts. During their time painting flourished as also architecture and the art of carpet making - South Asian carpets of the Mughal era are  distinct from those of Persia and equally beautiful.
I am a great carpet lover, a passion I inherited from my father who was a collector. I do not own any antique carpet but I do have one of my  father's, which used to be in my bedroom when I was a girl and  is now in my flat. It is an Ardabil style carpet, a distant and poorer relation of the superb Ardabil currently housed at the V&A.
Finding the catalogue of the Padshahnamah exhibition was such a wonderful moment. I began to leaf through it and marvelled again at the sheer beauty of the illustrations. There are portraits - the Mughals were fond of them, having learnt to appreciate European portraiture which had been introduced to them by the Christian missionaries. There are court scenes with the women delicately drawn in all their finery. There are images of animals and flowers, executed with great precision.
I think I know what I will do over the long Christmas vacation,  I shall visit the London museums where I can view some of these wonderful miniatures.
And I shall go to the V&A to admire the Ardabil.
Meanwhile I take the opportunity to wish you all a very happy Christmas!

Monday, 12 December 2016

Beauty standards can be challenged

From a recent editorial in  Fashion Magazine photo: Christopher Luk

I was really intrigued to read Jane Gordon's article for The Daily Mail published on 8th February 2016.  It's not recent, I know, but then I am not a Mail reader at all, it is not my kind of paper. I was actually Googling some information about beauty standards and this came up. It got me thinking.
Ms Gordon, was 58 years old at the time of writing and 5'4.5" tall. She tried to become a model. She was taken on the books of an agency that specialises in older models - 'classic' and 'retro' look - and was then sent to a casting for a runway show which would feature only older models. Ms Gordon felt intimidated by the fact that most of the women she met at the casting were 5'8" and over in flats and gave up, without even going through with it.  I suspect that she was not really interested in modelling since she already had another job, she was researching her article.  It was brave of her to have a go, however, and castings can be quite nerve racking.
But even though Ms Gordon is rightly lamenting the fact that there is a certain uniformity among 'classic' models, a tendency to be slim and tall (many of them have been modelling all their lives) and that she does not feel represented, because she is shorter, her argument is somewhat disingenuous and it certainly indicates a plus ça change attitude. Apart from the fact that not all model agencies are the same and there are some agencies for older models that are trying to go beyond the notion of a 'classic' model, as for example Grey Model Agency.

Behind the scenes at the Chelsea Enchanted Wedding Fair

Jane Gordon writes nothing to challenge a stereotype of the industry and thus underwrites a sense of  inevitability as well as endorsing  a defeatist attitude. This is precisely what one should not do. We would not have had someone like Ashley Graham on the cover of Vogue UK this month representing  plus-size women, for whom being accepted as beautiful has been an uphill struggle.
Let's go back to the point that Ms Gordon is making about being short. I sympathise. I stand 172.5 cm (over 5'7 and slightly below 5'8, the 3/4 thing). On the runway, when appearing with younger models, I have often felt very short even though I would not be classed  as short in relation to the standard height of women in many European countries, Britain included.
I'd say it's all quite relative and the height thingie is a bit of a smokescreen. Back in the 1960s Tippi Hedren was a fashion model in NYC before becoming famous for her films with Alfred Hitchcock and she was  5'5, she may be slightly shorter now that she is 86 years old.
There are many petite models around, young and old, famous and less famous. Petite models are currently a new trend, across all ages, and even American Next Top Model has a petite category for contestants. For years there have been petite fitting models anyway, because brands do need them in order to get the right size and right length of clothes, since they know that their customers are not all runway model tall.

Diversity on the runway. London Ethnic at Houses of Parliament

Even on the runway one often finds smaller models. Granted, they tend to be famous faces, but they are definitely working as models. Georgia May Jagger is only 5'7 and Alice Dellal is shorter. If you have a famous shorter model in a runway show, it is likely that a couple of less famous shorter models might also appear in the same show, otherwise the lack of height in the shorter model will be more noticeable in relation to the others.
Model agencies look at the whole package when selecting a model. Not everyone, even if they are good looking, is model material.
As for older models, they come in all shapes and sizes too and that's the beauty of it.  Precisely because they are older they might all be slightly shorter than young models, because height has increased over the generations  and as people get to their 70s and 80s they tend to lose height anyway.  Daphne Selfe is now 5'5 down a couple of  inches from the 5'7 of her youth  and even  Veroushka who started the trend of the very tall and lean model has lost an inch or so from her original 6'1.   She says she is now 179 cm.
Beauty standards are not immutable and can be challenged.  It is worth remembering this.

Sunday, 4 December 2016


With Ruth Woldeselasie of UrbanRootsEco at the House of Lords

The women of the world today all dress alike. They are like so many loaves of bread. To be beautiful one must be unhurried. Personality is needed. There is too much sameness. The world seems to have only a desire for more of this sameness. To be different is to be alone. I do not like what is average. So I am alone. 
Luisa Casati Stampa

I have been busy putting together my talk for 6th December, when I will don once again my academic hat and do a seminar presentation at SOAS, University of London, where I hold a non-teaching position as Research Associate of the Centre for Media Studies (everyone is welcome, by the way, details in the link above). I will be discussing my research on fashion in Indonesia, where I was last year for three months, and in particular, I will talk about fashion presentation, through shows and installations. I am a member of the NWFashion Conference forum which brings together scholars and professionals with the aim of exploring a wide variety of fashion systems throughout the world. It is important, I think, not to fall into the trap of believing that fashion is only relevant to the Western world and that there is no creative talent beyond the major fashion capitals (London, Paris, New York and Milan). It is also because of this commitment to divesting fashion of ethnocentrism that as a model I participate in shows and events which promote 'ethnic' designers, such as UrbanRootsEco, founded by Ethiopian  designer and former model Ruth Woldeselasie and represented by London Ethnic.  It is actually less than two weeks since I participated in the Fashion and Politics event organised by London Ethnic at the House of Lords, in Westmister and where I walked for UrbanRootsEco.

Fashion show at House of Lords, London Ethnic

I have a lot of material from the time I was in Jakarta but ahead of Tuesday I needed to check information and find out about further developments. A year in fashion is a long time!
And so it was that I discovered that designer Sebastian Gunawan, in tandem with his Italian designer wife Cristina Panarese, presented last week a 91 pieces couture collection for spring/summer 2017 (Gunawan does very limited ready-to-wear and was crowned Asian couturier in 2015).
The collection bore the title 'La Divina Marchesa' (amusingly translated by the JakartaGlobe as the Diving Marquise. Wrong gender and wrong meaning for 'divina' which is 'divine' in English but I do think that actually she did have a 'diving' approach to life). I am talking about Luisa Casati Stampa, an Italian marchioness who turned  herself and her life into a work of art, muse to Salvador Dali, patron of the Ballet Russes and a whole host of artists,  close friend of designers such as Poiret, whose clothes she wore.  She was photographed by Adolph de Meyer and lived in Venice in a palace later acquired by Peggy Guggenheim and which currently houses the Guggenheim collection.  Luisa Casati was immensely wealthy, one of the richest women in Europe at the start of the 20th century but she squandered her wealth to support her lavish lifestyle and to give generously as a patron   - it is said she had debts of US $25 million when she died a pauper in London in 1957.  She is buried at the Brompton cemetery, I will go and visit her grave one of these days.

A portrait of Marchesa Casati by Jean de Gaigneron  Photo: COLLEZIONE LUCILE AUDOUY

Luisa Casati was indeed most eccentric. Unusually tall and 'cadaverously' thin, always with heavily kohled eyes, she definitely stood out. She also had cheetah on a leash as pets and wore a live snake as a necklace, so there was no chance of not noticing her! Her clothes were magnificent and beautifully styled by herself, for she was the one that added the finishing touches to her mise.  She also had a penchant for nudity and would often disrobe or walk around wearing only a fur coat. She loved men and also women, a true free spirit.
Gunawan, like other designers before him, such as John Galliano  in 1998, Tom Ford in 2004 and Karl Lagerfeld in 2010, to name only the most recent ones,  were all enticed by this incredible woman, who continues to be a muse beyond the grave. That is not to say that Gunawan copied anyone. His collection is stunning, with delicate lace and beautiful silks. The clothes are well structured and are accompanied by jewellery designed by the inimitable Rinaldy Yunardi.
But it is not Gunawan's collection I wish to discuss here - you can see a video  of his collection and read about it in the JakartaGlobe.

As I was reading up about Luisa Casati I came across a wonderful word which is not used much. This is 'quaintrelle', the female couterpart of 'dandy' but, as a quick Google search yielded, a lot more. A quaintrelle is 
"a woman who emphasises a life of passion expressed through personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, and cultivation of life’s pleasures."
I could live with that, in fact I can be that.
Luisa Casati,  you are my spiritual mother! And though I may not walk about with a snake coiled around my neck, I have held snakes and found them quite enticing, only a little cold at the touch.