Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Carmen Dell'Orefice: Fashion's Favourite Muse

Carmen with Horst, by Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine, 1947
So, you’re travelling in a bus in New York City. (Already, this is starting to seem like an impossible Christmas-season fantasy in this time of recession? Stay with me here.) Junior Bazaar magazine spots you and thinks that you may just be the cat’s pyjamas. That is, you have what it takes to be the next supermodel. Test shots are taken. They are sent to the magazine. You wait, and wait, and wait some more. The mission is a colossal failure. But hang on. You get an opportunity to shoot for Vogue, and suddenly, you are making $7.50 an hour to model for the world’s best-selling fashion magazine. Did I mention that you are thirteen years old? (Now you can’t tell if this is a dream to be enjoyed with a glass of mulled wine, or an Oliver Twist parody…)

The London College of Fashion presents a retrospective of Carmen Dell’Orefice, supermodel extraordinaire, a woman born in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, on Welfare Island, New York. A woman who has invented and reinvented herself more times than Christmas turducken. This tiny, but exquisite, exhibition is a yummy hors d’oeuvre for the holidays, a glimpse of a sixty-six-year career of fashion’s favourite muse, not to mention the skill of the world’s best photographers that daily walk the line between fashion and art.
Magazine covers from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, advertisements for Elizabeth Arden and something called Hunt’s Catsup, portraits by Cecil Beaton and Horst P Horst feature in this exhibition that could easily be five times bigger and not put you to sleep. 

In Irving Penn’s “Girl with Fruit, Shoe and Butterflies,” Vogue, 1946, Dell’Orefice sits surrounded by half a melon and a black leather pump. Butterflies flit around her, one sits on her shoulder, another on her shoe. And it is impossible to know if Dell’Orefice has just served tea and croquettes to the local chapter of the Women’s Institute, or butchered the latest in a long line of hapless victims in her basement. 

Her Italian father was a violinist, her Hungarian mother, a dancer. Dell’Orefice was training to be a ballet dancer at the Swoboda School when she developed rheumatic fever. Her dance career may still have flourished if she hadn’t grown three inches in height during her illness. By the late 1940s, she was considered too underweight and anaemic to be glamorous. A visit to Condé Nast’s in-house doctor, however, pulled a miracle transformation out of the bag, and suddenly, Dell’Orefice glowed with health and vitality, not to mention an Amazonian bosom. This led, inevitably, to a flash career as a lingerie model at Vanity Fair and an asking price of $300 an hour. 

Several decades, three husbands, and an honorary doctorate later, silver-haired Dell’Orefice laughs in your face in a series of photographs by Ali Mahdavi, recently commissioned by the London College of Fashion. As Norman Parkinson once said of the fashion camera’s favourite model, she “didn’t look bad for an old bag.”

Carmen: A Life in Fashion
London College of Fashion
Till January 28, 2012

Published in London Fringe Festival and The London Word

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Karl Lagerfeld Gives Willy Wonka a Run for His Money

Photo: Antoine de Parseval
More on Chanel's Paris-Bombay Collection

Chanel’s tasty Métiers D’Art 2012 collection titled Paris-Bombay, actively and unapologetically, set out to woo the Indian upper-class customer who has more pocket money than she knows what to do with. Fuelled by a booming economy, and a desire to consume, consume, consume, India seems to be the next destination of choice for the big design houses.

At first glance, designer Karl Lagerfeld’s collections, inspired variously by Byzance, Shanghai, and Moscow in recent years, follow the path of fin de siècle designers like Paul Poiret. These designers and artists married early-twentieth century art deco with orientalist acquisition to market to the European fashionista the mystery, exoticism, and opulence of the orient. But peer a little closer. The mingling of French lace with lavishly-embroidered anarkali gowns, of elaborate hand-chokers and tikas dripping down on the forehead, is not just selling the fantasy-India of elephants and maharajas to Europeans, but to the generous-pocketed Indian consumer. It is the Orient marketed to the Orient. Go figure.

The Paris-Bombay collection, in which models paraded their tight churidars paired with gold lame, their lashings of pearls, and their kohlapuri slippers down aisles studded with an Indian-themed banquet – replete with mountains of fruit, ornate candelabra and, I want to say, chicken tikka, but who knows? – is the orientalist version of Willy Wonka’s party. Instead of children whose brains have been addled by sugary confections, however, the invitations were exclusively given out to design and pop culture royalty, and the Parisian ton.

Seventy-three-year-old Lagerfeld, famously attired in his indoor sunglasses, white ponytail, and Tourette’s-like quotes, says he has never been to India and that “It’s much more inspiring not to go to places than to go.” Hmm? What does that even mean? He went on to say that women all over the world often respond to recession by dressing up in their most lavish jewels. Off to Accessorize I go…

Lagerfeld owns more than two hundred exclusive stores around the world, and designs not only for Chanel, but for artists like Madonna, stores like H&M and Diesel, and his own fashion house. He likes to periodically remind the world that he is still alive by using fur in his shows and employing strippers to model his lines. The Chanel Métiers D’Art collections have showcased the best of French craftsmanship for the last eight years. Priced somewhere between Chanel’s prêt-a-porter gear (£2000), and their couture (£20,000), the 2012 collection showcases Lagerfeld’s interpretations of Indian fashion history.

Published on the London Word

A Christmas Carol


Sell a Door’s A Christmas Carol, directed by David Hutchinson and Anna Schneider, recreates the loneliness of Scrooge as he sits at his desk in the Christmas season, jealously counting his money, and enjoying an orgy of mutual hatred with the world. The directors of the Dickens classic use the small stage of the Greenwich Playhouse and a modest budget to maximum effect. They place a live musician with his computer and keyboard in one corner of the room; use the actors and dancers in the production as stage hands and helpers between scenes; and they draw a series of quick-fire sets on the blackboard that acts as backdrop for the play – a surprisingly effective device.

Stephen Barden successfully brings to life Scrooge’s melancholic, solitary existence, while the young cast does justice to the somewhat holier-than-thou Cratchetts, and the various ghosts that pay Scrooge a visit in his home. Tara Godolphin and Jess Mock shine as the ghosts of Christmas present and past respectively. Godolphin in a neon-green dress, a size or two too small for her, totters about in high heels, and gives us a tarty interpretation of the former, while Mock animates her preaching with a coy and flirty, mock-angelic version of the latter. The singing and dancing interludes are effective and Christmasy, though there are Christmas horrors in store for Scrooge, so the play is not an ideal Christmas treat for the young ones.

The paragraph in the promos and programme that points to the similarity between this classic tale and the current banking crisis does the play a disservice, however, in that it raises expectations that there will be more in the script that satirizes, or at least signifies, the current economic climate. I would definitely be up for watching an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that was actually set in today’s recession, where Scrooge could be the epitome of a Northern Rock banker, and Cratchett his hapless employee, fearfully trying to guard against redundancy. I wouldn’t mind seeing a gay Fred, fighting the good fight against his homophobic uncle. However, this is not the case here, and the play is simply a fun, and somewhat contemporary, adaptation of the original.

If you are into fringe theatre, then Sell a Door is a company to watch. They tour widely and successfully, one of the few fringe theatre companies to do so without any funding. Upcoming adaptations include Lord of the Flies and The History Boys.

A Christmas Carol, Greenwich Playhouse, Till January 15, 2012

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Chanel Métiers D’Art 2012

Photo by Antoine de Parseval

Chanel’s delicious Métiers D’Art collection, presented in Paris the day before yesterday, had much in common with an Indian wedding. Gold silk paired with a tight pair of white leggings, a multitude of nose rings, a tika dripping down on to the forehead, finely-crafted hand jewellery – and unapologetic excess.

Designer Karl Lagerfeld is happy to admit that he has never been to India, but the Paris-Bombay collection finds it easy to mate the fantasy of an opulent Orient, with the current-day middle-class Indian reality of having more pocket money than you know what to do with. Lagerfeld has installed this lushness into a European collection, saying that, “People have always responded to difficulty by dressing up in jewels.” Well, then, portends of a second recession be damned. (Is the first over? When did that happen?)

The Chanel Métiers D’Art collections have showcased the best of French craftsmanship for the last eight years. Priced somewhere between Chanel’s prêt-a-porter gear (£2000), and their couture (£20,000), the 2012 collection showcases Lagerfeld’s interpretations of Indian fashion history. Yards of intricate lace construct the classic Mughal anarkali dress, full with transparent sleeves and muslin scarf. Beads are threaded delicately into a long white sherwani. Necklines and hems are weighted down with jewels approximately the same weight as the models that wear them – a tradition followed by many Indian queens through history.

The borrowing of Oriental fashion and injecting it into European lines has a long trajectory. French designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) opened his own fashion house in 1903 with the kimono coat. Just before the First World War, when dancers like Nijinsky and Loie Fuller dressed in filmy Turkish-inspired layers, and Egyptian head-gear, Poiret dressed his wife Denise in “harem” trousers and minaret tunics studded with turquoise stones. Poiret launched the first ever signature fragrance produced by a fashion house “Parfums de Rosine” with a lavish Arabian Nights-style costume ball. In similar fashion, Paris-Bombay was launched during a lavish Indian-themed dinner party that doubled as runway for the models who walked in kolapuri slippers through aisles of candlesticks, piles of fruit, and gold-plated cutlery – not to mention the French ton.

Seventy-three-year-old Lagerfeld has also produced shows inspired by Byzance, Shanghai and Moscow. Not far from a dandy himself with his white-powdered ponytail, his hand-held fan, and his sunglasses, Lagerfeld owns more than two hundred exclusive stores around the world, and designs not only for Chanel, but for artists like Madonna, stores like H&M and Diesel, and his own fashion house. He likes to periodically remind the world that he is still alive by using fur in his shows and employing strippers to model his lines.

Published on

Friday, 2 December 2011

Disrobing the King’s Mistresses

The Whore's Last Shift, James Gillray, National Portrait Gallery, 1779

Henry Angels as Mrs. Cole in The Minor, Samuel de Wilde, National Portrait Gallery, 1792

Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, William Hogarth, National Portrait Gallery, 1738
Mary Robinson - Perdita, John Hoppner, Natioanl Portrait Gallery, 1782
Nell Gwyn (1651-1687) throws you a deliciously superior glance as her robes fall off her shoulders and reveal a not-so-coy vision of her milky breasts. You can look, but you can’t touch, she says. King Charles II’s mistress, mother of at least two of his bastards, and one of the first actresses to perform at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Gwyn seems exclusively to be painted getting into or out of her clothes. As one of the visitors to the National Portrait Gallery commented, “This one seemed to be cursed with a series of wardrobe malfunctions.”
The First Actresses exhibition is a series of portraits by celebrated painters like Simon Verelst, Sir Peter Lely, and Thomas Gainsborough, of the first actresses to be allowed on the English stage. These were women who were desired and feared in equal measure for their bawdy, confident acting, their throw-it-in-your-face personal lives, and their decadent sense of style and fashion.
Many of the women combined a life as an actress and dancer with forays into the royal court. While this was most often as the chosen mistress of a king or a prince (like Nell Gwyn, Moll Davis, and Mary Robinson), women like Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) entered the royal threshold as reading instructor. Instead of displaying a quantity of rippling flesh, Siddons, in a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is pictured standing next to a staid side table. A couple of weighty leather-bound founts of knowledge lie on the table, and Siddons’s carriage is made even more stately with a pair of serious eyes and a set of petulant lips.
Some of the choicest pieces in the exhibition are perhaps the ones least touted in the press. These are hilarious satirical etchings by artists such as William Hogarth and James Gillray. One titled Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn is a scene of dressers, seamstresses, half-dressed actresses, surrounded by a mind-numbing quantity of green room paraphernalia. Another, this one by Gillray, is simply titled The Whore’s Last Shift (1779).
While the 1660s allowed female actresses to perform on the stage for the first time, these women were considered disreputable and suspect, and easy prey to roving eyes and fingers. By 1737, only troupes with a royal charter were allowed to perform on stage. In this small but choice exhibition at the Royal Academy, portraits of these pioneering women are accompanied by lush caricatures of male cross-dressers. In The Minor, Henry Angels, in voluminous robes and apron, played the infamous role of Mrs. Cole, a woman who ran a brothel in Covent Garden and appeared often in an inebriated state. In this portrait by Samuel de Wilde in 1792, Angels combines a meaty bosom with a soured outlook. 

The First Actresse, National Portrait Gallery, Till January 8, 2012


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Degas's Dancers

There is something exquisitely voyeuristic about Degas’s (1834-1917) peek into the lives of nineteenth-century ballet dancers. In a backdrop of frothy tutus, and a canvas of dancers posing in unison as they launch into an arabesque, a ballet dancer sits with her head in her hands. Her legs are splayed and a pedestrian wrap around her shoulders keeps her warm in the cold of a Parisian studio. Degas, in his lifelong rapture with a dancer’s movements, catches not only the magic of muscles working at their best, but brings to life the curse of a dancer’s body that does not behave exactly as it should. A body that crumbles. Injures itself. That fails. That continually seduces. And perpetually falls short.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Degas’s studies of the human body in motion spans his career from his early, realistic portrayals of dancers in rehearsal studies and dance classes, to his later, bolder, more impressionist work that he painted often in one dominant hue. Sumptuous aqua tones, throbbing reds, and canary yellows mark this period, and though he continued to refer to himself as a realist, there is a definite heightening of the squiggles and splotches that brand him as an impressionist, and a telling juxtaposition of humanity and wilderness. The challenge of catching human locomotion through art was a characteristic of Degas’s period, and scientists like Etienne-Jules Marey, with his forays into fixed-plate chronophotography, inspired Degas’s work, as did the realism of popular illustrators like Daumier and Gavarni. While Degas captures the magic and the disappointments of a dancer’s existence through his work, he steers clear of delving into the murkier corners of the psyches of his nineteenth-century subjects who, outside of the effervescence of their chosen profession, often lived lives of devastating poverty, utter dependence on the largesse of their patrons, and the painful reality of cold, bleeding feet. Degas, instead, catches a shoulder strap as it falls off a shapely shoulder and the strength of a pair of legs as they pas de bourree on a wooden floor on pointe. Despite such a compulsive engagement with human flesh, later in his life, Degas turned more and more into a recluse, believing that a social and personal life were in conflict with an artist’s need for a vivid inner reality.
While the Royal Academy does a good job of displaying many of Degas’s oils of dancers, some of his sketches and studies of the human body, and many photographs of the moving body taken by his contemporaries, the exhibition nevertheless leaves you with a not-quite-full stomach as you walk out of the last room. It is the paintings Degas did in his later years that are so captivating, and the show leaves you wanting more of this aspect of his work.

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, Till December 11, 2011, Royal Academy

Published in London Festival Fringe