Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Report from Boston: Fashion and Popular Culture

A few weeks ago I attended the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA) conference in Boston to give a paper on The Jetsons and Space-Age fashion (for more on space-age fashion, see this post). Being a popular culture conference, there were presentations on all topics from Harry Potter to the decorative arts to popular architecture, and the keynote was on one of Boston's most beautiful cemeteries, Forest Hills. I heard a variety of wonderful presentations, including one on taxidermy in early twentieth-century interiors and one on sociobiology and the protagonists in children's fantasy literature, but I am going to focus my report on some of the research I heard having to do with fashion.

The "area" I was speaking in was called "Fashion, Appearance, and Material Culture," which is a rather broad area but which made for some interesting dialog between presentations. One of my favorite presentations was by an artist and graphic designer named Donna Catanzaro, who collects images and creates digital collages that address topics such as feminism, war, and the environment while remaining riotously funny. The piece on which she focused her presentation was this one, called "Swimsuit Shopping." Catanzaro despises bikinis, and she shows a number of bikini-clad mannequins with their heads separated from their bodies being steamrolled by a group of waitresses in lobster suits (from an old Atlantic City restaurant), along with a mushroom cloud that references the bikini's name (taken from the Bikini Atoll, the site of America's Operation Crossroads nuclear testing in 1947).

Catanzaro commented that at first, she had chosen pictures of women in bikinis rather than mannequins, but when she dismembered them via photoshop for her image, the result looked too much like carnage. She also realized that removing the head from an image of a woman in a bikini depersonalized the image, so that it felt less like there were dead bodies strewn about her picture. The end result is a combination of headless female torsos and mannequins, both feeling equally artificial. Does this imply that the head of a woman is what makes her distinct, or human, and that just her body alone isn't enough to create an identity for her? It's a very interesting idea to explore. A number of her other images are at her website, http://www.donnacat.com/. Check it out!

Victoria Pass, a doctoral student researching fashion and Surrealism at the University of Rochester, discussed Chanel and Marcel Duchamp's female alter ego "Rrose Selavy." She focused on similarities in the ways in which they marketed their personal images in order to market their art and design. Chanel is not a designer that I would immediately connect with Surrealism, so the comparison was a very intriguing one. The idea of marketing the artist or designer themself in order to promote his or her work is one that has pervaded the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries, especially in the past few decades.

While I sometimes feel that Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick are overly discussed these days, I very much enjoyed the presentation of Yale doctoral student Madison Moore on Edie Sedgwick and her glamourous image. Moore's work focuses on glamour as performance, a deliberate act combining style and drama that creates an intentional "fabulousness." Instead of being something superficial or simply gaudy, Moore argues that glamour reveals our social and cultural anxieties. He's recently written a wonderful blog entry on Rihanna's image and how she and other style icons dress themselves as if they were on a photo shoot, in a sense creating fashion editorials before they are made. I would love to take a look at style icons throughout the century-- right now I'm thinking of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor-- and examining the relationships between their public attire and concurrent, or subsequent, fashion editorials.

Bareket Kezwer, from the Parsons graduate program, gave a presentation on Louis Vuitton's brand image and the global art market. I was fascinated by how far-reaching the LVMH conglomerate is, and how wealthy and powerful its head is. It seems as though every part of LVMH's marketing kicks back to some other branch of the LVMH empire, and they really own a large part of the world's art market. Louis Vuitton itself has an incredible history, beginning in the nineteenth century (and one of the most amusing things about the LV logo is that it was originally conceived in order to prevent counterfeiting--it's now one of the world's most counterfeited logos).

Laura Camerlengo is looking at 19th century miser's purses, particularly examining their representation in a variety of literary sources including Sketches by Boz and Vanity Fair. Using literary sources can be a rich and challenging strategy for a fashion researcher, much like using art-- you must recognize the author's style, context, and creative license in order to glean meaning from their references, but the result can be a deep cultural understanding of fashions and objects that is nearly impossible to gain from other sources.

These notes are just a very shallow gloss on the research that was presented. I'm going to continue to follow all of these researchers in the future, knowing that they will be leading fashion studies down interesting and significant paths.

Which of these researchers' work do you find the most interesting? Are there other topics in fashion and popular culture that you' d like to see explored?
Image of woman in bikini by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life, 1943. Image of bomb over Bikini Atoll by Frank Scherschel for Life, 1946.


  1. Thank you so much for your kind words. Will you be attending the CSA symposium in May? I will be presenting my miser's purse research (for the first time!) there and focusing on its literary/artistic uses.

  2. One easy way to decorate a nursery is to use an image from art history. Many western painters have painted for children, such as this painting, by English artists Stanley Spencer, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT7RP , should look good on the nursery wall.
    It's available as a canvas print of any size to be delivered to your home, from wahooart.com. It's affordable too.


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