Kristen Stewart, Julianne Moore, Lara Stone, Baptiste Giabiconi and Lily-Rose Depp at the Chanel roulette table. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Guests never quite know what to expect when they walk into a Chanel fashion show, especially since Karl Lagerfeld has created a feminist rally, a life-size faux supermarket, a fully-functional brasserie and a sprawling art… Continue reading
When International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde goes to the G8 summit in June, she may well be wearing a scarf – a fashion accessory that she’s become known for, and one that’s been drawing more and more attention. In fact, the BBC recently identified scarves as a “new power symbol” for women.
True, just as some men choose amusing neckties to enliven monochrome suits, many women who work in an atmosphere that requires conservative business apparel will wear scarves to add a fillip of color and distinction.
But the trend is anything but “new.” In looking at the history of scarves in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s clear that the allure and power of scarves has always existed – and persists.
A single piece of cloth
The scarf is the most simple form of adornment: a single piece of cloth. For this reason, it’s one of the most versatile clothing accessories, used for centuries across a variety of cultures, for a range of purposes.
Many Muslim women wear headscarves for modesty, while ladies of a certain age favor scarves with a triangular fold to protect expensive or elaborate coifs.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
A scarf can be a political statement, and can denote a wearer’s affiliation or beliefs. Early 20th-century crusaders for women’s rights used their clothing to promote their cause, wearing scarves in the movement’s colors: white, green and purple.
During World War II, scarves expressed nationalist sentiments. The British firm Jacqmar produced designs with propaganda-themed slogans. One featured the phrase “Shoulder to Shoulder” on a map of England emblazoned with British and American symbols. Another design mimicked a wall covered with posters urging citizens to “Lend to Defend” and “Save for Victory.”
An elegant fashion
But in Western culture, the scarf is most prominently known for its use as a fashion accessory, one that first gained widespread popularity in the 19th century.
The fichu is a typical 18th- and 19th-century style that can be seen as the forerunner of modern scarves. A piece of fabric worn lightly draped on the upper chest and usually knotted in front, it provided modest covering but was also an opportunity to add an especially fine textile – sometimes lace edged or embroidered – to an ensemble.
Lightweight, finely woven silk and cashmere shawls from India were one of the first fashionable scarf styles. Empress Joséphine – the first wife of Napoleon – had an extensive collection (thanks to her husband’s travels), and the style persisted through much of the 19th century, spawning cheaper imitations fabricated in other parts of Europe, notably France and Paisley, Scotland.
Like much of high fashion, scarves can signal one’s status, and limited edition scarves – often only made available to favored customers – can act as specific indicators for those in the know.
For example, fashion houses send scarves, often during the holidays, as thank-yous to loyal clients. Those produced by Parisian couturiers during the 1950s were especially chic, often designed with sketches of the maison; others displayed printed patterns in the whimsical, painterly style of the era.
© 2000–2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Michael Blankfort, in memory of her mother, Mrs. William Constable Breed, 1976
And from the 1950s into the 1970s, the famed Manhattan eating and drinking establishment 21 produced a series of annual scarves and sent them to favorite “regulars.”
The restaurant’s owners commissioned well-known designers, and each year’s scarf design referred to some aspect of the restaurant – its famous façade, the collection of jockey statues outside or the number 21.
Actress Lauren Bacall, an esteemed regular, donated her 21 scarves to the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where other pieces from her wardrobe were recently exhibited.
A canvas for experimentation
As a discrete space, a scarf presents an opportunity for experimentation often not available in other realms of dress that are determined – and restricted – by the shape of the body.
In London in the 1940s, Lida and Zika Ascher initiated their “Artist Squares” project, enlisting an international roster of prominent artists to design large scarves, a group that included Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Henry Moore.
The Artist Squares were sold in major department stores and also exhibited – framed, like paintings – at London’s Lefevre Gallery.
To celebrate her new couture salon in 1935, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli made a collage of her press clippings and had it printed as fabric for scarves and other accessories, turning black and white type into a striking motif.
A scarf by the American designer Vera offers another variation on lettering as ornament, presenting the titles of international newspapers, each in its distinctive typeface, on a vivid yellow background.
© 2000–2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Heather B. Babb, 1996
Hermès: The crème de la crème
Certain labels are particularly associated with high style in scarves. Ferragamo, Fendi and Gucci – all originally esteemed leather goods houses – now produce desirable scarves.
But for prestige and polish, Hermès represents the pinnacle of scarf culture. Several aspects of its business have contributed to the company’s reputation. Founded in 1837 as a supplier of equestrian supplies, Hermès began offering scarves, called carrés, in 1937.
Their focus on exclusivity has encouraged an almost fetishistic loyalty among customers, many of whom could more properly be termed “collectors.” Limiting the number of designs they offer each season has maintained Hermès’ mystique. The company’s focus on craftsmanship helps justify their reputation and high prices; Hermès takes pride in the impressive number of colors in each design, the hand-printing process and the fineness of their silk, positioning their output as artisanal creations.
While not at the level of Hermès, the American accessories company Echo, founded in 1923, also has a loyal following. The firm pinpointed the essence of the scarf with their memorable ad campaign “The Echo of an Interesting Woman,” introduced in the 1970s.
In contemporary fashion, scarves continue to serve the same functions as those earlier fine linen fichus and paisley shawls; they denote connoisseurship and sophistication.
It’s no surprise, then, that sociologist and image consultant Anna Akbari makes “Put on a scarf” the first entry on her current list of “5 Simple Ways To Hack Your Image,” recognizing their potential for instant uplift and an infusion of individuality.
The blue dress, the blonde hair, the white apron and the sense of adventure: Alice in Wonderland has certainly leapt free of Lewis Carroll’s pages into our imaginations, onto our screens and stages and beyond. These days, it’s a fairly common occurrence to “be Alice”.
As a series of images and objects in the V&A Museum of Childhood’s upcoming exhibition, The Alice Look makes clear, people from across the world and all walks of life regularly dress as Alice for parties or Halloween, high-end photo shoots or even (their own) weddings.
Countless others wear garments adorned by Alice or associated with that unmistakable “Wonderland aesthetic” (think rabbits, playing cards, teacups, pocket watches). For the most part, this is a relatively superficial affair, lasting an evening or couple of days at most. But in some cases, a much more enduring and profound engagement with the character takes place.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
I recently met four such women who, over a sustained period, have lived, breathed and worked to actually become Alice. Fiona Fullerton was there, star of the 1972 feature film directed by William Sterling. Then there was soprano Fflur Wyn, who is due to reprise her lead role in Opera Holland Park’s production this summer, and Royal Ballet principal dancer Lauren Cuthbertson, for whom Christopher Wheeldon created the role of Alice in 2011. Lastly, Lucy Farrett – who is one of the actresses in the immersive theatre extravaganza currently being performed in the Vaults under Waterloo station.
What quickly emerges in conversation with these women is the sheer physical strain of the role. There’s an impressive degree of multi-tasking involved: being Alice encompasses acting as well as dancing, puppetry and singing. Carroll himself was fully aware of the demands of the part, writing in an 1888 letter that it is “about as hard a one as a child ever took”, and observing with appropriately mathematical exactitude that it involved speaking no less that “215 times!”
Lauren Cuthbertson also quantified the gruelling nature of her version of the part: the terrible realisation that Act One involved dancing some 14 scenes back-to-back with no rest except a couple of rapid costume changes – and the 38 bruises which emerged in the aftermath of the first ever performance. In her open-air performance, Fflur Wyn endured the torments of multiple layers of costume under an unusually co-operative but fierce summer sun.
In the Vaults production, Alice is a deliberately fleeting presence, but the nature of the show still means that Farrett must deliver the same lines no less than 36 times… per evening! And if, for Fiona Fullerton, filming seems to have been a fun-filled series of interactions with British acting royalty, cycling merrily around Shepperton studios, it nevertheless involved three months away from home, trying to keep up with schoolwork whilst lodging in a provincial hotel filled to the rafters with elderly residents.
The demands of the role are such that it is highly unusual for children to play the role of Alice, who is just seven years old in the original text.
It seems certain that Carroll would have looked askance at the tendency to cast adults in the role. He once wrote of 30-year-old Ellen Terry (in a different production): “The gush of animal spirits of a light-hearted girl is beyond her now, poor thing! She can give a very clever imitation of it, but that is all.”
Many productions help bridge the gap between character and performer by making Alice older, frequently doubling her age or more. But a considerable age difference often still remains. Navigating between the pitfalls of excessive maturity and panto parody is surely one of the biggest challenges for performers and producers of Wonderland today. It’s perhaps made easier by the fact that performing freshness and innocence remains such a staple requirement for women on stage and screen – and beyond – today.
Fuzziness around the age issue is compounded in modern productions by the fact that the visual cues which enabled Victorian readers and audiences to immediately recognise Alice as a little girl (hair down, hem just below the knee, short sleeves) no longer pertain.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Blue and white
Tenniel’s original illustrations nevertheless serve as the model for countless Alice costumes including those of Fullerton and Wyn which, despite the 30 years separating them, differ from each other very little at all.
To set themselves apart, other productions deliberately eschew this classic Alice look of full-skirted blue dress and white pinafore. The Alice of the Vaults production, for example, wears a turquoise-green, neo-Victorian shabby-chic dress devoid of pinafore – although with key elements of Wonderland iconography such as a small gold pocket watch.
Similarly, in the Royal Ballet production, Cuthbertson wore, not blue, but lilac (perhaps in tribute to the first coloured Macmillan edition which adopted this colour). She also sported a short dark bob modelled not on Tenniel’s Alice but the real-life Alice (Liddell) for whom the book was initially produced.
Relatively minor modifications to colour and style notwithstanding, Alice’s appearance in each of these productions retains a distinct flavour of olde-worlde otherness and nostalgia. This is a point underlined by the fact that on the night we met, each of the Alices without exception appeared in a costume which has long dominated the female wardrobe but is still to make inroads into Alice’s look: namely, trousers.
It’s obvious that despite being widely hailed by critics and pundits in this anniversary year as a feisty, go-getting feminist icon, Alice has nevertheless remained – not unlike Lansley’s Alice trapped behind the looking-glass – in a considerably constrained conception of femininity.
Peter Oborne’s dramatic exit from his role as chief political commentator of The Telegraph has sharpened the focus on editorial credibility. While his resignation and the reasons for it have caused a storm of shocked comment from across the media, the issue is not a new one for the consumer fashion media sector.
As London Fashion Week reaches its climax, it’s a good moment to think about the insidious shift in power from editorial teams to advertising brands. Today, those brands appear to call the shots on a significant part of the product-based editorial offer in all kinds of consumer magazines.
Responding to the Oborne controversy, veteran newsman and editor Harold Evans was exercised by two aspects of the problem. First he talked about the editorial credibility of the media outlet. His view was that the very credibility of editorial content was what sold ads. He was also concerned about the development of native advertising – what we used to call advertising features or advertorials.
What Evans highlighted was the trust that exists between an editorial team and its readers. Readers have loyalty to publications and websites because they are trusted to select relevant information and edit in the interests of the readers and users. While the loyalty is perhaps now diminishing, it is part of the ethical behaviour of trained journalists to behave in a trustworthy manner.
You wonder what fashion magazine readers would think about the credibility of their trusted editorial teams if they knew that front covers were sometimes paid for – that is, the cost of the shoot, not as an advertising rate – by an advertising brand. That same brand would have input into the location, the model, the grooming and the garments. Inside the fashion magazines, stylists now have to make up creative ideas for the storytelling of an editorial shoot – the garments used are frequently dictated by the PRs of the advertisers, often head-to-toe outfits.
urbansheep, CC BY-SA
I recently flicked through a fashion mag where the exact same garment combination was used in an ad for a brand and in the so-called editorial shoot. Even in a media world where there is an unwritten deal that advertisers are always covered editorially this seems a step too far.
It is virtually a badge of honour for newspaper fashion writers to be banned from catwalk shows after a bad review for a designer, but the situation of those writing for fashion magazines is different.
Fashion and lifestyle brand advertising revenue is the lifeblood of commercial success for fashion magazines, particularly in an environment of falling circulations. Never able to be critical, consumer fashion mags used to show their disapproval of collections by not including them in their catwalk reports, but now advertisers demand inclusion as part of the “deal”. The threat to withdraw advertising is a strong incentive to make editorial decisions, and readers might find this disconcerting if they knew about the backroom negotiations.
The internet has not helped matters. The number of bloggers who declare their relationship with brands via sponsored posts is increasing. But there are still many who effectively hoodwink their readers into thinking they are giving an objective judgement on product when they have either been gifted product or even been paid for coverage. You’d think the web would improve transparency, but this is far from the case.
Advertisers have always been cherished and “looked after”, so it was perhaps predictable that their power would increase as audiences fragment and readers get used to getting information for free.
Evans’s view may now be considered an old-fashioned one. News UK has, for example, recently set up a division solely to facilitate native advertising across its titles and websites. And guess what? Rather than being lead by someone from the ad team, former Sunday Times Style editor, Tiffanie Darke, takes the helm.
So while commentators continue to chew the cud on the Oborne resignation, fashion writers covering London Fashion Week will be contemplating how critical, if at all, they can be about a collection they hate while anticipating the negotiations ahead on which garments they will be allowed to feature.