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BIO

whatgrandmawore is a celebration of all-things fashion and its most iconic moments, written by Ruby-May Helms. She has a BA (Hons) in Fashion and Dress History, and an MA in the History of Design and Material Culture. She is currently in the process of applying for a PHD in design history, exploring the relationship between clothing and death. 

 

This blog explores fashion and dress history through the analysis of surviving garments and other material culture from museum collections. It discusses fashion theory, topical and current issues, and reviews the latest exhibitions. 

 

TO CONTACT: rubymayhelms@hotmail.com. 

 

You can follow us on our social media channels by searching for us on Instagram and Twitter.

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June 4, 2019

In light of The Costume Society’s upcoming July conference, Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement, the terms (in this instance) of the month are Aesthetic/Artistic dress. 

E.582-1953. F. Champenois. Mucha, Alphonse. Colour lithograph. c1898. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O590845/f-champenois-poster-mucha-alphonse/

These two words are used interchangeably, and can be applied, as stated by Aileen Ribeiro in her text Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914 ‘to a shifting group of people,’ living in the 19th century, who shared ideas in regards to art and its relationship to dress and taste.[1] The terms are described by Valerie Cumming, C.W Cunnington and P.E Cunnington in The Dictionary of Fashion History as: 

Artistic Movement: 1848-1900 – the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of painters founded in 1948 by Holman Hunt, Milais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti […]. This alternative style, one of the firs...

January 22, 2019

‘St Augustine says, “the dead are invisible, they are not absent.” You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true […]. We sense the dead have a vital force still — they have something to tell us, something we need to understand.’ [1]

The above quote was taken from Dame Hilary Mantel’s lecture The Day is For The Living for the BBC Four Reith Lectures in 2017. It is also the same quote that I used for the first few sentences of my MA dissertation in the History of Design and Material Culture. I started my thesis with Mantel’s quote because her words resonated with the aims of my research. I believed that the individual that I was studying did have something to tell me, and I was on a journey to discover more about their life through the study of their surviving clothes. 

Not only at this stage did I feel that the dead had, to quote Mantel, a ‘vital force,’ but equally, that their clothes, also had the capacity to communicate something I was attempting to uncover. I wanted to employ...

February 24, 2017

2009.300.3277. House of Worth Tea Gown. c1910. Silk, rhinestones and metal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The Edwardian era began with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. With the death of the longest reigning monarch at the time, Britain was at first plunged into full mourning dress. However, after the black clothes subsided, and her eldest son Edward VII took the throne, the country was introduced to an era of opulence and extravagance.

The Edwardian era is often regarded as a period of elegance and graciousness (Wilson, Taylor: 1989. 43), whilst great social change occurred in regards to the conditions of the welfare state, and demands for the voting rights for women intensified. For the upper-class lady, couture fashions were increasingly lavish. In order to maintain appearances, she would require: a large fortune (it remained expensive to dress fashionably during Edwardian times), several outfit changes throughout the day, and a team of dedicated maids to help ini...

January 14, 2017

Last year whilst researching the dress of debutantes, I encountered a designer which I previously had little knowledge of. The name was Boué Soeurs, and the dress I uncovered was the garment pictured below: 

Above and Below Images: C.I.68.48a–e. Boué Soeurs presentation ensemble. c1928. Silk, metallic threads; silk; feathers, cellulose nitrate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

When I found the gown, I had only little information to go by. According to The Met Museum, Boué Soeurs, consisted of two individuals, who were sisters. They were renowned for detailed, intricate lace and embroidered designs. The pair and their Parisian fashion house was active from the late 19th century, and beginning of the twentieth century, up until the late 1950's. 

I searched the online collections of various museums in order to discover more about the pair. Their garments are delicate and richly adorned. Most museums had only required garments produced in the 1920's, bu...

December 23, 2016

‘Vulgarity exposes the scandal of good taste.' - Adam Phillips

Exhibition poster for The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Exhibition. Image Credit: The Barbican. 

It's quite unusual to find the works of Madame Gres, Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander McQueen, and Christian Dior, amongst many other cherished designers in an exhibition titled The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The Barbican Art Gallery has installed a fashion exhibition deliberately designed to question our ideas of taste and vulgarity, depending on the various perspectives taken by the wearers, or viewers.

(Although the above and below dresses do not feature in the exhibition, the works of Alexander McQueen are perfect examples for discussions surrounding the concept of the vulgar, questioning ideas surrounding beauty and femininity.) Alexander McQueen Voss dress. c2001. Red and black ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red. Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Yo...

November 25, 2016

This is the second article featuring the theme of fashion and art. The first post, which discusses the work of designer Charles James, can be read here

Elsa Schiaparelli, photographed by Cecil Beaton, c1930: Image Credit: The Red List. 

The wonderful and eccentric Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most predominant and successful fashion designers of the 1930's. Her name is no longer recognised within common culture, but throughout the field of fashion history, she is often regarded as an iconoclastic adventurer, who blurred the lines between art and fashion. Mingling with the avant-garde Surrealists, and experimenting with bold and bright colours, Schiaparelli set herself apart from the rest of the 1930's couturiers, their designs oozing restrained elegance and glamour. In contrast, Schiaparelli seemed to have no creative limitations, her garments created through a blend of enchanting and mythical themes, combined with the exquisite couture techniques which aided to reinforce Schiaparel...

November 11, 2016

Is fashion art? 

I have asked the question many times before, particularly in regards to the work of Japanese designers, such as Rei Kawakubo (whom The Met Museum will be focusing on as their key subject for next year's Gala), Issey Miyake, and  Yohji Yamamoto. 


I also think of designers that have placed the structure and composition of garments in the forefront of their design visions, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès ect. 

But the one designer who stands out, a man who was experimental and innovative, determined to have every garment he produced be deemed as a piece of art, with an impeccably tailored silhouette fitting his couture clients perfectly. His name - was Charles James; a British couturier who worked in both America and Britain. 

Above image: C.I.53.73. 'Clover Leaf' Charles James dress. Silk and rayon. c1953. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Charles James was born in 1906, England, to an affluent family, and a father who was disapproving o...

October 21, 2016

'Fashion consists only in extremes [...] frivolity and death.' 

'Does fashion die [...] because it can no longer keep up the tempo?' - Walter Benjamin - The Arcades Project.

The fashion system relies on a never-ending cycle of newness, spectacle, emulation and death. This is how fashion works - without the invention of new, or the recycling of previous styles, the fashion industry would not survive. 

Many theorists have tried to make sense of the fashion system. Thorstein Veblen believed that once commodities had been purchased, consumers would move on to the next trend, unsatisfied and desiring more goods which would elevate their social standing. Products, although not always functional, nor of the best quality, could be marketed in such a way that consumers would believe it was an exclusive status symbol. Exclusivity = a higher price.

Veblen also believed that the middle-classes imitated the fashions of the upper-classes. Once fashion had disseminated all the way down to the w...

October 7, 2016

“When a woman smiles, then her dress should smile too” - Madeleine Vionnet, Vionnet Website. 

After the drop-waist, raised hem, sequin dresses of the 1920's appeared, fashion dictated that by 1930, the look would disappear. As one trend is born another must die. A big misrepresentation of history, is that all women during the 1920's had a cloche hat, bobbed hair, and wore 'flapper' dresses throughout their years as emancipated women. This is not true. Of course, these styles did appear, but they were often dominated by the upper-classes until fashions were disseminated down to the working-classes, appropriately adapted for correct social circumstance and income. Not every trend seen to personify an era, is adopted by all. 

1974.261a–c. Madeleine Vionnet wedding ensemble. Silk. c1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The 1920's brought about enormous social change for women. However, the 1930's were also a key turning point for women's fashions. The Wall...

September 23, 2016

"I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful," - Norman Hartnell (Source V&A Museum, Norman Hartnell biography). 

A presentation at court to the royal family was a rite of passage for most upper-class girls during the 1920-30’s. A long lasting tradition of the British establishment, the trip to Buckingham Palace was rooted in history, beginning some 200 years prior to the interwar years, the period that lasted from 1918-1945. Presentations at court only ended in 1958, out of touch with a fast-paced, modernising world where social boundaries were slowly deteriorating.  

72.143. Norman Hartnell evening gown. Silk. c1948. The Museum of London, London, England. 

Young girls, would be put forward for invitation normally by their mothers, to courtesy in front of the ruling monarch, symbolising the beginning of the social Season. Presentations would normally occur when the debutante was 18 to 21, although other older ladies such as widows who had not been previously pr...

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