Material Visions

Curiosities and fragments

This is the kind of thing I saw everywhere around me all week. Life as an academic certainly has its perks … This is a detail of the courtyard of Exeter College. Rosie Findlay

I recently went to heaven, aka attended a week-long conference in Oxford devoted entirely to fashion theory. I presented a paper on catwalk shows, which you’ve heard me bang on about before here (and here, here, here… and also here) and then got to listen to a range of papers on everything from female fashion in the Ottoman Empire to the significance of Holly Golightly’s little black dress to the difficulty and importance of protecting fashion design under intellectual property legislation.

Looking back over my notes, I’m struck by what I heard, often recorded in brief snatches of sentences. Enough to give a taste or a prompt to remember, so that I know to go back and mull over it later. Isn’t that often how it goes? A sentence will strike us, a single thought that we linger on, that weaves into our other thoughts, perhaps turning them in a slightly new direction. So in the spirit of provoking vague, drifting thoughts, I here present to you some of the things I learnt, brief snippets drawn from the meticulously researched, thought-provoking work we sat in for the week.

Did you know that high heels used to be unisex? And that the distinction between a shoe being appropriate or inappropriate (or between being “courtly” or “courtesan”) was a matter of mere inches?

On the subject of footwear, it wasn’t until 17th century that all classes of people in Japan wore shoes: prior to that, the privilege was reserved exclusively for the upper classes. The upper classes wouldn’t wear leather shoes, though — they were for the lower classes, as wearing an animal was considered base. (A funny counterpoint to the place of leather goods in our society, often an expensive status object — think of hand-turned Italian leather shoes, for example, or houses like Hermès and Louis Vuitton, whose respective histories are rooted in bespoke leather goods.)

An example of an advertisement for a male belt. Marian Willemsz/Pinterest

Corsets also used to be commonly worn by both sexes, and as recently as the early 20th century! Although corsets for men were advertised as “belts”, even though the purpose of wearing them was similar for both sexes: to trim the line of the waist.

It was fascinating to learn about the bizarre pathological behaviours recorded as happening in French department stores after their introduction in the late 19th century. All of them are very Baudelairean and fetish-y: men cutting up the clothes of unsuspecting female shoppers, women compulsively stealing from the stores, men rubbing up against women.

During the same period, across the Atlantic Ocean, 5 million American birds were being killed each year so that their feathers could be used as adornment. And talking of wings, in the early days of her acting career, Lillie Langtry couldn’t afford expensive clothes and jewels, so she decorated herself with butterflies instead.

I loved this quote from Jess Berry, speaking about food and fashion in the fashion photograph: “women are there to feed the appetite, not to have any of their own”. In fashion as in the nude in Western art.

And finally, something to leave you mulling over. On textures and textiles: “touch helps to complete thought”.