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Posts from the ‘Fashion’ Category

Hollywood 1920s silent romcom – Clara Bow has It

With the Oscars just hours away, when stars’ sartorial elegance and faux pas will be dissected, it seems timely to blog about Clara Bow – a darling on screen and at the box office, but also a somewhat forgotten outsider from tinsel town. Her Hollywood story is both one of dream fulfilment and a cautionary tale ending in faded glamour and an almost forgotten career, which has been just been rediscovered over the last 1o years or so.

Clara Bow came into my head for this Oscars blog after watching a documentary on Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddesses. All the talking heads reiterated that she had ‘it’ but the power of the star system and the way that it circulates via other media (magazines, TV shows, biopics) was not really discussed fully, and so I wanted to get to know Clara Bow, the star focusing on the silent film, It (Badger, 1927), her defining role as the original It-girl.

Coming from a troubled home in Brooklyn (her mother suffered from mental health issues and her father from alcohol abuse), Clara Bow’s Hollywood trajectory is on fast forward. Her acting début derived from winning Motion Picture Magazine’s Fame and Fortune Contest to appear in a film, and although this footage ended on the cutting room floor, she went on to make 57 films in her short career. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a year, and filled movie magazines with stories both complementary and scandalous, prior to retiring to married life on a ranch before she reached 30. Clara Bow  represented the new woman, who was taking on a more active role after the First World War, but these traits combined with her “vulgar” working class background, also brought her approbation (and the money from her talents went to the film bosses). Sadly her story ends almost ‘Baby Jane’ style with her divorced and living alone in Hollywood’s suburbia replying to fan mail and re-watching her old movies.  

Do you have It?

The character Clara plays in It has parallels with her off-screen persona. It tells the story of Molly Lou, a shop girl in a department store, who falls in love with the owner, Cyrus Waltham, and sets out to get her man. The movie is based upon the book of the same name by English author, Elinor Glyn, (who also has a cameo in the film) which tries to explain that indefinable characteristic that attracts us to certain people. According to the caption:

“It is that peculiar quality which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of it must be absolutely unselfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.”

A conventional romance narrative is played out, where after overcoming class obstacles and misunderstandings, love conquers all. At the end, the caption reads “We’re just a couple if it-less its” and the final shot sees them kiss with the ‘it’ of the name of the ship ‘Itola’ between them.

Although Molly uses a man to ahead, she is a character with agency – a new woman of the 1920s – who knows what she wants and how to get it. She may use her desirability to attract and steal men, but she’s also loyal to her female friend, willing to work to support her and her child, and she can fight her own battles (in the final scenes, she saves her love rival who tries to sink her and she does not need to any male assistance to save herself).

The pre-code film has an endearing, saucy tone. The inter-title reads – “Hot dogs that sizzle and satisfy! Best in the beach!” – to introduce the scenes when Molly takes the upper-class Waltham to her milieu, the beach fair. The couple go on a ride called the social mixer which spins them round and round, and they whirl down a chute with Waltham holding Betty between his knees, resulting in her skirt flying up to reveal her garters. She slaps Waltham when he tries to kiss her, and later says that she has to play this game, as women should not be seen to take the lead sexually.

The feminine consumer of romance

The romance is played out in the department store, and linked with commodity culture. Orgeron (2004) argues that the space of the shop, one of the few places in the public sphere where woman would be actively encouraged to look, formalises the way that the spectator is set up in the film to look, desire and then buy. A defining scene early in the film is when Betty first sees Waltham and palpably shows her desire for him – “Sweet Santa Clause, give me him”.

It in particular illustrates the link between the Hollywood system, the commodification of the star to sell movies and products. Orgeron says:

“The fan magazines were advertisements, and their pitch was attainability; if you buy this you can look like Star X. Bow made such aspirations looks particularly possible because she failed to create distance between herself and her fans that other stars worked rigorously to achieve. She was in many ways the star system’s best advertisement because she perpetuated the illusion of possibility for fans.”

As Clara won a competition to get into the movies, her story is the fulfilment of a fantasy even greater than her character in It.  Below is an article about Clara Bow to sell a book about how to make love like the movie stars. If you look, desire and buy, you too can achieve love.

Clara Bow's secret

Fashionable Clara Bow – the one to follow

Last year at the Oscars, the talk of the town was The Artist, a silent film, following the rise of female star, Peppy Miller who had ‘it’. And that’s not where the connection ends, Clare Bow’s style was the inspiration for Mark Bridges’ (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood) costumes for Peppy Miller. Clara Bow embodied the roaring twenties flapper, and after the success of It, she was a fashion icon. Fans could order their own Clara Bow cloche hat via mail order, scarf sales increased as did henna. Indeed, women are still encouraged to style themselves a la Clara Bow.

Of course Clara Bow’s red hair was not really captured in her movies, and the film magazines would literally add extra colour to the black and white films, encouraging readers to buy henna to get the star’s look. Here are some recovered lost fragments, just as this star has been brought back into the limelight in recent years. The quality of the footage makes us feel voyeuristic as though we are watching her audition reel through the camera lens.

Loved by movie-goers and one of the biggest stars in the business, she was nonetheless, kept at a distance by the Hollywood glitterati failing to shake off her Brooklyn working class background (her accent was not a problem in the silent era). One story which seems to circulate frequently when reading about this actress is when she turned up to a formal Hollywood party in a belted swimsuit. Her outsider status is articulated through lack of cultural capital via inappropriate dress code.  

It‘s costume designer was Travis Banton, best known for shaping the styles of Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. In the popular discourses about Clara, he despaired of her lack of taste but succumbed to her fashion ideas because she had ‘it’. In a Photoplay magazine article, the interviewer writes:

“And then her boundless vitality never failed to turn Banton’s most costly gowns into rags within a few hours. There was too much in the sheer business of living for Clara to remember what she had on her back the moment she left a mirror. Sequin trains were dragged through muddy studio streets, white satin robes fell unnoticed on dusty floors, and a frock of cobweb lace was an unfailing signal for a romp with the Great Dane.”

Her taste in clothes was ‘noxious’ and she ‘jazzed up’ his most beautiful creations, accessorising with the vulgarity of  bangles, large earrings and socks, as well as pulling her skirt up to her knees. She may have had ‘it’ and moved to the West coast, but the Brooklyn girl remained.  I wonder if the cherries on Clara Bow’s cloche hat (which I love) were from her idea or his…

http://youtu.be/z5vgMWGe444

Fashion both its commercial side and the notion of a sense of style plays an important part in the film. Molly sells clothes to rich women whilst her love rival buys fancy stylish items. However, money and class cannot buy you ‘It’, so the qualities that made Clara Bow an outsider in real life, were her selling points in the movie. The difference between Molly and her rival for Waltham’s affections is played out through clothing as we see both actresses preparing for an evening at the Ritz. The wealthier woman takes time to dress in an opulent boudoir with a maid to help her, whilst Molly ‘makes do and mends’ with her friend’s help by cutting up the dress she is wearing to create an evening dress with a shawl. She also attaches flowers to her waist but once she is at the Ritz she copies the trend of her love rival and wears it like a corsage. When Molly sees an advert for dresses from Waltham’s store in the newspaper, she looks wistful for the object of her desire, which is also linked with the desire to consume. 

The pleasure in It, for me, resides in the active desire that Molly shows to get what she wants and the fun, cheeky attitude of the film. Although this is still very much within conventional gender roles, there is some negotiation here in a time where there were tensions in women’s roles. Clara Bow brings joie de vivre to her performance, and you feel that you would get carried along with her schemes. One of the first actresses to grow up watching movies, she brings expression and physicality to the screen. Indeed she said of the talkies:

“They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”

What do you think of Clara Bow, the Hollywood legend? Are there any contemporary Clara Bows? Will you be hooked reading about the Oscar winners and losers tomorrow in magazines? Why not watch It – a very Hollywood film – to get in the mood for the Oscars tonight?

Clara Bow articles to check out

Ball, Christina, (2001), “The Silencing of Clara Bow” in Gladfly, March/April.

Orergon, Marsha (2003), “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture”, in Cinema Journal, 42 (no.2), Summer.

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Fasting fashion for Lent – Culture Chic of the Week

How do you know when you need a fashion spring clean? Maybe when your wardrobe explodes… After a whirlwind tidy before the arrival of a guest, my overstuffed clothes cupboard just couldn’t take any more and made itself heard. My cover was blown as with a bang, handbags, gladrags and all, freed themselves, and I was somewhat shamed into sorting it out.

And this may not only save my embarrassment but also my vintage purse. “Valuing our clothes, research from WRAP, in July last year showed that in the UK we have around £30 billion worth of clothes, which haven’t been worn for at least a year, hanging in our wardrobes. The report claimed:

“The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes – but around 30% of clothes in the average wardrobe have not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because they no longer fit.”

I’ve been guilty of buying clothes that have never or infrequently been worn, and a fluctuating waistband has meant that at times clothes go to the back of the cupboard… and come back out again. Although I’ve never been tied to the high street, the quick-fix charms of fast fashion have lured me in the past. With fashion seasons speeding up, shorter lead times and more frequent deliveries, consumers are encouraged to buy the latest trends before they leave the rails to make room for the next must-haves, rather than looking for quality or durable items. Implicit in the buzz of commodity fetishism is that it rarely lasts long or fills the gap but that only means the next thrill is round the corner.

For the past year I’ve been making a conscious effort to curtail my fashion spending. To save money is definitely in the decision mix but it’s also just about reducing consumption for both environmental and social reasons. According to WRAP, “… by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon and waste impacts by 20-30% each and save £5 billion.” And of course it is not only environmental harm caused by the fashion industry but unethical working conditions and deunionisation which are exacerbated by the demands of ‘Mcfashion’.

At the very least we can think about what we buy, and reuse, repair and recycle. Fashion innovator, Vivienne Westwood at London Fashion Week this month encouraged austerity Britain to buy less to maintain its individuality:

“People have never looked so ugly as they do today, regarding their dress. We just consume too much… I’m talking about all this disposable crap. What I’m saying is buy less – choose well. Don’t just suck up stuff so everybody looks like clones.”

Quality over quantity makes sense as clothes will be less likey to join the tonnes of used up products in landfills (UK consumers send £140 million / 350 tonnes of clothing and textiles to landfill each year). They’re more likely to be durable and to be recycled in charity shops (often the trendy, low-cost, seasonable items cannot be resold easily). But for people wanting to be in ‘now’ without lots of disposable income, quality items may not feel within reach (and I still feel uncomfortable paying too much for one item). It comes down to revealing the actual lack of consumer choice and homogenisation of major fashion chains. Vintage and independent retailers are not working outwith the commodified fashion system and key into fashion trends too, but at least these may be at a slower pace. And of course the major plus for consumers, apart from a clearer conscience, is that the chance you’ll be caught at the office or a party wearing the same item as your contemporaries is much reduced.

With Lent coming up, I thought I should formalise my resolve to tidy up my wardrobe, and there are no shortage of projects to inspire us to rethink our addiction to fashion. The 333 project challenges participants to use 33 items of clothing for 3 months. Or how about A New Dress a Day where the stylish and inventive Marisa Lynch, transforms an oversized, seemingly unwearable vintage item each day?

Six Items Challenge

Could you manage with only six pieces of clothing? That’s what Labour Behind the Label, a not-for-profit raising awareness about garment workers’ rights, asks us to do every Lent with their Six Items Challenge. It’s a fashion fast to highlight the impacts of fast fashion. The idea spins around choice. Those involved in providing Western consumers with their fashion fix do not necessarily have a choice about working longer hours for low wages to meet increasingly demanding fashion brands, and by narrowing the apparent choice of items, participants are encouraged to get creative and think about what they actually need.

Six Items Challenge - what will you give up for Lent?

Follow the fashion fasters to see how they get on over the next six weeks. Even if you’re keen to continue to wear more than six items, I’d certainly encourage you to join Labour Behind the Label’s campaigns too.

The Uniform Project

The Uniform Project is a few years old but it’s still inspiring, innovative and shows how social media can be used for good. Sheena Matheiken pledged to wear one little black dress for 365 days of the year styled up with accessories from vintage and thrift shops. (Don’t panic, she did have a few versions of the same dress…) Her efforts raised over $100 million for the Akanksha Foundation, a grassroots organisation in India, which seeks to educate children from low income communities. I love the way that she turned her disillusionment with the advertising sector around and used her skills to make a difference. In the UK, when we are being fed ‘Big Society’ philanthropy to disguise public service funding cuts, her quote from Martin Luther King (which you’ll hear in the video below) about philanthropy is timely – “Philanthropy is commendable, but that should not stop the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.” Like Labour Behind the Label, which seeks to help educate the industry and improve workers’ rights, here by providing education for children through this campaign, in theory at least, new, sustainable opportunties are being created.

Profitting from my wardrobe 

Part of the reason I have so many clothes is that I don’t tend to throw things away and have bought clothes to last – just too many of them and often rash purchases rather than planned staples. Many are vintage or charity shop gold dust, even from way back to when I was a student, and pieces passed down from stylish relatives. Indeed I still feel pangs of guilt about wearing a camel coat to death that my great aunt had kept ‘for good’. Although, better loved and worn, than wardrobe bound.

My challenge is inspired by J. D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly, and is not so much about reducing the use of items but more about maximising what I’ve got. My wardrobe is being cleared and clothes only get back in, if they’ve been worn by Lent time next year.

So I’ve started to sort into charity (two bags gone already), eBay helped me out at Christmas, Mum (she’s already rejected two tops but taken a coat) and a swishing party bag.  Some items go season after season without being worn as they’re at the bottom of my wardrobe, repairs get left after I stuff them back in the cupboard on realizing that the hem is down or a button missing on the mad whirlwind rush to work. Now the cupboard is becoming bare, who knows what I’ll find?

Are you giving up something for Lent? Could you manage the six item challenge or even one dress for a year? Let me know if you come across any projects that have made you rethink fashion consumption.

Vintage treasures Rayne

One of the key pleasures in vintage clothes is the moment when you find that treasured item. It may have been once loved, neglected or never out of its wrapper but it’s just right for you now. Usually a bargain adds an extra frisson but at the very least it shouldn’t be overpriced. This discovery could be after 10 empty-handed visits to the same thrift store but therein lies the pleasure, it’s not something that you or anyone else can simply pick from the shelf on demand. Last weekend I had that moment in Salisbury whilst meeting up with one of my best friends (a vintage fan too but on that occasion she had her moment with a bookshelf-quaking pile of second-hand cookery books!)

I uncovered from the window a luscious magenta bag which I thought would make the perfect Christmas pressie for one of my friends. She would be drawn to the shade and, whilst she’s not an everyday vintage wearer, she would still appreciate its 1960s sensibility without it being too ‘period’, way-out or worn (or ‘characterful’ as I’d say).

So it was a vintage treasure. But it was doubly so as I found out it was made by Rayne, the famous shoe company, which I’d spotted earlier in the year at an exhibition about British glamour.

Rayne in the label of the vintage bag.
H & M Rayne was the British monarchy’s shoemaker being granted a Royal warrant by Queen Mary in the 1930s and famously, designing Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding shoes. The royal connections don’t impress on their own but these shoes were hand-made involving 136 processes by a skilled workforce. Watch this video to see behind-the-scenes of royal wedding shoes:

In the 1950s Rayne, fronted by Edward Rayne, was one of the most glamorous shoe brands with collaborations with top couturiers such as Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell and the famous British pottery firm, Wedgwood. At this time, the appropriate accessories were key to the look with Rayne offering matching handbags and shoes in a range of colours to maintain order in the post-war consumer’s outfit. It wasn’t just royalty they’d charmed with their shoes, film star clients included Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead as well as Vivian Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor in their roles as ‘Cleopatra’.

With the rise of youth culture in the 1960s, Rayne extended the brand with ‘Miss Rayne’ to attract a younger crowd pulling on the design talents of Mary Quant, for instance, who created Shirley Temple ankle straps and stiletto heels for them. Another icon of sixties’ pop culture, Emma Peel from The Avengers (played by Diana Rigg) sported Rayne boots, surely a sign of a shoe-maker that was in touch with the times.

However, the Rayne family business did not always mix in such high circles. It was founded in 1885 by Henry and Mary Rayne as a leading theatrical supplier. An Irish immigrant, he changed his surname from Ryan to avoid anti-Irish prejudice.  With flapper fever in the 1920s, women who could afford it wanted the latest styles as worn by their favourite movie stars. To cater for this demand, their son Major Rayne opened a shop in Bond Street to extend the market for their exclusive lines. As an early example of celebrity endorsement, actress Lillie Langtry modelled for this family business. Henry and Mary Rayne’s grandson, Edward Rayne, continued to be a fashion leader and headed up the British Fashion Council in the late 1980s to promote home-grown talent overseas.

I love that this bag holds unknown memories that my friend can imagine and augment with her own, that the person sitting next to her on the bus won’t have this bag and that we can chart British cultural history through a fashion brand from the immigrant experience to the rise of celebrity endorsement.

What vintage clothes treasures have you come across recently? Do you shop in vintage stores for Christmas presents?

Rayne Shoes Logo

And now I just have to be strong and make sure that this bag makes it into my friend’s hands for Christmas…

Vintage bag by Rayne

Fancy finding out more about Rayne?

Visit Rayne’s website, check out Sheep and Chick where Miss Rayne reveals lots of vintage pieces and the showcase at Ballgowns: 50 years of British Glamour.

If you do happen to find yourself in Salisbury in the UK, seek out Foxtrot Vintage for the potential treasures inside!

Ballgowns: playing dress-up at the V & A

Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950.

Ballgowns are the ultimate dress-up fantasy. For most, they are not for wearing but left for red carpet dreaming. I haven’t ever had the occasion to wear a classic ballgown before, even at university balls, anything too formal or unashamedly feminine made me uncomfortable. The prom dress a la riot grrrls was more my style, however, a couple of weekends ago, I had a self-indulgent day of dresses. Although you can’t actually play dress-up at ‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, you can get up close to 60 gowns showing the changes in silhouettes, fabrics and styles over six decades.

‘Ballgowns’ is very much a showcase of British fashion, appropriate in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee and London 2012 Olympics. Curated by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill, the exhibition charts the changes in ballgowns from the private sphere of dressing for royalty to the global, public glare of flashbulbs on the red carpet. Although the royal link has not disappeared. (I heard one person comment that Diana in the Elvis dress looked like a “proper princess.”) The ballgown with its romantic princess connotations are part of fashion’s wish-fulfilment. Gareth Pugh is quoted in the catalogue by Oriole Cullen,

‘That’s what fashion’s about… you’re transforming yourself from something that you are to maybe something that want to be… that’s the crux of what we do, it’s selling people a dream’. 

And although the exhibition is a social history through a particular garment, in truth the pleasure is in looking at all those dresses from the stylishly simple to the eccentrically attention-grabbing.

Fabric fetish in the ballroom

The exhibition is on two levels with the ground floor showing the preparation for the ball upstairs, where the contemporary designers are displayed. Fabrics stood out for me in these latter designs. From Alexander McQueen’s feathered dress to Atsuko Kudo bringing fetish to the ballroom with a stunning latex lace effect.

If you feel that you need body armour to go to the ball, then Gareth Pugh’s silvered leather gown is the one for you, where even the face is shielded. The beautiful busted dress with full skirt and casual pockets by Erdem (in the catwalk video below at 33s) couldn’t be more different but again makes innovative use of fabric to create an autumnal print using appliqué, quilting and beading.

Debs to swinging 60s

These dresses are designed for celebrities (Beyonce, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Annette Bening…) but back in the 1950s, the upper class girl would come of age at the débutante ball, often her first chance to don one of these fancy frocks. Reinforcing the relationship of ballgowns to old money, the designer was compelled to make their creation work with the family jewels. At fittings, fearing theft, some would draw the shape of a necklace on their skin to ensure the dress still work once they were bejewelled. I could just picture Matilda Etches’ dress from 1956, wonderfully named “Spinning Crystal“, being worn by young deb of this time. This pale green silk gauze dress has one shoulder sash with a pleated full skirt that I can imagine flowing and swirling during a dance.

With the likes of Mary Quant and Foale and Tuffin on the Kings Road, young debs of the 60s could wear mini-skirts as day-wear and so desired styles different to their mothers in the evening too. To cater for this shifting market, designers such as John Cavanagh and Bellville Sassoon, extended to boutique ranges for younger women.  The pink embroidered organza dress with cute bow at the front by Bellville Sassoon stood out for me as being particularly evocative of a ballgown from this period.

Kaftans rule 

In the 1970s the debutante ball changed to the charity ball where access was given to those who could pay the ticket price, encompassing the new royals – celebrities. One of the first dresses on display in the exhibition is a kaftan from the label Yuki worn by the actress Gayle Hunnicutt. Designed for dramatic entrances, it even looks stylish in the static case of the exhibition. This decade also saw trousers becoming an acceptable garment for women. Skip to the ‘oos and the Stella McCartney piece featured is a ballgown cum jumpsuit with pretty floral embroidery and casual pockets.

Bigger and bigger in the 1980s

Gold, extravagant and glitzy, Zandra Rhodes’ dress from 1981 seems to usher in that most decadent of decades. ‘Renaissance Cloth of Gold’ was modelled on Elizabethan styles and at the forefront of the corseted and hooped fashion revival of the time. The gold lamé of Craig Lawrence’s piece from 2010-11 again feels excessive but looks rather shapeless until movement gives it form. (see the video below at 01.50s)

At the turn of the last century the mixing of celebrity, commodity and the ballgown is exemplified in an Elizabeth Emmanuel romantic silk floral dress worn by Liz Hurley in an Estee Lauder advert.

Going to the ball

When I saw Patti Smith perform earlier this year (no less cool for wiping sweat off her face with her t-shirt), I would not have thought her an admirer of ballgowns. She can, however also pull off a Christian Dior.

“People wouldn’t know this about me, but I adore ballgowns,” she said. “I love their cut, their architecture and the thought of the hands of so many seamstresses working on them.”

If I was going to the ball…I’ve love to try Giles Deacon’s pleated “carwash” dress… or maybe this beautiful Worth dress

What about you? Which dress would you pick?

Have you been to the exhibition? What did you think about it? I’d love to hear from you.

Ballgowns: British Glamour since the 1950s is open until 6 January 2013.

Seeing and wearing dots: Yayoi Kusama, fashion and art

I came face-to-face with artist Yayoi Kusama in Omotesando Hills in Tokyo…

Kusama model Louis Vuitton Shop Tokyo.… that is a model of the octogenarian artist who is now window dressing across the world. Kusama with her signature dots has become Marc Jacob’s muse for his Louis Vuitton collection.  Her art, which has never been confined to the gallery, has taken over the department store, and a few weeks ago a pop-store appeared in Selfridges in London designed as her iconic pumpkin sculpture.

Kusama-inspired Louis Vuitton fashion collection

Kusama is not the first artistic collaboration for Marc Jacobs, previously working with Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Marakami but this is the most extensive, including sponsoring her Tate Modern retrospective earlier this year. This exhibition showed her extensive creative output over a 60-year career and the breadth of media, from sculpture, drawing and paintings to installations, performance art and fashion.

As one of the most recognisable female “celebrity” artists in the world with fashion as part of her artistic repertoire, it is understandable that designers would want to collaborate. Indeed the meeting of art and fashion is not new from Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist creations to the postmodern circularity of Campbell’s soup creating paper dresses à la Andy Warhol. Before the Louis Vuitton collection, Kusama had put her name to other commercial products such as lip gloss and, as a popular artist, her work is embossed on scarves and bags, perhaps more for tourists than high fashionistas.

Art, fashion and commerce had already combined for Kusama back in the 1960s. With financing of $50,000, the Kusama Fashion Company was established with her clothes on sale at 400 stores across America, including Bloomingdales. Her range was designed for the sexual revolution – dresses with circular cut-outs and holes in the breast and rear, and some designed for more than one person to party. Just as in her other artistic output she tried to eradicate the boundary between self and other through fashion. In her autobiography she says that her stock was in demand from the Jackie O crowd and that, “All the clothes I designed and produced were, of course, decorated with polka dots”. The  images below illustrate the dots in her sculptures, taken in Naoshima, Japan.

Kusama dots closeup.

Kusama red and black pumpkin.

Kusama dots

The Louis Vuitton collection is all about the dots too. After a nervous breakdown as a teenager, Kusama has lived with psychological trauma and has been in a psychiatric hospital since the 1970s of her own volition. During hallucinations, she says that dots multiply covering her field of vision threatening to overwhelm her. Her art has been therapy to help control these feelings and she puts the viewer firmly in her hallucinatory world, often in the domestic setting. In one of her installations, children are invited to stick brightly coloured dots in a white room – the blank canvas.  When you visit the Louis Vuitton website, red dots flash before your eyes and so a consumer of fashion, you’re positioned in Kusama-land.

I first entered Yayoi Kusama’s head in Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. “Gleaming Lights of the Souls” could only be entered two by two. Immediately the queue added to the aura of the experience and anticipation at seeing in the box. Inside, we found a hall of mirrors with water on the floor and dots of lights that sparkle off into infinity. The installation made me feel slightly off-balance, wanting to reach out but fearing slipping. Perhaps I wasn’t given into Kusama’s art process where she tries to understand her place in the universe through “self-obliteration”.

“My desire was to predict and measure infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming in the negative spaces in the net… I wanted to examine my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating that everything – myself, other, the entire universe – would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulates of dots. White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness.”

Fashion is sold more in terms of the drive for self-expression than self-obliteration. The Kusama persona and her style became an intrinsic part of the installations as she was self-consciously photographed in front of her sculptures in similarly patterned clothing so that the distinction between self and world dissolves. In advert for the Louis Vuitton collection below, the model stands in for Kusama and the dots of the clothing merge with the background.

Kusama raincoat Louis Vuitton

Department store art

The visual merchandising of the collection takes lessons from Kusama’s work. In her autobiography she says that “my work is a means to heal myself from psychosomatic illness. As a category of art, therefore, it did not relate to the social establishment or to fads. My art was not of the department stores window variety, where you are constantly changing the display to conform to the latest fashion – Action Painting today, Pop Art (or whatever) tomorrow.”

However, in the shop windows, we can see reproductions of her work which would not look out-of-place in the gallery, although we may read them differently there.

Kusama shop window.

Flowers recur throughout Kusama’s work from her first sketchbook of worm-eaten peonies to later psychedelic sculptures with eyes at their centre. In her early visions, she says that:

“I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.”

The scene below reminds me of an Alice in Wonderland set, with the oversized shoes and purses evoking Kusama’s distortions of scale in her later sculptures.

Kusama bags and shoes

In the 1960s, Kusama held one of her Happenings at the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in New York’s Central Park. At these events, hippies from the protest movement became a naked canvas for Kusama to paint them in dots. The rain-mac above from Marc Jacob’s collection is a playful nod to these performances as the dots almost look painted on the skin.

“I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama (who have lived for years in my famous, specially built room entirely covered by mirrors), have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom. You too can join my adventurous dance of life.”

In the 1990s Kusama created a series of pumpkin sculptures, including the one photographed below in Naoshima.

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin Naoshima inspiration for Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton.

As with the flower motif, pumpkins have recurred throughout her work from early Nihonga paintings in her late teens. She says that she “was enchanted by their charming and winsome form… its solid spiritual balance.” In the Louis Vuitton collection, the pumpkin sculptures are transformed into sweet little bags and keying chains.

Fear of phallus fashion

Fashion, art and psychological obsession are again evident when she uses repeated phallic symbols as a way to work through her associated fears. In the image below, the phallus-filled cream-coloured shoes evoke a nightmarish wedding. In a similar style of repetition she created macaroni pants which illustrated her disgust of overeating and the mass-produced American food which contrasted with post-war Japan austerity. Sex and food seem inextricably linked to the fashion industry with its commodification of the former and the perfect female body starved of food, not through economic dependency, but desire for an idealised shape.

Kusama Fashion Company

This critique of mass-production becomes mass-produced as fashion albeit luxe fashion in the phallic tentacle shapes in the Louis Vuitton window display.

Kusama phallic window display

Get Kusama fashion inspiration

If like me, you only look at designer fashion and prefer to buy vintage, it’s still easy to join the fashion dots with one piece. In fact, if you make clothes, cutting out a circle or two in a summer dress (I don’t recommend in the breast or bottom) could look striking. However, perhaps it’s more “Kusama” to find your own statement “dots”. Here’s footage from one of Kusama’s happenings which almost parodies itself but contains beautiful images including one of the artist on a horse covered in dots.

What do you think about the Kusama and the Louis Vuitton collaboration? Please share your thoughts.