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Clothes call
by Muhammad Yusuf October 03, 2013
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Sharjah Museums Department (SMD), in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Information, Sharjah, is currently presenting the exhibition titled ‘The Lure of Beauty’ (TLOB) at Sharjah Art Museum. To run till Nov. 30, it showcases a fascinating collection of 350 fashion illustrations and photographs from the renowned collection of Martin Fervers, charting a 100 years history of the fashion world.

Fervers, an art collector from the German city of Cologne, started acquiring art photography at the beginning of the 1990s while working as a business lawyer. His passion covers quite a large ground, with vintage prints and fine art photographic prints occupying a special place in his collection.

Says Brigitte Schenk, curator of the show: “In this special selection of his fashion photographs, Fervers tries to represent “eternal” beauty on the one hand and its changeable concept through time on the other, with each era having its own style”.

For the convenience of the viewers – who otherwise might have got lost in the melee of changing fashions, temperamental super-models, eccentric fashion illustrators and quick-fire fashion photographers – the show has been grouped into ten periods. It starts from the 1920s (the age of gowns, coats, furs and hats), enters the 1930s (photography section), turns to the 1930s onwards (fashion labels like Christian Dior, Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain make an appearance), reaches the 1940s (the “golden age” of fashion drawing as seen in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and the American, British and French Vogue editions), takes a slight U-turn to the 1930s-40s (when the great fashion magazines replaced illustration with photography), touches the 1950s and 1960s (outstanding illustrations by Rene Gruau and Tom Keogh), hovers around the 1950s and 1960s (showing photography, especially that of a large group of “Verushkas” by Franco Rubartelli) and shouts at the 1970s (wonderful examples of creative work by fashion design greats like Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Emmanuel Ungaro, Issey Myake and fashion photographer/illustrator David Croland) with the last section featuring transparencies and negatives, which look at the work of fashion photographers.

The exhibition includes numerous drawings from famous artists like Eduard Benito, Rene Bouche, Rene Bouel-Willaumez, Tony Viramontes and Lagerfeld. There is also a movable feast of vintage photographs from the hands of Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, Cecil Beaton and Horst P Horst.

If there is one thing that the exhibition retells over and over, it is that fashion, like agriculture, industry or trade, is also subject to context. The first thirty years of the 20th century saw significant economic and social changes, from which fashion did not remain untouched. It was an age when the tightly laced corset ruled – till a daring designer (Paul Poiret) presented slender dresses where the ankles could be seen.

From two legs, fashion went to four, when John Redfern began designing riding dresses. The First World War led to greater independence for women – which was reflected in their clothes. They became practical and shorter. But it was not only the clothes that grew short; there was also a shortage of men of marriageable age. So the women “left behind” amused themselves alone, dancing the night away. Sometimes they wore men’s clothes!

But the music was short lived. The Great Depression struck, and due to the paucity of jobs, women went back to their households and families. However, there was an eagerness to keep up appearances; a slim-fitting suit with calf-length skirt and jacket with a natural waistline, frequently emphasised by a wide belt, became the standard daywear.

Cinema – not to speak of contemporary art and even space exploration – played an important part in the evolution of fashion. Grand film divas like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo wore dresses by costume designers. The Second World War led to a shortage of fabrics (fabric was available only with a ration card in France) and virtually all the haute couture studios in Paris closed. Silk was forbidden as it was urgently needed for manufacturing parachutes.

The shortage resulted in short clothes, which became tighter also. Elements of military uniform like shoulder pads, wide belts and large pockets, began to be incorporated into clothes. Post-war drab greys began to give way to colour, especially with the arrival of Dior’s new collection and Coco Chanel’s return from exile in Switzerland to France.

The Sixties led to the establishment of counter culture (everybody and everything was to be liberated, including clothing) and elements of street fashion began to appear in haute couture. But these developments were ignored by the great haute couture houses: they found their inspiration in Jacqueline Kennedy. She became the pioneer of a natural dress style; suits with straight, knee-length skirts and plain jackets and shoes with medium high heels became de rigueur for the upper class. The miniskirt also now makes an appearance, with the credit going to designer Mary Quant. Yves Saint Laurent presented his Mondrian collection in 1965, which looked like paintings by Piet Mondrian. He also invented the “Safari Look”.

Jeans became the stuff to wear in the Seventies. It became a universal garment, cutting across not only genders, but also classes. Margaret Thatcher became the first woman Prime Minister of the UK in the Eighties. Sociologists noted that this led to a rise in feelings of self-esteem in women. So severe masculine tailoring in bright colours, with minimal detailing, found favour. It supposedly conveyed a forceful authority and was called “power dressing”.

From 1985, two American TV series – Dallas and Dynasty – became the definite role models for prêt-a-porter fashion. Vivienne Westwood began using lingerie as external clothing. It continues in the music scene today. The economic crisis of the Nineties led to the “wardrobe of essentials”, robbed of all extravagance, consisting of no frills trouser suits, blazers, skirts and pullovers. Less was more.

Andre Courrege developed the “space age look”, consisting of severe geometrical tailoring in omnipresent white. In the new millennium, with developments like the Internet, mobiles and digital networking, ideas and trends in fashion could be quickly implemented, distributed and copied. The distance between designer and customer shrank and designer clothes and street wear became increasingly similar.

Newly developed fabrics came into the market: they did not have to be ironed, were breathable, UV resistant and non-allergic. Even skincare substances could be integrated into the fibres of these materials. The exhibition predicts that soon, research will develop fibres produced from milk, soya, maize or bamboo, since conservation of resources is the mantra.

Since Fervers and Schenk are from Germany, let us hear, from Angelica Blechschmidt, former Editor-in-Chief of Vogue (German edition), why Germans figure so low in the fashion world. “When viewing an artwork about fashion”, she says, “we raise social questions and reason economically and ecologically. Who would pay for something like that? What a waste of material! Questions and arguments like this make heavy of something light, and turn virtuous play into a duty to be performed. Maybe that is also the reason why the German-born Martin Ferver’s countrymen are in the minority in his collection”. 

TLOB not only has a strain of humour but also a tone of humility. It realises that no ocean will become less polluted because Franco Rubartelli photographs adorable model Veruschka in front of a dark and gloomy sea. For Manal Ataya, SMD Director General, the exhibition is “serious and whimsical”.

Suheyla Takesh, who was keenly studying the exhibits, said that “it is great to see the development of fashion and the techniques representing it”. For Giuseppe Moscatello, the exhibition was educative and should be visited by art practitioners, and school and college students, for researching the field.  For me, it offers a comprehensive overview of the fashion world’s trajectories.

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