Figure 4.2. Shirin Guild for Spring/Summer 1998. Oatmeal coloured linen gauze 'Abba coat' worn over Nehru collared, square-shaped jacket and apron-fronted pants in un-dyed, crinkled linen. Photograph by Robin Guild.
It is perhaps appropriate that in London Liberty is Shirin's major retail outlet: the store has consistently championed and supported original British clothing and fashion talents. Established as an emporium selling Japanese, Persian, Chinese and Indian textiles and household artefacts, Liberty was opened in Regent Street in 1875. From the outset the store attracted a progressive, literary and artistic clientele. Serving their unconventional predilections in dress it offered - alongside ultra-fashionable 'Gowns of the New Season' - 'Gowns Never Out of Style' - generally in the uncorseted, flowing medieval and classical styles favoured by the Aesthetes and PreRaphaelites. Whilst Shirin Guild also deviates from high-fashion trends, extolling comfort, the use of natural fibres and hand-crafted techniques, the cut of her work has more in common with the unconventional styles of dress reform.
The dress reform movement has been traced back to the late eighteenth century when it was associated with the political ideals of the French Revolution.2 From this period through to the early twentieth century, organized debate focused upon trousered dress for women. Advocated on utilitarian grounds and for minimizing gender and class differences, bifurcated garments were appropriated by various communities of utopian socialists in Britain and America during the early nineteenth century.
By the 1850s the ideals of dress reform attracted public attention through the activities of Mrs Dexter C. Bloomer of New York. An active campaigner for women's emancipation, she devised and wore a style of dress that was to assume her name, "the bloomer". Rejecting fashionable full-skirted gowns, supported by cumbersome layers of heavy petticoats, she wore a loose knee-length tunic over baggy trousers that were gathered at the ankles. As Stella Mary Newton pointed out in her standard work Health Art & Reason, Mrs Bloomer was undoubtedly inspired by the engravings depicting seductive Turkish beauties, that were in vogue following the cult of Byron and the French conquest of Algeria.3 More than a century later, Shirin Guild extols the functionality and aesthetic appeal of similarly cut 'Kurdish' style pants.
Although short lived (Amelia Bloomer abandoned the style following the introduction of the lightweight cage-frame crinoline) and very rarely worn, trousered dress for women prompted much debate about the unhygienic, irrational and ephemeral nature of women's high fashion, issues that were also to arouse concern within the medical profession. Under the umbrella of the International Health Exhibition, held in London in 1884, the ideals of
2. Wilson, Elizabeth and Taylor, Lou, Through the Looking Glass, London: BBC Books, 1989, p. 28.
3. Newton, Stella Mary, Health, Art and Reason, London: John Murray, 1974, p.117.
dress reform enjoyed renewed publicity. Exhibitors included the Rational Dress Society that was founded in Britain by Viscountess Harberton and counted several doctors on its committee. The RDS protested, 'against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure health'.4
In spite of their pragmatic emphasis upon practicality, comfort, health and equality for women, dress reformers were often portrayed by the press as a ridiculous, eccentric bunch and were much lampooned by cartoonists. Women were victim to especially hostile caricature and feminists abandoned dress reform, concluding that it was damaging to their cause.
By the outbreak of the First World War, the dress reform movement was in abeyance, as changing lifestyles paved the way for more comfortable sportif styles in durable fabrics, such as knitted jersey as championed by Parisian couturiers Coco' Chanel and Jean Patou. Since the 1920s, fashion designers have presented a fast-moving series of fashionable silhouettes, some prioritizing function and comfort above others. By the twilight years of the twentieth century, fashion became pluralistic and women were granted more freedom in their choice of dress and adornment than ever before. Nonetheless, many could still identify with the objectives of dress reform. These women still cherish Shirin Guild's enduring designs derived from ethnographic styles, in preference to fashions that are skimpy, restricting and fleeting.
For almost a century, irrespective of prevailing trends, the designs of Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949) have retained their desirability. Coats and dresses bearing his label command high prices at auction and are purchased not only as museum pieces, but are still relished as luxurious, ethereal, wearable garments. The Venice-based designer-inventor's clothing simultaneously attracted an unconventional 'bohemian' and highly fashionable clientele, as Shirin Guild's work does today. In this and other respects, parallels can be drawn between the two designers work and working practice. Fortuny was a prolific and eminently successful creative talent, establishing himself as a fine artist, pioneer photographer and technical stage designer - he even patented designs for propelling boats. However, it was for his textiles and dress, produced from 1906 until his death, that he was to achieve greatest recognition. Fortuny was born in Granada into an artistic family. His father, a painter best known for his work on Arabic themes, was also a passionate collector of Eastern fine and decorative arts, including textiles, which were to inspire his son.
As a designer of textiles and dress, Fortuny was also self-taught. Critical of contemporary fashion trends, he researched and derived ideas from historical and ethnographic sources, looking in particular to Coptic, North
African, Moorish, Indian, classical Greek and Italian Renaissance styles. His first professional garment design called Knossos - a rectangular cloth that wrapped around the body - was notable for its simplicity. In contrast to 1900s high-fashion trends for either corseted 'frou-frou' gowns or the exotic costumes promoted by revolutionary Parisian couturier Paul Poiret, it lacked construction and facilitated complete freedom of movement.
In 1907 Fortuny developed, and in 1909 patented, the design of his columnar delphos dress - a finely pleated silk sheath based on a Greek chiton - a style he made and sold for some forty years. Because it clung mercilessly to the body, the delphos was initially considered immodest and daring and attracted a 'bohemian' clientele, including the dancer Isadora Duncan. It also found favour amongst a coterie of international society women, with artistic leanings, who wore it within the confines of the home, in place of a tea gown to obtain temporary relief from corseting. Fortuny subsequently conceived variants of the sari, djellabah, kaftan and the Turkish dolman -which also permitted free movement - and which he dyed and printed according to his own (still secret) techniques.
Although sales of textiles and dress supported him financially for the rest of his life, Fortuny rarely commanded the attention of the fashion press (although his work was immortalized by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past). Generally, it is the very latest, most dramatic or shocking that entices fashion photographers, journalists and editors and, in turn, commands public attention - though, seldom are these items purchased to wear. Like Fortuny, Shirin Guild neither courts extensive media coverage nor does the enduring quality of her designs attract it. For the same reasons, she avoids the razzmatazz of catwalk shows. Shirin also eschews sensation and change for change's sake, by presenting timeless, elegant designs. However, unlike Fortuny, Shirin Guild does conform with the fashion calendar, presenting biannual collections and in 1999 introduced a 'mid-collection' (which many designers call 'cruise'). International buyers are invited as part of London Fashion Week to place their orders at the showroom, can do so at 'Tranoi', the Paris trade fair or via German and Italian agents.
Whilst Shirin has an international clientele, her clothes undoubtedly have a peculiarly British appeal. In 1954 Cecil Beaton stated that, 'At its truest the taste exhibited by the Englishwoman has a certain "literary" quality: almost one might say, a Virginia Woolf appreciation for clothes that possess the association is ideas ... Old things have a certain romantic charm about them, and English women of sensibility appreciate this.'5
5. Beaton, Cecil, Through the Looking Glass, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1954 p. 244.
Almost fifty years later, this description still rings true. British women are renowned for skilfully combining high-fashion clothing with authentic ethnic and antique items and the UK fashion press is exceptional in its representation of this phenomenon. A cornucopia of period dress shops, ethnic emporia and auction houses fuel and serve this demand.
Fashion's appropriation of ethnographic sources is selective, often romanticized and irreverent in its application. Original garments, as well as paintings, engravings, sculpture and decorative ceramics are frequently used by designers as inspirational material. The stylistic appropriation of non-Western clothing and textiles into Western fashion can be dated to the late thirteenth century, when Marco Polo brought the first Chinese artefacts into Europe. Since then, the cut, patterning and colourings of Chinese, Indian, South East Asian and Japanese (and to a lesser degree Persian/Iranian) textiles and dress have recurrently fuelled the imagination of designers, dress reformers and entered fashion's forefront. This fascination and assimilation was the subject of an exhibition (and catalogue) 'Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress', presented by Richard Martin and Harold Koda, at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994.
The 'Orientalism' show presented a stunning range of beautifully displayed historical and contemporary fashions. In spite of the development of increasingly multi-cultural societies, most exhibits were conceived by designers inspired by the raiment of cultures that were not their own - works by Turkish-born Rifat Ozbek and Japanese designer Issey Miyake were among the exceptions. Predominant were fashions by designers working during the 1980s and 1990s, who were irreverent and eclectic in their employment of international references. A Gianni Versace design for Spring/Summer 1994 was inspired by the sari, fused with a punk aesthetic and re-presented as a glamorous evening dress. The clinging two-piece was made in neon bright synthetic jersey and featured a panel skirt provocatively fastened by eight large safety pins. During the latter half of the 1990s, the sari inspired countless designers and original sari fabrics were used to make fashion clothing, accessories and furnishings.
Fashion formed just part of a broader trend and obsession for Asian culture that permeated many areas of 1990s design and culture, including the vogue for henna tattoos, Asian fashion models and music. Perhaps not surprisingly these and similar developments prompted cynicism and even hostility within sections of the Asian community, who saw the rich fabric of their culture being reduced to little more than the latest lifestyle statement. Hettie Judah presented this argument in an article published in the Independent on Sunday called 'Hands off our Culture'. Condemning the 'pick and mix' attitude and consequent trivializing of Asian culture, the author
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