What is Luxury?

Luxury is a nebulous concept which is often assumed to be straight forward; piles of gold jewellery, high thread count sheets and caviar. However, ‘What is Luxury?’, the current exhibition at the V&A, demonstrates that this should not be taken for granted. The status of luxury items can change or even be lost across time and continents as resources grow scarce and priorities change. The exhibition is split into two sections to explore this idea, with half focusing on luxurious tastes of the past while the second half suggests what might become a luxury as our world continues to develop and change. This allowed parallels to be drawn between ideas of craftsmanship throughout the ages and the motivations behind each piece. Earlier examples, such as an intricate chasuble and a golden crown, were often inspired by religious devotion and therefore were designed with a purpose even though they appear frivolous. However, later examples focused more on how an object can be made luxurious and the effect that this has on its value. For example, Nora Folk creates necklaces from nylon which recreate the lightness of soapy bubbles but which can be worn outside of the bathroom while open backed watches reveal their mechanisms to show how precision can be beautiful.

I was surprised to find that I particularly enjoyed the speculative section of the exhibition. It playfully questions how our concepts of luxury will continue to be formed by the scarcity of resources, ranging from oil and minerals to privacy and time. Aram Mooradian explores the effect of the gold mining industry on Australia’s natural and cultural heritage and suggests that in future gold will be used to store memories, such as in bullets, tooth fillings and lockets, just as it is currently used throughout electronic devices. This re-interpretation of a current luxurious substance fascinated me and I almost want to believe that it is real so that I can have my own gold memory player. It also offered a much more positive stance on the future than the DNA vending machine created by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo which commercialised access to healthcare. However, other ideas were not as believable and so appeared ridiculous in comparison, as elaborate stories were concocted around mining in space and the significance of stoppered glassware. This did not necessarily detract from the overall narrative but did serve as a reminder that an object’s status as a luxury is not automatic but depends on acceptance by society.

Overall, the exhibition illustrates that luxury relies as much on a sympathetic audience who knows about the background of an object as it does on outward displays of expense and value. Without an awareness of the difficulty of applying lacquer the colourful tumblers exhibited would appear to be indistinguishable from those on sale in any supermarket and so would be treated accordingly. Luxury cannot exist outside of society, even as it appears to rise above it. The exhibition continues until 27th September and is completely free! Now I just have to save up my money to afford some of the exhibits…


Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

I arrived at the V&A’s current exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty with the highest possible expectations and left without a single one disappointed. Having looked forward to this exhibition for over a year and reading a huge number of articles in recent weeks I thought I would be prepared for the many wonders that are on show. However, it is only when you see the full variety of McQueen’s output together that you can appreciate the strength and imagination of his vision. There were ensembles that unsettled me, dresses of unworldly beauty and shoes which appeared to defy physics. In addition to this each room attempted to capture the essence of that particular collection and immerse the viewer in this idea, through both visual and audio accompaniment. This makes the exhibition an experience in itself, with even the walls complimenting the exhibits with one room filled with gilt framing and another almost like an ossuary.

McQueen’s talent for tailoring is evident throughout the exhibition, as his clothes manipulate the potential in the human form to create a variety of shapes. He learnt his skills through working on Savile Row and this confident knowledge allowed him to ignore the carefully honed rules to suggest new ways of viewing the body. He elongated the back to focus on the end of the spine by changing the cut of trousers, a principle which became sensuously clear as models walked down the runway in his “bumster” trousers and immediately entered the fashion consciousness. I was also fascinated by McQueen’s choice in fabrics, as he often married classic silhouettes with unconventional material. Feathers feature throughout his collections, sometimes flamboyantly but also discreetly, as in the dress above. Although feathers are often used to create lightness in clothes or suggest a carefree lifestyle McQueen’s dresses frequently reject this as the feathers are coated in paint or modified to reveal a harshness which is not immediately apparent in natural feathers. This unnerving technique was also used with other textiles such as flowers, shells, hair and metal but throughout this the careful tailoring continues to link his creations with their fashion predecessors.

The variety of works involved in the exhibition becomes overwhelmingly apparent in ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ room, which is filled, floor to ceiling, with hats, dresses, shoes and so many other objects that I had no idea where to look first. There was a skirt which relied on the shadow it created, a butterflied hat, silver jaws and chain mail to name but a few, with all the walls playing videos from many of the fashion shows these objects originally featured in. The inclusion of these catwalks allowed me to appreciate the objects as part of a larger setting and also reminded me of their original purpose, even when the practical seemed implausible. The shape of the armadillo heels is unusual but when looking at lines of models walking in them I was struck by how much more alien they appeared when worn as part of the human body. They altered the walk and posture of each model and therefore changed the ensemble completely. This effect was only enhanced by the numbers of models involved and it became clear that McQueen viewed his fashion shows as an essential aspect of each collection, therefore making them as theatrical as his clothing. Each piece cannot be truly appreciated in isolation.

The exhibition is open until 2nd of August and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a kaleidoscopic opening into the mind of a man whose imagination could finesse sublime creations but also reveal nightmarish visions.  Alexander McQueen always presented women as powerful, almost frightful, beings and as the exhibition title suggests he did not believe in commonplace, soft beauty. This combination of harshness, strength and aesthics exposes the accepted standards in fashion from within and forces the viewer to question their own visual ideals. Nevertheless, if you still need convincing about what you might see the V&A have provided further information about some of the intriguing objects on display. It’s also an excellent way to see the careful detailing present in all of McQueen’s work and appreciate the variety of skills involved. However, there has been unprecedented demand for tickets so make sure you plan a visit well in advance.

Staying Power: Photography of Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s

The V&A has recently opened a new exhibition in collaboration with Black Cultural Archives to document the experiences of black Britons over the last 50 years as well as to showcase some of the talented photographers involved. Half of the photographs are displayed at the V&A while the rest are in Brixton, where the Black Cultural Archives, are based and the exhibition is strengthened by this split as there is less pressure to rush past each photograph in order to see everything. I returned to my favourites several times, one of which (right) was by J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere and was part of a selection of traditional Nigerian headties accompanied by different braided hairstyles. The headties were each so carefully structured and almost architectural when photographed in black and white and it was clear that a great deal of thought was involved, as with the intricate hairstyles as well.

Other images focused on the daily lives of black Britons and ranged from impromptu snapshots of beauty pageants to styled scenes. However, I was touched by the series of portraits of people formally posing in their home – these were sent back to relatives abroad to demonstrate how well settled and prosperous the sitter was. One man carefully leans on a TV in his best suit whilst another has a child playing with a telephone. Throughout the exhibition the people looking out of the photographs are ambitious and proud of who they are, despite any hostile or deprived surroundings, and I look forward to learning more about this heritage when I get a chance to visit the exhibition in Brixton.

The V&A exhibition is only short (and free!) and there is plenty of time to visit it as it is open until May 24th. The exhibition in Brixton is open for longer and can be seen until June 30th and I will hopefully write about this soon!

Constable: The Making of a Master

Through out the V&A’s most recent exhibition on John Constable the artist’s attention to detail is apparent. His progress is charted from initial copied etching to the large projects which required confidence and careful skill. Although he is famed for his paintings of ethereal clouds I was also impressed by overall feeling of movement present through out his paintings.

Constable painted the scenes which surrounded him. His paintings capture both scenes which appear to only exist in that moment and views which will remain eternal. I went to the exhibition with a friend who knows the areas of Suffolk and Essex which Constable lived in well. She could recognise bends in a river of his landscapes and church steeples which poked through trees. This familiarity allowed the views to seem fresh even when they included hay wains and working mills.

There were several instances where multiple versions of a painting were exhibited side by side. This was fascinating as it uncovered the development of Constable’s vision for each creation. The Hay Wain slowly included a playful dog, a boy drinking from the river in a red waistcoat and a rainbow as Constable neatened up the picture and assessed what was still visually needed. The addition of the dash of red balances the picture and draws the viewer to the boy’s playful face. In another picture a white horse which is introduced into a stormy landscape provides a contrast to the dark clouds overhead.

At times the exhibition felt repetitive as it hung such similar paintings side by side. This feeling was particularly strong during the rooms which included comparisons of etchings and Constable’s attempts to copy them. Sadly, the main difference at this point which could be noticed were to Constable’s detriment as he is still learning his strengths and the techniques necessary.
However, my frustration with the repetition of images was softened at the end of the exhibition when three paintings of similar tree trunks were hung side by side. One was an original image by a Dutch master which had inspired Constable’s own work. This painting in turn led Lucien Freud’s study on a tree trunk, entitled ‘After Constable’s Elm’, which was the third painting hanging. This thread drawing together centuries of artists through such a simple theme demonstrated that sometimes imitation can be more than just the height of flattery.

With such variety provided by paintings of ominous dark clouds, cheerful rustic scenes and vibrant city scenes I very much enjoyed this exhibition, although I feel as if I learnt more about the process of training to be an artist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than about Constable himself. However, I am now planning to see the exhibition on his rival Turner at the Tate!

The exhibition continues until 11 January 2015.

Horst: Photographer of Style

As many reviews have noted the V&A’s current exhibition on Horst P. Horst is a series of master-classes in photography, composition, lighting and style. Horst was a fashion photographer during 1930s to late 1980s whose career spanned across the transition from black and white to colour and saw the rise of professional models. Although his photographs were often used to create Vogue covers many were used for adverts of corsets, nail varnish and holidays. This commercialisation does not mar the beauty of his creativity but instead makes the viewer marvel at his ingenuity.

As Horst became increasingly popular in fashion circles he also became a regular in other sets. A growing interest in Surrealism is evident in his photography, not least in the photograph of Salvador Dalí! There are women covered in lobsters and a whole series of Surrealist still lifes which create a confusion of reference in comparison with the simply lines of his earlier work. They also led Horst to interesting collaboration as Dalí creating the Surrealist ballet costumes, which were never used due to their impracticality, that Horst photographed in such interesting poses.

Horst was heavily influenced by classical aesthetics and often portrayed his models as statuesque whilst also caught in motion. The exhibition also includes examples of the clothes which Horst photographed and these include outfits by Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. This provides a welcome contrast to the early walls of black and white photographs. It also demonstrates how difficult it must have been to create the look of constant movement that Horst projects throughout his photographs as many of the outfits are carefully structured and stiff.

My one complaint with the exhibition is that it feels unevenly paced. The first room has an overwhelming amount of photos lining the walls and a great deal of information to absorb. As soon as this room is left behind however, the following rooms feel much larger and spacious with the photos evenly spread out. I also felt that the section on Horst’s nature photography felt slightly out of place as there was a reasonable amount of repetition which slowed the momentum of the exhibition down. If it had been placed closer to the Surrealism section this focus could have been explored more interestingly. However, this did not dim my enjoyment a great deal as there remained other aspects to enjoy, in particular Horst’s photos from his travels.

The exhibition recently opened and so will be open until 4 January 2015. Such a range of photographic skill and technique is unlikely to be exhibited so careful again in the near future so there’s definitely a reason for not putting off a visit! This website offers an excellent preview of the V&A’s offering.


Disobedient Objects

The recently opened Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A is based around the idea of design being used to convert every day objects into items of protest. This ranged from hastily made gas masks, banners and placards to an intricately decorated car, subversive dwarf hats and tapestries. They incorporated protests from across the world and illustrated the necessity of invention.

The exhibition also included a series of videos, featuring protests past and present, which I felt brought many of the objects to life. They demonstrated the practical demands which the carefully curated artefacts were subjected to when used as intended. In fact, the exhibition ended by stating that many of the objects would return to use after their time at the V&A.

Badges against Apartheid rub shoulders with faked newspapers and revolutionary appliqué. The outfits of the Guerrilla Girls stand beneath a glittery unicorn banner fighting transphobia. The scope of the exhibition demonstrates that while there are many issues that have been solved through protest, many remain to be fought.

The one complaint I have against the exhibition is that it tries to show too much in such a small space. There is not a clear route around the exhibits so it was often crowded without need. These crowds build up further when people attempt to watch the main video being streamed as there is not much space to watch it without blocking other exhibits. Nevertheless, the exhibition is free and I appreciate the limitations of the gallery available.

These clever book shields turn the violence of those being fought against them. Originally from student protests in Rome against funding cuts they created a tableau of police beating down literature and knowledge when pictures were published in newspapers. The idea has quickly spread across the world.

My personal favourite of the exhibition was the video they featured on the Barbie Liberation Organisation. In 1991 speaking Barbies and G.I. Joes had their voice boxes swapped before being replaced in their boxes at the stores. When customers bought these revamped toys they were surprised to find Barbie’s sentiments changed.
The simplicity of the idea and the unusual approach really demonstrates the arbitrariness of boundaries which have slowly been created and accepted.

The exhibition is completely free and will continue until 1st February 2015 so there’s plenty of time to visit as often as you like!

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014

The attempt by the V&A to showcase several centuries of wedding dresses is admirable simply because of the inevitable range of the most personal dresses possible. They reflect lives, love and countless stories. I was amazed by the number of dresses that had clearly been passed down through the families before ending up in the V&A.

There was glitter, sequins, and beads. There were long dresses, short dresses, suits and dresses made out of parachutes. Weddings are often demonstrated to join cultures and countries together, with their symbolism being adapted for every occasion. They show that whilst fashions are constantly changing weddings will always contain moments of significance.

After several rooms full of white dresses Dita von Teese’s deep purple wedding dress was overwhelming in its sudden intensity. It meets the eye as you turn up the stairs from the older section to reach the upper floor. It was stunning and made me reassess the necessity of using white material to prove that a dress is wedding dress. The exhibition noted that although it was only after Queen Victoria’s wedding that the traditional wedding dress became expected to be white. However, as a reflection of a woman’s personality a white dress seems flat, a view which is compounded when so many white dresses can be compared against one another.

Nevertheless, the shape and cut of this white dress still allowed it to stand out from the crowd. I leave the best dress until last – Margaret Whigham wore this dress for her society wedding in 1933. It was designed by Norman Hartnell (who went on to design both the wedding and coronation dresses of Elizabeth II), taking inspiration from the recent revival of interest in the medieval.The inbuilt train is stunning in real life as it seems to spread out like an iced lake. It would definitely look magnificent down the aisle.

The exhibition continues until 15th March 2015 so there’s plenty of time to choose the perfect moment to go and see it.