There is always some kind of magic in the fashion events organised by curator Sofia Hedman and exhibition designer Serge Martynov. Magic is actually a term that usually appears in conjunction with the wintry season and with Christmas, two words that call to mind pure shades of white. Symbolically speaking this colour hints at a multiplicity of things - from light, sun and air to holiness, perfection, innocence, chastity and purity or truce and surrender. It is also the only shade that hints at both life and death.
This season Winter, Christmas and the white shade also appear in conjunction with ceramic and – who could have thought it – architecture, in a recently opened event at Somerset House, London.
Part of the "Fashioning Winter" programme (that includes nine displays scattered around Somerset House) and co-curated by Hedman and Martynov, "White Perspectives" moves from one peculiar connection - the relation between ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood and Sir William Chambers, the architect who designed Somerset House in the 18th century - to look at the history of white in Western fashion.
The curators included both established and well known designers and younger ones, so the display features a white Haute Couture dress by Jean Paul Gaultier and more conceptual pieces by Maison Martin Margiela, together with Bea Szenfeld's origami-inspired monumental paper stole, a dress from Kokon to Zai's S/S 2015 collection directly linked to Wedgwood's blue and white ceramic pieces, and a plastic gown by Gareth Pugh.
The best thing about this display celebrating bleached, frosted, snowy, ivory, pasty, pearly, chalky, milky, immaculate or ashen white, is the way the curators linked historical events or trends with the featured designs: the history of dental hygiene is for example hinted at through Fantich & Young's surreal shoes; fashionable sportswear is referenced via Mao Usami's grotesquely oversized and multi-layered body morphing white dress and 18th century powdered white wigs are echoed in Charlie Le Mindu's extravagant piece.
"White Perspective" is perfectly timed with the recent rediscovery of the Wedgwood pieces that is being celebrated at the moment also in other countries: as part of the 2014 UK-Russia year of culture, the All-Russian Decorative-Applied and Folk Art Museum is currently paying homage to the ceramicist through the exhibition "Unrivalled Wedgwood".
The starting point for this new event is the relationship between Josiah Wedgwood and Sir William Chambers, the architect who designed Somerset House, so it's a combination of decorative arts and architecture – can you tell us more about this link?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: Our exhibition at Somerset House explores how new materials, technologies and discourses have contributed to changing the meaning and function of the colour white over time. The history of white is complex and in the context of Western fashion history, colours have been used in both rituals and to mark distinctions. This exhibition considers a handful of views and, in particular, it looks at the history of white plastic, white ink, white cotton, white pearls, white lace, white teeth, white hair, white silk, white paint and white paper. While researching the history of the colour white, we looked at the white silhuettes of the Neoclassical ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood's iconic blue and white Jasperware. We discovered that Wedgwood shared a very special relationship with his contemporary Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House. In the late 1750s, Chambers had become a prominent figure in Neoclassical architecture. Somerset House was the first, and largest, governmental building of the style in London. After studying in Italy, Chambers became one of Wedgwood's powerful patrons, and Wedgwood in return used some of Chambers' designs for inspiration. Chambers and Wedgwood's shared love for Neoclassicism became the central inspiration for the exhibition design. The hanging panels and plinths are based on Somerset House's architectural elements and proportions, and by utilising Wedgwood's iconic Jasperware aesthetic with white silhouettes, Chambers' and Wedgwood's work can once again resonate.
Was their passion for Neoclassicism one of the elements you looked for while selecting the designs that had to go in?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: During the research process we looked for designers that create extraordinary white silhuettes in the materials we had explored. The selected contemporary garments illustrate how the colour white has many different connotations today. When put in a historical context, it becomes clear that the meanings have changed throughout the centuries. For example, within Modernist architecture, white paint has been used to create a feeling of space and light, uncluttered by history and time. By contrast, Maison Martin Margiela has used white paint on garments and objects to illustrate the passage of time, the cracking of the paint exposing the process of ageing and decay. White silk dresses, on the other hand, were popular during Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1930s. They were lit to glow on the silver screen, conveying glamour and the perfect female figure. Designer Ann-Sofie Back explores celebrity culture and failed glamour. Here the "glamorous" white silk dress is cut to pieces, and re-draped to form a new, "perfect" body. When we saw Kokon to Zai's fantastic S/S 2015 collection at London Fashion Week, we knew we wanted to include it as it so wonderfully illustrates a very contemporary interpretation of Neoclassicism.
Did you by any chance visit the Wedgwood Museum while putting together this event?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: No, unfortunately we did not have an opportunity to visit the museum due to a busy schedule. We did, however, look through their archives online and if we are ever in the Stoke-on-Trent area we will certainly make a visit as it seems like a wonderful museum!
What does the white shade evoke in your mind?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: White has a light, etherial quality, it can be quite magical at times. Coming from colder climates - Sweden and Russia - we strongly associate it with Winter. During this season it is almost ever-present, relentless and beautiful – in the fog, the frost, the ice and snow. Hence the idea for the exhibition.
Did you discover any unusual meaning or story about the white colour in any kind of culture/tradition that you had never heard about while working on this event?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: We came across many fascinating anecdotes while working on the project. For example, Japanese Buddhist monks have practiced origami for many centuries. Until the 19th century white paper was expensive, and paper folding was reserved for religious rituals and formal ceremonies. Following the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War, traditional paper cranes became a symbol of peace. Bea Szenfeld's work can be seen as an example of the global revival of this very delicate and time-consuming artform. Historically, white pearls signified purity and power, and were a favoured adornment of Elizabeth I. Her dresses were covered in these highly-prized and rare treasures. In the late 19th century, mother-of-pearl became popular and, in 1916, the first "affordable" cultured pearls were farmed. The original Pearly King - Henry Croft - wore a costume covered in mother-of-pearl buttons, so he would be noticed when raising money for charity. He used mother-of-pearl buttons that he found on the streets, often lost off the trousers of street traders. One reason that white cotton became popular in sportswear at the turn of the 20th century is the fact that cotton breathes and white masks perspiration. Elizabeth Wilson mentions in her new book Love game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) that in the 1920s, tennis player Fred Perry often appeared after the break with "a fresh white cotton shirt (...) The crowds always thought I looked twice as fresh as the other man, but of course it was just window dressing." Back then, sports sometimes functioned as a platform to show fashion and today sportswear and fashion remain closely related.
The event includes designs in various materials: which is the most unusual material you included?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: It may be the white teeth or the thinking around white hair. Until the 17th century, the wealthy upper classes tended to have the most decayed teeth. When colonial trade made sugar widely accessible, and the tea ceremony filtered its way down through society, bad teeth became commonplace. With a better understanding of dental hygiene, and the commercialisation of tooth powder in the 19th century, teeth began looking less stained. Today, white teeth are not only a sign of health and vanity, but also an ability to pay for costly dental treatments. White or grey hair has been fashionable just a few times in Western history. In the late 18th century large powdered white wigs made out of wires, textile horse hair and starch were worn by women in high society. These wigs, or poufs, were decorated to express a feeling or to mark an important occasion, and, therefore, they functioned like mobile billboards. In 1909, commercial dyes hit the market and it is said today that 90% of all Americans dye their grey hair.
There is always something magically eerie about the exhibitions and events you curate: do you feel that a bit of magic can help us going behind fashion and maybe discover deeper meanings behind a design?
Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov: Yes, it seems that we are drawn to fashion and art that in some way excites or surprises us, and usually incorporates elements of storytelling. This dimension of fashion is certainly an inspiration for our displays. Our exhibition design always tells a story. Sometimes a dramatic or even humorous display helps to illustrate a narrative and place objects within a context. When objects are put on plinths or behind glass in museums or galleries, they often attain a new, almost magical value. This is something that we love to enhance. We always try to find new ways of highlighting this delightful transformation.
"Whte Perspetives" is part of the Fashioning Winter programme at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA, UK until 11th January 2015.
Image credits for this post
All images courtesy White Perspectives / Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov
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