Andrew W Mellon Foundation/Research Forum Mellon MA 2013-2014 Report
Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920-1945
tudying dress history in combination with non-fiction film has been a challenging and exciting undertaking during the past year. The students have benefitted hugely from this opportunity to explore connections between the ways clothing practices connect with amateur and documentary film developments during this key moment in the history of each discipline. This is a new area and we have been able to situate ourselves at the forefront of its study – something the students have been very much aware of through their work with Andrew W Mellon Foundation/Research Forum Visiting Professor (Mellon MA) Heather Norris Nicholson and Andrew W Mellon Foundation/Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellow (Mellon MA) Sara Beth Levavy. Their expertise in British amateur film and American newsreels brought a dynamic element to the course, and pushed the boundaries of the ways we might explore dress and fashion of the period.
Through study of a wide range of primary material – from extant examples of dress, to documentary photography and a wide variety of film clips, students were able to consider the ways representational tropes were impacted by technological change and how this paralleled approaches to design and manufacture of readymade fashions in the interwar and war periods. Visits to, for example, the V&A and Museum of London’s dress storerooms to study items at close quarters, enabled them to examine the types of everyday dress they had seen in Pathe newsreels and amateur footage of sports events and seaside holidays. This provoked lively discussion about the relationships between movement and dress, gesture and spectatorship and the haptic/optic sensuality of film, image and dress.
These enquiries were further supplemented by the study trip to Washington DC, which Sara Levavy also took part in. This extended collaborations beyond the classroom, and into the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History, to look at contemporary advertising, for example, and to the Library of Congress, to look at Toni Frissell’s documentary and fashion photography.
The course’s unique mix of tutors and students meant we were able to analyse connections between non-fiction film and fashion in depth. This was furthered by the Spring 2013 Friends Lecture Series, Documenting Modernity: Fashion, Film and Image in America & Europe, 1920 – 1945, which provided a wider forum for discussion and exposure to new research by internationally renowned scholars, including Charles Tepperman (Assistant Professor of Film Studies, University of Calgary) and Bryony Dixon (Curator of Silent Film, BFI National Archive). These talks enabled students (and tutors) to engage directly, talking to the invited lecturers about their work, and hearing how the audience responded to this new area of art history. The Study Day, Documenting Fashion: Re-thinking the Experience and Representation of Dress (May 2014), framed these ideas in relation to the ways film and image enable us to experience dress, and included talks by well known scholars and curators. We partnered with the Fashion Research Network to organize the event and this served to develop the course’s collaborative spirit still further, to include panel discussions formed of doctoral students from The Courtauld, Royal College of Art (RCA) and London College of Fashion (LCF), to consider thematic links across theory and practice.
The students responded with great enthusiasm to all aspects of the course and led the Study Day’s afternoon interactive session. We asked all participants to bring something with them that showed how they document their own dress. Each MA student led a small group to consider what had been brought up in papers and discussion earlier in the day, and develop this in relation to each audience member’s own subjective experience of dress. This was very successful and led to lively discussion of the ways dress and image connects with the senses and emotions, as well as memory and personal history.
Studying on the course has encouraged a strong community spirit amongst the students and we therefore decided to set up a blog http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion to provide a public platform for work done on the course, as well as by my PhD students and by me. This has proved very popular and reflects the connections the students have made with each other, with the wider Courtauld community, and their desire to share ideas. The Mellon MA has been fundamental to this, as a group process and in the content of the blog. Many posts are drawn from the students’ assignments, and visits, as well as being inspired by lectures and the study day. The blog will provide a strong and ongoing legacy of the work they carried out, and will be passed on to future generations of students to explore their work in another context and disseminate it to a wider public.
The students have worked incredibly hard throughout the year, taking a professional approach to their studies and adapting well to the rigours of studying on a cross-disciplinary course. They have embraced the new insights available through the marriage of fashion with non-fiction. This has included an excellent Virtual Exhibition by Jessica Draper on extant dress, film and documentary imagery of 1930s aviatrix, and dissertations by Jennifer Potter on dancer Irene Castle’s image and use of fashion to further her public persona, and a study by Fruzsina Bekefi of a rare female-focused 1930s Sci-Fi film. The work produced has been of a very high standard, with four Distinctions achieved overall, and one very high Merit.
Students have also undertaken a variety of internships during the course, again, a sign of their commitment to using their knowledge and to developing transferrable skills. Fruzsina interned at IB Tauris publishers, Julia Rea undertook paid research for fashion journalist Bronwyn Cosgrave’s latest book project, Jennifer worked at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Daniel Blau gallery, as well as acting as a Registry Student Ambassador for the Courtauld. Jessica did research for a historically themed film. They have excellent prospects for their future careers – Jennifer has already obtained a year-long internship at the Getty Foundation, Fruszina has an article due for publication with the Journal of Fashion, Style & Popular Culture and is working with me on a display from the History of Dress collections for Somerset House’s Winter Festival, three aim to return to do PhDs after gaining more work experience next year. Overall, the Mellon MA has provided an ideal foundation for idea exchange, for pedagogical collaboration and discussion, and for an inspiring and productive exploration of the exciting potential of interdisciplinary study of this kind.
Report on Andrew W Mellon Foundation/Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellowship (Mellon MA) 2013-2014
In the course of my months at The Courtauld Institute of Art, I have benefitted greatly from the Institute’s lively academic program, its community of scholars and students, as well as its extraordinary location in central London, walking distance from several key cultural and research centers.
My primary responsibilities while at The Courtauld have been to instruct an advanced undergraduate course titled The Spectacle of (Popular) Media and to assist in the instruction and leadership of an interdisciplinary Master’s level course titled Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920-1945. My undergraduate course was taught in the autumn term; the MA course continued to meet through March of 2014. It was a particular pleasure to teach The Spectacle of (Popular) Media to Courtauld undergraduates, as this was, for many of them, their first exposure to the study of the twentieth century as an intellectual pursuit. It was, therefore, especially rewarding to be able to introduce to them not only an entirely new historical framework, but also to be able to include media that are not necessarily otherwise part of the art historical canon (such as film, newspapers, comics, and animation). I would like to think that this approach also was appreciated by my students, more than half of whom chose to write their BA dissertations under my tutelage. Each of these students pursued a research topic that they first encountered through the material introduced to them in my course (American and French documentary photography, Ashcan School painting, and structuralist filmmaking).
As part of the MA course, Documenting Fashion, I participated in the regular class meetings as an auditor and instructor. As such, I was able to supplement the content of the seminar conversations through the perspective of my expertise, pre-WWII American film history. Because I was a member of the instructing team for this interdisciplinary course, I was privileged to join the group on their research trips around London (to Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery as well as to special collection viewings of period clothing at the Museum of London) as well as abroad, to Washington, DC. In Washington, we were able to visit the special collections of the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History. It was a pleasure to be a part of the MA course, through which I was able to get to know both the students and instructors in the course, all of whom have proved to be excellent colleagues.
Dr Rebecca Arnold, the primary instructor of Documenting Fashion also served as my research mentor throughout my time at The Courtauld. In that capacity, Dr Arnold provided advice and guidance as I began the process of the revision of my PhD thesis into a book manuscript. Such advice and guidance included regular meetings in which we discussed how to approach the project as a whole as well as how to craft the very specialized document of a book proposal. Dr Arnold read multiple drafts of my book proposal, Immediate Mediation: A Narrative of the Interwar American Newsreel, which is now under review at the University of California Press. Now that the proposal is completed, I have begun the work of revising the original text, excerpts of which will be modified for submission and publication as journal articles.
In addition to my teaching responsibilities, while at The Courtauld I have done my best to maintain a busy schedule of conference and symposium attendance, both within the Institute and beyond its walls. Early in the autumn term I participated in the Modern and Contemporary section’s lecture series wherein I presented a paper titled The Newsreel, the Daredevil, and the Cameraman: Character and Play in the Interwar Newsreel. This paper, written as part of my work to revise Immediate Mediation was attended by several members of The Courtauld’s academic staff, as well as students at all levels of study (BAs, MAs, and PhDs) and was followed by an extended and interesting set of questions and answers.
Since my arrival in London, I have attended several conferences and symposia, in addition to giving a guest lecture about newsreels and the military to a class at Texas Tech University. In particular, I spoke at the British Association for American Studies annual conference in Birmingham (‘Constructing the Contemporary: American Interwar Newsreels and the Patchwork of the Everyday’) and at a recent study day at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris (‘There was Always a Monkey: Humor and Distraction in the American Interwar Newsreel’).
This spring I also took part in the 9th Orphan Film Symposium. The Orphans Film Symposium (hosted this year by the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam) is an important bi-annual international event at which scholars and archivists present and discuss recent archival discoveries and restorations across moving image media (including, for example, film, television, and animation, as well as digital image technologies). Orphans provides a critical platform in which scholars and archivists can come together to assist in and support each other’s work, as well as to learn about new developments and research in the field. Not long after the Orphans Film Symposium concluded, I attended the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, a two-day conference of current research followed by special film screenings specifically designed for the event.
One of the most important academic bodies with which I am associated is an international group called The Newsreel Network (TNN), and in the spring I attended and presented a paper called ‘Reporting Reflecting: How We See Ourselves in News’, the content of which was discussed as part of the British Library’s Newsroom blog. TNN is a singular group of academics from around the world, all of whom study newsreels as part of their research programs. Hosted this year by the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen, this year’s TNN meeting focused on The Concept of News and was several days of lively discussion and debate about newsreel study. At this year’s meeting, TNN resolved to compile and publish a book of collected essays by its members that reflect the varied spectrum of work currently undertaken by this singular group of scholars.
Over the course of the year, I have used the research collections in London resources such as the British Film Institute and the British Library in order to further advance my book project. In my final weeks at The Courtauld, it is my aim to complete the article draft I began this spring (‘The Newsreel, the Daredevil, and the Cameraman: Character and Play in the Interwar Newsreel’) in order to submit it for publication in a journal.
Sara Beth Levavy