Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Treachery of Images

René Magritte: The Treachery of Images

René Magritte's famous picture of a pipe sits above the declaration,"Ceci n'est pas une pipe." (This is not a pipe). Called The Treachery of ImagesMagritte's intention was to show that the painting was not a pipe, but merely a depiction of one. It sounds like an obvious thing to say. After all, our eyes can see that the pipe Magritte has painted isn't real, and yet he makes a very interesting point. Throughout history, artists have given titles to their works. Portraits are very often given the name of the sitter, landscapes are given the name of the place they were painted, but is it accurate to attach these titles? Would it perhaps be more fitting to do as Magritte did...?

The Together Bag, $35 USD from Thursday Friday: the poor woman's Birkin?

This brings me to the image above. This is the Together Bag from American retailer Thursday Friday. It's essentially nothing more than a simple canvas shopping bag, and no doubt a useful receptacle for carrying lunch, books, shopping and anything too big to fit in a smaller handbag. But in a "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" style, this is a bag bearing images of Hermès iconic Birkin bag, and not just on two sides. This Birkin pastiche is viewable from all sides (even underneath).

So how much will Thursday Friday's bag set you back? Why, a humble $35 USD.

Olena Sholomytska, co-creator of Thursday Friday says of the Together Bag, "...we ended up with a surreal design that references luxury but is ultimately an anti-status status symbol."

I see (and applaud) the surrealism of the bag: it's quirky, fun and yes, given that Hermès has traditionally maintained an immensely long waiting list for a genuine Birkin, this is a reasonably priced piece that should be accessible to many more people. As Sholomytska says, " anti-status symbol." But is it?

So in other words, a bag which is meant to be an anti-status symbol is effectively nothing like. To my mind at least, emblazoning a cotton bag with the image of a well-known product does not a powerful symbol make. In fact, the Together Bag is really just the same as any other counterfeit product on the market. Does a fake Louis Vuitton purse bought in a Turkish market therefore also become an anti-status symbol, all because the genuine article carries a hefty price tag? As a surrealist piece, the Together Bag works, but as a satirical one, it falls flat on its face.

Here is the other snag: the $35 Together Bag carries with it a three month waiting list (less than a year after Hermès announced they would be doing away with their own waiting list policy). A quick visit to the Thursday Friday site confirms this:

"The Together bag in BLUE is again on back order and will ship starting in March. We ship older orders first, so please place yours now for priority on our waiting list.  If you place an order, you will be advised of the exact ship date at a later stage."

While I can well understand the interest in a bag that depicts one of the ultimate luxury fashion pieces, I can't help but wonder about that three month waiting list. It's entirely possible that supply cannot keep pace with demand, but if we look at it speculatively from another angle, it becomes a very savvy marketing ploy. After all, Hermès created a waiting list in order to limit supply and thus increase demand ,which consequently fuelled the fires of interest. There is nothing to say that it couldn't work for the Together Bag, too.

The "Anti-status symbol" essentially becomes the high-status-anti-status-symbol(!) as shoppers compete to secure a place on Thursday Friday's waiting list. Yet however expensive and hard to come by a genuine Birkin might be, it will undoubtedly prevail long after the Together Bag has fallen apart at the seams, scattered your books and lunch all over the pavement and disappeared from memory.

Image courtesy of

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Straightforward...with a Feminine Grace

Born in Scotland in 1822, Clementina Fleeming (later Vicountess Hawarden) married in 1845, living between London and a country estate in Co. Tipperary, Ireland, where in 1857 she took up an interesting and distinctly modern hobby: photography.

Unidentified Young Man with Camera on Tripod, c. 1857

The details of Lady Hawarden's life are largely unknown. Her birth, marriage and death are all part of the public record, but there is little else known about her. It is here that her images come forward and speak where the written word fails, here that her passion and inspiration shines through in photographic form. 

Isabella Grace & Florence Elizabeth on the Balcony of 5 Princes Gardens,  1862-3

In it's infancy, photography was seen as less of an art form, like painting or sculpture, and more of a science. The chemical processes involved in developing images would continue to alter and advance apace as the nineteenth century progressed, and Lady Clementina Hawarden's experiments are all the more interesting because she was a woman in what was perceived to be a masculine, scientific sphere. Her first images are dated in the year 1857, taken on the family estate in Ireland. They are albumen prints, a type of photograph achieved by "...coating paper with a layer of egg white and salt to create a smooth surface. The paper was then coated with a layer of silver nitrate. The salt and silver nitrate combined to form light sensitive silver salts. This double coated paper could then be placed in contact with a negative and exposed to the sun to produce a print."

Study from Life, 1861

Quite what Lady Hawarden's thoughts were on her new pastime are totally unknown, but she must have enjoyed the process enough to continue when she and her family moved back from Ireland to London in 1859. It was there, at 5 Princes Gardens, South Kensington, that she set up a studio for her work, becoming prolific and also confident enough in her abilities to put forward some of her pieces for exhibition. 

Earlier landscapes developed into a zeal for portraits, and it is here that the little details of family life can be most clearly seen. Her favoured models were her husband, her children and servants, whom she shot in a variety of attitudes and locations. Some are decidedly abstract in nature; more concerned in capturing a mood than anything else.

Clementina Maude, 1860s

Lady Hawarden had an eye for composition, as well as for evoking atmosphere in her use of light and shadow. It was a talent that went beyond the scientific process she engaged in. Today we would say she had flair, a good eye. She engaged with her subjects in a way that the stiff, buttoned up Victorian sepia portraits we are so used to seeing never show.

Clementina & Isabella Grace, c.1864

In 1863 and '64, Lady Hawarden exhibited Studies from Life and Photographic Studies at the Photographic Society of London, where her images earned her silver medal prizes. These were to be her only exhibitions, however; she died the following year of pneumonia, aged only 42.  

Study from Life, c.1860

Fellow contemporary O.G Rejlander wrote of her, "She was also in her manner and conversation - fair, straightforward...with a feminine grace." It is a comment which also serves to sum up her body of work, too. Clementina Hawarden's contribution to the burgeoning world of photography was widely respected during the nineteenth century. Her pioneering explorations and artistic flair continue to be so today.

All images courtesy of the V&A Museum.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Things to See: What Will She Wear?

Satin Wedding Gown, 1885

The first Things to See post of the year is something for fashion and history lovers, as well as romantics of all ages (and quite possibly those in the throes of wedding organisation, too!) The Fashion Museum in Bath has planned a Valentines Day opening for its What Will She Wear? The Enduring Romance of the Wedding Dress display; an exhibition that will show off the museum's collection of wedding gowns through the ages. Curated to commemorate this year's Royal Wedding, What Will She Wear? will also incorporate a large collection of archive photographs of 1930s wedding dresses. It's sure to be a feast of silk, satin and lace; a frothy celebration of romance as well as style and the perfect antidote to the winter blues.

The exhibition will run from the 14th February 2011 until the 8th January 2012.

Image courtesy of the V&A Museum (as The Fashion Museum unfortunately lacks much of an online catalogue).

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

I hope your Christmas holiday was everything you hoped it would be! With a dreaded bout of the flu doing the rounds here in this part of the world, the last few days have been quiet and restful, and just about getting back up to full speed and strength.

This time of the year always brings about thoughts of making, maintaining and breaking New Years Resolutions. The beginning of a brand new year often seems like a great time to make changes; it's a natural break in proceedings, but those fervently made vows to lose weight, get fit and take up elaborate new hobbies quite often fizzle and fade by the end of January. The media would have you believe that on a given day, usually in the middle of the dreary first month of the year, the world is at its most depressed and desolate.

Enter my friend and yours, Dame Barbara Cartland. Prolific romance writer and lover of pink, she also wrote and published her very own Etiquette Handbook back in 1962. My friend bought a copy for me as a Christmas present a couple of years ago, and whenever I'm in need of a laugh advice on how I should be conducting myself, I look no further than the pages of this erudite volume. So, as a New Years gift to you, I give you a choice sprinkling of Dame Barbara's searing insights into life lived through etiquette. If you haven't yet made any New Years Resolutions, let this advice be your post-Christmas pick-me-up and companion...

Barbara on Being a Good Wife: "Unless she is ill a woman should get up and cook her husband's breakfast before he goes to work in the morning. It is bad manners to do this in curlers, without lipstick, in a shabby dressing-gown and down-at-heel slippers."

Barbara on the Perils of Nagging: "Ask any man the the most usual marriage fault of women and he will almost inevitably say, 'nagging'. If you can only say thing which are critical, then don't say anything...Most women talk too much anyway..."

Barbara on Sex: "Women must remember that the act of surrender does not necessarily mean they should abandon all modesty. The act of love - in which there should be no reserves, no barriers, no restrictions - should be followed by the woman putting on her elusiveness with her clothes."

Barbara on Courtship: "A young man taking a girl out for the evening usually calls for her at her parents' house or flat. It is correct for her father or mother to offer a cocktail or sherry and to talk to him for about five or ten minutes."

Barbara on Equality in the Home: "A misguided idea of the twentieth century is that a considerate husband is a home slave...Emancipation may have brought women votes, higher education and careers, but it has certainly not brought them the happiness of being a fragile, delicate little woman protected and looked after by a big strong man."

Barbara on Correct Attire at the Office: (For gentlemen) "Bright ties, most of the Italian styles in tailoring and footwear, are unsuitable. So are gaudy pullovers, badges and jewellery."

Extracts from Barbara Cartland's Etiquette Handbook: A Guide to Good Behaviour from the Boudoir to the Boardroom. (First published 1962, re-printed 2008).

Image courtesy of Retrogasm.