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December 16 2013

Four short links: 16 December 2013

  1. Suro (Github) — Netflix data pipeline service for large volumes of event data. (via Ben Lorica)
  2. NIPS Workshop on Data Driven Education — lots of research papers around machine learning, MOOC data, etc.
  3. Proofist — crowdsourced proofreading game.
  4. 3D-Printed Shoes (YouTube) — LeWeb talk from founder of the company, Continuum Fashion). (via Brady Forrest)

July 01 2013

Four short links: 1 July 2013

  1. Web Traffic VisualizationDots enter when transactions start and exit when completed. Their speed is proportional to client’s response time while their size reflects the server’s contribution to total time. Color comes from the specific request. (via Nelson Minar)
  2. Complete Guide to Being Interviewed on TV (Quartz) — good preparation for everyone who runs the risk of being quoted for 15 seconds.
  3. Harlan (GitHub) — new language for GPU programming. Simple examples in the announcement. (via Michael Bernstein)
  4. Open Fitopen source software that investigates several approaches to generating custom tailored pants patterns. Open Fit Lab is an attempt to use this software for on-the-spot generation and creation of custom clothes. (via Kaitlin Thaney)
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August 18 2012

David Bowie: the mannequin who fell to earth

The V&A plans to use David Bowie's exotic costumes to chart his life and times in an exhibition next year

David Bowie is to part-curate an exhibition of his life and work told primarily through his extravagant costumes at the Victoria and Albert museum next year.

The show will chart his rise to cult rock star status from his early years in Brixton, south London, using his collection of outfits to illustrate his constantly changing identity.

Details about the clothes are being kept under wraps until next month's official announcement of the show, but the V&A's director confirmed to the Observer that Bowie is involved in selecting exhibits. Many of the flamboyant outfits worn by Bowie in his years as a pioneer of rock style will come from his own collection.

The exhibition is expected to draw large numbers of visitors. However, some critics lament what they see as a further descent of a serious museum into the cult of celebrity.

Bowie's look was inseparable from his sound. The 65-year-old singer and actor, who merged rock and theatre with his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, is synonymous with futuristic costumes and outlandish makeup, from space-samurai outfits to white satin kimonos, flame-red hair to eye-liner.

He achieved wide popularity with his psychedelic rock single Space Oddity, coinciding with the first moon landing, and became an international star with albums such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His films include The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Speaking to the Observer, Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka said that Bowie was at the forefront of fashion, recreating his own image with the aid of cutting-edge designers.

Seeing the costumes close-up would be amazing, he said. "Although he's an artist who… doesn't tend to revisit his own past, there's a kind of contradiction in that he's collected his pieces for over two decades, lots of them historic and iconic, not just for Bowie fans but for popular fashion… He's always had a public presentation in mind." Costumes that Trynka expects to be included in the exhibition at the V&A include the "bunny leotard" created by Kansai Yamamoto, one of the avant-garde designers whose potential was spotted by Bowie.

"That was quite groundbreaking because Yamamoto wasn't known in the UK," Trynka said. "Although other pop stars had flirted with high fashion, [Bowie] was the first one to use it as an integral part of his look. He then went on to even more outrageous Yamamoto designs. There's a fantastic one with hugely-inflated legs … and I suspect that will be there … [It] is engagingly ludicrous. Nobody had that effrontery to wear those kinds of outfits before."

Among other likely highlights, he said, are homemade catsuits created by the late Freddi Buretti, a designer who described himself as a "seamstress".

Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said: "Bowie is incomparable. No one has inspired the whole world not only in terms of music but also arts, fashion and style. He created a vision of individualism for an entire generation."

Others are less impressed, particularly following the V&A's 2007 exhibition dedicated to Kylie Minogue, which included her dungarees from the Australian soap Neighbours. Critics felt that it was unworthy of a museum dedicated to showcasing the finest arts and crafts.

The Bowie show has been condemned by Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the museums watchdog: "The museum world is losing the plot. They're just crazed about numbers at any cost… Obviously you could fill the V&A every day of the week if you had a pop concert or a bunch of celebs."

Noting that the V&A also covers fashion, he added: "Fashion is a bigger thing… than the cult of one man. If Bowie, why not Liberace? It's about the cult of celebrity, particularly youth." Bowie, he added, did not fit the museum's remit for recording significant fashion.

The V&A is of course tapping into a demand, but whether a cultural museum should be meeting it is another matter. The Kylie Minogue exhibition attracted 271,000 visitors and was one of the museum's most popular shows.

Trynka, who wrote the Bowie biography Starman, said: "Bowie epitomises Britain's influence on fashion and textiles. He represents the best of it. Kylie is a wonderful pop icon, but she hasn't had a lasting effect on popular culture outside of her fanbase."

Today Bowie himself remains elusive. He has not toured since 2006, and turns down requests to appear in public – most recently, the Olympic Games closing ceremony, although his song Fashion was used.

There have been reports of ill-health. Roth said: "[People] try to build a story around him. There's a lot of gossip."

Bowie's spokesman declined to comment. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 17 2012

At the age of 37, you needn't start dressing like J*r*my Cl*rks*n | Charlie Porter

Men may lose interest in fashion in their late 30s, but a sense of personal style is another matter

Pity poor men. It has long been a curiosity why, after a certain age, men appear to lose interest in fashion. It is a conversation which turns menswear into a forum for mockery: those that have gone to seed are scorned for the inadequacies of their appearance, while those that still make an effort are goaded for vanity or self-importance. A recent survey has made this mockery specific: it has found that the age at which men lose an interest in fashion is 37. I am 38. Poor me.

Fashion is about identity. For many men, identity is something that matters most in their years of prolonged adolescence, from their teenage years into their 20s, even early 30s. It's especially true for men whose adolescence occurred pre-internet, before social media overtook fashion as a means to express character. In the late 20th century, clothing played a primal role in youthful identity, especially with the obstinacy of punk, the baggy of acid house or even the sharpness of mod that is still so important to 32-year-old Bradley Wiggins.

In their late 30s, the need for identity in men seems to wane, overridden by the individual male's growing responsibilities or life-changes: parenthood, employment or unemployment, changes in body-shape and health. The identity of adolescence goes. Fashion goes with it.

When fashion goes, what seems to remain for men are those unprintable words: "J*r*my" and "Cl*rks*n". Of course what no one realises in this is that Cl*rks*n uses his non-identity as an identity in itself. He makes great profit from dressing badly. It is his uniform for hammy belligerence. Cl*rks*n symbolises the male menopause as a return to adolescence. Sadly, it is an adolescence stripped of its need for style and difference. The Cl*rks*n look allows men to shift from identity to non-identity as they head towards the grave.

But this is not always the case. Most of my contemporaries not working in fashion still seem alert about their appearance. As the identity of adolescence has waned for me, what has become important is how I appear to myself. I do not mean by this self-image. As I'm typing this, I can see in my lower field of vision the white shirt I'm wearing with its blue and orange polka dots. I love it being part of my visual experience. I don't care if I look daft. As long as I like it, I'm happy.

There are obvious male celebrities over the age of 37 who could be listed now as examples of middle-aged male style, but these are red herrings, usually actors involved in profiting from image to further their career. Celebrity fashion is something separate from real-life fashion, and citing male celebrities as examples of how to dress is a futile, empty exercise.

Much more interesting to cite examples of men who retain personal style for whatever reason of their own:

Chris Dercon, the new director of Tate Modern, is an extraordinarily dapper man, now in his 50s. He has a particular way with wearing jackets and coats with an upturned collar.

Seventy-five-year-old David Hockney has long dressed his body in the colour that is placed on his canvases, or more recently selected on his iPad.

The 40-year-old Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant came to his profession from his love of clothing and his continuing interest in how garments are made. And it is clear from the severity of 53-year-old Steven Patrick Morrissey's obsessions that he would have dressed in his chosen manner even if he'd not become globally known by his surname.

Examples of such personal style go deep into the past. The recent male fondness for Breton striped sweaters always makes me think of Pablo Picasso. The multidiscipline of Jean Cocteau extended to the drama of his clothing. And examples of male style beyond the age of 37 will only increase in the future. Today's post-internet male adolescents take looking good for granted, their appearance ever Instagram-ready. Cl*rks*n already feels antiquated. When post-internet adolescents reach maturity, he will have been an aberration. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 11 2012

It bag creator Katie Hillier turns her talents to jewellery

Katie Hillier, the designer behind one of the most desirable fashion items of our time, the It bag, is now focusing on jewellery

Katie Hillier is the most important designer you've never heard of. When bags became big business in the 2000s, she created many of the accessories that made the big brands millions. She's one of the people who, with the beading and bobbles she stuck on her bags for Luella in the 2000s, is often credited with creating the It bag, the iconic fashion statement of our time, a highly decorated object of desire that changed seasonally, cost a month's salary, and often weighed an absolute tonne.

Today, sitting in the sun-drenched yard of her east London studio, Hillier remembers those years with a dry fondness. "I had this denim Fendi Baguette I'd covered with badges and key rings," she says, ponytail bobbing. "At the same time, Giles Deacon at Bottega Veneta was reinventing what you could do with luxury fashion – taking this pure thing and fucking it up in beautiful ways. Until then, accessories had no… personality."

That's what Hillier did best: personality. She gave names to bags then, adding 'hardware' (chains and buckles); she made them clink. You could hear them coming. "Hardware was a way to add value. Then the price of gold rose and it began to disappear. When Phoebe Philo started at Céline [in 2008] she brought in a cleanness to design."

The It bags Hillier now creates for Marc by Marc Jacobs, Victoria Beckham and Loewe have evolved. "Hardware now seems gratuitous. We think more about the leather. If you're killing an animal, you ought to acknowledge the skin."

She grew up in south London with her grandmother, a cleaner for the BBC, who she followed round the costume department, and her grandfather, who'd take her to a museum every day of the holidays. "Which is where my love of collections comes from. I'd curate my bedroom: the displays on my rocking horse, my Madonna wall. I still collect stuff – shoes, brooches, things with rabbits on, bags…"

In a tall room near her office, Muji storage boxes line the walls. They contain a fraction of her collections. Fifties box bags, Chanel purses, vintage leather cracking at the spine. This room, and her mood boards, with photos and notes like "too normal" on handle details, help put her work into context. "It's not about me," she says of her work. "There's more to success than ego." What is it about her, then, that led Victoria Beckham to her door? She ponders. "She thinks I'm nice."

In 2010, after being named Accessory Designer of the Year, Hillier launched her own label, a collection of fine jewellery she calls "luxury with a wink": little diamond-eyed rabbit doodles that look like they've been bent from 18ct-gold paper clips and nestle on the sternums of Britain's most fashionable ladies, including editor-in-chief of Love Katie Grand. "I've known her forever," says Grand. "She was one of my students at Harrow. I got into trouble for giving her 100% for her degree project. "

Hillier's new collection includes glow-in-the-dark ceramics, and those rabbits again, this time joined by a menagerie of other animals. "Our customers are people who love fashion, but are a bit ironic with it," she explains. "A bit girly, a bit quirky, a bit arty, a bit clever." A bit like her.

"I'd like the paper-clip rabbit to become iconic, but not as ubiquitous as, say, the Tiffany heart. It has to stay a bit secret."

Why? "So cool girls carry on wearing it."

As the person behind the trend, how does she feel about the It bags? The way they Towie-fied, and climbed in price? Can you ever justify a £28,000 handbag? "It's all relative," she sighs. "There will always be a customer who wants to buy one. And sometimes it's grotesque. But I understand if a skin is treated with respect. The term 'luxury' has changed. Now it's often just used to validate a price point."

Does she still love the clinking bags of her early career? "Yeah, you have to," she laughs. "You have to love everything you make. I love it all." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 06 2012

John Travolta's white suit to star in V&A exhibition

Saturday Night Fever's 'shining light' in 1970s polyester tracked down for museum's Hollywood Costume show

The most famous white suit in the world, a classic example of the finest 1970s polyester tailoring, has been tracked down by the Victoria and Albert Museum after an international search.

The three-piece suit was as much a star of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever as John Travolta who played Tony Manero, or the Bee Gees, who provided the soundtrack for the story of a young man who disco-dances his way out of the ghetto.

Bought off the peg in a cheap men's clothes store in Brooklyn, the suit was last seen in public 17 years ago, when it was sold at a Christie's auction to an anonymous bidder for $145,000 (£93,000), three times the top estimate. The curators of this autumn/winter's exhibition on Hollywood costume were determined to find it and put out an international appeal – and to their surprise it has turned up in London, in immaculate condition, and the owner has agreed to lend it to the museum.

The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous but has let slip his age, is not a collector.

He said: "I was nine years old when Saturday Night Fever came out and before seeing the film I had already fallen in love with the legendary soundtrack.

"The ritual of [Travolta's character] choosing his clothes to go out at night, in a world of his own and disconnected from the reality of his life, particularly resonated with me. It was the first film I really loved,

and in essence it was part of my own rite of passage … When I saw the suit on sale, I wanted to buy it because of what it represented to me personally."

Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a designer and historian of film costume – her own credits include Michael Jackson's Thriller video and Raiders of the Lost Ark – is senior curator of the exhibition. She said: "Saturday Night Fever was actually a very dark little movie, and this suit, made of completely gross polyester, was the shining light, the symbol of aspiration and hope that shone in the film in that heart-stopping moment when it all comes together, the music, the lights, the suit, and Travolta dances in it.

"It took me totally by surprise. I fell completely in love with him, as everyone who sees the movie does."

The broad lapels, tight waistcoat and high-waisted flared trousers – a 71cm (28in) waist which Travolta could never get into these days – have been endlessly imitated. But there is no doubt that this is the genuine article. The curators have already been to inspect it, and found conclusive proof in the actor's handwriting.

It was first auctioned in 1978 for charity, when the American critic Gene Siskel, who listed Saturday Night Fever as one of his favourite films of all time, paid $2,000. The actor signed it and the inscription is still faintly visible in the lining: "So here's to a classic, your friend, John Travolta."

Originally the character of Tony Manero was to strut in a black suit, but white was the inspired choice of the film's costume designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein. "Heroes from Sir Lancelot to Tom Mix wore white in the great contests to express purity and single-minded devotion to the task at hand. So for me, white was the only choice for the suit."

She went shopping in Brooklyn where the character lived, with the director John Badham, and Travolta – who was then starring in a hit television series, Welcome Back, Kotter. As word spread that he was in the neighbourhood, screaming mobs descended on the small clothes shop where he was trying on the suit, beating on the windows and pleading with him to come out.

Nadoolman Landis said buying it off the peg was a piece of genius: "Even in a low-budget movie like Saturday Night Fever, they could have found the money to make Tony a suit – but the fact that it was bought from an ordinary shop that anyone could go into gave it a great truth, exactly the sort of garment somebody from his background would see and long to own."

Brandenstein actually bought several suits, two to dance in, and two that had to be turned up at the hem for Travolta's much shorter stunt double. The other suit worn by Travolta was stolen from an exhibition in the US, so Nadoolman Landis had almost abandoned hope of including the item in the V&A show, which includes costumes worn by characters including Pirates of the Caribbean's Jack Sparrow, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's and Darth Vader.

"The costumes in this exhibition are so powerful that each has its own soundtrack which the visitor will hear in their heads – but even in this company the white suit is special," she said. "It is the Turin shroud, the closest an ordinary mortal can come to the body of the actor."

• Hollywood Costume, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 2012 to January 2013 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 02 2012

Somerset House to show Valentino collection that took 50 years to make

Valentino: Master of Couture to feature over 130 of the Italian designer's gowns, as worn by Grace Kelly and Julia Roberts

A 60-metre catwalk will be installed in Somerset House in London this autumn as part of a retrospective spanning 50 years of the work of the fashion designer Valentino Garavani.

Valentino: Master of Couture is set to feature over 130 hand-crafted gowns, worn by the likes of Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. They will include the wedding dress Jackie Kennedy wore to marry Aristotle Onassis in 1968 alongside Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece's pearl-encrusted ivory silk wedding gown from 1995.

The outfits, painstakingly made by the finest dressmakers and fashion specialists, have never been showcased in the UK before.

Alongside red-carpet looks, such as Julia Roberts's 2001 black Oscar dress, catwalk pieces and one-off commissions, the show will also feature photography and mementoes from the designer's personal archive. Clothes will be themed in groups according to style, from volume to a section celebrating the designer's trademark red. Films showing the designer at work in the atelier will also be screened.

Somerset House, the main site for London fashion week since 2009, has previously staged innovative exhibitions celebrating the likes of avant garde label Maison Martin Margiela and style magazine Dazed & Confused. The director of Somerset House, Gywn Miles, said: "We are delighted to welcome Valentino and show off his beautiful designs in such a spectacular way."

Garavani has not designed for the fashion house since his retirement in 2007. His career has previously been celebrated with an exhibition in Rome and a documentary film, Valentino: The Last Emperor.

Last month, the Valentino brand was bought by Mayhoola, an investment group thought to be backed by the Qatari royal family.

Designed since 2008 by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who previously worked alongside Garavani, the label has successfully staged a revival. The duo's collections have received critical acclaim while appealing to a new generation of the young and fashionable, including Alexa Chung and Carey Mulligan.

• Valentino: Master of Couture, is at Somerset House, London from 29 November to 3 March © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 31 2012

Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode (Models, the Body of Fashion) - review

Exhibition examining the history of fashion photography is being shown at Espace Van Gogh as part of Rencontres d'Arles festival

A good exhibition often starts with a smart idea. Something surprising, such as telling the story of how fashion photography has evolved, taking as the starting point neither garments, designers, nor even photographers, but models, looking at their style, personality, body shape, aura and status. Models, the Body of Fashion (part of this year's Rencontres d'Arles festival), does just that with 120 photographs, 10 films and 40 magazines.

My intuitive impression, before seeing the show, was that in the early 20th century the predominant concept was a submissive, anonymous female model, shapely but clothed from head to toe, paid a pittance, and about as charismatic as a coat-hanger. Now, in the glossy pages of magazines we are presented with forceful women, with pencil-like bodies, sometimes surgically enhanced, who undress without a fuss, act provocatively, are as highly paid as stars, and just as important as the clothes they wear.

There is some truth in this, but it is mainly mistaken, according to Sylvie Lécallier, an expert on fashion photography at the Galliera Museum in Paris, who put the show together. She maintains that the difference between the two centuries is not that great, apart from the nudity, which started in the 1960s and has been gaining ground ever since.

Pictures from the late 19th century show apparently wooden models, wearing dresses over black jerkins. The pictures mainly served as a basis for drawings in fashion journals. Typically we see designer Paul Poiret landing in Copenhagen with five women wearing the same striped overcoat, surely a complete negation of personality. As for the women, their trade did not command much respect.

But in 1947 photographer Irving Penn asked the year's most sought-after figures to pose for him. In Henry Clarke's 1955 picture of Dorian Leigh, wearing a dress by Jacques Heim, we see not a model but a defiant women. The shift to stardom culminated in the December 1991 issue of Vogue Hommes, featuring the world's five top female models.

Lécallier illustrates this narrative, in which models have progressed from worker to star-status, but also delights in picking holes in it, citing three examples. In 1900, "singers, actresses, society women and celebrities [...] posed, wearing garments by brands such as Poiret or Lanvin to promote them", she says. Among the professional models there were many Russian aristocrats, exiled in Paris, who were "much in demand and well paid".

The second example is more recent. In 1999 the German fashion photographer Jürgen Teller photographed dozens of young women who, in the course of the year, visited his studio in the hope of catching his attention and gaining a toe-hold in the trade. Here the star was the photographer, not the models, though they did feature in the book Go-Sees.

The exhibition looks at changes in body shape. Early in the 20th century designer Jean Patou started hiring US models. "They were younger than before, tall and slender, with standard measurements [...] People started looking at the model as much as the garment. A trend was set," Lécallier says.

Here again there are again contrary examples, particularly from the 1990s. The Face, a British magazine, once published a dozen black and white photographs of a 15-year-old woman at the beach. It was a fashion feature, but seemed to show a weekend with friends. The model was Kate Moss, she was 1.7 metres tall, her body was far from perfect and she did not pose like most models. She was approachable, laughing loud and showing her feelings. "It's more a portrait than a fashion piece," says Lécallier. Many art photographers subsequently adopted the style.

Mannequin, Le Corps de la Mode, is at Espace Van Gogh, Arles, France, until 23 September

This story originally appeared in Le Monde © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 30 2012

London 2012: Nelson's Column gets an Olympic makeover - video

Admiral Lord Nelson gets a colourful Union Flag hat complete with an Olympic torch to mark London 2012

Hats on: London statues get makeover

Hatwalk has millinery stars including Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones design headgear for famous sculptures around the capital

It was in the dead of night that 21 hats were placed on some of London's best known statues in, organisers cheerfully agree, one of the more wacky arts events to take place this summer.

By Monday morning, two were missing: the baseball hat from Shakespeare in Leicester Square was thought stolen while Beau Brummell in Jermyn Street had his multicoloured turban removed by Westminster city council cleaners.

The setbacks hardly dimmed the enthusiasm for an event described by the deputy mayor for education and culture, Munira Mirza, as one of many "bonkers, mad, wacky" things happening in London as part of a project called Surprises.

The surprise in this case was seeing a fetching Philip Treacy number on Sir Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square, a Spam-themed hat on Franklin D Roosevelt in New Bond Street, and a giant orange fedora on Francis, Duke of Bedford, in Russell Square.

Curated by millinery superstars Treacy and Stephen Jones, a total of 21 emerging and established designers took part. A "hatwalk" trail has been created from the Duke of Wellington near Hyde Park in the west of the city, to the Duke of Wellington outside the Bank of England in the Square Mile.

Some might say it is disrespectful to put on General Sir Charles Napier a hat which would not look out of place during Ladies' Day at Ascot. "Yes, that is something we were absolutely conscious of and one has to be very careful," said Jones. But he said the Olympic opening ceremony, with the parachuting Queen, had shown this country's talent for both showing respect and not taking things too seriously.

Jones admitted his first reaction on hearing of the project was: "Oh Lordy!" He added: "But then I thought what a fantastic idea. It is a bit like the arrogance of youth – what you don't know can't kill you."

Organisers had to get a myriad of permissions to stage the event. "In retrospect, we had no idea of the complexity and the problems we were going to face," said Jones, who created a Brighton Pavilion-themed hat for George IV.

It is not yet known what will happen to Shakespeare in Leicester Square, whose baseball hat, designed by Paul Bernstock and Thelma Speirs, was stolen in the early hours of the morning.

Would-be thieves will have more of a job trying to get the most out-of-reach hat in the project, the union flag and Olympic torch-inspired bicorn on Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square. It has been created by the company which made his original hat, Lock & Co. Chairman Nigel Lock Macdonald said: "Locks are very proud of their history and making another hat for Nelson over 200 years after we made the original has been an unexpected honour."

The hats will – hopefully – stay in place for four days before being auctioned off for charity. The Hatwalk event was commissioned by the Mayor of London and is part of the London 2012 festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 26 2012

Tattoos: the hidden meanings

Teardrops, swallows, cats and dreamcatchers … what do they all mean? Here's our guide to tattoo terminology

Tattoos talk. Rather than meaning something literal and universal, the art on our bodies is often personal and complicated. A magnificent panorama of an underwater world is unlikely to simply declare the bearer's love of trout. However, some designs still shout a very particular meaning – to jaundiced eyes, at least.

1 Teardrop

True to stereotype, the teardrop appeared in the dock this week. During the trial of Kiaran Stapleton, accused of murdering Indian student Anuj Bidve in Manchester, the prosecution alleged that tattoo parlour staff remembered Stapleton's visit two days after the murder because they reminded the 21-year-old that a teardrop below the eye could mean the wearer had killed someone. Teardrops can be associated with death and prison. In gangland, an unfilled teardrop may signify the death of a friend, with the person shading it in when they have avenged their loss. Teardrops may also mean mourning – Amy Winehouse's teardrop was said to symbolise her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil's stint in prison.

2 Anchor

By the late 1800s, 90% of those serving in the British navy were tattooed and sailing iconography is still influential – particularly with the trend for retro "romantic" tattoos. "Tattoos display an individual's membership to a particular group in society," writes sociologist Tony Lawrence. Practically, tattoos could help identify drowned sailors. Their meanings, however, depend on the era and even the specific ship. An anchor could mean crossing the equator, the soul of a dead sailor or symbolise hope – we may no longer take perilous journeys on high seas but still seek to "anchor" our self. According to Dr Matt Lodder, art historian at Reading University, rather than having a particular meaning, the anchor has also become an icon of tattooing – like the broken heart and the swallow.

3 Swallow

Swallows never fly far into the ocean and so their sighting was a sign that land was near – a symbol of hope and achievement for sailors. Endless variations followed: two swallows indicated a journey of 10,000 nautical miles while a swallow with a dagger through its heart was a memorial for a friend lost at sea. A bird on a hand or neck can also say "jailbird". A friend with swallows flying across his arm lives a respectable life and yet is still routinely asked whether he has "done bird".

4 Dolphin

Before the explosion of 21st-century inking, tattoos were "mainly associated with those belonging to a lower social class – criminals, sailors, whores, soldiers, adventurers, perverts and the like – and at the other end of the scale with the eccentrics of high society, the rich and aristocratic," wrote Schiffmacher and Riemschneider in 1000 Tattoos. Hence our fascination with Samantha Cameron's tat. Dolphins may mean prosperity but also represent duality – a creature of the water, and a breather of air. They suggest we are in two worlds at once – perfectly encapsulating Sam Cam's commute between 10 Downing Street and her pad in the Cotswolds.

5 Cat

Danzig Baldayev, a St Petersburg prison guard, spent three decades documenting the body art of inmates. His life's work, the three-volume Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, is captivating. We learn that cats can symbolise a thief's pedigree. A single cat says they acted alone; several cats together indicate a gang.

6 Hidden codes

Canada's Border Services Agency has a guide to tattoos that provides amusing evidence of how the authorities may stereotype tattooed gentlemen. AFFA ("Angel Forever, Forever Angel") on the knuckles screams Hell's Angel. A noose is favoured by KKK fans. VL stands for "vida loca" – my crazy life. Then again, never assume the worst: one man claimed "hate" on his knuckles stood for happiness all through eternity.

7 Clown face

According to the Canadian authorities, clown faces can mean "Laugh now, cry later" and "play now, pay later", which probably sums up the poor gang members' emotions when caught in customs with an enormous bag of drugs and guns.

8 Spider's web

When placed on elbows or shoulders, the spider's web traditionally denoted being caught in prison. Other prison motifs include clock faces without hands, tombstones with numbers and a prison wall with bricks falling outward. What on earth could that mean?

9 Butterfly

Psyche is Greek for both butterfly and soul, and butterflies are symbols of the soul in many cultures. Through the wonder of metamorphosis, a wriggling worm becomes a winged angel and so butterflies most often denote transformation or change. A butterfly tat need not be girly: a friend knows a tough boxer who sports a tattoo of one of Britain's daintiest butterflies – the small copper.

10 Dreamcatcher

One of Miley Cyrus's 14-odd tattoos, the dreamcatcher, is also sported by Zac Efron. According to Native American mythology, this is a protective covering for infants that stops the bad (in this case: paparazzi, scandal, stalkers) while letting the good (cash, fame, screaming fans) pass through. Urgh.

So what are my chances of being mugged if I meet a man with a teardrop falling from the eye of a cat caught in a dreamcatcher? I can't be sure. "A common mistake made about tattooing is that there is a simple link between a symbol and a message," says Lodder, who points out that there is a third person in the relationship between tattoo and its bearer: the tattooist. Just like a work of art in a gallery, a tattoo may say more about its creator than the person who displays it. And the meaning of a tattoo may only be created after its bearer keeps being asked, what does it mean? "Sometimes you just want a cool tattoo," says Lodder. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Britain Creates: when fashion and art collide

Getting fashion designers and artists to work together on a concept project might seem too abstract to succeed. But Britain Creates actually works

Let's be honest: art-fashion concept projects can be a little hard to get a handle on. I'm used to talking about beautiful dresses, new hot colours. Bikinis such as those Kate Moss wears; shoes that will give you Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's legs. Stuff that, frankly, we can all get the point of. The collaborative-artistic project stuff can seem, to someone as shallow and impatient as me, a little abstract and dry by comparison.

But you know what? It's fascinating what happens when you matchmake some of Britain's best fashion designers with artists. Britain Creates, conceived by the British Fashion Council as an opportunity to commemorate the London Olympics and to celebrate the breadth of British creative talent, does just that. It pairs fashion designers with visual artists to produce one-off collaborative works of art. The first thing that strikes me, looking at the nine artworks that have emerged, is that although this is fashion's pet project – backed by the BFC, in partnership with Harpers Bazaar magazine and with Selfridges, which is hosting a charity auction of two of the pieces – only one is a piece of clothing. Giles Deacon and Jeremy Deller have created a cloak that looks like a coat of arms come to life, which they have dubbed "an Arts and Crafts suit of armour for an athlete".

Seven of the pieces come within the category of visual artworks. Hussein Chalayan, who collaborated with Gavin Turk, felt that people expected "a dress with one of Gavin's images on it". Both keen to move beyond their comfort zones, they made The Four Minute Mile, a four-minute recording of Turk talking about art and Chalayan humming in accompaniment, set to a rhythmical soundtrack of running feet.

Putting designers and artists to work together poses the question of whether fashion is art. These pieces will be displayed first in the Victoria & Albert Museum; in August, they will move to Selfridges where they will be centrepieces of the Olympic window displays.

The first time Jonathan Saunders met up with artist Jess Flood-Paddock, they talked a lot about the differences between their worlds. "Fashion is a business," says Saunders. "I am in the service industry. My job is about meeting consumers' needs, which is totally different from fine art, which is about personal expression. We talked about consumerism, and Andy Warhol, and screen printing and the mass production of art." They found the similarities in what they do – "we are both process-driven" – and came up with an installation of 200 screen-printed plastic sheets hung on a rail. The effect is a little like walking into a high-end boutique where fine art swings from the hangers.

I spoke to Susanna Greeves, the curator of the exhibition, as she was overseeing the installation, and asked if she saw visual themes emerging. "If you look at it as an exhibition, there is a lot of radiance and luminosity and jewel-like colours," she say. "And you can also see an emphasis on craft, on the presence of a human hand in the making of these works. It makes me wonder if the artists are subliminally responding to the idea of the V&A as a setting."

The explicit theme is the Olympian spirit, in its broad sense. "The original Olympic values of strength, power, honesty – the inspiring stuff – were very much part of the brief," says Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, "but we also wanted it to be completely open-ended." Paul Smith and Charming Baker's installation of a tiny mouse holding up a bicycle, and Mary Katrantzou and Mark Titchner's digital video installation with the words "Courage, Ambition, Passion, Strength" show Olympic spirit, but both add a wink in the title. The mouse-and-bicycle is dubbed Triumph in the Face of Absurdity ("It's about the British way of rooting for the underdog," says Baker) while the Katrantzou/Titchner piece borrows a line from Emily Dickinson: "Tint the Pallid Landscape (Off to the wars in Lace)".

Matthew Williamson partnered Mat Colishaw, whose images of butterflies he had long admired, "but I hadn't realised that they were actually real, burned butterflies, in those pictures. And me being a kind of happy, upbeat person, when Mat told me that, I thought it was quite sad, even though I am drawn to his aesthetic, that distortion of nature. I wanted to take his butterflies and bring them back to life. So Mat gave me the canvas and I embellished it with tiny beads strung on the end of miniature drinking straws. Now you can still see the decay and the macabre element if you look closely, but you see the beauty first."

In an Olympic year, you can't keep positivity out of fashion. "If I could buy one piece, I'd buy the Celestial Bonnet, the five rings light installation by Stephen Jones and Cerith Wyn Evans," says Caroline Rush. "It's such a happy piece: a halo moment, a crowning glory. And it's just so, so beautiful."

Britain Creates 2012: Fashion + Art Collusion, a collaboration between the British Fashion Council and the V&A, 6-29 July (free). © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 19 2012

The style stars of summer – in pictures

From footballers to film stars and fictional detectives, we unveil this season's key fashion leaders. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

June 13 2012

Salvatore Ferragamo Louvre show pushes case for fashion as high art

Florentine brand's sponsorship of Leonardo da Vinci exhibition is opportunity to showcase designs alongside masterpieces

Is fashion art? The debate has raged for decades. Now, the Italian house of Salvatore Ferragamo has staged perhaps the most audacious – and expensive – bid to authenticate clothes as high culture by staging the first ever catwalk show in the Louvre.

As exclusive sponsors of the exhibition La Sainte Anne: Leonardo da Vinci's ultimate masterpiece, the brand was granted permission to showcase their own Italian works of art in this high temple of fine art at the very heart of Paris.

The latest Salvatore Ferragamo collection, including finely sculpted snakeskin boots and intricately crafted crochet dresses, was unveiled under the pale stone colonnade adjacent to the Louvre's glass pyramid. Context, as Margaret Atwood wrote, is all.

The cost to the Ferragamo company of sponsoring the exhibition is not disclosed, but to the brand the association is priceless. Ferragamo was founded in Florence, home of Leonardo, and has sponsored several restoration projects in the city. The Louvre exhibition provides a platform to tell the story of Ferragamo's Tuscan heritage to an audience outside Italy.

Designer Massimiliano Giornetti described the exhibition as "a chance to express a lot about the links between Ferragamo, Italy and the artistic and artisan traditions of Tuscany."

At 140 metres long, the catwalk is one of the longest built for a Paris show. "We want to prove that our shoes can walk a long way," said Michele Norsa, Ferragamo's CEO.

He was keen to note that the Italian brand had "come to Paris in a spirit of respect". Giornetti designed the collection in shades of pale stone inspired by the building within which they would be showcased "because I wanted the palette to be in harmony with the Louvre and with Paris".

The collection made concessions to a Parisian aesthetic, with slouchy leather trousers and flat boots mixed in with more typically Italian mini dresses. Not surprisingly for a brand whose heritage lies in footwear, shoes – from gladiator sandals to thigh-high boots – were the highlight of the show.

Ferruccio Ferragamo, chairman of the group, released a statement underscoring the links between the brand founded by his father Salvatore in 1927 and the work of Leonardo. "Endless creativity, an innovative aesthetic, artisanal roots and groundbreaking research have always characterised the Italian genius, as embodied by Leonardo da Vinci, that we have always appreciated," he said.

Giornetti highlighted another link with Leonardo the anatomist, telling editors before the show that "Salvatore Ferragamo studied the anatomy of the feet, and was fascinated by the function of the shoe as well as the appearance."

The catwalk audience, which included the Hollywood actor Hilary Swank and Fan Bing Bing, from China, were given a private tour of the exhibition shortly before taking their seats.

The Ferragamo event is significant as an indicator of where the future of fashion branding may lie, because the company has form as one of the savviest and most forward-thinking in the industry.

Ferragamo was one of the first major European brands to recognise the potential of the Asian market, and their early investment paid off handsomely. The company ended the last financial year reporting a 69.8% increase in net profit, with Asia-Pacific confirmed as the label's main market, accounting for 36.3% of revenues. In 2011, 10 new stores were opened in China, bringing the total to 60. Boutiques opened in other emerging markets including Peru and Colombia, and e-commerce was expanded into new territories including Mexico and the Ukraine.

One interesting strand of the Ferragamo sponsorship is how the brand have used the focus on a great individual genius, Leonardo, as an opportunity to lift the profile of their own designer Massimiliano Giornetti, within the lore of their own label. Giornetti, who has worked for Ferragamo for twelve years and been creative director for two, was placed in the spotlight at the Paris event, giving talks to editors about his inspiration. This was in marked contrast to previous Ferragamo occasions, where the emphasis has been on the family history of the company. It suggests that, at a moment when a sequence of new designers taking up high profile jobs at Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, Ferragamo wish to boost their artistic cachet by increasing the visibility of their own creative director. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 21 2012

The toon turns out for Tyne's big fashion bash

Sales and footfall success of last year's debut event has promoted a nine-day extravaganza in Newcastle and Gateshead this time round

Something is stirring in Newcastle city centre. Northumberland Street has been transformed into a city-sized runway for the style savvy and the fashion police are patrolling - cameras poised for those dressed to kill.

Yes, we're coming up to Newcastle Fashion Week organised by NE1 and the hunt is on for the city's sleekest citizens via a 'Newcastle's Most Stylish' street-style competition. Hot on the heels of last year's success, the Geordie take on London and Paris is back with a whey aye – and it's set to be bigger and better than before. The fashion 'week' actually stretches over nine days from this Saturday 26 May and promises 'focused fashion fun with one major milestone event on each day'.

With practically the whole city involved, there's something for everyone – from 'Fashion Freaks and Film Geeks' night at the Tyneside Cinema to an eBay workshop at the city library and a lecture by veteran editor Elizabeth Walker at Newcastle University - fashionista or not, you won't be left out.

This year, the event will focus on more live action fashion with at least one catwalk show each day. Highlights include 'Frock and Roll' at Northumbria University, combining four top high street brands with four fantastic live music acts, a Tudor fashion show in the city library with costume designer Julia Soares McCormick, a charity shop chic show in St. Nicholas' Cathedral and 'Fashion's Day Out' in Eldon Square – an afternoon packed with catwalk shows and demonstrations.

Organiser Sandra Tang says:

We've tried to create the buzz of a major Fashion Week by staging a fast-paced timetable of catwalk shows at stores across Eldon Square. The idea is for people to hot foot it around the centre to catch the catwalk action throughout the day.

Newcastle's emerging talent will also be showcasing work, with Northumbria University's fashion design graduates presenting end-of-year collections at the Baltic, scene of last year's Turner Prize, and Newcastle College students showing off their designs at Grey's Monument.

For vintage-lovers and bargain hunters there's a 'Summer Swish' and a 'Make and Mend Market' fashion special in the Grainger Market – full of homemade retro treasures. There will also be a suit amnesty throughout the week where unwanted suits, belts, ties, shoes and general workwear can be donated to help homeless job seekers.

The week draws to a close with Gosforth-born former Burberry model Donna Air presenting the award for 'Newcastle's most stylish' to the coolest people spotted by the week's roving photographers. Fashion TV hosts the closing party at Tup Tup Palace.

Sandra describes Newcastle-Gateshead style as "eclectic" and says:

The fashion vibe belies the place's size – it may not be the largest city but it's got a wide range of street styles, well-serviced by an array of different retailers. There are designer names such as Vivienne Westwood and the brands stocked in Cruise and Fenwick through to vintage lovers and indie chic who are well catered-for by thriving independent boutiques and vintage stores across the city.

The high street is also well-represented and can provide fashion fodder for a wide range of street styles. It all helps to fuel a vibrant and very diverse fashion scene in the city.

Last year's debut fashion week was a major success, with an average footfall increase of 24% and average sales increase of 39% for companies involved. This year, NE1 have set the bar even higher with exclusive t-shirts designed by South Shields-based fashion house Barbour and necklaces from Lovebullets jewellery which caters to celebrities such as another local lass, Cheryl Cole.

In the midst of the economic downturn, the retail sector needs all the help it can get and Newcastle Fashion Week also helps to raise awareness of all the creativity on our doorstep. With many events free of charge or very reasonable, there's no excuse not to get involved and support our region's business community. Al info is here and on Facebook here and Twitter here. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 19 2012

British Glamour Since 1950

V&A, London

The V&A's new show, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, an exhibition that also marks the reopening of its much-loved fashion galleries, is not for everyone. On my way in, I heard a man all but beg his wife not to drag him round it ("I thought this was a cultural expedition, not another bloody shopping trip!" he might have told her, had he not been practically mute with despair). Once inside, I couldn't help but notice that there was not a male of the species anywhere to be seen.

But if you like a properly made frock and hanker, even just a little, for the days when a big night out meant long, silk gloves and a Dubonnet rather than T-shirts and cheap vodka, it will have you swooning with delight. Yes, you will feel unpleasantly covetous. Yes, you will wonder if you shouldn't, after all, lose a stone, or six. But these things will pass. Fifteen minutes in and your absorption in the way Norman Hartnell used corsetry or Zandra Rhodes quilting will be total. The world will shrink to the dimensions of a bodice or a buttonhole, a collar or a cuff.

Gallery 40 was originally a spectacular domed court, with architectural columns and ornate mosaic floors. The V&A's refurbishment has uncovered the mosaics and a grand staircase now sweeps the visitor up to a mezzanine gallery beneath the dome. The result is elegant and spacious; the mezzanine, circular and lofty, brings a couturier's showroom instantly to mind. But the gallery's lighting still feels excessively muted to me. Downstairs, I struggled to read the labels and if a dress is placed anywhere other than right at the front of a display case, it's impossible to see the craftsmanship involved.

Strange, too, that while dresses and suits from the permanent collection are shown alongside handbags and jewellery, hats and shoes, the ballgowns, temporarily visiting, have only outsize cardboard cutouts of accessories for company (though they're labelled as if they were real, bizarrely). Were the curators worried a brooch or stole would steal the gowns' thunder? Or is this a nod in the direction of the new austerity?

The finest of the dresses – the most beautiful and the best made – are also the oldest. I had a moment of pure buyer's lust (so bad my fingers tingled) in front of a citrine evening coat with voluminous fur cuffs by Norman Hartnell, from 1965. Hartnell, who designed both the Queen's wedding dress and her coronation gown, is thought of now as rather fusty, a lickspittle rather than an innovator. But at his best, his designs had an authentic drama: no wonder Edith Evans was a customer.

And perhaps Hartnell, the son of a Streatham publican, knew precisely what he was doing when it came to establishment commissions. A state evening dress designed for the Queen Mother in 1953 – a crinoline that recalls similar gowns in the paintings of Franz Winterhalter, it has a V-shaped neckline, floaty cap sleeves and a motif of tiny flowers – tells you a great deal about the woman who wore it. At once grand and girlish, it speaks both of entitlement and self-delusion; for a pretty dress, it's magnificently repulsive.

Hartnell isn't the only star in the downstairs gallery. Bellville Sassoon, the debs' favourite house, features strongly: there is a beautiful dress made for Princess Anne in 1968, comprising a buttercup skirt and an extravagant embroidered bodice in shades of brown and orange (a famous recycler of clothes, I do wonder why HRH got rid of this one); and a truly adorable gown of pale pink Swiss organza from the designers' Infanta collection, its pattern of tear-drop shaped embroidery and crystal drop beads offset by its superbly neat lines.

Sybil Connolly's 1966 leaf-green pleated skirt, embroidered white blouse and pink belt is a cool reinvention of the evening dress: daringly, it is made of cambric and linen. Connolly, who was Irish, isn't much remembered now, but Jackie Kennedy was among her clients. Sadly, though, this isn't a detail you'll find anywhere in the gallery. Background information is, it must be said, infuriatingly thin on the ground and the pathetic catalogue, which longs mostly to be Vogue, no help at all. Sweeping past Catherine Walker's "Elvis" dress for Diana, Princess of Wales – a novelty number I've always hated – and the hideous 80s creations of Victor Edelstein ("Let's just stick a giant bow... right here!"), we go upstairs to the contemporary gowns, to dresses worn on red carpets rather than in stately halls, and it's strangely anticlimactic.

For one thing, most of these have been lent by their designers; they were borrowed by the actresses and models who first wore them, rather than bought and loved and kept carefully in tissue and mothballs for a lucky daughter or niece. This makes them, in my eyes, so much less interesting. Their value is mostly monetary. They lack emotional history. Aesthetics have all too often been replaced by the need to draw a cheap kind of attention (though Giles Deacon's tumbling black silk dress from 2007 – it was inspired, he says, by a visit to a car wash – is a deft tribute to Fortuny by way of Issey Miyake).

For another – and this is much worse – they seem not truly to be of service to the bodies that inhabit them, however briefly. The curators note that Roland Mouret has spoken "eloquently" of the pressures of the red carpet, of the fact that a dress must withstand the pressure of flashbulbs from 360 degrees. And it's true that here in the gallery, on a mannequin, his peach asymmetric silk dress from 2010 is perfect from every angle, a feat of precision engineering. Only then you look at the photograph of Maggie Gyllenhaal in the same dress at the Golden Globes and it suits her not a bit. Would it suit anyone? I doubt it. The finest dresses are forgiving. Their artiface encompasses great kindness. But this one is unmerciful; it disdains every inconvenient body part. It seems – what a sign of the times! – hardly to have been designed for a woman at all. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 18 2012

Belle of the ballgowns: a guide to the V&A exhibition

From a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953 to the silver satin worn by Beyoncé to Obama's inauguration party – the meanings behind the frocks in the new V&A show

In the spring of 1953 London newspapers reported that Norman Hartnell had been ordered by doctors to take several days' rest. "Britain's First Couturier" was, quite simply, exhausted. Not only was Hartnell working flat out making the coronation robe for the new Queen's forthcoming investiture, he was also responsible for the outfits worn by the female members of the royal party, not to mention redesigning the robes for the peeresses of the realm. It was as if the royal dressmaker was in attendance not just on Cinderella, but her fairy godmother, her sisters and the entire chorus line too. And, to add to the pressure, each required a gown of such exquisite loveliness that it would make the watching nation burst with pride.

Sixty years on, with the nation once again getting ready to feel pleased about its knack for putting on a gorgeous display, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is showing Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950. Some of the dresses – by Hartnell, Victor Stiebel, Zandra Rhodes, Jonathan Saunders and Hussein Chalayan – are from the museum's permanent collection; other dresses have arrived straight from the catwalks of Roland Mouret, Giles, Erdem and Antonio Barardi. Meanwhile, Gareth Pugh, one of the country's more conceptual young designers, has made a leather dress stiffened with silver – more sculpture than ballgown – just for the occasion.

The exhibition takes as its starting point Hartnell's designs for the coronation. There are several gorgeous examples of that signature silhouette, comprising a tight strapless bodice, with a full, bell-shaped skirt – a rustling, silky promise of an age of plenty. One of the most spectacular, a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953, is a timely reminder that ballgowns have never been exclusively for the ingénue. Indeed, they work particularly well on older women. Long, full skirts are forgiving, while elbow-length gloves, stoles and capes break up the line of exposed flesh. These are neat tricks still employed on the red carpet today, as the Jacques Azagury empire-line dress with bolero jacket that Helen Mirren wore to pick up her Bafta for The Queen, demonstrates triumphantly. Another particularly dramatic piece – a backless gown in scarlet-and-black by Victor Edelstein – was worn with panache by a fifty-something Anne Heseltine in 1986.

Once the excitement of the coronation had fallen away, ballgowns stepped out of the spotlight and returned to the grand country house ball. It was here that couture dresses by Hartnell, John Cavanagh, Hardy Amies and Worth reported for duty. And a big part of that duty involved setting off heirloom jewellery to perfection. With an upper class that had never been obliged to flee a revolution with diamonds sewn into its underclothes, Britain still boasted some of the finest private collections of gemstones in the world. This need for a ballgown to work in tandem with show-stopping rocks explains, suggests the exhibition's co-curator Oriole Cullen, why certain jewel-tones reappear so regularly in any parade of British ballgowns. Amid the ivories and creamy pinks you will see singing reds, greens and blues making their return time and time again.

As the 1960s progressed, debutantes were keen to shed the "girls in pearls" tag that had clung to their mothers. Hip young things who wore Mary Quant and Biba by day wanted something similarly sharp for evening. The design duo Belinda Bellville and David Sassoon then entered the market. Their slender, columnar shapes, stopping a good inch or two off the ground, allowed you to kick off your shoes and dance. One example of their work, a mustard-coloured silk sheath bought off the peg by Princess Anne in 1968, still looks fresh today.

As "the season" gradually lost its allure in the 1970s, there were some odd stabs at formal evening wear, including a rock-chic ensemble from Ossie Clark in which a gold leather corset and jacket is set off by a virulent purple lace skirt. Then there is Yuki's raspberry kaftan, which looked lovely on the statuesque Anglo-American actress Gayle Hunnicutt for whom it was originally made, but might make lesser souls (and bodies) look as if they were in a touring production of Abigail's Party. Rhodes, meanwhile, sums up the end of that stylistically difficult decade with an ensemble comprising a black quilted satin bodice, gold pleated lamé skirt and panniers over black tulle. The effect is of Marie Antoinette during her milkmaid days crossed with a giant Ferrero Rocher chocolate.

These off-kilter extravaganzas from the 70s were designed to be worn at the cycle of semi-public events that had begun to replace country house dances. Not only were film premieres, charity balls and museum galas open to anyone who could afford a ticket, they were also spectacles to which millions more had access via TV and newspapers. Ballgowns, in consequence, became increasingly scrutinised for the non-verbal messages they were intended to convey. Into this category comes Catherine Walker's triumphant "Elvis" outfit of 1989, which saw Diana, Princess of Wales, telegraphing her growing independence from the establishment in a figure-hugging white sheath studded with pearls and sequins, topped by an outside collar. A cerise silk gown from Bruce Oldfield, meanwhile, was Bianca Jagger's weapon of choice in the late 70s when she wanted to show Mick just what he was missing by going off with Jerry Hall.

Ballgowns takes full advantage of the V&A's newly lit and restored Octagon Court, with its display of red carpet glamour – where actresses in mostly borrowed frocks replace society women in couture. This faster tempo is picked up by the mannequins, who pose in mid-stride and even, on occasions, do a dynamic twirl. Here you will find a Stella McCartney outfit from 2011 (worn by Annette Bening to the New York Film Critics Circle in New York). What appears at first glance to be a full black satin skirt turns out, on closer inspection, to be flowing trousers, a clever choice that reflects Bening's insider-outsider status. There are classic styles here too, suggesting that even the most successful of professional women can't resist dressing up as a princess. Hence Maggie Gyllenhal's fishtail Mouret dress in sorbet pink worn to the Golden Globes in 2010, alongside Jenny Packham's powder pink crystal gown chosen the following year by Sandra Bullock.

Just as Hartnell's designs for the coronation shaded off into a kind of performance art, Ballgowns ends with work by contemporary designers such as Giles, Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen who situated themselves inside a similarly theatrical arena. Craig Lawrence's dress, with bits of what look like aluminium foil and KitKat wrappers stitched on to a knitted tube, produces a satisfying rustling sound, as well as a metallic shimmer. Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen has constructed a gown entirely from ostrich and cock feathers, which turns the wearer into a rather marvellous giant dove. Also on display is the silver satin Ralph & Russo design worn by Beyoncé when she performed at Barack Obama's inauguration ball in 2009. And, finally, just to make the point that, these days, a ballgown can be pretty much anything it choses, there's even a lace-print latex dress by Atsuko Kudo, the woman who regularly shrink-wraps Lady Gaga. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Native Americans know that cultural misappropriation is a land of darkness | Jessica Metcalfe

Using Native American-inspired themes in fashion is great, but Native artists themselves too often don't get a look-in

Let's talk about cultural appropriation and cultural misappropriation. The two are very different. But sometimes the two get mixed up. The differences are essential, but not always easy to point out in our daily lives.

Cultural appropriation happens every day, especially in the world of fashion. It's the loose idea of borrowing, sharing and being inspired by other cultures. Cultural appropriation in this sense is an awesome thing. We learn, and we grow. Cultural misappropriation is a land of darkness. It's a place where one culture (most often one that has an historical record of oppressing other cultures) engages in the unauthorised taking of some aspects of another (most often a minority) culture.

Power factors shape the definitions of these two categories. Sharing is great. Unauthorised taking is not. Being inspired by an artist is great. Copying an artist and writing it off as your own is not. Appreciating Native American headdresses is great. Wearing a headdress when you have not been authorised to wear one is not. (And by "authorised" I mean you were gifted the right to wear one by a recognised leader of a Native American community in which headdresses are known to be status symbols. You probably haven't since it is hard to earn this right, so take the headdress off, you look silly.) See, these beautiful items belong to a people. They are restricted cultural items. Not just anyone can wear them. Read this article if you disagree with me.

With headdresses, in my mind the issue is black and white. But not every Native/Native-inspired item is so clear. So let's talk about this. Here are some rough guidelines:

"Can I wear turquoise?" – Yes, it's a beautiful stone, it's found throughout the world, and Native people do not claim ownership over its use.

"I have a small business, I want to label my work as Navajo, because I think it's based on Navajo cultures, can I?" – No, the Navajo nation has trademarked their name, you cannot use it any more than you can label your work as Prada. It's trademark violation.

"I have a small business, and I want to reprint Navajo textiles on my shirts and sell them as Native American T-shirts, can I?" – No, you cannot steal a design from another artist. Furthermore, you cannot label your work as Native American when it is not. There is a law against that.

"I found a tee with really cute cartoon Indians on it, can I wear it?" – We are not cartoons, it's not illegal, but please don't do it – it's just poor taste. Essentially stay away from anything that violates the law, perpetuates stereotypes, or disregards the wishes of Native people. It's a fuzzy world – the lines that divide appropriation and misappropriation can get blurry. It's important to keep the discussion line open. It's also important to do your research before making assumptions.

With Native American cultures inspiring and influencing the broader fashion industry these days (you can see it splattered all over fashion magazines and catalogues), I think it's time we start including actual Native American artists in this movement, rather than just our awesome inspiring culture. I mean, we (the people) are still alive and still exist.

Since the mainstream fashion world doesn't seem to be too keen on giving diversity a chance (and I mean in terms of representation of designers and models from diverse ethnic backgrounds), I've been blogging at Beyond Buckskin in hopes of creating a platform for Native artists – a platform that has been (and continues to be) denied to Native American fashion designers.

It is time that Native American artists reclaim their right to determine what is "Native American" when it comes to fashion. As we have seen in recent popular white culture and hipster movements, this label has been misappropriated (taken without authorisation) and misused. This situation has created important conversations about issues of cultural appropriation, but the debate has also stolen attention from the Native cultures and individual artists who produce "Native" designs, clothing and accessories.

In many ways, our cultures have been reduced to nothing more than patterns on a shirt. There's more to us than that, and I hope to rehumanise Native American designers and their work by giving them an opportunity to explain the history and inspiration behind their craft. These explanations are important because they offer new self-imposed definitions of what is "Native".

I want to provide a means to bring Native artists and their work to the forefront by providing a space to present the people and history behind the trend. It gives them the opportunity to say, "This is Native fashion." With the help of this site, Native artists and designers will be able to create new markets for themselves by broadening the set of images associated with "Native America". Eventually Ralph Lauren, Proenza Schouler and Urban Outfitters will no longer dictate the public's taste for "Native" fashion. Native Americans will. It's about time we start buying Native-made.

• This article was commissioned after a suggestion by Oroklini. If there's a subject you'd like to see covered on Comment is free, please visit our You Tell Us page © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 07 2012

Four short links: 7 May 2012

  1. Liquid Feedback -- MIT-licensed voting software from the Pirate Party. See this Spiegel Online piece about how it is used for more details. (via Tim O'Reilly)
  2. Putting Gestures Into Objects (Ars Technica) -- Disney and CMU have a system called Touché, where objects can tell whether they're being clasped, swiped, pinched, etc. and by how many fingers. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Real-time Facebook 'likes' Displayed On Brazilian Fashion Retailer's Clothes Racks (The Verge) -- each hanger has a digital counter reflecting the number of likes.
  4. Foldit Games Next Play: Crowdsourcing Better Drug Design (Nature Blogs) -- “We’ve moved beyond just determining structures in nature,” Cooper, who is based at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in Seattle, told Nature Medicine. “We’re able to use the game to design brand new therapeutic enzymes.” He says players are now working on the ground-up design of a protein that would act as an inhibitor of the influenza A virus, and he expects to expand the drug development uses of the game to small molecule design within the next year.

March 31 2012

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? 1966

William Klein's first movie, a gleeful satire on the fashion industry, underlined his reputation as a brilliant, iconoclastic photographer

William Klein is one of the giants of post-war photography: his vibrant pictorial essays on cities like Rome, Tokyo and New York are among the most influential photobooks of the 20th century. Last week it was announced that he will be honoured as the recipient of the outstanding contribution to photography category in the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards.

Klein, 83, initially trained as a painter under Fernand Léger in Paris in the 1950s, before relocating to New York and, despite having no formal training, landed a job as a fashion photographer at American Vogue. There he earned a reputation as an iconoclast, using a wide-angled lens to often surreal effect and introducing movement and energy in the form of blurred motion into his street shoots.

His time at Vogue was the inspiration for his first feature film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? released in 1966, from which this still is taken. The film is a gleeful satire of the fashion industry starring Dorothy McGowan, a model who, legend has it, was discovered by a fashion scout among a crowd of teenagers awaiting the arrival of the Beatles at Kennedy Airport. Grayson Hall shines as the brilliantly bitchy Miss Maxwell, a magazine editor based on Diana Vreeland.

Other films followed, including the anti-imperialist Mr Freedom and an acclaimed documentary, Muhammad Ali, the Greatest. Klein returned to photography in the 1980s, but it is his earlier books, most notably Life is Good & Good For You In New York, that endure.

In October, there will be a chance to see his work in an exhibition at London's Tate Modern. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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