During the first New York World’s Fair season, World War II broke out in Europe.Even though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, the American government realised that the US needed a defined identity to be able to unite its people in patriotism.
) which was photographed for LIFE in the mid-Fifties by Mark Shaw.
The Mark Shaw Archive recently popped up on Instagram (@markshawofficial / @markshawlondonsydney), and scrolling through his work – snapshots of Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy amongst the images – I discovered and became mildly obsessed with his images of models prepping for fashion shows.
Amazingly few people have studied backstage images – these days they’re a mainstay of Instagram and Vogue Runway reports during fashion week. Speaking to Mark Shaw’s daughter in law Juliet across the pond in Vermont and meeting his grandson Hunter in London.
Juliet kindly sent me scanned film and contact sheets to pore over – a game changer.
As I researched, I was surprised to discover that very little scholarly work had been done on Aesthetic dress in the 1890s.
This dissertation allowed me to explore that last decade of this style and the impact Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial had on its reception.Its vast array of different acts included synchronised swimming, diving, dance, skating, fashion, clowns, and performances by important athletes of the time, including Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller.Due to its extravagant declarations of Americanness, the Aquacade provides invaluable insight into American identity around the start of World War II. One of the most exciting parts of my research has been analysing the use of the American flag and American symbols as an expression of American identity in the Aquacade.As the US did not have strongly embedded traditions and copied European ideas and design styles until well into the 20 century, identity had to be based on something other than traditions that could be considered unequivocally American.Therefore, American identity focussed on history and symbols, including the American flag and the Statue of Liberty.As such, I have been living like a hermit, only leaving my room for food and tea. Something along the lines of ‘Capturing Fashion at Work: Mark Shaw’s behind-the-scenes images of the Paris collections for LIFE magazine in the 1950s’ What prompted you to choose this subject?Our tutor Dr Rebecca Arnold’s fondness for the work of American designer Claire Mc Cardell (you may thank her for ballet flats, spaghetti straps, separates…) led me to a fine art and textile collaboration she worked on (Picasso prints!For my dissertation, I am looking at American identity in the costumes of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, which performed during the 19 New York World’s Fair.Not being aware of the Aquacade’s existence until recently, I came across this topic by chance.I visited this archive in February and immediately fell in love with the Footprints designs and Joyce Clissold’s work as a designer-craftswoman.I especially appreciate the broad perspective on fashion that the archive gave me, as it contains a wide range of objects that illustrate the diverse processes of designing, making, advertising and retailing of fabrics as well as garments.