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Sartorial Stories with Susanna Cordner and Shahidha Bari

Book cover with black background and x-ray image of a-line dress
Book cover with black background and x-ray image of a-line dress
Courtesy Penguin Random House
Written by
Published date
27 June 2019

LCF welcomed incoming Professor Shahidha Bari (who joins LCF in September as Professor of Fashion Cultures in the Department of Cultural and Historical Studies) to the RHS with the launch of her new book Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes.

Senior Lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary University of London, Shahidha is a regular on Radio 4’s Front Row, Saturday Review, and Radio 3’s Free Thinking. She is a writer, broadcaster and critic, and her work is found in the weekend arts supplement of the Financial Times, the Guardian, Times Higher Education, and The TLS amongst others. This is her first book.

Susanna Cordner is LCF’s Head of Archives, after previously working at V&A, and this talk was part of Susanna’s Sartorial Stories series, which looks at an item of clothing and what it means to its owner. Previous visitors have included Henry Holland and Penny Martin, and you can listen to the podcast series on LCF’s Soundcloud.

Shahidha’s item was an Alexander McQueen bag, and she told the audience that she had been thinking of Lee Alexander McQueen a lot during the writing of her book, as a profound thinker, and one who identifies with the vulnerability of women. His shows empowered women through the defiance with which they wore the violence in the imagery and styling. She said that the bag was a fitting representative for her as someone often on the move, and 'rummaging' for an item!

They discussed the meaning behind clothes, and how powerful dress can be as a conversation opener, as well as a deeper reader of people. Shahidha wrote the book after discovering that there were many works of the psychology of fashion (especially in the excellent LCF library where she spent much of her researching time), but little material on clothing as a phenomenology (the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness). Shahidha has synesthesia, which means her brain joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people's names with a sensory perception such as smell, colour or flavour. This gives her a powerful connection between her memories of people with the colour and texture of their clothes, and she was delighted to be able to delve into this as a research study.

Shahidha read three extracts from the book; one from the chapter on bags and accessories, one from the chapter on the dress, and one from the chapter on the suit. These were starting points to discuss the personal stories that the book shares, such as Shahidha’s star-struck interview with Keanu Reeves talking suits for the launch of film John Wick 3, and comparing this look with his Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure leather waistcoat and denim shorts that was so iconic in the 90s.

Susanna asked about the drive behind writing the book, and Shahidha said that thinking about the speed with which we consume fashion today made her want to encourage more mindfulness around clothes; giving them a meaning and a place in our personal story so that they are less disposable. A sentiment that fits in very well with LCF's Better Lives agenda.