Beauty by Design

15 Nov 2014 — 3 May 2015 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, United Kingdom

17 DECEMBER 2014
Paris Bordon, Venetian Women at their Toilet, about 1545, Oil on canvas: 97.00 x 141.00 cm, Scottish National Gallery
Paris Bordon, Venetian Women at their Toilet, about 1545, Oil on canvas: 97.00 x 141.00 cm, Scottish National Gallery

The results of a unique collaboration between fashion designers, artists, curators and art historians, established to investigate and challenge contemporary notions of beauty, will be revealed in a fascinating new display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week.

Beauty by Design: Fashioning the Renaissance will bring together a new body of work by UK designers and stylists, which has been informed by their response to Renaissance paintings in the National Galleries’ collections, and which reconsiders the ‘thin ideal’ so dominant in contemporary media and fashion. These new works will be displayed alongside some of the paintings which inspired them, such as the portrait of Margaret Graham, Lady Napier, 1626, by Adam de Colone and Paris Bordon’s Venetian Women at their Toilet, 1545.

Beauty by Design, which was launched as a collaborative investigation into the nature of body image by Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh in 2012, has brought together fashion industry specialists and academics from across the UK. The display will showcase a dozen new works by fashion designer Mal Burkinshaw; milliner Sally-Ann Provan; accessories designer Anne Chaisty; stylist and writer Philip Clarke; freelance knitwear designer Claire Ferguson; make-up and hair expert Sharon D. Lloyd; and artist Paul Hodgson.

Silhouettes en Dentelle, Burkinshaw’s series of seven lace jackets, are the designer’s response to the body shapes and garments that can be seen in portraits, such as those of Mary, Queen of Scots; King James VI and I as a boy; and Lady Agnes Douglas, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s Renaissance to Reformation display. Burkinshaw’s jackets do not conform to specific UK size measurements, and are also non-gender specific, creating a dialogue between past and present notions of ‘normalised’ body shapes. The series stemmed from a close collaboration with renowned French lace producers Sophie Hallette, whose work also features in several other designs on display in the exhibition.

The striking Memento Flori (Memento of Flowers), by Sally-Ann Provan, is a large headpiece based on the shape of the ruff, a fashionable and expensive accessory worn in the Renaissance by wealthy men and women. Provan focused on visual symbolism within the portraits in Reformation to Revolution, for instance carnations, butterflies and roses, which were worked into patterns based on Sophie Hallette lace designs, then laser-cut and laser-engraved into transparent Perspex, intrinsically to link the past to the present.

Other works on show include Double Exposure, a dress by knitwear designer Claire Ferguson. It was inspired by the portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots and Lady Arabella Stuart, and combined a lace dress and a knitted outerwear into one large dress to invite the visitors to question their own notion of body shape and size.

Triptych (After Paris Bordon’s ‘Venetian Women at their Toilet’) is a large photographic triptych based on Bordon’s painting from the Scottish National Gallery. This 4m wide work raises questions about fashion media expectations, gender codes, beauty and morality.

Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, commented: “This terrific project illustrates how historic portraiture can be a profound source of inspiration to contemporary practitioners in the world of fashion. It is also especially pleasing as a rich collaborative endeavour, which has brought together designers, art historians and curators. Our hope is that many visitors will enjoy plotting the connections between the Gallery’s collection and these wonderfully imaginative responses to it.”