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A review on Fashion and Body in Motion: Stage, Dance and Performance, Gabriele Mentges

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

I will be reviewing Fashion and Body in Motion: Stage, Dance, and Performance by Gabriele Mentges. This chapter is part of a new peer reviewed collection of costume essays under the title Dance Body Costume and it is the second issue.


In the opening of the book the editors Petra Dotlacilova and Hannah Walsdorf express that this volume was created as a result of workshops, which they organised, as part of the Emmy Noether research project entitled “Ritual Design for the Ballet Stage” in 2016. Within the workshops, 8 experts from various fields came together with one main purpose, to discuss the challenges of researching dance costume. The focus was historically theatrical dance costume, particularly seventeenth and eighteenth century. However, one of the experts (Gabriele Mentges) decided to focus on later periods. Inside Dance Body Costume is the collection of written versions of the things discussed within the workshops.


Gabriele Mentges is a prolific academic writer in the genre of costume. She has a variety of interests including, textiles, costume, fashion and the body. In this chapter she is able to combine all 4 of these subjects into one under the critical term “dance costume”. As a result of my research I understand “dance costume” to be an ever growing umbrella term for many critical interpretations of dress innovation within dance.


Mentges focuses on a variety of themes within the world of dance costume and its relation to fashion. She writes mainly about the way costume is performative, as Barbeiri puts; costume is “...a material, performed-in object, [that] renders ideas physical and embodies thoughts.” (Barbieri, 2017: xx). And that this performativity comes about as a result of cultural rituals within society, throughout history. As a result of these costumes she writes that there have been significant changes in fashion. This contrasts the usual concept that fashion effects costume. Mentges explains that the way we dress expresses innate things about ourselves, gender, ethnicity, age, culture etc. Costume, dance costume, and fashion are now all key tools to expressing movement, body and gender. The idea that costume can explore these is a relatively new concept, as Mentges points out.


I have to admit to having a limited understanding of the topic of costume, my own knowledge is more limited to the processes of costume design. However, I am aware of the more general issues surrounding the academic work on costume. The fact that, until recently, it was an academic subject of little precedence. Also, from my own previous research I am aware of how interesting this chapter by Mentges is to the growing academic sources. From my research I found that the topics Mentges focuses on are incredibly rare academically and this, as the editors state in the book, is truly necessary to the growing academic world. Mentges herself points out at the start of her chapter, that the term dance costume cannot be found where one might expect.


Mentges’ chapter is split into 4 smaller sections, after the general introduction she discusses “research on dance dress” specifically from a cultural anthropological view. Here she focuses on gender and dress. She expresses how the costume points towards the body, and because of this it then points towards the actor. She takes this chapter further by using the example of 11th Century folk costumes, describing how the performative movement of the dancer is key to the costume’s being.


She then moves on again, this new section is entitled “dance, dress, and costume in ritual theater”. This is a smaller section, only a page long, but within this Mentges manages to describe a great deal. She expresses that most forms of dance are understood as rituals specifically created to deal with tension in society. Even in modern western society, the theatrical versions of these rituals still hold the same structure as the ritual it was born from. She introduces the idea that fashion shows, “performative rituals” as Richard Schecner describes them, are also a modern form of adapting traditional rituals.


Moving on, she introduces two Russian fashion designers (Stepanova and Popova) in a new section; From Stage to Fashion: The Russion Constructivists of the 1920s. The two, who were both given the opportunity to design for Meyerhold, were in a period of experimentation of studying dress in motion, which fed back into their textile designs. What’s most important to me in this section is the description of the theatre as a laboratory within this period of time. As technological advancements were being made (specifically within photography), it allowed the theatre to become more imaginative too. The two develop together.


In the final section, “From Fashion to Stage”, Mentges goes into great detail about one particular dance show and one particular designer; THE ONE Grand Show designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. What she states here is that dance is about experimentation and Gaultier proves this is true for costume too. Costume is about transending the usual heterosexual norms about how the body looks and twisting it on it’s head. Gaultier does this by creating costumes that change the way the dancer moves, taking the human out of it, for example he designed shoes with fins that changed the way the actor walks, they would walk in a waddling motion instead. Here Mentges states that designer and choreographer must work together as both costume and dance are inherently about the movement of the body.


I really enjoyed reading this chapter and I have no objection to the contents within. It is clear that Mentges is incredibly successful at linking her subsections together, almost seamlessly. The chapter did progress nicely, however, I believe that if you compare the beginning to the end there is a slight feeling of distance. By this I mean that where the introduction is incredibly focused on the term “dance costume” the last page has no mention of it. Instead, the closing of the chapter is only focussed on one particular designer, Gaultier. The final page appears to ignore the other themes mentioned throughout, it summarises with the sentence performance keeps “fashion in motion”, which is in line with the title of the chapter. But what about the other topics mentioned, the anthropological views, the ritualistic qualities, the other designers, and of course dance costume?


I believe Mentges is instead inviting us to take the topic further, an open ended conversation. She sets up ways for us to do this by means of the variety of topics she mentions. I am particularly interested in her acceptance of the need for continuing critical framework in costume. By including so many academics and topics she allows the reader to think just how critical this topic is. As Bech and Hann say, “Costume is critical”. The analysis Mentges makes only furthers this point. She essentially states that “costume is critical” to the development of fashion and from this we can go on to analyse the topics Mentges brings up in more detail.

It is clear that, whilst Mentges’ discussion of “dance costume” is part of a small number of academic works the overall themes she mentions are incredibly imperative to costume studies. As Barbieri says, costume is “an object in movement” and if we don’t acknowledge this as academics we are completely straying from the main purpose of costume. That is to take the architecture of the human body into consideration and accentuate it, in relation to its beauty, gender, form and movement.


Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I feel Mentges has made a necessary contribution to the academic costume genre, especially when comparing my own knowledge to the arguments she presents. Her vivid, but concise descriptions help bring the academic world to life, with the help of the image included. She succeeds in acknowledging what has already been written on the topic (or lack of) whilst also concretely explaining, in great detail, some key areas of influence to the view that dance costume is an object based upon movement of the body. And all in such a short discourse.

Barbieri, D (2017). Costume in Performance: Materiality, Culture, and the Body.

Bech, H & Hann, R (2014) Critical costume. Scene, 2(1&2), 3-8.

Hannah, D (2014) Alarming the heart: Costume as performative body-object-event. Scene, 2 (1&2), 15-34.

Komisarjevsky, T. (1968) The costume of the Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc.

Mentges, G (N.D.) Fashion and Body in Motion: Stage, Dance and Performance. In Dotlačilová, P. & Walsdorf, H. (eds) Dance Body Costume. Leipzig: Impressum, 23-41.

flickr (2013). Popova Textile Design. [image] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/20745656@N00/8413703845 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

The Charnel-House (2014). Varvara Stepanova Textile. [image] Available at: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiFh8zCjNblAhXUDGMBHbWYDh0QjRx6BAgBEAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fthecharnelhouse.org%2F2014%2F07%2F05%2Fradical-chic-avant-garde-fashion-design-in-the-soviet-1920s%2Fvarvara-stepanova-textile%2F&psig=AOvVaw2akdd-gxn_0ngnEZqE8Re3&ust=1573147263504919 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

The Telegraph (2016). Pictures of the day: 28 September 2016. [image] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/28/pictures-of-the-day-28-september-2016/dancers-in-outfits-designed-by-jean-paul-gaultier-publicise-the/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

Wikimedia Commons (2017). File:Carl Bantzer Schwälmer Tanz 1897 1898.jpg. [image] Available at: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjKkbWBjNblAhXEA2MBHXmQBfEQjRx6BAgBEAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3ACarl_Bantzer_Schw%25C3%25A4lmer_Tanz_1897_1898.jpg&psig=AOvVaw1vmmSZzm9oEfXmdwqMAs7v&ust=1573147159396254 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

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