Belgian Fashion Then and Now: An Interview with Nele Bernheim

Unknown artist, but very likely René Magritte
Decorative Hat Stand for Norine
Oil on papier-mâché, 38 x 21 cm.
Private collection

Nele Bernheim is a fashion historian studying in Belgium. She is also one of the co-organizers of the symposium titled "Modus Operandi: State of Affairs in Current Research on Belgian Fashion" that took place on October 18th at the Mode Museum (MoMu) in Antwerp. Fashion Projects is delighted to bring you this brief interview with Nele about her goals in organizing the symposium, her research on the Belgian couture house Norine, and her observations on how fashion studies is approached in Belgium as compared with the United States.

FP: Why did you organize this conference? What were you hoping to accomplish?

NB: Our aim in organizing this symposium, which was a first, was to acquire an overview of current developments in research on twentieth century Belgian fashion. In doing so, we connected scholars, of whom most were unaware of their respective work and provided a platform for them. (Interviewer's note: Francesca Granata, the Editor of Fashion Projects, was among the scholars invited to present at the symposium.) At the same time, it served to posit that the subject is worthy of in-depth research. Moreover, the symposium enhanced the subject’s visibility, both nationally and internationally.

For this first edition, we gathered young national and international scholars approaching the subject from different perspectives. Starting from their own area of research, our speakers addressed some of the historical, socio-economical and anthropological aspects of Belgian fashion. We hope that we have been able to facilitate communication between peers and to have awakened interest in young students and established academics to consider the study of fashion.

FP: Your research is focused on early avant-garde fashion in Belgium, and in particular, the House of Norine. Can you tell us a little bit about Couture Norine?

NB: Norine was run by a charismatic couple: the cultural and intellectual polymath Paul-Gustave Van Hecke and the grande couturière Honorine “Norine” Deschrijver. They established their couture business during World War I. For the first time, a Belgian couture house created its own designs instead of buying them from Paris, and offered an attractive and highly original local alternative. After the war, they became the most important couture house in the country. Their avant-garde designs boldly transcended the modest conventionality of Belgium. The national and, to some extent, international artistic intelligentsia were their customers. The history of Belgian avant-garde fashion begins with Norine.

Norine was a prominent representative of the Modernist movement in fashion. In fact, Van Hecke and Norine’s environment was entirely modern and was a hub of Surrealism and Expressionism: their private home, Van Hecke’s art galleries and journals and the couture house’s salons featured work by national and international contemporary artists. They firmly embedded art in fashion; this symbiosis with modern art gave their creations high art status. The couture house’s beautiful graphics were conceived by Belgian artists such as Frits Van den Berghe, Leon de Smet and—most importantly, by René Magritte. Also the techniques and imagery of modern art were literally incorporated into the house’s creations. Their signature dress of the second half of the 1920s, the “robe peinte” (painted dress) displayed hand-printed Art Deco motifs. A photograph from 1925 shows us a dress that was embroidered with a Raoul Dufy composition. In addition, Norine was unique in its pioneering use of Surrealist imagery with Modernist fashions. In 1927, the embroidery on a sports ensemble refers to the work of Max Ernst. When Surrealism in fashion became well established in the late 1930s, Norine turned to Ernst’s and Man Ray’s imagery for their embroideries. Among the few extant garments (only 8 so far), we have a blouse dating from this decade of which the print mimics the vocabulary of Surrealism.

Norine enjoyed its largest success during The Roaring 20s. Funded at the expense of Van Hecke’s art business, the couture house survived the world economic crisis of the early 1930s. Even during World War II, they continued to be influential. The late 1940s saw the decline of Norine. After a persevering struggle for survival, the Van Heckes officially closed their couture house in 1952.

Norine can be considered a precursor to the development of avant-garde Belgian fashion, which gained worldwide renown from the late 1980s onwards. For almost forty years, this Belgian couture house was at the intersection of different visual art disciplines and the elite vanguard of European art and fashion. No account on the history of fashion in Belgium, and even worldwide, can be considered complete without Norine.

FP: What do you think of Belgian fashion today? Where do you think its heading?

NB: I am very fond of Belgian fashion design today. Its evolution, started in the late 1980s, seems to be continuing its course. Diversity has been the synonym of our national avant-garde fashion. Alongside the deconstructed looks of Martin Margiela or Ann Demeulemeester, the exoticism of Dries Van Noten and the boldness of Walter Van Beirendonck, new generations are adding to this variety. There is the sleek and dark feminine look of Véronique Branquinho, the constructive work of AF Vandevorst, the playfulness of Bernhard Willhelm and the tailored look of Bruno Pieters. What is most striking about these designers (of whom I name just a few)—and this might be their only common feature other than geography—are their highly developed, individual artistic idioms. Students in Belgian fashion programs such as the Antwerp Academy are trained to develop their own language whilst absorbing the most diverse influences. I expect that new alumni (or autodidacts) will only add to the diversity and continue this creative legacy.

FP: Besides Antwerp, you've studied fashion history in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Do you find that there are different approaches to studying fashion history and theory in the United States and Belgium?

NB: There is a great difference. Most importantly, there is no Masters program on the European continent, let alone in Belgium, that focuses on fashion history and theory as does the Fashion and Textile Studies program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Moreover, the integration of museum practice in FIT's program is of great value. Belgium as yet still lacks the tremendous resources available in the United States, and as such, fashion is mostly approached in a journalistic manner. Within the Belgian academic sphere, there is, however, a growing interest in the study of fashion. Lately, more Masters theses and, gradually, PhD and postdoctoral dissertations are being written about (Belgian) fashion. If one is fortunate enough to find a professor who is willing to act as an advisor, one can graduate in programs such as communication sciences, sociology, history, or art history with a thesis that relates to fashion. However, these students often lack thorough knowledge of the history of fashion and hands-on experience.

Progress is being made, though. The Antwerp Fashion Museum (MoMu), which opened in 2002, has made a great difference in procuring attention for the discipline. Their highly creative approach to curating has led to some fantastic results. And the Hasselt Fashion Museum recently set up an exhibition displaying the history of women’s fashion from 1750 to 1950. Also, the University of Leuven is now the first institution to integrate fashion history in its Art History Bachelor program. Hopefully, other universities will follow and maybe one day, we will establish a Masters following FIT’s example.

Interview by Sarah Scaturro