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Behind the scenes: fashion and photography in Oxford

Jimmy Brewer sits in on an event jointly run by the fashion and photography societies.

It is 3pm on a Saturday; Oxford is heaving. Cornmarket is thick with charity collectors and religious preachers. (“I know you are young and are probably not thinking about death and eternity right now…” I hear trailing behind me.) I enter a building that I did not know existed, into the Student Union’s social space. A low, square-gridded ceiling and plain furnishing brings to mind my old school’s ICT room.

Why am I here? I am covering the first of three sessions run jointly by the Oxford photography and fashion societies. The sessions are building to a final exhibition, the culmination of the project, in week 7 of Hilary Term. Participants will join one of seven groups, each with designated models, stylists and photographers. Their task today is to brainstorm ideas on the intentionally vague topic of ‘paintings’. The groups will meet one another for the first time, so, naturally, there are social as well as creative waters to navigate.

When I arrive, there are about five people sitting around. “What college are you at?” is the question echoing in the air. Of course, a respectable student is at least five minutes late to any event. Over the next ten minutes, pairs of patterned trousers and wide-cut jeans, with accompanying legs, filter in. A group as sartorially orientated as one named ‘The Oxford Fashion Society’ inevitably attracts those who care about what they wear. Fastidiously dressed, upright, serious-faced characters come in and sit down quickly. Tote bags are removed from shoulders. Sauntering in alongside, generally attired with less panache, are members of the photography society. When the session begins, there are about 30 of us.

Megan Baffoe, one of the event’s organisers, gives a brief overview of the guidelines and goals of the project, then the groups are let loose. After initial ice is broken, things start to happen. People talk about artists they admire. Big personalities of the groups emerge. Bejewelled fingers swivel laptops around to show the rest of the group their screen. Certain artists names’ keep reoccurring, Klimt and Mondrian. One can guess why: the colourful, mosaic-like works Klimt is known for adapt themselves well to clothing. Mondrian, on the other hand, is an attractive choice on account of his simplicity of colour and bold design. This is the kind of chatter floating around the room – a pleasant change to hear a group of Oxford students not complaining about essay deadlines.

Clothing is a dominant topic of discussion, but so too is clothing’s opposite, nudity. Experimentation with nakedness, or aspects of it, is proposed by some, and, though mostly well-hidden, cringed from by others. Megan Baffoe had stressed at the beginning how important it is that everyone is comfortable wearing the outfits – a guideline certainly being put to the test. Alongside these kinds of abrasions, the groups periodically have an idea that snaps together with a momentous synergy. Ideas are scribbled down, pictures sent into group chats. This is typical of the jolting pace of a brainstorm session.

Turning one’s emotional response to artwork into words is a challenging translation of medium and I was impressed at the participants’ ability to do so. Aided by pictures from Pinterest, one of them gives an insightful description of painter Egon Schiele’s contorted, intricate artworks. Another shows me landscape photographs he has taken and explains why it was pictures of nature he likes so much. “It lets me combine walking and photography.” Pragmatic reasoning, but he does not stop there: “landscapes are so vast, and panoramic, that in the moment they can be overwhelming to take in. Photography allows tiny fragments of this bigger picture to be isolated, and details that would have been missed to be brought out.” Showing me a photograph that, he tells me, is a heavily zoomed in section of a much larger landscape, I can see a road winding daintily past a forest, over which a thick bank of cloud hovers. It is an affecting image.

This is the general tenor of the session – interested and interesting students sharing art that excites them. Each participant I ask has taken a different road into the hobby that, thanks to the session, now unites them. Some had started photographing during lockdown; others had been making clothes with a mother since they were very young. The common thread running through the event is a creativity that, though unspoken, defies the definition of a person by such narrow measures as academic performance that so often dominates this university. It reminds me, happily, why art is and will forever be essential.

Image Credit: Zachary Elliott

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