From Titian and Rubens to Michelangelo, the Renaissance ideal of beauty was far removed from the size zero model. Beauty by Design combines art historical research with contemporary fashion design to question cultural commonplaces about beauty and body image and challenge the dominance of today's media-driven ‘thin ideal’.

Launched at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in September 2012, Beauty by Design capitalises upon the research interests and strengths of a number of experts at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). These include Jill Burke in History of Art, whose work on the Italian Renaissance nude is part-funded by a Philip Leverhulme Prize, and the School of Design’s Mal Burkinshaw.

Mal is Director of the Diversity Network, a collaboration between ECA and the industry group, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk. The Network exists to promote a healthier attitude towards diversity of body image and attractiveness. Beauty by Design is one of the ways in which it is using historical codes of beauty to innovate towards new fashion solutions rooted in ‘emotionally considerate’ design, marketing and branding; there is also an acclaimed teaching programme at ECA.

Close partnership working

In addition to the core researchers, Beauty By Design involves art historians and curators at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) , as well as contemporary artists and designers. Together with Mark Daniels of New Media Scotland, the team curated a major exhibition in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery which ran from November 2014 to January 2015.

As well as historical paintings from the NGS collections, Beauty by Design: Fashioning the Renaissance showcased new work by the artist, Paul Hodgson, and academy-based fashion designers and stylists, Mal Burkinshaw, Sally-Ann Provan and Claire Ferguson (Edinburgh), Philip Clarke (Middlesex), Sharon D Lloyd (Southampton Solent) and Anne Chaisty (Bournemouth).

Visitor numbers at the exhibition topped 152,000 and there were a range of associated events, including a panel discussion with All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, a LateLab at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and a handling/creative workshop for people with a range of visual impairments.

A visitor blogged about the exhibition:

“Despite being extremely small for today's monumental standards, "Beauty by Design" actually manages to make visitors stop and think about art and modern fashion and allows them to grasp the main concept behind this event - learning to look and make comparisons, building relationships and connections. In our times in which, to attract large number of visitors, museums often end up bombarding them with quantity rather than quality, this is definitely something to praise”

Photo of a handling workshop at an exhibition
Image courtesy of Sam Rutherford
Combining art historical research with contemporary fashion design to question beauty and body image ideals

'Beauty by Design' actually manages to make visitors stop and think about art and modern fashion and allows them to grasp the main concept behind this event - learning to look and make comparisons, building relationships and connections. This is definitely something to praise.

From a visitor's blog about the exhibition

An on to Calais…

Many of the pieces created for Beauty by Design: Fashioning the Renaissance made extensive use of lace, which was a signifier of wealth, status and hierarchy in the Renaissance.

The lace was supplied by renowned Paris-based company, Sophie Hallette, with whom Mal Burkinshaw was invited to exhibit at the International Centre for Lace and Fashion in Calais, France, in September 2016.

Specifically, Mal showed his Beauty by Design piece, Silhouettes en Dentelle (Lace Silhouettes), in a multimedia gallery “retracing the stylistic and technical development of the silhouette from the early 20th century up to the present day”.

The centre highlights the know-how and techniques behind lacemaking, the uses to which lace has been put, and its place in the world today in such fields as fashion, design, and applied arts.

Would you like to get involved in research at ECA?

We are always looking for research partners and participants. If you are interested in getting involved in research at Edinburgh College of Art, please contact our Research, Knowledge Exchange and Outreach (RKEO) Office by emailing ECA.rkeo@ed.ac.uk.

We also offer a range of research-led postgraduate programmes. Find out more.


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