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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Alice Conibere

As a design historian, Alice’s focus is on object-research that pushes beyond the bounds of brief museum descriptions. Her dissertation was inspired by a 2015-16 fashion exhibition at the Museum of Art, São Paolo (MASP), showcasing a set of synthetic garments from the 1960s, the museum’s 'Rhodia Collection'.

These artefacts are rightly lauded for the creative collaboration they represent, as the garments were constructed by Brazilian couturiers and displayed prints by a wide range of artists working across Brazil at that time. However, the small subsection of the Rhodia brand’s output on show, was largely de-contextualised from the circumstances of the production and consumption of synthetic fibres within that historical moment. Who was the French chemical giant behind the manufacture of various synthetic products within oil-rich Brazil since the early 1900s? What were the geo-political and social factors that optimised that particular historical moment - the 1960s - for the sale of fashions made from synthetic fibres?

The aim of the dissertation was to reinsert this context, and to consider, for the first time, its transcultural aspect. The challenge of the dissertation was to deprivilege a Eurocentric perspective within that framework.

Alice’s interest in this topic may have come from her decade-spanning career as a dealer in vintage fashion. Specialising in clothes from the 1960s and 1970s, she has an aptly named brand, ‘Secret History Vintage’. However, it is her recent completion of the V&A/RCA MA in History of Design that has informed that drive to externalise hidden histories of museum objects.

Experiencing an MA within a cultural institution - especially one that is in increasing dialogue with its problematic colonial past - was a real prompt to consider design history as a public-facing practice. Alice’s researched two V&A artefacts - an 18th century tea canister and a 19th century catalogue of 'appliances for invalids' - that became public outputs. A 6-hour workshop for the 'Across RCA' platform, treating links between an innocuous seeming ceramic object and the slave trade, was a springboard to involvement in a V&A project on porcelain. Findings for an obect-focussed essay were transformed into the paper 'Marketing invalidism in Victorian England', given at the conference 'Invisible & Under-Represented? Disability History, Objects & Heritage. More such projects will be in the pipeline, as Alice plots a path towards a potential PhD - which she looks forward to sharing!

Pasold Research Fund MA Grant recipient 2022

Clive Wainwright Memorial Prize recipient 2022

Image. An all-in-one style for Rhodia by Alceu Penna and Ugo Castellana, with a print by Fernando Martins, 1960s (l); also a dress by Alceu Penna with a print by Hércules Barsotti, 1966 (r).

See Alice's V&A Symposium Presentation
Read Alice's MA Dissertation
Fashion editorial spread of 7 women wearing dresses, lettering spelling out 'Brasil'
'Brazilian Fashion Team' - Rhodia fashion editorial tied-in with the World Cup, 1966

'Modern Fabrics for a Modernising Nation: Rhodia Synthetic Fibres and the French Connection with a “National Fashion” of Brazil, 1959-1969'.

My dissertation sought to address the following key research questions: Did the French origin of the Rhodia textile company influence its transcultural fashion promotion offer in Brazil? Was this a factor in the success of synthetic fibres among middle-class metropolitan female consumers in Brazil in the 1960s?

I was able to propose answers through recourse to two main sources of primary evidence. One of these sources was publicly available- online archives of Brazilian magazines that featured Rhodia’s extensive fashion editorial.

The corporate archive of Rhodia’s French parent company, however, had not previously been accessed from a research angle on their fashion output. This enabled a conclusion based on original findings; a traditional theoretical model of Brazil as the static recipient of fashion from the European ‘centre’ had relevant application in the case of Rhodia’s relationship with its French ‘parent company’, but was also transcended through the activities of the supposedly ‘peripheral subsidiary’ partner within the dynamic.

Cartoon-like rendering of Brazilian map
Article from the internal corporate magazine of Rhodia's French parent company, 1959
A composite picture of a long off-white backless dress with a print of small figures
Long dress, 1965, with a print by Carybé, design by 'Sonia Coutinho' - my dissertation reattributes this to Alceu Penna
Four models in 1960s dresses within a historic Brazilian museum
'National Prêt-a-Porter' - Rhodia 'museum-theme' fashion editorial, 1967

Pasold Research Fund