Transatlantic Dress History: An interview with Dr Charlotte Nicklas

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Amelia (Milly) Slater, first year student in BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, interviews Dr Charlotte Nicklas about her research interests and background.

“The Fashions Expressly Designed and Prepared for the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” (fashion plate). Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, May 1860. Hand-coloured engraving. Special Collection, St. Peter’s House Library, University of Brighton.

For the blog I took the opportunity to interview Dr Charlotte Nicklas, a senior lecturer in the History of Art and Design at University of Brighton. Charlotte has taught here since 2006 and specialises in the history of dress and textiles. She completed her PhD in Brighton after starting her studies at Harvard and the Bard in New York.  It was a great experience to be able to find out a lot more about Charlotte’s studies, both past and present, and the reasons and influences that encouraged her to choose to study fashion and dress history and teach us here in Brighton.

Milly: What drew you to study fashion and dress history?

Charlotte: I had been interested in the subject for a long time, almost as long as I can remember, however, the inspirational moment for me would have to have been my 12th birthday trip to New York with my grandparents. It was then that I was first taken to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit the exhibition From Queen to Empress: Victorian Dress 1837-1877 . I almost had to be pulled out by my grandmother as I was so enthralled by it. It was there that I started to think about dress history and consider how it could be possible to study it. It isn’t possible to do an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Dress History in America, so I studied History and Literature at university and was lucky in my second year to meet a lecturer who was completing her PhD on 18th century dress and this again made me think ‘wow you can do this!’ All through my undergraduate degree I thought of ways to study this history of dress. To tailor my degree, for example, I took courses in Indian history and studied chintz, always along the lines of dress history.

Milly: Is there a difference in the study of fashion and dress history between England and America?

Charlotte: In the collections here there is a longer ‘history’, in that there are surviving Renaissance portraits and texts, whereas in the US there is obviously a shorter history of European-influenced dress. However while I was working the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I did get this sense that there was a little more dialogue between the museum world and the academic world in Britain, although this is changing now. This may be to do with the size of the UK – you can get anywhere in a couple of hours and not have to take a plane, so it is easier to see colleagues more frequently. I really enjoy being here, partly because it is so much easier to move around, but also because Britain really is a centre for the study of fashion and dress history. Due to my training in humanities, this is a department I feel comfortable and happy to be working in, mixed with lectures to the Fashion and Design students. It is interesting to have these two very different, but interrelated, ways of approaching a subject.

Milly: From what you have said previously about the very different histories the two countries have, do you think the American system provides a more detailed study of fashion and dress through having a shorter, more documented, history than England’s?

Charlotte: I think it really depends on where you go to study, even here in England a lot of histories of dress start from around the 18th century. A few will go back as early as the sixteenth century, but then you start to have to use more archaeological methods of research as there are so few surviving examples of dress.  This is the same in both England and the US, and in the United States they tend, like England, to focus largely on the dress history of Western Europe and Northern America, although this is changing now.

Milly: What drew you to studying the area of 19th century American and British Dress?

Charlotte: My PhD was about the transition from natural to artificial textiles dyes in the mid-19th century. The way that I found that research project was through an essay that I wrote during my MA degree, for a module on the 19th century domestic interior, so it did not even begin as purely the study of dress history. However I got particularly interested in the relationship between textiles and dress and science and technology and it was this which really got me thinking about making this my MA research project. The 19th century is, for me, so intriguing as in many ways a lot of the issues surrounding modernity that are so apparent today – transport and travel  and the moving of people away from the traditional community centres – were, if not created by the changes of the 19th century, were thrown into sharper relief during this period. Also, looking at the dress that women wore in the 19th century , it was so different from what we wear today.  It was a time when women’s roles changed very dramatically, and certain  women started to demand new rights.  It is these similarities and differences which drew me to study this era.

Milly: Have you noticed during you studies any noticeable differences between England and America at this time?

Charlotte: The US at this time was far less urbanised than England and Europe. The process of urbanisation was happening but the distances were far larger. It takes far longer to travel across the country and there were huge spaces of wilderness, which still remain. These have been preserved even till this day in many places, partly by accident and partly by learning from the large scale urbanisation of England and Europe which was happening in earnest by the mid-19th century. Comparing what was happening in 1870 in Britain and in 1870 in the United States, there were huge differences. There were, of course, the obvious differences of the systems of government, the monarchy versus the republic The differences in the way the fashion system worked might not have been so obvious in some of the East Coast cities where there were significant similarities with Europe . It is these similarities I am perhaps most interested in–there has been a lot of very interesting scholarly work recently about the concept of transatlanticism.

Milly: What are you currently working towards?

Charlotte: I am working on an article at the moment which is developed from part of my PhD and I am working on a book proposal to turn my PhD into a book. Alongside this I am working on a new research project for the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association conference in California called Loco/motion about travel in the 19th century. I am interested in the figure of the women traveller and the way in which travel took women away from their ‘proper’ domestic sphere. I am interested in how they negotiated the public space and activity of travel, especially on trains where the space could be both public and private and how this affected their self-presentation through dress.

Milly: Lastly, why did you choose to complete you studies in Brighton and to work here?

Charlotte: Professor Lou Taylor is the reason I came to do my PhD here. I considered some places in the US, but she was a very well-established scholar and I knew she was interested in 19th-century dress and in my project. But also for reasons that I have mentioned before, I realised that being in England would be a great opportunity more generally, to see collections first hand, allowing me to explore certain areas of research just not possible in the US. And it was just luck which meant there was a job here that was so right for me at the right time, so I stayed!

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