Everywoman? 1919

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Second year BA Fashion and Dress History student Anne Roberts explains the display in the foyer of Pavilion Parade, which resulted from a group exhibition assessment.

Figure 1. Side view showing detail of the jacket and the cellulose buttons

‘Everywoman’ became both the name and the theme of the historic dress exhibition that appeared in the reception of Pavilion Parade in January 2019. Designed to welcome everyone back for a fresh academic term, the display was also intended to be thought-provoking. As a group, we wanted to highlight historic anxieties and human insecurities. Exactly 100 years ago many people in Britain were facing an uncertain future as they faced the reality of living in a new post-war society, and today we are again contemplating uncertainty and change as Brexit becomes reality. War and its consequences have often been told from a male standpoint, but we wanted to highlight some female perspectives. To research the display we looked through women’s magazines and other contemporary literature from 1918-1919 to find what issues were being discussed. We hoped that the viewer might then ponder these and wonder if they were still relevant to women’s lives today.

Figure 2. The full installation in Pavilion Parade showing the information panel and the display case with a framed exhibition label

The  installation was the result of a team assessment in a Level 5 Shared Option module called Understanding Exhibitions and Creating Displays, taught by Dr Harriet Atkinson. It was supported by staff in St Peters House library and Professor Lou Taylor, Professor Emerita in Dress History and Curator of the University of Brighton Dress History Teaching Collection. The semester-long project culminated in four displays curated by students working in small groups, both in St Peters House library and in the Humanities building in Pavilion Parade. Students were required to choose objects from either collection and create interpretive displays around them.

Rebecca Lane, Josie Stewart and Sylvie Therezien and I are all studying dress history, and as a group we all wanted to work with objects from the extensive Dress History Teaching Collection. However, it soon became apparent that our group’s choice of items would be determined by some practical limitations including the size of the narrow display case and the necessity of using existing mannequins. Many of the dresses in the collection were also either too fragile or too tiny to be mounted on the only available dress forms. The two-piece woman’s costume that we eventually decided upon appealed to all of us because it was a good example of everyday dress, possibly homemade and certainly well worn, thus representing the antithesis of many of the elite items of clothing often seen exhibited behind glass – hence our suggestion of a more inclusive ‘Everywoman’. Its measurements were generous for an example of authentic historic dress, which meant that we could mount it on an existing form!

Figure 3. This photograph shows some of the supporting accessories at the back of the display case

While nothing was known of the original owner, careful examination of the skirt and jacket revealed evidence of wear, repairs and later alterations. Made of a sturdy, almost coarse ribbed wool in a practical shade of dark green, the high belt, cellulose buttons and the distinctive calf length A line skirt meant that we were confident dating it between 1914-1920. We added a blouse of a similar date and provenance, also from the collection, and sought out further items to illustrate the imagined life of our woman. The boots and the sewing notions came from our own personal collections (some items belonged to my Grandmother) and we chose them to add depth and character to the display. The boots, with the indentations and creases of their wearer’s feet still clearly visible, spoke of the value of thick leather soles on cold damp floors, while the metal hobnails told of anxiety at the price of boot repairs. Paper patterns, thread and sewing cases were also included to illustrate the reality of creative female endeavours on a limited budget.

Figure 4.The well-worn boots

We hoped that the objects would speak for themselves, so we used the wall mounted display case to identify four issues that our woman might have thought about, as she pulled on her boots or buttoned up her blouse. Irish politics, the rights of women, fashion on a budget and the consequences of men returning from war were identified as issues which were important to women in 1919 but are still relevant today. From the font used in the poster, to the layout which referenced silent movie stills from the era, we tried to create a low budget installation that used historic dress to illustrate social history. All of our illustrations were chosen to echo the style of the costume as well as to further highlight the topicality of our themes.

Figure 5. The fine white lawn blouse had insertions of machine-made lace, a lace edged collar and small front fastening buttons. We used padding to obtain the correct silhouette

 

There is sometimes a casual assumption that the study of fashion and dress history involves nothing more intellectually challenging than turning the pages of a fashion magazine. Our modest exhibition sought to illustrate that social history, consumption practises, human aspiration, greed, frailty and ego may all be evidenced by the careful scrutiny of each surviving garment and accessory.

Figure 6.One of four chosen illustrations. This shows women facing unemployment when men returned home from war. Harold Earnshaw, The Bystander, 11 Dec.1918, The Illustrated London News

The response to our ‘Everywoman’ has been gratifyingly positive and many students have told me that they could imagine wearing the clothes even though they were, “really old.” A lot of people have remarked on the boots and one visitor said that she had been “strangely moved”, by the evidence of the personality which she thought she had glimpsed behind the Perspex case.

 

From Brighton to LA

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BA (Hons) History of Design, Culture and Society grad 2015 Veronika Zeleznaja reflects on life, work and study since graduating from Brighton

Eames House

Fig 1. Charles and Ray Eames House (photograph by author).

I completed a BA (Hons) in History of Design, Culture and Society at the University of Brighton in 2015 and just a few months ago I graduated from University of the Arts London, Central Saint Martins’ Culture, Criticism and Curation postgraduate programme. Following my MA, I have relocated to Los Angeles, California.

At Brighton, my studies encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to form and culture. I applied a range of critical approaches to the study of the design and consumption of objects, from one-off pieces to everyday goods, starting in the mid-eighteenth century and running through to the present day. My BA dissertation, on mid-century American modernism in Forbidden Planet, explored how design is intimately bound up with the cultural, social and economic norms of its day. The dissertation looked at the connection between design, architecture and media, and how that science fiction film, and others of its day, reflected increased American leadership in the 1950s and promoted and propagandized its values and lifestyle. It drew on my fascination with the Californian Case Study Houses, a post-World War II modernist residential architecture project, discovered through the Making the Modern Home: Design, Domesticity and Discourse 1870 to the present module (taught by Jeremy Aynsley). It evolved beyond an academic interest when I visited the Eames House in California (Fig 1.), and relates to my recent move to Los Angeles.

After my studies at Brighton, I took a gap year and returned to my home country, Lithuania, and undertook an internship in the LIMIS (Lithuanian Integral Museum Information System) department at the Lithuanian Art Museum, helping to create a common digital archive of museum collections across Lithuania. I was responsible for digitising, managing and editing images to be published online, proofreading and copy-editing as well as working with the LIMIS database.

I did not take the usual route to jobs and internships through applications and posted vacancies online. Instead, I showed up in person at the institution of my interest and offered my candidature directly. This approach not only resulted in the offer of a position but also led to some useful contacts, who have offered sound advice along the way. Furthermore, this internship gave me an opportunity to engage with issues and strategies in presenting cultural heritage objects, and furthered my interest in how public relations relates to curation, presentation, and public engagement in art. It resulted in enrolment to the Public Relations MA programme at the University of the Arts London. After the first term, I realised that my interest in the issues surrounding the presentation of culture in public and social spaces, in what I thought of as the PR corner of the art world, were not addressed in the curriculum. So I switched to the Culture, Criticism and Curation course at Central Saint Martins, aimed at candidates with an interest in research and its application in organising cultural events. The programme offered a critical and historical framework for engaging with the culture that I found resonated with me, due to strong theory foundations in my BA. This MA course emphasized a hands-on teaching method and was mainly structured on ‘live’ projects used as a testing-ground. Led by students but done in partnership with external organisations, these projects taught me how to collaborate effectively.

Unknown Quantities

Fig. 2. Unknown Quantities work in progress (photograph by author).

After putting up an archive-based group exhibition as one of the first assignments, for my final project I chose to address a series of seminars on art criticism within the MA programme and joined the editorial board of Unknown Quantities, an annual collaborative project developed by MA Culture, Criticism and Curation and MA Graphic Communication Design students. Our group created an experimental concept-based physical publication that set out to contribute to cultural criticism and communication design, bringing together contributions from the team and direct external commissions from artists, writers and practitioners (Figs 2 and 3).

For my MA thesis, I examined the interplay of political, economic, cultural, and social forces that triggered interest in Russian art abroad, specifically in London, as well as curatorial choices around national art for international export. The dissertation explored how museums and art institutions have developed their roles as elements of soft power, as sites able to produce a favourable image of a country, by functioning as platforms for cultural display and exchange.

Now I have relocated to America. Los Angeles has a thriving art scene and I hope to put both of my degrees to excellent use here.

Unknown Quantities

Fig 3. Unknown Quantities work in progress (photograph by author).

Christian Dior at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs

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Second year Fashion and Dress History students Caroleen Molenaar and Donna Gilbert discuss their visit to the Christian Dior exhibition in Paris

Fig. 1: The Colourama Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 1: The Colourama Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph taken by the authors.

The Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris (from July 5 2017 to January 8 2018), celebrated seventy years of the House of Dior. It combined the work of Christian Dior with that of the six artistic directors who followed him – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri – in what can only be described as a sumptuous feast of fashion.

The House of Dior opened in 1946, funded by Marcel Boussac, France’s cotton king. Dior’s first collection in 1947 was described as revolutionary, but was also scandalous, requiring many yards of material in a time of austerity. Dior said “We were emerging from a period of war, of uniforms, of women-soldiers built like boxers. I drew women-flowers, soft shoulders, flowering busts, fine waists like liana and wide skirts like corolla.”[1] Carmel Snow, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar dubbed this the ‘New Look’ and it took the fashion world by storm, helping Paris to regain its title as the ‘Capital of Couture.’ During his ten-year reign, Dior continued to introduce new shapes such as the Oblique (1950), the Tulip (1953) and the Spindle (1957) and influenced many designers including Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin, who both worked for the House of Dior.

Fig. 2: The Garden Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 2: The Garden Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph taken by the authors.

In the exhibition, the Colourama rooms were the first to showcase all the different types of items and accessories that the House of Dior created. These included dresses, shoes, purses, tiaras, miniature dresses, perfume bottles, jewellery, gloves, and drawings. This wide array of items were displayed together, by colour, to fit in with Dior’s belief in fashion as an all-encompassing feature, with fashion accessories matching a woman’s dress to create perfect harmony.[2] In the first room (Figure 1), the colours of the items displayed ranged from tints and shades with white, going through different forms of grey ending in black; as well as warm colours, beginning with tan, to yellow, to white, to orange to pink to red. The second room was primarily made up of cool colours beginning with green, leading to dark green, dark blue, blue, grey into lilac, purple, maroon and then red.

From a young age, Dior had always had a large affinity for nature and flowers. His childhood house, Granville, had a large garden that he would sit in and enjoy. As a fashion designer, Dior would often retreat to the garden of one of his six properties to acquire inspiration for his upcoming collections.[3] The design of the Garden room in the exhibition perfectly emulated a garden through the thousands of white paper cut leaves and flowers hanging from the ceiling, and the changing coloured lights representing the different colours of flowers. All of the garments in the room had different influences of nature and flowers: from printed materials, to flower appliques, to embroidered flowers, or dresses shaped like flowers. Figure 2 shows some of our favourite dresses in this room, and shows how the influence of nature and flowers was incorporated in contrasting ways in each.

Fig. 3: Christian Dior’s Junon from the Tulip Collection, 1953. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 3: Christian Dior’s Junon from the Tulip Collection, 1953. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph by the authors.

The Ball Gown room, the last room of the exhibition, was by far the grandest in its display and content. The design of the room itself encompassed two mirrored walls, with two Rococo-style decorated walls where paintings of women wearing ball gowns by Gainsborough, Winterhalter and Renoir were hung, emulating the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Dior’s interest in ball gowns stemmed from his enjoyment of high society Parisian parties held after the Second World War. Attending these balls inspired him to design many lavish garments.[4] One of our favourite ball gowns displayed in this room was Dior’s ‘Junon’ dress; made as part of his Tulip collection in 1953 (Figure 3).

Overall, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams was an exhibition where you wanted to go back to the very first room as soon as you had left the final one, to see the things in each dress or accessory you had missed first time round. For both of us, it was the most visually-pleasing, and fashion-filled exhibit we’d been to, and has set the bar high for future fashion exhibitions.

[1] Roux and Müller, Christian Dior, 40.

[2] Roux and Müller, Christian Dior, 58.

[3] Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion, A Cultural History, (Oxford: Berg 2nd Ed, [1988] 1998) 270

[4] Raphaëlle Roux, and Florence Müller. Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris: French Society of Artistic Promotion. 2017) 62.

 

Working with Queer Looks

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Second year Fashion and Dress History student Eleanor Medhurst discusses her work with Brighton Museum’s Queer Looks Project

The Queer Looks Young Project Team discussing themes

The Queer Looks Young Project Team discussing themes for the exhibition

I found out about Queer Looks by a sponsored post on Facebook, which is a strange way to encounter something that has had such a positive impact on my life. As a Fashion and Dress History student, and as someone in the LGBT+ community, I was instantly drawn to the project. Queer Looks at Brighton Museum is a display opening this summer featuring outfits and stories from members of the LGBT+ community in Brighton and Sussex. I’ve been part of the Young Project Team, meaning that I have helped to reach out to members of the community, conduct oral history interviews with them, and consider which outfits might be best to put on display. Dress is, in my eyes at least, the most personalised aspect of design history. Through looking at dress we can read individual histories; the stories that we can discover through the outfits of Queer Looks tell us of the struggles facing individual people within the LGBT+ community, the struggles of the community as a whole, and – as I think it is most important to look at the positives – the pride, creativity, and resistance that can be expressed through clothing.

Jason, an interviewee for the project

Jason, an interviewee for Queer Looks

There’s been something so validating about creating this space for queer history and queer fashion to exist within the Museum. It’s been even more important that it’s been through the lens of our team, a group of young queer people, and through direct oral history interviews where members of the community have told their story, on their own terms. Often when queer history is told it is as a side note. This project, however, celebrates queer fashion not as fashion that happens to be worn or designed by a queer person, but as fashion and style that exists in its queerness. I exist as a hyper-feminine gay woman and that is told through my clothing. Jason, an interviewee, owned his pink velvet hotpants-and-waistcoat set specifically to wear to gay clubs in the ‘90s. The stories that our clothes tell are intrinsically linked with our identities and our place as members of the LGBT+ community reacting to a heteronormative society. They are a vitally important part of fashion and design history as a mass reaction to its heterosexual canon.

Deciding which stories to tell in Queer Looks has been a difficult issue. The display will only be able to hold around 20 outfits, but of course there are far more than 20 unique looks and stories that want to be seen and heard. The key was to think as inclusively as possible – a true history and representation of queer people’s looks would not be possible without a varied representation.

The Queer Looks Young Project Team deciding who to include

The Queer Looks Young Project Team deciding who to include in the display

Many people perceive fashion and the LGBT+ community to be something that is flamboyant, or fabulous. Whilst this is often true, we are also a community of real people living real lives and it was important to present a history that is tangible, as queer fashion is something that exists all around us. We have tried our utmost to interview people with amazing style, but who also are a true reflection of the LGBT+ community. Amazing clothes are not all that is worthy of being kept in museums – they also need an accurate representation of the diversity of the people who the clothes belonged to.

Queer Looks is opening this summer, along with an additional microsite (to exhibit the outfits and stories unable to fit in the fashion gallery), but we’ll be putting on events celebrating queer fashion at the museum in the run-up to the opening of the display. One of these is on Saturday 3rd March for International Women’s Day. Keep an eye on the Brighton Museum Blog and the Instagram if you want to stay up to date.

Visiting Berlin: art, politics and national identity

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Second year BA (Hons) Visual Culture student Ella Winning on an eye-opening course trip to Germany

Figure 1: Interior of Hamburger Bahnhof

Figure 1: Interior of Hamburger Bahnhof

Back in November, twelve of my course mates and I spent five days in Berlin as part of the second-year Trip to Europe module. During this time, we visited many of the famous tourist sights such as the Reichstag, Berlin Wall and the Bauhaus Archive, as well as galleries and museums in the city.

One place that particularly caught my attention was the Hamburger Bahnhof; a contemporary art museum situated in the west of Berlin. Hosting a collection of modern art works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Anselm Kiefer, the exhibition I was most drawn to was the Preis der Nationalgalerie (29 September 2017 – 14 January 2018). This is a biennial opportunity for four artists under the age of 30 who live and work in Berlin to exhibit their work in a group exhibition at the Museum. Additionally, one of them is chosen to be the focus of a solo show and publication. The most recent shortlisters were Sol Calero, Iman Issa, Jumana Manna, and Angieska Polska.

Figure 2: Entrance to Amazonas Shopping Centre

Figure 2: Entrance to Amazonas Shopping Centre

As part of the show, Venezuelan-born multidisciplinary artist Sol Calero exhibited her interactive installation, Amazonas Shopping Center; a brightly coloured amalgamation of a selection of her works from the past five years. Throughout her work, the artist explores themes of national identity and ethnicity, especially in terms of her own, Latino background. Calero does this through her incorporation of various features of Latin culture; her installation includes a hairdressing salon (background of figure 2), travel bureau, consisting of a currency exchange kiosk and travel agency desk (mid and foreground of figure 2), cybercafé, school, and a salsa dance studio and cinema where her telenovela, Desde el Jardin, plays (figure 3).

While Calero is frequently labelled as a ‘Latin’ artist, the artist and her fellow prize entrants reject the practice of describing of them and their work in terms of their ethnicity. In a statement released to Artnet News, the artists

Figure 3: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

Figure 3: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

explained that they felt their minority backgrounds as immigrants and as women were ‘emphasized much more heavily than the content of their work’ during promotions and advertising for the exhibition.[1] I found this particularly interesting; at a time of changing attitudes towards race in terms of politics (and therefore society), is it even relevant for the nationalities of the artists to be highlighted? Is exercising of nationality allowing pride in ‘otherness’, or is it a tool of isolation which discourages inclusion?

Some might argue that the Museum was simply highlighting diversity in the selection of artists, showing the all-encompassing attitudes towards art, while others (agreeing with the artists themselves) may perhaps argue that the Museum’s focus on the ‘otherness’ of the four women was perhaps a ‘self-congratulatory use of diversity as a public relations tool’[2] for the Hamburger Bahnhof, prohibiting the artists from fully integrating into the German art world.

It can be assumed that the Museum, along with many other organisations across Germany, wish to reject the racist politics that made a resurgence at the start of the twenty-first century, along with far-right intolerance emerging around the globe in the modern day. The renunciation of these politics can clearly be seen in modern German culture; one example being Angela Merkel’s pioneering and controversial open border policy introduced in 2015. [3] It could be argued that, with similar intentions to Merkel, the Museum has consciously tried to denounce intolerance by highlighting or celebrating the differences of the entrants to those of the past. Others might find it patronising and a form of discouraging inclusion to the ‘German’ art world.

Figure 4: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

Figure 4: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

I found this trip interesting because it opened my eyes to this issue of nationality and its relevance in the culture not only of Berlin, but of the contemporary world; a topic which will continue to be particularly important in the years to come.

[1] Kate Brown, “These Four Artists Were Nominated for Germany’s Foremost Art Prize—and Now They’re Denouncing It” ArtNet News.

[2] Brown, “These Four Artists Were Nominated for Germany’s Foremost Art Prize—and Now They’re Denouncing It”

[3] Reuters in Berlin “Merkel: no regrets over refugee policy despite political cost” Guardian. Web. 27 Aug, 2017.

Gluck: Art and Identity

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Final year BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student An Nguyen Ngoc reviews a current exhibition at Brighton Museum

Image 1: Daily Sketch, You Wouldn't Guess, 1926

Image 1: Daily Sketch, You Wouldn’t Guess, 1926

In November, Brighton Museum opened a new exhibition exploring the life and work of twentieth century artist Gluck (1895-1978), who is now recognised as a trailblazer of gender fluidity. I first learned about the exhibition soon before its opening, when I was taken on a volunteers’ tour of the Museum store and shown a photograph of Gluck in a tailored suit (Image 1), a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness from Virago Classics, and clothing belonging to Gluck and lovers. The objects were sufficient to demonstrate that the curator – Martin Pel – would not simply be creating a narrative of Gluck’s life. Instead, that the exhibition would encompass the complexities and diversity of the artist’s life and works, presenting not only artworks but also personal artefacts, press materials and an impressive display of Gluck’s clothing.

Gluck, born Hannah Gluckstein, was a member of a wealthy Jewish family in London, where the artist had attended art school to train as a painter. The identity, established with ‘no prefix, suffix or quotes’ was accompanied by Gluck’s appearance, often sporting tailored menswear, masculine barber-cut short hair and mannish demeanour. Much like their unwillingness to adopt a gendered title, the artist displayed no association with any group or movements, despite mixing with circles of artists and having run away to Cornwall with fellow art students during World War I. Displayed only in solo shows and seldom exhibited, Gluck’s artworks have gained cult status among collectors for their technical mastery and the extent to which biographical elements permeate through the canvas’s surface. A pioneering creative in queer history, it is not surprising that Gluck’s personal history has become relevant in contemporary investigation of attitudes towards queer expression of gender, as well as the social forces which cultivated the presentation of the artist’s identity. Hence the diversity of artefacts on display in ‘Gluck: Art and Identity’.

Image 2: Gluck, Lords and Ladies, detail, 1936 (private collection).

Image 2: Gluck, Lords and Ladies, detail, 1936, oil on canvas (private collection).

In the exhibition the first of two galleries displays earlier paintings (Image 2), mostly dating from before the artist’s first solo show, and some personal artefacts. These include meticulous documentation of the artist’s lovers, accompanied by notes and letters from the artist. It is also through this display that viewers are introduced to the forensic nature of ‘Art and Identity’. The curators do not hesitate to portray Gluck’s love life, albeit passionate, as turbulent too. Yet the artist’s queer expression – and the fact that Gluck’s homosexual affairs may not have been the happiest – can be assessed by viewers against contemporary attitudes, such as those expressed in articles which question the artist’s gender expression and sexuality, displayed nearby. In none of these instances, however, is Gluck’s contribution to twentieth century British painting diminished: portraits and landscapes from the interwar period are displayed with paintings of Constance Spry’s floral arrangements, reminding viewers of Gluck’s accomplishment as a painter.

Image 3: smock from Gluck's collection (Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

Image 3: smock from Gluck’s collection (Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

An even more rewarding display is that of Gluck’s clothing in the second room. Here, material constituents of gender and Gluck’s ‘queer’ aesthetics become even more prominent. Two painter’s smocks (Image 3), constructed to be utilitarian – or seemingly so – stimulate speculations about Gluck’s public and private personas: one is of an iridescent, silken material, while the other is made of linen or toile. Also displayed is a group of black evening gowns (Image 4), one which seems to have a pleated skirt but, upon further inspection, turns out to be a jumpsuit. Others display a variety of silhouettes with intricate laces, embroideries and embellishments. The display of these unattributed items appears, at first, to mystify the character of Gluck. But they turn out to embody the artist’s lived experience, encapsulating the diversity and richness of the queer experience in the mid-twentieth century.

Image 4: Dress from Gluck's collection (Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

Image 4: Dress from Gluck’s collection (Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

Gluck: Art and Identity – curated by Martin Pel and Amy de la Haye – is on at Brighton Museum until 11 March 2018.

Gluck: Art and Identity Symposium will be held on 7 February 2018 at London College of Fashion.

Becoming a curator

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Graduate Iona Farrell describes how passion, persistence and hard work paid off in her quest to find a museum job

Image 1: 1950s sateen and lastex swimsuit by duCros from the Plume collection

Image 1: 1950s sateen and lastex swimsuit by duCros from the Plume collection, Southend Museum (image by author)

I graduated in 2016 from Brighton’s BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History degree and am now Assistant Curator of Social History at Southend Museum, where I work with the social and local history collection as well as the extensive costume archive. Highlights of the collection include the EKCO radio archive and the Plume swimsuit archive, the largest collection of swimwear in the country.

Brighton provided me with the starting step to pursue a career in museums. What I most enjoyed was how tutors encouraged primary research through visiting archives and using the University’s Dress History Teaching Collection. This approach has proved useful within my current role, where I am often handling artefacts. In a recent donation to the museum I used my undergraduate training to explore a beautiful silk chiffon dress. The garment’s delicate stitching showed the handiwork of a skilled dressmaker, whilst a tiny tear on the fragile hem pointed to a heel catching in the fabric, perhaps when the wearer was dancing. Details like this will inform how the garment is stored, as well as providing a ‘biography’ of an object crucial for creating an exhibition narrative.

Throughout my time at university I loved uncovering stories like these and spent many an hour at St Peter’s House Library using its extensive periodical and microfiche archive. One of my favourite projects was researching the clientele of 1920s couture, which meant poring over the Vogue archive. At times like these I knew I had chosen the right degree! For all current students, I really recommend making the most of these brilliant resources and, being a current Masters student, I must admit I miss the well-stocked shelves of St Peter’s!

Image 2: 1930s guides to Southend from the archive, Southend Museum (image by author)

Image 2: 1930s guides to Southend from the archive, Southend Museum (image by author)

In my second year I started research for my dissertation, which explored the performance and liminality of 1950s swimsuit pageants. I was keen to ground my writing in archival research and this led me to Southend Museum’s swimwear archive. Being from Southend, it was fantastic to discover the wealth of the collections and this inspired me to start volunteering. A major project I undertook as a volunteer was cataloguing over 500 swimsuits from the Plume collection. Along the way I assisted in exhibition installations and co-curated an exhibition on the history of toys, allowing me to build up a diverse range of skills. Volunteering seems to be a prerequisite for gaining paid work in Museums and local museums truly can provide brilliant opportunities for anyone intent on working in the sector.

After graduation I worked part-time for the University of Essex Library and started a Masters in Museum Studies, a distance-learning course, which has allowed me to continue to work. I must admit studying for a Masters, whilst being in employment and trying to gain entry into the museum sector was a challenge! As many have probably experienced, gaining work in museums can feel like an uphill struggle of endless online application forms. But I must stress that it will happen eventually! Always take whatever opportunities come your way, whether this means volunteering in your local museum like me, or gaining hands on experience within an archive: it’s all relevant experience and it’s fun.

Image 3: Inside the costume store, Southend Museums (image by author).

Image 3: Inside the costume store, Southend Museums (image by author).

By volunteering at Southend I was able to build up a large amount of experience and apply for the post of Assistant Curator. It’s fantastic to work now with such a wide-ranging collection and every day is different, whether this be accessioning donations, undertaking exhibition research, taking part in school visits or co-ordinating a touring exhibition. A major responsibility is undertaking the rationalisation of the social history collection, ensuring it is relevant and usable for generations to come. An upcoming project, Snapping the Stiletto will see museums across Essex collaborate to celebrate Essex women and dismantle the ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype. I am excited to build strong partnerships across Essex and the culminating touring exhibition and events across the county are something that people should look out for in the coming year.

It’s fantastic to be in an industry that is so creative, one that has the ability to tell so many stories and to inspire so many people. I am so glad that I applied to Brighton and grateful for the starting step it gave me.

Volunteering: where might the ‘positive feedback loop’ take you?

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Lisa Hinkins, currently in her final year studying BA (Hons) History of Art and Design, gives an update on the diverse volunteering opportunities available via the University of Brighton  – and the unexpected places they have led…

In my first year of the BA (Hons) History of Art & Design course, I was asked if I could write for our blog about my experiences of volunteering. In it I mentioned the ‘positive feedback loop’ from my experience of coordinating volunteers at a Scrap store I ran, to my volunteering with Photoworks and Fabrica. Since then, I have participated many hours of learning and creating within my voluntary roles. On the way, I have met and made friends with many different people. Fabrica has been a refuge from many stresses and an outlet to experiment in writing for their Response magazine, create workshops and interact with the public in Front of House duties for exhibitions.

The initial few months of volunteering within the arts gave me the confidence to apply for a job at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery as a casual gallery explainer. For nine months, I was part of a team working in the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, following which I worked with the Constable and Brighton exhibition. While engaged with the Museum, it has led to some other opportunities within the organization, which have been very interesting and invaluable learning experiences. So, my volunteering led to a positive outcome of a paying job.

Not only have I been able to earn money from something I enjoy, I continued my volunteering during my second year of study. Somehow, I managed to rack up over 90 hours of volunteering! It has been important to keep in contact with Kat (neé Turner) Saunders, Volunteering Project Officer for Active Student Volunteering Services, as she was able to ensure I received continued opportunities with Photoworks, which included creating a workshop during 2016’s Brighton Photo Biennial at the Ewen Spencer installation at Fabrica. Another benefit of keeping registered with the university Volunteering Services, is that your volunteering hours are officially recognized by it, so for the past two years I have received certificates recognizing my dedication.

In June, I was completely taken aback when Kat Saunders sent me an invitation to attend the Mayoral reception for University of Brighton student volunteers, part of celebrations for National Volunteers’ Week. Around twenty students were invited from across the Brighton campuses to the reception in acknowledgement of the many hours of dedicated service in organizations across the city. It was an honor to be asked and to represent the City campus. It was also a great excuse to eat far too much cake in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall! And it was a delight to meet the exuberant Mayor, Mo Marsh, who took time to speak to all of us about our experiences and thank us.

A week later our group photograph with the Mayor was featured inside The Argus newspaper. Rather embarrassingly the callout for students to send a few words about their volunteering experiences, for the article seemed to result in only mine being published, but Fabrica director Liz Whitehead was truly delighted that her organization got a mention in my statement.

That positive feedback loop has endured: volunteering, job, celebration, recognition, continued volunteering. I would encourage my fellow students to sign up with Active Student Volunteering Services. It has been one of the best things I have done during this journey through my degree.

 

Mass Observation: Objects in Everyday Life

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How can historians investigate what people wore in everyday life and what it meant to them? Hannah Smith (MA History of Design and Material Culture) explores some of the many micro-histories contained in the Mass Observation archive…

For my MA dissertation I have researched practices of dress in everyday life as presented within the Mass Observation Project Spring 1992 and Spring 2006 ‘One Day Diary’ directive responses. Housed within the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep near the South Downs in Sussex, it is made up of handwritten letters, typed emails, photographs and drawings, produced at the hands of the hundreds that make up the panel of writers known as ‘Mass Observers’. This material is divided into the Mass Observation Archive (1937 – early 1950s) and the Mass Observation Project (1981 – present). It is the latter Mass Observation Project (MOP) that I have been using in my research.

The MOP defines itself as a ‘national life writing project’. Former director of the project, Dorothy Sheridan described it as, “…ordinary people observing and reflecting on everyday life…” (Sheridan, 2000:10). The intent of both the Mass Observation Archive and Project was to give voice to the ‘ordinary’ everyday person, giving them “the authority over knowledge” (Sheridan, 2000:10). Mass Observers are sent up to three sets of ‘directives’ a year with the invitation to write about a wide range of themes and events. Examples have included “Gardening”, “The Refugee Crisis” and “Your Home”.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

My interest in the MOP came about during my first year on the MA History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton. We were encouraged to use the MOP as a primary resource for a group project entitled ‘Interior Lifestyles’. Using the directives ‘Objects about the House’ and ‘Collecting Things’ we explored the relationships between the Mass Observers and the objects they decorated their homes with. Aside from the aforementioned project, the ‘New Years Eve’ and ‘One Day Diary’ directives that I had had the opportunity to look through particularly inspired me. As a researcher of dress and fashion in everyday life, here was access to narratives of real experiences of living, breathing people interacting with dress and fashion, rather than a constructed representation or media ideal. I therefore initially assessed these diary-format directives and developed my own methodology for using the MOP within a material culture study, ultimately leading to my dissertation research in practices of dress.

As well as being able to track the Mass Observer’s use of dress as they weave amongst different contexts throughout the narrative of their day, it has given me rare insight into the ‘wardrobe’ moment – the moment when which the bricolage of the visual self we see in more public spaces is created. Through using Mass Observation, I have been allowed the opportunity to explore not only how people use dress in more public spaces, but also in move private spaces – whether that be their dressing gowns, pyjamas or nothing!

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Initially, I was overwhelmed due to the vast amount of material and its seemingly limitless capability for endless threads and tangents of research. By reading as much as possible about how other researchers had used the material, I was able to see that every Mass Observation researcher has shared the same struggles and frustrations. Through learning from their problem solving, I was able to tailor their theories to my research interest and develop my own methodology for using the material as well as providing a structure for sampling.

With its interdisciplinary appeal the material transcends boundaries, making it an exciting resource that can always be further explored. Whilst students, academics, media researchers and the public have taken advantage of the unique collection – it is ultimately a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in everyday life. For a researcher of design history and material culture, it provides a rare platform to witness the reality of objects interacting in everyday life. Since I’ve been working with the material, the Mass Observation staff, and the staff at The Keep, have been incredibly helpful and approachable. There is an openness towards anyone that is interested in engaging with the material.

As much as it may seem intimidating during an initial encounter, this should never prevent anyone that is interested from engaging with the material. Now more than ever Mass Observation provides an important platform for recording the reality of lived experience, giving voice to the micro-histories that grand-narratives have tendency to silence. It is inspiring to know as an individual in society, as well as a researcher, that there is a space for your voice to be heard and a space that seriously considers what you have to say. Working with a collection such as this is incredibly important if we are to understand the reality of how we negotiate lived experience and exist as a society and as individuals.

 

Dress Detective: using Brighton’s Dress History Teaching Collection

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Sarah-Mary Geissler (MA in Design and Material Culture), reflects on how one seemingly uninspiring garment led her to unexpected places…

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

It really is amazing is how far one project can take you. From what started simply as a class presentation led to assisting lectures, journal publication and even curating a display just a year later!

During my final year studying the BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History at the University of Brighton, we had the privilege of being taught by Professor Lou Taylor, pioneering dress historian. The spring term Special Subject module focused on case studies of objects in the Dress History Teaching Collection. Throughout her career, Taylor has amassed a wealth of dress objects which now reside at Pavilion Parade, an incomparable resource waiting to be utilised by students. Each piece has a fascinating backstory – rejected by museums, donated by alumni, rescued by students – though only a small percentage of the collection has been thoroughly researched. The aim of our module was to improve our own analytical and interpretive skills as dress historians, but also to provide a selection of objects with proper catalogue entries. The garment I had my heart set on was already selected by someone else, so I unenthusiastically settled on researching an 1888 Mauve Day Dress. I began the project totally convinced that there was nothing exciting about the Victorian era, and grumbled to friends how boring this project would be. I was so wrong!

View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 2: View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Eventually I found how to apply my own interests to the research. Once I moved past my preconceptions of 19th Century dress, the analysis process became fascinating. I studied the dress inside and out, then compared it to other dresses from the period: it was clear that it wasn’t a straightforward example of 1880s fashion. As a dressmaker myself, the garment’s messy construction intrigued me. Other evidence in the garment led to the conclusion that it could have been an 1860s dress altered over 20 years. My project became a detective-style investigation into who the wearer was; where/when was the dress first made? Why was it altered so dramatically? And was this dress renovation typical for the period?

View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 3: View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Throughout the assignment, I contacted several museum-based professionals regarding the dress, and became more confident networking as a researcher. I looked into museums policies regarding altered garments, and how different keepers of costume interpret their collections. Over the course of the module, I developed a specialist understanding of mid-late 19th Century home-dressmaking, strengthened my ability to read dress, learned how to properly mount costume, and found out a great deal about the theory of dress history and the field today. Outside of university, this project gave me the confidence to submit an exhibition review to Textile History Journal, which was selected for publication last November!

Knowing how invested I was with my case study, Professor Taylor asked me to assist with her first year lecture and object handling session, and to do a small talk about the dress. I was so nervous about speaking in front of a large group, but the session went brilliantly. It was surprising how much information I could recall about the dress; I started to feel like a proper historian! This year I was asked to help out again, and so came prepared with notes and printed images to aid my talk.

Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 4: Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

The success of this led to a conversation about displaying the dress in the School of Humanities’ Pavilion Parade foyer. With help from Clare in the office, mounting the dress was straightforward, though preparing information for the posters was challenging. I had to figure out what story was being told and how to make it interesting for a public viewer. Revisiting an undergrad project as a postgrad student, it was clear to see how much my work has strengthened in just a year (frustratingly, I found a spelling mistake on the first page of my original paper!). Displaying my research made me consider how museums and heritage sites interpret their collections, and this little display pushed me to develop my own curatorial skills.

All in all, I never expected the work done for one assignment to be the basis for such fantastic things. Having the Teaching Collection as a resource has been an invaluable part of my education at Brighton, and has reinforced the importance of understanding objects as sources of information to be read. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities at the university to provide me with experience I can take into my career. It would be great for more students to get involved showcasing other pieces from the Teaching Collection in future, as there are many, many more fascinating stories to be shared!