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.

 

Diana’s dresses

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First year Visual Culture student Sarahlouise Newman reviews Diana: Her Fashion Story, currently on at Kensington Palace

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Fig.1 Tweed day outfit by Bill Pashley

At the end of January, I had the opportunity to see an exhibition of Princess Diana’s dresses. Situated in the gallery at her former home of Kensington Palace, the exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story documents the evolution of one of British history’s most iconic princesses.

Set in the beautiful front building of Kensington Palace, we were guided through an atrium to plainly-decorated rooms, adorned with sketches of dresses immortalised by the media during Diana’s life. One of these is the well-documented tweed day outfit (Fig.1), designed by Bill Pashley, which she wore on her honeymoon at Balmoral in 1981, in front of the world’s press. The outfit is noted for its lack of structure as it hid her slim frame, which then caused the media to speculate, wrongly, that she was already pregnant.

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Fig. 2 ‘The horse blanket’ by David Emanuel

 

Following on a little further is a long, green, checked coat (Fig.2) that was nick-named ‘the horse blanket’ by the press, which Diana wore when she was she was in Venice in 1981. This was made by her future wedding-gown designer, David Emanuel. The caption beneath the coat states that this was one of her fashion mistakes: it drowned her figure, hiding her slim silhouette with a boxy coat.

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Fig.3 The ‘Travolta dress’ by Victor Edelstein

 

Moving into the second room, the style evolves into an elegant black gown nick-named the ‘Travolta dress’. The off-the-shoulder midnight blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein was immortalised in a photo when Diana danced with John Travolta at the gala dinner at the White House in 1985. The dress was so iconic that it is the most expensive auctioned dress in the world and even has its own Wikipedia page. Reverting back to the more delicate colouring is the typical Disney-esque style dress, which she wore to the Royal Ballet at the Berlin Opera house in 1987 (Fig.4). The satin off-the-shoulder garment has a hint of true 1980s fashion, but still holds to the feminine image of a princess, with a full skirt and neat cuffs. This dress is a light pink, satin-buttoned, off-the-shoulder, floor-length gown designed by Catherine Walker.

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Fig.4 Dress for the Royal Ballet by Catherine Walker, with Zandra Rhodes design of 1986 in background

Still using the light pink colouring, the dress in the background (Fig.4) is a Zandra Rhodes light pink, chiffon gown adorned with pearls and a satin waist-tie. Diana wore this outfit in 1986. She was, by then, mother to William and Harry and increasingly in the public eye, not just for her position in the royal family but also as charity patron. The main thing I noticed was the length of the gowns. The media never showed the height and build of the Princess of Wales, but it is notable from the length of the gowns how tall and slim she must have been.

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Fig.5 Sketches by Catherine Walker

As I moved from room to room, I noticed many sketches by Catherine Walker who was one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers, and helped her to develop her sense of style (Fig.5). Diana commissioned Walker to make suits for charity events including the well-known hospital visit to an AIDS ward, where Diana famously refused to wear surgical gloves and hugged terminally-ill patients.

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Fig.6 Dresses worn for Mario Testino shoot

The final room was my favourite, having a centrepiece of dresses Diana wore on the Mario Testino photoshoot, which became known as her last (Fig.6). Photographs are placed on walls around the garments, along with quotes from Diana and the designers who worked with her.

The exhibition is an intimate view of the evolution of her fashion style from a young princess to international fashion icon. It shows Diana’s elegance and, at times, her fashion faux pas. But mainly it is an exhibition for all, from art and fashion students, to people who were admirers of Diana. It is definitely worth a visit.

Note: The exhibition continues until April 2018, with NUS discounts available. Booking in advance is advised: I went on a Sunday afternoon and it was not too busy, but Saturdays are usually sold out. Catalogues are on sale and photography is allowed, but can be difficult due to lighting.

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!

 

Perspectives on Fashion Curation

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What does it mean to exhibit fashion today? Student Jade Bailey-Dowling (BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History) visited the London College of Fashion event Perspectives on Fashion Curation to find out.

For a two week period, London College of Fashion (LCF) took over House of Vans in Waterloo with an exhibition and programme of events called Found In Translation, showcasing work from the School of Media and Communication postgraduate courses at LCF.  These include Master’s courses of interest to Brighton’s History of Art and Design BA programme students including Costume for Performance, Fashion Cultures, and perhaps most relevant for those studying Fashion and Dress History, Fashion Curation.

On Friday 17 February, I attended Perspectives on Fashion Curationa series of presentations by some of the leading figures who teach on LCF postgraduate programmes in Fashion and Dress History and Fashion Curation. The event was chaired by Ben Whyman, the manager for Centre of Fashion Curation, and began with presentations from several experts in the field talking about different areas of fashion curation and exhibition making.

Perspectives on Fashion Curation. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017

Perspectives on Fashion Curation. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017

Susanna Cordner introduced the London College of Fashion Archive which is open by appointment only and has a vast array of fashion objects, literature and other artefacts. The collection includes 650 shoes from the Cordwainer College Archive dating back to the 18th century. Cordner has worked hard to create an immersive experience from the archive and organises events such as the Object Reading Group, where an object is presented and attendees discuss them, and Sartorial Stories, when a guest speaker from the industry, from designers to editors, bring in an object and discusses it in relation to their career and the fashion industry.

Jeff Horsley explored concepts of exhibition making, and spoke in great detail about the fashion displays in Antwerp that he has been researching for his PhD. Themes of his talk included the importance of exhibition entrances, concepts of what ‘objects’ are within a museum context and the use of mannequins for historical dress vs. contemporary haute couture that could be displayed on a live model. This is something Claire Wilcox  – curator of the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – has explored with Fashion in Motion at the V&A by presenting contemporary fashion on live models around the museum rather than confined to a glass cabinet. Wilcox, who began working at the V&A in 1979, also spoke about changes in fashion collecting and the shifting attitudes towards fashion exhibitions and contemporary designers in a museum collection.

The penultimate presentation was an overview of the Fashion Space Gallery that is at the campus just off Oxford Circus. The space relaunched in 2014 and was described by Ligaya Salazar, the gallery director, as an ‘interdisciplinary incubator of ideas about fashion” and a “think tank for curatorial ideas and experimentation.” Although it is a small space, there is arguably more freedom than at a larger establishment, leading to innovative use of space and creative curatorial decisions. The current exhibition, Museum of Transology, curated by E-J Scott, documents objects of importance to members of the trans community and runs until 22 April 2017.

Their work also goes outside of the gallery with the travelling Polyphonic Playground. This off-site project is a kind of playground apparatus that can be used to make sound art as all of the surfaces use touch technology or electrical conducting thread to create sound.  Similarly, Alison Moloney spoke about a traveling exhibition she worked on called Cabinet Stories in which 7 curators would use the small cabinet space to display objects in different venues, including a women’s prison, an NHS hospital ward for people with suffering with personality disorders, a charity shop in Poplar and an old peoples home. At all the venues, people were encouraged to then display objects that meant a lot to them. This meant that people could get involved from the community in curation, showing the diversity of fashion outside of the museum. Moloney also introduced the project 1914 – Now, a series of films and essays summarising the themes of this event, which was displayed in the exhibition space at House of Vans and also available on SHOWstudio. Fashion films explore initiative ways to present fashion using film, visuals and sound, much in line with the inovations presented at this talk related to new ways to exhibit fashion and dress.

MA Fashion Curation final show at LCF. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017.

MA Fashion Curation final show at LCF. Photo by Jade Bailey-Dowling, 17 February 2017.

The final portion of the event was a panel discussion with Amy de la Haye, Alison Moloney, Jeffrey Horsely, Ligaya Salazar, and Claire Wilcox, where they discussed what curation meant for them, motivations when creating an exhibition and generally what it is like to curate a fashion exhibition. It was fascinating to hear differing approaches on the subject of fashion curation and to learn more about how experimental the field is.

 

Volunteering at Brighton: Gladrags Costume Store

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Emmy Sale, a second-year student studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History tells how Brighton University helped her to get involved with a fascinating costume project…

Life at university can offer many new opportunities: volunteering can not only help others, but also give you new experiences that can be helpful for your future career.

To complement my studies, I decided to undertake a volunteering placement with help from the university’s Active Student scheme. There are a broad range of placements in and around Brighton that are available, whether it may be to gain experience in a museum environment, assisting events organisation or in education and teaching. Whatever your interests and aims may be, the co-ordinators help to understand these in order to ensure the placement will be suitable and fulfil your aspirations.

As a Fashion and Dress History student, I understood how competitive the field is within the museum and heritage sector. I wanted to use my spare time to be productive, learn new skills and meet new people alongside my course and university experience. After meeting with Active Student, I chose to undertake a Research volunteer placement with the community charity, Gladrags.

Gladrags is a volunteer run charity and offer a unique resource for the hiring of costumes to schools, community groups, amateur art groups and individuals. The store has over 6000 costumes and garments, that volunteers find themselves overwhelmed by when first entering the store. Through the role and time dedicated per week to helping at the store, I found myself putting away costumes, which was always a test of knowledge but also enabled me to learn new things about historical clothing from other volunteers. I also enjoyed spending time in the sewing area to fix, rejuvenate or make garments requested by users of the store. Outside of my time at the store, I undertook research into Roman clothing and artefacts for the education boxes that can be hired by schools to compliment and enrich the national curriculum.

Macduff costume sketch by Duncan Grant c. 1910

Figure 1: Scanned image of the Macduff Sketch, from the Sketchbook of Duncan Grant, c.1910

Through this placement, an opportunity to be part of a project with Charleston House arose. The project was proposed as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the House and to bring together community groups to discover and explore Charleston House and its history. It involved the use of costume sketches from a sketchbook given to Charleston by Angelica Garrett, the daughter of Duncan Grant which were originally intended for a production of Macbeth dating from 1911. The production was going to be directed by Harley Granville Barker at the Savoy Theatre in London, but in the end the costumes were never made. With help from costume designer, Suzanne Rowland, a group of 15 volunteers at Gladrags set to interpret, imagine and reproduce the costume sketches of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, a witch, Lennox and Macduff.

Figure 2 The author of this article working on the Macduff costume at the Gladrags Costume Store. Image from Gladrags Facebook Page, 26 May 2016.

Figure 2: Emmy Sale working on the Macduff costume at the Gladrags Costume Store. Image from Gladrags Facebook Page, 26 May 2016.

We spent several workshops together to learn about Charleston House and to produce the garments. I was excited to work on the costume of Macduff. The costume sketch featured a tunic with squares and circles erratically placed and adorning all spaces of the fabric. It was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08) and the various sized squares featured on the covering of the bodies. Appliqué squares of different sizes and proportions would cover the calico tunic in a colour scheme of gold, browns, blacks and silver toned textured fabrics.

To exhibit the costumes, actors from Burgess Hill Theatre performed a mini-Macbeth within the gardens of Charleston House which we were invited to help with and share our project with those at the centenary events. It was a truly unique and wonderful experience to see a piece of history that could have just been hidden in an archive but has been somewhat revived and as a result Duncan Grant’s vision was realised through the interpretation and construction of the garments.

Figure 3: Actor wearing the finished garment in the garden of Charleston House. Image courtesy of Gladrags. Taken 29 May 2016.

Overall, my volunteering with Gladrags has been one of the most valuable experiences I have had since moving to Brighton and starting university. It helped me to contextualise my studies as well as testing what I already knew or did not know. It is an experience that I will be able to talk about to future employers as well as one that expresses my commitment to expanding knowledge to both my studies and the job roles I may want to have in the future. I would highly recommend to anyone how helpful the Active Student service at the University is and the advantages that volunteering can have on both personal development and preparing for future job roles.

What is ‘African’ fashion? Creating African Fashion Histories conference

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Jade Bailey-Dowling (final year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History) attended a recent conference for the exhibition Fashion Cities Africa that questioned whether ‘fashion’ is just a European idea…

On 2 November 2016, the Royal Pavilion & Museums with the Sussex Africa Centre at the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton held a one-day conference titled Creating African Fashion Histories. This event accompanied the much anticipated first major UK exhibition dedicated to contemporary African fashion, Fashion Cities Africa at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. It was an engaging and well-attended conference which saw fourteen speakers summarizing their recent research on particular periods or focusing on different places pivotal to African fashion. The day was split into four sections, with allocated time for a panel discussion at the end of each of the sections, enabling academics and attendees to interact and participate together.

The eclectic research topics, varying from place to period, led to a fascinating and thorough exploration of the history of African fashion. While some focused on the origins of African fashion and styles of the past – such as Jody Benjamin from the University of California who discussed the 18th and 19th century cloth trades and costume trends from surviving prints and a few rare pieces of  cloth – others took a more contemporary focus, for example Christopher Richards of Brooklyn College who looked at the styles present in 1960s Ghana. Carol Tulloch, who co-curated the V&A’s Black Style exhibition in 2004, developed her research by using Ebony magazine to investigate the styles, fashions and dress of African American women looking at their aesthetic choices.

Other presenters included M. Angela Jansen, a visiting researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum, who focused on 20th century Moroccan fashion history, looking mainly at photographs as sources and examples. Jansen pointed out a central theme that ran through all talks of the day: that fashion is not a European idea. This idea was reaffirmed by Tulloch who described the criticism of an exhibition for not ‘seeming’ African enough to a Western audience, highlighting the Europeanized constructed view of what is ‘African’; an interesting idea to hold on to when visiting the exhibition itself.

When explaining the main focus of the exhibition, Nicola Stylianou & Edith Ojo, who both worked on the exhibition, emphasized the desire to ensure the exhibition was inclusive and accessible to anyone. A longstanding battle within the fashion exhibition field is to ensure that exhibitions are educational, informative and entertaining. Putting too much emphasis on academia means it is not accessible to the masses, yet making it too ‘fun’ almost discredits it. However, Fashion Cities Africa is a perfect blending of the two, opening up a new focus on African fashions to the wider audience.

The day ended with a drinks reception and an opportunity to view the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, which celebrates the current fashion scene, and (like the conference) is supported by the Sussex Africa Centre at the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton, both of which are key partners in the project. The exhibition, like the conference, is split into four sections, however the sections in the exhibition relate to contributions from designers from four cities: Nairobi, Casablanca, Lagos and Johannesburg. Much like the range of research presented at the conference, the exhibition echoes the necessity to explore a wide variety of source in order to attempt to fully understand the topic. Sources such as short films, photographs, a handling corner with long swathes of fabric to touch as well as actual garments are used to illustrate the fashion cities of Africa. The exhibition will run until January 8th 2017.

A Visit to Berlin

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In March 2016, nine second-year students and two tutors from the BA (hons) History of Art and Design programme visited Berlin for five days to study the city’s museums, material heritage and art collections in relation to the city’s distinctive history and cultures. Here are some of the students’ highlights from the trip:

Rachel Blyth: The Berlin Jewish Holocaust memorial was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and completed in 2004. Walking into the memorial the sun was shining; however, walking deeper into the labyrinth of concrete it became very cold and isolated. The modern architecture encapsulated the notion that Berlin is a modern city yet still holds the past close to its design.

East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin

Charlotte Brown: On review of our trip to Berlin, my favourite part would have to be our visit to the East Side Gallery, a surviving 1.3km stretch of the Berlin wall. Famously graffitied in the ’90s after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the works of various artists can be seen along the whole length. Due to tagging over the past years, the wall is now protected by a metal fence which did however inhibit our view and photographs, but the overall experience and art work has influenced me to base my further studies on the remainder of the wall.

Ruby Helms: Visiting the Jewish Museum – A Different Kind of Museum Space. Without visiting, it was difficult to understand the full impact of architect Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Between the Lines’ structure. The museum showed me that it is possible to present history in such a way that it emotionally involves the visitor, through the curation of objects and construction of the museum space.

Elina Ivanov: Out of the places we visited there were two that I felt made the history of Berlin most tangible; Clärchen’s Ballhaus gave a taste of Berlin nightlife of yesteryear, while the Jewish Museum was a powerful reminder of the great extent of the history of Jewish émigrés, as the discourse typically seems to be centred strictly around the Holocaust years.

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the empty spaces of the Jewish Museum

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the empty spaces of the Jewish Museum

Emilie Kristiansen: Berlin offered copious sights worthy of recollection, but the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum stands out as especially significant. The monumental view of thousands of distraught faces cut out of iron plates is a poignant reminder of the countless innocent Jews whose lives were taken, and the void they left behind.

Sarah Mason: I had never been to Berlin before this trip and I have to say Berlin lived up to all my expectations and more. My highlight and what I chose for my presentation and essay subject was a place called Clärchens Ballhaus. Clärchens Ballhaus is a dance hall built in 1895. This Ballhaus was one of many, 900 in Berlin alone in the early 1900s. Berliners loved to dance and the Tango was already more popular in Berlin than in Paris or London at this time. What is unique about the Ballhaus is it is still used today and is as popular now as it was 100 years ago with the local community. In décor, fixtures and fittings it has changed little apart from some slight bomb damage to the grand mirror hall upstairs. If you get a chance to sneak upstairs and take a peek, it’s a must: you really feel you have been transported back in time. Every aspect of Clärchens Ballhaus is steeped in social history for example the original cloakrooms with over 800 iron coat and hat hooks (the Ballhaus would have between 600-800 guests per night in its heyday). The bar and even the majority of tables and chairs are all today as they were  when Clärchens’ famous owners Fritz and Clara Buhler took on the premises in 1913. I fell in love with this place so much I went back and visited it eight weeks later, so definitely the highlight of my trip and definitely a place I recommend to visit.

The Clothes on Their Backs: exploring fashion and dress history through literature

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In advance of author Linda Grant’s visit to the University of Brighton on 30 November 2015, final year student Sarah-Mary Geissler reflects on the novel she will be discussing –  The Clothes on Their Backs* – and its relevance for anyone interested in fashion and dress history.

Every year the University of Brighton participates in The Big Read, a national project to encourage first year students to read a novel that has been nominated for the Booker Prize. This year’s choice is The Clothes on Their Backs (2008) by Linda Grant, an author noted for using dress as a key theme within novels.

As part of my Fashion and Dress History BA, last year I took a module, ‘Reading Dress: 1875-1965’ where literature was examined and considered as a source to research historical dress. During the summer break, our module tutor sent an email regarding The Big Read. She explained that Grant’s novel engaged with the significance of clothing and asked whether we’d like to read the novel over the holidays then meet up for a little book club when we returned to Uni.

I was initially reluctant to take up the request: after spending a whole semester poring over novels intently I wasn’t sure if I could do it again. However, after looking at a review of the novel I was intrigued and had to read it!

The Clothes on Their Backs is an intense novel that delves into the complicated relationships of characters, all of whose clothing defines who they are or think they are. The story accelerates you through the bittersweet moments of life, with elation and tragedy fleeting by and only the ennui of life remaining constant.

Cover of Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs, (Virago, London: 2008)

Cover of Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs, (Virago, London: 2008)

The protagonist, Vivien Kovaks, is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. Her life is spent in and around a small flat in Benson Court. Her parents withhold information about their lives before London and leave Vivien feeling deprived of a family history and heritage. As she later learns, her Uncle Sándor also emigrated to London only to become an infamous slum landlord, heralded as ‘the face of evil’.

Vivien as a person allows herself to be dressed – and therefore defined – by those around her, from her neighbour who leaves her glamourous vintage clothes, to her fiancé who sees her as an upper-class beatnik, to her lover who likes her dressing up in his punk leathers. The clothing of others is embedded in Vivien’s opinions of them, which leads to her fascination with her uncle, a pimp dripping with luxury and ostentation. A theme of what is worn not quite matching up to what is inside the characters runs throughout.

The novel is astoundingly researched, with accurate accounts of 1970s London as well as 1930s Budapest. Even the public reaction to style movements such as the popularity of second-hand clothing to uneasy fears of skinheads and youth gangs were described. Grant captures the incredible spectrum of emotions invested in appearance: Eunice the Jamaican immigrant studies fashion meticulously and goes without food in order to retain an immaculate appearance, while Vivien’s own mother accessorises with homemade waistcoats and a walking stick, not through choice but affliction.

The Clothes on Their Backs is a truly affecting book. Grant creates incredibly three-dimensional characters who are complex, flawed and vulnerable, and contribute to a story that stayed with me long after I’d put the book down.

* First year students at the University of Brighton can collect a free copy of the novel from university libraries, their course leader or the Students’ Union.