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.

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.

A prize-winning return to university study

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Thinking of studying as a mature student? Wendy Fraser, a finalist studying BA (hons) History of Art and Design shares her experiences and celebrates her recent success.

Wendy Fraser and Andrew Davidson, Celebration Event

Figure 1 Wendy Fraser and Andrew Davidson, Celebration Event, University of Brighton Grand Parade. Photograph: Philanthropy Department.

In December, I was honoured to receive the Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award 2016/17 for my performance in the second year of my History of Art and Design degree. Khadija Saye, in whose name the award is presented, was a young photographer from London whose work was included in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Tragically, Saye died along with her mother in the Grenfell Tower fire, in the twentieth-floor flat that she also used as her photographic studio.

I am thrilled to have received the award, which is validation for the decision I made to come back to university as a mature student. I wrestled with different ideas of what to embark on next in my life, flip-flopping between a business plan or further education. My first experience at university was embarking on a degree in English Literature and History of Art at Edinburgh University when I was 19. At the time, I regretted the choice of Edinburgh as a University and English Lit as my subject but rather than make changes I left at the end of the first year. Retail jobs led to a career in fashion and giftware wholesale as an Account Manager with trade shows and twice-yearly travel to the Far East, which was creative and fun but ultimately intellectually unfulfilling. After the births of my daughters I juggled lots of part-time jobs to fit in with them – selling on Ebay, baking cakes for cafés, a sales role for a Childrenswear brand and supper club hostess.

I knew that I had not reached my academic potential and it would become a regret if I did not act upon it. The degree programme has exceeded my expectations and I have really appreciated learning about so many different aspects of visual and material culture. It has been a joy to have a legitimate reason to visit so many galleries and museums, rather than just as entertainment. My confidence in my subject has grown incrementally, helped in part by my volunteering roles at Charleston and at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, which we were encouraged to do in first year. Amazingly being a ‘mature’ student hasn’t made me feel awkward and my fellow students have been really inspiring – I have learned a lot from them and really enjoy their company.

The Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award was given at a ceremony in the Sallis Benney Theatre where students from across the University received Breakthrough Awards, Merit Awards, International Scholarships, Sports Scholarships, Enterprise and Employability Grants and Santander-funded awards. The donor of my award is Andrew Davidson (pictured with me above), a University of Brighton Alumnus who studied Visual Culture and is now an Education and Communications Consultant. I was awarded £500, which I plan to use towards a trip to the 2019 Venice Biennale, inspired by Khadija Saye’s achievement. This will be my first experience of an international biennial and further my understanding of contemporary art exhibitions. I haven’t been to Venice since I went on a three-week trip to look at as many examples of Titian’s work as I could before enrolling at university first time around, so this will be a memorable and beneficial use of the award money, representing my circuitous journey back to the History of Art.

 

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.

 

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!

 

From kitsch to Frankfurt Kitchen: Berlin’s Museum der Dinge

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Student Wendy Fraser (BA (hons) History of Art and Design) opened the cupboards in a real-life Frankfurt Kitchen whilst learning how ‘good design’ was promoted in Germany

In November, second year students on the History of Art and Design trip to Berlin visited the Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things) in the creative Kreuzberg district. The museum houses a collection of 40,000 German objects manufactured in the 20th and 21st centuries in addition to 35,000 documents in the archive of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen). The Werkbund, an association of designers, architects, industrialists, publishers and teachers founded in Munich in 1907, shared similar concerns to William Morris’ earlier Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. However, although they advocated aesthetic education, sensitivity to materials, quality and durability, their interests diverged from Morris’s ideals in their promotion of modern design and excellence in mass production, aiming to create a cultural utopia.

Figure 1: The museum's main dispaly area with contrasting exhibits displayed in glass-frontedcabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge. Figure 1: The museum’s main display area with contrasting exhibits displayed in cabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Museum der Dinge is located at 25 Oranienstraße and its compact space on the third floor of the building houses a shop, the main display area with glass-fronted shelved cabinets and a separate room with an example of the modernist Frankfurt Kitchen. The cabinets contain an astounding array of exhibits including crockery, kettles, toys, lamps, clocks, shoes, typewriters, tools, telephones, technology, glassware, furniture, and tins. The objects displayed exemplify the concerns of the Werkbund to preserve the quality of manufactured goods during the industrialisation of Germany and their aim to create a cultural utopia via excellence in German factory production. Handcrafted objects are shown with those that are mass produced by machine, named designers alongside anonymous makers, professionally made next to inexpertly produced items, articles made in West Germany compared with those made in the DDR (East Germany) and genuine products displayed alongside counterfeits.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Werkbund also aimed to educate in matters of taste. The Department of Aesthetic Aberrations was created at the Stuttgart State Crafts Museum in 1909: 900 ‘bad taste’ articles chosen to demonstrate to the public what not to buy. Conversely, the publication of the ‘Deutches Warenbuch’ from 1915-1927 showed 1600 approved everyday objects as a guide for retail buyers and a pattern book for designers. While all of this may sound a little dry, the museum’s display concept invites the visitor to compare the contrasting qualities of the exhibits. The Werkbund viewpoint of appropriate design is juxtaposed with objects of opposing values. Accordingly, examples of ‘good design’ are shown with the kitsch holiday souvenirs they abhorred, licensed character merchandise and some chilling Third Reich goods such as SS figurines and Swastika mugs.

My favourite exhibit was the room containing the Frankfurt Kitchen: visitors can walk into the room, open the cupboards, pull out the aluminium storage containers and chopping board and really feel what it would be like to use the space. As it was the topic of my forthcoming seminar presentation, it was really valuable to experience the kitchen I had previously been studying only in books.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Ultimately, the Museum der Dinge is an account of the Werkbund’s achievements as an association and with the exception of the Frankfurt Kitchen installation, what is missing for me is the human element. Although a large number of the exhibits are everyday possessions rather than the elite items that we are most used to seeing in museums, it is not the stories of the makers and the owners that are being prized in this museum. That is not to say that there are not fascinating things to see – despite the rather academic narrative, the museum is full of wondrous objects and is worth a visit. It is a trip through the mind boggling factory output of the 20th century and the ‘bad taste’ items are as pleasurable to view as the ‘good design’ products are inspiring and informative.

Learning from Volunteering: making it happen at Brighton Museum

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University life opens up opportunities to make a difference in the community and learn new skills in the process. Lisa Hinkins, a first year BA (hons) History of Art & Design student, describes the enriching experience of volunteering for the Photoworks ‘Making it Happen’ project.

I knew I had made the right decision to study at the University of Brighton after we had a few lectures regarding managing wellbeing and employability. Having left the world of work at the end of September, after twenty-three years of 9 to 5, some reassuring words that the university took student wellbeing and life during and after studying seriously were important to me, especially as I was taking tentative steps towards a new career in an area I have always been passionate about.

In my former employment, the Waste & Recycling section of a local authority, the emphasis on volunteering was important for conveying the message of sustainability and recycling. My manager enjoyed bring university students into our hub, teaching and directing them, while also learning from them too. I picked up on this ‘positive feedback loop’ with how I managed and taught my volunteers for the scrap store I ran from our building. The volunteers not only gave valuable time to the store, but I was greatly enriched learning new art and craft ideas from them, while also discovering how interesting these people were.

So, as a new student I embarked upon seeking out volunteering opportunities. My first step was meeting with Kat Tucker, Volunteering Project Officer for Active Student Volunteering Services. Kat has given me excellent support over the past 5 months, providing help and advice with applications for volunteering opportunities. My first placement was with Photoworks and was a month-long position in January under the banner ‘Making it Happen 2016’. This was an open day to the University of Brighton’s Photography department for 16-18 year olds who may have not considered the possibility of university study before.

With five other students, we learned from photographer/artist Annis Joslin, how to plan and deliver photography based workshops with school students aged 16-18. I participated in a series of three hour training sessions led by Annis, which allowed me to learn skills needed to lead workshops. The requirements of the role were to have an open-mind and hands on approach to art and design and wanting to gain practical work experience in arts education.

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016 Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016
Photo © Giovanni Estrella

The group divided into pairs. Myself and a fellow volunteer researched, planned and prepared workshops based at the Brighton Museum, around the photography exhibition ‘Pierdom’ by Simon Roberts. I learnt to work ideas up very quickly, get to understand new ways of working for community arts education and develop trust with other volunteers that I had only just met. We all had to lead one workshop three times during the day, with up to fifteen school students in each session.

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016 Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016
Photo © Giovanni Estrella

My workshop was titled ‘The Art of Looking’. I wanted the school students to spend time looking at the exhibition images and form individual ideas about them, working in teams discussing ideas together. This helped them to become confident in expressing thoughts from looking and reacting to the images and be able to articulate those thoughts by talking in front of other people. I used techniques such as word cards they had to blindly select from to stimulate ideas.

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016 Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Photoworks Making it Happen workshop, February 2016
Photo © Giovanni Estrella

Being able to deliver ideas and education to younger people was exhilarating, extremely satisfying and I enjoyed listening to them react to the exhibition, with their own ideas and thoughts. The students enjoyed it, too: positive feedback included, ‘Enjoyed looking closer at the images and relating them to words. Made me look at them more and appreciate the detail in them.’

I am now looking forward to receiving an interview date for my next volunteering opportunity. It isn’t just about what looks good on your CV, but how these experience can nurture your own thirst for learning, being creative and boosting your confidence.

 

My MA Story: from India to Brighton and back again

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Pallavi Patke, a graduate of MA History of Design and Material Culture, reflects on her international study journey to date

I consider myself a curious mix of all spices. Born in Delhi, I was raised in a range of different places in India. Thanks to the constantly shifting nature of my father’s job I was able to witness and adapt to diverse Indian sub-cultures: Bengali, Bihari, Punjabi and Maharashtrian. History, politics and fine arts were the three major subjects in which I excelled in high school. Thereafter, during four years of undergraduate education, I was based in the historic coastal town of Cannanore, a quiet town and a hub for handlooms, located in the north of Kerala. Here I obtained first-hand experience of the rural handicraft industry of South India. Through various textile industry internships and college visits I was exposed to Keralite, Gujarati and Tamil cultures. Although I had had some experience of visiting foreign lands with my family, including Malaysia, Thailand and the US, an academic exchange trip to Switzerland gave me a valuable opportunity to understand the European perspective in fine textile manufacturing. This, together with all my previous cultural encounters, put me in a better position to determine my career path ahead.

Fascinated more by the way traditions and cultural histories shaped the art of designing objects than the commercial aspect of textile production, I took up my postgraduate studies in History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton in 2012-13. Initially, even more than the adjustment to British culture, I had to adapt to a new teaching methodology. For instance, in the beginning I was absolutely clueless about how to interpret readings and then express my ideas coherently while maintaining an objective stand. The tutors, however, had more faith in me than I had in myself at the time. I am particularly thankful to Professor Lou Taylor whose constant support and positive criticism drove me to keep pushing boundaries in research.

Possibly Chinai (Indo-Chinese) Embroidery- Black silk bustle-back dress embroidered in silk, around c.1875-78

Possibly Chinai (Indo-Chinese) Embroidery- Black silk bustle-back dress embroidered in silk, around c.1875-78; Author’s own photograph. 11th December 2012; Source: Lewes Little theatre; With Thanks to Gerry Cortese

At the university I encountered a whole new range of prospects which could be pursued in tandem with my MA. The silhouette research project, co-organised with the Regency Town House, introduced me for the first time to the British history of portraiture and silhouette artists. What was most exciting about this initiative was working with an eclectic group of tutors, undergraduate and postgraduate student researchers and non-academic professionals. In September 2013 the annual conference of the Design History Society provided me with an opportunity to present the subject matter of my thesis before a global audience at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. University of Brighton extended enormous generosity in funding my visit to India for the conference, and given the focus on my dissertation on Anglo-Indian exchange in textile design, this felt like a fitting setting to discuss my work.

By the end of the course I had learnt a huge amount and successfully overcome my earlier fears. Participation in academic seminars and conferences introduced me to international scholars in the field of fashion, art and design history and this inspired me to do something constructive to advance studies in the Indian context. On returning to India it took me a while to reconcile my British experience with the relatively impoverished academic research environment. The first few months of 2014 were especially challenging in identifying India-based connections in the field. While I began assisting with research on the evolution of design in traditional Indian textiles at Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya or CSMVS (formerly, the Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai for a Textile Gallery Project, I found myself grappling with the parochial attitudes of Indian curators in implementing creative learning strategies. Then in August 2014, Poonam Mishra, head of Fashion Business Management at Parsons ISDI (Indian School of Design and Innovation), who shares my aspiration to develop scholarship in fashion and textiles, invited me to develop a proposal for a new study programme. My first step towards introducing pedagogical reform has been to build content for a postgraduate diploma course, Cultural Histories of Fashion and Textiles.

With Poonam at the entrance of ISDI.

With Poonam at the entrance of ISDI. Author’s own photograph. 28/01/15

Following all these developments, I now wish to pursue further research in the field of design history. This will help me acquire a much greater depth of understanding in the subject. Thanks to the studies and opportunities offered by Brighton, any research work which I undertake will now certainly reflect a more sensitive handling of subject matter, acknowledging cultural idiosyncrasies while also covering a broad range of perspectives.

Volunteering in a Living Museum’s Costume Department

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Sarah-Mary Geissler, currently studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, shares her experiences behind the scenes at Beamish: The Living Museum of the North.

Before embarking upon the Fashion and Dress History course at Brighton I wanted to seek out relevant experience in the field. I came to Brighton as a direct-entry second year student and had previously completed a year of a Fashion Design degree but was concerned it may be difficult to transition from making clothes to analysing them, so for 8 months I volunteered once a week at the Living Museum of the North; Beamish.

Beamish costume clothing label

Beamish costume clothing label. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

I had visited Beamish often before, the open air museum is a school-trip staple of every north-eastern child. Visiting as an adult I still felt totally absorbed by the experience: the exhibits aren’t restricted behind glass panels in temperature controlled rooms, rather everything is laid out awaiting interaction. The grounds are divided into 7 distinct period areas, the earliest an 1820s farmer’s house and most recent the 1940s wartime home farm, all linked by restored trams and buses. I was elated when my volunteer application was accepted!

Public transport depot, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Based upon my sewing experience, they started me off working in the Costume Department. An onsite sewing room is an absolute necessity in such huge attraction; Beamish has around 400 costumed staff and volunteers, most of whom work between different areas and so require 3-4 period costumes each. On top of this there were always different projects popping up, from making oilcloth table covers and floral curtains to Boy Scout neckerchiefs or nurse’s aprons; we were certainly never short of work.

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Inside the sewing room were photocopied images pinned to every wall, a large bookcase stood in one corner filled with texts on costume and period fashion and another corner housed large filing cabinets of dress patterns, a mix of store-bought contemporary clothing patterns and specialty costume patterns sourced online, all to keep a strong sense of each era’s shapes and silhouettes. Reproducing the periods accurately is a key priority of the museum as the visitors range from young children using Beamish as an educational resource to history buffs who are all too eager to point out historical inaccuracies.

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

When the curatorial team gave me the opportunity to explore the clothing archives I was thrilled! There is an expansive collection of period clothing hidden in the archives, mostly accredited to a previous curator with a personal interest in textiles. Due to the fragility of the garments and the nature of the museum, there is no way to wear these garments or display them effectively, which is a shame as there are some remarkable pieces. For a living museum it is important to collect pieces reflecting various walks of life, so within the archives was a 1980s coal miner donkey-jacket as well a fascinating 1940s wedding dress with matching gas mask. Also stored were many pieces of 19th century servants’ uniforms and other examples of workwear, garments that rarely survive past their original usage.

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

The earliest items of clothing are late 18th century while the earliest shoes dated back to around the 17th. A large number of gowns from Victorian society women were kept, worn fairly little and preserved very well. Certain pieces came with a full biography of the previous owner whereas others remained a mystery. Interestingly, it was possible to discern when gowns had been altered or re-made according to trends, we actually found two dresses which had been cut from one original gown. There were various wedding dresses and mourning clothes dating throughout the Victorian era up to WWII Utility wear. The collection becomes sparse from 1950s items onwards, mainly because these more recent items now have value in the vintage clothing market and are no longer donated freely; however, there was a delightful 1960s Biba minidress hiding behind the gowns.

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Beamish has a sentimental value to many and often people will bequeath their possessions to the museum, leaving them to someday represent their era to future generations. Currently the museum is preparing a 1950s Pit Village area, so towards the end of my time at the museum there was an influx of 1950s items and furniture. It falls to the curatorial team to decide what is kept for future use within the museum and what is archived, one difficult decision I witnessed revolved around 3 packs of genuine 1990s Safeway brand toilet rolls.

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Volunteering at the Beamish museum was an enlightening look behind the scenes at how a museum operates, not only did it strengthen my dressmaking skills but I had the opportunity to learn about period clothing, how garments were made and how people would have valued their clothes. The experience has led me to rethink what I thought defines an era, the importance of living memory in the understanding of history, and to consider what we would choose now to represent the present to future generations.

Working as an Oral Historian at Eastside Community Heritage

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Paul Beard, a graduate of Brighton’s BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society, describes how the degree sparked an interest in capturing other people’s stories – and led to an exciting opportunity…

Oral history is not necessarily an instrument for change; it depends upon the spirit in which it is used […] it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words. – Paul Thompson, Voices of the Past, 1978

Recently I have taken a position as an Oral Historian and Heritage Trainee at Eastside Community Heritage. As a part of a Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) project called Skills for the Future, Eastside Community Heritage and other partner organisations are working together to develop historical and heritage skills. Focusing on East London histories from 1900, the position is geared towards training a new generation of oral historians.

Eastside Community Heritage, based in Ilford, is a community history charity funded by HLF. Run by director Judith Garfield, Eastside work collaboratively alongside a number of local community groups, charities and historical societies to document and exhibit the experience of everyday life in East London. Some of the current projects being developed include: Little German, Stratford and East London (focusing on the lives of German immigrants in and around Newham during the First World War) and Jewish Migration Routes: From East End to Essex tracing the stories of Jewish families who have moved from county to county.

'Peace Tea Party' Barking and Dagenham, 1918,

‘Peace Tea Party’ Barking and Dagenham, 1918, image courtesy of LBBD Archives, Valence House

As a part of my role, I am working on a number of different projects. One is an exhibition on display from 11th August 2014 at Barking Learning Centre, entitled The Great War in Pictures and Words. The exhibition curated, researched and developed by myself and a colleague explores the stories and day-to-day experience of soldiers and families through oral history and images found in the archive from an on going project. The exhibition is a part of the centenary commemorations of the First World War and uncovers the stories of those that would otherwise be lost.

Another project that I am contributing to is Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aimed at engaging the community in one of the largest housing estate in Europe with their own heritage. Woodberry Down is located in Manor House in Stoke Newington, Hackney and is currently under redevelopment by Genesis Housing Association. Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aims to document and record the experiences of living in Woodberry Down in light of the redevelopments that are happening. By using reminiscence sessions, oral history interviews and vox-pops, Eastside are working alongside the old and new communities to facilitate cohesion in the community.

Woodberry Down is an interesting case study for a number of reasons. As one of the pioneering new council estates to be built in post-war Britain, various buildings received awards at 1951 Festival of Britain for architecture. Fast-forward forty years, the same estate that represented utopian ideologies, it was then used in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as the setting for the Jewish ghettos. These contentious issues of race, religion and class still remain contentious issues and are causing tension in the local area. With plans of redevelopment, Genesis and other organisations view it as crucial to ensure that the potential two-tier community in Woodberry Down are brought together to re-establish the old community atmosphere.

The importance of documenting oral history and life stories is become more and more prominent in cultural history. In areas such as Newham, Redbridge and Hackney it is becoming a key tool in re-engaging communities with their heritage. By putting on a range of different events, Eastside Community Heritage bring history back to the people and allow those who do not necessarily have the option to participate in heritage to have the opportunity to do so.

Studying at Brighton on the BA History of Design course gave me a solid understanding of life in the cultural heritage sector. Oral history was a method that I was eager to explore at undergraduate level. The degree gave me a good grounding in oral history as a method. Being introduced to it in the second year module entitled Constructing Historical Research, it was something I wanted to explore in my research; after completing my first interview for my dissertation research I was hooked. Curating has also formed a key part in this position; as skill that I only briefly explored in my studies. From a first year Interpreting Objects module to the final year exhibition (and a couple of small projects I had volunteered on) I had little experience curating an exhibition. This role has allowed me to build upon the skills that I had developed on the course.

There is something special about listening documenting the stories of those who are not ordinarily heard in history. After gaining a strong background in memory as a method, it was something I was eager to take on further in my career.

For more information on Eastside Community Heritage please visit the website: www.hidden-histories.org.uk.