From Brighton to LA

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

Eames House

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown Quantities

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

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

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

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

Unknown Quantities

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

Object of the Month: March 2018

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How did a Rwandan doll end up in a Brighton teaching collection? Final year Fashion and Dress History student Emmy Sale investigates

Figure 1 Front view Doll made in Kigali, Rwanda.

Figure 1. Front view Doll made in Kigali, Rwanda, 2008-2009. Cotton fabrics, stuffed with waste-rice stuffing and embroidery detailing. Handmade by a young boy as part of a Tailoring project run by the Kinamba Project. Purchased from Charity Shop in Brighton. University of Brighton Teaching Collection

Ever wondered how objects can travel around the world? Or what happens to souvenirs when they are discarded? This doll from the University of Brighton Dress and Textiles Teaching Collection has made a fascinating journey from Rwanda to Brighton. The doll was purchased by Professor Lou Taylor for just £3 from a Brighton charity shop. The use of African wax print fabric in its construction suggested the doll to be from West African, but research proved otherwise. Instagram posts of similar souvenir dolls posted by tourists suggested Rwandan origins. However, when the dolls were found on www.africanbags.org, this provenance was confirmed. Significantly, the website attributed the doll to the “Kinamba Project” in Kigali, Rwanda.

Figure 2 Back View of Doll made in Kigali, Rwanda.

Figure 2. Back View of Doll.

The Kinamba Project was set up in 2005, aiming to help the poor and vulnerable in Kigali, after the community’s devastation following the 1994 genocide. One way the project helps children and adults is through a tailoring project, which teaches sewing skills to individuals to create a source of income. The Project’s founder, Meg Fletcher, was able to shed more light on the significance of the doll’s manufacture. She explained that the object was made by a young orphan who was looking after a disabled man in exchange for food and a place to sleep. The ‘orphan’ is now a successful and enterprising young man. Today he produces stuffed animals, mobiles and bags, all made from fabrics purchased from local wholesale outlets, and stuffed with waste-rice sacking. From those small beginnings, he was able to employ three people, to purchase a piece of land and to build a house. With the support of the Kinamba Project, the benefits for the people of Kigali of manufacturing these souvenir dolls can be comprehended.

This doll has undergone a journey: from something made to help an individual’s life in Rwanda, bought as a tourist souvenir, later donated to a British charity shop and purchased by a professor for use in dress history research. The research was conducted for a case-study project entitled “Not Just a Souvenir: Dolls of the World.” The teaching collection holds many other dolls from around the world and it is hoped that their narratives will also be researched and revealed by students in the future.

E.Sale1@uni.brighton.ac.uk

Research networking

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Bridget Millmore (PhD, 2015) recalls how the University of Brighton’s Postgraduate Design History Society helped her find her feet as a researcher

Poster PDHS Symposium 2017

Poster from the PDHS Symposium 2017

Ten years ago I was a student on the MA in Design History and Material Culture. Having worked for many years, the process of returning to study as a mature student was a bit like travelling to a new place without recognising the language or terrain. Things had changed since my undergraduate days. As a result I was unfamiliar with what was expected; unsure whether postgrad study was for me and uncertain about how to use the scholastic resources that were offered. Should I be reading all the books on a reading list? Could I fathom the details of the required referencing system? How did I hunt down a particular journal article or discover which online sources might be most useful for my research? Of course, these feelings of uncertainty waned as the course progressed and my confidence in researching and writing grew. However, the questions related to my course and research continued; questions that did not always lead to answers but to ambiguity and complexity. As well as encouragement from fellow students and the course tutors, one of the most significant support networks for me was the University of Brighton’s Postgraduate Design History Society (PDHS).

 

Sandy Jones presenting at PDHS Symposium, 2017

Sandy Jones presenting at PDHS Symposium, 2017

The Society was a lifeline when I had questions and quandaries, needed suggestions for my research or just reassurance that others were facing similar challenges. It is a student run group of postgraduates, all at different stages of their studies, from novice MA students to experienced PhD scholars and early career academics. The Society (that was set up in 2005) offers a friendly and encouraging network – a place to go to with your questions, for example, what to include in a word count, how to deal with an apparent ‘dead end’ in your research. Straight away when I joined, I made friends, met with others interested in similar aspects of material culture and design history and was amazed by the diversity of our collective interests. We discussed our research and talked about future opportunities. A few of us met, for example, to read and share feedback on our draft conference abstracts. We went as a group to exhibitions and the theatre. The PDHS provides a network to share information and advice, to welcome newcomers to the postgraduate world of Material Culture and Design History and to join together in academic and social settings.

E-J Scott presenting at PDHS Symposium, 2017

E-J Scott presenting at PDHS Symposium, 2017

Sarah-Mary Geissler presenting at PDHS Symposium 2017

Sarah-Mary Geissler presenting at PDHS Symposium, 2017

The glue that holds the Society together is the annual History of Design and Material Culture Postgraduate Symposium. A summer event organised and delivered by students, it offers participants the chance to try out their conference skills and repertoire within a supportive environment. In 2008 I delivered my first conference paper on eighteenth century thread buttons following a rather unscripted set of notes, unaware that most people ‘read’ their presentations. Every year after that I got involved in different aspects of the Symposium, giving papers, taking email bookings, organising rooms, negotiating financial support, updating the website and chairing sessions. For me the MA in Design History and Material Culture led to a funded PhD at Brighton University that I completed in 2015. Many of those I met through the PDHS have become close friends, pursuing similar academic journeys or moving off in new paths. I hope that the group will continue to evolve and grow and provide the kind of support that I found invaluable during my postgrad years.

This year’s PDHS Symposium will be held on Friday 15th June 2018, 10:30-17:00: G4, Grand Parade, University of Brighton

Working for the National Trust

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Final year BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History student Maria Purnell on working at the National Trust property, Standen House and Gardens.

Fig 1. Standen House (image by author)

Fig 1. Standen House (image by author)

Normally, balancing a degree with work is hard. However, having the opportunity to work for the National Trust as customer service assistant has allowed me to earn money, learn new skills and provided me with valuable knowledge, not only about the Trust’s purpose, but about the property itself.

Standen House was owned by the Beale family, who lived in London but built Standen as a holiday home, for the much-appreciated clean country air away from the city. What makes this house so special to the Trust is that it is a perfect case study of the Arts and Crafts movement, designed by Philip Webb in collaboration with William Morris. Working at Standen however, isn’t your ‘average’ student job. Upon arrival before the visitors, it is astounding how peaceful and tranquil the gardens can be. The scenery is breathtaking; on a clear day on top of the hill you can see for miles around, overlooking the countless fields and trees. One of the best aspects of working at a country house is how close to nature one can be; on a quiet day one tends to see an abundance of wildlife such as rabbits, squirrels and robins, which are not particularly afraid of humans.

Fig 2. Standen House (image by author)

Fig 2. Standen House (image by author)

The majority of the time I work either in reception, scanning the memberships and helping provide information to visitors or, when particularly busy, down in the car park, helping everyone park sensibly and giving people information and directions. This Christmas 2017, however, I got given the opportunity and responsibility to oversee ‘Woodland Santa’, our property’s Christmas grotto. It was an incredible experience and a privilege to be able to take part in such an event. Management put their faith in my abilities to organise elves and make sure Santa had enough presents for the children. Luckily the event was a huge success, and the children and their parents were thrilled with the property and the organisation.

Fig 3. Standen House (image by author)

Fig 3. Standen House (image by author)

The knowledge I have gained so far during my time working with the National Trust has helped greatly towards my degree, when understanding art, design, domestic and social history of the period which Standen dates from. Studying a degree in fashion and dress, one has to take into account the significant events within a period that can influence art and design. Standen House and the National Trust have provided me with much knowledge about the creation of this country house and allowed me to pass this on to visitors. Although the job has helped contribute to my degree, I also think the degree has helped me to do my job. Fashion and Dress History has allowed me to gain confidence when talking and explaining theories and historical concepts to fellow students. I have adapted this skill to my job at Standen, by having the confidence to talk to the general public about the history of Standen and the social and cultural histories that it reflects.

Standen House and Garden is at West Hoathly Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex, RH19 4NE

Fig 4. View over the chimneys, Standen House (image by author)

Fig 4. View over the chimneys, Standen House (image by author)

Fig 5. View from the house (image by the author)

Fig 5. View over the countryside from Standen House (image by the author)

Seminar Style! February 2018

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In the first of our new monthly series Seminar Style: sartorial snapshots from University of Brighton we report on trends spotted on the University’s campuses

Billy at Grand Parade

Billy at Grand Parade

Name: Billy

Course: Fashion Design with Business

What: Vintage millennial pink jacquard-weave dress, new-ish black Fila trainers, oversized gold glittery polo neck jumper dress from H&M, fuchsia granny bucket hat from a charity shop and new chunky hoop earrings which cost £1 from Peckham.

Style influences: “wacky older ladies”

Instagram: @btempestradical

Gluck: Art and Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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!