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.

Living with art and design: a trip to Charleston

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Wendy Fraser, a second year studying BA (hons) History of Art and Design  at the University of Brighton, delves into the lives of the Bloomsbury Group on a visit to their idiosyncratic and highly decorated home, Charleston.

On Thursday the 29th of September a group of second year students enjoyed a trip to Charleston, a 17th century farmhouse set on the Firle Estate deep in the Sussex countryside. The artist Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) moved into Charleston in 1916 with her two sons, her lover the painter and designer Duncan Grant (1885-1978) and his lover, the writer Bunny Garnett. The house was perfectly located nearby to Vanessa Bell’s novelist sister Virginia Woolf’s Sussex home and the neighbouring farm provided Grant and Garnett with essential war work thus releasing them from conscription during WWI.

Bell and Woolf were original members of ‘The Friday Club’, a group of writers, thinkers and artists who met weekly from 1905 onwards to discuss ideas in their home at 46 Gordon Square, London. After the artists exhibited at the ‘Post-Impressionism Exhibition’ in 1912 they became known as ‘The Bloomsbury Group‘. Charleston was to remain their home, studio, and hub of Bloomsbury activity for over 60 years until Duncan Grant’s death. Many key figures from the period’s literary and artistic worlds visited the house including Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, E.M. Forster and Roger Fry (who had established the Omega Workshops for which both Bell and Grant designed textiles and ceramics). The stories and interpersonal relationships behind the inhabitants of Charleston are almost as interesting as their artistic endeavours. There are eyebrow-raising tales of the sexual shenanigans within the group, unrequited love and personal tragedy.

On our guided tour we viewed 10 rooms: Clive Bell’s study (Clive Bell was an art critic, Vanessa Bell’s husband and father to her sons), the Dining Room, Library, Garden room, the bedrooms of Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their friend, the economist Maynard Keynes, the spare room and the pièce de résistance – the studio shared by Grant and Bell. Charleston was always rented from the so the interior decoration of the house was always an organic process with nothing intended to be particularly permanent or durable. The dining room walls were stencilled by Duncan Grant in a geometric design with the paint drips clearly visible, there are numerous examples of hand-painted furniture with headboards, chimney boards, wardrobes and tables decorated with either artist’s work and a peak behind the doors reveals some beautiful paintings. A number of the window embrasures have been painted and touchingly around Vanessa Bell’s bedroom window Grant painted Henry, their pet lurcher to watch over her while she slept and a cockerel above the window to wake her up in the morning.

Photo of students and staff in the garden at Charleston

History of Art and Design Year 2 Welcome Week study visit to Charleston Farm House. From the left, Wendy Fraser, Harriet Dakin, Dr. Anna Vaughan Kett, and Lisa Hinkins in the garden of Charleston. Photo by Dr. Yunah Lee.

Charleston’s furniture and decorative items are an eclectic mix of heirlooms and contemporary pieces – a 1960’s chintz bed throw from Habitat, beds from Heals, psychedelic fabric Grant brought back from Morocco displayed with 17th century carved and painted Venetian chairs, Julia Stephen’s dressing table (Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s mother), an 18th century square piano, an ornate north Italian console table, kitsch Staffordshire pottery figures and a rush-seated Sussex settle. The paintings on display are a combination of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s works augmented with paintings, etchings and prints of artists whose work they admired- Delacroix, Sickert, Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso, George Bergen, Segonzac and Pierre Roy. Some of the paintings Grant swapped his pieces with fellow artists for and there are a few works inscribed to Clive Bell from French artists of his acquaintance through his role as an art critic.

Charleston does still feel very much like a family home where it is easy to imagine the daily life of both domesticity – meals be cooked and eaten, children being educated and weekend visitors being entertained in the beautiful gardens coupled with a prodigious amount of creativity – sketching, painting canvases and furniture, writing, sewing and knitting in a harmonious and productive artistic life. It is a truly fascinating place to visit.

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.

Bowie, the Blogosphere and Bright Young People: Textual Fashion Conference 2015

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The breadth of topics at the University of Brighton’s international conference on Textual Fashion impressed and inspired Alice Hudson (BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History)

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the ‘Textual Fashion: Representing fashion and clothing in word and image’ conference which took place over three days at the Grand Parade campus and which was organized by the University of Brighton’s Charlotte Nicklas and Paul Jobling.

Having never been to a conference before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be an invaluable source of information and education, opening up new discourses that I had never previously encountered or even considered. Due to the sheer number of speakers over the course of the conference, the papers were split into strands containing three papers each, connected by a general theme, and three strands would be on at the same time, making deciding where to go a challenge. The number of papers that attendees had the chance to listen to over the duration of the conference was a little overwhelming. Although sitting down all day listening to other people speak doesn’t sound like it would be physically draining, it really is – it’s a good job there was plenty of tea and coffee!

There was a large variety in terms of speakers, including every career level from MA students (a couple of whom came from Brighton’s History of Design and Material Culture MA) to well-known academic researchers who are paving the way in their chosen field. It was wonderful to see papers from Brighton tutors, including Charlotte Nicklas’ paper on the appearance of the ‘Bright Young People’ in interwar novels and Jane Hattrick’s on fashion designer Norman Hartnell’s appearances in women’s magazines.

On top of the twenty-minute papers and discussions we also had truly fascinating talks from keynote speakers Jonathon Faiers and Stephen Matterson, but it was Agnès Rocamora’s paper “Making It Up As you Go Along: Labour and Leisure in the Fashion Blogosphere” that really struck me. As someone who follows a lot of fashion blogs on various digital platforms and social media sites, it was interesting to have an insight into the work of those bloggers and how they negotiate their work in what is still a relatively new platform/form of labour (hence the title). She discussed ideas such as Lazzarato’s ‘Immaterial Labour’ and Terranova’s ‘Free Labour,’ the latter of which seems all the more relevant in the current fashion industry which so heavily relies on unpaid internships.

Mairi MacKenzie speaking about 'The Man Who Fell to Earth: Bowie, Football & Fashion in Liverpool 1976-1979'. Photo by Alice Hudson

Mairi MacKenzie speaking about ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth: Bowie, Football & Fashion in Liverpool 1976-1979’

With such a huge range of subjects covered within the title Textual Fashion, including cinema, literature, magazines and more, the conference was undoubtedly a success in providing food for thought. Other highlights of the conference for me were hearing Mairi MacKenzie’s insights into the sartorial influence of David Bowie on football fans, or “casuals” in Liverpool in the late ‘70s, and Janet Aspley’s research on Nudie Suits, specifically the one belonging to Gram Parsons as she explored the relationship between country music and counterculture.

Janet Aspley giving a paper on Gram's Gilded Palace suit. Photo by Alice Hudson

Janet Aspley giving a paper on Gram’s Gilded Palace suit

I would urge anyone currently studying on any of the History of Art and Design pathways to make an attempt to attend at least one conference before the end of their course (and preferably early on). The experience was helpful not only in terms of learning new things and opening up discussion, but also because it gives you an idea of how to present an academic paper (something we all could do with knowing for seminar presentations). It was also a good networking opportunity: you’d be surprised how many interesting people you get to talk to in what was a truly welcoming atmosphere. Plus, you should make the most of student prices before it’s too late!

 

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.

Love, Luxury and Revolution: Paris in art and design

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Iona Farrell, a second year student in BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, explored Paris on a recent study visit…

Tuileries Garden

View from the lake in the Tuileries Garden, looking towards the Place de la Concorde. Personal photograph by the author.

On the 4th to 8th of November this year, ten of us from the seminar group ‘A Trip to Paris’ visited the City of Lights. We were graced with beautiful blue skies and sunshine which was the perfect accompaniment to the elegant boulevards of Paris on this highly enjoyable visit.

Before the trip we split into three groups and each group was given a theme, either Love, Luxury or Revolution in Paris, with the task of planning a complete day in the city. Key readings were given to inspire our plans, from Walter Benjamin’s account of the historical passages of Paris to the student riots of the 1960’s. My group’s theme was Love and the book we based our day on was the fascinating novel The Hare with the Amber Eyes by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal. The book traces the provenance of an inherited collection of Japanese netsuke (small hand carved ivory figurines) back to a certain Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and collector in Belle Époque Paris.

Study in the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

Study in the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Built in 1911, with 18th century furniture and decoration. Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris. Personal photograph by the author.

Inspired by the book, we decided to base our day on different forms of love, starting from the love of collecting, as seen by Charles Ephrussi and also the sensual side of love seen through the sculptor Rodin’s evocative works. Our first visit was to Musée Nissim de Camondo, which houses a collection of 18th century French furniture and decorative arts collected by Moïse de Camondo. The house is located on the distinguished Rue de Monceau, the same street Charles Ephrussi had lived on. Charles and Moïse were both passionate collectors and stepping into the Nissim de Camondo felt more like a home than a museum. It was filled with the most opulent rooms including a room solely dedicated to displaying porcelain dinner sets and tea services!

Auguste Rodin. Monument to Victor Hugo. 1890. Bronze. (Musée Rodin, Paris. Personal photograph by the author.)

Auguste Rodin. Monument to Victor Hugo. 1890. Bronze. Musée Rodin, Paris. Personal photograph by the author.

From there we went to the Musée Rodin, in which sculptures were interspersed amongst the grounds. I really enjoyed how they were placed outside: you could come close to the sculptures and see the expressive way Rodin rendered figures. We ended the day in the Musée d’Orsay, the grand converted railway station, which houses an extensive collection of Impressionist works. It was amazing to walk through the museum and recognise so many paintings that we had looked at in our lectures.

View of the interior of the Panthéon, Paris.

View of the interior of the Panthéon, Paris. Built between 1757-1791. Personal photograph by the author.

The diverse themes meant that each day was a completely different experience. Days were not just spent wandering around museums but actively exploring the city and its many facades. The Revolution day was spent walking around the Sorbonne area in Paris, the ‘University’ district where the 1968 student riots had taken place. During the tour we came across the Panthéon and made an unplanned but extremely worthwhile visit, exploring the endless labyrinth of underground tombs that house France’s leading citizens. Afterwards we crossed over the Seine and visited the Centre Pompidou. Built in the aftermath of the Student Riots, it houses a permanent collection of Modern art as well as a public library and music centre. We all had differing opinions on the museum, its industrial design was a real anomaly amongst the uniformity of the boulevards. Although I think its unconventional appearance was suited to its interior, housing challenging and experimental Modern artworks.

View of the Galerie Vivienne , Paris.

View of the Galerie Vivienne , Paris. Built in 1823. Personal photograph by the author.

For the Luxury themed day we traversed through Paris from our hotel in Montmartre, in the North, down to the Seine and the beautiful Tuileries Garden. The route took us through the historic passages of Paris, beautiful arcades dating back to the 18th century, dedicated to the luxurious pastime of shopping. The most elegant passage was the Galerie Vivienne, with mosaic floors and a glass ceiling, it was filled with quirky boutiques and fashion stores. The French designer Jean Paul Gaultier also has his flagship store here, and we peeped through the window at his eclectic designs. From there we walked along the Seine to the Musée d’Art Moderne and visited the Sonia Delaunay exhibition, which was bursting with endless samples of her bold, colourful textiles, as well as her earlier portraits which I admired.

Visiting Paris really brought the History of Art and Design course to life. Walking through the arcades where fashionable 19th century Parisians had browsed boutiques, or strolling through the streets which had seen numerous Revolutions; the streets all seemed to have their own narrative and I can’t wait to return and discover even more.

A Geordie in Oxford: Recounting my first Conference

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What happens at an academic conference? Current MA student Jenna Allsopp found out when she attended the Design History Society Conference 2014

In July of this year, I graduated from the University of Brighton with a BA (Hons) in Fashion and Dress History and I am now a History of Design and Material Culture MA student, also at Brighton. My BA dissertation, entitled, Negotiating Female Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century: the Case of Vera ‘Jack’ Holme (1881-1969) won the Design History Society 2014 undergraduate essay prize.

The Design History Society (DHS) is an international organisation that promotes the study of global design histories, bringing together and supporting all those engaged in the subject. Each year the DHS awards one undergraduate and one postgraduate the annual essay prize. As winner of the undergraduate prize, I was awarded a bursary of £300, one year’s membership of the DHS, £100 worth of Oxford University Press publications, 5 Paperbacks in the Oxford History of Art series, one free place to the DHS conference and gala dinner, and a £200 travel bursary to enable my attendance. DHS conferences are often held overseas; last year’s was held in Ahmedabad, India, and next year’s in San Francisco, so I was thrilled that this year’s was held in Oxford meaning, with the help of the travel bursary, I was able to attend.

Along with Annebella Pollen, Nicola Ashmore, Megha Rajguru and Louise Purbrick from the University of Brighton, who were all presenting at the conference, we stayed in the temporarily-vacant University of Oxford student accommodation in Keble College. Breakfast was held every morning in the very grand, Hogwarts-esque dining hall where we were unnervingly watched, alongside numerous American tourists, by the patriarchal portraits of past college Masters.

Breakfast at Keble College

(clockwise from left) Megha, Annebella, Nicola, Louise and myself having breakfast at Keble College

In commemoration of the 1914/1944 anniversary, the theme of this year’s conference was Design for War and Peace, exploring the relationship between design, war, peace and protest, which, as conference organiser Claire O’Mahony highlights, usually falls outside the frameworks of design history. Graphic design, textiles and fashion, industrial and transport design, craft and exhibition design were all explored over the sixty-plus papers across three days.

Having never been to a conference before, it’s hard to describe what I expected as I really didn’t know. I knew I felt out of my depth, and lacked initial confidence in the thought of keeping up with the intellectual content of the papers then engaging in post-discussion with other attendees. Despite this, I was also very excited to have a glimpse into the world that I ultimately want to be involved in, and this gave me a great introduction. I found some of the academic jargon quite alien, such as ‘keynote speaker’ (an invited speaker rather than a proposed paper), and the concept of a ‘panel’ (small group of thematic papers) but luckily had Brighton staff close by to enlighten me.

Due to the short time-scale of the conference, and the volume of papers being given, it was impossible to attend all the papers of interest. As panels ran simultaneously, I had to make some tough decisions on which I thought sounded the most interesting so I usually opted for papers which aligned with my own academic interests in dress and textiles history.A stand-out paper I attended was presented by Jane Tynan of Central Saint Martins entitled, A Bad Fit: Race, Ethnicity and the Uniforms of Colonial Soldiers in the First World War. This paper examined WWI uniform designs to see whether clothing was used to signal racial difference between British and colonial soldiers, and also highlighted the ethnic division of labour. The impassioned subject matter of this paper sparked a heated debate during the following Q&A section, which was interesting to listen to opposing views and interpretations of the evidence and arguments presented.

The paper of keynote speaker Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, entitled Designed to Kill: The Social Life of Weapons in Twentieth Century Britain also stands out as it was an area I had never considered as ‘design’ before. Using the case studies of full and semi-metal jacketed bullets, Bourke investigated the design of weapons whose aim was to cause the most ‘debilitating wounds.’ Although the paper included some harrowing accounts, and shocking images, of ballistic wounds, it was nevertheless fascinating when discussed in the context of the bullet as designed and used object.

As mentioned previously, the University of Brighton was represented at the conference. Nicola Ashmore and Megha Rajguru displayed the protest banner created by Brighton artists and activists which depicts a re-making of Picasso’s Guernica. Annebella Pollen discussed the symbolic resistance embodied in the textiles, tents and totems of inter-war pacifist organisation the Kibbo Kift Kindred, and Louise Purbrick examined the political and protest handkerchiefs decorated by jailed prisoners during the 1970s Northern Ireland conflict.

On the first evening of the conference, the prize winners were announced at a drinks reception at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. All speakers and delegates were present and it was a great opportunity to meet academics and fellow students. As a shy person. the prize announcement was a good ice-breaker for me as it meant people then approached me to say congratulations. I met a PhD student who suggested I submit an abstract to speak at her student-focussed ‘research in progress’ conference next year, and I had the opportunity to discuss my dissertation with aprize judge who gave me great feedback and advice on continuing my studies in the area.

Annebella and myself post-prize-giving at the Ashmolean Museum

Annebella and myself post-prize-giving at the Ashmolean Museum

Research from my BA dissertation has been selected for inclusion in the Lesbian Lives Conference 2015, held at the University of Brighton, so attending the DHS conference has given me a lot more confidence to speak and network. It was an excellent opportunity to see how a conference is structured and how a wide-range of subjects, which I had never previously thought of in terms of design history, can be effectively discussed and linked under a general theme. It was a very enriching experience, and I now look forward to my next conference.

 

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.