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!