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

Diana’s dresses

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

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Fig.1 Tweed day outfit by Bill Pashley

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

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

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Fig. 2 ‘The horse blanket’ by David Emanuel

 

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

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Fig.3 The ‘Travolta dress’ by Victor Edelstein

 

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

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

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

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Fig.5 Sketches by Catherine Walker

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

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Fig.6 Dresses worn for Mario Testino shoot

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

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

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

Dress Detective: using Brighton’s Dress History Teaching Collection

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Sarah-Mary Geissler (MA in Design and Material Culture), reflects on how one seemingly uninspiring garment led her to unexpected places…

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

It really is amazing is how far one project can take you. From what started simply as a class presentation led to assisting lectures, journal publication and even curating a display just a year later!

During my final year studying the BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History at the University of Brighton, we had the privilege of being taught by Professor Lou Taylor, pioneering dress historian. The spring term Special Subject module focused on case studies of objects in the Dress History Teaching Collection. Throughout her career, Taylor has amassed a wealth of dress objects which now reside at Pavilion Parade, an incomparable resource waiting to be utilised by students. Each piece has a fascinating backstory – rejected by museums, donated by alumni, rescued by students – though only a small percentage of the collection has been thoroughly researched. The aim of our module was to improve our own analytical and interpretive skills as dress historians, but also to provide a selection of objects with proper catalogue entries. The garment I had my heart set on was already selected by someone else, so I unenthusiastically settled on researching an 1888 Mauve Day Dress. I began the project totally convinced that there was nothing exciting about the Victorian era, and grumbled to friends how boring this project would be. I was so wrong!

View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 2: View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Eventually I found how to apply my own interests to the research. Once I moved past my preconceptions of 19th Century dress, the analysis process became fascinating. I studied the dress inside and out, then compared it to other dresses from the period: it was clear that it wasn’t a straightforward example of 1880s fashion. As a dressmaker myself, the garment’s messy construction intrigued me. Other evidence in the garment led to the conclusion that it could have been an 1860s dress altered over 20 years. My project became a detective-style investigation into who the wearer was; where/when was the dress first made? Why was it altered so dramatically? And was this dress renovation typical for the period?

View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 3: View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Throughout the assignment, I contacted several museum-based professionals regarding the dress, and became more confident networking as a researcher. I looked into museums policies regarding altered garments, and how different keepers of costume interpret their collections. Over the course of the module, I developed a specialist understanding of mid-late 19th Century home-dressmaking, strengthened my ability to read dress, learned how to properly mount costume, and found out a great deal about the theory of dress history and the field today. Outside of university, this project gave me the confidence to submit an exhibition review to Textile History Journal, which was selected for publication last November!

Knowing how invested I was with my case study, Professor Taylor asked me to assist with her first year lecture and object handling session, and to do a small talk about the dress. I was so nervous about speaking in front of a large group, but the session went brilliantly. It was surprising how much information I could recall about the dress; I started to feel like a proper historian! This year I was asked to help out again, and so came prepared with notes and printed images to aid my talk.

Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 4: Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

The success of this led to a conversation about displaying the dress in the School of Humanities’ Pavilion Parade foyer. With help from Clare in the office, mounting the dress was straightforward, though preparing information for the posters was challenging. I had to figure out what story was being told and how to make it interesting for a public viewer. Revisiting an undergrad project as a postgrad student, it was clear to see how much my work has strengthened in just a year (frustratingly, I found a spelling mistake on the first page of my original paper!). Displaying my research made me consider how museums and heritage sites interpret their collections, and this little display pushed me to develop my own curatorial skills.

All in all, I never expected the work done for one assignment to be the basis for such fantastic things. Having the Teaching Collection as a resource has been an invaluable part of my education at Brighton, and has reinforced the importance of understanding objects as sources of information to be read. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities at the university to provide me with experience I can take into my career. It would be great for more students to get involved showcasing other pieces from the Teaching Collection in future, as there are many, many more fascinating stories to be shared!

 

Perspectives on Fashion Curation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Volunteering at Brighton: Gladrags Costume Store

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

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

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

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

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

Macduff costume sketch by Duncan Grant c. 1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Design History in India: Brighton students and staff take their research overseas

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History of Design PhD
student Denise Gonyo reports back from India, where she presented her research at a ground-breaking conference.

It was an honour to be part of the Design History Society’s first-ever conference held outside of Europe, ‘Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives’, held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, 5-8 September 2013.  I was able to attend by receiving the competitive Design History Society bursary and generous support from the School of Humanities. Tanishka Kachru and Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, the conference organisers, provided a fantastic and historic experience for all who participated.

Everyone was buzzing when we awoke on the first day of papers to find that the conference was featured in the Times of India.  Proceedings began with a keynote speech from Sujata Keshavan, the first Indian woman to receive a postgraduate degree in design and founder of the most influential design firm in India, Ray + Keshavan. Sujata’s talk traced her experiences of modern design in terms of economic, social, and political contexts from Independence to the present day.

There was a strong University of Brighton contingent at the conference. I was part of a panel entitled ‘Exhibiting South Asia’, which featured papers from myself and University of Brighton lecturers in the History of Art and Design, Claire Wintle, Megha Rajguru, and Nicola Ashmore. I was thrilled when one of my academic heroes, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, attended our panel and provided us with fantastic feedback we can use to further our research. In another panel, Brighton MA student Pallavi Patke offered fascinating insight into the European adaptation of Indian embroideries in the late nineteenth century. Tom Wilson, a collaborative doctoral student based at Brighton and the Design Museum (and British Council Curator-in-Residence at the NID) installed a fascinating exhibition trail through the school entitled ‘NID Traces’. Tom’s paper on the Commonwealth Institute was well-attended and insightful, especially as the Institute will be the new home of the British Design Museum in 2014. Annebella Pollen and Cheryl Buckley, faculty in the History of Art and Design at Brighton and executive committee members of the Design History Society, chaired sessions on Postcolonial Textiles, Cultural Colonialism, and Fashion and National Identity. Megha and Nicola also staged a public sewing event from their ‘Remaking Picasso’s Guernica’ project.

Denise Gonyo at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Spiral staircase reclaimed from Victorian calico mill.

Denise Gonyo at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Spiral staircase reclaimed from Victorian calico mill.

Fascinating papers were given on a wide range of topics over the three days of the conference. Professor Alison Clarke, Director of the Victor Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, spoke on the subject of design for development, focusing on the design reforms of Victor Papanek and the legacy of the Ahmedabad declaration. Sheena Calvert gave a thought-provoking and provocative paper suggesting that the international export of EuroAmerican design education could be understood as a form of re-colonization. Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s passionate keynote speech examined the extraordinary Durga Puja goddess festivals in contemporary Kolkata, exploring concepts of design branding as well as the changing face of artistic identities fostered by these increasingly spectacular events.

Ahmedabad is also home to the Calico Museum of Textiles, a world-class collection of textiles from the Mughal era to the twentieth century.  It houses, among other treasures, examples of the extraordinary double ikat or patola textile technique that is unique to Gujarat, where each of the 100,000 threads is dyed separately before weaving into a complex patterned cloth. Nicola, Megha and I travelled a couple of hours outside Ahmedabad to Patan to see these textiles in production, all made by hand. Weavers told us the waiting list for one of their pieces is anywhere from 18 months to 4 years. I was directed to a photograph of the weavers meeting former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, presumably because I’m American, although I was more excited to see a photograph of the famous Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan paying a visit.

We have a definite cluster of scholarship on India in our department at Brighton, with at least five academics all working on different periods and topics. It was amazing to be part of such a historic conference and to witness first-hand the NID students who are the new vanguard of design in India, and to see how our university played a role in bringing this forward.