Lou Taylor, dress historian
Lou Taylor is spoken of by dress historians worldwide for her inspirational teaching and her pioneering position within the development of object-focused dress history. When she retired to become a Professor Emerita in 2017, she had taught at the University of Brighton for over forty years, founding the dress history teaching collection and launching the careers of many influential curators and historians. Her former students now form a global network of experts, working in institutions for the teaching, researching, curation and collecting of costume, dress, textiles and fashion. Each of them takes Lou Taylor’s enthusiasm and professionalism forward, spreading ever further the mission that began in Brighton in the 1970s.
Lou Taylor started her career as an assistant at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, in 1964, and following a move to Brighton in 1966, taught first at Central St Martins then began to teach at the Art College in the early 1970s, along with a role as curator of costume at the Brighton Museum. Her long career would find outlets for her expertise in publishing, teaching, supervising and curating. She focused on the development of critical approaches to the discussion of the objects of clothing in their historical, material culture and museology settings, devoted to enhancing a flow of respect between collection/museum work and the university history/critical theory worlds. Her first book Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History was published in 1983.
She wrote an account of her views on dress history methodologies and the collection, display and interpretation of dress in museums, in her two books: The Study of Dress History, 2002, and Establishing Dress History, 2005, both published by Manchester University Press. Establishing Dress History deals with the historiography of dress history and the creation and interpretation of dress collections in museums of every kind. Alyea, in the American Journal, Dress, 2005 noted: “[Lou Taylor] highlights just this: how do the conscious and unconscious aims of the curator or institution affect what is collected, what is excluded, and how a collection is maintained, studied and exhibited. The call to self-awareness is the fundamental lesson for future generations of curators.”
Lou Taylor’s application of material culture and consumption studies has positively transformed dress history. She is driven by the conviction that transdisciplinary approaches to the construction of history, including working with surviving garments, offers a fresh, close understanding of the cultural ‘eye’ of a specific period or community.
Her work has placed clothing/textiles and related archival documentation, into their specific design, manufacture and consumption context. Two sample projects are her research on fabrics printed in Lyons, during World War Two, which she deliberately presented in France. This work verifies, through analysis of imagery on surviving fabric samples, the all-too-close commercial and civilian support for the Pétain regime across France in 1940-44, (Lethuiller 2007). Her Costume Society 2007 Symposium paper presented the cultural biography of lace from the Polish Silesian Highlands. She has worked on national exhibitions and advised the V&A on the selection of dress for their ‘International Arts and Crafts’ exhibition, writing the text on this in the show’s related book, edited by Linda Parry and Karen Livingstone.
She has worked internationally with dress historians in New York, with Valerie Steele (FIT paper 2006); in Paris with Veillon and Ruffat of the IHTTP; (chapter, 2007 and conference paper, 2005); in Copenhagen with the Designskole (paper 2005); in Stockholm with the Swedish Ethnographers Association (Wiman 2005) and in Warsaw with the Polish Academy of Sciences (2002 ‘ Kultura i Spoleczenstwo) and Warsaw Academy of Fine Art (paper 2006). And by invitation she has worked with colleagues in Milan and in Paris – (the IHTP Dress History Group) on issues of design, material culture and national identity related to British ‘youthquake’ fashion in the 1960s.
Lou Taylor also jointly, with Eleanor Thompson and Amy de la Haye, curated and wrote the book Fancy and Fancy Dress – the Messel Dress Collection 1870-2004 (Philip Wilson, Autumn 2005) for Brighton Museum. She also has a longstanding interest in the history of the teaching of fashion in British art Schools, has been a regular book and exhibition reviewer for Costume, Fashion Theory and Textile History as well as making her own article contributions to these journals and other publications. Her work has also been published in France, Sweden, Poland and the USA.
For the occasion of the Brighton School of Art 150th anniversary in 2009 she contributed a chapter on the development of dress history: Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective by Lou Taylor.