by Hannah Rumball and Anna Vaughan Kett
University of Brighton lecturers, Hannah and Anna, report back from the fifth Costume Colloquium, held in November 2016 in Florence, where Brighton scholars, past and present, were well-represented.
Held biannually, the Costume Colloquium conference is a chance for academics and enthusiasts in the field of dress history to meet, present research, debate findings and get an overview of the ideas surfacing in the community. This year nearly a hundred delegates gathered in Florence, for Costume Colloquium V to discuss the eclectic theme of “Restraint and Excess,” through the lens of dissimilar culture, gender, class, historic and contemporary trends. A great programme of events, receptions and visits was also arranged – notably to the Art and Fashion exhibition at the Museo Ferragamo, to the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella, and to see the rich collection of fine and decorative arts held at New York University’s Villa la Pietra.
The academic sessions were organised thematically with individual or joint papers followed by question time and broader debate. A common thread was the multiplicity of manners in which garments and accessories are designed, consumed and worn to construct personal identity, as a way to fit in or to dissent, a practice which has been occurring mindfully for centuries. The breadth and diversity of the papers was astonishing, reminding all that dress studies are vibrant and exciting in a multitude of settings across the world.
Our paper, presented in the panel Nearer to God, was entitled “Negotiating Simplicity and Extravagance in 19th Century Quaker Dress: Restraint and excess in the clothing worn by Eleanor Stephens Clark and Helen Bright Clark of Street.” Through a tight focus on the clothing worn by two Quaker women of the Clark family in the late 1850s and 1860s, we addressed the landmark relaxation in strict Quaker protocols. As demonstrated through our subjects’ highly individual styles and even abolitionist political values, we sought to overturn notions of conformity and lack of personality in Quaker clothing. In the same panel, Christina Lindholm of Virginia Commonwealth University, who undertook her doctorate with Lou Taylor at the University of Brighton, co-presented with Faegheh Shirazi on “Brand Islam”, and Holly Poe Durbin of University of California discussed excess in sartorial posturing by rock bands on stage in her fascinating paper “Bad to the Bone.”
Highlights included papers that made very close studies of material culture and primary sources in order to approach quintessential dress history subjects in innovative ways. Brigitta Berglund’s “The Great Corset Debate” considered the double bind nineteenth-century women faced in wearing the fashionable corset. Berglund questioned the perceived restriction of corseting by analysing newspaper correspondence between 1867 and 1869. Veronica Hernandez’s “Transgression through Restraint: Crinolines and a space of one’s own” similarly considered the dichotomy of the ridicule, yet fashionability, of the garment. Hernandez asserted that crinolines functioned as a signifier for women’s desire for an ample public domain. One of the highlights of the first day was the paper presented by former Museum of London dress curator, Hilary Davidson; “The Excesses of Minimalism: Vulgarity, bulk and extravagance in Regency dress.” Whilst fictional varieties of dress portray women wearing simple, sometimes transparent, columnar white cotton gowns, Davidson asserted that the surviving material culture and careful scrutiny of written sources reveal this was not the reality. Cold damp British climates meant flannel underdresses and ample coverings were a necessity.
Other speakers presented on original subjects, which were the result of innovative and laborious primary material culture research conducted in public and private collections. A highlight of these papers was Alexandra Palmer of the Royal Ontario Museum, a former PhD student of Lou Taylor, on the attire of Raymond Duncan. Palmer’s vivid account described how the Bohemian, hand-woven Grecian-inspired garments Duncan adopted in 1903 were labelled as “offensive” during a subsequent trip to the United States. Catriona Fisk of the University of Technology, Sydney, explained the particular problem of identifying pregnancy dress within dress collections pertaining to time periods when specialised maternity dress did not exist. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell of the Costume Society of America considered the curious practice of repainting society portraits in the late eighteenth century, typically to update hairstyles and garments. One the fascinating examples Chrisman-Campbell cited however, was of a deceased wife being painted out of a portrait to be replaced by the new spouse. Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum, Canada, carefully explained the construction of the ultra-tall chopine shoe in Early Modern Spanish and Italian dress. Worn for desperate ends in each culture, Semmelhack illustrated how surviving portraits have revealed that Italian chopines were designed to increase the wearer’s height in order to necessitates the construction of longer more expensive gowns, with the shoes themselves never being seen; conversely, Spanish chopines were elaborately decorated with fine fabrics and jewels as a display if luxury in their own right.
Other contributions were surprising for their unusual methodology. Mairi MacKenzie of Glasgow School of Art (and a former graduate of Brighton’s MA in Design History and Material Culture) gave a vivid self-reflexive investigation entitled “You Smell Like a Whore.” Using accounts of perfume in popular culture alongside a biographical memory-based method to consider her teenage obsession with Cacharel’s Lou Lou eau de parfum during the 1980s, MacKenzie’s research – forthcoming as a book – addresses the paucity of accounts of perfume in popular culture, and the fact that scent is often not considered to be a form of material culture, which she suggest is exacerbated by the fact there is no common language on scent. Clarissa Esguerra of the Los Angeles County Museum gave an amazing account of LACM’s exhibition of a rare, surviving example of a zoot suit, which they exhibited in 2015. Pattern pieces were cut directly from the garment’s measurements, which illustrated the extraordinarily exaggerated shape and proportion of the suit’s wide trousers and long line jacket. This wonderfully extreme and subcultural garment amply defined both the restraints placed on African American men in the post-war period and the rebellious excess to which they subscribed.