Dr Annebella Pollen, organiser of the Objects Unwrapped: Memory of Clothes Study Day at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, reports on the June 2019 event.

As intimate items worn close to the body, clothes act as interfaces between self and world; they accompany us through everyday life and pick up personal memories and public associations along the way. Clothing’s capacity for cultural communication is not limited to the self-expression of the wearer; in their afterlives garments continue to tell stories. In a museum capacity, what we were is often articulated through what we wore.

In recognition of Worthing Museum and Art Gallery’s unique and large-scale costume collection, and in response to the exhibition Memory of Clothes by artist Helen Barff and novelist Suzy Joinson, the Study Day on 1 June 2019 brought together students and staff from the University of Brighton’s Objects Unwrapped research group to reflect on the way that clothes have been used as a means to remember and to forget, to memorialise and to mythologise, to reconstruct histories and to create new imaginative forms.

Barff and Joinson began the day by outlining their particular research practices as visual artist and creative writer, respectively, and in particular their work on the Arts Council England-funded project, Memory of Clothes. This involved a collaboration with Worthing Museum and Art Gallery whereby objects from the museum’s handling collection were taken to older residents of care homes in Worthing to act as prompts for life history and reminiscence activity.

Barff described how she had taken selected stories prompted by the clothes and translated them into a range of forms on display in the gallery, including suspended cyanotypes based on garment paper patterns of Land Army uniforms, and sculptural forms linked by rope, cast by pouring jesmonite concrete into charity shop-bought swimming costumes, among other items.

Joinson, an award-winning novelist, explained how she used found objects as central points of departure for her writing, including painful family letters bought from a London street market. Joinson outlined how objects have become characters in her writing, and argued that they can perform a kind of magic in the telling of stories, making actions happen and creating change.

Sarah Haybittle, visual artist and part-time tutor at University of Brighton, picked up on similar threads in her presentation on her doctoral research, which used letters in the Imperial War Museum in a textile exploration of loss. Through a range of material strategies, including freezing ink, applying talcum powder to lace, repetitive stitching, folding and creasing, Haybittle used poetry, philosophy and art to explore the fabric of narrative and the narrative of fabric.

Lou Taylor, Professor Emerita in Dress and Textile History at the University of Brighton, analysed how museums memorialise certain stories while overlooking others. Through a case study of Heather Firbank, whose wardrobe was used as the basis for the V&A’s book, London Society Fashion 1905-1925, Taylor examined aspects of Firbank’s life that had not made the official record. She showed how only paying attention to the aristocratic life can conceal other kinds of memories and experiences, including disappointment, loneliness and even tragedy.

BA Fashion and Dress History student Donna Gilbert, fresh from completing her final assessments, introduced her dissertation research on women’s domestic uniforms in the Second World War. Combining oral history interviews with garment research, including a distinctive patchwork housecoat in Worthing Museum’s collection, Gilbert’s project challenged the claims of the Make Do and Mend campaign through particular reference to local Sussex experience.

The final presentation by Kate Debono, volunteer in Worthing Museum’s Learning department and 2019-2022 AHRC PhD student at University of Brighton, examined the 50 objects that comprise Worthing Museum’s handling collection, which Debono has recently helped refresh and reorganise. This final session enabled audience members to handle a wide range of museum objects and to discuss their own clothing experiences and memories.

The lively discussion that closed the day included revulsion as well as delight in response to the objects at hand, and led to valuable debate about the materials that museums do and do not collect. As a visual and material language that women and girls are trained to speak from an early age, clothing’s memorial capacity was recognised as being particularly gendered by the all-female audience. Participants also asked provocative questions about how collections of historic clothes might engage with contemporary concerns about over-consumption and fast fashion.

Event attendees included fashion bloggers and curators, artists and writers, students and academics as well as interested members of the public. As the second of the Objects Unwrapped group’s Study Days, the event continued to demonstrate the power of museum collections to engage and illuminate personal and public concerns both large and small.

With thanks to the Centre for Design History for generous financial support, to Gerry Connolly, Museum Manager, Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, for hosting the event, and to the Objects Unwrapped research group, especially Emmy Sale for the poster and Wendy Fraser for the cakes.