CDH Postgraduate Research Student Representative, Nicola Miles, reports on her recent research exhibition
The recent research exhibition supported by the Centre for Design History entitled ‘Children’s Clothes, Clothkits and Creativity’ was held in a shop window in Lewes, East Sussex, UK. It ran throughout December 2021 and early January 2022 and represented research by University of Brighton PhD student Nicola Miles. The exhibition reflected the magical, playful quality of Clothkits children’s clothes by setting the original garments in a fairytale woodland scene replete with fairy lights, foxes, hedgehogs, snow and trees filled with birds. A film made by Nicola exploring the creative aspects of Clothkits and children’s clothes was displayed inside a wardrobe that was like a Narnia-esque portal to another world.
Given that Lewes was the home of Clothkits, the kit clothes company, from the early 1970s until the 1990s the exhibition attracted a lot of local interest from individuals who were customers including mums who had made up Clothkits’ kits for their children, adults who had modelled in the catalogues when they were children, as well as previous employees. At that time Clothkits was a large business for a small town like Lewes and it became one of the major employers in the town. Not only did they have a shop in the high street but they also operated a nationwide mail order business. There are not many people who lived in Lewes at that time who are without a Clothkits story.
One of these people who contacted Nicola during the exhibition was a Lewes resident Linda Lamonte. She visited the exhibition wearing her favourite Clothkits outfit from the late-1970s. Linda, now 87, described how she still wore this outfit as an ensemble although they were not bought as one set. She declared that she was of a generation that did not throw anything away if it was still in good condition. This outfit consisted of a striped knitted jumper with flared three-quarter length sleeves that was originally part of the Winter 1976-77 catalogue range. The skirt, which Linda had combined with the jumper, appeared in the Winter 1977-78 catalogue. It was a knitted, slightly flared skirt with a distinctive floral hemline pattern. Both garments were ready-made from an acrylic yarn so they had worn and washed particularly well over the years. The jumper and skirt came in four colourways and Linda had chosen a particularly lovely mix of turquoise, teal blue and green.
As an outfit from the 1970s it didn’t look dated or out of place in Lewes in 2022. It had lost very little of its original vibrancy which suggests the high quality of the fabrics and the dyes that had been used. Linda, like many Clothkits’ customers had been a teacher and her husband a professor at Sussex University. She had also bought Clothkits’ clothes for her children but, as a busy mum and school teacher, she preferred to buy the ready-made clothes rather than the kits.
A large part of Nicola’s PhD research has involved using oral testimony as a method of research which has proved a rich and invaluable means of gathering memories and experiences associated with Clothkits and children’s clothes. The display in Lewes was an important part of this because it offered an opportunity to share some of this research with the community as well as inviting the community to share their Clothkits’ experiences. Meeting people like Linda, who would have been difficult to have met in any other way, has shown just how worthwhile this type of community outreach can be.