PhD student Nicola Miles interviews Professor Emerita Lou Taylor about the Dress History Teaching Collection and her pioneering career in fashion and dress history.


The opportunity to talk to Lou Taylor about anything to do with dress history, as her colleagues and students will attest, is not one to be turned down. On a rainy day in Brighton with a sea mist hovering in the distance I hurry to Mithras House where we have arranged to meet in the recently opened Design Lab, Room 111, Floor 1, the new home for the University of Brighton Dress History Teaching Collection (UBDHTC). Lou is there already with a selection of garments that she has chosen specially for our meeting. Next to turn up are students Jasmine Gillanders and Maddy Faulkner from the BA Fashion Communications course. They are tasked to take photographs for this interview to appear in the textile magazine, Selvedge.

There is a sense of anticipation and excitement as Lou opens up boxes and unfolds yet more garments. Her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. In an instant, she brings each item to life describing its history and stories. These garments include a very badly damaged eighteenth century robe à l’anglais, a Boubou from Sierra Leone, a Japanese heko obi shibori sash, a 1960s bespoke silk Dior dress and a beautifully detailed pakkoh hand-embroidered tunic from Pakistan. Each one is fascinating, enhanced by Lou’s in-depth knowledge as well as the occasional anecdote from her many trips with students to America, Germany, Italy, France, Poland and Hungary amongst others.

Jasmine and Maddy preparing the Dior garment to be photographed.
Dior strapless silk evening dress, Paris, France, 1964.UBDHTC no. 508.00

Recalling how the collection begun with a few garments that she had purchased from junk shops and markets; Lou explains how she started to use them for teaching purposes. Teaching fashion history in the late 1960s, initially at St Martins in London and then at Brighton she found that students were not used to touching and identifying different types of fabrics. This hands-on approach set the tone for her teaching practice and is the founding principle that lies at the heart of the Teaching Collection. It is what makes it so exceptional, as the usual archival restrictions do not apply here. Students can handle and examine the garments without gloves, able to explore every seam and hem. As one of the few university teaching collections in the UK, it contains over 800 items painstakingly acquired and catalogued by Lou with the help of her colleagues, students and museum curators in a period of over fifty years.

Boubou tie dye blue green and white on gara cloth and worn for 50th Independence Day Celebrations, Sierra Leone, donated by Mrs Imitate Jeredine Collier, UBDHTC no. 365.00. © Jasmine Gillanders 2024

Having successfully combined curating, writing and teaching, Lou is very clear that the Teaching Collection is one of the most important aspects of what has been a hard fought career. She started at a time when fashion and dress history was a marginal subject. It was her determination that has contributed towards it becoming a recognised and highly regarded academic discipline. Lou’s passion for her subject has not faded and as we talk her eyes light up with the mention of new discoveries. It is not just the object but the pursuit of history and the uncovering of the biography of each item that she savours and encourages students to discover. Lou is modest despite her many accomplishments; she is not keen for the article to be about her but rather the importance and legacy of the collection, and she is emphatic that it has all been a collaborative effort.

Tunic hand-embroidered with pakkoh embroidery from Tharparker, Sindh, Pakistan, 1986, UBDHTC no. 386.01. © Jasmine Gillanders 2024


The full interview with Lou Taylor is published in the next issue of Selvedge, issue 118, ‘Hand in Hand,’ available from 15 April 2024.


–– Nicola Miles