Transatlantic Dress History: An interview with Dr Charlotte Nicklas

Amelia (Milly) Slater, first year student in BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, interviews Dr Charlotte Nicklas about her research interests and background.

“The Fashions Expressly Designed and Prepared for the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” (fashion plate). Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, May 1860. Hand-coloured engraving. Special Collection, St. Peter’s House Library, University of Brighton.

For the blog I took the opportunity to interview Dr Charlotte Nicklas, a senior lecturer in the History of Art and Design at University of Brighton. Charlotte has taught here since 2006 and specialises in the history of dress and textiles. She completed her PhD in Brighton after starting her studies at Harvard and the Bard in New York.  It was a great experience to be able to find out a lot more about Charlotte’s studies, both past and present, and the reasons and influences that encouraged her to choose to study fashion and dress history and teach us here in Brighton.

Milly: What drew you to study fashion and dress history?

Charlotte: I had been interested in the subject for a long time, almost as long as I can remember, however, the inspirational moment for me would have to have been my 12th birthday trip to New York with my grandparents. It was then that I was first taken to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit the exhibition From Queen to Empress: Victorian Dress 1837-1877 . I almost had to be pulled out by my grandmother as I was so enthralled by it. It was there that I started to think about dress history and consider how it could be possible to study it. It isn’t possible to do an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Dress History in America, so I studied History and Literature at university and was lucky in my second year to meet a lecturer who was completing her PhD on 18th century dress and this again made me think ‘wow you can do this!’ All through my undergraduate degree I thought of ways to study this history of dress. To tailor my degree, for example, I took courses in Indian history and studied chintz, always along the lines of dress history.

Milly: Is there a difference in the study of fashion and dress history between England and America?

Charlotte: In the collections here there is a longer ‘history’, in that there are surviving Renaissance portraits and texts, whereas in the US there is obviously a shorter history of European-influenced dress. However while I was working the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I did get this sense that there was a little more dialogue between the museum world and the academic world in Britain, although this is changing now. This may be to do with the size of the UK – you can get anywhere in a couple of hours and not have to take a plane, so it is easier to see colleagues more frequently. I really enjoy being here, partly because it is so much easier to move around, but also because Britain really is a centre for the study of fashion and dress history. Due to my training in humanities, this is a department I feel comfortable and happy to be working in, mixed with lectures to the Fashion and Design students. It is interesting to have these two very different, but interrelated, ways of approaching a subject.

Milly: From what you have said previously about the very different histories the two countries have, do you think the American system provides a more detailed study of fashion and dress through having a shorter, more documented, history than England’s?

Charlotte: I think it really depends on where you go to study, even here in England a lot of histories of dress start from around the 18th century. A few will go back as early as the sixteenth century, but then you start to have to use more archaeological methods of research as there are so few surviving examples of dress.  This is the same in both England and the US, and in the United States they tend, like England, to focus largely on the dress history of Western Europe and Northern America, although this is changing now.

Milly: What drew you to studying the area of 19th century American and British Dress?

Charlotte: My PhD was about the transition from natural to artificial textiles dyes in the mid-19th century. The way that I found that research project was through an essay that I wrote during my MA degree, for a module on the 19th century domestic interior, so it did not even begin as purely the study of dress history. However I got particularly interested in the relationship between textiles and dress and science and technology and it was this which really got me thinking about making this my MA research project. The 19th century is, for me, so intriguing as in many ways a lot of the issues surrounding modernity that are so apparent today – transport and travel  and the moving of people away from the traditional community centres – were, if not created by the changes of the 19th century, were thrown into sharper relief during this period. Also, looking at the dress that women wore in the 19th century , it was so different from what we wear today.  It was a time when women’s roles changed very dramatically, and certain  women started to demand new rights.  It is these similarities and differences which drew me to study this era.

Milly: Have you noticed during you studies any noticeable differences between England and America at this time?

Charlotte: The US at this time was far less urbanised than England and Europe. The process of urbanisation was happening but the distances were far larger. It takes far longer to travel across the country and there were huge spaces of wilderness, which still remain. These have been preserved even till this day in many places, partly by accident and partly by learning from the large scale urbanisation of England and Europe which was happening in earnest by the mid-19th century. Comparing what was happening in 1870 in Britain and in 1870 in the United States, there were huge differences. There were, of course, the obvious differences of the systems of government, the monarchy versus the republic The differences in the way the fashion system worked might not have been so obvious in some of the East Coast cities where there were significant similarities with Europe . It is these similarities I am perhaps most interested in–there has been a lot of very interesting scholarly work recently about the concept of transatlanticism.

Milly: What are you currently working towards?

Charlotte: I am working on an article at the moment which is developed from part of my PhD and I am working on a book proposal to turn my PhD into a book. Alongside this I am working on a new research project for the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association conference in California called Loco/motion about travel in the 19th century. I am interested in the figure of the women traveller and the way in which travel took women away from their ‘proper’ domestic sphere. I am interested in how they negotiated the public space and activity of travel, especially on trains where the space could be both public and private and how this affected their self-presentation through dress.

Milly: Lastly, why did you choose to complete you studies in Brighton and to work here?

Charlotte: Professor Lou Taylor is the reason I came to do my PhD here. I considered some places in the US, but she was a very well-established scholar and I knew she was interested in 19th-century dress and in my project. But also for reasons that I have mentioned before, I realised that being in England would be a great opportunity more generally, to see collections first hand, allowing me to explore certain areas of research just not possible in the US. And it was just luck which meant there was a job here that was so right for me at the right time, so I stayed!

Art 13: New global art fair

Aurella Yussuf, second year BA (hons) History of Design Culture and Society student, describes her experiences at Art 13, a new London art fair, in March 2013.

A new addition to the art fair circuit, Art13’s press promised a departure from the regular scene. According to their website it would present ‘a truly global perspective’, showcasing art from 1945 to the present day. Admittedly, these sorts of events only register on the periphery of my art world radar, being that the academic interests of an average (read: impoverished) art and design history student and the pecuniary interests of the dealers in the commercial art market have seemingly little in common. However, a timely encounter with a social media giveaway put me in the possession of VIP entry to Art13, as opposed to regular entry, which went for £16 per person, per day.  Was this a chance to mingle with the glitterati of the art world? Not quite. The majority of the VIP events had been fully booked months in advance (presumably by those who had actually purchased their tickets). Nonetheless, students love a freebie, so I made the most of the three-day entry that my ticket provided.

My previous, albeit limited, art fair experiences have been somewhat paradoxical – the events can be elitist in atmosphere, yet still give the impression of being at some sort of trade show. Upon entering Kensington Olympia, however, it was immediately apparent that, in spite of its commercial motivations, this was indeed an art exhibition. Entertainment seemed to be the principal intention, with a young, trendy crowd (and reportedly boy-band members) in attendance. Individual gallery areas varied in size and layout, seemingly in no particular order, with a great deal of space provided to mingle, to drink champagne or coffee (whichever was more appropriate) and to take in the works. Many of these were interactive installations, which did not appear to be associated with any particular dealers and seemed instead to function only for visitors’ amusement. The catalogue would later tell me that these ‘projects’ were indeed intended to ‘enhance the multi-sensory experience of visiting the fair.’

Visually speaking, Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s enormous wall hanging In the world but don’t know the world was spectacular, but was draped so far above the doorway that it was only particularly noticeable when leaving. Constructed of discarded bottle caps it takes on the appearance of a rich, luxurious tapestry. In my opinion the distance made it difficult for the viewer to really connect with the associative possibilities that close inspection of the work could convey. As far as interaction went, South African sculptor Roelof Louw’s Pyramid of Oranges, was the clear leader. This conceptual sculpture was inspired by Covent Garden fruit market and requires the participation of the audience. Displayed at floor level without any barriers, visitors – many of whom were children – were invited to take an orange and by doing so change the shape of the sculpture. Elitist this was not.

What struck me most about Art13 was the strong emphasis on selling work by artists from Asia and the Middle East, indicating a growing interest in art from these regions. It was refreshing to see these artists represented by their regional galleries, not only by established European dealers searching for the latest trend. Chinese artist Su Xiaobai’s unmissable large scale panels layered with paint dominated the view as one entered the exhibition hall. South Africa’s strong photographic culture was represented by Zwelethu Mthethwa, and there were a smattering of other global works, but the Far and Middle East were the stars of the fair, with both regions also featured in the discussion series. Unfortunately, I felt that these talks fell flat and lacked critical depth, which is perhaps unsurprising, since the panels were dominated by private collectors who may be more interested in profit than critique.

Overall, Art13 was thoroughly enjoyable and I appreciated the inclusive atmosphere even if, as a student, I was not the intended audience of art dealer or collector. It was refreshing to see such an international market represented, and felt less alienating than other similar events. It will certainly be interesting to see if it manages to retain this uniquely friendly and youthful feel in years to come.

Hollywood Costume: A review

Florence Staunton Howe, a third year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, reports back on her visit to the V&A’s blockbusting exhibition for her dissertation research.

The V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition. 20 October 2012 – 27 January 2013 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

I went to visit the Hollywood Costume exhibition in December 2012 and was looking forward to it enormously as I’ve always wanted to be involved in costume for film as a career. It has been one of the most publicised and eagerly awaited exhibitions the V&A has ever had and because of this I was expecting good things. As anticipated, when we arrived, there was a massive queue and a forty five minute wait. The queue kept getting longer as we stood in line.

The first thing that struck me once inside was how crowded it was and how difficult to move around and see everything. The mannequins were set out in lines and there was a solid wall of people in front of them. You had to try and ignore this fact to enjoy the exhibition. The selection of Meryl Streep’s and Robert De Niro’s costumes side by side really stood out for me as they are both acting legends and the costumes spanned their careers. Other costumes I particularly enjoyed included Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean, designed by Penny Rose, due to the fact that I’m writing my dissertation on the dress history of the pirate and its changing representation throughout history and popular culture. A costume from Avatar was intriguing to see as the film was a mixture of live action and computer generated imagery; it was fascinating to know what was real and what was virtual. In terms of display, Batman and Spiderman costumes were hung dramatically from the walls, while Marilyn Monroe’s famous classic white dress from her 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, designed by William Travilla and worth almost three million pounds, was displayed in a glass case as the culmination of the show. All around the exhibition there were videos of costume designers and actors talking about the process of creating costumes for film. The heads of all the mannequins showed digital projections of the actors’ moving faces (which was an unnecessary addition and little more than a gimmick). Each mannequin was displayed behind a photo of the actor wearing the costume and then text explaining which film the costume was from, who wore it and who designed it. There was usually also further explanation from someone involved in the production.

The main message I gained from the exhibition was an appreciation of the costume designers themselves. The exhibition was curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Sir Christopher Frayling and Keith Lodwick. Landis and Lodwick have backgrounds in set and costume design, while Frayling is an eminent art and design historian. Together, they were keen to communicate how central and under-appreciated costume designers are in the creation of a film’s meaning. The exhibition definitely made you realise what an important and difficult job they have, and the exhibition goes some way towards finally giving them the credit and recognition they deserve. Costume plays a huge part in the creation of characters in film. A good costume designer, in my opinion, is someone who creates costumes that create characters and atmospheres, but doesn’t detract from the story. Film costume can also create effects beyond the screen, such as influencing fashion. As film scholar Sarah Gilligan has written, on this point, “clothing creates a tactile platform in which the spatial distance between the text and the spectator can be bridged via adornment and touch and thus the processes of identity transformation and performativity can be played out in our everyday lives”.

I’m not completely convinced that costumes can communicate character when static in an exhibition, without their accompanying actors, sets and music, but this was surely always going to be the biggest challenge for the curators of Hollywood costume: to see whether the costumes alone could recreate screen magic. However this, if anything, made me appreciate even more how hard the job of a costume designer is. After all, they have to design costumes for characters and films that haven’t yet been fully realised. For my dissertation I particularly wanted to see the Jack Sparrow costume as I am studying the historical influences and after effects of this particular manifestation of the pirate figure. While the costume was interesting to see, it certainly wasn’t as impressive as when Johnny Depp wears it on the exotic sets of Pirates of the Caribbean. However I did like how the exhibition had the mannequin engaged in a sword fight with an Errol Flynn Don Juan costume. It worked to bring the costume to life and give it a sense of movement.

Although the exhibition’s argument could be said to be the promotion of the art of the costume designer, this wasn’t a particularly scholarly exhibition. Its main aim was to have a wide appeal to anyone who is interested in film and clothing, and to include the most famous costumes they could to draw in the crowds. If they didn’t have crowd-pleasers such as the Jack Sparrow, Darth Vadar and Dorothy costumes, the exhibition would surely not have been so appealing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this ambition. It was great to see how popular a museum exhibition could be, with enthusiastic crowds prepared to queue for up to an hour. It was, in any case, always intended to be a blockbuster event. The V&A described as a “ground-breaking exhibition including over 100 of the most iconic and unforgettable film characters from a century of Hollywood film-making”. It certainly was that. The overcrowding did slightly detract from the experience, however, and the exhibition could be said to be a victim of its own success. Nevertheless, it was clear why it was so popular, and I thoroughly enjoyed gaining further insight into the fascinating world of costume design.

Design History Society: The student experience

Doctoral student Ness Wood describes the student opportunities provided by the national Design History Society, and the role of the Student Officer in particular.

The Design History Society (DHS) was set up in 1977 as a means to promote and support research in the history of design in its broadest sense. The Journal of Design History, affiliated to the society, followed ten years later. In the first edition, editor Christopher Bailey stated that ‘we hope to bring coherence to the historical study of design’, stating that ‘the humblest object to the grand plan finds a place’. The society has also always sought to promote and develop the work of students of design history, through providing discounted membership and journal fees, research funding, essay prizes and also opportunities to participate in the running of the society.

The DHS is made up of eleven voluntary Committee members from across the country. The Chair, Dipti Bhagat, is Senior Lecturer in Design History at London Metropolitan University. In addition there is a Secretary, a Treasurer, a Membership Officer, a Communications Officer, an Essay Prize Officer, a Teaching and Learning officer, a Research Grant Officer, a Conference Liaison Officer, the Chair of the Journal of Design History Editorial Board and the Student Officer (my role). University of Brighton lecturers, Charlotte Nicklas and Annebella Pollen, are both committee members.

The Executive Committee meets every two months in central London to discuss DHS matters, such as the organisation of the annual conference. In 2012, the conference was organised by Dr. Paul Jobling at Brighton and was entitled The Material Cultural of Sport: Design, History, Identity. The previous year, the venue was Barcelona and the topic was Design Activism and Social Change. This year’s conference, Towards Global Histories of Design: Postcolonial Perspectives, is to be held in Ahmedabad, India, and it is the first DHS conference to be held outside of Europe, reflecting the increasing relevance of design as a global discipline. The DHS are able to support some student conference places as part of a bursary. Executive meetings might also involve discussions about Day Seminars, which have included one at Brighton on Design History in East Asia, organized by Dr. Yunah Lee, one at Edinburgh College of Art/University of Edinburgh devoted to craft and one at University of Wolverhampton about country houses. Each were paid for by DHS funding.

I have been the DHS Student Officer for the past 18 months. Studying the History of Design at the University of Brighton for both my BA and my MA developed my passion for all things designed and that is why I applied for the position. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Executive Committee. Although the meetings are formal, the Committee is both welcoming and supportive. My role involved being responsible for and responding to student queries. This meant liaising with other members of the committee about student matters and generally representing student interests.

As the Student Officer, one of my core tasks was to manage the Student Travel Award to which students are encouraged to apply. It is certainly worth considering making an application as a sum of up to £500 can be granted. The award can be used to fund travel, accommodation and photocopying costs incurred when researching. My role involved making sure that the award is advertised by a variety of means, including word of mouth, email, Twitter and posters. I was also the point of contact for students who applied for the award. As Student Officer I was also responsible for managing the award-winning students’ reports. Successful students must report on their research and send in a written piece to the DHS. The articles are then published in the DHS electronic newsletter. Other Student Officer tasks can include reviewing exhibitions or events for the DHS newsletter. Writing for the newsletter was a great experience and also good practice for essays. I wrote about the V&A’s exhibition, British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, as well as a piece about a student publishing workshop held at the 2012 conference in Brighton.

To take on the responsibility of the Student Officer post one needs to be dedicated, organized and have some knowledge of social media, as well as having ideas about how the student role could develop. I am now stepping down from the role to concentrate on my PhD studies and so the DHS will be looking for a replacement. Good luck to the next candidate!

Taking Part: Silver Action

Althea Greenan, doctoral student and curator of The Women’s Art Library/Make, describes her recent experience as a participant in a large-scale feminist art work in The Tanks, Tate Modern.

During December 2012 I leapt at the chance to participate in Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action. I was eager to recreate the spectacle of her earlier art work The Crystal Quilt, where hundreds of women, seated at tables arranged in a vast pattern, discussed age and public life. Tate Modern recently purchased The Crystal Quilt as it exists now in the form of a video, documentary, quilt, photographs and sound piece. Its display helped launch the new space for performance art in the Tanks, but Lacy has long been a personal touchstone of art for social change.  Her work, for example, featured alongside other radical feminist art projects in the groundbreaking exhibition Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists at the ICA in 1980, curated by Lucy Lippard.

Silver Action concentrated on recognizing a generation of women’s action for social change in Britain, and the project specifically invited older women to talk about their experiences. The resulting Sunday afternoon – 3 February 2013 – went beyond mere remembrance, judging by the impassioned discussion it generated and continues to generate, including a letter on the subject in the Financial Times (16/2/2012). Over 400 women participated in shifts of 100 throughout the afternoon. Seated four at a time around tables, we were for the most part strangers. We might forget each other’s names as soon as we heard them, but not the stories that were told. We were asked:

– What do you believe in?
– How has age and experience shaped your ideas?
– What are you willing to take action on?

The function of Silver Action was to “write yourself into history”. Experiences stretched back as far as 1958 when two women started the Notting Hill Carnival to rebuild the community in the wake of the riots.  Our timeline clustered around actions taken between 1980 and 1990 and included public protest alongside other actions, from setting up health clinics and nurseries to personal stories of defiance.  Crucially, we also discussed what was important now.

During our hour we were invited to join a transcriber at a laptop that was rigged up to project text directly onto the wall of the Tanks.  However, finding words as an audience watched your text appear was less like writing a press release and more like constructing a disembodied RSS feed from a non-linear past. Yet all I needed to describe was the event that made me get involved in activism. My answer: hearing feminist psychotherapist Susie Orbach speak about her book On Eating. This led to the founding of AnyBody and its wonderful off-shoot  connecting  groups working against body hatred all over the world.

The long admission queues were a tribute to the project’s success. Even though many of the spectators were friends and family of participants, I glimpsed in this art audience a real shift in expectation. One described her astonishment at the first thing she saw: a tall gentleman on bended knee genuflecting to a spot-lit table of older women.

A range of different motivations attracted women to take part in the project. For me, I volunteered to realize an artwork, as opposed to those who came to realize action through the invitation circulated on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour or via the National Women’s Register and other active women’s groups.  The Tate website, nevertheless, called us all ‘participants’. So what is distinctive about being a ‘participant’ in an artwork? On the day, the work depends on you; Lacy was nowhere to be seen. However, the week before she had met us to explain how the ‘aesthetic’ of Silver Action was to give voice to the tradition of women’s activism in Britain, and how the event was designed for us. For the audience forced to drift around the periphery as most of the wonderful exchanges remained unheard, this too was the point.  

Accounts shared could be hasty or hilarious. Sometimes they were set adrift; at other times they were almost too harrowing to absorb, but absorb we did because we were talking to each other. Lacy knew, perhaps, that with the distance of time and in the company of these smiling women, attending to the pain would be possible.  And if that’s possible, anything is possible. In the end these fragmented accounts became shatterproof, reinforced not by placards, by speaking through megaphones or by civil disobedience, but by turning up in the hundreds to a contemporary art museum in the full understanding and faith that this too is action. And yes, this is what activism feels like; it’s like being in a participatory artwork. If you felt it wasn’t participatory enough as a member of the audience, that’s because connecting with social change is not just about the odd Sunday visit to the Tate. But for once, it could be a start.