“I think it might be safe for me to come out now”

Final year History of Art and Design student Lisa Hinkins reports on Brighton Museum’s recent conference Queer Legacies: Transforming practice in museums and galleries post-2017

Fig. 1. Queer Legacies

Fig 1. Queer Legacies logo

I was awarded a bursary ticket to attend Queer Legacies, a one-day conference organised and facilitated by Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. In the last eighteen months the Museum has carried out changes to address the lack of LGBT visibility within its building. It has also positively improved the Museum of Transology that transferred from the London College of Fashion into a space at Brighton Museum that gives gravitas to transgender lives. It has also held successful exhibitions of twentieth century queer artists Glyn Philpot and Gluck, introducing their work and lives to many who had not heard of them before. It was fitting that the Museum held this timely conference in a city rightly regarded as the LBGT capital of Europe.

The programme had a diverse range of speakers from various art institutions in the UK and Netherlands. The Chair for the day was Matt Smith, artist and curator, who holds a practice-based PhD in queer craft at University of Brighton. Smith pointed out that the National Portrait Gallery (NPG)’s Gay Icons exhibition in 2009 set a precedent for museums to consider curating LGBT-specific content. The 2009 NPG exhibition rode on the wave of a changing British society that followed 2005 legislation allowing same-sex civil unions. I had visited this ground-breaking exhibition, which was an incredibly moving experience that allowed celebrated LGBT people, among them tennis legend Billie-Jean King and singer Elton John, to select images of historical and contemporary LGBT heroes, displayed in an illustrious setting. Smith went on to say that since the NPG show, many art institutions had failed to collect and display LGBT objects, but that in the last few years there had been an exponential rise in queer exhibitions and displays. He said it is important to speak up, to understand the diversity of queer experiences. The failures of the past are gradually being addressed, though importantly he noted that the LGBT community still looks white, male and middle-class, and that this needs to change.

Next to the conference lectern were representatives from Amsterdam Museum. They expressed the importance of incorporating the ‘domestic narrative’ in exhibitions. By this they meant that the community in which a museum is set needed to be recognised, so that ‘out-reach’ becomes ‘in-reach’. For this to succeed, they recruited volunteers to assist with curating exhibitions. It was, they explained, important to the museum that it is custodian of a usable collection that grows and does not die. One important object, The Rainbow Dress, consists of seventy-two flags sewn together to represent the countries that still deny LGBT rights. The dress is touring round the world as a piece to inspire discourse on human rights and equality.

Fig 2. National Trust slide. Sarah Water, author extract from NT guidebook.

Fig 2. National Trust slide. Sarah Water, author extract from NT guidebook. Author’s own photograph. 7 Mar. 2018.

The National Trust recognised that it needs to reflect social progress to ensure better engagement with the public. The Trust’s speaker talked about the Prejudice and Pride guidebook written by scholars of gender and sexuality Alison Oram and Matt Cook, which highlighted Sissinghurst Castle and Garden. Its history was addressed through Speak its Name: a collaboration between National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust focusing around portraits held at Sissinghurst of its owners Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicholson and their contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf , which gave greater voice to its famous owners’ queer lives. From the Pitt Rivers Museum, an impassioned Dr Clara Barker stated that museums are powerful tools, which can be harnessed by communities to readdress the disparities of those written out of history, by telling their stories through objects held. These points were further touched on by Clare Barlow, the curator of Tate Britain’s Queer British Art, 1861-1967, who said the past is queerer than you think. By examining and exploring art and objects, histories are told.

Fig 3. Slide from Museum of Transology.

Fig 3. Slide from Museum of Transology. Author’s own photograph. 7 Mar. 2018.

The last exhibition addressed at the conference was the Museum of Transology, currently on display at Brighton Museum. Curator E.J. Scott said that it was important that the collection was relatable to the viewer. This was achieved by making ordinary objects extraordinary through the carefully-considered, displayed items such as a slogan t-shirt, a lipstick and medication. Scott referred to Jean Baudrillard’s idea that it is ‘oneself that one collects’. The display of the everyday allowed poignant messages about the realities of emotional and physical pain and joy to be expressed, to convey greater understanding to the cis person of a transperson’s personal journey.

One of the most touching comments came towards the end of the day from Tate Britain’s Clare Barlow. A comment card left by a visitor had said, “I think it might be safe for me to come out now.” For Barlow this was a powerful reminder as to why LGBT content in art galleries and museums was paramount for furthering visibility and inclusiveness. These projects, she said, could also be self-exposing and emotionally tiring, so it was important that conferences like Queer Legacies kept momentum going. All presentations were connected by discussion of the need for universal accessibility to the spaces and representations; the need for co-creation through recruitment and participation of volunteers; the need to ensure a legacy through sustained, continued exhibition work; and the enhancement of collections by further acquisitions with LGBT histories.

What I took away from this illuminating conference was the importance of institutions moving away from museums simply as didactic spaces and the need to shift towards a meaningful, interactive dialogue with the public. History is all our histories and there needs to be a halt to it being written by the victors or only by those at the top of the academic hierarchy.

Becoming a Casting Director

Final year History of Art and Design student Lydia Gray on developing a career in the entertainment industry

I realised not long into my degree – through writing essays and presentations about film and photography – that I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. I applied for a week’s work experience in July 2016 on the set of Teletubbies. It was great: at the start of the week, I worked in the Art Department and helped to make props, to place them on set, and then to clean them afterwards. I ended up cleaning a lot of tubby custard off props! I also helped the researchers, the scriptwriters, the producers, all sorts. It was really fun, and I learnt lots.

I decided that the summer after second year was the right time to get internships and work experience to secure a job immediately after I graduate in June 2018. I had developed a great interest in the talent side of the entertainment industry. I discovered the job position, ‘Casting Director’; they’re hired by the production to cast all speaking roles, and sometimes even the extras as well. They begin by posting on social media announcing they’re looking for actors. These actors’ agents will contact the casting office and hopefully secure them an audition. The actor will then be sent a script with lines to learn. Each role has very specific characteristics and only a handful of actors will fit the bill.

I wanted to get my foot in the door of this industry. From the website ‘The Casting Directors’ Guild’, I made a long list of all the casting directors in London. I realised London was the hub for casting in the UK, so it would be sensible to apply for work experience there. I emailed all of them, expecting hardly any replies and would have to email them all a couple more times. However, I heard back from twenty offices out of about 200! Most were notifying me they’d keep my CV on file, while some actually wanted to offer me some work experience, or to meet for a chat about the industry!

It is important to mention that I signed a confidentiality agreement so I cannot disclose any of the actors or projects that I knew about during any of my work experience. I got myself a week’s work experience at Mad Dog Casting in London. It is a casting agency which casts all non-speaking roles in films, TV shows, theatre and adverts. This was a good introduction to casting. I answered the phone and helped clients register at the agency to become an extra. I learnt lots, and it made me want to get more experience in casting.

The next internship was at Dan Hubbard Casting in July 2017. I interned for three weeks. I learnt so much. I was given scripts to read and character breakdowns, listing the characters and a brief description about each one to ease the process for Dan, as he selected the actors for roles. I also had to come up with a list of actors for a role and to go through it with Dan, then to call all the agents and ask for the actors’ availabilities. I was nervous about this as I wasn’t very confident with my phone manner! Another exciting part of the internship was to go to two casting sessions. The auditions were for one role in a film, and a role for an advert for a company.

I wanted to get experience at a talent agency. Working in casting and at a talent agency are similar, but also opposites. As a casting director, you work for the production and get hired to find the right actors for the roles. As a talent agent, you work for the talent. You represent various artists and find them work. You are often negotiating pay and different roles and scripts, which have been released with casting directors. It is highly rewarding. I managed to get work experience at The Artists’ Partnership in London. I assisted other agents with sorting paperwork, reading scripts and doing breakdowns and research on upcoming artists and productions. I also helped with filming two actors who are represented at the agency discuss their career progress. I edited and uploaded this video to the agency’s YouTube channel.

Now that I’m in my third year, I have a decent amount of experience on my CV so that when I graduate in June, I will be ready to start applying for jobs, rather than applying for more internships. I will apply for jobs either as a casting assistant or as an agent’s assistant at a talent agency.

Becoming Association of Dress Historians Student Fellow

Final year Fashion and Dress History student Emmy Sale reports on becoming an Association of Dress Historians Student Fellow

This month, I was elated to be the recipient of an Association of Dress Historians (ADH) Student Fellowship. For those of you who don’t know of the charity, ADH aims to support the advancement of public knowledge and education of dress and textile history and is particularly committed to supporting students of dress history. In order to fulfil this mission, they founded the Student Fellowships.

My Fellowship for ADH involves taking care of their social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) in order to build up their online presence. The power of social media cannot be understated; it is a great way to engage with museums, online archives and dress historian communities to keep up to date with new research, exhibitions and articles. Through regular posts relating to the charity’s events and conferences I will be promoting the charity but also directly learning the impact of social media and engaging with the promotion of dress history through these platforms. Already, posting more regularly has made an impact as the ADH New Research in Dress History conference has sold out!

The Fellowship is not only an opportunity to experience how the charity is run, by assisting at the conferences and attending committee meetings, but also to contribute to it. I am required to write blog posts for the ADH website that will reflect my research interests, exhibition reviews and ADH events; and I am also encouraged to develop an article for the Journal of Dress History. These are great opportunities to get research published by the charity, but also to contribute to the field of dress history that I am passionate about and would like to progress in.

Overall, I believe that being an ADH Student Fellow will be invaluable to the progression of my skills, interests and achievements; as well as showing a commitment and passion for the subject of dress history to future employers. Organisations like ADH are important to supporting both the study of and students of dress history, so to be able to represent the charity in order to share its key aims is a real honour.

Seminar Style! March 2018


Anne at City Campus (Edward Street)

Name: Anne Roberts

Course: Fashion and Dress History

Outfit: Everything Vintage

Style inspiration: I’m influenced by the fashion style of the 20s, 30s and 40s but with a modern twist. I wear originals and shop in charity shops, vintage markets and jumble sales! Everything in the photo is second hand.

Instagram- @artdecoanne

How my dissertation on Alison Settle, editor of British Vogue, became an article in Fashion Theory

History of Design and Material Culture MA graduate (2014) Ilaria Coser on being published in academic journal Fashion Theory


"Alison Settle, Editor of Vogue, early 1930s. Handwritten note at the back of the photograph states: “Alison at her desk, Editor’s room, Vogue, with dolls house in background”

Alison Settle, Editor of Vogue, early 1930s. Handwritten note at the back of the photograph states: “Alison at her desk, Editor’s room, Vogue, with dolls house in background”. (courtesy of Alison Settle Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives).

A few months ago my article on the diaries of Alison Settle was published in Fashion Theory. It felt like a great accomplishment, fulfilling an aspiration I had held since the completion of my dissertation on the great British journalist and editor of British Vogue. Today, Alison Settle is virtually unknown outside fashion circles, with no auto/biography or other literature about her life and her achievements in fashion journalism. Settle reported on “women’s topics” for over 50 years, mostly in British magazines and newspapers. She was an advisor to the British textile and retail industries, and was a member of government bodies tasked with improving post-war British design. For nearly a decade between the Wars, Settle was also the editor of British Vogue, a position which required her to be actively involved with the smart set of London Society.

"“Alison Off on a Jaunt,” 1915. Private photograph from the Charles Wakefield Private Archive

“Alison Off on a Jaunt,” 1915. Private photograph from the Charles Wakefield Private Archive. Permission obtained from Charles Wakefield.

My dissertation focused on the personal diaries written by Settle in the early 1930s, during the last four years of her Vogue editorship. The diaries had been preserved and cared for by Settle’s descendants, particularly by her grandson Charles, who lives in Canada. Charles was incredibly supportive and generous in sharing material and information, and I corresponded frequently with him and established a friendly collaboration. I also drew on material held in Settle’s collection at the University of Brighton Design Archives. As my research progressed, I grew increasingly invested in making Alison Settle’s name more widely known in the public domain – not only because her stature deserves recognition, but also because this would mean a lot to her family.

Fashion Theory’s theoretical and critical approach to fashion has made it my favourite academic journal throughout my studies in dress history. When my tutor, Professor Lou Taylor, mentioned that my MA dissertation had the potential to be published, Fashion Theory was my first choice. I knew that my research was a good fit for the journal, as it focused on Settle’s bodily presence as a key to access the knowledge required of her to be the editor of Vogue.

The process for publication was straightforward. Firstly, I searched online the requirements for submission. Fashion Theory is now published by Taylor & Francis, and their website hosts a very clear section for authors, detailing all the key steps. Having gathered all the practical information – word count, referencing style, recommended font, and so on – I identified a few published articles with similar characteristics to my research. Reading them provided a compass to establish which parts should be kept and which should be discarded, given that my dissertation would have to be reduced to a third of its original word count.

"Alison Settle with husband Alfred and daughter Maggie, 1921. Private photograph from the Charles Wakefield Private Archive.

Alison Settle with husband Alfred and daughter Maggie, 1921. Private photograph from the Charles Wakefield Private Archive. Permission obtained from Charles Wakefield.

The re-writing of my text took longer than I expected. I had done a huge amount of detailed research on Settle’s life and I had been very selective on which parts should be included in my dissertation; for the article, I had to focus even more on the theoretical and critical aspects. Once I felt satisfied with the final draft, Professor Lou Taylor was kind enough to read it and confirm it was ready, as well as following up my submission by writing to Valerie Steele (the editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory) to introduce me and my research.

Articles are subject to peer review, and I was surprised at how quickly I received feedback. I made most of the changes recommended by the reviewer and submitted my new draft, together with a point-by-point explanation of the suggestions I had implemented and those I had opted not to apply. For example, the reviewer had suggested cutting out Settle’s biography. However, I strongly believed that it would be important to keep it, because of the complete lack of information published on her life. So, although reduced, the chapter remained.

The article was approved for publication, which happened very quickly. I was contacted by a team who supervised the proofreading and editing, requiring me to revise the text in detail and authorise further changes – changes related to syntax and grammar rather than content. And a couple of days after approving the final proof, I received confirmation that the article was published, with tips on how to broadcast the information as widely as possible.

Overall, I feel that an essential aspect of getting published was the support I received from my tutor – first hearing that my work was worthy of publication, and then her advocacy on my behalf when I submitted it to the journal. It is very satisfying to know that now there is research published on Alison Settle. Through the laborious task of transcribing her journals, I had looked into names and places and events that made it possible for me to understand the complex web of relationships in her life, and through those, her personality and values. Of course I retain my research notes and findings, and the idea of one day writing, or contributing to the writing of her biography remains my ambition.

Link to article: Ilaria Coser (2017) ‘Alison Settle, Editor of British Vogue (1926–1935): Habitus and the Acquisition of Cultural, Social, and Symbolic Capital in the Private Diaries of Alison Settle’, Fashion Theory, DOI: 10.1080/1362704X.2017.1371982


Christian Dior at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs

Second year Fashion and Dress History students Caroleen Molenaar and Donna Gilbert discuss their visit to the Christian Dior exhibition in Paris

Fig. 1: The Colourama Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 1: The Colourama Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph taken by the authors.

The Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris (from July 5 2017 to January 8 2018), celebrated seventy years of the House of Dior. It combined the work of Christian Dior with that of the six artistic directors who followed him – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri – in what can only be described as a sumptuous feast of fashion.

The House of Dior opened in 1946, funded by Marcel Boussac, France’s cotton king. Dior’s first collection in 1947 was described as revolutionary, but was also scandalous, requiring many yards of material in a time of austerity. Dior said “We were emerging from a period of war, of uniforms, of women-soldiers built like boxers. I drew women-flowers, soft shoulders, flowering busts, fine waists like liana and wide skirts like corolla.”[1] Carmel Snow, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar dubbed this the ‘New Look’ and it took the fashion world by storm, helping Paris to regain its title as the ‘Capital of Couture.’ During his ten-year reign, Dior continued to introduce new shapes such as the Oblique (1950), the Tulip (1953) and the Spindle (1957) and influenced many designers including Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin, who both worked for the House of Dior.

Fig. 2: The Garden Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 2: The Garden Room at the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph taken by the authors.

In the exhibition, the Colourama rooms were the first to showcase all the different types of items and accessories that the House of Dior created. These included dresses, shoes, purses, tiaras, miniature dresses, perfume bottles, jewellery, gloves, and drawings. This wide array of items were displayed together, by colour, to fit in with Dior’s belief in fashion as an all-encompassing feature, with fashion accessories matching a woman’s dress to create perfect harmony.[2] In the first room (Figure 1), the colours of the items displayed ranged from tints and shades with white, going through different forms of grey ending in black; as well as warm colours, beginning with tan, to yellow, to white, to orange to pink to red. The second room was primarily made up of cool colours beginning with green, leading to dark green, dark blue, blue, grey into lilac, purple, maroon and then red.

From a young age, Dior had always had a large affinity for nature and flowers. His childhood house, Granville, had a large garden that he would sit in and enjoy. As a fashion designer, Dior would often retreat to the garden of one of his six properties to acquire inspiration for his upcoming collections.[3] The design of the Garden room in the exhibition perfectly emulated a garden through the thousands of white paper cut leaves and flowers hanging from the ceiling, and the changing coloured lights representing the different colours of flowers. All of the garments in the room had different influences of nature and flowers: from printed materials, to flower appliques, to embroidered flowers, or dresses shaped like flowers. Figure 2 shows some of our favourite dresses in this room, and shows how the influence of nature and flowers was incorporated in contrasting ways in each.

Fig. 3: Christian Dior’s Junon from the Tulip Collection, 1953. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fig. 3: Christian Dior’s Junon from the Tulip Collection, 1953. 30 Nov. 2017. Photograph by the authors.

The Ball Gown room, the last room of the exhibition, was by far the grandest in its display and content. The design of the room itself encompassed two mirrored walls, with two Rococo-style decorated walls where paintings of women wearing ball gowns by Gainsborough, Winterhalter and Renoir were hung, emulating the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Dior’s interest in ball gowns stemmed from his enjoyment of high society Parisian parties held after the Second World War. Attending these balls inspired him to design many lavish garments.[4] One of our favourite ball gowns displayed in this room was Dior’s ‘Junon’ dress; made as part of his Tulip collection in 1953 (Figure 3).

Overall, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams was an exhibition where you wanted to go back to the very first room as soon as you had left the final one, to see the things in each dress or accessory you had missed first time round. For both of us, it was the most visually-pleasing, and fashion-filled exhibit we’d been to, and has set the bar high for future fashion exhibitions.

[1] Roux and Müller, Christian Dior, 40.

[2] Roux and Müller, Christian Dior, 58.

[3] Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion, A Cultural History, (Oxford: Berg 2nd Ed, [1988] 1998) 270

[4] Raphaëlle Roux, and Florence Müller. Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris: French Society of Artistic Promotion. 2017) 62.


Irving Penn at the Grand Palais, Paris


Second year Fashion and Dress History student Hon Yan Lau discusses visiting a retrospective of the work of photographer Irving Penn

Irving Penn

Irving Penn on a shoot

Nine covers

Nine of the covers Penn did for Vogue during his 66 years working with the magazine

Over the Christmas break, I visited the best exhibition I have ever seen. This was the touring work of famed American fashion photographer, Irving Penn (1917-2009). The exhibition, held at Paris’s Grand Palais, was organized by The Réunion des musées nationaux in France- Grand Palais with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in conjunction with the Irving Penn Foundation. It was the first major retrospective of Penn’s seventy year career since his death in 2009 and the 235 photographic prints provided insights into his vision, work and life.


Pablo Picasso, Cannes, 1957 by Irving Penn

In the exhibition, the curators focused on eleven aspects of his career: ‘still life and early street photography’, ‘existential portraits’ (1947-1948), ‘In Vogue’ (1947-1951), ‘Cuzco’ (1948), ‘Small Trades’ (1950-1951), ‘Classic Portraits’ (1948-1962), ‘Nudes’ (1949-1950), ‘Worlds in a Small Room’, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Late Still Life’ and ‘Time Capsules’. Penn’s works left a significant impact both on the fashion world and on photography and the exhibition highlighted his methods of working. Before he shot his sitters, for example, he would have a long conversation with them in order to put them at ease and to get the best out of them. He said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world […] Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe”.

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, 1957

The existential portraits section – my favourite part of the exhibition – included many familiar faces such as boxing legend Joe Louis, Audrey Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.  Penn converted colour photos to black and white in order to bring out the sitters’ emotion and expression, saying: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is, in one word, effective.”

Irving Penn was shown at the Grand Palais from 21 September 2017 to 29 January 2018

Object of the Month: March 2018


How did a Rwandan doll end up in a Brighton teaching collection? Final year Fashion and Dress History student Emmy Sale investigates

Figure 1 Front view Doll made in Kigali, Rwanda.

Figure 1. Front view Doll made in Kigali, Rwanda, 2008-2009. Cotton fabrics, stuffed with waste-rice stuffing and embroidery detailing. Handmade by a young boy as part of a Tailoring project run by the Kinamba Project. Purchased from Charity Shop in Brighton. University of Brighton Teaching Collection

Ever wondered how objects can travel around the world? Or what happens to souvenirs when they are discarded? This doll from the University of Brighton Dress and Textiles Teaching Collection has made a fascinating journey from Rwanda to Brighton. The doll was purchased by Professor Lou Taylor for just £3 from a Brighton charity shop. The use of African wax print fabric in its construction suggested the doll to be from West African, but research proved otherwise. Instagram posts of similar souvenir dolls posted by tourists suggested Rwandan origins. However, when the dolls were found on www.africanbags.org, this provenance was confirmed. Significantly, the website attributed the doll to the “Kinamba Project” in Kigali, Rwanda.

Figure 2 Back View of Doll made in Kigali, Rwanda.

Figure 2. Back View of Doll.

The Kinamba Project was set up in 2005, aiming to help the poor and vulnerable in Kigali, after the community’s devastation following the 1994 genocide. One way the project helps children and adults is through a tailoring project, which teaches sewing skills to individuals to create a source of income. The Project’s founder, Meg Fletcher, was able to shed more light on the significance of the doll’s manufacture. She explained that the object was made by a young orphan who was looking after a disabled man in exchange for food and a place to sleep. The ‘orphan’ is now a successful and enterprising young man. Today he produces stuffed animals, mobiles and bags, all made from fabrics purchased from local wholesale outlets, and stuffed with waste-rice sacking. From those small beginnings, he was able to employ three people, to purchase a piece of land and to build a house. With the support of the Kinamba Project, the benefits for the people of Kigali of manufacturing these souvenir dolls can be comprehended.

This doll has undergone a journey: from something made to help an individual’s life in Rwanda, bought as a tourist souvenir, later donated to a British charity shop and purchased by a professor for use in dress history research. The research was conducted for a case-study project entitled “Not Just a Souvenir: Dolls of the World.” The teaching collection holds many other dolls from around the world and it is hoped that their narratives will also be researched and revealed by students in the future.


“I just don’t think it’s our battle to fight”…?

Final year History of Art and Design student Lily Chadwick discusses the presentation – and erasure – of homosexuality in the BBC’s TV show Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife first appeared on UK television screens in January 2012 and is now in its seventh series, with two more currently commissioned. As a show, Call the Midwife aims to present ideas of difference (or ‘otherness’) through a longstanding theme of ‘overcoming barriers’. Issues of race, ethics, religion, class, morals, and of course illness, birth and death are covered respectfully, albeit often through a ‘rose-tinted’ lens, and the show, as a whole, appears feminist in its presentation, with a direct focus on women and women’s issues.

Where the show seems to fall short, I believe, is in its presentation of homosexuality. The character of Patience ‘Patsy’ Mount is first introduced in series three and her love-interest Delia Busby is introduced later in the series. The show handles this representation of ‘otherness’ like it does any other, by presenting a barrier for them to overcome. In the case of the couple they are actually presented with two consecutively: firstly, a devastating head-injury leaves Delia with substantial memory-loss and, secondly, shortly after the pair are reunited, Patsy is called away to Hong Kong to care for her dying father. Much of the relationship of the couple is shown on screen through knowing glances and lingering touches but no open discussion of their sexuality, the couple have only one on-screen kiss (described by The Sun as ‘steamy’) despite their relationship (in terms of the show) existing for a number of years. This presentation is, of course, fitting with the early-1960s perception of homosexuality as ‘taboo’ and female homosexuality as non-existent. However, heterosexual characters in the show openly kiss regularly and discuss issues of sex and relationships relatively openly. The fact that the relationship of the two is presented so tamely suggests that the show is leaving out affectionate moments to avoid controversy.

Series four, episode three (set in 1960) deals directly with historical issues of homosexuality: specifically, the arrest and prosecution of a man who is caught committing an act of gross indecency, which, up until the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, was a criminal offence. In the episode, the expectant father is given the choice of being medically ‘treated’ for his homosexual tendencies rather than given a prison sentence; leaving him, effectively, chemically castrated. The episode itself focusses strongly on the effects of the arrest and the abuse the expectant mother, and wife of the accused, suffers because of his charges. The topic of homosexuality is later pushed aside when, in reference to promoting tolerance towards homosexuality, Nurse Beatrix ‘Trixie’ Franklin (a woman of thoroughly ‘modern’ presentation) states to a disheartened Patsy: “I just don’t think it’s our battle to fight”. What the show fails to represent in this episode are the many discussions surrounding laws on homosexuality that were occurring from the mid-1950s onwards. These began with the Wolfenden report in 1957, which suggested that reforms should be made to the laws surrounding the criminality of homosexuality, and extended to lengthy discussions in Parliament up until thirteen years later, when the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality occurred.

Whilst the presentation of homosexuality has been lengthily praised by mainstream press and fans of the show, it appears that Call the Midwife is simply paying lip-service to what are much larger issues of the time. By including two homosexual characters, particularly as main reoccurring cast members, Call the Midwife is making homosexuality an issue of the show to be dealt with, presumably, in the same way that other presentations of ‘otherness’ are: through overcoming barriers, leading to an ultimate resolution of acceptance. Rather than tackling the issue of the historical erasure of homosexuality (particularly female homosexuality), Call the Midwife adds to this discourse of erasure by refusing to discuss a lesbian relationship openly on screen. The approach of presenting homosexuality historically as largely a private act is not false – the show’s larger agenda of lessening taboos through wholehearted acceptance apparently cannot stretch as far as announcing acceptance for a female homosexual couple – and now, since the actors portraying both Patsy and Delia have quit the show to pursue other roles, it is apparent that the producers of the show consider the topic to be ‘dealt with’ without ever including the acceptance that the show seems emphatically to promote.