Dressing the Decades at Preston Manor

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Sarah-Mary Geissler reports on working with BA Fashion and Dress History student Caroleen Molenaar at Preston Manor.

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Fig. 1. Sarah-Mary Geissler preparing a mannequin, 28th April 2018, photo by author

Since last summer, Caroleen Molenaar and I have worked towards co-curating an ambitious exhibition of dress at historic Brighton house, Preston Manor: Dressing the Decades. The Manor first opened 85 years ago and has seen a colourful array of people pass through its doors: from WWII operatives to modern day ghost hunters, there is a wealth of social history bursting out of the centuries-old walls. Most visitors will come to admire the exquisite furnishings and fascinating servant’s quarters, though there are several surprising tales about the individuals who had come and gone from Preston Manor. For the 85th anniversary it only seemed fitting for us to celebrate this history of the house.

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Fig. 2. Co-curators Sarah-Mary Geissler and Caroleen Molenaar with line-up of all dressed mannequins, 28th April 2018, photo by author

As volunteer dress historians, we started out by cataloguing the costume collection. Over many months we collected correspondence within the Manor’s archives, alongside oral testimonies and photographic sources to discover nine decades worth of fashion stories. Here, we could apply the unique skills learnt from our respective courses to a professional setting. Once we had unearthed anecdotes and cultural moments from the archives, Caroleen and I had the challenge of sourcing which period garments would best communicate these stories. Following this, we had to figure out where to place each outfit to create a cohesive trail for visitors to follow. Instead of setting aside a large room to display every outfit, we decided to approach the display as an intervention in the house. The exhibition consists of ten mannequins in nine rooms representing dress from 1933 to today, set out in a trail which begins, appropriately, in the Entrance Hall.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 3. Caroleen Molenaar and Jade Bailey-Dowling taking mannequins from the costume room to install in the manor, 28th April 2018, photo by author

We were trained to mount mannequins, a surprisingly arduous and intricate task, and were responsible for the placement of each mannequin in rooms, to articulate particular stories. Both of us were fortunate enough to work closely with Preston Manor throughout, from the process of submitting the exhibition proposal through to leading tours of the trail. Preston Manor has never before held a display quite like this, and as a volunteer-led project we were able to put all our energy, fashion history knowledge and love for dress into each mounted garment in the exhibition.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 4. Caroleen Molenaar putting final touches on a 1980s Laura Ashley dress in Lady Standford’s bedroom, 28th April 2018, photo by author

Dressing the Decades runs from 1st May to 20th September 2018, and Preston Manor is holding several events relating to the exhibition throughout the summer. Still to come are a kids dress-up day on 25th August and an archive talk on 22nd September.

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Fig. 5. 1970s Laura Ashley dress belonging to a former volunteer posed for promotional purposes, dress can be found elsewhere in the exhibition, 9th February 2018, photo by author

Forays into false teeth and beyond: from dress history to the history of medicine

Becky Kearney (MA Design History and Material Culture graduate, 2013) on her PhD research

In 2011 I started the Design History and Material Culture Masters course at University of Brighton, drawn by its strength in the field of dress history. Now I am in the first year of a collaborative PhD at the University of Kent and the Science Museum, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) researching false teeth from 1848–1948. Many people, not least myself, are surprised by this seemingly large leap from dress to dentures. In this blog post I discuss my experience of moving from design history to medical history and the benefits of a collaborative doctoral partnership (CDP).

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Fig 1. Claudius Ash and Sons Manufactory, Kentish Town. Etching. Image printed in A Catalogue of Artificial Teeth and Dental Materials Manufactured and Sold by Claudius Ash & Sons’, (London: Claudius Ash & Sons, 1865). Wellcome Collection.

During the Masters course at Brighton my interest in clothing worn on the body shifted to items incorporated into the body, such as hair extensions or prosthetics. When I read on a park billboard that Kentish Town, London was allegedly the world’s largest supplier of artificial teeth in the nineteenth century, it piqued my interest (Fig.1). I found grotesque photos of early eighteenth-century teeth made from gold, ivory, porcelain and human teeth and it convinced me these objects were worthy of further research (Fig.2).

Fig 2.

Fig 2. Partial upper and lower denture, with springs, lower of ivory, repaired, upper of swaged metal, by Gabriel, with platinum tube anteriors and ivory posteriors, 1856-1880. Full view, white background.

Predominantly, dental historians have written the histories of artificial teeth from a technical and innovation-centred perspective. However, key themes within the objects’ history such as craft practices, commodification and body modification are common to the disciplines of design history and material culture. Denture-makers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often came from professions such as jewellery or watchmaking. Early porcelain teeth-innovators purchased the pastes for the porcelain from the famous decorative ceramics company Wedgwood and, by the late nineteenth century, employed mass manufacturing techniques akin to Wedgwood to produce them, making dentures widely accessible across Britain.[i] Early twentieth century advertising material issued by dentists or quacks, promoting artificial teeth and their associated transformative qualities, also had parallels with a burgeoning cosmetics industry. A design history of the denture was possible.

Three years after completing my Masters, my former MA supervisor, Annebella Pollen, made me aware that a funded PhD on false teeth had come up; it was too good an opportunity to miss. The AHRC funds many collaborative doctorates each year, bringing universities and museums or other institutions from across the UK together, in my case: the University of Kent and the Science Museum, London.[ii] CDP students are given access to the museum or institution’s collection for object research, they receive training, supervision from a curator and may have the potential to get work experience within the museum. The AHRC itself also offers training, funding, and a community of other PhD students to collaborate and socialise with. The Design History and Material Culture masters at Brighton encouraged my interest in object-based research through its own teaching collection and in engaging with museum archives so this type of PhD has felt like an ideal progression.

Fig. 3.

Fig 3. Goodall’s Institute dentist card from Swanson Collection of dental advertising material EPH646, Wellcome Collection. Archive. Personal photograph.

At Kent University I have encountered the entirely new field of the history of medicine, with very different subject areas, proponents, archives and conferences to design history. There is, however, much more in common than at odds between the two departments I have studied within. Material culture is increasingly being applied to the history of medicine and will be the core methodological approach in my thesis about the Science Museum collection. Fields such as the history of emotions have previously been interrogated by medical historians but have only very recently been brought together within material culture.[iii] Both departments promote a highly interdisciplinary approach as well as drawing from a multitude of sources from archival to oral history. Most notably both the Brighton and Kent faculties consist of an energetic community of lecturers and researchers pursuing diverse research interests that, however seemingly disparate to my own research, frequently offer inspiration, context or relevant conceptual frameworks.

The niche field of oral health has led me into contact with sociologists, literary, medical and dental historians, curators of medicine, as well as practicing dentists. The increasingly interdisciplinary nature of academic research may result in entering unfamiliar fields, leading to what one lecturer at Kent has described as a feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’. However, the consensus amongst my Kent History department colleagues is that pushing the boundaries of one’s immediate field and engaging with interdisciplinary research, although sometimes intimidating, when executed well can be highly rewarding and has the potential to reach many more people.

[i]R.A Cohen, ‘Messrs Wedgwood and porcelain dentures correspondence 1800-1815. I. De Chemant, Thomas Byerley and others, 1800-1812,’ British Dental Journal139(1975): 27 – 31. R .A Cohen, ‘Messrs Wedgwood and porcelain dentures correspondence 1800-1815. I. De Chemant, Thomas Byerley and others, 1800-1815 II. Joseph Fox, Thomas Byerley and Robert Blake, 1810 – 1815,’ British Dental Journal 139 (1975): 69 – 71.

[ii]AHRC collaborative doctoral partnerships 2018. http://www.ahrc-cdp.org/phd-studentships-list-of-ahrc-collaborative-doctoral-partnership-phd-oct-2018-start/

[iii]Example of the history of emotions and material culture see: Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway and Sarah Randles (ed.). Feeling Things. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018.


Being on placement at the British Library

jo pilcher

Naomi Tcherna, Bridget Bunduck and Elizabeth Gumbaduck silkscreen printing Cecelia Kurungaiyi’s design Waterholes at Palngun Wurnangat Aboriginal Corporation, Wadeye, 28th August 2017. Photograph by Joanne Pilcher.

Joanne Pilcher is currently undertaking a Design Star-funded PhD at University of Brighton on ‘Aboriginal Australian Textile Design in the Northern Territory’. Joanne recently went on a British Library PhD Research Placement. Her project explored contemporary publishing in Australia and links to her project blog posts are at the following links:





Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A

BA (Hons) History of Art and Design graduate (2018) Wendy Fraser reviews the V&A’s current Frida Kahlo show

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Figure 1 Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Photographed by her lover, Kahlo wears a traditional Tehuantepec-style cotton huipil with her hair in her signature style plaited with fabric and adorned with real flowers.

Frida Kahlo’s image has become ubiquitous in popular culture; famous for her monobrow and flowers in her hair, Kahlo is the subject of many other artists’ work and her face adorns stationery, cushions, jewellery and there is even a Frida Barbie. It is fitting that while Kahlo can be regarded as more famous for her look than for her body of artwork that the V&A’s new exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up focuses on her carefully constructed appearance. (Figure 1)

The exhibition has been created around artefacts discovered in 2003 in Kahlo’s childhood home, the Casa Azul (now the Museo Frida Kahlo) in the Coyoacán area of Mexico City. Over 6000 photographs, 22,000 documents and 300 other items including clothing, jewellery, accessories, medicines, make up, and orthopaedic devices were found in the hoard.[i]These personal items had been sealed up in a bathroom, fifty years earlier, by Kahlo’s husband the artist Diego Riviera (1886-1957) who was part of the Mexican muralist movement. While the articles have been displayed in Mexico, it is the first time they have been shown outside the country.

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Figure 2 Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán (ruffle). Photograph: Museo Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon to a German father, a photographer and a Mexican/Spanish mother. Kahlo’s painting career began when she was recovering from terrible injuries she suffered in 1925 when a bus she was travelling on collided with a tram and she was impaled on a handrail. She became her own favourite subject – of the 143 paintings she left, 55 are self-portraits.[ii]Kahlo’s interest in indigenous Mexican culture is expressed in the symbolism of her artwork and she began to wear traditional dress, particularly the clothing of the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. ‘The matriarchal society of the Tehuanas held a particular appeal for Kahlo, who was building her own image as an outsider: independent, but faithful to tradition, while at the same time embracing a modern, liberated lifestyle’.[iii]The clothing served a practical purpose too; long skirts hid her leg that had been wasted by childhood polio and the loose huipil blouses (square-cut tunics with no darts or shaping in patterned or embroidered cotton) accommodated the plaster casts and leather corsets that she was forced to wear following her accident and both were worn with a rebozos, a rectangular fringed shawl. (Figure 2) Kahlo ensured that all eyes were averted from her injured limb to her upper body with decorative blouses, flamboyant jewellery and her elaborate hairstyle of braids interlaced with yarn or ribbons and decorated with real flowers.

The first room of the exhibition shows photographs of the family of six daughters, mostly taken by Kahlo’s father; in one formal portrait Kahlo has slicked her hair back and wears a man’s three-piece suit, in others she wears European-style clothes.  The first pieces of clothing encountered are displayed on two mannequins, one wearing a French black velvet cape and brocade skirt and the other in a Tehuana outfit with a full red skirt and blouse which sit together holding hands echoing Kahlo’s 1939 oil painting The Two Fridas and emphasising her dual heritage. Photographs of Zapotec women at market wearing indigenous dress by the Italian photographer Tina Modotti demonstrate that in Mexico Kahlo’s costumes were the custom while photographs of Kahlo against the New York skyline by her lover Nickolas Murray highlight what a curiosity she must have seemed on her frequent visits to the US.

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Figure 3 Frida Kahlo’s prosthetic leg with red leather lace up boot with embroidered appliqued panel with Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. ©Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives.

Innovative display techniques have been used throughout the exhibition: the heads of the many mannequins have Kahlo’s face and hairstyle with moulded braids and flowers. Display cabinets have been made to represent Kahlo’s four poster bed in which she was often confined while recuperating from her many surgeries using a mirror rigged up over the bed to continue to paint herself. A mannequin bust has been wrapped in plaster-dipped bandages to mimic Kahlo’s body casts and used to display some of Kahlo’s vast jewellery collection. The most poignant exhibit is a pair of black suede heeled tie-up shoes. The toe area on the right shoe has been cut out to accommodate and prevent pressure on Kahlo’s gangrenous toes. Next to them is her prosthetic leg with a red leather wedge boot which laces up to mid-calf with a Chinese dragon embroidered on a silk panel decoration on the foot (Figure 3) which she wore in 1953 after the amputation of her leg.

The most personal items on display are Kahlo’s cosmetics, empty perfume bottles, medication (including Demerol, an additive opioid) and her orthopaedic corsets. Her perfumes included Chanel No5 and Shalimar and she favoured lipsticks in red and a dark pink called Everything’s Rosy by Revlon.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up reveals how Kahlo’s constructed appearance was as much a part of her artwork as her paintings. Her adoption of indigenous dress was a powerful political statement about her Mexican identity that aligned her with a matriarchal society and additionally helped to disguise her disabilities. Kahlo’s suffering was unimaginable and the real strength of the exhibition is that by juxtaposing her clothing and personal effects with her self-portraits and photographic portraits, Kahlo emerges as a three-dimensional woman and transcends her commodified image of popular culture.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A from 16 June – 4 November 2018

[i]Hilda Trujillo Soto, “Treasure in the Blue House”, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, eds., Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa (London, V&A Publishing, 2018) 21.

[ii]“Biography of Frida Kahlo,” Frida Kahlo Foundation website. [n.d.]

[iii]Circe Henestrosa, “Appearances can be Deceiving- Frida Kahlo’s Construction of Identity: Disability, Ethnicity and Dress,” Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, eds., Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa (London, V&A Publishing, 2018) 70.


On speaking in public for the first time

Emmy Sale (BA Fashion and Dress History graduate 2018) on taking part in Worthing Museum’s Objects Unwrapped study day

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Figure 1. Left: Wendy Fraser’s unfinished patchwork dating to the 1980s that once had used envelopes and the cover of a child benefit book as the backing papers. Right: the 1830s patchwork quilt in Worthing Museum’s collection, that has reused papers from an unknown source but many show prices, names and places. Despite being made 150 years apart, each quilt uses the same hexagon shape and reuse of paper to produce patchwork pieces.

30th June 2018 marked the launch of the Objects Unwrapped collaborative project between University of Brighton and Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. The study day held at Worthing Museum and attended by staff and students from the university and members of the public, consisted of short presentations by BA, MA, PhD students and staff who shared hidden histories of objects from the archive. The presentations ran in chronological order featuring a range of objects from Worthing Museum and Art Gallery archive including: an 1830s patchwork quilt, Kashmir Shawl coat (1883-85), 1892 library campaign, an Edwardian Blouse, 1930s hand-knitted bathing suit, Second World War map dresses and oral history recordings conducted by former Worthing Museum curator Anne Wise. The objects were also on display at the event, allowing audience members to have the chance to see them up close and not just through images in the presentations.

The event was very enjoyable and ignited an interesting discussion. The audience began to relate the objects and their hidden histories to their present lives and practices, in order to understand them further, proving how relevant their stories still are. Karen Scanlon (MA History of Design and Material Culture student) spoke about the oral history tape recordings from the costume collection that included an interview with Esther Rothstein, a dressmaker in Brighton from 1930 to the 1950s. Members of the audience were concerned with the future of the tapes and questioned if they would be digitised to become easily accessible in the future.  Wendy Fraser (BA History of Art and Design graduate 2018), shared her reflections on Bridget Millmore (PhD, 2015)’s presentation on the 1830s patchwork quilt. She was fascinated by how it reused various paper scraps for the backing of the patchwork pieces and compared it to a 1980s unfinished patchwork in her own collection that used the cover of a child benefit book and envelopes as the backing. Another audience member, in response to lecturer Annebella Pollen’s discovery of the 1892 library campaign pasted in the back of a notebook, shared that Hove library will be celebrating its 110thAnniversary this year; thus further highlighting that 126 years later it is still a pertinent document in the current climate.

The presentations also highlighted histories of the handmade, upcycled and unfinished. Emeritus Professor Lou Taylor discussed her favourite garment in the collection, an 1883-1885 coat that was radically altered from an Indian Kashmir Shawl. PhD student and lecturer Suzanne Rowland spoke about how her remaking and re-enactment of an Edwardian blouse for a Suffragette costume for Lewes Bonfire night 2017. Lecturer Anna Vaughan Kett shared how silk escape and evasion maps from the Second World War became upcycled as garments after their release to the public in 1945. The objects greatly intrigued the audience and highlighted an interest for an exhibition exploring objects of this nature. The importance of revealing the hidden histories of objects held in Worthing’s archive was also highlighted and I think we all learnt something new and fascinating!

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Figure 2 Professor Lou Taylor’s favourite garment from Worthing Museum’s costume collection, an Indian Kashmir shawl that has been radically transformed into a fashionable coat for 1880s Paris.

The event was also my first time speaking in a public setting about my research. My presentation focused on a 1930s hand-knitted bathing suit that I had viewed in the archive for my undergraduate dissertation research. I discussed the factors of cost, adaptation and originality of design that led to its making in the 1930s alongside a brief context of sun worshipping in the period. I also concluded that due to the bathing suit being made in the home, with modest materials and no named designer, some museums would reject the garment. However, Worthing’s acceptance of the garment into the collection in 1981, allows these otherwise hidden histories of ordinary women’s lives and experiences to be remembered and studied. In the audience discussion at the end, one audience member commented on how my talk had reminded her of her childhood and how the first bathing suit wore was hand-knitted. This formed an appreciated addition to the knowledge shared in the presentation, as I mainly discussed why they were made, rather than what they were like to wear. Although I was very nervous before my talk as I listened to my fellow Objects Unwrapped members eloquently present their research, I was also thrilled to share my research with an audience of interested public members and familiar faces from the University. It was a great first experience to talk in a situation outside of a university seminar and contribute to the project’s first event. I hope the experience will help me for future presentation at MA level.

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Figure 3 Author, Emmy Sale, giving her talk at the Objects Unwrapped event. Image courtesy of Yunah Lee.

The Printed and Digital Page: Reassessing Form, Content and Methodologies

PhD student Liz Tregenza reports from a workshop about using the printed and digital page

1940s Vogue

1940s Vogue magazines

The Printed and Digital Page: Reassessing Form, Content and Methodologies was the third in a series of student-led events designed to assist doctoral students in the process of their research. The event, supported by TECHNE and held at Kingston University, brought together staff and students from The University of Brighton, The Royal College of Art, London College of Communications and Kingston University for an illuminating and thoughtful day of presentations. It focused on printed and digital pages, both as subjects and objects of research, with papers considering magazines, zines, newspapers, periodicals and books.  The day consisted of discussions on the challenges and opportunities related to these materials. Issues covered included the design, production and consumption of printed and digital pages, the imagery and typography seen on the printed page, the materiality of the printed page and the readership of publications, as well as how the printed page acts as an output of practice-based research.

Two weeks before the event, participants had submitted a 2-3000 word piece of writing from their PhD research. In some cases this was an excerpt from a thesis chapter and in others an account of their experiences of researching or making printed or digital pages. These were shared with participants and respondents ahead of the event. On the day, each participant gave a ten-minute presentation and these were followed by initial responses from the academic convenors. After this, discussion was opened up amongst the group. The papers were divided into four categories. Firstly there was Fashion, aesthetics, the body and the printed page with papers from Liz Tregenza (UoB) and Simon Josebury (KU) (Respondent: Annebella Pollen). Secondly there was Typography and self-publishing with papers from Welmoet Wartena (RCA) and Kollontai Diniz (RCA) ( Respondent: Jeremy Aynsley). Thirdly there was Overlay and visual narrative with a paper from Ilsa Colsell (KU) (Respondent: Sarah Teasley) and finally there was Photography and Designwith papers from Jessie Bond (LCC), Anna Lucas (KU) and Catherine Sidwell (KU) (Respondent: Catharine Rossi).

The presentations were incredibly varied, dealing with topics stretching from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Whilst the focus was on the printed page, a number of the presentations dealt with film as an adjunct to this and the physical act of turning pages. This was seen both in Anna Lucas’s work and Jessie Bond’s; Bond’s rich descriptions of War Porn and Documenting the Iraq War helped those of us in the audience to connect with the texts in a different way. Bond’s descriptions considered more than the images contained within the books. She also described the physical presence of each of the books: the number of pages, the thickness of the book and its overall size. For many of us the joy of the printed page and the physical object was clear. For example, when Simon Josebury presented us with his Sandwich poster-pamphlets we were all eager to look at them, study them, touch them and consider the material  qualities of the paper and the images presented on them.

Ilsa Colsell’s presentation looked to the printed page in a very different way. Through her own artistic practice the printed page was re-imagined through folding, overlay and paint. Both Welmoet Wartena and Kollontai Diniz’s papers were heavily concerned with typography.  Coming from a background in book design, Wartena’s paper explored relationships between typography, written  language and meaning  within artists publications. On the other hand, Kollontai  Diniz’s work considered the glottal stop and how this is used to illustrate dialect. Whilst my own presentation and Catherine Sidwell’s falling at the beginning and end of the day, dealt with very different subjects commonalties were clear in our methodological approach to the printed page.  Sidwell considered C.F.A Voysey’s designs for The Stage (1893), her detailed research into this publication clear throughout. I, on the other hand, discussed print advertising of London wholesale couture and demonstrated my own obsessive efforts in discovering wholesale couturiers advertisements and connecting these to original garments where possible.  I questioned the differing presentation of  garments in advertisements and editorials and why garments were displayed differently in a wide variety of magazines.

Overall the day was incredibly fruitful, filled with interesting presentations and discussions and demonstrating a real range of approaches towards the printed page. The thing that was very clear during the event was the joy felt about the physical object: the printed zine, or the book. The feel, touch or maybe even – for those of us that dealt with older sources – the smell of the printed page.  Whilst topics covered by participants were incredibly diverse commonalities were found amongst work and the event proved to be a great day, not only for considering our own work, but for creating new connections with PhD candidates at other universities.

[This piece first appeared on the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History blog].