Dressing the Decades at Preston Manor

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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.

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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.

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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

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