From charity shopping to forensic research: Amber Butchart’s fashion history career

Donna Gilbert, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects a recent talk by fashion historian, Amber Butchart.

Figure 1: Fashion historian Amber Butchart. Photo: BBC4 A Stitch in Time.

For Amber Butchart, a childhood spent trawling the charity shops and jumble sales of Lowestoft, Suffolk with her mother sparked a lifelong interest in vintage fashion and what many might envisage as a dream career path. Addressing students on the History of Art and Design programme in March 2019, Amber explained how these humble beginnings metamorphosed into a professional life encompassing television, radio, writing and, more recently, forensic science work.

The informal talk was both inspirational and realistic, with Amber highlighting how for every successful TV or publishing pitch, there were many rejections or ideas to be shelved for a later date. She began by explaining how her love for vintage fashion has informed both her personal and professional journey. Amber gained an MA in the History and Culture of Fashion at the London College of Fashion where she used a 1970s Biba dress originally owned by her mother to both inform and channel her studies. The dress inspired an interest in clothing and relationships and how the materiality of clothing can tell stories of past lives.

After completing a BA in Literature, Amber spent the summer of 2002 working for vintage store, Beyond Retro. She started on the shop floor but spent her lunch break researching vintage fashion and its social history. This interest not only led to a new role within the company as a buyer, focussing on quality control and coordination, but also established her as a valuable contact and source of knowledge for journalists who were becoming increasingly aware of the popularity of vintage fashion. This growing reputation as a vintage fashion expert also provided openings for television work. Amber first broadcast her research in a documentary for Radio 4, highlighting the global impact of discarded clothing from Europe and the US and its devastating impact on local garment industries in poorer countries.[1] She also described her role as presenter on the BBC4 series A Stitch in Time, screened in January 2018, which looked at historical figures through the clothes they wore, working with a team to recreate the clothing depicted in works of art.[2] More recently, in April 2018 she presented a fascinating documentary examining the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields.[3]

Figure 2: Forensic archeologist Dr Karl Harrison and Amber Butchart examine forensic evidence. Photo: Pedro Alvarez, The Observer.

In the last part of her talk, Amber described how she was contacted by Dr Karl Harrison, a forensic archaeologist, after he heard her speaking about fashion history on the radio. Concerned that forensic science was relying heavily on DNA alone, he recognised the value of appointing a garment expert who could examine and potentially date clothing or textiles when they are found amongst a person’s remains. As Amber pointed out, material culture is very much about the stories which clothing can tell us, along with different applications of this understanding. Not surprisingly, she never thought that an interest in vintage fashion would result in her working with crime scene investigators or forensic analysts, but saw this as an exciting new opportunity. Interestingly, it loops right back to the beginning of her career at Beyond Retro, using the same sort of skills which she employed to train people in what to look for in garments and how to gauge the age of something in order to assess its value. The forensic science work encompasses both analysis and report writing and the training of crime scene investigators. Whilst the work is exciting and interesting, Amber explained that it comes with a unique set of issues; adapting to working with dead bodies and being around death is not something she ever thought she would be doing and requires careful contemplation.

Amber concluded her talk by pointing out the benefits of an enquiring approach, stating: ‘If you enjoy research, then learning new things is something you want to be doing all the time. For me to now have a whole new area that I can really get my teeth into and start learning and finding out about has just been really invigorating.’ Her closing comment served as a reminder to all History of Art and Design students of the benefits of a material culture approach, looking closely at objects and images, and how a love of research combined with an open mind and a willingness to explore new prospects can lead to exciting, yet unexpected, career opportunities.

[1] Rags to Riches. BBC Radio 4, Oct 2017. Web.

[2] A Stitch in Time BBC4, London, Jan 2018. Web.

[3] “The First Refugees,” Civilisations Stories. BBC1, April 2018. Web.


Political history and popular culture: Researching Baltic design

Triin Jerlei, a postdoctoral researcher at Vilnius University, Lithuania, and graduate of University of Brighton, shares her new research project in the history of design. 

I received my doctorate from Brighton University in 2016, following my MA in History and Design and Culture, for research on Soviet Estonian industrial designers from the 1960s until the 1980s. Until recently most of my research focused on Estonian local design under the Soviet power as a case study in the development of a ‘Western Soviet’ design system. However, in my research I noticed that too often I was comparing Soviet Estonian regional design systems and processes with those taking place in capitalist countries or in Moscow as the ‘centre’, instead of other so-called ‘peripheral’ Soviet states. Therefore it became my dream to conduct a transnational comparative study between the design systems of two former Soviet states.

In general there is not a lot of research on Soviet design systems, especially in the late Socialist period. While Stalinism and the Thaw are easier to define both in their political tendencies and their chronological span, Late Socialism, often also called Stagnation, is a complex era characterized by different processes of globalization and regionalization throughout the vast Soviet Union. As remaining isolated was not sustainable, foreign trade and tourists played an increasing role in the economy, facilitating  the spread of global trends especially in the Western Soviet regions. A complex combination of various political, economical and cultural processes shaped the development of regional design cultures, which is the topic of my research.

The delivery of a transnational project on the history of several former Soviet republics was complicated by political factors, as archives are not fully accessible in many former Asian Soviet republics. Additionally it was important that I could read the local language relatively quickly, which is easiest with a language that uses Latin script. For these reasons I chose Lithuania as my second country of comparison and I decided to focus on the construction known as ‘Baltic design’. While Estonia and Lithuania were similarly situated on the Western border of the Soviet Union and had close historical and cultural connections, there are still significant differences between the two countries, which this research will clarify to provide a better understanding of the interrelations between different ‘peripheries’.

I was incredibly lucky to receive funding from the Lithuanian Council of Sciences. Thanks for this, I have been able to take up a two-year postdoctoral position at the Kaunas faculty of Vilnius University, supervised by Professor Virginija Jurėnienė. The decision to move to Lithuania instead of working in Estonia was deliberate, not only to learn about the history of Lithuanian design, but also to understand its present state and its situation in the wider culture. Additionally it has been exciting to get to know a new local research environment and to discover more about the general cultural scene.

So far, I have discovered that in spite of close connections between the Baltic states in the Soviet Union, the design systems differ in some key aspects. These variations are largely caused by differences in local design traditions. A good illustration is souvenir production. Both countries used wood as a locally available material, but where Estonian souvenirs were often useful objects (or replicas of objects that had once served a function), in Lithuania one finds numerous small wooden figurines, often based on folklore. This difference between minimalism in Estonia and rich ornament in Lithuania can also be seen in other fields of design. In terms of the organization of design systems, the design institutions of the two states were connected and cooperated closely, but had different structures.

I hope that this research will contribute to global design history by diversifying the understanding of different local stories of design. The ‘mundane’ fields of design and the systems behind everyday material culture are often at risk of being forgotten. One of the most exciting aspects of working with the materials from the 1970s and 1980s has been the role that these objects still play in living memories and environments, thanks to their ordinariness and ubiquity.

P.S. As a part of my Fellowship I am organizing a symposium in Kaunas, on the subject of design and creative economies. Details can be found here:

Presenting at Lesbian Lives

Fig. 1. Eleanor Medhurst presenting at the Lesbian Lives conference 2019. Brighton. @QueerCodeQR on Twitter. 15th March 2019. Web. 17th March 2019.

BA Fashion and Dress History student, Eleanor Medhurst, reflects on making a conference presentation from her dissertation research.

Over the 15th-16th March 2019, the Lesbian Lives conference came to the University of Brighton. This was the first conference that I have attended and presented at alone, and it was an immensely satisfying, enriching and inspiring experience.

When I found out that my abstract had been accepted, I was so excited to be able to share my research – a topic that I have a personal connection to and have been passionate about for a long time – with a wider audience. These were people who, while thinking in depth about queer and lesbian theory, largely had not studied theories of dress (as opposed to the people that I study with on my BA Fashion and Dress History degree). I registered for the conference supported by the School of Humanities, with Professor Stephen Maddison, the Head of School, agreeing to help cover the registration fees. This is something that I am very grateful for, and I would like to publicly thank him here.

I presented my paper on Panel 4, alongside American academic Erin J. Rand. Rand’s paper “Ravishing Resistance: The Radical Aesthetics of Queer Feminine Fashion,” explored how queer feminine fashions have the political potential to demand hypervisibility of lesbian women and queer people. This was a topic that came at my arguments from slightly different angles. While I talked specifically about pink as a form of reclaiming femininity outside of heterosexual-patriarchal constraints – of re-writing the language of oppressive stereotypical femininity – Rand made the case for feminine fashion as a creative queer and gender-bending space. Our two talks were taken very well, with a varied discussion afterwards. Many people showed appreciation for my research, either expressing that it was a topic they hadn’t thought about before, or that they deeply related to it. It was validating to have my work received in such a way by the community that it is about.

Fig. 2. Audience at keynote speaker Katherine O-Donnell’s talk at the Lesbian Lives conference 2019. Brighton. Claudia Carvell @ClaudiaCarvell on Twitter. 16th March 2019. Web. 17th March 2019.

While I would like to recount the whole conference, it would never fit into one blog post. Instead, I’ll point out one more paper that interested me. Sarah-Joy Ford opened Panel 1 on the first day with “Queering Suffrage: an embroidered strategy for making lesbian lives visible.” She talked about how textiles can be evidence, literally and symbolically, for queer women within the history of Women’s Suffrage. I particularly liked how she mixed history with her own art practices, explaining her use of the quilt as a symbol of the erasure of lesbian relationships (and the literal lesbian bed), as well as of feminine craft-based art. Her abstract summarised her arguments, that “through the patchwork quilt and embroidered tablecloth this small, domestic act of visibility is re-imagined in stitch as a memorial to lesbian love, longing and remembrance.”

The Lesbian Lives conference was an event that brought me closer to my communities, both academically and personally. It was an opportunity to share my work, but also to hear the work of others. I relish the thought of going back in years to come.









Caring for Collections and their Users: Preventative Conservation

Rachel Wooley, MA Curating Collections and Heritage, outlines important information acquired at a conservation session at Brighton Museum.

MA History of Design and Material Culture student Elina Ivanov inspecting a bug specimen through magnifying head gear. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Helen Mears, 5 March 2019.

As one of a group of (very keen) students on the MA Curating Collections and Heritage degree, I am currently taking a module entitled ‘Caring for Collections and Their Users’. In order to learn how to exercise best practice in preventative conservation (and therefore ‘Care for Collections’), we visited Gaye Conley, the Conservation Manager at Brighton Museum, in March 2019. She gave us a comprehensive guide to the Eight Agents of Deterioration, through which I will briskly but gracefully guide you.

Physical forces can include general wear and tear, continued use and excessive or negligent handling. Gaye informed us that even experts in the museum sector can damage objects because they trip on a power lead or forget to lift an object from its base.

Thieves and vandals are another factor to keep an eye on. Not every theft from a museum is a grand art heist. According to Gaye, if something is within reach and small enough to go in a pocket, it will probably go missing. Therefore there are two common solutions:

  1. Alarms that are triggered either by movement or proximity
  2. Nylon threads around the object (as a deterrent)

Museums also engage in extensive documentation, which covers every movement of every object, so that (in theory) a member of staff can locate any object at any time.

Concerning fire, don’t start one. If something is on fire, put it out as quickly as possible.

Leaks, mould, and flooding are unfortunately very common in museum storerooms and even exhibition spaces. Museums are often not fit for purpose, and with museum funding at an all-time low, patching up a roof or building a storeroom that isn’t in the basement isn’t always a possibility.

Gaye Conley explaining the issues of having a storeroom in the basement. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Helen Mears. 5 March 2019.

The issue of Integrated Pest Management (or IPM to the people in the biz) is deeper and more complex than you could possibly imagine. Here is a brief overview:

  • There are four different types of pests (general pests, wood borers, keratin pests and cellulose pests). Each type has a different food source.
  • There are three different types of commonly used traps (blunder traps, sticky traps and pheromone lures, which only attract male pests).
  • If you have a pest problem, this means there’s a food source nearby. If you have loads of wood boring insects such as, for example, the Death Watch Beetle, that means they’re feeding on some wood. If you have mice, they’re probably eating human food.
  • The practice of catching pests (particularly insects) is to give you some indication of how bad your pest problem is, and what you need to do about it. The goal of catching them is not primarily to kill them (although, if you catch a lot of White Shouldered House Moths next to your prize Hawaiian ceremonial cloak, you may then decide to freeze it or use an insecticide, which would obviously result in the moths’ untimely demise).

Pollutants can be anything from dust and sea salt to traffic pollution and pollen. Dust is a particular issue for museums. If it settles on an object for long enough, it can bond with the surface and cause permanent damage. It can also encourage some pests (the ones that want to eat dead skin).

Direct sunlight is damaging to objects, just as it is to your skin. Keeping objects away from windows is a good idea, but not always possible. Many heritage institutions have opted to put UV film on their windows, or block all of their windows out and instead use LED lights, which put out almost no heat and UV rays.

Finally, according to Gaye, temperature is less important than humidity. The ideal humidity is between 40 and 60RH (relative humidity). This has the power to completely halt the reproduction of certain pests, or even kill them, if the conditions are perfect.

Overall, the session was a hugely informative one, with a central focus on IPM (Integrated Pest Management). The highlight was inspecting bug ‘specimens’ captured in glass containers. It was also enormously helpful to witness preventative conservation techniques in practice within a museum, to put what we’d learned into a physical setting. Huge thanks to Gaye for welcoming us into the museum and for hosting such an informative session.

Everywoman? 1919

Second year BA Fashion and Dress History student Anne Roberts explains the display in the foyer of Pavilion Parade, which resulted from a group exhibition assessment.

Figure 1. Side view showing detail of the jacket and the cellulose buttons

‘Everywoman’ became both the name and the theme of the historic dress exhibition that appeared in the reception of Pavilion Parade in January 2019. Designed to welcome everyone back for a fresh academic term, the display was also intended to be thought-provoking. As a group, we wanted to highlight historic anxieties and human insecurities. Exactly 100 years ago many people in Britain were facing an uncertain future as they faced the reality of living in a new post-war society, and today we are again contemplating uncertainty and change as Brexit becomes reality. War and its consequences have often been told from a male standpoint, but we wanted to highlight some female perspectives. To research the display we looked through women’s magazines and other contemporary literature from 1918-1919 to find what issues were being discussed. We hoped that the viewer might then ponder these and wonder if they were still relevant to women’s lives today.

Figure 2. The full installation in Pavilion Parade showing the information panel and the display case with a framed exhibition label

The  installation was the result of a team assessment in a Level 5 Shared Option module called Understanding Exhibitions and Creating Displays, taught by Dr Harriet Atkinson. It was supported by staff in St Peters House library and Professor Lou Taylor, Professor Emerita in Dress History and Curator of the University of Brighton Dress History Teaching Collection. The semester-long project culminated in four displays curated by students working in small groups, both in St Peters House library and in the Humanities building in Pavilion Parade. Students were required to choose objects from either collection and create interpretive displays around them.

Rebecca Lane, Josie Stewart and Sylvie Therezien and I are all studying dress history, and as a group we all wanted to work with objects from the extensive Dress History Teaching Collection. However, it soon became apparent that our group’s choice of items would be determined by some practical limitations including the size of the narrow display case and the necessity of using existing mannequins. Many of the dresses in the collection were also either too fragile or too tiny to be mounted on the only available dress forms. The two-piece woman’s costume that we eventually decided upon appealed to all of us because it was a good example of everyday dress, possibly homemade and certainly well worn, thus representing the antithesis of many of the elite items of clothing often seen exhibited behind glass – hence our suggestion of a more inclusive ‘Everywoman’. Its measurements were generous for an example of authentic historic dress, which meant that we could mount it on an existing form!

Figure 3. This photograph shows some of the supporting accessories at the back of the display case

While nothing was known of the original owner, careful examination of the skirt and jacket revealed evidence of wear, repairs and later alterations. Made of a sturdy, almost coarse ribbed wool in a practical shade of dark green, the high belt, cellulose buttons and the distinctive calf length A line skirt meant that we were confident dating it between 1914-1920. We added a blouse of a similar date and provenance, also from the collection, and sought out further items to illustrate the imagined life of our woman. The boots and the sewing notions came from our own personal collections (some items belonged to my Grandmother) and we chose them to add depth and character to the display. The boots, with the indentations and creases of their wearer’s feet still clearly visible, spoke of the value of thick leather soles on cold damp floors, while the metal hobnails told of anxiety at the price of boot repairs. Paper patterns, thread and sewing cases were also included to illustrate the reality of creative female endeavours on a limited budget.

Figure 4.The well-worn boots

We hoped that the objects would speak for themselves, so we used the wall mounted display case to identify four issues that our woman might have thought about, as she pulled on her boots or buttoned up her blouse. Irish politics, the rights of women, fashion on a budget and the consequences of men returning from war were identified as issues which were important to women in 1919 but are still relevant today. From the font used in the poster, to the layout which referenced silent movie stills from the era, we tried to create a low budget installation that used historic dress to illustrate social history. All of our illustrations were chosen to echo the style of the costume as well as to further highlight the topicality of our themes.

Figure 5. The fine white lawn blouse had insertions of machine-made lace, a lace edged collar and small front fastening buttons. We used padding to obtain the correct silhouette


There is sometimes a casual assumption that the study of fashion and dress history involves nothing more intellectually challenging than turning the pages of a fashion magazine. Our modest exhibition sought to illustrate that social history, consumption practises, human aspiration, greed, frailty and ego may all be evidenced by the careful scrutiny of each surviving garment and accessory.

Figure 6.One of four chosen illustrations. This shows women facing unemployment when men returned home from war. Harold Earnshaw, The Bystander, 11 Dec.1918, The Illustrated London News

The response to our ‘Everywoman’ has been gratifyingly positive and many students have told me that they could imagine wearing the clothes even though they were, “really old.” A lot of people have remarked on the boots and one visitor said that she had been “strangely moved”, by the evidence of the personality which she thought she had glimpsed behind the Perspex case.