Lesbian T-shirts in Lockdown: Winning the Costume Society’s Yarwood Prize

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Eleanor Medhurst, student of MA History of Design and Material Culture, explains how she will use a prestigious prize awarded by the Costume Society.

In March 2020, before we knew what the spring and summer would hold, I applied for the Costume Society’s Yarwood Grant. The Yarwood Grant, as described on their website, is “aimed at helping an MA student engaged in high quality research into the history of dress and/or textiles with expenditure relating to the completion of their dissertation.” My MA dissertation, titled ‘Billboard Bodies: Dyke Theory and the Lesbian T-shirt’ is a study of lesbian activist/slogan T-shirts and their unique position as politically-charged signals. A large part of this study revolves around the close analysis of a number of lesbian T-shirts. I applied for the Yarwood Grant to assist in the cost of visiting the Lesbian Archive in Glasgow Women’s Library and the Bishopsgate Institute in London; at these archives, I planned to look for examples of T-shirts that aren’t posted online, and analyse them as physical objects rather than only the slogans or designs that are the main feature in online archive photographs.

I’ve been to the Lesbian Archives before, albeit briefly and without warning the staff and volunteers in advance, so I know that there are boxes and boxes of T-shirts in the collection to look through as a researcher. When I last visited, some were even out on display, one black, with “The Lesbian Avengers” printed in white, and one white with an inverted pink triangle on the front and the words “Fight 28” (referring to the controversial Section 28 law of 1988 that forbade the “promotion of homosexuality” in educational and local authority contexts). I have included the quick snap that I took of the Lesbian Avengers T-shirt in my dissertation research already, and I know that there’s so much more that my research could gain from the archives.

Fig. 1: Lesbian Avengers T-shirt, black with white text. C.1992-6. Glasgow Women’s Library Lesbian Archive. Glasgow, Scotland. Personal photograph taken by the author, Aug. 2019.

It was, honestly, a surprise to find out that I had won the award at the end of June. Not because I didn’t think my research to be worthy (after working on it for months, I know that it is a valuable study), but because I’d mostly forgotten even applying. This year has been a little bit disruptive, to say the least. Initially, I was thrilled, of course. After that, however, I started to worry. How could I undertake the research I’d initially planned? Archives are still closed, it is still not particularly safe to travel, and on top of that, I’ve already written a large amount of my dissertation, sans archival research.

Writing my dissertation has proved to me how important this topic is, and how much room it has to expand, even after the 18,000-20,000 word count. What I now intend to do is complete my dissertation to the plan I’m already following, but then undertake the archival research afterwards, when it is safe to do so. The grant, then, will still be contributing to my dissertation research, but it will allow it to stretch further. I’ll be using the new research that I’ll gather to rework and build on part of my dissertation, with the goal of submitting it as a proposal for journal publication. This means that the grant will support me not just as a Masters student, but also as a postgraduate researcher. I am very excited to continue.