Drawing with the Dress Detective: Learning to See

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Rachel Ng, Third Year BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History student discusses her experience of attending a workshop with Dr Ingrid Mida on observing a garment through drawing.

Screen grab from the drawing with dress detective workshop. The image illustrates Ingrid Mida handling dress and a detail of a drawing

Figure 1: Screengrab from Drawing with the Dress Detective: Learning to See, 2021.

Author of The Dress Detective and Reading Fashion in Art Dr Ingrid Mida recently hosted a drawing workshop online via MS Teams. Her ‘Slow Approach to Seeing’ methodology demonstrates how to analyse a garment, focusing on slowing down and using drawing as a tool for learning. In her 2020 book Reading Fashion in Art, Mida states that ‘[…] drawing as a method of slowing down can help identify specific elements of dress as well as the nuances of an artist’s process’. (42) The workshop allowed us to understand the difference between looking and seeing and how one can look but not really see.

Mida describes: ‘For me, drawing facilitates seeing and a deeper level of engagement with a thing. I record the path of my eyes on the paper as I study the object or artwork, and even if my drawing bares little or no resemblance to the thing I am looking at, when I finish a drawing, I feel like I have touched that thing’. (2020: 42) To fully understand this process, we were asked to complete three short drawing exercises to warm-up for a larger drawing piece later. The short tasks allowed us to break down any expectations we may have had about the ways in which our drawings may have looked. Instead, we were encouraged to focus on the process over product. We were drawing a Chinese dragon hat. We started by using two pencils in one hand, focusing on the aerial view of the hat. Then we were asked to draw with our non-dominate hand, focusing on the side view. Lastly, we looked at the front view, drawing in one continuous line without glancing at the paper. As you can see in Figure 2, my drawing did not look too much like the hat, but then again it wasn’t supposed to. For our final longer task, we drew a jacket and then had a discussion which revealed the details people picked up on, that might have been otherwise overlooked. For example, the piece’s overall construction, hidden buttonholes, and the lack of pattern matching. This process has allowed me to think differently about the next time I view a garment and how drawing can really help to highlight the details that may point to the wearer’s intentions, such as the points of stress on a piece.

line drawing of mask illustrating the process of drawing

Figure 2: Side-by-Side Comparison of a Continuous Line Drawing with Object, 2021. Pencil on Paper. Photograph. Author’s Own Image.

Due to the pandemic so much of our lives now inhabit the internet and screen time. People’s attention span has dropped, and this workshop has reminded me of how much you can easily miss when you do not slow down and really focus on something. This method can, of course, be challenging for people who have expectations of how they want a drawing to turn out, but as Mida said in her talk, you have to let go of expectations and return to a childlike mind to fully appreciate this method of research. What resonated most with me was her closing statement, ‘wanting to discover the information has to be more important than the drawing’.

It was great to be able to put a face to the well-renowned author and gain a better understanding of how to break down and construct garment drawings. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and will be using this approach in the future.

Screengrab showing tips on drawing from a garment

Figure 3: Screengrab from Drawing with the Dress Detective, 2021.

The Digital Dress Historian: Is Social Media Expanding the Field of Fashion and Dress History?

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Elena Field, Third Year BA Fashion and Dress History student shares her research and reflections on how social media expands dress history.

Bernadette Banner. 1890’s Ball Gown Instagram post. 5 October 2020. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/bernadettebanner/

In Doing Research in Fashion and Dress: An Introduction to Qualitative Methods, Yuniya Kawamura states that ‘it is the responsibility of fashion/dress scholars to elevate the importance as well as the interests of the topic in academia.’ Through my own personal experience, I have seen that one way this is being done is through the circulation of research on social media platforms, which has in turn created global dress history communities. Amanda Sikarskie, in her Digital Research Methods in Fashion and Textile Studies, has termed these communities as ‘the crowd,’ claiming that members are able to help each other through sharing knowledge. Social media can also aid academics when conducting research, as hashtags may link them to different primary and secondary sources relevant to their research that they might have been unaware of. Online events and discussions additionally provide a platform on which dress historians and museums can collaborate. This is especially important for museums in the time of Covid-19, as they are able to directly engage with visitors.

I am particularly interested in how YouTube offers a means for historical dressmakers to contribute to dress history studies. To give an example, the Costuber and Dress Historian Bernadette Banner uses her YouTube account to post videos on a variety of dress history related topics, from pointing out inaccurate costumes in television series and movies to making her own historical outfits, such as her video on making an 1890s ball gown. Hilary Davidson, in her essay The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice, argues that making historical dress is a form of research, in which the dress maker can develop a deeper understanding of a garment’s construction and embody the seamstress who would have made the original piece. Therefore, it is my opinion that Costubers like Banner are actively contributing to academic research in the field of the dress history, as well as sharing it with the wider public through digital platforms.

Cheyney McKnight. Not Your Momma’s History Instagram Post. 14 October 2020. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/notyourmommashistory/

The combination of social media and historical dress, especially in the case of donning historical clothing for re-enactment purposes, is also a way to decolonise history. One predominant example of this is Historian Cheyney McKnight, who uses her social media account and company, Not Your Momma’s History, to navigate her discussion on black history. An example of her work is the project #slaverymadeplain, a series of performance art, where McKnight dressed as an enslaved woman in public in order to prompt a discussion with passers-by into how the effects of slavery are still relevant in American politics and African-American lives. A discussion on this subject is continued on her YouTube account where, through her use of historical costume and re-enactment, she has created content on such topics as her life as a black re-enactor, harassment and sexual assault experienced by African-Americans and slavery.

Though there is always a question over the historical accuracy of the content published on social media, it can be deduced that social media  should and is being used to expand the field of dress history and its academic standing, concurring with Yuniya Kawamura’s statement.

Mass Observation: Objects in Everyday Life

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How can historians investigate what people wore in everyday life and what it meant to them? Hannah Smith (MA History of Design and Material Culture) explores some of the many micro-histories contained in the Mass Observation archive…

For my MA dissertation I have researched practices of dress in everyday life as presented within the Mass Observation Project Spring 1992 and Spring 2006 ‘One Day Diary’ directive responses. Housed within the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep near the South Downs in Sussex, it is made up of handwritten letters, typed emails, photographs and drawings, produced at the hands of the hundreds that make up the panel of writers known as ‘Mass Observers’. This material is divided into the Mass Observation Archive (1937 – early 1950s) and the Mass Observation Project (1981 – present). It is the latter Mass Observation Project (MOP) that I have been using in my research.

The MOP defines itself as a ‘national life writing project’. Former director of the project, Dorothy Sheridan described it as, “…ordinary people observing and reflecting on everyday life…” (Sheridan, 2000:10). The intent of both the Mass Observation Archive and Project was to give voice to the ‘ordinary’ everyday person, giving them “the authority over knowledge” (Sheridan, 2000:10). Mass Observers are sent up to three sets of ‘directives’ a year with the invitation to write about a wide range of themes and events. Examples have included “Gardening”, “The Refugee Crisis” and “Your Home”.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

My interest in the MOP came about during my first year on the MA History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton. We were encouraged to use the MOP as a primary resource for a group project entitled ‘Interior Lifestyles’. Using the directives ‘Objects about the House’ and ‘Collecting Things’ we explored the relationships between the Mass Observers and the objects they decorated their homes with. Aside from the aforementioned project, the ‘New Years Eve’ and ‘One Day Diary’ directives that I had had the opportunity to look through particularly inspired me. As a researcher of dress and fashion in everyday life, here was access to narratives of real experiences of living, breathing people interacting with dress and fashion, rather than a constructed representation or media ideal. I therefore initially assessed these diary-format directives and developed my own methodology for using the MOP within a material culture study, ultimately leading to my dissertation research in practices of dress.

As well as being able to track the Mass Observer’s use of dress as they weave amongst different contexts throughout the narrative of their day, it has given me rare insight into the ‘wardrobe’ moment – the moment when which the bricolage of the visual self we see in more public spaces is created. Through using Mass Observation, I have been allowed the opportunity to explore not only how people use dress in more public spaces, but also in move private spaces – whether that be their dressing gowns, pyjamas or nothing!

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Initially, I was overwhelmed due to the vast amount of material and its seemingly limitless capability for endless threads and tangents of research. By reading as much as possible about how other researchers had used the material, I was able to see that every Mass Observation researcher has shared the same struggles and frustrations. Through learning from their problem solving, I was able to tailor their theories to my research interest and develop my own methodology for using the material as well as providing a structure for sampling.

With its interdisciplinary appeal the material transcends boundaries, making it an exciting resource that can always be further explored. Whilst students, academics, media researchers and the public have taken advantage of the unique collection – it is ultimately a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in everyday life. For a researcher of design history and material culture, it provides a rare platform to witness the reality of objects interacting in everyday life. Since I’ve been working with the material, the Mass Observation staff, and the staff at The Keep, have been incredibly helpful and approachable. There is an openness towards anyone that is interested in engaging with the material.

As much as it may seem intimidating during an initial encounter, this should never prevent anyone that is interested from engaging with the material. Now more than ever Mass Observation provides an important platform for recording the reality of lived experience, giving voice to the micro-histories that grand-narratives have tendency to silence. It is inspiring to know as an individual in society, as well as a researcher, that there is a space for your voice to be heard and a space that seriously considers what you have to say. Working with a collection such as this is incredibly important if we are to understand the reality of how we negotiate lived experience and exist as a society and as individuals.