Dress Detective: using Brighton’s Dress History Teaching Collection

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Sarah-Mary Geissler (MA in Design and Material Culture), reflects on how one seemingly uninspiring garment led her to unexpected places…

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 1: Front, side & back view of the 1880s Mauve Altered Afternoon Dress. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

It really is amazing is how far one project can take you. From what started simply as a class presentation led to assisting lectures, journal publication and even curating a display just a year later!

During my final year studying the BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History at the University of Brighton, we had the privilege of being taught by Professor Lou Taylor, pioneering dress historian. The spring term Special Subject module focused on case studies of objects in the Dress History Teaching Collection. Throughout her career, Taylor has amassed a wealth of dress objects which now reside at Pavilion Parade, an incomparable resource waiting to be utilised by students. Each piece has a fascinating backstory – rejected by museums, donated by alumni, rescued by students – though only a small percentage of the collection has been thoroughly researched. The aim of our module was to improve our own analytical and interpretive skills as dress historians, but also to provide a selection of objects with proper catalogue entries. The garment I had my heart set on was already selected by someone else, so I unenthusiastically settled on researching an 1888 Mauve Day Dress. I began the project totally convinced that there was nothing exciting about the Victorian era, and grumbled to friends how boring this project would be. I was so wrong!

View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 2: View inside the dress bodice. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Eventually I found how to apply my own interests to the research. Once I moved past my preconceptions of 19th Century dress, the analysis process became fascinating. I studied the dress inside and out, then compared it to other dresses from the period: it was clear that it wasn’t a straightforward example of 1880s fashion. As a dressmaker myself, the garment’s messy construction intrigued me. Other evidence in the garment led to the conclusion that it could have been an 1860s dress altered over 20 years. My project became a detective-style investigation into who the wearer was; where/when was the dress first made? Why was it altered so dramatically? And was this dress renovation typical for the period?

View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 3: View of the skirt hem, showing previous stitch perforations. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Throughout the assignment, I contacted several museum-based professionals regarding the dress, and became more confident networking as a researcher. I looked into museums policies regarding altered garments, and how different keepers of costume interpret their collections. Over the course of the module, I developed a specialist understanding of mid-late 19th Century home-dressmaking, strengthened my ability to read dress, learned how to properly mount costume, and found out a great deal about the theory of dress history and the field today. Outside of university, this project gave me the confidence to submit an exhibition review to Textile History Journal, which was selected for publication last November!

Knowing how invested I was with my case study, Professor Taylor asked me to assist with her first year lecture and object handling session, and to do a small talk about the dress. I was so nervous about speaking in front of a large group, but the session went brilliantly. It was surprising how much information I could recall about the dress; I started to feel like a proper historian! This year I was asked to help out again, and so came prepared with notes and printed images to aid my talk.

Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

Fig. 4: Dress on display in the Pavilion Parade Foyer. Photo by Sarah-Mary Geissler

The success of this led to a conversation about displaying the dress in the School of Humanities’ Pavilion Parade foyer. With help from Clare in the office, mounting the dress was straightforward, though preparing information for the posters was challenging. I had to figure out what story was being told and how to make it interesting for a public viewer. Revisiting an undergrad project as a postgrad student, it was clear to see how much my work has strengthened in just a year (frustratingly, I found a spelling mistake on the first page of my original paper!). Displaying my research made me consider how museums and heritage sites interpret their collections, and this little display pushed me to develop my own curatorial skills.

All in all, I never expected the work done for one assignment to be the basis for such fantastic things. Having the Teaching Collection as a resource has been an invaluable part of my education at Brighton, and has reinforced the importance of understanding objects as sources of information to be read. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities at the university to provide me with experience I can take into my career. It would be great for more students to get involved showcasing other pieces from the Teaching Collection in future, as there are many, many more fascinating stories to be shared!

 

Volunteering at Brighton: Gladrags Costume Store

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Emmy Sale, a second-year student studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History tells how Brighton University helped her to get involved with a fascinating costume project…

Life at university can offer many new opportunities: volunteering can not only help others, but also give you new experiences that can be helpful for your future career.

To complement my studies, I decided to undertake a volunteering placement with help from the university’s Active Student scheme. There are a broad range of placements in and around Brighton that are available, whether it may be to gain experience in a museum environment, assisting events organisation or in education and teaching. Whatever your interests and aims may be, the co-ordinators help to understand these in order to ensure the placement will be suitable and fulfil your aspirations.

As a Fashion and Dress History student, I understood how competitive the field is within the museum and heritage sector. I wanted to use my spare time to be productive, learn new skills and meet new people alongside my course and university experience. After meeting with Active Student, I chose to undertake a Research volunteer placement with the community charity, Gladrags.

Gladrags is a volunteer run charity and offer a unique resource for the hiring of costumes to schools, community groups, amateur art groups and individuals. The store has over 6000 costumes and garments, that volunteers find themselves overwhelmed by when first entering the store. Through the role and time dedicated per week to helping at the store, I found myself putting away costumes, which was always a test of knowledge but also enabled me to learn new things about historical clothing from other volunteers. I also enjoyed spending time in the sewing area to fix, rejuvenate or make garments requested by users of the store. Outside of my time at the store, I undertook research into Roman clothing and artefacts for the education boxes that can be hired by schools to compliment and enrich the national curriculum.

Macduff costume sketch by Duncan Grant c. 1910

Figure 1: Scanned image of the Macduff Sketch, from the Sketchbook of Duncan Grant, c.1910

Through this placement, an opportunity to be part of a project with Charleston House arose. The project was proposed as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the House and to bring together community groups to discover and explore Charleston House and its history. It involved the use of costume sketches from a sketchbook given to Charleston by Angelica Garrett, the daughter of Duncan Grant which were originally intended for a production of Macbeth dating from 1911. The production was going to be directed by Harley Granville Barker at the Savoy Theatre in London, but in the end the costumes were never made. With help from costume designer, Suzanne Rowland, a group of 15 volunteers at Gladrags set to interpret, imagine and reproduce the costume sketches of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, a witch, Lennox and Macduff.

Figure 2 The author of this article working on the Macduff costume at the Gladrags Costume Store. Image from Gladrags Facebook Page, 26 May 2016.

Figure 2: Emmy Sale working on the Macduff costume at the Gladrags Costume Store. Image from Gladrags Facebook Page, 26 May 2016.

We spent several workshops together to learn about Charleston House and to produce the garments. I was excited to work on the costume of Macduff. The costume sketch featured a tunic with squares and circles erratically placed and adorning all spaces of the fabric. It was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08) and the various sized squares featured on the covering of the bodies. Appliqué squares of different sizes and proportions would cover the calico tunic in a colour scheme of gold, browns, blacks and silver toned textured fabrics.

To exhibit the costumes, actors from Burgess Hill Theatre performed a mini-Macbeth within the gardens of Charleston House which we were invited to help with and share our project with those at the centenary events. It was a truly unique and wonderful experience to see a piece of history that could have just been hidden in an archive but has been somewhat revived and as a result Duncan Grant’s vision was realised through the interpretation and construction of the garments.

Figure 3: Actor wearing the finished garment in the garden of Charleston House. Image courtesy of Gladrags. Taken 29 May 2016.

Overall, my volunteering with Gladrags has been one of the most valuable experiences I have had since moving to Brighton and starting university. It helped me to contextualise my studies as well as testing what I already knew or did not know. It is an experience that I will be able to talk about to future employers as well as one that expresses my commitment to expanding knowledge to both my studies and the job roles I may want to have in the future. I would highly recommend to anyone how helpful the Active Student service at the University is and the advantages that volunteering can have on both personal development and preparing for future job roles.