Conference Report: Developments in Dress History


This past weekend, December 8-10, 2001, The University of Brighton hosted a conference entitled Developments in Dress History, in tribute to the significant contributions of Professor Lou Taylor to the field of dress studies. I was fortunate enough to have had Lou Taylor as a guest lecturer during my MA in Fashion Curation at the London College of Fashion, and it was her writings and lectures which in part inspired me to begin my research into 20th century fashion cartoons.

I was pleased and honoured to be among those presenting papers, and to meet fellow Worn Through contributor and conference speaker Brenna at the event! We had ample opportunity to catch up, discuss our work and research and also to introduce each other to colleagues and associates. Although the experience of addressing the conference, and meeting Brenna as well as many other distinguished and interesting people were the highlights for me, I also include this week brief synopses of some of the presentations I attended.

The conference presented papers from over 80 speakers, from all over the globe and from different points in their academic careers. With six sessions composed of four simultaneous panels it was only possible to see one quarter of the work being presented. While this may seem a bit disappointing, it did make for very lively conversation and sharing of experiences during the tea and lunch breaks, and at the highly enjoyable conference dinner.

Tim Walker editorial published in Vogue Uk 2007, which featured in Sarah Cheang's paper on dress and ethnicity.

The conference began with a series of introductory papers that highlighted key themes of the overall programme, but the organisers pointed out that these were not deemed “keynote” speakers in order to place all the presenters on an equal ground and to foster the exchange of ideas amongst scholars of all levels. The first session began with a survey of Sarah Cheang’s ongoing research into fashion and ethnicity via a study of portrayals of the “ethnic other” in Western fashion editorial photographs. Sally Helveston Gray, of the Michigan State University Museum presented her extensive object and document based study of the mother Hubbard dress, as it was widely known in 19th century in North America.

Tahitian women wearing versions of the Mother Hubbard dress, 19th c, wikipedia commons

The material culture aspects of dress research were further explored in Lesley Miller’s presentation of her lifelong and ongoing research on Lyons silks. Miller is currently a curator at the V&A, and gave a preview of how 18th century Lyons silks will figure in the forthcoming Fashioning Europe 1600-1800 galleries, opening in 2014. The introductory session finished up with an eye-opening talk by Sharon Peoples about the collection and presentation of convicts dress and histories at the Narynna Heritage Museum in Tasmania.

Fashion engraving of a 1680s evening gown

The morning session, in which I presented my MA and ongoing research Satirical Sartorial: Fashion Cartoons from the New Yorker, was themed around images in fashion.

Image from my preseantation of an exhibition concept for Satirical Sartorial: Fashion Cartoons of the New Yorker

I was delighted to be presenting alongside Elizabeth Davis who examined 17th century fashion engravings as documents of fashion history, and Rachel Ritchie’s survey of  fashion marketing to rural women in post-war Britain. The session finished up with an highly engaging and well researched analysis of the use of museum and gallery settings in fashion photographs in the decade following the end of World War 2, by Felice McDowell, currently a researcher at London College of Fashion.

A panel on collecting and collections was comprised of talks by curators and collectors and provided insights into the collections and collection histories of the V&A and the Museum of Costume at Bath. I particularly enjoyed curator Rosemary Harden’s look at the life and work of Doris Langley Moore, and her legacy on the field of fashion curation.

Fashion historian and curator Doris Langley Moore - what a gorgeous lady!

The role of the personal enthusiast/collector was addressed by Lewis Orchard, who presented a wealth of material derived from his collection of garments, ephemera and documents relating to the designer Lucile, also known as Lady Duff Gordon. Lucile is well noted in fashion history for her opulent belle epoque designs, is credited with staging the first live fashion shows, and is a notable historical figure for being a Titanic survivor. Orchard has liberally collected material related to Lucile for over 20 years, and his collection reveals new information abotut the designer, her life, clients and milieu.

Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon

The Study of Dress History was a conference theme running across four panels, which were mainly devoted to material and archival dress history research. The session I attended looked at artefacts as diverse as diverse as 19th century dresses with toxic dyes, to boys’ sailor suits to the rare examples if Aesthetic dress in museum collections. The former presentation, by Alison Mathews David, on arsenical dyes and their impact on health in the 19th century and beyond in contemporary museum collection, will be a chapter in her forthcoming Berg publication Fashion and Health. Her book promises to re-assess the view of fashion’s impact on physical health and to delve deeper than the usual discussions of corsets and foot-binding as fashion’s cruellest enemies of well-being.

Arsenical green dress, Collection of the Museum at FIT

On the second day of the conference, I attended two panels on Displaying Dress, among which were the papers on curating and exhibition design I was most highly anticipating. With papers that examined the innovations, traditions and questions around the discipline of fashion curation, I was extremely satisfied and engaged by all the presentations. Highlights were Christine Guth’s study of  The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum as a space fashionably dressed by its founder, as well as Claire Wilcox’s insightful talk on displaying dress at the V&A past, present and into the future. Marie Reigels Melchior gave a thorough and though provoking historigoraphy of fashion in museums; research she is undertaking in order to devise a collecting and display policy for fashion at the Design Museum Denmark.

Interior view of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum including display of her dress silk

I was also honoured to be invited by Amy de la Haye to particpate in her presentation of Cecil Beaton’s Fashion: An Anthology Exhibition which took place at the V&A in 1971. I have been working with Amy and curator Judith Clark to recreate a physical model of the exhibition from surviving documents, and commented on the experience and challenges of the process to the conference delegates.

I left the conference with a greater awareness of the diversity and intensity of the field of dress history, and a clear affirmation that the collective and individual work of those who pioneered the field as well as those just entering it, is significant and sure to engender more such research in the future.

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  • Carolyn December 14, 2011 08.37 am

    I was there! I had such a great time, and was so inspired! And I saw your presentation – very insightful and entertaining. I was sorry to miss Claire Wilcox’s paper, which was at the same time as my own. I do hope they come out with some kind of publication from the conference.

    This was my first specifically dress history conference, and now I can’t wait for the next!

  • Jenna December 14, 2011 12.19 pm

    Hi Carolyn, Glad you enjoyed the conference and were among the distinguished presenters. Thanks for attending my session, and I am sorry to have missed your paper. Claire was wonderful – so well spoken, insightful and witty. Looking forward to seeing you at upcoming events.

  • J December 15, 2011 12.06 pm

    Ah, so you’re that Jenna! It is nice to put a face to a name. Great presentation – I enjoyed how you talked about the materiality of putting the exhibition model together.


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