This week I’ve been sorting through the fashion artifacts I’ll be posting in the coming weeks and discovering new avenues for research into dress history. While I get my research plans together, I thought I’d re-publish this archive post from two years ago that took old auction catalogs as a starting point for dress history research. Enjoy and watch this space for a fresh batch of fashion objects with tales to tell coming soon.
Second hand shops are irresistible to me. Long before programs like Antiques Roadshow encouraged the populace to consider that the old junk in their houses might be worth a fortune, I had a genetic predisposition to the hunt and rummage of flea markets, garage sales and charity shops. I don’t necessarily go in thinking of what I might find that’s worth heaps of cash – although I have had some lucky finds!
Recently at my local RSPCA Charity Shop in Hackney, East London, I left behind rails of last summer’s H&M dresses and some rather embarrassing 1990s shoes, and spent £3.98 on two hardback Christie’s auction annuals from 1978 and 1981. Auction catalogs are great sources of pictorial information, photographed and printed well, and sometimes become collectible themselves. The catalogs often provide background contextual information about the works, and are in essence curated thematic sales.
Auctions of clothing and textiles are presently looming larger in the media. Recently, the sales of Debbie Reynold’s film costume collection, the Duchess of Windsor’s Louis Vuitton travel case, and Lady Diana Spencer’s engagement dress, among others, made headlines outside the auction room. These stories are evidence that the value of dress artefacts are being taken note of, and in many cases that museums and private collectors are at the ready to acquire and then exhibit these treasures. But even if you don’t have a spare £40,000 to snap up the intimate possessions of celebrities and royal personages, there is much to be gained from paying attention to auctions, both current and past.
The hardback catalogs I picked up for less than the price of a sandwich, yielded hours of interest and introduced me to the works of some artists and designers I had previously been unfamiliar with. While these catalogs did not feature very many items of dress (evidence of how 30 years ago textiles were not valued and collected as they are today) the paintings, photographs, sculpture and decorative items that fill their pages offer a wealth of information about fashion history. Or, at the very least they invite further research.
With that in mind, I thought I would share some of the works in these catalogs that most sparked my research urge.
This week, I have posted some pictures and the captions listed in the catalog, and then next week I will share what I can rustle up regarding the fashion history in the image. I will try to find out where these works have ended up since they were sold, and if they are on view somewhere in the world. In some cases I will try to locate fashion artefacts relevant to the works. This sort of research is like a curator’s match game, or an internet hide and seek.
I hope it will inspire you as well – to rescue those old auction catalogs and track down the hidden fashion topics hiding in their pages. Your summer holiday flea market outing just might send you down the road towards an exciting avenue of long term research…now wouldn’t that be a lovely way to start the new academic year?