Last Saturday I attended the one day international conference of dress historians in London, organized by The Association of Dress Historians.
Entitled Survival and Revival: Clothing Design that Survives and Fashion Trends that Are Revived, the day was packed with a variety of short presentations from a host of international speakers. There were three main sessions, within which you could choose to attend three out of a possible six presentations. This meant I had to miss out on nine speakers, which was a shame, but is always the way at conferences.
My first morning session was chaired by Telecia Kirkland and included talks by Professor Lou Taylor on the value of dress collections, Lorraine Smith on the survival of the Wonderbra and Tara Tierney on the revival of a hippy aesthetic in late 1980s house music club culture.
I particularly enjoyed Taylor’s presentation which considered the question of whether clothing can ever become culturally valueless. Using a case study of clothing from an early 20th century Normandy rag dump, Taylor discussed how these discarded garments came to form the basis for ‘poverty chic’ designs in both contemporary fashion collections and high street fashion today.
Taylor raised critical questions about the way in which the fashion industry adopts historical dress with little reference to its social, economic and political context. Also considered was the nature of doing dress history, insomuch that sometimes what you find is not what you wanted to find. A good example of this was how Taylor’s initial dress research began to dovetail with contemporary commercial interest in ‘poverty chic’ yet both have very different ethical considerations.
I also noticed Taylor was one of the few speakers during the day that structured her talk by posing a question related to the conference theme of survival and revival. It was a shame that more speakers didn’t choose to do this, given that the themes of each session were not always clearly stated.
The second morning session was chaired by Timothy Long, Curator of Fashion and Dress at the Museum of London. All three speakers focused on aspects of survival and revival in military dress and included Andrew Breer and Jennifer Daley on the survival of the coatee uniform in American military academies, Alexandra Elias and Amanda Willey-Martin on the survival of femininity in American military uniforms during the Second World War and Scott Hughes Myerly on second-hand orientalism in British army fashion. It was encouraging to see several presentations from more than one speaker, suggesting that collaborative research is still alive and well.
For me, the most elucidating talk was that given by Elias and Willey-Martin about the way in which gender sensibilities informed military dress design for American women during the Second World War. Their comparison of the US Women’s Army Core (WAC) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVE) uniforms revealed how important it was to perform gender both in preparation and during military service. Underlying this was the perceived threat of femininity to both the military status quo and civilian women. On the one hand, women joining the military might be seen as a distraction for men already signed up while on the other, their requirement to adopt masculine practices embodied within military service might undermine women in their civilian lives.
Before lunch was served, we were all invited to hear Timothy Long to give the keynote address in the main hall. Since joining the Museum of London in 2012, Timothy Long has had the amazing job of researching and bringing to light their menswear archive, which, unfortunately, has been greatly overlooked by the museum.
With his focus on how the archive can reveal much about the past production of menswear in London, Long is both keen and innovative in his approach. Drawing upon a range of technologies and disciplines, which include fibre analysis, textile forensics, taking apart contemporary garments, visiting current tailors, buying secondhand as well as discussions with scientists at cocktail parties, Long appears to leave no thread untouched when it comes to gaining a better understanding of the museum’s archive.
His interest is certainly timely, given that, in his own words, there has been a resurgence in menswear in London both by makers and consumers. He suggested that menswear sales in the capital could outstrip womenswear by 2016, supported by global tourism and increasing emphasis on the heritage apparel market. It was fascinating to see him compare contemporary tailoring with tailoring of the 1700s and conclude that there were more similarities than differences. Survival indeed.
My afternoon session was chaired by Professor Lou Taylor and the theme that seemed to bring the four presentations together was the survival of garments, some of which had clearly experienced revival as a survival strategy. The first speaker was Maria Papadopoulou who discussed the chlamys, a woollen rectangular cloak, as a symbol of Macedonia culture that survived into the early 20th century with its adoption by avant garde figures like Raymond and Isadora Duncan.
The second speaker was Ariane Fennetaux who focused on the survival of tie-on pockets in the 1800s, disputing earlier claims that it had only got as far as the start of the century. Stephen Wolgast was the third speaker, who gave an interesting presentation on the survival of academic gowns as worn by US college students. Drawing upon archival research at Columbia university, Wolgast suggested that the academic gown has survived by its ability to be adapted by both students and colleges, whether in an attempt to brand education or individualise educational achievement.
The final speaker of the day was Janet Mayo, whose presentation focused on the survival of the cassock. Mayo suggested that by avoiding specific labelling, this garment could be worn at all levels of the clergy, by men and women and across different schools of Christian thought. This broad appeal had resulted in its survival spanning centuries.
I was intrigued by how people become interested in such specific dress histories from tie on pockets to cassocks. During the keynote address, Long had mentioned the role of biography in dress history and it was perhaps not surprising that Mayo’s father had been in the clergy and Fennetaux’s project grew out of a dissatisfaction with previous historical interpretations. I loved the addition of an actual garment in many of the presentations, giving us the opportunity to handle material artifacts.
What was interesting about the organization of the conference was the scheduling of the keynote speaker at lunchtime and no opening or closing presentation. While this did allowed for a wider representation of papers, it did mean there was no overall position or framework offered to consider the theme of survival and revival across the day. As a result, it was left to the chair for each session to draw the presentations together in order to make sense of their relationship with the conference theme. This was quite challenging, given they also had to allow participants time to ask questions. However, overall, a well organised and stimulating day thanks to all the speakers as well as Jennifer Daley and the team at The Association of Dress Historians.