Fashioning Winter at Somerset House

 

If you find yourself at Somerset House over the festive period, stop for a moment to have a look at an interesting series of small displays that draw attention to the relationship between fashion, winter and leisure pursuits in a subtle but poetic manner.

Fashioning Winter, an exhibition created by nine curators, offers a poignant backdrop to Somerset House’s annual ice rink experience.  As you discover the various displays, made up of inventive interventions in and around Somerset House, you are reminded that London is not only a fashionable capital but also a city that celebrates winter pastimes.

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‘Skating is Streatham’ by Beatrice Behlen

This is particularly well achieved by Beatrice Behlen’s display highlighting the craze for ice skating during the interwar period in London with ghostly photographs of art deco indoor ice rinks and a pair of ice skates worn by a regular skater from the 1930s.

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‘Skating on Film’ by Caroline Evans

Caroline Evans’ display of silent ice skating films from the early 20th century are mesmerising and perhaps the closest thing we might get to of a re-enactment of London’s 17th century frost fairs on the river Thames.

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‘White Perspectives’ by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov

The display ‘White Perspectives’, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov fills an entire staircase with objects illustrating the way in which the colour white has historically informed fashion.  I particularly loved a fascinating video about the work of designer Iris Van Herpen who uses white 3D printing to create her fashion designs.

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‘Winter Mode’ by Rebecca Arnold

Another staircase is adorned with homemade Christmas cards by photographer Angus McBean.  This display, curated by Alistair O’Neill, nicely captures the festive spirit.  Yet, it is Rebecca Arnold’s display on how fashion has informed our need to dress warmly in the winter months that for me best encapsulates the exhibition’s main title.

Fashioning Winter is a free exhibition at Somerset House until 11 January 2015 and you can download the exhibition guide here.  I would also recommend Furzsi’s post about the exhibition on the Courtauld’s Documenting Fashion blog.

 

First image credit is to Professor Amy De La Haye who provided the image for the London College of Fashion website.  It can be found here http://blogs.arts.ac.uk/fashion/2014/11/11/lcf-alumni-curate-fashioning-winter-exhibition-somerset-house/ [Accessed 15 December 2014]

 

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Review: KNITWEAR Chanel to Westwood at FTM, London

Main image © Rachel Atkinson / mylifeinknitwear 2014 and used here with permission.

It was with some trepidation that I approached the exhibition Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey on a cold rainy Sunday last week.   The loud hint of a chronology in the exhibition title was less than appealing to what is arguably my constant critique of the historical overview as the failsafe curatorial approach to fashion and dress displays.   I wondered about which objects would be used, as well as which technological developments would be explored in more depth, given that the exhibition’s aim is to ‘chart the influence of art movements Pop, Punk and Deconstruction alongside new knitwear technologies and design innovation.’

A piece from Roisin McAtamney MA Digital Fashion collection

Upon walking in, I encountered a precursor in the form of a small display curated by Professor Sandy Black at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, entitled Visionary Knitwear. A small display of contemporary knitwear from design graduates celebrates both fashion education and the continued relevance of knitwear to our daily dressed lives. I was particular enthralled by the work of Roisin McAtamney, Juliana Sissons and Sister by Sibling, all of whom show in their work a interesting juxtaposition between contemporary culture and historical influence. It was exciting to see knitwear as a dynamic form of textile and fashion design, studied to such a high level by these influential designers. I also liked the inclusion of examples produced by companies such as a pair of 2012 Nike Flyknits running shoes, drawing our attention to how important knitwear is as a technological innovation in the design of everyday goods.

Juliana Sissons fashion armour

This invigorating start to the larger exhibition was then followed up by a nice introductory display that demonstrates just how consistent  our interest in knitwear design is with the juxtaposition of two items in the same pattern; one from H&M and the other hand knitted in 1907.  This small opening display allowed me to reflect upon how and why it is that techniques and patterns continually resurface in everyday dress.

View of the main room, featuring sections Knit America Style, Crochet Your Way and the Cocktail Hour

However, further reflection and the hope of encountering knitwear through the lens of their emotional value and/or their associations with particular wearers, as proposed in the accompanying guide, fell short almost immediately as I found myself looking at a very straightforward chronological display of knitwear in the main room. Instead, there are just a few glimpses of how knitted items were made and what they felt like to be worn in amongst a rather basic timeline that could be found in most historical texts on knitwear, even Wikipedia, dare I say it.

Summary labels that make even the full sighted squint in an effort to read the inscrutable white capitalised text against a black, unforgiving background did not help. Due to a photography ban, it was not possible to capture these curious things.  I am not sure whether the curatorial team felt that the labels needed to be ‘modern’ in form as a contrast to the historical weight of the exhibition but whatever their rationale, I was glad they did not carry it through with the paper guide, which due to a more reader friendly combination of red, black and white meant I could still navigate my way through the various displays.

Display crates in the main room

The attempt to present knitwear in a more contemporary light may perhaps also explain the use of huge crates as display cases which frame the various ‘this is your life’ moments associated with knitwear in the 20th century. While one review lauded the way in which these semi-opened wooden cases suggested a sense of treasured garments being rediscovered, I found it difficult not to think of mothballs and the proliferation of East London cafes with similar DIY interiors.

Vogue shoot, February 1951. Photograph: Norman Parkinson/Vogue

Now, the need to make knitwear ‘modern’ or ‘now’ within the exhibition is interesting because what it reveals is some concern about the status of knitwear in today’s society. The curators and collectors are, arguable, not alone. The review of the exhibition by the Guardian’s Invisible Lady, a voice for older women interested in fashion, leads to much reminiscing about the demise of the knitting glory years and the constant low status bestowed upon knitwear in the face of haute couture and high fashion.  Yet, this does not seem to be shared by those involved in the designing and making of knitwear whom also visited the exhibition. Reading reviews by knitting enthusiasts Katy Evans and mylifeinknitwear remind us that this area of textile and fashion design is very much alive and well, with no intention of being laid to rest in some forgotten corner of our wardrobes.

Norman Parkinson, Vogue, February 1952

For me, it is the emphasis on presenting a chronology of knitwear that is problematic and which underpins the subsequent need to make small details in the exhibition appear ‘modern’ such as the labels and display cases. If the opportunity to debate the currency of knitwear, the shifts in production and consumption, technological developments and the philosophical concerns underlying its existence had framed the curatorial decisions, this exhibition would have better addressed the issue of knitwear being more than just a bag of old clothes on display.

The Fair Isle display

I am also confused by the arrangement of 150 knitwear examples because according to the exhibition information, the curators and collectors wanted to avoid a ‘historical overview’ and focus on ‘the emotions we invest in objects’. Unfortunately, one is completely overwhelmed by a chronological approach and very underwhelmed by the personal associations with these items. A good example of this was the display of Fair Isle garments where quantity and repetition took precedence over quality and association, making it very easy to disassociate from what looked like a bad Boden editorial.

Mark and Cleo Butterfield at the exhibition’s opening night

On closer look, it is possible to find evidence of these emotional investments, allowing me to see knitwear playing an active role in people’s lives, challenging the notion that no-one knits anymore or will care to in the future.   I was fascinated by the items that revealed just how interested their owners were in knitwear and the best examples of these were those shared by Mark and Cleo Butterfield, private collectors whose collection makes up most of what is on display.   To see Cleo’s very competent attempt to knit a Patricia Roberts pattern in the 1980s was to witness the immediacy of knitting and the effort made to ‘wear or create’ knitwear.

Les Sportives section featuring knitted swimwear

It would have been great to include more details like this as related to the earlier pieces, which might better locate the making and wearing of knitwear in our emotional memory. The display of knitted swimwear, for example, left me with so many questions concerning the experience of wearing these garments at the seaside. What did it feel like to wear wool in the water or while lying down on the pebbles? To what extent did these items sag and become heavy with the weight of salty liquids? How did that alter the experience of those wearing them? Was it embarrassing, hilarious, liberating?  Alternatively, there were many pieces on display that were machine knitted yet discussion around this means of production was largely absent. The exhibition seemed to miss these moments for further deduction, opting instead for an extended but static representation of knitted items.

The Novelty Factor section, highlighting 1970s interest in pop art and postmodern styling

So, in some ways, my initial feelings of trepidation were not without warrant. Knitwear Chanel to Westwood is not an exhibition that breaks new ground nor did it leave me wanting to pick up an implement and use it to start weaving two threads together. The historical examples are enjoyable to see but they are definitely more interesting when accompanied by a personal story or two.  Yes, the exhibition does capture some cultural and technological aspects of a knitwear timeline but it could have done so much more with this.  It wasn’t a badly spent Sunday wet afternoon, just perhaps a bit too quiet for my liking.

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Punk Style Book Coupon Code

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This is the time when everyone starts to go a little wild with holiday shopping on the brain, often not knowing what to buy. Perhaps your list has a fellow fashion-minded friend or colleague, or maybe someone who has always had an interest in subculture? You could consider picking up my book Punk Style!

It features chapters on history, cultural analysis, merchandising, and identity, with interviews from Tish & Snooky, Marco Pirroni, Roger Burton from the Contemporary Wardrobe, and many self identified punks who took the time to speak at length regrading their experiences with the style. Also there are numerous high quality photos of the garments and accessories individually and in use.

Click here to read find a snippet from the book and give it a try.

My publisher Bloomsbury has generously provided a coupon code for Worn Through readers and friends and family. Use the code “PunkHolidays” on Bloomsbury.com and get 15%off thru January 1, 2015. It comes as paperback, hardcover, and e-book.

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Modulations: make a broadcast about your fashion/dress research in 2015

I just received an exciting invitation for academics to collaborate with a London based radio station on broadcasting their research in a range of creative formats.  This is a great opportunity for fashion and dress researchers to produce a speech based programme about their work, supported by an experienced team of broadcast producers.

Modulations is the brainchild of Resonance FM, a London based radio station focused on the arts since 2002, and The Arts & Culture Unit, a media and communications agency dedicated to the dissemination of research and practice in the arts, humanities and social sciences.  The idea is to produce a range of programmes, from discussion shows to documentaries, in order to engage new audiences with current research.  How exciting to be able to share your research interests in a creative way but also help raise the profile of fashion and dress research amongst a diverse range of listeners!

For this initial round, Modulations are seeking out researchers based in London and the South East with the hope of extending the geographical field in later rounds.  They are particularly interested to hear from researchers with little experience in broadcast, who are enthusiastic to collaborate and whose research makes use of a range of media forms and/or oral histories.  The project will enable you to learn about broadcast media and production, resulting in both a programme and a podcast that will become part of Resonance’s archive (which I strongly recommend you peruse)

This couldn’t be a more perfect project for a fashion and dress researcher who is looking to bring their subject to life in new ways and wants to extend her/his communication skills.

The deadline is 7 December 2014; you need to submit a 400 word outline and rationale which, with such a low word count, means entry will be highly competitive.  If successful, you will start production in January 2015 and the first programmes will be broadcast in Spring 2015.

For further details, you can either go straight to the Modulations website or contact Juliette Kristensen at The Arts & Culture Unit by emailing  juliette@theartsandcultureunit.com

Good luck!

Image credit: https://twitter.com/resonancefm

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Kickstarter: The Seams

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Author, Journalist, and Adventurer Jacki Lyden has started a new project entitled The Seams. A team with experience from NPR and a passion for clothes plans to start a radio show/podcast discussing history and cultural stories pertaining to fashion.

It’s a fun new project we at Worn Through are supporting and we would encourage you to as well.

Consider donating to their Kickstarter campaign to help get this off the ground! It runs through Dec. 6, 2014.

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Looking for Educators to Write Column

Worn Through is looking for educators teaching fashion at the university level to discuss their experiences for our “On Teaching Fashion” column.

It’s monthly or bi-weekly on Fridays alternating with another contributor. Posts can be pre-programmed and do not need to be written on Fridays. Preferably someone who is full time or teaches multiple courses regularly in order to have a great deal to discuss. The column is geared toward other educators to promote discussion of tips, anecdotes, and progressions in the field.

Email me if interested. Ideal start date Jan 1.

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Sad Farewell to Worn Fashion Journal

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Not strictly related to this side of the Atlantic, I admit, but perhaps an indication of its far reaching influence, today’s post is an acknowledgement of the end of Worn Fashion Journal, a Canadian based bi-annual magazine that has provided a much needed platform for critical but accessible fashion and dress journalism over the last ten years.

Personally, this is timely as it has also been a decade since I lived in Montreal and got myself a brief spot as a local reviewer of clothing stores in the Outremont area for Worn’s website.  I still remember being interviewed by Serah-Marie McMahon, its founding editor, in Casa Del Popolo on St Laurent, and thinking how exciting it was to see someone with no formal journalism experience wanting to give voice to the complex narratives, practices and techniques we associate with our clothes.  The first copies I owned, including the third issue (which is pictured above), contained such gems from how to adapt your jeans for a skinny fit, the history of bakelite jewellery to the advent of ethical fashion and interviews with Alexandra Palmer.  The diverse topics, the absence of advertisements and the emphasis on what people actually wear instead of what they should wear was a much needed antidote to the gloss and proselytizing of most mainstream fashion magazines.

Interview with Alexandra Palmer from the third issue of Worn Fashion Journal (authors own image)

I am probably not alone when I say that with Worn Fashion Journal, I felt I had found a like minded friend.  It definitely allowed me to have an academic interest in fashion and dress while still enjoying the fun sensations associated with dressing up and playing with clothes.  It also contributed to my return to the UK a few years later to take up a place at the Royal College of Art in London to study history of design.  I have much to thank Worn for!

A poster for the launch of Worn Issue 2, that I kept because I loved the design (author’s own image)

The gap left by its absence will be sizeable and I only hope that it does not represent the final descent of very independent fashion publishing.  Its presence was notable for its refusal to accept fashion at face value, trying to look beyond but always in a curious and non-judgemental way.  There really must be space for media like this because it enables us to hear a dynamic cacophony of clothed voices above what can sometimes feel like the constant drone of commercial, mass produced fashion. 

The final double issue is published on 22 November and the magazine is also having a farewell ball, which is sure to be well attended by its many followers, aptly named the ‘Wornettes’.

Cover of the final issue, published on 22 November

When looking for tributes to and articles on this inspirational magazine, it seems the coverage is predominantly by Canadian press.  I would love to hear from anyone who has written about or shared an interest in Worn Fashion Journal, wherever you are, and it would be great to know if anyone is thinking about doing a dissertation or thesis about Worn Fashion Journal – could be a very interesting project!

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Jasleen Kandhari: Exploring Asian Textiles Study Day

This summer I had the lovely opportunity to meet NADFAS accredited lecturer Jasleen Kandhari, an art historian specialising in Asian art and design. Her breadth of interest in Asian collections is both broad and diverse. In covering subjects from Tibetan Buddhist sculpture and Korean ritual art to Sikh miniature painting and South Asian textiles, Jasleen has enjoyed interesting curatorial positions both here in London and abroad, as well as lecturing in universities and museums around the world. A prolific writer, Jasleen has published frequently on her subjects and is contributing editor (Indian Textiles) for Textiles Asia Journal. Currently, Jasleen is lecturing and teaching the Indian Textiles Course at the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education as well as delivering study days on Asian art and textiles at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which is what brought me to one of her Exploring Asian Textiles study days at Morley College earlier this year.

Looking at Jasleen's selection of textiles (author's own)

Looking at Jasleen’s selection of textiles (author’s own image)

The study programme was fast paced, packed with different mediums and filled with Jasleen’s enthusiasm for her subject. In just one day, we travelled across the geographical expanse of Asia, stopping off in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan and Tibet. Jasleen took us on a grand tour of textile design, production and consumption while still allowing us to focus in on a specific example at each place. These ranged from the obvious to the obscure. We embraced the Japanese kimono and the Malaysian songket while being encouraged to take a closer look at the phulkaris of the Punjab and the tiger rugs of Tibet.

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Snippet of Jasleen’s textile collection (author’s own image)

Within each location, Jasleen provided the class with lots of visual examples to include handouts, film clips and illustrative slides. In addition, there was an extensive display of textile examples at the front of the room and we were warmly invited to handle these half way through the day, accompanied by Jasleen’s informative commentary about their origins and significance. A personable and confident tutor, matched by a welcoming disposition. Jasleen asked all the students to introduce themselves and was able to respond to every individual interest in Asian textiles with further information. The breadth of motivation was wide for those present. Some were makers, others were thinkers but all shared a common fascination with textiles and were keen to broaden their haptic experience.  

Phulkari from Punjabi, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada

Jasleen’s own interest in Asian textiles emerges from her expertise in South Asian art and design, which began with a BA in Asian Art History with Music at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London and then an MA at Sotheby’s. This was followed by various curatorial and educational positions at the British Library and the British Museum before Jasleen took on the position of Curator of Asia at the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. It was there that Jasleen became more interested in Asian textiles, drawn to their large collection of uncatalogued phulkari, a style of embroidery specific to the Punjab.  Jasleen also loves contemporary textiles and suggests that her passion was always there, having grown up in Kenya in a family with close ties to India where her aunt is a fashion designer in Mumbai. This was also nicely mirrored in her use of current examples from popular fashion magazines as well as the catwalk to highlight the continued significance of Asian textile design in today’s clothing styles.

Jasleen immersed in the research process; wearing kimono in Japan

When not writing for various cultural publications, Jasleen can be found visiting textile factories, filming production techniques or trying on regional costumes, in an effort to immerse herself in the subject for the benefit of her students.  I asked her to share some highlights of teaching a subject she loves. These included inspiring students to want to learn more about the subject; and the fact that it doesn’t feel like ‘work’ but an integral facet of her own passion for the subject. I wondered if Jasleen had any good advice to share with regards to teaching her subject. ‘Always put yourself in the lecture’, she replied. Whether it be wearing a particular costume or including photographs that show you participating in your research, Jasleen suggested this was a vital way to connect with students.

Image from the Sanskriti Museum of Indian Textiles, Delhi

I also wanted to know which museums had enhanced Jasleen’s interest in textiles. Special mentions included the Musee de Jacquard in Roubaix, Northern France, the National Textiles Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Sanskriti Museum of Indian Textiles in Delhi, India. According to Jasleen, their emphasis on actively displaying techniques and processes allows visitors to see how textiles are produced in a dynamic way. This is very reflective of Jasleen’s pedagogical approach to her subject. The study day was nicely peppered with opportunities to look at a range of material sources, watch films showing how particular types of textiles are made and a myriad of handouts identifying techniques and motifs.

Tiger pelt rug, date unknown

I was particularly struck by her research into Tibetan tiger rugs, of which there are apparently only 200 in existence that feature a tiger pelt motif. Interestingly, the tiger pelt design varies from the very abstract to the very literal. Made from sheep wool, these rugs are said to have come out of Tibet as a result of the uprisings in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally made as gifts for lamas, the tiger skin design is reflective of Tibetan Buddhist iconography. Yogins are often depicted meditating on tiger pelts and the tiger is historically believed to have protective qualities amongst Tibetan kings and warriors. These are fascinating textile objects and it was great to be introduced to them by Jasleen in the study day.

When listening to her, I was swept away by the heady descriptions of projects, texts, workshops and tours that Jasleen has in the pipeline, all of which can now be discovered on her own website entitled the Travelling Art Historian. In terms of what the future might hold, Jasleen is enthusiastic about museum education, in particular expanding what is on offer in Asian textiles and arts online courses. Jasleen is also keen to develop her research into Sikh art and textiles, both past and contemporary. According to her, ‘it is very important to record Sikh cultural heritage, which includes the influence of crafts such as textile design and painting’.

Spending the day looking at Asian textiles reminded me how useful it is to put myself in the shoes of the student and the advantages of having material artifacts when teaching what you enjoy. I would also very much like to meet others whose teaching interests include textiles and fashion history/theory here in the UK so please feel free to get in touch by email emma@wornthrough.com

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On Teaching Fashion: Students with Disabilities-UPDATED

Today I am reposting the Students with Disabilities article from June because a reader provided a useful link that I want to share with everyone: http://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/disabled-students/

This article covers your legal rights, what type of academic adjustments will be provided for you, and useful links to help students with disabilities. There is so much information so please click the above link and read over it. Thank you readers for writing in and contributing to Wornthrough.com!

The first year I attended Central Saint Martins, I served as the student course representative for my program. Course reps were given the opportunity to attend faculty meetings and I thought this was a great chance to see the behind the scenes work at my school. The most memorable meeting for me focused on students with disabilities. We discussed both physical and learning disabilities and strategies for working with them. I learned so much and left feeling inspired. I no longer have any of the paperwork from that meeting but there are many articles, such as “The prevalence of dyslexia among art students written by Ulrika Wolff* and Ingvar Lundberg,  if you would like to read up on this subject.

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My first year teaching at a university, I followed our syllabus requirements guide and included the disability office information with the short paragraph saying that any student with a disability has a right for reasonable accommodation. Over the years, I have had a few students approach me with a request for more time on tests and assignments. One semester I was given a sheet of paper from a student who told me that I had to sign it and return it to the office. I looked at the sheet and saw that the student had a disability that would require me to step in and provide aid when needed. There was a list of steps that I need to be prepared to do if a situation arose. A feeling of panic washed over me. This was quite serious and I couldn’t help thinking what if I made a mistake? When I went to drop off the paperwork I expressed my concern to the staff member and was told: “You don’t need to worry about this student. They have enough foresight to take care of themselves and contact the department and give you this paperwork. That means they will take care of themselves. The students you need to worry about are the ones that never report their problems.” I wondered how many unreported disabilities or even undiagnosed disabilities our student body may be struggling with.

According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the U.S. which makes the possibility of having a disabled student in class fairly high. A physical disability may require more planning in a class room setting to accommodate a student, especially in a sewing lab. There is a small business in my town that hires people who are sight impaired to work in a sewing factory. The employees are trained to work in each station and learn how to sew and assemble a finished product. This business has a major contract with the government and is able to employ disabled people while teaching them a trade. I had hoped to tour this facility and report more information but was unable to arrange it.

The TedTalks lecture by Hugh Herr titled “The new bionics that let us run, climb, and dance”, is worth viewing if you haven’t already seen it. Herr says that a human being can never be viewed as “broken” by having a disability. He says, “It is our technology that is broken and inadequate”. The word disabled itself implies that something is not working. But with so many new technological advancements in prosthetics there is a major shift happening in the way we view disabled people in society. Our department recently held a lecture presenting current projects on special apparel for disabled people. Apparel is being redesigned with disabilities in mind such as clothing for a person that sits in a wheelchair all day. Clothing can be ergonomically designed in a way to avoid bulky seams that may put pressure on skin with poor circulation. Clothing that uses the same trends and style lines but redesigns closures is one area that is useful for disabled people as well as the aging population. Many of these design discoveries can be used for all people, disabled or not, and perhaps that is part of the positive change that is happening.

This is a topic that I will continue exploring and would love to write future posts addressing any new information I find. I am also interested in exploring the topic of teachers with disabilities, acquired either before of after they began teaching, and any struggles or strategies used in the classroom. Do you have any experiences with disabled students in the classroom that you would like to share? What are your experiences with teaching with a disability? Please leave your comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

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Review: The V&A Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion

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In October 2013, the V&A Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion in London opened and so it was nice to mark their one year anniversary with my first visit last month. Due to the Centre only being available via advance appointment or a tour once a month on a Friday morning, it has been impossible for me to get there and I do wonder how anyone who works full-time and/or has an interest in or teaches textiles and fashion study is able to access this fantastic resource. Therefore, I was very excited when I found out that the Centre had teamed up with Open House London to allow several tours to take place on a Saturday in September. Finally, I could get a chance to see the Centre and find out more about what it has to offer as a study resource.

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Public entrance to Blythe House (author’s own)

It was a rainy Saturday morning when I arrived at Blythe House in Olympia, the home for the Centre as well as other collections belonging to the V&A’s Archive of Art and Design, the British Museum and the Science Museum. As part of the Centre’s design, it was decided to reopen Blythe House’s original public entrance to what was once the largest Post Office Savings Bank in the country. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, Blythe House served as its headquarters until the 1960s when it relocated to Glasgow. It is a huge, rather grand but formal, building that once was packed with thousands of employees, both men and women, looking after ordinary people’s savings. Walking in, I felt very much like this place had been both factory and civil institution.

The Centre was designed by Haworth Tompkins Architects and to some extent, it is an essay on intervention given that Blythe House is a Grade II listed Edwardian building and so cannot be drastically changed or rebuilt. For example, the reception area has been created by installing a large display case that will contain a rolling exhibition of the V&A’s study collection.  The first display is Eduardo Paolozzi’s Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth Century Popular Culture, which includes toys, figurines as well as some of his own work.[1]

The redesigned conservation studios have been installed so as to maximise natural light while allowing enough access for the transportation of objects to and from storage. On our tour, we were able to glimpse through the windows and although there were no conservators there that day, a few had kindly left out a few examples for us to have a look at.

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Glimpse into the Textile Conservation Studios (author’s own)

With the Centre itself, one of the main issues for the architects was being able to spread the weight of a collection of textiles and fashion evenly across a space the size of a football pitch without altering the ground or the supporting columns. As a result, a huge raised floor was installed as well as limitations on the weight of the collection at any one time. According to one review, every item had to be weighed before it could enter the building.[2] This must have been a considerable task, given that the V&A’s textile and fashion collection includes approximately 104,000 objects that span more than 5000 years.

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The Centre’s storage; note the raised floor and the large space (author’s own)

The main study area is beautiful in an understated way, with functionality at the heart of the architectural interruptions to the existing building. Tables are on wheels to allow visitors to move around objects, lights are retractable to allow for close ups or to reduce potential damage and there is even a mirror and a magnet board in the area designated for large study groups. It was nice to see one of the original wooden display cabinets for textiles from the V&A’s former Textile Galleries had been included [3], a reminder that these have been closed since 2011 and that to have access to the collection now was no mean feat on the part of the V&A and the architects.

Detail showing bees and flowers from evening dress, Norman Hartnell, 1957, V&A

As part of the tour, we were shown a few highlights from the collection, which included an evening dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by Queen Elizabeth for a state visit to Paris in 1957. I had previously seen this dress on a display mannequin at The Golden Age of Couture. Paris and London 1947 – 1957 exhibition in 2007 but to see it so close up, laid flat on conservation tissue paper, was a special moment. Not only was it a delight to see the diplomatically inspired embroidery of French field flowers and Napoleonic bees again but the evidence of being worn was also more apparent and somehow more poignant. I could immediately imagine Elizabeth wearing this garment and all that might have happened,  seeing it laid out in all its years of existence than I could have when posed on a mannequin in a state of presentation that was never its original destiny.

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Study tables in the Centre (author’s own)

The main aim of the Centre is to provide more access within a suitable setting for conservation and study. My understanding is that it was the V&A’s response to long waiting times for people to see the collection up close. I think the Centre is a critical resource and am glad that it is now in a dedicated space. However, I still think access is an issue. It is definitely not possible to visit the Centre spontaneously as it requires you to book in advance and give a reason for your visit. You are also required to provide photo identification on arrival and so you do need to be prepared in advance.

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Information desk and note the old wooden display case from the former Textile Galleries to the right (author’s own)

Although this may be apparent for those of us who are researchers and curators, I do wonder whether how inclusive this is of teachers and lecturers in the field. For example, the study group room can only take up to 18 people and is available only for five and a half hours a day, four days a week.  Having just begun the academic year again, I am very aware that I am very aware that my classes never seem to be less than 25 students and we may meet on a day when either the Centre is closed or the hours are not suitable.  I think this is a missed opportunity because students would benefit greatly from the opportunity to see such amazing primary sources in a setting that is very different from that of the curated exhibition display. It would also provide me, as the teacher, with a new physical context within which to guide student’s learning.

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View of Blythe House (author’s own)

The more convenient it is for young people to see what the V&A has to offer, the better it will be for both us and them. Yesterday, one of my fashion students asked me if the objects I had showed them from the V&A’s online collection were replicas. This was a great question and enabled us to consider the origins of museum collections, the ethics of conservation and the availability of artefacts for further study. I was reminded how unfamiliar students are now with museums and their collections.  My final thought as I left the elegant Centre and the rather formidable façade of Blythe House was that archives need to be used, ideally by those who will remember them, if they are to survive in the future.

 

[1], [3]  http://www.kcwtoday.co.uk/education/c5q6xee5a8.html [Accessed 6/10/14)

[2] http://historyfashionculture.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/designing-a-design-archive/ (Accessed 6/10/14)

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