On Teaching Fashion: Recycling in the Classroom

The Fall semester is over and it is time to clean the sewing labs before I leave for the winter break. Before I just throw everything in the trash can, I try to think about recycling or reusing. I have a recycling bin for paper in the classroom that fills up quickly with discarded pattern paper during the semester. Unfortunately, the trash bin is overflowing with fabric and partially made garments or samples of collars and sleeves. There is a ton of fabric waste in the sewing lab trash can and I want this to change.


Apparel Design students practice sewing sample garments and this often results in multiple sewing attempts to get the right technique. The samples are often unusable as wearable apparel so we can’t donate them to a thrift store. In an effort to try to reduce fabric waste, I have been accumulating fabric scraps in a large bin to reuse for sampling and I now have a clutter problem since students are not using the scraps quickly enough. Unfortunately, students see that the scrap bin is full and throw their textile waste in the trash bin. I have been looking for a place to recycle fabrics for a few years now and just recently heard about Re-Sourcery. I contacted the Re-Sourcery president, Blythe Christopher de Orive, for an interview and I wanted to share this information with you.

Tell me about your organization? Re-Sourcery is an artists’ collective where we share materials, tips, how-to’s, and projects. We started Re-Sourcery.org to save textiles from our local landfills and give artists more reuse material. The average American throws away 65 pounds of used textiles a year and most of that amount can be upcycled. I would love to have folks think about upcycling first!

Why did you start this organization? I saw so much clothing and textiles being thrown away and going to landfills. Used clothing/textiles are a resource that we need to find different uses for. I am also an artist and realized how much of my “project” materials lay fallow and I wanted to share them with other upcycle artists that would use them. I started this for my city but am realizing that the desire to save textiles from landfills is universal.

Is your organization international? I intended Re-sourcery to be local to Austin, TX but we have members from Australia, UK, France, Netherlands and Liberia!  I think there is a groundswell of support for upcycling. My advice to anyone is to encourage more folks to belong to Re-Sourcery.org. We can make sub-groups on the site for cities, geographic areas. Or they can start their own sharing site or even an email list of interested artists in their area to start sharing.

How can teachers in apparel & textile programs work with Re-Sourcery They can post what they have to donate on Re-Sourcery.org (it is free to become a member) and our artists will offer to come pick it up.

Do you recycle more than textiles? We also upcycle home goods (small furniture, decorative items).

Do you recycle broken pins and needles? No, but that is a great idea. Let me do some research on how we could upcycle pins and needles and I will get back to you.

I plan to implement textiles, thread scraps, and pins & needles recycling in my sewing lab next semester. Bins will be clearly marked to make sure that the artists are getting what they have requested. I would love to hear from you on any recycling ideas used in your sewing labs. Do you have any policies in place for recycling in the classroom? Please share any tips for recycling in the classroom in the comments below.


Domestic Affairs: Houghton Hall at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco


My favourite museums are house museums. I really do not know how many times I have been to Hearst Castle, but I know I have no plans to ever stop visiting. I love to see where and how people lived. Second to this — especially for private residences still in use — are exhibitions about such grand homes and estates. Having been a lifelong reader and lover of Jane Austen, I suppose this isn’t a surprise. Thus, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House was an absolute dream of an exhibition for me.

The exhibition, which is open until January 18, 2015 at the Legion of Honor, draws from the collection of quite possibly the original English country house — read ginormous mansion — Houghton (pronounced ‘how-ton’) Hall. The house was built by England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (known as Cock Robin by those who didn’t like him). Walpole can also be credited with starting the trend for magnificent country estates that then swept Britain; until Walpole the Pemberleys, Kellynches, and Hartfields that serve as the backgrounds of Jane Austen’s novels didn’t exist. The Legion of Honor’s exhibition allows visitors an inside look at not only the current Houghton Hall, but insights into its creation, history, and survival tot he present day.

Exterior view of Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Exterior view of Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Through the use of high-resolution prints of wallpaper, ceilings, library bookshelves, etc., and the arrangement of those objects — paintings, ceramics, furniture — the Legion of Honor transformed its special exhibition space and recreated the rooms the exhibition focused on quite well. Beginning with the opulent red damask and gilded Saloon (below), the exhibition established fully in the minds of museum visitors what homes like this were built and decorated to do: show off to Walpole’s fellow members of parliament and aristocrats, and his political rivals who had the most money and taste.

A view of the Saloon at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

A view of the Saloon at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Interspersed among the tombstones and wall text — which outlined the history of the home from room to room — were family trees which helped visitors trace the family and how the family titles changed as they were added to. Since they started out as the Earls of Orford, the wall texts were remarkably helpful in determining how they became the Marquesses of Cholmondeley (pronounced “chumdley” apparently) as people married or inherited other estates. However, most fascinating was the history of each room and its building and renovation since these little histories showed how the house evolved not only with the trends and styles of successive generations, but with the tastes and needs of the family as well. Not to mention the insights such histories gave into the way in which homes were decorated and built from 1720 until the most recent renovations and revivals in the early 20th century.

William Kent, architectural drawing for the Marble Parlour at Houghton, ca. 1730. Black and brown ink and brown wash on paper. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.132

William Kent, architectural drawing for the Marble Parlour at Houghton, ca. 1730. Black and brown ink and brown wash on paper. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.132

What I was most fascinated by were the original plans, drawings, and perspectives created by architect William Kent and his various successors, for the building and decorating of the house. Even the placement of paintings was thought of by the various architects as can be seen in the various drawings on display. Since my internship during my master’s degree was working with a similar private collection of architectural drawings, I felt like with my background they gave me more insight into the home and its history — but also added depth to the exhibition for the “novice” visitor as well, as I overheard various fellow visitors remark on the plans.

In the “library” room, they had several books on display from Sir Robert Walpole’s own collection — including secret dossiers from security meetings during Walpole’s tenure as prime minister in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Cabinet at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

Cabinet at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England. Photo: Nick McCann

There were three objects in the exhibition that I found most beautiful and incredible. First were the intact rolls of chinoiserie wallpaper that decorates the “Cabinet” seen in the image above. Four such rolls were hung on the walls of the room meant to recreate the “Cabinet,” in absolutely pristine condition. Nothing was said about why the wallpaper was still in existence, let alone in such excellent condition, but I can only assume it was extra from when the room was decorated and that it was originally kept “just in case” of need to replace the original. To have not a photo recreation, but the original wallpaper as it must have come from the manufacturer was truly wonderful, indeed.

Second were Jean Singer Sargent’s portraits of the woman responsible for Houghton’s preservation and survival in this century, the current Marquess of Cholmondeley’s grandmother, Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley. Her mother having been a Rothschild, her father a Sassoon, and marrying the Marquess, Lady Sybil had the means and the inclination to restore the home. She became fascinated by its history and its original builder, Sir Robert Walpole, and it is no overstating it (if the wall text, catalogue, and video interviewing her grandson are to be believed) that she ensured this beautiful home’s survival. Sargent’s portraits of the Marchioness is are arresting in their beauty — not merely because of Sargent’s skill, but because of Lady Sybil’s unique, striking beauty and bold, avant-garde way of dressing for the portraits. The one below is apparently the result of her not having anything she considered suitable to wear for her engagement portrait, and so the great artist went to his “dressing up box” in his studio and draped her in a beautiful gold fabric he found there.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage, 1913. Oil on canvas. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage, 1913. Oil on canvas. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall

Last but not least on an academic fashion blog, the exhibition ended with a “bang,” if you will: displayed on two mannequins the coronation robes that the 4th Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, wore to the coronations of Kings Edward VII and George V. Complete with crimson silk velvet, gold braid, and ermine train.

Uniform worn by the 4th Marquess of Cholmondeley, 1901. Wool and metallic thread. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.060.1

Uniform worn by the 4th Marquess of Cholmondeley, 1901. Wool and metallic thread. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.060.1

Only the Marquess’s costume is shown above, but also on display was the Cecil Beaton portrait of Lady Sybil and her husband George, when they were the 5th Marquess and Marchioness, similarly attired for the coronations of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

Cecil Beaton, George and Sibyl, Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, in their coronation robes, 1937. Gelatin silver print. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.065

Cecil Beaton, George and Sibyl, Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, in their coronation robes, 1937. Gelatin silver print. Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall. Photo: Pete Huggins, by kind permission of Houghton Hall, EX.2013.HH.065

The exhibition did have its failings. The layout was somewhat illogical and hard to follow, with very few of the rooms seeming to flow into one another in any logical path – the first room recreating the Saloon seemed to lead into the last room and exhibition shop instead of onto the rest of the exhibition. The library in particular was awkwardly placed, off to the side and exiting all over again if you didn’t double back to the rest of the exhibition space. This is partially simply the nature of the Legion of Honor’s special exhibition space, but I can’t help feeling that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — which has used the space magnificently in the past — could have laid things out in a way that would not confuse visitors. The tombstones and much of the wall text were also frequently too small and placed in such a way that you had to get dangerously close to the objects themselves to read the plaques and see what you were looking at. I did not envy the gallery attendants their jobs in the recreation of the “Cabinet” where in order to read the tombstones for them, you had to lean over the eighteenth-century, lacquered card tables in a rather precarious way, since on either side of you were glass cases and other visitors.

Overall, the exhibition was wonderful, and did exactly what it aimed to do: recreated not just Houghton Hall, but gave visitors insights into and an understanding of the world of the English country house.

A view of the Marble Parlour at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

A view of the Marble Parlour at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

A view of the Picture Gallery at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

A view of the Picture Gallery at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell

Have any of you been to see Houghton Hall? What were your thoughts? What house museums and similar exhibitions do you enjoy? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments. You can also leave me information about upcoming events and exhibitions in your area, or you can email them to me.


Opening Image Caption: A view of the Stone Hall at Houghton Hall. Photo: James Merrell


Museum Life: fashion studies and material culture


In October, I had the opportunity to attend the 4th annual Fashion Now & Then conference at LIM College in NYC. This three-day conference involved a good mix of participants–designers, industry entrepreneurs, librarians, archivists, and professors–that resulted in a wide range of topics discussed.  Sessions were concurrent and it was not possible to attend every one. Some good presentations and resultant discussions included the state of corporate social responsibility and sustainability practices in the luxury market, African companies that challenge the dominant Western aesthetic and modes of production in fashion, new directions for online shopping and the increase in consumer data collection, the limitations and possibilities of querying databases and data mining in fashion research, and opportunities for research in various online resources, including Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, the Photographic Collection at the The American Museum of Natural History, and the André Studios collection at the New York Public Library–and the exciting announcement that the administrative records of the Costume Institute will be available for research in 2015.

The opening reception included a book signing with Holly Price Alford, Associate Professor in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising and Director of Diversity for the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Alford discussed her changes to the 6th edition of Who’s Who in Fashion, which will include color photographs and a more diverse array of practitioners in fashion, such as journalists, photographers, costume designers, and accessory designers.

One particular panel focused primarily on the current state of instruction in fashion studies, assembling a range of sources and approaches for research, such as paper-based archival records (the Costume Institute records, referenced above, and the potential avenues for research within that collection), object-based teaching methods, and a survey of programs nationally and internationally.  I felt a summary of two presentations in this panel would be a nice follow-up to my October post on balancing knowledge of material construction and theory in curatorial work.

Presenter Chloe Chapin began her career working for 20 years in costume design in the theater.  Now simultaneously an assistant professor and MA candidate at FIT, Chapin described her experience with costume and clothing in the academic setting as quite different.  She began her presentation with a juxtaposition of visuals that aptly summed up the jarring shift in her daily experience.  As a designer, her world consisted of “physical objects, bodies, and patterns”, presented onscreen with images of hands working with needle and thread, at sewing machines, and draping fabrics.  At FIT, Chapin’s daily world has transformed into a word cloud of theory and theorists: Simmel, Veblen, Foucault, Barthes, semiotics, and consumer studies, to name a few. In the face of this startling change of focus, Chapin set out to understand “what is this discipline of fashion studies?”, and “what are the training programs” out there in the world and “how do they market themselves?”

Chapin has mapped out the various approaches of programs nationwide and internationally, concluding that fashion studies programs need to better market themselves and make their program philosophy better known to prospective applicants (she also acknowledged that with all the different approaches to the field, there is room for everybody to share expertise on their preferred approach).  So far she has compiled lists of programs along seven themes, including textile sciences (research and development), practice-based design theory, museum studies, and cultural studies.  Chapin is in the processes of creating a website with all of this information accessible in one place, similar to her existing site that brings together fashion and textile museum collections and their various approaches, Fashion & Textile Museums.  This upcoming site should prove to be a valuable resource for students, professors, and prospective students alike.

Diane Maglio, professor in the Fashion Department at the Larry L. Luing School of Business, Berkley College in NYC, presented on her approach to object-based studies in and outside the classroom.  With the work of Jules Prown, Charles F. Montgomery, and Igor Kopytoff as her foundation, Maglio described how she guides students through engaging with garments and objects in their research.  She first draws in students through asking for personal, emotional responses to the object in question, with subjective questions such as, “are you a leader or a follower?”  She then balances the student’s personal interpretation with considering the object’s history in its contemporary context.

Maglio generously answered a few of my questions during a very busy time in the semester, and offered a few more thoughts on the presentation and the student’s learning process.

For their research projects, are students able to study garments within an archive or study collection, or is their engagement largely through exhibitions?

From my experience as an adjunct at FIT, students there have the added benefit of both museum collections and study collections. Our students have no study collections, therefore we rely on exhibitions, museum permanent collections and artifacts in historic houses. The major drawback is the inability to handle garments or objects. When students tap into visceral reactions to what they see, they add a dimension to their engagement with the object and maker and with what they have read or seen in print form.

Urging students to draw on personal feelings or forge emotional connections with a garment is an effective technique in heightening students’ engagement with material objects.  Do you find it difficult to then balance students’ contemporary, personal reactions and opinions with contextual, historical research?  Or do you find students are hesitant to engage personally with an object?  Are they more comfortable with emotional distance, or more comfortable with emotional engagement?

Whether students are more comfortable with emotional distance or with emotional engagement is not easily answered because the student body is so culturally diverse. Some will take naturally to looking at objects from the inside out, while others need to ease into the method. Ultimately, like other assignments, they learn how to do it and then, hopefully, apply the methods to objects they handle in their business life. Students are not so much hesitant to engage with an object as they are unfamiliar with the technique or method. At first try, some students tend to drift from engaging with the object as if it had a unique personality to responding from their own personal experience. In the fashion scenario, the garment or object has a personality. In the business of fashion, successful professionals will develop respect for their ‘intuitive’ reactions which are, in fact, developed through the understanding of the Zeitgeist, material culture and consumers.

Maglio is planning to invert the process by starting with a familiar, personal object, which will allow students to closely and tangibly interact with the pieces:

I am so pleased with the material culture object analysis assignments based on museum exhibitions, I plan to flip the class.  Material culture methods will be studied at home.  Students will bring personal objects to class. Each group can follow all the steps in the material culture analysis (description, deduction and speculation) with the added benefit of being able to touch the objects. This assignment will require students other than the owner of the object to complete the analysis.

What Maglio’s presentation and responses have underscored is that analyzing and understanding material culture is a learned skill, and that students must be trained to really deeply engage with garments and accessories.  Despite numerous successful fashion exhibitions over the past decade or so and the growing acceptance of these exhibitions as academically and intellectually relevant, there is still the lingering perception amongst the general public–and even within museum/archive institutions outside of their respective costume/fashion departments–that fashion and costume is just “eye candy” and what can be learned from an exhibition or collection of fashion is minimal.  I have also heard from students in various university departments the misperception that engaging with objects on a material level is not “academic” enough, and is only useful for seamstresses, conservation work, or fashion and film fans who want to touch their favorite items–not for “serious” academics. Continuing to emphasize that material culture analysis is a learned research skill is very important, as well as that an initial emotional connection or response can lead to a deeper understanding and investigation of the history and use of the object.


You Should Be Watching: Fashion and Textile Museum Channels

Increasingly, museums are utilizing video – along with other social media, including Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram – as a route to promote exhibitions and engage visitors. The Victoria and Albert museum recently set a new standard with David Bowie Is, a film documenting the exhibition of the same name that was screened in theaters worldwide in November. A number of fashion and textile museums produce video content for the web. Some, like the V&A or ModeMuseum in Antwerp, have established channels on YouTube and Vimeo, while others publish one-offs that promote collections or document behind-the-scenes work, like conservation and mounting. Four recent museum videos highlighting fashion or textile content are shared here. If there’s a recent exhibition you were unable to visit or a video installation you’d like to watch again, check out the list of museum video channels below. Is there a museum we missed? We’d love for you to share links to other channels in the comments.

Behind the Scenes: Hanging the Tapestries in Grand Design
Click the thumbnail below to watch the full video on the Met’s exhibition blog.

Tapestry Thumbnail

This video shows the process of hanging the Gluttony tapestry for the Met’s exhibition Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, on view until January 11. Museum staff hung 19 tapestries in total, each measuring 12 to 30 feet in length and weighing around 100 pounds. The installation process, documented on the exhibition blog, took 2 weeks to complete.

The Power of Fashion: Getting Dressed

This video was filmed for the exhibition The Power of Fashion at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm. At over thirty minutes, it’s long by Internet video standards, and silent, yet riveting for those interested in historic fashion. It depicts a man and a woman getting dressed in eighteenth-century clothing, the woman dressing twice in accordance with differing social classes, from chemise to cap.

MOMU3 X BULO by Frederik Heyman and Wout Bosschaert

MoMu Antwerp collaborated with fashion photographer Frederik Heyman and graphic artist Wout Bosschaert, utilizing 3D scans of garments in the museum’s collection to give new perspective and “digital life” to the objects.

Work in Process: Machine Knitting

The RISD Museum captures the process for creating stripes on a mid-twentieth century Brother knitting machine. RISD has several of these vintage machines available in the Textiles Department for student use.

Are you a conservator, a curator, a student of fashion? Support your favorite museums by watching and subscribing to the channels listed below.

Kent State University Museum on YouTube
Metropolitan Museum of Art on YouTube
ModeMuseum Antwerp on Vimeo
Museum of Fine Arts Boston on YouTube
Nordic Museum on YouTube
RISD Museum on YouTube
Textile Museum of Canada on YouTube
The Museum at FIT on YouTube
Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo
Victoria and Albert Museum on YouTube
Weald and Downland Museum on YouTube


CFP: The Creation, Collection & Care of Textiles & Dress in Museums & Historic Houses

June 11, 2015

University of Wolverhampton, UK.

CHORD (The Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution) invites submissions for a workshop that explores the role of individuals and organisations, both amateurs and professionals, in making, collecting and caring for dress and textiles in museums and historic houses. Papers focusing on any historical period or geographical area are welcome. Museum professionals, conservators, students, academics or anybody with an interest in the topic are warmly invited to submit a proposal. We welcome both experienced and new speakers, including speakers without an institutional affiliation. Potential speakers are welcome to discuss their ideas with the organisers before submission (please see details below). Some of the themes that  might be considered include (but are not limited to):

  • Collecting and the collector
  • Class, gender and/or ethnicity and the care of historic dress or textiles
  • The roles of professionals and amateurs in museums and historic houses
  • The history of museum curatorship and conservation in dress and textiles
  • Professional organisations, charities and philanthropy
  • Amateur production, conservation, repairs and care of historic textiles or dress

The workshop will be held at the University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton City Campus.

To submit a proposal, please send title and abstract of c.300 to 400 words to Laura Ugolini, at l.ugolini@wlv.ac.uk by March 6, 2015. Individual papers are usually 20 minutes in length, followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion. We also welcome shorter, 10 minute presentations, which might focus on a specific collection, new project or work in progress. If you are unsure whether to submit a proposal, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at l.ugolini@wlv.ac.uk to discuss your ideas.

Small bursaries will be available for speakers to subsidise the cost of travel (within the UK) and the workshop fee.

For further information, please e-mail: Laura Ugolini at l.ugolini@wlv.ac.uk or Margaret Ponsonby at m.ponsonby@wlv.ac.uk


Book Giveaway 1 – Shakespeare



Shire Books generously provided us with some titles to give to our readers during this month.

In this post we’re giving away:

Fashion in the time of William Shakespeare by Sarah Jane Downing.

The first reader to email me with the correct answer to the following trivia question about Worn Through question can have this book!

Here is the question. The answer can be found reading previous blog posts.
At what museum will you currently find the exhibition Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting?’

Thanx for playing! Look for more book giveaways soon.

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Fashion-Focused Digital Resources: British Pathé

In this new column for Worn Through, Interns Jaclyn and Michelle will explore the new and emerging field of digital resources and their potential for primary research in fashion. The first resource we would like to feature is the British Pathé Online Archive.

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With origins in Paris in the late nineteenth century, where founder Charles Pathé pioneered early developments in film, Pathé Studios was established in London in 1902. By the end of the First World War, they were producing both newsreels and cinemagazines shown in cinemas – including Eve’s Film Review (1921-1933), a weekly film series for women, and the Pathetone Weekly (1930-1941), dedicated to featuring ‘the novel, the amusing and the strange.’ Pathé Studios stopped producing their cinema newsreels in 1970, leaving behind an archive of 3,500 hours of filmed history.

Over 90,000 video clips are available to preview through their website or Youtube channel, with a sub-channel devoted entirely to Vintage Fashions. The website is searchable by keyword and date, along with more advanced search options including group, category, sound, color and whether the film is licensable. By creating a free account, users can add clips to a favorites list or create separate ‘workspaces’ if researching several topics at once. You can also follow the workspaces of other users whose research interests match your own.

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Although British Pathé likes to celebrate and promote its footage depicting major historical events or celebrities, some of the most interesting clips are of everyday people. Often featuring anonymous subjects, these short newsreels can provide insight into the clothing choices of average people at a given moment in time. Based on my own research interests in early 20th century sportswear, I did a quick search using the terms ‘women’ and ‘sport’ between 1920 and 1940. The resulting list revealed clips of both celebrities such as tennis stars Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills, as well as anonymous everyday women running cross country, playing cricket and rowing, among others. Although many of the clips were of British women, my search also returned results from France, Italy, Sweden and Canada.

I found the best strategy was to use British Pathé’s website to conduct an initial search for films using keywords and dates, taking note of the titles of films I was interested in to then search for on YouTube. The quality of the YouTube videos seems to be a bit higher and they have no watermarks, making it easier to take screenshots or embed them into a presentation or website. Narrowing my search to women playing tennis, I was able to find several excellent clips with both close-up and action shots of women in the popular white tennis dresses of the 1920s and 1930s.

Using video footage as a source for fashion research projects can provide a much-needed link between surviving objects, visual records and written descriptions. Films can allow us to observe how a historical garment looked and moved on a body or how its wearer would have chosen to style it, bringing life and motion to a dress laying flat in an archive or an idealized and static fashion plate.

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Off-white silk tennis dress, unattributed (likely Jean Patou), c. 1924-1928. Fashion Museum, Bath (author’s own photograph, left). Lucien Lelong, ‘Good Shot’ fashion illustration, c. 1926-1928. Palais Galliera, Paris (right). 

Further Reading:

Many of the readings on fashion and film seem to focus on the analysis of costumes in feature-length films, as opposed to newsreels, clips or amateur filmmaking. I welcome any suggestions for additions to this list in the comments below.

Jobling, Paul. ‘Border Crossings: Fashion in Film/Fashion and Film.’ The Handbook of Fashion Studies. Bloomsbury, 2014. 164-180.

‘Screen Search Fashion.’ Screen Archives South East. http://about.brighton.ac.uk/screenarchive/fashion/index.html.

Warner, Helen. ‘Tracing Patterns: Critical Approaches to On-Screen Fashion.’ Film, Fashion & Consumption, 1(1), 121-132.

Image Credits: http://www.britishpathe.com (for screenshots of website), http://www.culturebox.francetvinfo.fr (for Lucien Lelong illustration)


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.


CFP: COLOR/FORMS, Parsons and Cooper Hewitt Grad Symposium

The Twenty-Fourth Annual Parsons/Cooper Hewitt Graduate Student Symposium on the History of Design

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City

Proposals due January 26, 2015
Symposium held April 23 and 24, 2015

This symposium is seeking papers on the forms color takes and the roles color plays in the meanings of design and the decorative arts since the Renaissance. We are especially interested in research that touches on moments of change: for example, on transitions from monochrome to full-color production, or when particular colors became available, fashionable or unfashionable.

Coloration is intrinsic to the social meanings of objects. Colors shape our interaction with things and other people in fundamental ways; they can appeal to our most visceral senses of pleasure or desire. Colors affect behaviors, and we use colors metaphorically to describe attitudes, feelings and moods. In the world of consumer goods, the need to produce certain colors has driven innovations in mechanical processes, and markets can rise and fall based on color trends.

Areas of investigation might involve:

  • Graphic design and broadcast media–e.g. color printing in lithographs, newspapers and magazines; day-glo color inks and psychedelic design; Technicolor and other cinematic color systems; the advent of color television; etc.
  • Fashion and costume studies–e.g. color, or lack thereof, in menswear; aniline dyes and other technologies of coloration; color forecasting; etc.
  • Industrial design–e.g. colored plastics; anodized aluminum; the color of high technology (silver, black, white, beige) or domestic appliances; color theory and consumer choice; color-customizable products; colors in toys; etc.
  • Decorative arts–e.g. hand-painted and printed colors ceramics; tapestry, color-changing fabrics and other textiles; polychromy in sculpture; etc.
  • Architecture and interior design–e.g. colored exterior lighting; psychologies of colored interiors; wallpapers; “white cities” and exhibition architecture; etc.
  • …or any number of related fields of production and consumption.

Proposals are welcome from graduate students at any level in fields such as History of the Decorative Arts, History of Design, Curatorial Studies, Design Studies, Art History, History of Architecture, Design and Technology, Media Studies, Consumer Studies, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and other fields.

The symposium’s Catherine Hoover Voorsanger Keynote speaker will be Jeffrey L. Meikle, Stiles Professor in American Studies and Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin, speaking on “Postcard Modernism: Landscapes, Cityscapes, and American Visual Culture, 1931-1950.” Dr. Meikle is one of the leading voices in design history and cultural history. His renown scholarship extends to industrial design and technology, popular print media, and alternative cultures from 1950 to the present. His books include Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939 (1982); American Plastic: A Cultural History (1995); and Design in the USA (2005).

The Keynote will be on Thursday evening, April 23, 2015 and the symposium sessions will be in the morning and afternoon on Friday, April 24.

To submit a proposal, send a two-page abstract, one-page bibliography and a c.v. to:

Ethan Robey
Associate Director, MA Program in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies

Deadline for proposals: January 26, 2015

The symposium is sponsored by the MA Program in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies offered jointly by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Parsons The New School for Design.


You Should Be Reading: Fashion Gets ‘Normal’

New Normal composite

This week’s You Should Be Reading marks a slight departure for the column, as Worn Through turns to a contemporary trend in fashion. The three articles, all chosen from online newspaper and magazine sources rather than academic journals, examine the trend of ‘normal’ dressing, or ‘normcore.’ First identified by trend forecaster K-Hole and now seen everywhere from international fashion weeks to the Gap’s ‘Dress Normal’ campaign, normcore is no longer just a hipster trend for adopting 90s era denim, Patagonia fleece and baseball caps. The following articles provide background on the trend of ‘normal’ dressing and attempt to identify its sources and explain the cause of its sudden appearance.

1. Cartner-Morley, Jess. ‘The Death of the Show-off: How London Fashion Week Embraced the New Normal.’ The Guardian. 16 September 2014.

While fashion weeks used to be ‘riots of excess’, The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley observed a distinct change in not only the fashion on display, but the overall mood of this fall’s London Fashion Week. Gone were the ‘peacocks’ of seasons past stomping down the runways in six-inch heels, replaced by relatively modest looks in flat sandals and sneakers. Buzzwords surrounding the collections and their designers’ inspirations included ‘easy,’ ‘fresh’ and ‘effortless.’ This new understatement is interpreted as a reaction to the over-exposure of many of today’s fashion icons through the internet and social media platforms. Concluding that the changes observed were refreshing, Cartney-Morley still can’t help but feel that something was missing from the catwalks this season, suggesting the ‘peacocks’ of fashion may return before long.

2. Duncan, Fiona. ‘Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.’ New York Magazine. 26 February 2014.

Fiona Duncan describes the growth of normcore as a trend that began slowly on the Instagram and Tumblr accounts of internet ‘It-kids’ as they ‘embraced sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool.’ However, the adoption of normcore styles can also be seen as an expression of anti-fashion sentiment. Duncan spoke to Jeremy Lewis, founder of Garmento and freelance stylist/writer, who stated that his normcore style represents an anti-fashion philosophy that ‘is about absolving oneself from fashion,’ taking clothing cues from Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. The author also points to the ubiquity of fashion on the internet, observing that ‘the cycles of fashion are so fast and so vast, it’s impossible to stay current; in fact, there is no one current.’ Normcore is ultimately explained as not being about fashion, but about ‘welcoming the possibility of being recognizable, of looking like other people—and “seeing that as an opportunity for connection, instead of as evidence that your identity has dissolved.”

3. Stoppard, Lou. ‘Just Do It! How Sportswear Innovation Has Created Fashion Staples.’ i-D. 29 October 2014.

Lou Stoppard, editor at SHOWstudio, explores the influence of sportswear on fashion in this article for i-D magazine. As sportswear brands are often the early adopters of fashion tech, designers are looking to Nike, Adidas and others for innovation and inspiration. Designer collaborations are now commonplace in sportswear, pioneered by Adidas and Stella McCartney and seen more recently by British sportswear brand Sweaty Betty and Richard Nicholl at London Fashion Week. Stoppard concludes that the origins of the ‘normcore’ trend may lie in fashion’s current fascination with sportswear and its dedication to function and performance, allowing women to move and live in their clothing.

Image Credit: The Guardian

What did you think of this week’s column? Would you like to see more suggested readings from outside the academic sphere? Please let us know in the comments below.

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