Occupational dress: what to wear to work?

In The Social Psychology of Clothes (1996), Susan B. Kaiser frames occupational dress within a discussion about uniforms and various organisations related to work.  Kaiser suggests that our expectations of how someone should dress within an organization are based not just on their role but also on the type of organization they belong to.  In an organisation involving many people, where it is impossible to interact with everyone, uniforms help to discern roles and responsibilities quickly.

This year, I spent two months in hospital undergoing treatment for a serious heart infection.  It was my first experience of full-time medical care offered by our national health service (NHS).  According to the NHS website, it employs more than 1.6 million people, which puts it in the top five largest work organisations in the world. Others on that list include McDonalds, the Chinese Liberation Army and the US Department of Defence.

A range of NHS England uniforms at a teaching hospital in Leeds

As a patient in an NHS hospital, the first thing you notice is the number of people involved in your day to day care.  On a daily basis, I encountered nurses, student nurses, healthcare assistants, phlebotomists , consultants, registrars, pharmacists, student doctors, microbiologists, domestic staff, administrative staff, volunteers and clergy.  I was able to identify the majority of these roles by dress association or, in other words, their specific uniform.  While nurses wore blue and white uniforms, healthcare assistants wore pink and white.  Domestic staff wore a bluey-purple colour. Senior nurses wore navy blue while a newly qualified nurse wore white.

The multitude of uniforms that passed by my bay each day certainly emphasised the bureaucracy of a large organisation like the NHS, where hierarchy, order and impersonality tend to govern the daily interactions of those within.  However, without the uniforms, it would have been impossible for me to tell who and why someone might be by my bedside at any particular moment.

A NHS junior doctor dressed for work

Even doctors, who are no longer obliged to wear a white lab coat and can wear their own clothes, adopted some degree of uniformed formality that distinguished them from patients or visitors.  Kaiser (1996:290) suggests that in a service organisation, which mainly subsidized by taxes and where the aim is to benefit clients, occupational dress avoids demonstrations of prosperity.  For the NHS doctors I observed, this tended to be in the form of shirts, trousers and skirts in muted colours or just plain black.  Their clothing rarely seemed to draw attention to itself, favouring an austere or conservative approach.

I wanted to share these observations on occupational dress because I am about to write a short literature review on the topic for an upcoming paper. I would be very grateful if you could recommend any key texts or research, in particular on occupational dress within social and educational organisations.  Please post them below in the comments section.


CFP: Posing the Body: Stillness, Movement, and Representation

Friday 6 May 2016, Regent Street Cinema, University of Westminster, London

Saturday 7 May 2016, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, London


Posing has been central to art, dance, and sculpture for thousands of years. In recent years, the growing interest in fashion media and modelling has also focused attention on questions of pose and posing. Incorporating notions of movement and stillness, posing can be understood in terms of historical modes of representation, as well as contemporary media and rapidly evolving relationships between bodies, subjects, and technologies of representation. Posing incorporates symbolic and semiotic meaning alongside embodied action and feeling. Recent coverage of the work of choreographer Stephen Galloway in 032c magazine, and new publications such as Steven Sebring’s Study of Pose: 1000 Poses by Coco Rocha testify to the growing interest in the cultural significance of posing and the pose – yet both remain under-researched areas with little discussion of their significance.

This symposium will assert the importance of pose as both a creative practice and an emerging area of critical inquiry. It will bring together multi-disciplinary academics and practitioners to discuss and develop new ways of understanding pose and posing in a historical and contemporary context. We encourage proposals for papers that address pose from global and diverse perspectives. This event represents a potentially fruitful and exciting moment to bring these strands together to the benefit of researchers within practice and theory-based media, historians of dress, photography, art and film and allied disciplines.

Possible themes include (but are not limited to):

Modelling (fashion and artistic)

Gesture Dance (popular and classical)

Pose and the everyday

Movement and stillness

Posing, corporeality and the body

Posing and social media (Blogs, Instagram, etc.)

Submission process: Please submit abstracts of 150-200 words in English, along with a short biography of approximately 100 words to Posingthebody@gmail.com by 2 October 2015.

Organised by Rebecca Arnold, Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, The Courtauld Institute of Art; Katherine Faulkner, Study Skills and Widening Participation Academic Coordinator, The Courtauld Institute of Art; Katerina Pantelides, Visiting Lecturer, The Courtauld Institute of Art and Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography, University of Westminster.


On Teaching Fashion: Can Fashion Students Sew?

Continuing on the theme of fashion and dressmaking education today and in the last 100 years, I am interested to consider why have education curriculums changed so significantly in the past decade- when dressmaking, needlework and sewing skills were very prominent. I recently looked at the work completed by my Grandmother in her education in the late 1930’s- a series of beautiful samples of finishes and seams, all neatly pressed, labeled and with perfect precision.



I am fascinated by these samples, with the millimetre care and attention to perfecting this technique. Learning these high-end sewing skills are the basis of a career, knowledge and opportunity for a future in garment construction. Do fashion courses teach to this level of detail today? Are we losing the knowledge in education of how to develop a pattern and create a garment? Or is it a matter of lack of learning the basics first?

What core sewing and construction skills of garments are covered on the courses you teach? Do you think Fashion Design students should have a strong grounding in sewing and construction? I remember at University and being told you should as a designer, have an understanding and ability to make your ideas- otherwise how do you know if they are going to work? I think this is very true, and an ethos I pass onto my current students.

Sewing, in my opinion, is a life skill, and it should have a presence in the national curriculum which sadly is not so prominent any more. Sewing can be a career, a specialism within the fashion industry, and we should be upskilling individuals to be able to produce detailed sewn items. Such as when Mary Portas began the Kinky Knickers factory in 2012- upskilling out of work individuals and allowing them access to a career!  Recently I attended the Disseminating Dress conference, where there was a paper about ‘Educational Needlecraft’ by Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth, published 1911. This book opens with:

‘This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even higher education.’ (McMillan. M. Preface, P1)

Educational Needlecraft then maps out a creative curriculum, split by age, lesson and topic. It covers a wide arrangement of needlecraft such as darning, hemming and seaming in great detail for ages 6-24yrs old. I am interested to read how this book is set out, and curriculum developed. The preface discusses the creative development of the student when young, needing colours and adventure, and then more precision when older. Also a social responsibility is discussed in reference to changing fashions and children wearing hand down worn out clothes. This preface references how 12-year old girls would have the abilities to cloth themselves and others. Today many of my teenage students would not be able to create garments for themselves, let alone when they were 12. The detail in this book, first published in 1911, mirrors the detail I see in the folder my grandmother collated samples and careful notes she made of the lessons she attended.

Why do you think this was this an important life skill in the 1900’s, but does not appear in main stream education today? Should we blame fast fashion? I would love to hear your opinion upon the importance of sewing in society today. I am very interested to hear how in different countries, the skill of sewing may be delivered differently or have more of a social importance. Many countries around the world produce most of the clothes we wear today, I am interested in how these countries teach individuals to have access to these careers.


Swanson, M, Macbeth A. Preface by M. Macmillan (1911) Educational Needlecraft. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

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Domestic Affairs: Fall Forecast


It’s midsummer and the heat is just building in California, but as well as “last chance to see” emails I’m already getting announcements for the upcoming fall and winter exhibitions. But first, I’m happy to share with you some exhibition announcements and tips that other Worn Through readers have shared with me since my last post.

I heard from Laura, in Mexico, who told me about not only about the wonderful National History Museum (in Mexico City) but also about their current dress exhibition, Threads of History: Apparel Collection of the National Museum of History (Hilos de Historia: La colección de indumentaria del MNH). The English-language link tells me this exhibition is designed to showcase the museum’s apparel collection which was started 114 years ago by a donation of “four splendid vice-royal dresses by Isabel Pesado de Mier.” Featuring 180 pieces by such couturiers as Frederick Worth, Coco Chanel, and Queen Victoria’s personal shoemaker, as well as pieces important to Mexican culture and history, or that highlight how fashions of the 1960s and other eras were worn and interpreted in Mexico. Check out the website for exhibition preview images and more information, or if you will be in Mexico City, the exhibition will be open until July 31, 2015!

In Chicago, Petra reminded me that Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile at the Chicago History Museum is entering its final weeks! This exhibition features 26 ensembles from the museum’s collection that explore and represent the evolution of ” North Michigan Avenue into one of the most recognizable and renowned destinations for upscale retail.” I talked about this exhibition  in November, but it will be closing August 16, so if you can, go now (then tell me all about it so I can live vicariously through you)!

As for those I’ve found on my own, on the east coast, the Library Company of Philadelphia‘s Fashioning Philadelphia: The Style of the City, 1720 – 1940 opens next week. However, there is a special opening reception and preview tomorrow, July 16, 2015. The exhibition itself opens on July 20 and will be on display until March 4, 2016. This exhibition explores the history of fashion and manufacturing in America’s first truly cosmopolitan city.

In New York city, the Museum at FIT‘s Global Fashion Capitals is still on display, and will be until November 14. However, if you’re looking to the autumnal exhibitions, Fashioning Underground: The World of Suzanne Bartsch will up September 18 – December 5, overlapping with Denim: Fashion’s Frontier opening November 24.

At the Met, with China: Through the Looking Glass closing in September, they are already preparing for their fall exhibition, Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style which will open November 19.

At the Phoenix Art Museum, their exhibition, Pattern Play: The Contemporary Designs of Jacqueline Groag will be closing August 9. This means that if you want to see the beautiful work of this wonderfully playful designer, you’d better plan to head their soon.

Here in California we have several new exhibitions to look forward to. At the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, there are two exhibitions opening July 21 at the main campus downtown: The 9th Annual Art of Outstanding Television Costume Design which will be up until September, and Fleurs: Botanicals in Dress From the Helen Larson Historical Fashion Collection which will be on display until December. At their Orange County campus, opening August 24, Hooped: Dress of the 1860s, another Helen Larson Historical Fashion Collection exhibition will be on view by appointment.

Also in Los Angeles, at the Getty Museum a wonderful exhibition combining dress and art history will be opening on October 6: Art of the Fold: Drawings of Drapery and Costume will feature drawings from the museum’s permanent collection that explore “how artists regularly employed drapery studies as part of the representation of the human figure.” I very much hope that I can make my way down to Los Angeles soon for these exhibitions, and LACMA’s African Textiles and Adornment, which I mentioned in my last column. So while this summer has been a bit bereft of exhibition reviews, I am very much hoping this coming fall and winter will be full of them!

Last, but for me most definitely not least, I am very, very excited for the upcoming Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali’i which will open at the de Young Museum on August 29. Hawaiian art, history, and culture are a private passion of mine (something about not writing academically about something in your field makes it feel almost like a mental vacation), so I am very excited to see “approximately 75 rare and stunning examples of the finest featherwork capes and cloaks in existence, as well as royal staffs of feathers (kāhili), feather lei (lei hulu manu), helmets (mahiole), feathered god images (akua hulu manu), and related eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and works on paper…” many of which have never been seen outside of Hawai’i. Expect a review here in early September. I may go see this one several times before it closes on February 28, 2016.

There are so many wonderful museums and collections in North America, I cannot possibly find all the exhibitions and events available within the dress and textile arts. If you have one in your area, or know of one that you think would be of interest to Worn Through readers, please leave a comment below, or feel free to email me the details. Also, if you have been to any of the exhibitions mentioned, please be free to share your thoughts and impressions with us as well!

Opening image credit: Mahiole (feathered helmet), possibly late 18th – early 19th century. Yellow mamo (Drepanis pacifica) feathers, red ‘i’iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) feathers, black and yellow ‘ō’ō (Moho nobilis) feathers, ‘ie’ie (Freycinetia arborea) aerial roots, and olonā (Touchardia latifolia) fiber. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology collection. Image via FAMSF exhibition preview.


Museum Life: On the Road

Museum Life is on the road this month and thought I would share with you a few of my museum-related meanderings throughout Western Germany and Eastern France, some of which are generally off the usual, big-city museum destination path for tourists in these two countries.

First is a wonderful and imaginatively displayed archeological collection in Freiburg, housed in a mid-19th century Gothic revival mansion, the Colombischlössle Archeological Museum.


Although all museum labels and brochure guides were in German and therefore largely unknowable to me (unfortunately my knowledge of the German language is limited to a few salutations and food items), the clear and concise layout and display of items made the overall narrative easy to follow for a non-speaker/reader.

Included in the artifacts that help to tell the stories of the life and times of ancient and medieval peoples of the area now known as Freiburg are textiles and other items of adornment and grooming. Throughout the museum, various pieces were mounted on simplified illustrations or silhouettes of human bodies, depending upon the context, making the placement and use of the fragment or complete object immediately evident.


In addition to display in the vitrines, reproductions of objects were often available for visitors to touch or handle (such as chain mail, seen below).


When a garment was not extant, the sense of touch was again utilized to evoke a sense of the garments and what they may have felt like worn against the skin.


Ancient belts “completed” with acrylic mounts.


One of the most interesting objects (my apologies for the somewhat blurry photo) is a reproduction of a prop arrow, used in theatrical productions to simulate an arrow piercing the body, worn with the band encircling the side of the torso turned away from the audience.


In Strasbourg, one of the most arresting paintings at the Musée des Beaux Arts at the Palais Rohan was La Belle Strasbourgeoise (1703) by prolific portrait painter Nicolas de Largillière. The undeniable focal point of the portrait is the young woman’s extraordinary headgear. Although the accompanying label states that the sitter is wearing dress typical for aristocratic young women in the city between 1688 and 1730, it also notes the peculiarity of this particular hat. A brief biography of de Largillière notes that he was the son of a hat merchant; one cannot help but wonder if he was attracted to paint the portrait as it appears not only due to the station and beauty of the sitter but also because of the attraction to her fantastical headgear.


The masterful detailed rendering of the delicate lace sleeves is quite extraordinary:


Looking at this dramatic hat, I couldn’t help but recall the shape of Christian Dior’s classic sloped brim hat from the New Look collection, on a more modest scale, of course (seen here on the far right at the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2013 exhibition, Dior and Yamamoto: The New Look).


Finally, the city of Nancy is a treasure trove of Art Nouveau architecture and art, as practiced by the artists of L’École de Nancy. One place I was very eager to visit was the Musée de l’École de Nancy, which is the former residence of École de Nancy patron and collector, Jean-Baptiste Eugène Corbin. Like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, this group of Art Nouveau practitioners in Nancy believed in creating a complete environment and dissolving the hierarchies between fine arts and decorative art, and learning the skills and production of different media from furniture to glassware to ceramics to textiles. Art Nouveau style was all curves and highly dramatic, sinuous sensuality—very few if any straight lines to be seen here–inspired directly from the flora and fauna of the natural world. Visitors are free to wander the rooms of the first two stories, with some seeming to remain largely unchanged from the time of installation, while others were most likely reconfigured at a later date.

Salle à manger Musée de l’École de Nancy

Salle à manger
Musée de l’École de Nancy

Textile-based pieces were integral to the vision of this group of artists, and there were several on view at the Musée de l’École de Nancy, including two impressive wall hangings.

Les Ombelles, by Charles Fridrich, ca. 1900, velour and leather appliqué

Les Ombelles, by Charles Fridrich, ca. 1900, velour and leather appliqué

La Nymphe, attributed to Louis Guingot

La Nymphe, attributed to Louis Guingot

A standing embroidery frame (ca. 1902) was designed by Emile André, which held an embroidery of leaves created by his wife (there was no full name on the label, only “Mme André” referenced) after a design found in Die Quelle.


Gorgeous embroidered textiles incorporated into furniture upholstery were, in my opinion, most beautifully realized in the Salon aux Ombelles (1901) by Camille Gauthier and Auguste Poinsignon, with a chair, winged bench, and a settee displaying the theme (les ombelles, or umbels, were a recurring motif throughout the house).



Inspiration was close at hand with the lovely two-tiered gardens outside, completely restored in 1998.


Overall, this museum was an immersive and highly enjoyable experience.

All photos provided by the author.


CFP: The Art of Disguise

Costume Society of America Southeastern Region 2015 Annual Meeting and Symposium
Old Salem Visitor Center (Winston-Salem, NC)

Call for Papers: The Art of Disgusie

Proposals due: August 1, 2015

CSA’s Southeastern Region invites research focusing on disguise – its history, its use in both entertainment and serious applications, and its world-wide use in celebrations. Abstracts are to be no longer than 350 words. Please include a separate cover page listing title, author, address, phone number, and email address. Submit all abstracts for paper presentations and research exhibits to Nancy Hodges.


Final call for Interns 2015-16

We will be seeking two new interns for the 2015-16 academic year.

There is no pay, however, we can help you get college credit if needed and of course it’s great networking and experience. We need help with CFPs, some column research, a bit of behind the scenes blog details, and running our book giveaways (among other projects as they emerge). Also you’re instrumental in our social networking such as running Twitter.

Interns in the past have done an array of research and writing projects.

The work can be done spread out over time or in chunks as your time allows. It’s all remote. Preferable candidates are current college or graduate students or recent graduates in apparel studies with a focus on academia or museums or closely related.

Email Monica with your CV and a brief cover letter. Ideal due date July 15 however open until filled.


You Should Be Reading (and Watching): Fashion, Masculinity and the Dandy

I must apologize for last week’s absence of a You Should Be Watching column, as I found myself without internet access and unable to contribute a post. In return, this week I offer a super-sized column encompassing both film and text on fashion, masculinity and the well-dressed man. From Beau Brummel to the members of Roxy Music and today’s modern incarnations, the following videos and articles provide an introduction to the iconic persona of the Dandy.

1. Kate Irvin and Laurie Anne Brewer. ‘Fabricating a Dream: The Dandy’s Silhouette.’ The Bard Graduate Center, New York. May 21, 2015.

Drawing from their publication Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion (Yale University Press, 2013), Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer will discuss the sometimes extreme physical transformations evident in the dandy’s silhouette. The fashion practices of this iconic character will be analyzed through caricatures dating to the age of Beau Brummel, the quintessential dandy, and an examination of the artful modification of the male body at the hand of the tailor. In laying bare the secrets of the dandy aesthetic, the authors will present a figure who employed profound imagination in his appearance as he forged a unique path to self-discovery and self-expression. – Full Video Summary

2. ‘A Suitable Wardrobe Visits Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion.‘ Rhode Island School of Design. May 30, 2013.

A short video exploring the Artist/Rebel/Dandy exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design, produced by Andrew Yamato for A Suitable Wardrobe. Artist/Rebel/Dandy documents the enduring, global impact of the dandy—that distinctively dressed figure who has pervaded Western culture for more than two centuries. From Beau Brummell in the late 18th century to the international style-makers of today, this character epitomizes the powerful bond between clothing, identity, and creativity. Garbed with great intention and at least a hint of provocation, the dandy is forward-thinking, conscientious, and thoroughly artistic. – Excerpt from Exhibition Summary

3. ‘Am I Dandy?’ The Doc Challenge. April 14, 2014.

Nathaniel Adams, co-author of the book I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman, discusses the cultural history of dandyism, gives a tour of his personal wardrobe, and examines the way the theatrics of fashion relate to a person’s inner character. – Full Video Summary

4. Robyne Erica Calvert. ‘Manly Modes: Artistic Dress and the Styling of Masculine Identity.’ Visual Culture in Britain (16:2, 2015) 223-242.

From roughly the mid-nineteenth century, Artistic Dress was an alternative sartorial style adopted by both men and women who wished to communicate their identification with artistic practices and philosophies that often ran counter to the status quo. For women, this style was expressed through a less structured look and cut of garment, resulting in a radical departure from the mainstream Victorian silhouette. For men, however, Artistic Dress usually took a subtler form. Looking at specific examples, this article examines the ways in which male artists managed to walk the margins of masculine sartorial conformity by wearing mainstream clothing with styling techniques that suggested hints of ‘artisticness’. – Full Article Abstract

5. Erin Mackie. ‘Libertine Fiction, Forensic Fashion, and the Dandy’s Development in Edward Bulwer’s Pelham. Eighteenth Century Fiction (27:2, 2014).

Edward Bulwer’s Pelham (1828) is best known as a “silver fork” or “fashionable novel” and as the source of the Dandy’s Maxims, which Thomas Carlyle addresses in Sartor Resartus(1833–34; 1836). As such, Bulwer’s novel is understood as a specimen of elitist, formula fiction centred on a vapid, if amusing, dandy hero. Opening with an epigraph from George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), Pelham orients itself through allusion and intertextuality to the satiric libertine past of the Restoration and eighteenth century even as it develops, through the established Regency form of silver fork fiction, the emerging forms of the Bildungsroman and the detective story. Approaching Pelham as a “libertine fiction,” we acknowledge its relation to the eighteenth century and develop a fuller appreciation of its generic identity. Pelham’s licentiousness, its freedom from rules, defines what is most novelistic in this truly experimental fiction. – Full Article Abstract

6. Jon Hackett. ‘Art, Artifice and Androgyny: Roxy Music’s Dandy Modernsim.’ Clothing Cultures (2:2, 2015) 167-178.

This article considers glam rock’s rejection of the humdrum, spontaneity and the ‘natural’, and its embrace of costuming, camp and artificiality. With particular reference to Roxy Music, it will examine the band’s iconography, fashion and contexts during glam’s golden years – 1972 to 1974 – as well as the implications of glam style for gender and sexuality in popular music. Though some of glam’s exponents were undoubtedly much more traditional in their performance of gender identities, we can read bands like Roxy Music, within certain limits, as ‘queering’ their more meat-and-potatoes predecessors and providing an important source of identification for later pop music gender and style dissidents. The fashion and music scenes in which Roxy Music emerged are inseparable from the milieux of experimentation and innovation associated with British art and fashion schools in the 1960s onwards. To this extent, the band exemplifies the vital pathway of art school students into popular music outlined by Simon Frith and Howard Horne in Art into Pop. Through Keir Keightley’s conception of romantic and modernist authenticity in popular music and Joanne Entwhistle’s genealogy of the romantic and the dandy in fashion, we will explore how glam traces a line from the dandy via New Edwardian fashion, in which questions of gender and artifice are in a process of perpetual renegotiation. – Full Article Abstract


Fashion-Focused Digital Resources: North American Women’s Letters and Diaries

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I find myself returning North American Women’s Letters and Diaries (NAWLD) repeatedly when seeking firsthand observations and descriptions of historic dress. The database is only available to educational institutions, but many libraries provide access to it as part of a package with other Alexander Street Press databases, and free trials are available to librarians and faculty members. The vendor describes it as “the largest electronic collection of women’s diaries and correspondence ever assembled. Spanning more than 300 years, it presents the personal experiences of hundreds of women . . . the writings provide a detailed record of what women wore, what they ate, what they read, the conditions under which they worked, and how they amused themselves.”

Users can browse or search by a wide rage of fields specific to the content, such as Age When Writing, Where Written, When Written, Historical Events mentioned, etc.

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The scope of coverage is 1675 to 1950, and simple keyword searches reveal the frequency with which women recorded information about the clothes they wore and their activities relating to sewing and craft. Over 5,000 documents mention “dress,” and over 2,000 provide accounts of needlework. When attempting to determine the origin of the “tea gown,” I found a range of diaries and letters providing context to the term and, in some case, describing fabric, cut, and trimming. In 1892, 29 year-old Josephine Peary hosted guests for an evening at her home. “At 9 P. M. I dressed myself in a black silk tea-gown with canary silk front, covered and trimmed with black lace, cut square in the neck and filled in with lace, and having lace sleeves,” she wrote. “[My guests] all looked especially nice and very much civilized, most of them actually sending in their cards. They were all dressed in ‘store clothes,’ although one or two clung to their kamiks.”

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If you find one diary that interests you in particular, I recommend reviewing the database’s source information for that diary entry or letter, and tracking down physical copies. In some cases, the documents in NAWLD are samples of a larger collection of personal papers housed at libraries or archives. And finally, since transcriptions are no substitute for seeing handwritten words on yellowed paper (and getting used to reading cursive again), make sure to check out scanned documents in the showcase.

You can learn more about North American Women’s Letters and Diaries via Alexander Street Press. This vendor also offers a Social and Cultural History package which includes Black Thought and Culture, British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries, American Civil War Letters and Diaries, and more.


Review: Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

I don’t usually do reviews back to back but it was impossible to ignore Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) at the British Library, given that she is a brilliant artist and that this latest artwork involves textiles in a staggering way.  Arguably, this is not specifically about apparel but it is about thread and cloth, materials at the heart of most dress and adornment.

Walking through the British Library in central London, it would be easy to miss Cornelia Parker’s artwork. With its staggered public areas and labyrinth reading rooms, a visitor to the British Library must navigate him/herself through a three dimensional Escher painting. As a result, Parker’s contribution to the British Library’s 800th birthday of the Magna Carta is not instantly accessible. However, finding it is like discovering treasure; overwhelmingly beautiful, dazzlingly ingenious and unbeknown to most others.

A view of the entire 13 metres encased in glass, from the bottom of the Wikipedia entry

I am a huge fan of textiles as an art medium so it was no surprise to find myself drooling over Parker’s huge piece of embroidered panama cotton, almost 13 metres in length and 1.5 metres in width, which is an enlarged facsimile of the Wikipedia entry on the Magna Carta, as it appeared last year on its 799th birthday.  Made up of 87 panels stitched together, the artwork is encased in glass that covers the entire length and includes mirrors below so it is possible to see the back of the textile and the stitches.

A close up of the embroidered text

The embroidery has been done by over 2oo people, whom can be roughly organised into three groups of embroiderersThe first are a small group of inmates involved with the social enterprise Fine Cell Work, which trains them in paid creative needlework, and whom produced most of the text in the artwork.  In addition, Parker invited a range of people connected to the law and civil liberties to contribute certain words. This second group, around 160 people, consists of lawyers, judges, civil rights campaigners, artists and writers for whom embroidery is probably not something they do everyday.

Anthea stitching a small section of the Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

The third and final group was responsible for all the illustrative elements, which include logos, emblems and images that make up the virtual Wikipedia entry.  These were done by embroiderers from the Royal School of Needlework, the embroidery company Hand & Lock and members of the Embroiderers’ Guild.  According to the short video that accompanies the artwork in the exhibition, one of the images took the lady 450 hours to complete.  The quality of these reproductions is breathtaking and it is difficult not to be in awe of all their hands, as well as those of Fine Cell Work that went into creating the bulk of this fascinating artwork.

Another close up of the embroidered image representing the ‘Monarchy’ section

Parker’s idea to reproduce a Wikipedia page with a range of contributors is simultaneously clever and simple.  It takes an everyday virtual object that relies on a community of contributors and recreates it as a three dimensional haptic object, using a similiar mode of production.  As Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian, points out, Wikipedia is arguably a virtual, ever changing product of our time yet in Parker’s work, a small part of it has been made to stand outside of its own timescale, immortalised in the process.

A detail from Elizabeth Wardle’s Bayeau Tapestry replica

In the accompanying text to the exhibit, Parker draws attention to the communal activity of embroidery, particularly in the case of the Bayeux Tapestry, which this artwork definitely draws parallels with.  However, I was also quite struck by how similiar Parker’s idea is to the Victorian reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry on display in Reading.  In 1886, instigated by a successful industrialist’s wife, a group of women embroidered an ‘English’ version of the historical document in just over a yearYet, while their replica was of a medieval artefact, Parker’s replica is of a contemporary artefact whose very nature is both transient and ephemeral.

Jarvis Cocker and Cornelia Parker looking for his contribution of ‘common people’

Viewing the artwork, one activity I found interesting was identifying different contributions.  It is not possible to do this from the exhibit alone.  It has to be done through detective work, cross referencing various sources including text as well as moving and still images.  I only just managed to find Jarvis Cocker’s embroidered ‘common people’ by matching an image of him looking at the installed artwork with Parker with the actual exhibition space.  Reading the reviews, I discovered that drops of blood could help discern a particular contributor and also reminded me that embroidery is not without its risks. This is nicely mirrored in the fact that several contributors to the artwork have risked much to draw our attention to global infringements of civil liberties.

Detail of the Wikipedia logo, which is beautifully rendered in needlework

A recent article in the Journal of Modern Craft raised the question of whether Parker’s artwork could have been printed and still achieved the same outcome. The author suggested that the handstitching drew upon historical connections between needlework and political suffrage.  This is clearly present in the artwork but I also think if it had been printed, the speed of the reproduction would have reduced the overall visual and conceptual impact.  To print out a Wikipedia entry would be too easy and too similiar to the original.  By having it entirely recreated with thread and fabric, the labour of reproduction becomes a vital element that reminds us about the current emphasis on speed of information, production and consumption, arguably at the expense of debate, discussion and democracy.

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is on display at the British Library until Friday 24th July and is free to the public.