Places, like objects and stories, can be passed down through the generations of a family. I have inherited a love of various houses, beaches, islands and cities from my parents, my grandparents and even great-grandparents – but one place in particular … Continue reading
I have been woefully neglectful of this little space over the past year. In the face of the things that keep me busy (PhD, internship, dog, life) and the things that keep me distracted (costume dramas, dog, the terrible things on the news) I have let my non-academic writing fall by the wayside, aside from the occasional guest post for the SGSAH, Centre for Textile Conservation and Pubs & Publications blogs. In attempt to rectify this situation, I thought I would share a little of what this last few months of PhD life has encompassed.
I am at the stage of the PhD where I really should be writing, all day, everyday. Having collected a head (and many notebooks) full of stuff it is time to get this all out on paper. Happily, last month I managed to finish the behemoth museums chapter (17,000 words) that has taken me far to long to wrap up. This forms the second part of my thesis, and addresses the role of dress, and particularly WW1 era dress, in the museum – and questions how museum visitors experience and understand these objects. I do find it hard to focus on writing for very long, and constantly find myself going down the rabbit-hole when I’m supposed to check a simple fact online or on my bookshelf.
Yesterday, I met with a brand new writing group for the very first time. Myself and 3 other Edinburgh based PhDs/ECRs met for a carefully timed writing session in a local cafe. We shared our writing goals, put our phones on aeroplane mode and put our heads down for an hour. After a slightly longer than planned break (for cake) we did another 40 mins. It was such a nice way to work; the change of scene and company was refreshing and the atmosphere was supportive. I managed to get 1000 words down in this first session! We are hoping to make this happen twice a week – and I hope will help me break the back of the thesis. Next week I will be writing about the popularity of blouses during the war.
Torch in Oxford inspired our writing group – an outline of their meetings can be found here.
Conference planning: War Through Other Stuff
This has been such an exciting distraction! With the wonderful Catherine Bateson, Laura Harrison and Roseanne Watt I am co-organising a conference to be held at the University of Edinburgh next February. There is so much to say that I am going to save this for another blog post. The CFP is open for another few days and can be found here.
Research visits are probably my favourite part of my PhD life. As someone who grew up believing that museums were totally magical – it is so exciting to go ‘behind the scenes’ and open up boxes hidden away in storerooms. In the past few months I have been to the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, The Museum of London, the McManus Museum in Dundee, the Courtaulds Archive at the V&A and Platt Hall in Manchester. Each visit has unearthed some total treasures and – i hope – some great stories too. Many of these objects will shape and inform my thesis, and the others help me to build up a clearer picture of WW1 fashion more generally. I am hoping (if time permits) that I will be able to make an appendix of all the objects I’ve found while undertaking this research.
This weekend I am taking a small holiday, and visiting Vienna for the weekend. I am so excited about all the wonderful, Christmassy, cake and beer infused holiday time. Vienna is a very special place for me as my Grandmother (my Oma) was born and grew up there. As a Jewish family they were very lucky to escape in 1937. We are staying a 5 minute walk away from the house they left that year, and I am also going to go and find (for the first time) the site of the factory owned by my Great-Grandfather. A blog post on the trip, and their story, will follow when we get back.
I’m hoping this short catch-up can get me back into the practice of writing here. It is therapeutic, I think, to write quickly with comparatively little editing(!) as a change of pace from thesis writing. As well as the conference and holiday, I plan to write a few updates about my work at the museum, my hunt for a PhD workspace and some recent books and exhibitions that have particularly inspired me. Back soon!
A visit to Bath
As the Bath exhibition takes a numerical theme, here are 10 reasons that I loved the Fashion in 100 Objects exhibition, which – by the way – is on until January 2018, so no excuses not to visit!
1. Collection in Context
The first thing you see when entering the exhibition space is a quote from the museum’s founder, Doris Langley Moore. It was wonderful to see her words throughout the entire exhibition, and for the public to learn about her work both through her own words and information on the exhibition panels. This contextualizes the exhibition and the museum itself, and highlights the significance of the work carried out by earlier pioneers of dress history such as Langley Moore. The museum opened in 1963 when she donated around 5000 items to the city of Bath.
Most of the costume was fairly traditionally mounted on simple headless mannequins, nothing to distract from the items themselves, though some were suitably accessorized with jewellery, scarves, headwear or similar. To accommodate the 100+ objects the cases were very full, but the items were easily viewed and in some cases it was possible to see the side or back of an item, a real treat. What I most loved, however, was the museum’s use of conservation material and boxes to display some items. A collection of gloves, for example, was presented on a pile of grey conservation boxes with the gloves on simple shelves interspersed amongst the boxes. This had the duel benefit of looking incredibly visually appealing, but also reminding the viewer of the behind the scenes work carried out by the museum, and the care given to these precious objects.
3. Audio tour
I can never quite decide how I feel about audio tours, having worried in the past that they prevent natural discussion between museum or historic house visitors, and make everyone look a little zombie-like as they wonder around exhibition spaces. However, I have come round to them lately and the audio tour accompanying this exhibition was brilliant. There was a short narrative to go with each object, they were succinct and offered an extra layer of information not given on the labels. (Which were also brief but engaging and highly informative). The two levels of information worked well together, providing a winning combination of social and cultural history, information on materials and making processes with some more personal stories, and contextual information about donors or a connection to the local area. It was very busy the day I visited, and both adults and children were listening carefully to the audios and discussing them with their friends.
4. Not about designers
This exhibition was refreshingly not focused on designers, celebrities or big names. While designer pieces did feature, and most of the items would be classed as ‘elite’ fashion, the focus was more on the historical significance of the garment and a period of dress that it represented, rather than individual famous makers. It was lovely to see Dior, Jean Muir, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen pieces, but they were not presented as being any more important than the pieces by unknown makers that they were exhibited alongside.
5. Lack of cliches
This was clearly an incredibly well researched exhibition and the information given was well balanced. It was great to see a quote from Doris Langley Moore, for example, busting the myth about tiny waists in the Victorian era. Covering over four decades of dress history is tough and there were one or two comments that could have been expanded upon if the space was available. (I for example was slightly uncomfortable with the comment linking a wide-skirted 1916 suit with the flappers of the 1920s, given that no garments were displayed between 1916 and 1927 to justify this leap). But cliches were firmly avoided, and I think non-dress history specialists will learn a huge amount from a visit to the exhibition.
6. Making, materials and methods
Technical developments were well marked in this exhibition, and the significance of fabrics and making methods within fashion were explained very clearly through the inclusion of relevant objects. This was especially enjoyable in the 19th century area, where the jump from silk to cotton fashions was beautifully illustrated. It was lovely to see Ayrshire Whitework represented by an amazing (and huge!) collar from the 1830s, and elsewhere to see hand/machine embroidery, quilting, lacework, dyeing and other construction methods discussed.
7. Sub-collections, donor stories
A number of sub-collections were exhibited within the displays, such as glove collection mentioned earlier. Others included fans, shoes and jewellery. Displayed on mass, these sub-collections give the opportunity to tell the stories of donors, their interest in the objects, and how they came to be at the museum. All this information contributes to the strength of the exhibition as a whole, again taking a wider view and offering visitors an insight into the history of the museum.
8. Men, women and children
I really liked the fact that men and children’s fashions were displayed alongside the (predominately) women’s styles, adding a little extra context and showing how extravagant men’s fashion has been at certain points in history. This was nicely rounded out by the inclusion the ‘gender neutral’ dress of the year by Craig Green at the end of the exhibition. I only had one major criticism of the exhibition, which was the lack of explanation about the class status associated with the garments. It could be argued that the use of the word ‘fashion’ in the exhibition title excludes a need for this, but I think a mention of the fact that the clothing on show would mostly have been worn by higher classes, and aspired to by others, would have been helpful for some visitors.
9. Beach pyjamas
Very simply, I am in love with the 1929 beach pyjamas that were object number 67. They are beautiful, stylish, exotic and elegant and represent an era of fashion which I have come to love. They also help to tell the story of women and trousers in a non-cliched manner. I would very much like a pair for myself! The 1930s evening gown at number 68 was also fabulous, and I was pleased to see early synthetic silks represented in the exhibition.
10. Behind the scenes
Not strictly a part of this exhibition, but I am such a huge fan of the ‘behind the scenes’ display at Bath Fashion Museum that I wanted to include it also. Fashions currently on display in this area cover the period from Jane Austen to the First World War (I was always going to enjoy this!) and items are simply displayed against the backdrop of the museum’s stored collections. Again, it is so great to see boxes and conservation materials, so usually hidden away it is exciting to see them out on show for the public! I was especially pleased to see the display of 1910s era gowns, contextualized within the changes wrought by the war. A couple of garments included were ones I had the chance to study during a visit to the research rooms in 2014, so it was especially nice to see them mounted and on display!
It has been two months since I last posted on this blog, which is too long! Since May I have been on so many research trips, study visits, conference adventures and explorations that I’ve been really trying not to distract myself for the last few weeks and actually get some writing done. I have been semi-successful, but my New Years Resolution will most definitely be: head down and write!
What I have managed to work on is my museum reviews. One big part of my thesis will be a museums section. I’ll be explaining why the most relevant ‘output’ for my research is the museum world, I’ll explore contemporary museum practice and I’ll be writing a review of some (not all!) of the 30-odd exhibitions I’ve seen over the last year. I thought, as it seems like an appropriate end-of-year-y thing to do, that I’d very quickly outline my favourite exhibitions of the year, in the hope that some of you may be able to see the ones that are still running!
The highlights for me, in terms of (what I see as) good museum practice balanced with my personal enjoyment of the experience, are:
The Fallen Woman – Foundling Museum, London
(Runs until January 3rd 2016)
This exhibition was moving, sensitive, simple and beautiful. But the reason I choose it here is because of the strong narrative that ran throughout the objects, labels and panels. In this small exhibition, every item on display had a clear and defined place within the story being told by curator Lynda Nead, who skillfully avoided repetition. I particularly loved the sound installation by musician and composer Steve Lewinson. The installation, which layers the whispered and desperate voices of ‘fallen women’ petitioning to have their children taken in by the Foundling Hospital, is more atmospheric than instructive, but it fits perfectly within the exhibition and compliments other objects on display. On the collaboration with Lewinson, Nead explains ‘I began talking to Steve about using the words of the women, as we found them on the petitions and forms, and treating them in a way that would almost feel like the spaces were being haunted by them. That the words would make the walls come alive.’
I left this exhibition feeling that she had achieved this goal – the words in both the sound installation and written on object labels did make the walls come alive – the stories felt real and visceral, an incredible example of sensitive, emotive and engaging object interpretation.
Fashion on the Ration – Imperial War Museum, London
I was always going to enjoy this exhibition. I LOVE the Imperial War Museum, I have a particular interest in Second World War fashion and I am writing a PhD thesis on fashion that is associated with conflict. I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail here, but here are the three things I most enjoyed about this exhibition:
- The display of male and female military uniforms alongside each other. It was such a great and rare opportunity to see the Royal Navy uniform next to the WRENS counterpart, the Army next to the ATS and the Air Force next to the WAAF. And it made the unique nature of the Land Girl uniform (which had no male counterpart) even more obvious. Thank you IWM!
- The inclusion of women’s letters and personal stories. Letters from one particular lady writing to her husband during the war popped up a few times, and it added a really personal narrative to the objects on display. I only wish I could find letters like this from the WW1 period! (She actually talks about dress, hurrah!)
- It was a shame that there were not more patched, mended, darned and threadbare items on display, but aside from this the exhibition included a diverse array of objects and avoided the cliches. It made a clear differentiation between Utility Fashion, rationing and other issues that surround wartime fashion. I only wish I’d been allowed to take photos! (But understand why not, of course)
A Century of Style: Costume and Colour 1800-1899 – Kelvingrove, Glasgow
(Runs until February 14th 2016)
I saw this exhibition this week so it is fresh in my mind. I just want to mention it here for the incredible quality of the objects on display. Each and every object was conserved, mounted and presented to an incredibly high standard, they were flawless – and just highlighted the strength of this amazing collection. I hope it reinforces the fact that high quality costume displays do happen outside of London and that ‘regional’ collections have a huge amount to offer. It was so exciting to see some of this fantastic collection out on display, and we can only hope that Glasgow Life put on more costume exhibitions in the future!
(Also, hooray for the rotating displays! Genius – the best way to view huge 19th century frocks)
Lee Miller & Picasso – National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Lastly, I would like to mention this photography exhibition that I believe may tour in the future. DON’T miss it if it comes your way! I usually enjoy museum (object) exhibitions more than art (or photography – flat things) exhibitions just because that is where my interest lies. This is also to do with the interpretation methods that are appropriate to the two different spheres. However, the curator of this exhibition has done an incredible job in bringing these simple black and white photographs to life. Yes, they were blessed with some pretty strong subject matter – but the depth and warmth in the object labels was seriously impressive. My favourite label serves as a great example of this, it accompanies a photo of the young Anthony Penrose with Picasso at Farely Farmhouse (1950).
‘Miller recalled how Picasso delighted in the hoar frost, in the Constable like views of the South Downs and in whiskey and plum pudding. ‘Very English’, he declared, unaware that Miller had all but run out of food and was raiding her store of tinned Christmas goodies.’
This story takes the viewer out of the white-walled gallery and transports them into another world; we get to see Picasso not as a world famous artist but through the eyes of a family that knew and loved him. It is memorable, though not factual, and contributes to the intimate atmosphere of the exhibition.
Just for the record, here is a boring and slightly jumbled list of the museums & temporary exhibitions I’ve seen over the last year / 18 months:
- V&A Shoes
- V&A Alexander McQueen
- V&A Disobedient Objects
- V&A Wedding Dresses
- Museum of London – Sherlock
- Museum of London – Pleasure Garden
- Jewish Museum – Weddings
- Museum of London Docklands – Christina Broom
- Foundling Museum – Fallen Woman
- Fashion & Textile Museum – knitting
- Design Museum – Women, Fashion, Power
- Museum of Transport – WW1- Goodbye Piccadilly
- Imperial War Museum – Fashion on the Ration
- IWM – WW1 Galleries (new)
- National Portrait Gallery – Grayson Perry
- National Portrait Gallery London – Women in WW1
- Kensington Palace – Fashion Rules
- Tate – Sonia Delauney
- Barbican – Artist as Collector
- National Museum of Scotland – Pringle
- NMS – Victorian Photography
- NMS – Games
- Aberdeen – Lady is a Vamp
- Museum of Edinburgh – Scars on the City
- National Library of Scotland – Behind the Lines
- Killerton House – The F Word
- Winchester Discovery Centre – The Trench Coat
- Overbecks, Salcome (National Trust) – WW1/nursing
- Jane Austen’s House, Chawton
- York Castle Museum – 1914
- Bath Fashion Museum – Georgians, etc.
- Ming: The Golden Empire, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
- Riverside Museum, Glasgow
- Picturing Conflict – Art of the First World War, City Art Centre, Edinburgh
- Lee Miller & Picasso – National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
- Century of Style – Kelvingrove, Glasgow
Here’s to many more museum visits in 2016 – Happy Christmas!
A trip to the South West
On Wednesday I headed off on a research trip down South, a trip that was very kindly funded by my lovely funding school – the SGSAH. The trip had three calling points, research visits to Killerton House and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Devon, and then the Women, Gender & the First World War conference at the University of Portsmouth, which was sponsored by the AHRC and the Gateways to the First World War project. I spent the majority of my trip transported into the lives of WW1 women – whether careful followers of fashion or suffragettes fighting a multitude of causes – and felt quite strange coming back to the real world of emails and diary organisation this morning.
This was my second trip to Killerton House, a beautiful National Trust property just outside Exeter. It is without a doubt the most scenic place I have ever been for work purposes and I had to pinch myself that I was there for *work* and not just for fun! I have been lucky to meet the costume curator at Killerton – Shelley Tobin – a couple of times before, and she was incredibly generous with her time and insight during my visit. The purpose of my trip was to find objects relevant to my research, but it was also really interesting to discuss Great War fashion more generally with Shelley, and to hear about the provenance of certain objects in the collection. I am really interested to find out more about Paulise de Bush – wonderfully named after her mother Pauline and aunt Louise – whose collection forms the heart of the wider Killerton costume collection, and I look forward to reading the article Shelley wrote on the subject for the journal Costume in 1999.
The collection proved incredibly useful (and highly distracting) and I was thrilled to find a number of blouses dated between 1914-1918, and one in particular that will be incredibly useful for my research. The garment strongly resembles the ‘jumper blouses’ advertised regularly in wartime fashion magazines. It sits somewhere between a traditional blouse and an early form of the jumper – made from silk instead of wool but used as a layer over another garment, tied at the waist and with only one central button. Even more excitingly (for me!) the blouse has a sailor style collar – which could suggest a military affiliation – and has a name tape inside, giving a possible avenue for further historical research. It also has a label telling us what it is made from: ‘Japshan’. A little investigation on Shelley’s part informed us that Japshan – and other similarly named products – was made from silk wasted in the making process, and therefore was a lower quality product. To have a name, a date AND a product label is not the usual in my experience of researching WW1 garments to date, so this was a real find and I can’t wait to find out more about it!
RAMM, which I had never visited before, proved equally useful and I had no idea of the extent of their costume collection – I just wish Devon wasn’t quite so far from Edinburgh so that I could visit more regularly! As I walked through the store, flashes of 18th century floral silk dresses and bias-cut 30s frocks tried desperately to distract me, but I tried my hardest to stay focused on my period with limited time available to view a large number of objects. Highlights included a relatively unassuming velvet hat that had been wonderfully decorated with two friendly-looking gold swans, leading me to assume that the wearer – Emily Wilkes – must have had a good sense of humour. Another favourite was a very simple but immaculately tailored Paquin suit which was unfortunately a little early for me, but a pleasure to look at.
But my most exciting find at RAMM was the Pavey collection – a massive collection of clothing and household objects donated by one family in I think the 1970s or 80s. What is most wonderful about this donation are the labels written out by the donor, which not only tell us who wore which garment but sometimes when and where the piece was worn, with associated memories and emotions. (In my world – this is both heaven & a metaphorical goldmine.) Not only does the collection have strong provenance and personal memories – the objects themselves are also incredible – from WW1 underwear, to 1930s women’s sportswear, to WW2 era home knits. As Shelley pointed out – there is a great PhD somewhere in that collection and I am very jealous of the person that does it! It turned out some great pieces for my research, especially some early 20th century synthetic fibres, which was something I was really hoping to find.
It was also a pleasure to see the RAMM volunteers working with the lace collection – something I know embarrassingly little about – and hear about their historical research into lace makers and designers from the local area. I will be using numerous garments found both at RAMM and Killerton in my PhD thesis and hope I will be able to go back and use both collections again in the future!
Women, Gender & the First World War
Every paper I heard at this conference was fascinating, and overall it really helped me to contextualise my subject matter and research methods within the wider study of women in wartime. I was really interested to hear Jennifer Doyle’s paper about the food pages of magazines during wartime, as she was drawing on some of the same sources I am using, and seems to be considering food and it’s role within women’s lives in a similar way to how I am using fashion. (Jennifer is a PhD student at Kings College in London). Krisztina Robert’s paper was another highlight: it was incredibly beneficial to hear about her exploration of the double-helix model as a method to define gender roles in wartime, and how she is working to redefine women’s contribution and status during the Great War. I was actually really pleased with how my paper went – I am not a confident public speaker but I felt relaxed and like I delivered my presentation well, and I got some good questions at the end!
I must have heard 12 or 15 papers over the day, and they were so diverse and specialised that I would hate to over-simplify my reaction to the conference as a whole. However, it was hard not to notice that every single speaker mentioned women’s patriotism as a central theme within their research. In each example – from food and frocks to soldiers and suffragettes – it seems women were either expressing their patriotism, or having their patriotism questioned, and this was how they were perceived and valued during the war. It is a theme I have already been exploring in my own research, and now that I understand further what a pervasive issue it is and was I will consider it with more weight in the future.
Now that I am back I hope to start work on turning my conference paper into a chapter (eek) – and I’m lining up some more research visits a little close to home. But for the time being, I have plenty of thoughts and frocks to mull over. Thanks again to Shelley for her help and to the organisers of the Portsmouth conference for such a thought provoking day!
Packing and unpacking
I’ve started about 4 different blog posts over the last few weeks, which are currently sat in my ‘drafts’ box – a few bitty bullet points and notes to my future self. I have the best intentions of keeping this blog going and I’ve really enjoyed the responses I’ve received to posts so far, it feels like a great way to connect with other PhD types – finding that we actually have shared experiences even if the set up is different.
The reason I’ve not been able to post properly is that things have been nuts. In the last few months I’ve been back and forth between Edinburgh and Glasgow, I’ve done a research trip to Gretna, I went on holiday for a week in Devon (we drove, with the puppy, it took a LONG time), and I’ve been on a research trip / attended a friend’s wedding in London. I now have 5 days before I go away again – I’m going back to Devon for two museum visits and then speaking at a conference at the University of Portsmouth. I feel like I am always packing or unpacking. Then there is my actual PhD work, and the event I’m organising at the museum next month. And there is a reason I’m listing all these things here.
Before I went on holiday I made an academic-new-years-resolution to say no to things, and now I realise why. Sometimes I think planning things way in advance means that my future self will be better able to deal with them. My future self is not.
The true meaning of time management
At the start of my PhD – exactly a year ago this week – I was really worried about the huge void of time opening up ahead of me, with no idea how I would fill it. I slowly got projects on the go and I am so thrilled with how some of these have turned out, particularly my work at the Museum of Edinburgh which has proved to be such a great experience both work-wise and because I love it. I have always thought I was someone who was good at time management because I always meet deadlines and I am nearly never late – but I’m learning that time management also means not running yourself into the ground. (I know exactly why I’ve been working in bed all day with my second cold of the month.)
So once my Devon/Portsmouth trip is over – which I am really looking forward to – I am going to take some quiet PhD time. I’m going to have some ‘normal’ weeks where I stay local, settle down for an afternoon at the library and keep things calm. I’m going to keep my weekends free and be stricter about my work days. This may not happen, but if I’ve committed it to writing at least I have to give it a try!
See you on the other side.
I’m going on holiday today! I’m pretty excited to have some guilt free free time, turn off the wifi and hang out at the beach with my dog. Before I go, I decided to take inspiration from (copy) my friend Maxine who wrote a blog post on her academic new year resolutions. Even though my first annual review was in May so I’ve kind of been a second year for a few months now, I started my PhD at the end of September last year so this seems the right time to consider the next year of PhD-hood.
1. Enjoy Reading
I really like my subject. I love dress history, I am fascinated and moved by women’s experiences of the Great War, and I am a total museum geek. Why, then, has reading about these subjects become a chore? I am going to take the time to ENJOY reading about these things, and not just scan for the essentials.
2. Public Speaking
This is a rolling resolution, I am not a natural public speaker! I want to relax into (enjoy?) public speaking a little more, I am going to force myself to do it at every opportunity given. I made a big break through earlier this year by doing a talk almost entirely without notes, and it felt good. I’m sure courage will come with experience.
3. Learn to Say No
This sounds like a negative, but I have taken on maybe a little too much lately. I am going to try and keep things a bit more balanced, make sure my actual PhD has plenty of dedicated time and not snatched days. I am going to make less plans on weekdays, try and spend a bit more time on campus, and FOCUS.
4. Creative Time
This one is the most important to my sanity. I am firstly and always a creative person and I really miss making things. When I started my PhD I planned to spend 6 hours a week on making, but this never happened. This week I started an evening course on weaving. I realised if left to my own devices I’d never allot time to creativity, so I paid for an evening class, and it was so good! It’s also really nice to get out of the house and meet new people, as I work from home. It informs my study as I am using a historical technique and I learn about weave structures, and I get to draw on skills learnt in my first degree. I cant wait until the next session, especially as our homework was to go yarn shopping! I think it’s pretty cool that I now know how to thread a heddle.
Those are my resolutions! Anyone else have this tradition? Thanks for the idea Maxine!
For the next week, I’ll be here (Listening to this beautiful album by my extremely talented friend):
I only discovered the term ‘impostor syndrome’ about 6 months into my PhD. I had spent my masters course the year before that in constant shock that I was actually attending an academic university, honestly expecting to mess up at any moment, (my undergraduate degree was textile design at an art school, I wrote approximately 3 essays in 4 years). I assumed my grammar school education was getting me through, but I never knew when my luck was going to run out. When I applied for a PhD with funding I wasn’t 100% sure if it was the right choice, and thinking my application had been rejected I had all but decided against it when I was unexpectedly given the very generous offer of PhD funding (as a second choice – someone else had turned it down). And so I took it, and I’m really glad I did as I have really enjoyed the majority of the PhD experience so far and I feel I am doing the ‘right thing.’
Impostor syndrome is basically a simple term for that ‘I don’t belong here and someone is going to find me out soon’ feeling that many people suffer from at some point in their academic or professional career. There are some great blogs and articles out there on the subject of impostor syndrome: here, here, and here for example. They all say really encouraging, supportive things that should soothe the soul of an anxious PhD student. I am not crippled by doubt and my ‘impostor syndrome’ does not stop me from working, but I am very aware that it is always in the back of my mind – particularly when I am on campus or at academic events. I wanted to contribute to the body of writing on impostor syndrome having discussed the issue with many of my lovely PhD cohort on a trip away last week, a training event that took the theme of health and well-being. Though the trip was really great, neither impostor syndrome nor other forms of anxiety or mental health issues common in PhD students were covered (aside from perfectionism, which though I’m sure was interesting for many others did not resonate with me!) We did however have the opportunity to get outside and explore the beautiful Scottish countryside with fellow PhD researchers, and it was these breaks that I found the most helpful, supportive and restorative.
It can, however, be intimidating spending time with what I mentally refer to as ‘proper PhD students’ – the ones who got to where they are by being incredibly clever, endlessly hardworking and clearly very fast readers. They seem to know everything on subjects I genuinely didn’t even know existed, and while I can’t understand what their topic is, I tell them that I spend my days researching frocks. Don’t get me wrong, I love and value my subject and I wouldn’t swap it – or my education to date – for anything or anyone, but it gives me yet another reason to worry that I don’t belong in a university or cohort of funded students. Presenting my subject to 20 other PhD researchers at the event last week (the first time I have presented outwith history of art or dress history) I felt that I have picked something very accessible – and that is the only reason I am able to study it. I felt lost again at a panel discussion with early career academics who recounted their experiences of getting academic jobs post PhD – I knew so little about the world of academic jobs (again: not discussed in art school, I thought I was going to be a designer!) and I panicked that I was the only person not teaching through my PhD. Did this mean I was ruling out a whole world of jobs I knew nothing about? Would I have to teach a course I had never taken to try and rectify this? I had no idea.
(The honest and potentially moany bit):
I feel I can and will never read enough. I feel I never work hard enough on a regular working day. I feel sure about these things because I work from home by myself and so no one really knows my schedule except me, and the dog, and she isn’t very strict. I feel bad when I see from Twitter that other people are working evenings and weekends – I rarely do this. When my supervisors tell me I am on track and doing really well – I am sure that it was fluke again and I somehow appear more intelligent and together than I really am. When I receive funding or awards I am thrilled, but I think I am just good at filling out forms. Every good grade was just lucky – or the fact that I picked a great topic.
This is certainly the most personal piece of writing I would ever consider sharing publicly, but I would like to do it because I’ve met lots of really nice, frighteningly clever people who tell me they feel the same. I don’t think I will ever fully feel that I belong in academia, and to be honest I don’t know if reading about other people’s impostor syndrome really helps – (“but they have a job/funding/etc?!”) – but I’d like to be honest, and it feels therapeutic to discuss issues such as this. I’m doing well on my PhD so far and I know I am a capable, highly self motivated person. I’m pretty sure I got here by accident, but I like writing about frocks, and if someone is happy to support me to do that then I can’t be so bad. If we ALL feel this way, surely a university is just a safe-house for impostors like me?
*If anyone would like to add anything to this post, pop it in an email or comment and I’ll update it with your (constructive and supportive!) thoughts.*
Pack Up Your Troubles: Gretna
On Saturday I escaped the chaos of the last weekend of Edinburgh Fringe for an entirely different kind of festival, the Pack Up Your Troubles First World War festival in Gretna. I made this trip in order to see a presentation from The History Wardrobe, and unfortunately did not manage to see anything else at the festival (I wish I could have attended the Make Do & Mend session at the Devil’s Porridge Museum, but I have lined up a visit to that museum for another time! ). I did however learn a little about the history of the area beyond my minimal knowledge (via Jane Austen) of Gretna Green as a destination for quick marriages.
Gretna was known during the First World War for HM Factory which spread over 9 miles and employed 30,000 workers – who were largely female. By 1917 the factory produced 1,100 tons of cordite a week, more than every other munition plant in Britain put together.(1) The lethal combination of guncotton and nitro-glycerine combined to produce cordite became known as the ‘devil’s porridge’ – hence the evocative name of the museum now on the site of the factory in Eastriggs, near Gretna. The museum tells the story of the factory, the munitions girls who worked there, and of the Quintinshill rail disaster. Coincidentally one of the only events I attended at the Edinburgh Festival was a theatre production commemorating the events of the Quintinshill rail disaster of May 1915, the worst rail disaster in British history in which over 200 were killed and over 200 injured. The vast majority of casualties were soldiers from the 1/7th Battalion of Royal Scots, on their way from Leith, Edinburgh to Gallipoli. Persevere: Gretna 100 was a community theatre event performed in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith, the very hall in which the soldiers trained and the place from which they left their loved ones, many for the last time. It was an interactive performance in which we, the audience members, could move around the hall witnessing different scenes and the effects of the disaster as it unfolded on different families. The hall was the space families came to for news of their loved ones, and the most emotional moment of the performance came as the cast banged on the huge doors begging for updates – exactly as they would have done 100 years ago. The Gretna 100 performance and the story of the 1/7th Royal Scots were very much on my mind as I travelled by train down to Gretna.
Bunting and flags let me know I had found the correct building in Gretna for Lucy Adlington’s talk on Great War fashion. Lucy is the author of the only book (to date) on British fashion in the Great War period: Great War Fashion. As well as writing she offers costume-in-context presentations covering many different time periods, drawing from her amazing collection (*extreme jealousy*) of historic fashion. In her talk Lucy gave a great overview of Great War fashion using a combination of first hand accounts, supporting media such as photos, diaries and newspapers, and anecdotes of wartime life. She managed to make the subject accessible to the diverse audience of an open community event, but detailed, factual and fascinating – I definitely learned some new things and I spend my life studying this subject! Lucy had laid out a tempting array of Great War era garments, from a glamorous full-skirted silk dress to a very un-glamorous Harrods nursing uniform. I was very excited to see a black camisole/corset cover which is almost certainly mourning dress, and the khaki coloured gaiters worn by munitions workers to protect the bottoms of their trousers.
Controversially for some, Lucy and her colleagues perform their talks dressed in historic costume, sometimes changing on stage (all behind screens!) and showing the audience the many layers of underwear worn beneath historic garments. With a museum-brain on, this is a conservation nightmare: BUT. Fashion was made to be worn, and no matter how fancy the mannequin, clothes never look the same on wood or fiber glass as they do on the human body. In a museum garments don’t rustle, swish and move around, you can’t get underneath to see how they fasten or what is holding them up, and you can’t feel their weight or texture. I certainly don’t think museums should start using their collections in this way – but I am so thrilled that the History Wardrobe offer this alternative experience, and a chance to engage with costume history in a more tactile, visceral manner. It was really refreshing to see such a mixed audience, from young children to old men, paying real attention – for an hour and a half – to the subject of women’s dress history, and taking a lot of women’s social history on board at the same time!
Lucy focused very much on the personal experiences behind each object – asking her audience to really imagine what women went through during the war and what the clothes meant to them. It was fascinating for me to see the layers of underwear and original boots as those are areas I don’t yet know a huge amount about, and exciting to see an original industrial worker’s tunic which Lucy discussed in the context of the Gretna HM Factory. Lucy had very kindly brought an extra box of goodies for me to look through, and we had a great time discussing the ins-and-outs of Great War fashion while I photographed as much as I could! I fell totally in love with this dress (below) – and was privileged to look over some bodices that had been donated to the History Wardrobe collection the evening before.
As part of my research I am looking at methods of interpreting historic fashion, and it will be of great interest to compare the History Wardrobe approach with other methods including traditional museum approaches, living history and the use of replica garments. It was also hugely beneficial (and exciting) to look through some of Lucy’s collection, some of the objects will certainly feature in my thesis.
For more information on the Quintinshill disaster Neil Oliver made a really good BBC documentary which is still available on iplayer: link here. Look out for Lucy and her team as they tour the country with their wonderful wardrobe!
(1) “Home page,” http://www.devilsporridge.org.uk (accessed September 1, 2015).
In this, my second post on the Chalke Valley History Festival, I am going to write about living history and the small aspects of costume history that snuck into the 2015 programme. Living history (re-enactment to some) is a big part of CVHF and adds a huge amount to the atmosphere and enjoyment of visitors. As a dress historian, I would (obviously) love to see more dress history at CVHF, but even though there has yet to be a dress historian on the programme, dress plays a role at the festival and was particularly prominent in this years 1940s dress-up day.
Dress of course is crucial to living historians or historical re-enactors, and I am always incredibly impressed by the costumes worn around the site, representing every historical era from the Anglo-Saxons to the Second World War via the French Revolution and the ‘Dirty Victorians’. CVHF is the only festival to combine academic talks and living history and this blend gets a mixed response from festival visitors; I know some find the noise of living history extremely distracting when talks are under way. As my festival talk this year was up against a WW2 weapons display, I can say from experience that it is extremely difficult to concentrate and compete with the sound of rifle fire and exploding grenades. There are also some who feel uncomfortable with the theatre/performance element of living history; being approached by someone staying resolutely in character can make us uncomfortable and unsure of how to interact. These issues aside, I am fascinated by the world of living history and find it incredibly exciting to be transported back in time (at least temporarily!) by people who are almost without fail amazingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their period of history.
My favourite living historians at CVHF this year included the Magna Carta artists, Henry VIII his daughter Elizabeth and a rotation of wives (depending on how he was feeling that day), the Roman encampment, and the blacksmith creating historic tools in the woods. I loved meeting Flora Sandes wondering around the stall holders area dressed in her Serbian army uniform, and watching various periods of history dance together at the 1940s Victory Party on Saturday night. I was beside myself with excitement to be taken for a spin around the site in Aggy, a WW1 Ford Model-T ambulance made from original parts, with Emma, a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. But did any of this teach me something I didn’t know about history? I think it did. And I’m sure it does for lots of visitors who take the time to engage with the living historians. If you open your mind, this is an exciting and involving way to learn about history – maybe not enough to write an essay, but enough to make you want to find out more. Part of my research is to look at WW1 uniforms and how they have influenced fashion, and for the week I had not only WW1 uniforms to hand but also a full history of military uniforms back to the Romans. I wouldn’t use this ‘research’ in my PhD thesis, but living historians have pointed me in the direction of useful source material, or told me the correct terms to enter into a search engine. (I was even corrected on some of my military uniform terms by an ex-Coldstream Guard.)
To all of those who think that living history isn’t ‘real’ history I would argue that many living historians have a lot to offer that may or may not feature in the history books, and that they offer an entirely different method of interpretation. I would however like to see more interpretations of non-military history and specifically more women’s history, as a reminder that history isn’t only one battle followed by the next. There is certainly a dominance of ‘boys and their toys’ which perhaps gives an unfair bias both on history, and what living historians are capable of.
As mentioned, the costumes worn by living historians are wonderful and a fantastic way to draw people both into history, and more specifically into dress history. At the festival this year it was not only actors who got dressed up; on Saturday for the first time there was a dress-up day, where all guests were invited to dress in 1940s fashion. This was of course great fun for me and I bought a wonderful 1940s original from Ebay which will not be saved only for fancy dress! Remembering 70 years since the end of the Second World War the whole weekend took a 1940s theme, with relevant talks and a 1945 Victory Party to finish things off. It was a pleasure to hear Julie Summers talk about 1940s fashion and the Women’s Institute through the war, and it was incredible to see so many WW2 veterans speaking over the weekend and then joining the party with gusto.
Costume offers such a simple way for people to engage with history, and it was great listening to people getting excited about dressing up over the course of the week. The majority of the CVHF team made a fabulous effort, letting my friend Emily and I put their hair into Victory Rolls or turbans, and attempting some swing dancing to the sounds of the Bomshelle Belles. Given the enthusiasm for both living history and dressing up, I find it surprising that there has yet to be a dedicated dress history talk at the festival – aside from a fantastic interactive talk given by Ros Liddington a few years ago. The festival is extremely popular and is fairly wide reaching in its interpretation of history, there have been – for example – numerous talks on the history of food and even cooking utensils. I hope that in the next couple of years room will be made for some talks on the history of dress and textiles, or other object related research, demonstrating the strength of objects as powerful tools for storytelling.
I love that history at CVHF is interpreted in countless different ways and that the subject is truly brought to life. Much as I love reading books or listening to a speaker I admire, there is nothing quite like hearing the roar of a Spitfire engine as it swoops over the beautiful valley around you. Whether through engines, frocks or swords, bringing history to life excites and engages people and that can only be a good thing.