Silk & Suffragettes

 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.

Killerton House, Devon

The beautiful Killerton House, near Exeter

Killerton House

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

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.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum - Pavey Collection

Velvet swan hat c.1912-1917. 110.1981.26c © Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

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!

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