2011 Veronica Contreras, MA History of Design and Material Culture, University of Brighton The Yarwood Research Grant
When I started researching the Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk, my experience and contemporary perspective influenced my initial ideas. I focused on departure and arrival and thought of luggage as something stored away from the owner during travel. Reading contemporary literature and newspapers, I soon realised that in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century, transit between one place and another was equally important. Transatlantic travel could take from six to ten days and the architecture of ocean liners reproduced society’s structure. Being on a ship was no excuse for a relaxation of etiquette; members of the upper class had to be properly dressed at all time, which could mean three or more changes during the day. Consequently, a complete set of clothes and accessories was kept close at hand during the journey. The wardrobe trunk was usually regarded as “hand luggage” as shown by the labels on its exterior surfaces.
In its functional and aesthetic dimensions, the object reconciles different identities and references to travel and home. The trunk stands for Louis Vuitton but also for the owner’s identity and status and thereby for the social class both belong to. Their identities are materially embodied in the object’s inside and outside. The quality of the materials used, the engraved parts, the ornamented surfaces and the customization of the interior arrangement are some examples.
A third aspect that appeared during research was the relationship between Vuitton’s trunks and fashion. Louis Vuitton opened his first shop only one block away from Worth’s couture house; the father of Haute Couture was both a friend and customer. In time, the name Louis Vuitton became a brand, synonymous with luxury travel. Vuitton was associated first with royalty and then with celebrity, obtaining high visibility and an elite position in the market. Vuitton’s trunks provided a system for transporting fashion to any place in safe conditions and allowed the owner to effortlessly travel in style.
It was important for my research to visit the exhibition of the most remarkable Vuitton trunks in Paris and to understand the family of products and the brand’s values of which the wardrobe trunk is one part. I also had to access auction houses and antique dealers to look at trunks that had been used and had information about their owners, liner’s companies and destinations. I am deeply grateful to the Costume Society as the Doreen Yarwood Award made it possible for me to undertake these activities. I very much enjoyed the research process and constructing and deconstructing conclusions. I believe my work is not finished. There were many possible ways in which to approach the object and I could only choose some of them. To conclude, I would like to say that it is fascinating how objects and people affect, relate and explain each other and how societies are revealed through the material world that has survived them.