Ellie Birch, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama 2016 The Conference Student Bursary

I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Costume Society’s Student Bursary award for 2016, so that I might attend the Society’s Conference in Manchester, an event which has given me insights into the world of costume conservation and interpretation and certainly allowed me to make informed and exciting decisions about my future career within this immersive field of study.
A week before I attended the conference I graduated with a First class honours degree from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. I had decided to take the costume route during my degree but had also chosen to specialise even further by looking specifically at historical costume for stage, screen, museums and re-enactment. I intend to further my academic education by undertaking a Master’s degree within the field of dress history so I felt sure that attending the conference would put me in touch with people who might be able to suggest or advise courses of action, which it certainly did.
I arrived in Manchester on the Friday afternoon, and, having settled my things in a luxurious hotel room, I marched to the People’s History Museum on the Mancunian riverbank and enjoyed an afternoon tour of the museum’s textile conservation rooms and it’s collection of political and social protest banners, some of which dated back to the early 19th century. The staff gave us an interesting and in depth look into conservation, including using a thin silk overlaid onto the particularly delicate banners which, at a single touch, might turn to dust and with it, a peek into the cultural history of that particular era. The staff at the museum work exclusively to conserve the textiles – stabilising the item’s condition and preventing further decomposition, and not, they assured us, by restoring them – repairing an item to its original condition, if that means damaging the integrity and provenance of the item. 
After returning from the museum, I refreshed myself and headed down to the hotel’s bar, to meet people as interested in the field of dress and costume as I was. I was amazed at how varied the interests and professions of the members were, and I think that is part of the reason the Costume Society is so special as its members hold such an extensive wealth of textile knowledge. I met lace makers, historical reenactors, university lecturers on fashion or social history, and published authors. Certainly a fantastic and memorable evening, and having such a friendly social event ensured that I was never lonely during the weekend!
The Saturday began with a brisk walk to Manchester’s Whitworth gallery, in which the talks would take place.  Starting the day was a fascinating talk on the topic of Early Modern Needlebooks: Designs for Democracy by Lisa VandenBerghe. I thought it awe-inspiring and humbling to think of the thousands of women who had sat at their tables patiently embroidering and decorate textiles which, as Ms VandenBerghe suggested, was a method by which women could benefit their household’s wealth and social standing, rather than using needle work purely for leisure. It should be noted that needles, at this time, are claimed to have been “instruments of suppression”, while the needle pattern books themselves were perhaps to shape “docile women”. I found this more sinister, misogynistic aspect of needle work thrilling, as my dissertation – Women as Rulers, Women as Ruled: The Politics of Fashion and Gender in the Elizabethan World which had recently been completed, researched the topic of gender inequality in the Early Modern Britain and Ms VandenBerghe’s paper further confirmed my initial undergraduate ideas and discourse.
The vast spectrum of topics on which the papers were written was breath-taking – papers included research undertaken on the increase in mass production of blouses during WWI.  Here,  Suzanne Rowland’s knowledge on the social aspect of the garment was incredible. Similarly, Anthony Bednall’s discussion on the modernisation and alternation of traditional Chinese clothing during the Cultural Revolution was engrossing. Dr Lucy Worsley’s presentation on 500 Years of Royal Fashion was utterly enthralling, and her delight when regaling the audience with a humorous contemporary anecdote, such as Georgian women in sedan chairs being likened to “the foetus of a hippo in a brandy bottle,” was contagious.
On the Saturday evening we were all treated to a buffet meal within the hotel, and although my initial instinct was to seat myself next to the people I had already met, I forced myself to sit alone and wait for the table to fill up. To my delight, I was joined by people who had spent much of their adult life in the society, and thus were deeply involved in it, and I spent an enjoyable evening discussing life during WWII, the future of the society, mentoring, and the importance of sartorial and social history in modern culture.
The conference culminated in a wonderful trip to the Manchester Art Gallery where we were treated to tea and delicious cakes after perusing the gallery’s amazing collection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks, and attending a guided tour of the Vogue 100 exhibition which included an outfit from the Vivienne Westwood fashion house – glittering and bedazzling as expected!
Ultimately, the weekend symposium was an utterly unforgettable experience and one which I will not forget for many years, (although I intend to repeat the experience in 2017!!) and I have made – I hope – many friends and colleagues in the process.

  • Ellie Birch, Winner of Student Conference Bursary 2016

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