Maya Wassell Smith, University of Brighton 2014 The Conference Student Bursary

At the beginning of July I was invited to attend the 49th annual Costume Society Symposium in Exeter as part of the Student Bursary Award Scheme. The opportunity to listen to such creative and well-researched papers, given by such important figures in the dress and textile history discipline, has greatly inspired and informed my own research practise.

The theme of the symposium was ‘Rites of Passage’, a consideration of clothing and textile’s significance in marking and transacting important life events. This included discussion of the major milestones- birth, marriage and death, but also of the smaller triumphs and tribulations that demarcate lives. My own research looks at embroidered silk-organdie postcards, produced by continental mechanised embroidery industries and sent home by soldiers serving in the trenches during the First World War. I am principally interested in understanding the way in which cloth and clothing negotiate human experience and provide comfort, during significant or emotionally turbulent life events, be they jubilant or sorrowful. This symposium demonstrated the apposite importance of textile and dress in these scenarios in a number of ways.

The connotations of, and importance placed in, particular textile materials, was a ‘thread’ running through many of the papers. In her paper ‘New Approaches to Mourning Dress’, Lou Taylor described the physical properties of crape- a dull, lifeless, scratchy and uncomfortable fabric- as augmenting its position as the culturally determined staple of 19th century mourning wear. Kate Strasdin’s paper ‘Royal wedding lace: Reviving an industry 1840-63’ demonstrated lace’s status, as a symbolically significant material. Firstly on a personal scale, through discussion of Queen Victoria’s wedding lace, which she went on to wear at the christenings and marriages of her children. And secondly, as a practice and product through which to corral regional pride, as well as provide greater economic stability, within the Devon industries, which produced the bobbin lace used for royal wedding dress.

Edwina Ehrman’s and Johanna Hashagen’s keynotes were both wonderful examples of the power of social and biographical history within and alongside fashion history, particularly that of wedding dress. Edwina’s talk, an introduction to the current V & A exhibition, began with her saying that she had approached the exhibition, which draws from the V & A collections, from a social history rather than design point of view. Particularly interesting were the aspects of the talk which demonstrated the communality of weddings, whereby it might be watched on the news, or gifts and souvenir cards may be given to unconnected spectator members of public. Discussion of the degree to which fashion governed wedding dresses was as interesting when looking at women who followed and were inspired by Queen Victoria’s white with orange blossom wedding outfit, as when looking at those who chose less fashionable and possibly more practical outfits, which could be re-used and re-worn, or were simply more to the taste of the bride.

Johanna’s paper used a beautiful 1912 Lucille wedding dress as a conduit through which to tell the life-story of its owner and wearer. This paper affirmed the position of dress as so crucially linked to lives of people, and subsequently, such an apposite space for the historian to uncover and present these histories.

The aspect of dress as being worn by people also came across in Harriet Waterhouse’s paper, ‘His First Suit,’ which, with reference to the perils of potty training Tudor infants, discussed breeching practices in the 16th and 17th centuries. I very much appreciated the attention Harriet paid to the act and experience of wearing, as well as the particular and practical necessities of clothing. The consideration of both the mother’s and son’s emotional responses to the lead up to and the ceremony of breeching, further cemented clothing’s significance as we move through life, taking on new identities.

Attending this symposium enriched my understanding of the importance of dress in the transaction of ‘rites of passage’, as well as introducing me to new sources of evidence for study. The opportunity to see items from both the collections at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Killerton House was fantastic in illustrating the themes of the weekend and emphasising the critical importance of historical dress collections.

  • Maya Wassell Smith, Winner Student Symposium Bursary 2014