Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  January 23, 2017

Costume Society Study Day 2016: Conform or Resist

One of the wonderful things about the Costume Society is its openness. I mean this partly in terms of the many different people whose perspectives are welcome within the society: historians and dressmakers; curators and writers; those with a newly-discovered interest in dress and those who’ve devoted years and careers to this subject. I also mean this in terms of the elements of dress that the Society believes to be worthy of study, in the sense that no aspect of what people wear is too obscure or trivial to potentially be of interest. This openness was particularly apparent at the 2016 Costume Society Study Day held at London College of Fashion, which took Fashion: Conform or Resist as its theme. This was the third Costume Society Study Day I’ve attended, and just as in previous years the calibre of the speakers and their creativity in interpreting the theme made it a fascinating and inspiring day. From cabaret stars to conscientious objectors; cultural icons to the man on the street; the speakers demonstrated how clothing has been essential to the way in which we express both individual and collective identities across diverse cultures and times.

We started the day with two brilliant talks about dress and socialism. Keynote speaker Dr. Djurdja Bartlett opened with Female Fashion under Socialism: Rebellion and Conformity which examined fashion in the context of European socialism, including a look at the extraordinary life of designer Žuži Jelinek. I was intrigued to learn that the ‘little black dress’ became especially popular under socialism, favoured for being elegant, democratic, and suggestive of constancy. It made me realise that clothing can be far more subtly political than uniforms and slogan tees. In the second talk of the day Anthony Bednall whisked us from Europe to China with ‘Not all socialists dress the same’: Russia’s influence on China in the 1950s. Bednall’s explorations of specific garments were particularly fascinating: the ‘Lenin suit’ for women based on styles worn by Lenin, and the ‘Mao jacket’ which symbolised a breaking away from old imperialist systems. Both Bartlett and Bednall in their different ways showed how individuals interpret and respond to government ideology through fashion, and how a garment may be plain and functional and yet richly symbolic.

Our next speaker was Helen Saunders with ‘Don’t talk to me about politics. I’m only interested in style’: James Joyce and the Irish Revival. In this excellent talk we learned how clothing was seen by certain Irish Revivalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as an important means of championing their cause, for example by wearing traditional garments like pampooties, a salted calfskin shoe from the West of Ireland. Saunders also explored passages from James Joyce’s Ulysses and showed how Joyce combines literary and sartorial style to convey his scepticism about the power of traditional dress in the Revivalist movement. Clothing can be used to express resistance - in this case to English power and influences - but it can also to be used question the efficacy of such political movements.

The first speaker of the afternoon was Emma Jackson with Ski Masks and Cartridge Belts: Zapatista Dolls as Cultural Texts. Jackson focused on the dolls produced for tourist consumption by indigenous people in the Chiapas region of Mexico, and the impact of the 1994 uprising of the insurgent Zapatista group on this activity. Before the uprising the dolls were dressed in traditional Mexican attire; afterwards their faces appeared covered with the black ski-masks worn by the Zapatistas. This fascinating talk explained how these dolls and the bodily adornments they depict function as cultural texts, while also exploring the various powers of masks to protect individual identity whilst asserting allegiance to a group.

Masking was also a theme of the next speaker, Jacki Willson, whose talk was titled Blue Object of Resistance: Repackaging the Freedom and Pleasure of the ‘Peep Show’. Willson discussed the subversive pleasure of dressing up and the spaces which enable the exploration of alternate heterosexual female sexualities. Emma Jackson’s Zapatista ski-masks in the previous lecture expressed political resistance to the government and conformity to an insurgent group. In the paper by Willson, masks were considered in the context of 18th-century masquerades and pleasure gardens. The masks worn by women in these spaces created a visual conformity and therefore anonymity, allowing them to move about unchaperoned and released from codes of propriety. Willson also spoke about the modern cabaret artist Tricity Blue, who performs as Tretchikoff’s Blue Lady and in doing so playfully resists the power of othering, exoticising representations of femininity.

The penultimate speaker was the Jewish Museum’s Miriam Phelan with Masculinity in Conflict: Sartorial Resistance in England and Ireland, 1914 to 1918. Phelan discussed the presentation of military uniform in First World War propaganda; its power to transform men to soldiers, and its indication of conformity to a singular effort and identity. For conscientious objectors civilian clothing became a mark of resistance; a refusal to conform either visually or ideologically. Following this stimulating talk, and bringing a close to the Study Day, was Elisa Bailey of the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Department who spoke on Performing the Revolution: from Flesh to Mannequin – the Sixties and Now. We saw how clothing – or the lack of it – played an essential part in the various revolutions of the 1960s, including youth cultures, artistic movements, and political resistance.

If you haven’t attended a Costume Society Study Day before, it’s a hugely fun and inspiring way to consider fresh angles on the study of dress, as well as an opportunity to meet friendly and knowledgeable people from a range of backgrounds who share your enthusiasm. We hope to see you next time.


Elizabeth Francis, Costume Society Ambassador; 2016