Costume Society, News  |  May 28, 2014

Winner of the Yarwood Award

I am in my second year of part time study at London College of Fashion and am enrolled on MA History and Culture of Fashion, which has proved to be a fascinating and challenging course of study. Building on my undergraduate studies in textiles at UMIST (now The University of Manchester) and a lifelong love of the ‘hows and whys’ of fashion and dress, this course has helped me embrace academic writing and research in a way I hadn’t previously thought possible. As this year’s recipient of the Yarwood Award, I thought that members might appreciate some blog posts on my progress leading up to my final project’s hand-in date and subsequent report to the Costume Society. The working title of my dissertation is Supporting the Fashionable Silhouette: Technological Changes to the Bra, 1930-1990 and I anticipate that a large chunk of my research will be object based, involving trips to visit suitable archive collections across the UK.

The award is intended to help an MA student with expenditure relating to the completion of their dissertation, and this will be of great assistance to me due to the costs associated with my planned research visits. The first two that I planned, before applying for the award, were to the Marks & Spencer Company Archive (based in Leeds) and the Symington Collection of corsetry, foundation and swimwear (based in Leicestershire). Both company’s collections are intended to form case studies in my dissertation, and so both require multiple day visits in order to make the best use out of such valuable resources. I scheduled in two-day visits to each, booked my train tickets and hotel stays, and hoped that I wouldn’t need to go back as the costs were already mounting! Still, my excitement was obvious as I set off for Leeds, and I was certain that both these trips would be extremely useful.

The Marks & Spencer Company Archive is a treasure trove of items relating to one of Britain’s favourite retailers. I visited at the start of May and, when I arrived, Archive Assistant Katherine Chorley had already looked out the items I had requested in my email correspondence - including sales reports from the 1930s, bras produced in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, plus a bra fit training video for staff that was made in 1985 - so I was able to get to work straight away on my first day. In addition to these fascinating objects, I was also able to make use of a vast collection of staff newsletters which gave some valuable insights into the use of technical innovation in the production and selling of brassieres at Marks & Spencer in the mid-to-late twentieth century. I returned home with fifty A5 pages of handwritten notes, almost 200 photographs, and a head full of ideas. It was then that I checked my email and discovered, to my delight, that I had won the Yarwood Award!

My second trip was scheduled for the following week. The Symington Collection contains nearly 1300 garments produced by the English manufacturing firm R. & W.H. Symington & Co. Ltd. and some of its competitors. It is held at the Collections Resource Centre, part of Leicestershire County Council Museums Service, and is available as a research and study resource by appointment. I visited this collection last year while carrying out object analysis on a girdle for an essay that formed part of my course, so I was aware of the sheer number of possible objects that might be relevant to my dissertation research. Due to the number of items and the lack of an online catalogue, Collections Officer Sarah Nicol agreed that there would be little point in attempting to plan ahead for this visit. Upon arrival, Sarah showed me where the boxes containing the bras were kept and then I sat down with a hard bound copy of the typewritten catalogue to look for items which might show evidence of technological innovation. The excitement of opening a box to discover a garment even more fascinating and useful than you had anticipated cannot be underestimated! I returned to London from this second trip with even more notes and over 350 photographs, which have now been carefully backed up.

As well as looking over what I have discovered on these visits, writing up my notes and looking for areas of further investigation, my ‘to do’ list now involves a lot of reading as I get stuck into my literature review. Once the summer is here, I shall be arranging further study visits and will be sure to share my progress with you all.

  • Lorraine Smith winner of the Yarwood Award Taken at The Collections Resources Centre. The museum collections are held by Leicestershire Coun