Conference, Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews, Study days  |  August 19, 2017

Writing Fashion (Part 1)

Shelley Tobin, Victoria Haddock, Hannah Vickers and Lottie Moss




The 2017 Costume Society conference began on Friday 30th June with an afternoon visit to the British Library, kindly organised by Amber Butchart. The two 'Show and Tell' sessions gave delegates the chance to view some remarkable pieces from the Printed Heritage collections of the Library. Seventeen period examples of 'written' fashion were displayed within the Conservation department. These pieces included a selection of fashion plates in 18th century ladies pocket books, volume 2 of the La Belle Assemblée (dating from January - June 1807) and a selection of fashion advertisements and trade cards from the Evanion collection (1884-88). 


What struck most delegates was the range of colours in fashion plates featured in the magazines, such as those in the Gallery of Fashion that had been hand-coloured to illustrate the current women's fashion of the Regency era. A book entitled 'Instructions on needle-work and knitting, as derived from the practice of the Central School of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the principles of the Established Church, in the Sanctuary, Westminster' (1832), had the sewing and creative members amongst our group praising the small, worked examples (that included bonnets and gloves) attached to the pages. These models would have been sampled by young women who wanted to try and gain the necessary skills to earn a living through needlework and knitting.


On behalf of the delegates who attended the sessions, I would like to say a big thank you to the staff of the British Library for their time and knowledge in helping to get the 'Writing Fashion' conference off to a great start.





The Art Worker’s Guild provided an evoking backdrop for days two and three of the conference. The room, which is surrounded by portraits featuring guild members, offered a spontaneous source of consultation during a discussion on the role that spectacles play in identity, after a paper by Dr. Gooding, (further information is found below).


Following a welcome from our Chairman Deirdre Murphy, the first speaker of Session 1 was Lucy Johnston, who has been working closely with the Thomas Hardy Collection. Her talk outlined the significance of dress (or fragments thereof) retained in the collection, and the many similarities these fragments held with passages of Hardy’s most well loved novels. It was interesting to discover that Hardy created sketches of his characters to illustrate the dress he envisaged them wearing, ensuring that the illustrator of his books would comprehend his vision.


The second speaker of Session 1 was Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant at the museum of FIT. Keeping with the theme of the conference Elizabeth examined the literary work of two female African-American authors, who were writing from the late 19th century into the 20th, to investigate how respectability politics were related to dress. Elizabeth outlined that by African-American women dressing in a ‘respectable’ way, they were embodying an act of protest against the prejudiced white gaze of the dominant race.


The second session of the day kicked off with a discussion between Agnès Rocamora and Susie ‘Bubble’ Lau, one of the most prominent fashion bloggers in the world. She revealed how she started out in blogging – as a history student looking for an outlet for, “fashion on my own terms.” The conversation covered the broader phenomenon of blogging, as an opportunity for anyone with a computer to share and exchange knowledge, ideas and images, and as fertile ground for discovering fashion history and inspiration. It was interesting to hear that one of the main reasons why many turned to blogging over writing in fashion magazines – freedom to choose their own content – has become difficult territory in its own right, as many successful bloggers accept sponsorship at the cost of some independence.


Next followed Anushka Tay, (winner of the 2016 Yarwood award) who traced the cultural history of the samfu suit, an outfit consisting of a plain high-necked shirt and loose trousers worn by women from China. She focused particularly on how the samfu was worn by diaspora communities, who adapted and changed their style to suit the fashion of the time and their own needs – a fascinating counter-argument to the all too common perception of ethnic dress as static and unchanging.


Dr. Joanne Gooding (mentioned above) presented on the evolution of NHS glasses from medical appliance to retro fashion accessory.  As a so called ‘millennial’, it was enlightening to hear that the NHS only introduced their voucher system in 1985.  Prior to that there were only a few styles of glasses available on the NHS, which had not been altered in design for forty years as they were deemed simply a medical appliance. The NHS glasses were instantly recognisable item of dress, which Dr. Gooding suggested evolved into, “badges of poverty.” Her paper stemmed from her MA at the RCA, and is an ongoing subject of research.


Professor Aileen Ribeiro’s talk, ‘Fashion and the Five Senses’ was a broad but vivid exploration of our perception of fashion through not only sight, but also smell, touch, sound and even taste. Her highly evocative examples brought many more to mind amongst the audience – for me, the zippy swish, swash sound of walking in corduroy trousers, and the smell of a freshly-bought suede jacket.


Session 4 kicked off with a paper by Dr. Charlotte Nicklas - ‘Writing Fashion History in 19th Century Women’s Periodicals’. Our interpretation of the past is always framed by the age we live in. This was a central theme of Dr. Nicklas’ talk on 19th century attitudes towards fashion of the past, as laid out in women’s periodicals of the time. Her research revealed, for example, a writer lamenting 18th century garments as too flimsy, and argued that this showed how historic dress was used to contrast with the present (whether favourably or not) based on moral and aesthetic judgements.


On a similar theme, Dr. Veronica Isaac’s final talk of the day looked at 19th century theatre costume, which often attempted to interpret historic clothing. She used examples of costume previously worn by the famous actress Ellen Terry, analysing their ‘biographies’ to tell the story of how they were made, worn, altered, worn again and stored in the theatre wardrobe before finally becoming museum artefacts.


The talk led to a lively debate amongst the audience about the usage of the terms ‘costume’ and ‘dress’ – should the word ‘costume’ be limited to the context of performance? But what about theatre ‘costumes’ that have been worn to ‘real life’ events? What’s the difference between performance and real life anyway?



  • Example of a trade card from the Evanion Collection, ©British Library Board, Evanion 7152