Sue Martin, Student Placement Award Winner 2018

By Sue Martin

Student Placement Award 2018 recipient Sue Martin, shares her experiences working with the Look Again: Discovering Centuries of Fashion project to redesign The Salisbury Museum’s Fashion Gallery.

In August 2018 I won a Student Placement Award (MWEG) from the Costume Society which allowed me to research garments in the fashion archive for selection by young people working on the Look Again: Discovering Centuries of Fashion project to redesign The Salisbury Museum’s Fashion Gallery.

After initial discussions with the Project Manager Katy England, it was agreed that we wanted to identify items that would focus on the local history, crafts and cultural heritage of Salisbury. I quickly organised meetings with many of the Arts Society volunteers who were re-cataloguing and repacking all of the items in the archive. After outlining the purpose of my research, which was to hopefully uncover items that would have a connection to Salisbury, I foolishly explained to the volunteers that I would only need a month to gather the information as the artifacts would be needed for the start of the project in September. They wisely said nothing, and I began what became a wonderful and exciting exploration of the archive of almost 4000 items lasting a lot longer than a month!

It took a long time to get to grips with the scale of what I needed to do, and making sure that I met with all the people involved was time consuming but extremely interesting. I gathered a lot of information from the Arts Society members and their passion and experience was evident. It also became clear that Katy and I would need to work closely to do a visual inspection of the garments that I had found online as this really was the only way to check the condition and suitability for display. We photographed everything that we thought would be useful, and loved the thrill and anticipation of the discoveries, and finding a handwritten index-card added to the excitement. 

I started working through the online archive, and my first foray revealed an evening dress by Elizabeth Handley Seymour, dressmaker to the Queen Mother, not in brilliant condition, but the hand-applied sequins were stunning and the provenance exciting. A volunteer had found an outfit made and worn by Princess Obolensky for the designer Paul Poiret, and when Katy and I found the box it was in, we were impressed by the quality of design and construction.

A beautiful wine red bodice and skirt by Dior, and a yellow wedding dress made in Paris in 1879 for the bride who died three years later, were just a few of the most incredible pieces uncovered and now on display. The wish list grew much longer, and my passion was growing, for this ‘month-long’ project. I returned to the online system to try different searches, and each time, I found something else that I had missed. As time went on, I spent hours researching, trying to uncover the history behind who had owned or worn the items, and what had at first seemed to be an issue, linking the pieces to Salisbury, became less so when I found so much detail with local family names that came up again and again.

Three months into the research I was fortunate to find plenty of interesting pieces. My most exciting find was discovering two pairs of shoes worn by Queen Victoria in the costume store in two separate boxes. Contained within each box were a number of other shoes wrapped in tissue that had yet to be updated by the volunteers, and the beautiful black corded pumps worn by Queen Victoria may have been hidden for at least 30 years.

Of the two pairs, one was intact with a royal makers label but non-matching, and the other pair, with a frilled bow missing from the left shoe. The following week, I returned to the online archive and tried another search, and whilst looking for a different item, I recognised the royal shoemaker Gundry & Sons on another catalogued item and found that it was a pair of button-up boots that belonged to Princess Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria.

One of my favourite items was a kimono-style piece labelled as a ‘maids dress’ and donated by Captain Methuen in 1875. On further research and after a discussion with the director of the Amuse Museum in Tokyo who initially thought that I had found a rare Boro Kimono, he decided it was not Japanese, but Indian. It is a fascinating and unusual example of protective clothing which we now think would have been worn by a male domestic servant and it is now displayed (in the sustain case) along with other examples of work wear in the gallery, including an indigo-dyed reversible smock, one from a large collection owned by the museum that demonstrates the craft skills of smocking and recycling in the late 19C.

Look Again worked with young people throughout the duration of the project and one of the comments that was repeated by visitors and the young people, was the dislike of the creepy mannequins in the display, in particular a bearded, smocked farmer. When it came time to empty the gallery, all the mannequins were piled on the floor at one end with Katy hoping to find a way they could be recycled. I don’t remember the exact moment that I agreed to take a couple of them!

I do remember turning up in my small Fiat 500, and a trail of museum staff rapidly filling my car with wigs, torsos, limbs, heads and of course the bearded one. To the amusement of a group being given a guided tour at the front of the museum, the staff proceeded to stuff as many body parts into my open car. I arrived home and tried to sneak them into a shed at the bottom of the garden, there were a lot of them. I couldn’t quite fit them in, so I put a nuclear family into the garage, much to the surprise of my husband, who returning from his daily cycle ride was accosted by a ‘family’, lurking in the shadows where his bike normally went.

As an artist, I spent hours and hours experimenting with different ideas for the mannequins. I had collected shells, beads, broken jewellery and artificial flowers over the years and I wanted to create beauty from these broken unwanted mannequins.

All the time that I was working, I was immersed in thoughts of the fragility of life and the outward beauty of people, hidden by the ugly and difficult emotional trauma that many experience, but have to hide from the world. As an artist, I work with those who have poor mental health, and I know that being creative and expressive through art and talking about the process of making something by hand and sharing a creative experience together can have a positive effect on individual and collective well-being. Outwardly, these pieces are pretty, but they represent complex, painful hidden meanings and they can be viewed as decorative items, but for me, they remind me of a loss never to be forgotten.

The project for me has been the most wonderful experience, not just for the hugely diverse and fabulous pieces that I was privileged to see firsthand, but also for the people. The Arts Society volunteers were a great group who shared a wealth of knowledge and were always lovely and very welcoming. Salisbury Museum staff gave me the opportunity to become involved in a unique and important collection and to see it through to its conclusion in what is now a representation of an amazing display of garments and accessories with a connection to Salisbury and its heritage.

This report first appeared on Sue's website Fashioning Our World

The Museum Work Experience Grant (MWEG) is intended to support students seeking museum work experience with a dress collection and to help UK museums accomplish projects essential to the care, knowledge and interpretation of collections. In each year a grant of up to £1000 will be offered to a student applying jointly with an appropriate UK-based museum. The volunteer should be a student (minimum second year undergraduate) or recent graduate of an appropriate UK university course.

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