With this being Museums Week, I’ve decided now is a good time to share one of my happiest and most inspiring memories of working with Walsall Museum. Yesterday, people were sharing their museum inspirations on Twitter using the hashtag #inspirationsmw. My museum inspiration started with a visit to Walsall Museum stores back in October 2011.
The museum will close to the public on 31st March 2015. Whilst Walsall Council’s decision to close the museum is saddening, there are reasons to remain positive about the museum’s future. There are plans afoot to move the museum to a new location in 2018 and the Changing Face of Walsall exhibition is being moved to a temporary home at Walsall Leather Museum from 25th July 2015. I’ve also been in discussion with the team regarding pop-up exhibitions. Collections will still be accessible to the public through a range of initiatives – you can find out the full details on the museum’s web page.
As a researcher, I am hopeful that the Hodson Shop Collection (and the rest of the museum’s collection) will continue to be promoted and made available for people to see and study. I’ve seen first hand how people connect with the collection. People can relate to it on a personal level – their mother or grandmother might have worn an apron like that or they had to wear a liberty bodice as a child and can remember the fabric itching on their skin. The Hodson Shop Collection isn’t about spectacle, it is about the everyday things that can often be taken for granted. The things that we don’t expect to find in a museum display but find captivating all the same. Over the two and a half years of this project, I have got to know the collection; without getting too sentimental, it is fair to say that it has found a place in my heart.
It all began back in 2011. I was preparing for my first interview for a PhD studentship and wanted to see the collection up close. I’d never visited a museum store before so I had very little idea of what to expect. I definitely didn’t expect to find myself stood outside a trading estate on the outskirts of Walsall. The building looked like any other anonymous industrial unit, with shutters and a corrugated roof. A forklift truck was buzzing around and there was a constant background clatter of light industry. The surroundings were not in keeping with the treasure trove of twentieth century clothing I had been promised.
Catherine, the museum’s Collections Officer let me in and showed me around. We didn’t know it then but we’d be working together a lot over the coming years. There are plenty of clichés and idioms about judging things by external appearances and I’m going to add another: never judge a museum’s store by it’s exterior. There were shelves stretching from floor to ceiling and aisle after aisle of treasures. The costume collection was stored on a series of calico-covered rails or in boxes stacked down the length of an aisle. Catherine pulled the cover from the Hodson Shop Collection dress rail. The dresses were arranged in age order, starting from the 1920s. I remember being struck by how colourful they were. I was allowed to take out some of the dresses to look at more closely. The first that struck me were the pastel pink and pistachio 1920s dancing dresses with the drop waist and floral corsage. My favourite was a 1930s floral tea dress with a white collar – my first response was ‘there’s something a bit Prada about it’!
There was something magical about opening the boxes and pulling away layers of tissue to reveal the contents. A box of aprons was dazzling, with a riotous mix of prints and gaudy colours. There was the blue and pink wool jersey St Margaret jumper suit, assured in its elegance and (relative) expensiveness to this day. The one thing that has stuck with me in startling clarity was the experience of opening a box of cosmetic items. The smell was overwhelming and instantly familiar – it reminded me of rummaging through my Grandma’s make up bag as a little girl and playing with her frosted pink Avon lipstick. From that point, I knew that I was hooked.
I know that I have been incredibly privileged to get this close to museum items. It is something that I am incredibly grateful to Walsall Museum for. With the closure of the museum, the Hodson Shop Collection will no longer have a display space meaning that the public won’t be able to see the garments. The prospect of the collection being mothballed and kept out of sight is awful. The Hodson Shop Collection has the potential to inspire many, many more people. It needs to be recognised and celebrated as a significant part of not only Walsall’s heritage but of British social and dress history too.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the team at Walsall Museum for their support over the past four years. They have been helpful, knowledgeable and unwavering in their commitment to this project from day one, even when times have been tough.
You can visit Walsall Museum up until Tuesday 31st March. Please show them your support!
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10am-5pm
Address: Walsall Museum, Lichfield Street, Walsall, West Midlands WS1
Tel: 01922 653116
I’ll be delivering a short presentation on The Hodson Shop Project at this workshop on 12 June 2013.
11.00 – 11.30 Welcome, coffee and registration
11.30 – 12.00 Mary M Brooks, Durham University,‘..beauty’s waste hath in the world an end’: Decay, Conservation and the Making of Meaning in the Museum
12.00 – 12.30 Ksynia Marko, Rachel Langley and Philippa Sanders, Textile Conservation Studio, National Trust,Conserving Penelope with Patience and Perseverance: a case history of a large 16th Century Appliquéd Hangingfrom Hardwick Hall
12.30 – 13.00 Student five-minute presentations:
Jenny Evans, University of Wolverhampton,The Hodson Shop Project: Unworn and Everyday Dress in the Museum
Madeleine Green, University of Wolverhampton,Building a Collection from the Souvenir: Travel and Domestic Display in the Long Eighteenth-Century
13.00 – 14.00 Lunch
14.00 – 14.30 Miriam Ali-de-Unzaga, Visiting Scholar at the The Papyrus Museum, Vienna,The Material…
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Studying unworn historical clothing is an unusual experience. I’m constantly looking for minute and subtle points of interest – be it a loose thread here or a tell-tale price tag there. I’m always looking for clues to a story, albeit one that doesn’t involve contact with a body.
What I never really anticipated was to find anything close to resembling ‘signs of wear’. Being ‘unworn’ is such a crucial and defining part of the Hodson Shop Collection that I’d put such matters to the back of my mind, that was until I encountered the mysterious case of the blue slippers…
They are a pair of mid-blue synthetic leather (what I prefer to call ‘pleather’ in non-academic settings!) house slippers, with a chunky curved heel, an ‘opera slipper’ style curved raised vamp and a bow at the front. They look quite smart and passable for daywear until you see the fluffy white fleece lining. My guess is that they are from the 1930s, though they may be earlier. Their condition in generally very good but I’m starting to suspect that their few scratches and creases hold a secret.
Time for a fun game of spot the difference: look at the pair of slippers below, can you spot any differences between the slipper on the left and the one on the right?
Don’t worry if not. I didn’t at see much first, but after an hour of examining them some subtle and potentially very interesting differences began to become clear.
The first thing that I noticed was that the bow on the right shoe (pictured above left) was far more curled and misshapen. This then lead me to noting scratches and worn stitching on the right shoe but not on the left. Close examination of the soles also presents a difference – there are lines of vertical scuffing on the right slipper but not the left, and some notable scratches close to the sole edge. Then I spotted something that could hold the key to these small differences. In the image below left you’ll notice that the right slipper (on left in picture) is far more collapsed than that of the left – almost as if it has been ‘trodden’ down. ‘Trodden’ being the operative word here.
This is where I start to get far too excited…
…could one of these shoes have been worn?
My initial (and the cause of my excitement) theory is that the right shoe was the ‘trying on’ slipper. We are all familiar with walking into a shoe shop and trying on shoes from display. I’ve certainly experienced that oh-so-disappointing feeling of buying some bargain shoes only to get home and discover that one is discoloured from bright shop lights and slightly crumpled from repeated trying on in-store. Maybe the Hodson sisters allowed customers to try on a single shoe in the store, retaining the matching shoe in storage?
Before I get carried away, I have to remember that there are numerous explanations behind these differences and the likelihood of me ever reaching a definitive one is very slim. Possible explanations include:
- Storage: Conditions in the Hodson Shop were far from ideal. Boxes were piled up and stock was scattered about. All it would have taken is for one shoe to get crushed by a box above or for the pair to have become separated amongst the chaos.
- Age: These shoes are approximately 80 years old. Worn or unworn, they are bound to show signs of deterioration in condition.
- Manufacture: The differences could merely be the result of inconsistencies in manufacture.
- Display: The shoes could have been on display at the shop or even during their museum life.
There’s also the argument that my brain has become so receptive to ‘signs of a story’ that I could be seeing something where there is really nothing to see.
If it were to transpire that these slippers had been tried on, I am still left with the question ‘how does this change the object?’. This question goes beyond the physical realm and raises issues around interpretation and biography. Also, it opens up a discussion around defining ‘wear’. At what point does something become ‘worn’? Can a shoe that has been slipped on and off a human foot be considered ‘unworn’?
Since starting this project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about dirt and decay. Most specifically the importance of dirt in creating a ‘biography’ for museum garments and the curatorial and conservational challenges it poses.
Here’s the deal: when the Hodson Shop Collection was first discovered, it was dirty. Years of accumulated Black Country grime had taken its toll and left garments smeared with sooty smudges. Yet the decision was made to preserve this grime where possible as it was considered an important part of the collection’s story.
In the absence of a conventional ‘story’, i.e. one that involves someone actually wearing the garments and leaving traces and imprints of wear (this could be a scent, creases or marks), such a decision makes sense. Fashion historians and costume conservators often talk of ‘sacred dirt’ – a lipstick trace here, a spot of blood there. These are marks that are integral to the story of the garment and must be kept intact.
There are some quite touching and intriguing examples of ‘sacred’ dirt within the Hodson Shop Collection. My personal favourite is the 1930s vest that features two small cat paw prints. I love the idea of a cat crawling over the piles of unsold underwear before snuggling down to sleep on a pile of knickers!
So, yes, I find dirt very interesting! But do museum audiences share my interest or do dirt and decay present insurmountable barriers for museum visitors? How can dirt and decay be presented to museum visitors? And at what point does a dirty and decayed item become unexhibitable?
This brings me on to what I have decided to call the ‘Tinkerbell’ dress (pictured above). The name comes from the fact that it is A) green and B) falling into a state of fairy-like shredded decay. It is an item that inhabits a state of limbo, being at once inside a museum but not part of the museum’s collection.
It is a beautiful pale green silk-chiffon dress from the 1920s that was found amongst the Hodson Shop stock. It has long lace-trimmed sleeves, a high lace collar and pretty scalloped pockets made from tiers of lace. I’m was initially quite surprised that the dress was from The Hodson Shop, mainly because it is silk, very bright and involves intricate detailing – such as the clusters of tiny silk wrapped balls that sit on the lace pockets. Most of the early Hodson Shop dresses are cotton or man-made fibres, fairly drab and simple. Sheila Shreeve believes that the dress may have been bought in especially for a friend or family member, thus explaining these differences.
The dress was discovered in such poor condition that it was decided not to accession it into the Hodson Shop Collection. The silk is shattered and shredding – so much so that I was terrified to move the dress to take a picture (hence the far from ideal images above – I’ll attempt to get a better one when I am next at the museum). Whilst this decay is sad, the dress is beautiful.
During her inaugural lecture at London College of Fashion, Amy de la Haye talked about exhibiting fragmentary and shattered garments, in relation to the Fashion and Fancy Dress exhibition of the Messel Family dress collection at Brighton Museum in 2005. According to de la Haye, fabric’s natural ability to ‘disintegrate with the progress of time’ reflects our own human fragility. She gave a wonderful quote from Anne Messel: ‘Their frailty is their magic, don’t you think?’
It was this thinking that lead to the inclusion of a shattered and fragmentary dress in the exhibition. It was laid flat – with its damage and decay exposed to visitors. It was ‘the unexhibitable exhibited’.
Interestingly, an image of a shattered corset worn by Maud Messel was used as the invite for de la Haye’s lecture (see below), suggesting that decayed garments can often make a lasting impression upon on those who come into contact with them.
Unlike the shattered Messel dress, the Tinkerbell dress has not been worn and it is not attached to an illustrious family of aristocratic fashion collectors. Maybe it is wear and attachment to a personality that make signs of decay palatable to museum visitors – are they what enable the unexhibitable to be exhibited?
Whilst the Tinkerbell dress is unlikely to ever be exhibited or accessioned, it has provided me with a lot to think about. I feel very lucky to have experienced this dress in all of its magic frailty.