An Update and Farewell:
The Hodson Shop Project officially ended on 16th December 2016 – the day that I went from Ms Jenny Gilbert to Dr Jenny Gilbert. Even now, many months on, I am still processing the wonderful and life-changing experience that this research (and the Hodson Shop Collection itself) provided.
My heartfelt thanks goes out to all of the people who were involved in the project, including, but not limited to: the wonderful team at Walsall Museum Service, Sheila Shreeve and the countless volunteers and former museum staff who gave their time and thoughts so generously. Massive thanks also to my supervision team and the various other academic and support staff at University of Wolverhampton. Extra special thanks goes to Prof. Laura Ugolini – my wonderful Director of Studies. Oh, and I can’t forget the generous role played by the Arts and Humanities Research Council who funded the research.
Should you be at all interested, the completed thesis can be found via the British Libraries EThOS respository. I will also be endeavouring to update my personal website regularly and may even return to blogging in the near future…
I am now embarking on a new chapter of my academic career as lecturer in Design Cultures at De Montfort University, Leicester. I am also carrying out research into the clothing wholesale industry in Birmingham and keen to pursue broadcasting opportunities.
This website now serves as an archive of four happy and fascinating years. Feel free to look back through the archives and, most of all, enjoy!
Thank you for reading,
#InspirationMW and a Fond Farewell
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
Exhibition: Austerity to Prosperity
I was honoured and excited when Walsall Museum invited me to take part in planning this exhibition. My brief was to select items from the Hodson Shop Collection that told the story of the transition from wartime austerity to the relative prosperity of the 1950s. The clothing in the collection fits perfectly within this tumultuous period and provides evidence of what Black Country women were wearing during the post-war period. There are the simple yet subduedly elegant utility (CC41) dresses that fade away as the 1950s get into full swing, with full skirts and vivid prints taking over.
My main aim was not to oversimplify the narrative of change; the myth that everyone woke up on 1st January 1950 to find that the drab wartime world had been replaced by a new consumer-driven technicolor dream world. The 1940s may have been a time of austerity but there was still colour, beauty and a booming demand for little luxuries such as lipstick and face powder. Conversely, the 1950s remained austere for many, with food rationing only coming to an end in 1954 (clothing rationing ended in 1949). I reflected this by choosing a few unusual items: a ‘Wartime emergency pack’ of face powder, a surprisingly frilly utility dress, a distinctly dreary wool jersey dress from the 1950s next to a full-skirted confection of a dress from the same time.
Installing the exhibition was great fun and an excellent learning opportunity. I’m really proud of the end result, especially the bit that includes a 1950s twin-tub washing machine!
The clothing accompanies a display of items manufactured or used in the Black Country during the period 1940-1960, again reflecting the aesthetic and ideals of the shift from austerity to prosperity. The exhibition is part of the region-wide Black Country Echoes festival and runs 3 Sept-10 Jan 2015. Admission is free.
Thanks to the team at Walsall Museum for providing me with this opportunity and supporting me along the way!
From Austerity to Prosperity
3 Sept 2014-10 Jan 2015
Community History Gallery, Walsall Museum, Lichfield Street, Walsall.
Purity, Piety and Pants
Several months ago, I (half-jokingly) mentioned my plans to write a paper about religion and underwear marketing. It was one of those situations where I knew there was something in the idea but it took me a while to get to the bottom of exactly what it was. After mulling the idea over and getting over the fits of giggles that struck me down every time I saw Cardinal Wolsey’s face on a pair of knickers, I decided to seriously pursue the idea.
I submitted an abstract for the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution workshop on retailing and the human body and was delighted when I was told that it had been successful. Since then I’ve become immersed in the world of early-twentieth century underwear, Thomas Wolsey and St. Margaret.
The CHORD workshop ‘Retailing, Commerce and the Human Body: Historical Approaches’ takes place on 14th May 2014 at University of Wolverhampton. Visit the CHORD webpage for more information.
I’ll publish a summary of my paper on here after the event, but for now I wanted to share some of the images I have gathered whilst researching the paper:
As always, massive thanks to the team at Walsall Museum for allowing me to study and photograph these items!
Walsall Museum has been saved!
As I blogged about previously, the museum was facing the threat of closure as part of a package of cuts by Walsall Council designed to save £19million.
It looks like public support for the museum played a big part in the council’s decision, so massive thanks to those who took part in consultation and/or signed the online petition.
See the Express & Star for more details:
Whilst researching the history of the Hodson Shop Collection it has become clear that collections are subject to influences far beyond the display case or store room. The closure threat made this strikingly clear.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the team at the Walsall Museum for their ongoing support for this project – even during uncertain and troubling times.
The current exhibition at the museum is Gaslight Gothic, which explores the darker side of Walsall’s history. It includes examples of Victorian mourning dress alongside tombstones, taxidermy and other odd and obscure items from the museum’s collection. The exhibition is in the Changing Face of Walsall Gallery on the first floor of the Central Library Building on Lichfield Street, admission is free.
Save Walsall Museum
Over the Christmas break I came across this petition to save Walsall Museum. You can find out more about the closure threat in this post. The petition aims to get 1,000 signatures so it would be great if you could sign and share the link:
This isn’t just about the future of the Hodson Shop Collection, it is about providing a permanent and easily accessible home for the history of Walsall.
Many thanks and a (slightly delayed) Happy New Year to you all!
Some Sad News: Council Cuts
I received some sad news earlier this week. Walsall Council have announced a package of cuts in spending that will result in the closure of Walsall Museum. Whilst the cuts are currently the subject of public consultation (readers living in Walsall can find details of consultation events here), it is fair to say that things don’t look good. This blog isn’t the place for a detailed explanation of the council’s decisions – for those I point you towards The Express and Star.
It is unlikely that closure will have an adverse effect on my research but it does mean that hardworking, knowledgeable and dedicated staff are now facing the threat of redundancy. It also means that the Hodson Shop Collection (and the museum’s other collections) will retreat even further away from public view. Finally, there’s the fact that the people of Walsall will be losing a place dedicated to their history.
Everything about the situation is sad and my thoughts go out to everyone affected by the announcement. If anything, the news has strengthened my resolve to shout about the Hodson Shop Collection from the rooftops. The collection has so many stories to tell and I’m going to strive to make sure that they are heard.