Talking About The Hodson Shop Collection

There aren’t many pretty pictures to accompany this post, mainly because my work has been far from visual over the last couple of months. The focus of my research has shifted from interacting with ‘things’ to interacting with people; interviewing people or, to put it in its simplest form, talking to people.

I’ve been talking to past and present staff at Walsall Museum about their experiences of the Hodson Shop Collection. My approach has been partly that of an oral historian and partly that of a particularly nosy ethnographer!

My aims have been:

  • To establish the story of the collection, from the point of discovery to the present day, according to the people who have worked with it
  • To chart how changes in museum spaces have effected the collection, in terms of both display and storage
  • To discover how museum professionals understand and interpret the collection on personal and professional levels

The final aim is one that I still struggle to pin down, but I’m going to have a go. Apologies as I know how vague and unrefined this is:

I want to unpick the relationships between people and the items within the collection. This could be as simple as an individual’s favourite item and the reasons behind it or as complex as how the collection has altered or otherwise impacted on an individual’s life and/or career.

Before embarking on the research, I read plenty of intimidating tomes about conducting interviews. Phrases like ‘building rapport’ and ‘power dynamics’ rang in my ears and, quite frankly, terrified me. But it was only when I sat down with my first interviewee, cups of tea in hand, that it hit me: there’s nothing scary about having a chat. There are some out there who might be rankled by my unsophisticated choice of word here but I’m standing by it.

I have also discovered that it sometimes better for the interviewee if interview is referred to as a ‘chat’. It is a simple shift in language that can completely change an individual’s response. A friendly conversation about something they have a deep interest in is much more appealing than an ‘in-depth interview’. It can be tricky to balance this friendly informality with the necessary filling in of consent forms and explanations of the project and how recordings will be used, but it isn’t impossible.

LiveScribe Echo

I’ve been recording interviews on my LiveScribe (it is a pen with a audio recorder built in, amongst other James Bond-style features – pictured above). My hope was that the pen would be far less invasive than a conventional recording device plonked on the desk, I hoped it would be almost an “invisible recorder”. Without delving into a full review, it has been successful to a point, though the LiveScribe has a few frustrating irks such as a tendency to pick up the sound of the pen nib making contact with the page. I also had to angle the pen towards the speaker, making for some artificial holding positions and postures.

The next step is to transcribe and sort my data. Notes made during the interviews and memories already indicate some clear themes emerging. I’m excited to see what close analysis of the text will reveal whilst equally nervous about what will have been lost in the jump from sound to text.

Throughout this whole process, I’ve found Paul Thompson’s The Voice of the Past to be invaluable. It may be 35 years old and talk about cassette recorders as the height of technological sophistication but the approach he outlines is wise and straightforward. The art of talking to people is timeless.

Massive thanks to everyone who has been involved in the interviews/chats so far! Now for the fun part: transcription.

A Visit to the Hodson Shop

54 New Road, Willenhall was the site of the Hodson Shop. The building is now in the care of the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) and goes by the name The Locksmith’s House due to Edgar Hodson’s successful lock making business that operated from the same site.

The house isn’t normally open to the public, so I jumped at the chance to go on a special visit with historian Rod Quilter. I spent a wonderful afternoon exploring 54 New Road. It felt odd to be in a place that I have read and written so much about.

The Locksmith's House, Willenhall

The Locksmith’s House, Willenhall

Stepping into the shop, which now functions as a reception area/gift shop/mini exhibition space I was instantly struck by how small it was. My only previous experience of the space had been from a black and white photo taken in 1983 – whoever took it had obviously applied estate agent style photographic skills!

The Hodson Shop as it was found in 1983. Image via Walsall Musuem.

The Hodson Shop as it was found in 1983. Image via Walsall Musuem

The Hodson Shop in 2013 - note the fireplace.

The Hodson Shop in 2013

There was display case of 1920s clothing and shelves in alcoves to either side of the fireplace. In fact, the fireplace was my only real point of reference from the photograph; the display units were all new additions. The shelves held corsetry, accessories and haberdashery items – everything on display had been loaned from Walsall Museum. A door between the shop and neighbouring parlour had been filled in. The shop was accessed from the street by walking through the front door and walking a short way down a stone-floored hallway. It seemed strange for the shop to share an entrance with the rest of the house, as if the boundaries between personal and business spaces were blurred.

The displays of Hodson Shop stock

The displays of Hodson Shop stock

The parlour had been recreated with a combination of reproduction soft furnishings and original furniture. There was a booklet of photographs on a small table; it contained images of the Hodson family including a stunning photograph of a youthful Flora Hodson.

We went upstairs to a small office space; it was next door to the master bedroom – again with the blurred lines between business and private life. The bedroom was quite poignant, it was where Flora Hodson slept, alone in the house, following the death of her sister and brother.

Flora Hodson - she joined the shop business in 1927.

Flora Hodson – she joined the shop business in 1927

The Parlour

The Parlour

Edgar Hodson’s lock making business is the focal point of the property. We were lucky to get a tour of his factory and some facts about lock making from a volunteer called Andy who is a locksmith himself and runs demonstrations for visitors. It turns out that Edgar supplied locks all over the world, including a booming business in Latin America.

It was fascinating to walk through the house and it got me thinking about how the collection has become separated from its original environment. I am very interested in how the historical narrative of lockmaking has been prioritised over one of shop keeping and clothing. On a more practical level, I am struggling to imagine how the collection once fitted into such a compact space!

As mentioned above, the house isn’t generally open to the public – school and group visits can be arranged by contacting the BCLM. However, the house has an annual free open day complete with tours and lock making demonstrations. The next one is Saturday 14th September, 10am-4pm. I’d highly recommend it.

Massive thanks to Jo Moody and Andy at BCLM, Catherine Lister at Walsall Museum and Rod Quilter for a wonderful afternoon!

Current Exhibition: Summer on the Beach @Walsall Museum

Summer on the Beach Poster

Fun fact: The Hodson Shop Collection contains no beachwear. I need to do a bit of digging as to why this might be but I have a couple of theories:

1) Willenhall is about as land-locked as a town can be, so a swimming costume would be more of a luxury than a necessity.

2) The Hodson Shop simply wasn’t the sort of place that sold swim wear – maybe bathing suits were purchased from more specialist retailers?

Whilst Edith and Flora Hodson might not have been purveyors of bikinis and bathing costumes, the people of Walsall borough definitely had a desire to splash around at the seaside!

Walsall Museum’s Summer on the Beach exhibition gives a vibrant overview of 20th century beachwear, drawing from the Museum’s extensive Community History Costume Collection.

Can you picture yourself parading along the beach in a psychedelic seventies bikini or sunning yourself in a floral fifties bathing suit with puffed skirt? How about dodging waves in a heavy stockinette Edwardian bathing dress? And for the men they have just the thing for taking a dip, a thick woollen swimming suit.

Summer on the Beach is on show from Thursday 13 June until Wednesday 11 September  2013.  It can be seen within Walsall Museum’s Changing Face of Walsall gallery on the first floor of the Central Library building.  Entry to the Museum is free of charge, for further information please contact 01922 653116 or email museum@walsall.gov.uk.

Note: The pictures below aren’t from the actual exhibition – they were taken at an event earlier in the year. Both of these swimming costumes feature in the exhibition and give a good idea of the flamboyant and colourful nature of the swimwear. I’m pretty smitten with the butterfly print number!

1950s skirted swimsuit, Walsall Museum.

1950s skirted swimsuit, Walsall Museum.

Butterfly Print Swimsuit, Walsall Museum

Butterfly Print Swimsuit, Walsall Museum

 

Appreciating the Pretty Things

It has been a while since my last post. I’ve been busy over the past few weeks – finishing the object analysis stage of my research, preparing for interviews with museum staff and delivering two presentations about the Hodson Shop Project.

During this time, I’ve been lucky to attend two CHORD workshops and a study day at the University of Chester about the Textile Stories project, organised by Professor Deborah Wynne. It is always a pleasure to go along to such events and meet people who are passionate about clothing and history. It is especially exciting to have a chance to talk about my research with these people!

I’m still very much in the thick of it research-wise, so this post is more a collection of some of the gorgeous images that I have captured in the course of my studies over the last month or so.

It is quite refreshing to step back from detailed analysis and to simply appreciate something because it is pretty. Some objects and garments make people smile, a factor which is arguably undervalued in studies of material culture. And sometimes that smile is enough. There are no long-winded descriptions or complex biographies for any of the items picture below. Enjoy.

 

A Pot of Bourjois Ashes of Roses Rouge from the Hodson Shop Collection. c1920s-30s.

A Pot of Bourjois Ashes of Roses Rouge from the Hodson Shop Collection. c1920s-30s.

 

Details of Packaging and Label on "Cherub" Children's Vests from the Hodson Shop Collection. 1950s.

Details of Packaging and Label on “Cherub” Children’s Vests from the Hodson Shop Collection. 1950s.

 

Feathers from the Hodson Shop Collection.

Feathers from the Hodson Shop Collection.

 

Details of Handkerchiefs and Packaging from the Hodson Shop Collection. c1950.

Details of Handkerchiefs and Packaging from the Hodson Shop Collection. c1950.

 

Artwork by Textile Artist, Maria Walker in Collaboration with Poet, Angela Topping. Image taken at Textile Stories Study Day at University of Chester.

Artwork by Textile Artist, Maria Walker in Collaboration with Poet, Angela Topping. Image taken at Textile Stories Study Day at University of Chester.

CHORD Conference: ‘Retailing and the Senses: Historical Perspectives’

RetailHistory

The programme of the 2013 CHORD Conference, which will take place at the Marks and Spencer Company Archive, Leeds, on 5 September 2013, is now ready and registration is open.

9.30 – 10.00 Clare Backhouse, Courtauld Institute of Art, UK, ‘Broadside ballads, Dress and the Senses in Seventeenth-Century England’

10.00 – 10.30 Lucy A. Bailey, University of Northampton, UK, ‘An Assault on the Senses: Cultural Representations of the Victorian Village Shop’

 10.30 – 11.00 coffee

 11.00 – 11.30 Ben Highmore, Sussex University, UK, ‘Provençal Herbs and the Chicken Brick: Sensual Orchestration at the first Habitat Store’

11.30 -12.00 Ai Hisano, University of Delaware, US, ‘The Color of Taste: Selling Food in Clear Packages in the Early-Twentieth-Century United States’

12.00- 13.30 Lunch and Tour of the Archives

13.30 – 14.45A Touch of Cloth

Serena Dyer, University of Warwick, UK, ‘”Discomposing the Goods”: Sensory Shopping and the…

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Underwear and the Hodson Shop Collection

Let’s talk about underwear.

The Hodson Shop contains a lot of underwear and analysing it has been quite an eye opening experience! Let’s just say that there’s nothing like a pair of pale brown 1920s woollen knickers to make you eternally grateful for a humble pair of M&S cotton briefs.

The drab, frumpy and substantial (in both cut and fabric) nature of some of the underwear that I have been examining has highlighted one of the key dangers when using the collection to make generalisations about fashions and dress from particular eras. It is quite easy to look at items from, say, the 1920s and use them to create a vision of what people wore during that period. Yet caution is required.

Garments in the collection are there for a simple reason: no one ever purchased them. This could be a case of the Hodson sisters buying in far too many items and refusing to have stock clearance sales or it could be that they were simply stocking things that no one wanted.

Take this 1930s woollen combination (below). It is made by the fabulously named ‘Rameses’. The first thing I noticed was the sheer weight and thickness of the fabric, I then noticed the open crotch and I have to admit that that there were giggles. To 21st century eyes, the garment has an almost comic quality. It is a world away from the ‘sexy’ briefs and bras that stuff underwear drawers across the country.  In fact, it is a world away from ‘sexy’ fullstop!

1930s underwear

1930s ‘Rameses’ Woman’s Woollen Combination

Forget Agent Provocateur or Coco de Mer, this is underwear that was intended to perform a function. The open crotch, for example, was there to enable the wearer use the toilet without having to get undressed. That’s not to say that the wearers of such garments didn’t get frisky when the urge so took them…

The Hodson Shop would have needed to cater for their older customer. So during the 1920s and 1930s when many of Willenhall’s young ladies would have been donning shorter skirts, some Hodson Shop customers were possibly still sporting Edwardian-era ankle length skirts. In that context, a knee length woollen combination with a split crotch begins to make something resembling sense.

These are items that were out of fashion even at the point of potential sale. They make regular appearances throughout the collection as the customers who would have worn them were dying out or adapting to new styles of underwear.

1940s 1950s Underwear

Clockwise from left: 1950s nylon slip, Utility bra, Utility rayon camisole.

There is a general trend emerging through the collection of undergarments becoming smaller (and often prettier) as time progresses. A Utility bra is made in a delicate shade of rose, with ribbon straps; a 1950s slip has chiffon flounces printed with trailing flowers (see above). I am also beginning to notice a shift in the promotional text used on swing tickets and labels. Earlier garments are accompanied with copy that emphasises their value, durability and quality. Vests are ‘Unshrinkable’ and ‘Protective’ (see image of the ‘Rameses’ combination above). There is also an emphasis on the ‘purity’ of the fabrics used. I am yet to observe such text accompanying underwear from 1940s-50s. This possibly gives a few hints about how social attitudes towards women, dress and sexuality were changing.

CHORD Workshop: ‘Embellished Textiles: Interpretation and Care of Fine Needlework in Museums and Historic Houses’

I’ll be delivering a short presentation on The Hodson Shop Project at this workshop on 12 June 2013.

RetailHistory

The programme of this workshop, which will take place at the University of Wolverhampton on 12 June 2013, is now available: Image

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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The Mysterious Case of the Blue Slippers

Blue Slippers

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?

Blue Slippers Close Up

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.

Blue slippers differences

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Age: These shoes are approximately 80 years old. Worn or unworn, they are bound to show signs of deterioration in condition.
  3. Manufacture: The differences could merely be the result of inconsistencies in manufacture.
  4. 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’?

The ‘Tinkerbell’ Dress and Exhibiting the Unexhibitable

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?

The 'Tinkerbell' dress

The ‘Tinkerbell’ dress

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 pocket detailing - note the cluster of small silk-wrapped balls.

The pocket detailing – note the cluster of small silk-wrapped balls.

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.

The invite to Amy de la Haye's Professorial lecture at London College of Fashion

Detail of the invite to Amy de la Haye’s professorial lecture at London College of Fashion

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.

Current Exhibition: Factory Girls @ Walsall Museum

Factory Girls Poster

Aprons and overalls from The Hodson Shop Collection star in Walsall Museum’s latest exhibition, Factory Girls.

The exhibit celebrates these often overlooked aspects of working women’s attire, from 1920s-1970s. Whilst the overalls and aprons served a practical and protective purpose for the women who worked in Walsall’s factories, they were also attractive garments in their own right; with bold and striking prints and cuts that echoed the shape of the era’s fashionable dress.

Hodson Shop overals as part of the Factory Girls Exhibition

Hodson Shop overalls as part of the Factory Girls Exhibition

Factory Girls features a wide variety of overalls, pinafores and aprons worn by women during the 20th century to protect their clothing while out at work. They range from the dress-like overalls of the 1920s, through the classic cross-over pinny styles of the 1930s and 40s to the nylon jacket styles of the 1960s and 70s.

I personally adore the Hodson Shop paisley wrap-around dress-style overall from the 1930s (below, centre) – it manages to be at once practical and relatively elegant, far better than my standard housework attire of scruffy jeans and a hoodie!

Hodson Shop Aprons

Hodson Shop overalls as part of the Factory Girls Exhibition

It is exciting to see these everyday and instantly recognisable garments on display (did anyone else’s Nan used to answer the door wearing something strikingly similar?!) . They serve as reminders that Walsall’s industrial past, whilst certainly dirty and far from glamorous, was still bright, colourful and beautiful.

Factory Girls runs until 12th June 2013 and is set to complement the upcoming A Centenary of Stainless Steel exhibition that celebrates the renowned Bloxwich-based stainless steel manufacturers, Old Hall which runs 9th April-1st June 2013.

You can visit Factory Girls at Walsall Museum’s Changing Face of Walsall gallery on the first floor of the Central Library building. Entry to the Museum is free of charge, for further information please call 01922 653116 or email museum@walsall.gov.uk.