Three years ago, three years sounded like a very long time. There were even moments, early on, when I thought I’d get this thesis done in two and spend the last year kicking back on a beach, sipping cocktails and making hilarious jokes about being a doctor of fashion (‘Diagnosis: those shoes with those trousers, seriously?’). Turns out that writing a doctoral thesis is hard and takes way longer than you’d initially expect.
I’m now officially writing up. This means that I have done all of my research and now have a year to cobble together my findings and ideas into a coherent document, one with a contents page, cover and everything. I’ve been writing since day one, way back in October 2012. I like writing and a few people told me that it was best to write from the outset of the PhD project. I’m glad I did. Sure, some of the stuff I wrote back in the early days makes me cringe and scream ‘WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?’ (e.g. I went through a proper emo poetic phase circa. Jan 2014 when I kept trying to sneak Giacomo Leopardi quotes into a chapter. Yeah, that didn’t really move anything forward and I fear my supervisor was beginning to despair but it felt really intellectual and meaningful at the time). It is satisfying to now look back through my work and observe my voice becoming clearer and stronger, my references become more elegant and my actual thesis emerge from what was once a chaotic jumble of convoluted theory and hunches.
That’s not to say the journey is over. I’ve still got a long way to go and I don’t think any academic researcher ever stands still. We are constantly learning something new, changing and developing. That’s what makes the prospect of my future career so exciting. I want to keep learning new stuff and talking to people and reading ideas and seeing things and changing things for as long as I’m on this earth (maybe that emo poetic phase isn’t quite over).
This blog has never been a place for sharing my core findings, rather somewhere to put the interesting asides or to share good or bad news. It feels right to now share something very simple that the past three years have taught me. It is something that I’d long suspected and Meryl Streep’s character in the Devil Wears Prada has eloquently expressed: clothes matter. Victoria Kelley has identified how, in the binary of surface/depth, depth is considered to hold the real value and interest. Surface often gets dismissed as somehow trivial. We live in a world where interest in surface is considered a negative trait. Binaries and violent hierarchies are all well and good and I firmly believe we watch many of them play out in the world on a daily basis (ahem, Twitter). Yet I’ve come to realize that they are too neat and tidy, too black and white and way too bound up with power to be the only means by which to understand what is going on in the world around us.
My research has found that the Hodson Shop Collection has been on the subservient side of a number of binary oppositions: worn/unworn, dirty/clean, ordinary/spectacular. Yet the nature of these pairings functions differently in the museum space than in the outside world and the perceptions of the dominant/subservient relationship shifts according to who is beholding the garment or collection. A dress historian might view a dirty smudge as exciting ‘evidence’ whilst a museum visitor could consider it as off-putting. An unworn dress could be considered to lack tangible evidence of daily life for a social historian whilst it would look visually attractive on a mannequin and potentially present fewer conservation issues for a museum professional. Binaries shift and crack and that’s where the shades of grey emerge. I’ve discovered that it is these nuances that excite me.
The collection has also been subject to a host of influences beyond the surface of each garment. I’ve found that the story of the collection is one of politics, economics, emotion, gender and power. It hasn’t been a simple story of individuals determining the future lives of objects; the objects have also shaped the lives of individuals. Stuff matters and stuff can change people’s lives. The story of a dress (or, in the case of my research: 5,208 items of mass produced clothing and accessories) is entwined with that of the world and people around it. And that story doesn’t end when the dress enters the museum. Museums and museum stores are not static or sacred.
These are just a few semi-formed ideas that have been floating around in my head over the past week. Nothing earth shattering, refined or complete. The earth shattering (HA!) refined and complete stuff will happen over the course of the next few months. In the meantime, thanks for reading.
 Victoria Kelley, “A Superficial Guide to the Meaning of Surface”, in Surface Tensions: Surface, Finish and the Meaning of Objects, eds. Glenn Adamson and Victoria Kelley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 13.
I’m thrilled to be able to share this audio file of my recent conference paper with you.
This recording is by no means the finished article but I have noticed that the subject really captures people’s attention so it felt right to share it. There is a lot more work and research to be done on the subject – especially concerning anxieties around the adulteration and cleanliness of fabrics.
In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy listening and I welcome any thoughts or ideas in the comments below.
Thanks to the wonderful Katrina Maitland-Brown for making this recording and to everyone at CHORD for the opportunity to speak at their workshop. As always, massive thanks to the team at Walsall Museum for their ongoing support.
C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes, (London: Faber, 1981).
Keith Jopp, Corah of Leicester 1815-1965, (privately printed, 1965). (read the PDF here)
C.W Webb, An Historical Record of N.Corah & Sons Ltd., (privately printed, 1947). (read the PDF here)
Elizabeth Ewing, Everyday Dress 1650-1900, (London: B.T Batsford Ltd., 1989).
Also see the ‘About’ section of the Wolsey website for their take on the brand’s history.
After a busy few weeks (more on which in a future post), it has been a pleasure to finally get back to hands-on archival research. I’ve spent a few days digging through the Hodson Shop archive of trade catalogues, seeking out links to any of the items I have encountered during my object analysis. Plenty have emerged as I’ve worked my way through piles of trade brochures for Birmingham wholesalers such as Wilkinson and Riddell, S.C Larkin and Sons and Bell and Nicholson. The images below are of some of the things that have caught my eye. They aren’t always hugely relevant to my research but they are the things that have raised some intrigue, a smile or a giggle.
I’ve attempted to give as much detail as possible for each image, though I forgot to note the date and wholesaler for this Christmas apron image. I think it is late-1940s/early-1950s Bell and Nicholson, though I’ll double check when I am next at the museum and update the caption accordingly.
I’ve posted before about underwear and how the collection highlights changing attitudes and approaches to undergarments from 1920s-1960s. The 1920s Queen of Scots promotional material is a prime example of this: hygiene and comfort, alongside endorsement from a pious historical figure (c.f. Cardinal Wolsey and his stockings). This is something that I really want to do some more research into (proposed paper title: Piety, Purity and Pants). If you know of any existing work on early-20th century underwear marketing, please let me know!
The 1930s Wilkinson and Riddell catalogue covers are especially stunning – with their Japanese influences and bold artwork. There is something rather charming about their Greyhound logo, especially when placed next to a bonsai tree. The pink and yellow gladioli cover is a personal favourite.
The S.C. Larkin and Sons brochure, New Designs for 1930. Maids’ and Nurses’ Caps, revealed links to Walsall’s famous Sister Dora – the nurse and nun who revolutionised approaches to nursing during the mid-ninteenth century. She created a simple cap for nurses to wear and the brochure shows the design in a number of styles ‘suitable for bobbed hair’.
The final image is of some scribbled notes that I found inside a 1954 Bell and Nicholson catalogue, possibly by Edith or Flora Hodson. There was something eerie about coming across these notes and doodles – as if they were a direct link back to the women and what was going on inside their heads. I’ve seen their handwriting many times before but it has mainly been scrawled numbers or scrappy receipts. These notes seem more personal. And that little sketch of a head? Well, I’m filing that under ‘a bit creepy’.
Many thanks to Walsall Museum for providing me with access to the archive and for allowing me to photograph the items.
If you wish to explore the Hodson Shop Collection and Archive, please contact Walsall Museum.
Tel: 01922 653116
What does the Hodson Shop have in common with Marks and Spencer? “Not a vast amount beyond selling clothes” would have been my initial answer but that has changed somewhat since spending a day at the M&S Archive.
I was there for the CHORD 2013 conference on historical perspectives around retailing and the senses. The papers were fascinating, as ever. I particularly enjoyed Anneleen Arnout’s paper on the sensory aspects of the Galeries Saint-Hubert in 19th century Brussels and Ai Hisano’s history of cellophane in US food packaging. Ben Highmore’s take on Habitat’s “sensual orchestration” really got me thinking about shops as both retail and educational spaces – where people learn about design through their senses. There are clear parallels with museums within this, though this post isn’t the place for me to ramble on about those!
Instead, I want to tell you all about the M&S Archive and explain how it links with the Hodson Shop Project.
The archive contains approximately 70,000 items and is located within the Michael Marks building, University of Leeds. There’s an exhibition space on the ground floor, which is well worth a visit. The display cases contain items that tell the story of M&S over the decades – from the Penny Bazaars of the 1890s to the present day of Per Una and Percy Pigs. Researchers can also arrange access to the collections and there are excellent facilities for study.
There were some fabulous items on display. I couldn’t get over the floral print on this pair of early “Shapewear” pants (above)! The knitted swimwear from the 1920s also raised a few smiles. Yet it wasn’t all about clothing. In fact, garments only account for 1,700 items within the archive, with the rest being mainly documents relating to management, finance and product design and innovation.
Our guide, Katherine Carter explained to us that it is often a mad scramble to ensure that evidence and artefacts are collected and archived due to the fast pace of 21st century retail. Their collecting policy for clothing is to keep samples of ‘high volume sellers’ (this could be something as simple as a plain white t-shirt), garments seen on celebrities and public figures (e.g. Samantha Cameron’s polka dot dress) and garments incorporating significant innovations in textile technology.
We got to look at the ‘strong room’ where the collection is stored. I was impressed by the high-tech racking system they have in place and the pristine orderliness of the clothing collection. The garments may not have huge monetary worth and be distinctly ‘everyday’ but M&S clearly value their history.
During our tour of the exhibition space, Katherine explained how the company had evolved from a market stall in Leeds to the globally recognisable super-brand of today. It is strange to think that one of the earliest big sellers was sheet music that sold for one penny. The inflation of the 1920s made the ground breaking ‘everything’s a penny’ sales strategy impossible to maintain, leading the company to diversify and experiment with new products and branding. They introduced their first bra in 1926 and started to sell a range of simple, loose fitting garments (the loose fit was necessary due to the infancy of mass production techniques).
I was intrigued to hear that M&S technologists had worked with the government during WWII to develop what would become the CC41 (utility) scheme. It was striking to see a simple, yet elegant, utility dress next to the full and flouncy fifties floral frock. Katherine used the phrase ‘wonder fabrics’ when talking about the scientific breakthroughs of the fifties that kick started the period love affair with man-made fibres.
The 1960-1970s case was a delight. It was amusing to see how the company had attempted to keep up with the youthful freedom of the period – their first campaign with Twiggy was launched in 1968, whilst their Young St Michael range was endearingly innocent and ever-so slightly wide of the mark!
Ready meals and convenience foods were highlighted as the next major breakthrough. The not very appetisingly named ‘Boil in the Bag Ravioli’ was launched in 1971, with Indian ready meals and lasagnes following in 1972. Apparently, they were edible status symbols – with high price tags.
Fast-forwarding to 2009 and M&S celebrated the 150th anniversary of Michael Marks’ birth. The display featured limited edition archive-based garments. This anniversary marked the point when the design team began to search through the archives for creative inspiration.
There were also displays of staff uniforms from across the decades – from the early floor length black dresses worn with crisp white aprons, to the man-made fibre extravaganzas of the 1950s. A visitor assistant called Janet kindly talked me through these displays. She had worked for M&S since she was a teenager and even showed me a picture of her young self in a smart M&S uniform! She told me how her employers trained her in everything from grooming to dental hygiene. There is a clear sense of ‘family’ amongst M&S employees.
Janet also pointed me to a cabinet containing diaries belonging to Michael Marks and Tom Spencer for 1894 (the first year of the partnership). They detail Tom Spencer’s initial £300 investment in the company – humble items that capture a turning point in retail history.
So what exactly do the Hodson Shop Collection and M&S archive have in common? My first thought was that they are both collections of stock and documentation of a single business. They also cover a similar time period. In both cases, items are not spectacular, expensive or glamorous. The garments in the M&S collection are not displayed in relation to a specific wearer – making them, in a sense, ‘unworn’ (I would love to establish how many of the garments in their collection have been worn and how many have not). On a more practical level, I noticed that some of the brands featured in earlier displays were the same as found in the Hodson Shop Collection, such as Dewhurst’s and St Margaret (the latter being the inspiration behind the St Michael brand name which was dropped in 2000).
Whilst there are some parallels, I am aware that the items in the M&S archive are there due to their association with a much-loved and renowned brand and business. Michael Marks and Tom Spencer have a lofty position in retail history whilst Edith and Flora Hodson are minor players. People visit the M&S exhibition because it resonates with them on a personal level and this resonance is widespread, across the country and generations.
Massive thanks to: the team at the M&S archive (especially Katherine and Janet), Laura Ugolini and Karin Dannehl from University of Wolverhampton who organised the CHORD conference and all of the speakers at the event.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.