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.
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 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.
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.
Back in November 2013 I posted a selection of colourful and charming images from the Hodson Shop archive. Fast forward to today and I’m still working my way through the archive, though the images I’ll be sharing in this post are far less colourful and, perhaps, not quite so visually striking. Yet that’s not to say that the images are without interest or intrigue…
The archive contains invoices and paperwork as well as the catalogues and other ephemera. I have spent the past few weeks working my way through piles of invoices and delivery notes, searching for any links between the items listed and the objects that I have been analysing within the collection.
The aim of the process has been to build as full a biography as possible for the items. The invoices have the potential to answer a lot of questions. Where did an item come from? Who supplied them? How much did they cost? And when did they arrive? These answers can help to trace the life story of the items before their life in the Hodson Shop and Walsall Museum.
It hasn’t been easy. The invoices rarely give much in the way of descriptive detail – information regarding size or colour is a rarity and brand names tend to only crop up for specific items like corsets, hosiery and toiletries. There have been times when I have cursed the 1920s sales clerks for having such sloppy handwriting and not bothering to tell me the colour of a ‘frock’ ordered in 1923! Yet I have found some fascinating matches.
This non-descript brown paper parcel believed to contain children’s cashmere hose is likely to be the “5914 ¾ Hose” item listed on a N. Corah invoice from 2nd February 1923:
These green ‘mock wing’ feathers? They are listed as ‘Wings’ on this S.C. Larkins & Sons invoice from 18th August 1921:
In both of these cases, I’ve been fortunate enough to have item codes to match up. Utility items have been slightly easier to trace, as have some items with the St. Margaret brand due to N. Corah and Sons being both manufacturers and their own wholesaler.
There have been some amusing moments – such as the terribly polite letter from a wholesaler informing Edith Hodson that she wasn’t entitled to the discount she had applied to an order. There’s also the repeated insistence of wholesalers to address Edith and Flora as ‘Sirs’ or ‘Mr Hodson’. Whilst comical to a point, I believe that this error serves to highlight quite how extraordinary Edith and Flora were, operating a business in what was very much a man’s world. They were bold and would often correct such errors. They weren’t afraid to push their luck if it meant saving money:
Something that has struck me is how much stock was coming into the shop. Invoices from some of their major suppliers are often at weekly or two weekly intervals. I need to look into it further but my initial view is that they regularly over-bought, which provides an explanation as to why the Hodson Shop Collection is so large. Another observation is that the sisters tended to only go to the trouble of returning items if they were from local suppliers, such as Walsall-based Ennals & Co. Ltd.. There are far more credit notes from this supplier than others. Maybe travelling to wholesalers further afield was too time consuming and too expensive? Or maybe their goods simply weren’t up to Edith and Flora’s standards?
The invoices themselves are visually interesting. Some feature images of the wholesalers premises, such as S.C. Larkins & Sons Ltd. of Livery Street, Birmingham:
There are still hundreds of pieces of paperwork for me to look through and I’m hugely looking forward to being able to cross reference my invoice findings with some of the links I’ve already made between certain items and trade catalogues. It has also been a thrill to see aspects of Edith and Flora Hodson’s personalities show through something as generic and functional as invoices.
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
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.