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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.