My recent archival research into period garments and texts has been insightful on a number of levels. I have spent time at the Manchester Gallery of Costume and also at the Bath Museum of Fashion. I contacted the curators with my request to specifically see women’s cyclewear from 1886 to 1900. I was particularly interested in Manchester’s connection as they were the only collection (so far) to have a material examples on show; a pair of bloomers and cycling hat. The curator in Bath advised that although there was no cycle wear of this period in their collection, with over 100,000 garments in storage, she suggested she could show me a range of period sports wear. I booked a study session which are provided to ensure these garments are not only seen but also touched by the public.
I am met at the reception desk and led through the ‘staff only’ door, up a narrow wooden staircase to a room lined with book cases and boxes of things and filled with natural light streaming in from enormous windows. The collections assistant points to a safe place for my bag, sits me on one side of a large desk and informs me about the size of the collection. Pointing to a towering pile of white rectangular boxes, she introduces me to the range of garments she has gathered for me from the archives and gives me a run down of the rules. She asks me to wash my hands, hands me a printed list of relevant artefacts, tells me she will give me one at a time and I am to spend as much time as I would like with each within the two hour study session. There is a 1890s white ribbed cotton suit for tennis, early 1900s bathing costume, an 1890s yachting jacket worn by Queen Alexandra, an 1880s brown wool tweed bodice and skirt worn for golfing and some 1850s riding habits. I only need to call to her at her desk at the end of the room for her to bring me another garment. She hands me three tools for investigating the items: white soft gloves, a small magnifying glass, a pencil and tape measure. I am ready to start.
Rereading my fieldnotes I note how taken I was with many aspects of this experience but in particular how initially striking I found the archival ‘tools of the trade’. My conventional tools of the trade, given my main subjects are people and their practices, are my voice, ears, body and hands: to ask, listen, respond and document. I also draw on a constellation of digital tools in my work: camera, computer, internet, recording devices etc. However, the tools I was given in this session to critically explore a social world through objects was striking in contrast. First, I was amazed that I would actually get so close to these remarkable and precious artefacts. Century old garments were laid on a table in front of me and I was allowed to touch, lift, peer, turn, hold and feel. Second, I am initially at a loss for what to ask these artefacts.
How do I interview them?
What can they tell me? What can’t they tell me?
What is visible, invisible, silenced?
What is here and not here?
To what extent am I allowed to imagine the wearer/ the maker/ the mender?
And….. what do I learn from touching that differs from reading?
I’m used to talking with people, asking questions, listening, thinking about my own practice, watching what they do and asking more questions. I can’t do this with objects. Or rather, they require new kinds of questions, new ways of asking and listening.
So I looked closely and I asked questions with my body, my hands and fingers as well as my eyes. I asked each item what it did? When it was made? Who made it? Who wore or might have worn it? When it was worn? How it was worn? What might the evidence of wear tell me? How was it mended? What kinds of materials/technologies used? What kind of body was it made for or used by? How did it fit with an ensemble of other garments? How did it enable or inhibit movement? How did they choreograph a particular mobile feminine comportment?
A feeling for movement
I really wanted to put these garments on. They were designed for movement, a specific type of movement – golf, swimming, horse riding, walking, yachting. I wanted to feel how they shaped different forms of mobility; enabling but also inhibiting the body in different ways. They spoke not just of the body, but the body’s movements. The garment was shaped and shaping of the movements the body was capable of. The golfing suit for instance was made of heavy brown teed. The skirt was comprised of a remarkable amount of material. It was rolled in thick pleats at a very small waist band and stitched and re-stitched in attempts to keep it in shape. This skirt felt heavy in my hands. I wondered how it might have felt on, how it moved the body and moved around the body, how it might have dragged along the ground, resisting damp conditions until the point it became sodden and weighed even more.
Moving and being moved
This garment, like others I touched, held the shape of a woman. Clearly, I did not expect it to represent every woman, but there were a number of similar styles across these garments upon which I drew broader insights. Two such key design features included robust tailoring and the shaping of shoulders. This jacket, like others, was intricately fitted to the owner. Tucks, darts, pleats. In fact, it was so keenly shaped that it fell awkwardly in flat two dimensional form. The buttons curved open, the waist peaked and the sleeves buckled. It would have fitted the owner perfectly, nipped and tucked to her every curve, holding her back straight, her neck long and high, her waist in and her arms curved. It was a jacket that probably relied upon the work of a corset to form the conventional narrow waisted feminine form. The points in the front and back of the jacket further gave shape to the body and would have smoothed the lumpy waist band on the skirt.
The jacket, like others I saw had gentle sloping shoulders, with sleeves that curved round from the neck to the wrist, indicating a posture that would have held the arms low and rounded into the lap. This jacket spoke not only of size and curves of a particular body but hinted at a social stature – a modest and demure physical presence. This curved style is the antithesis of a 1980′s jacket with its pointy padded shoulder.
Queen Victoria’s yachting jacket was a Couture garment which explained its extra-ordinary tailoring. As I touched and held it, I noticed the use of weights in the lining. Two circular pieces of metal were stitched into the front and back panels ensured the garment hung in the right places, giving structure to the gored flares. It was ironic considering the garment was for the purpose of yachting…
Historical embodied knowing
As mentioned above, I was fascinated by the incongruity of being free to touch and hold 100 year old garments and yet (of course) not be allowed to put them on. They were clothes after all. They made sense on the body, on a body. Some period garments, as I came to know, do not make sense off the body – they are designed to be habited and rely on a historical embodied knowing. The riding skirt in particular was a mystery to me. I could not work it out in two dimensional form on the table. I tried moving it, laying it out in different configurations, holding it up to see how it fell. I swooshed it a little to see how it moved but no, nothing made sense to me. I called on the collections assistant for help. She explained how the overskirt covered the front lower half of the female body – a half skirt, buttoned at the waist and hooked over one foot in the stirrup of a woman riding side saddle. It was a garment that needed to be worn, held, moved around to understand – it required larger multi-dimensional sense making.
Once I knew how the overskirt worked, it helped to explain the shine on the rear of the breeches. The breeches made direct contact with the side saddle. The over skirt was also half the thickness of the breeches and also other sports skirts – ie. golf.
Wear and Use
I also looked for wear in each garment for what this could tell me about use and the user. Some parts were stained, others worn or mended. The cuffs and lapels of the yachting jacket were yellowed and marked. The waist and hem of the golfing skirt revealed age; the former was altered at various times to fit the waist of the wearer/s; the latter told tales of the wearer walking through golf courses, the skirt edge dragging along the ground, catching the rough and smooth surfaces of the golf course, of searching in thickets and long grass for lost balls.
The style of repair was indicative of a chronology of mending technologies. The sewing machine entered into the domestic market in early 1870s. These garments spoke of a range of sewing technologies; hand and early machine stitch, as well as available materials. Sometimes, such as in the hem of the golfing skirt, the same materials were not to be found and others were sought to patch holes and tears.