Feminism & Frocks

The SGSAH Summer School is coming up in just a few weeks (there’s still time to register, click here) and I am very much looking forward to attending a session at the Glasgow Women’s Library on Feminist Research Methods & Networks (organised in collaboration with the Postgraduate Gender Research Network of Scotland). I have been asked to prepare a five minute talk on my research for the event, in which I will focus on how and why my research is feminist. This is a really interesting challenge for me, as my PhD project is not perhaps actively or overtly feminist; by which I mean, I have not consciously used feminist research methods. My project is, however, all about women. I believe it is also feminist, and I will outline the reasons why below.

My PhD, for new readers, is centred on the study of women’s fashion in Britain during the First World War. The purpose of my project is to explore some of the ways that fashion was changed by the war; what the study of fashion can tell us about the female experience of war; and how these stories can be told in the present day through museums and collections.

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Covers of La Mode Illustree 1916 – 1917 (from my own collection)

I use women’s magazines and garments in museum collections as my two primary sources of information. I am interested in what women wore, but I am also interested in the fashions that they aspired to wear, or engaged with in other ways. I make connections between the surviving garments – which are often without provenance – and the contemporary magazines, seeking to find meaning and narrative in these objects which have become so far removed from their original context. I back this information up with more factual historical information about the period, and particularly the war and its impact on life on the British Home Front. Finally, I look at the way the way dress is used in museum collections, and explore options for the meaningful display and interpretation of First World War fashion.

As already noted, my PhD was not designed to be a feminist project. For some people, the focus on fashion would in fact be seen as un-feminist. The fashion industry has a problematic relationship with women, for example in the terrible treatment of garment workers, and the portrayal of unrealistic body images and an unattainable lifestyle. While preparing my workshop talk, however, I have found three ways to argue that my PhD research project is indeed feminist:

1. The primary aim of my research is to better understand women’s experiences of war

The majority of FWW history has been written from the male perspective, usually by men. So much has changed in recent years and there are now many more histories of the female experience, and of course, lots of totally brilliant women historians writing about war. My research is focused primarily on women who did not take an active role in the war: I am not researching uniforms or working dress, but the clothing worn by civilians. These women lived through an intense and dramatic period of our history, yet their experiences can be difficult to access. Using dress is one way to uncover the aspects of the female experience, with the benefit of being engaging and accessible to present day audiences.

2. My research methods are centred on the unique relationship between women and their clothing

Women have and have always had a unique relationship with clothing and textiles: it can both change our mood and reflect the most intangible facets of our personality. The way we wear clothes sometimes says more about our experiences than words. What could be more interesting than looking at the way women used clothing when living through a period of total global chaos, when every facet of culture and society was in a state of flux and upheaval? To quote French dress historian Dominique Veillon:

‘Fashion is an expression of every aspect of life; it is a way of existing and behaving, and is, in fact, an observation point from which to view the political, economic and cultural environment of an historical period.’ – Fashion Under the Occupation, 2002

3. An intended outcome of my research is to bring more women’s stories into museums (and to help ‘validate’ fashion as a method for this to happen)

I use historical garments to find stories that help us to understand the many ways that the war impacted on women’s lives. While I am interested in the aesthetic benefits of beautiful embroidery, for example, I am more interested in what the embroidery tells us about a woman, and her opinions, experiences, hopes, beliefs and desires. This idea is neatly demonstrated in this quote from archeologist Sarah Tarlow:

‘If we find an ancient shoe in an archeological context, it might tell us about ideas of the body, habitual activities, aesthetic preferences, gender, economy, and all manner of other cultural information. The least interesting thing it tells us is that people in the past had feet.’ – The Archaeology of Emotion and Affect, 2012

Fashion is experiencing a period of popularity in museums, and fashion exhibitions are demonstrating the many dynamic ways that fashion objects can be used to communicate different kinds of information. I want to show that fashion from a period of conflict should not be dismissed as frivolous, but can be used to communicate information about lived experiences of war to new audiences.

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Fashion on display in the brilliant ‘A Century of Style’ exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow,  2016 (photo my own)

There are of course some feminist stumbling blocks in my research, most of which relate to the use of magazines as source material. As with today, these magazines do not represent a true cross section of all women living in Britain in the war years. But because I am aware of such issues, they are always addressed accordingly. Writing this post has led me to wonder whether, because I myself identify as a feminist, it could ever not be so? Is it possible for a feminist to produce work that is not in itself feminist? I look forward to finding out more about this, and expanding my feminist research horizons, at the workshop next month!

If you are interested in attending events at the SGSAH Summer School 2017, find out more here. 

 

 

 

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