Monday 14 April 2014

The Textile Stories Study Day, 5th April 2014: The Drama of Costume

The second textiles study day took place on Saturday 5th April at the University of Chester. Shortly after the event was advertised it was fully booked, and a lively audience attended, consisting of sewing enthusiasts (both professional and amateur), people working in the cultural industries, and those interested in textiles, costume, and costume dramas more generally. Dr Amber Regis from the University of Sheffield also kindly contributed to the day.

This event was generously supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through Professor Deborah Wynne's Fellowship [Grant no: AH/K00803X/1].  

The following reports on the event were kindly written by Lucy Johnson and Katie Baker, both of whom are graduate students in the English Department, University of Chester.

Lucy's report on the morning's activities:

The uninvited drizzle did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for the University of Chester’s Textiles Stories Study Day: the Drama of Costume. Dr Sallie McNamara from Southampton Solent University kicked off the event in style with her presentation ‘”We’re All in it Together”: Downton Abbey, Benevolence and Austerity Chic’. Looking at the first three series of the ITV costume drama, she examined the fascinating concept of ‘costume narrative’ and how clothing is used to represent different aspects of the programme both in and outside the series.


Sallie argued that costume specifically within the series is used in order to reinforce today's ideology of austerity, the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’, and anyone who dissents against the status quo is ‘reincorporated’ back into the programme by way of their dress. She pointed out the comparative absence of detail on servants’ clothes, and how the servant’s body (particularly in the case of lady’s maid Anna) had to become a signifier for cleanliness and the physical intimacy she shared with her mistress.

            Next, Sallie showed us how the famous scene of Sybil Crawley’s ‘new and exciting’ dress posed a direct challenge to gender roles and actively transgressed the established costume narrative of the show. Here, Sybil’s beautiful, turquoise, ‘harem’-style trousers are visually striking amidst the neutral tones worn by the other women in the scene, and during a time when trousers were a garment worn almost exclusively by men, both the style of her outfit coupled with its bold colours represent Sybil’s rebellion against the norms of her time and an intriguing subversion of Downton’s own established costume code.

           Sallie’s examination of how Downton Abbey and its costuming are perceived by the press was perhaps the most fascinating part of her talk. What she termed the ‘lyrical’ nature of Grazia Daily’s description of Mary’s wedding dress (costing £4,000 to make, the most expensive costume ever made on the show) demonstrated how our external knowledge about the evocatively opulent detail of the dress itself adds to our appreciation of it visually. She then showed us a number of images from the Love Magazine fashion shoot with Downton actresses Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Brown-Findlay, which the magazine itself sub-titled ‘Fashion’s infatuation with the ladies of Downton Abbey’. Sallie speculated that the magazine was perhaps trying to depict the ‘private’ side of the show’s characters, styling Laura Carmichael in particular vividly against type as the subdued Lady Edith with lush red velvet and artful cigarette.

            Next up was Jacqui Hyman from the Textile Restoration Studio, with her talk ‘Buried Textile Treasures: Discoveries of Children's Costume from Medieval Egypt’. She described the remarkably fortuitous discovery of a box of Mamluk children’s burial garments in the International Textiles Archive at Leeds University, which had been waiting to be properly catalogued. Many items such as these were sold to museums following excavations in the 1800s. The fad for archaeology during the century, coupled with an absence of clearly defined rules for the comparatively new practise, led to anyone being able to excavate fragile and incredibly historically valuable sites, and to take things as personal relics.


The Mamluks preferred to bury their dead in their best garments so that they would be appropriately fitted out to meet their maker in the afterlife. The first amazingly preserved item that Jacqui showed us was a linen tunic, made for a small child; clothing and the minutiae of detail was very important to the Mamluks, and so the creator of the tunic had counted the weave of the fabric exactly for the embroidery around the bottom edge of the garment, with a perfectly repeated design. Jacqui described how the embroidery had been worked before it was applied to the tunic.

            Jacqui then showed us several silk embroidered samplers, or strips of linen used to try out embroidery patterns. The linen fabric on one item had been patched prior to the construction of the final garment; the large sleeves indicated that it belonged to the child of a wealthy family who did not need to work. Again, she pointed out the astonishing attention to detail, with no raw edges to the fabric.


Jacqui then explained the process of caring for these incredibly fragile garments, moving them only with support and putting pieces with damaged threadwork into a humidity chamber in order to relax the fibres. She showed us a waistcoat that is very similar to a piece currently in the V&A, made up of eleven different sections of striped silk. A supplementary weave had been added to the garment, a practise that only took place in China at the time.

            The last tunic Jacqui showed us was, she explained, almost a combination of the previous garments. It was wadded like a quilt, with stripes on the pocket made to match the stripes on the tunic itself. A gruesome coda to the presentation came when Jacqui described the painstaking process of cleaning the garments, gently flicking off centuries-old ingrained dirt whilst trying not to damage the fabric: under the gaze of the microscope, the detritus of history was laid bare in the remnants of long-dead moths, human skin, and even hair follicles.

The International Textiles Archive is located in St. Wilfred's Chapel on the edge of the Leeds University campus. Its opening times are Tuesday to Friday, but a special appointment is needed to view items.

Katie's report on the afternoon's activities:

 After an informative and extremely enjoyable morning, the afternoon session was opened by Costume Historian, Gillian Stapleton who gave a talk and demonstration called ‘Jane Eyre – The Well Dressed Governess’. Gillian enjoys a wide, varied and respected career as a Costume Historian, a career which has seen her offer guidance to the BBC on shows such as Queen Victoria’s Wardrobe and Royal Upstairs Downstairs. In addition to this, Gillian designs and makes historically accurate costume from scratch, examples of which the audience was fortunate enough to be given, in a garment by garment demonstration.
       Gillian’s talk centred on the parallels between the lives of author Charlotte Brontë and her literary heroine, Jane Eyre. She began by providing examples of Jane’s charity school uniform, made from authentic patterns from the 1838 Workwoman’s Guide. Gillian explained how Jane’s plain brown woollen dress was purposefully created to mark out its wearer as humble and nun-like – something shared by Charlotte, who attended a charity school from the age of eight. Gillian then moved on to show the audience examples of ‘Adult Jane’, in particular that of her governess’s uniform. As Gillian described each item of the typical governess’s wardrobe, she dressed herself, providing a wonderful visual representation of nineteenth century clothing.

       Gillian ended her talk with a section on the similarities between Jane and Charlotte’s wedding dresses, pointing out their simple choice of fabrics and economy of material, yet also suggesting that both women enjoyed an intrinsic appreciation for textiles.

     The second talk of the afternoon was given by Veronica Isaac from the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Entitled, ‘Ellen Terry (1847-1928): Highlights from the Wardrobe of the Painter’s Actress’, Veronica’s talk focused on the vast array of clothing and costume worn throughout the fascinating life of Victorian actress, Ellen Terry. The talk was borne out of Veronica’s current PhD research, which will see her cataloguing the museum’s collection of the actress’s pieces.

       Born in 1847 to travelling player parents, Terry’s first stage role was in A Winter’s Tale alongside stage actor, Charles Kean. Kean’s somewhat controversial idea of creating costumes according to the historical setting totally contradicted the Victorian norm and as a result, Terry was frequently seen wearing historically accurate and carefully researched stage attire. By the age of sixteen, she was married to forty-five year old artist, George Frederic Watts, who used her as a muse in many of his works, including Choosing (1864). As a result of their marriage, Terry was introduced to many influential figures of the age, but her youth meant she struggled to fit in and within a year the marriage was dissolved. Shortly after, Terry began a relationship with architect, Edward William Godwin with whom she had two children. Retiring from the stage for a time, she moved to the country and began favouring a new style of Japanese dress which removed the need for corsets and instead focused on kimonos and loose-fitting robes.

       Terry’s interest in exotic clothing and the avant-garde made her a key figure in the Aesthetic Movement - a movement which favoured ‘free art’, unfettered by the restraints of the Royal Academy. By the 1880s, Liberty’s of London became the main retailer of Aesthetic textiles, with Godwin opening the Liberty’s Fashion Department in 1884. By 1874, Terry had moved away entirely from traditional nineteenth century dress instead favouring a short hairstyle, no corset and even jumpers.

      Though Terry was known for her original and sometimes controversial mode of dress, it was through her stage costumes that she could really display her love for dramatic textiles. During her performance as Portia in the Gaiety Theatre, Terry wore the Black Robes of Justice – a costume so powerful it was said to result in silence from the audience! It certainly caught the eye of Henry Irving who, on opening The Lyceum Theatre in 1878, swiftly cast Terry as Ophelia. Terry’s breathtaking costumes, some of which were designed by major figures, such as Burne-Jones, quickly became as famous as her roles. One of the most extravagant, a beautiful green beetle-wing dress worn when Terry played Lady Macbeth, is on display at Smallhythe Place, Terry's former home in Kent. 
Smallhythe Place:

The third and final talk of the afternoon was delivered by event’s organisers, Professor Deborah Wynne and Dr Sarah Heaton of the University of Chester. Entitled, ‘Costume on Film: The Piano (1993) and The Great Gatsby (2013)’, the talk looked at the ways in which costume is used as both representative of historical period and as symbolic in each of the respective works.

       Professor Wynne’s piece focused on 1993 film, The Piano and how director Jane Campion uses the crinoline, particularly its cage-like form, as a direct metaphor for the confinement and personal imprisonment of the film’s heroine, Ada McGrath. Campion uses costume to portray Ada’s suffering while trapped in an abusive marriage yet also, conversely, her freedom once she is free of her husband. Throughout the film, differing forms of costume are used to represent imprisonment, freedom and, importantly, the differences between Ada’s public and private experiences – her crinoline is used to encompass her lover during their first sexual encounter.   

    Textiles, and the spaces they encompass, play an important role in Campion’s representation of Ada’s exploration of her own freedoms as the film progresses, notably when Ada must practise her own voice once her symbolic one, the piano, is lost. Interestingly, Campion shows Ada covering her face with a cloth before she reveals her new identity.

       Dr Sarah Heaton’s section of the talk looked at the ways in which costumes, particularly wedding dresses, are used in the 2013 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. Central to the symbolism of the film are Daisy’s dresses, she frequently wears ‘wedding dresses’, or at least wedding-style dresses which appear to centre her in a Miss Havisham-style crisis of identity. Like Miss Havisham, Daisy remains trapped and suspended in time, located in events that didn’t take place, but still may occur leaving her with a skewed sense of reality and sexuality.

       Dr Heaton looked at how the 2013 film edition of the novel took a nuanced approach to the past, particularly in its costume design. Daisy’s costume, for example, is given a much more traditional approach to its design with her barely there, naturally coloured tights. Myrtle, on the other hand is portrayed much more sexually with fairly unconventional roll-down tights.

     Interestingly, as the film progresses, the wedding dresses worn by Daisy alter, with less elaborate fabrics and lace adornments.  By the end of the film, Daisy leaves wearing no wedding dress at all and a full fur. 

Members of the audience were invited to comment on their experience of the event:


‘Totally brilliant from start to finish. […] Excellent speakers and variety. Congratulations to the organisers.’

‘All speakers – very enjoyable. I loved seeing “tried on” costumes and weaving of the Egyptian children’s clothes. Good variety of visuals and lecture styles. Will look at film and TV dramas in a different light!’

‘This was a very enjoyable day with high calibre speakers inspiring further exploration of all aspects covered. Thank you very much.’

‘I have really enjoyed today with the variety of speakers. It’s been a great experience, very well timetabled. Great to be able to chat to speakers and other members of the audience. Great use of artefacts, media and film, as well as reproductions of costume.’

‘Presentation for a Costume Day was excellent for Gillian Stapleton as ‘Jane Eyre’. Thank you for the whole day and its organisation.’

‘Really interesting day […] I enjoyed Gillian Stapleton, the enthusiasm of Veronica Isaac and the historical fascination of Jacqui Hyman. I’ve never seen “The Piano” but I will now!’

‘Absolutely great! Information and accessible and of very great interest. Speakers were all engaging in their very different ways. Loved it.’

‘Enjoyed the day very much, particularly the talks on the meaning and imagery of costume in literature and film. Lots to talk about. Nice lunch as well!’

‘This has been a superb event. The speakers were wonderful, extremely interesting, and their knowledge is fantastic. It was extremely well organised.’

‘Very enjoyable. Loved the variety of the topics. Could we have 3 lectures on the morning and two in the afternoon and start at 10am?’

‘Absolutely superb! A huge breadth of experiences and great interest. The topics were so interesting and engaging – thoroughly enjoyable. A great idea to have a costume historian wear costume as she describes it piece by piece. The presentations were full of interesting detail, quality information and clear good quality speakers. A fascinating journey on textiles. Please put more events on.’

‘I particularly enjoyed the diversity of the topics covered. Hope that the success of today will encourage the department to continue to do more of these days.’

‘Interesting and varied. Very enjoyable.’

‘Excellent venue and hospitality. Very well organised – excellent and varied speakers. Tremendous depth of knowledge and range of talks that link together well.’

‘Absolutely fascinating day with an excellent variety of speakers. If possible for the next one, it might be an idea to start a little earlier, as it’s a shame to overrun.’

‘Superb day. Even better than last year. All the sessions were fascinating and professionally delivered.’

‘It was very interesting hearing about the Medieval Egyptian clothing. […] Gillian Stapleton, very engaging speaker and loved the fact that she had examples. Overall an excellent day, very enjoyable and very thought provoking.’

‘Jacqui Hyman and Gillian Stapleton were interesting speakers. Please keep to time – shorter lunch!’

‘I found the Ellen Terry talk very worthwhile.’

‘A good variety of topics but with a thread running through it. Lovely lunch and interesting people to talk to, too!’

‘Excellent day with great variety and talent from the speakers.’

‘Wonderful day. Interesting, committed speakers. Varied deliveries. Very friendly atmosphere. Made to feel welcome from stepping through the door.’

‘Great day, very interesting, enjoyed all the speakers – loved the variety. Can’t wait for the next one.’

‘I have thoroughly enjoyed today’s programme and found the variety of speakers most stimulating.’