Monday 8 July 2013

Carol's and Pat's Textile Event Report

Textile Stories: The Fabric of Everyday Life

A Study Day held at the University of Chester

 Saturday 15th June 2013

Carol Edwards and Pat Barlow, both MA students in English at the University of Chester, compiled this report of the Textile Stories Study Day.

Carol’s account of the morning sessions:

This free event attracted an almost exclusively female audience, only one man was present. The first presentation was called ‘The Lightfoot Letters’:


Maria Walker, a textile artist, and Angela Topping, a poet, talked about their collaborative work and an amazing coincidence. Maria had bought, on a whim, a bundle of old letters with the idea of using the stamps and parts of the writing in her work. However, having read them she became too intrigued to dismantle them. The letters were to a young woman, Frances Lightfoot, who was living away from her family home in the 1920s. Maria began to use the narratives in the letters, along with her own artefacts and old family photographs, in her displays. When she met Angela Topping, who was equally intrigued by the use of words in art, they began to share ideas and combine their work. Here is where the coincidence arises - it transpired that Frances Lightfoot was Angela’s paternal aunt, so Angela had the delight of reading letters written by her grandparents and her father, who was twelve at the time. We were able to see (and feel) some of Maria’s work and listen to Angela read poetry inspired by her family.

Maria Walker (left) and Angela Topping and a display of textiles and publications
 relating to their collaborative project The Lightfoot Letters


Next was ‘Down Memory Lane: Yorkshire’s Heritage Examined through Clothing’ by Lynne Webster and David Backhouse (the aforementioned solitary male) from the Yorkshire Fashion Archive in Leeds. The Archive collects twentieth-century clothing and focuses on telling the stories behind the garments. Lynne talked about the donation of 23 garments from one donor, Michael Hyman.

The clothes were hand- knitted by his maternal grandmother for his mother, and they were astonishing. Examples were passed around the audience for close inspection because it was only then that you could tell they had been knitted: there was a light-as-air dress that looked like lace; jackets and dresses that appeared to be made of woven material, all beautifully lined. The garments were knitted without patterns - Michael’s grandmother would copy clothing she saw in the posh department stores in Leeds. Her history was no less astonishing than her knitting, because her family, being Jewish, had been forced to leave Russia in 1904.
Lynne Webster and David Backhouse from the Yorkshire Fashion Archive displaying a hand-knitted dress.
 Finally, before the lunch break, Kate Harland (Learning Development Officer) brought a selection of clothing from the Grosvenor Museum Textile Collection. The garments ranged in date from the Victorian period through to the early 1970s and there was ample time for more close examination. Touching seems to be overwhelmingly important for people interested in textiles
A display of some of the costumes held at the Grosvenor Museum

The response of the audience to these presentations was interesting. There were a few technical or academic questions, but the comments mainly reflected family memories that had been provoked by the talks or by the exhibits - although not even the oldest among us could cast our minds as far back as the nineteenth century!

Kate Harland explaining the story behind one of the garments

Several people talked about clothes made for them by their mothers. In my case, my mother always knitted for the family (not to the standard of the Hyman garments) but, once she had bought a knitting machine to speed the process up, my father took over and we were inundated with more jumpers, cardigans, scarves, mittens and even balaclavas, than we could ever need.
Pat’s report on the afternoon sessions:
The next talk, ‘All that Glitters…: The 5th Marquis of Anglesey's Clothes and Costumes' was given by Viv Gardner (Emeritus Professor of Theatre Studies at Manchester University)
Theatre Costume worn by the Fifth Marquis of Anglesey
She discussed the remarkable wardrobe of the 5th Marquis of Anglesey. Prof. Gardner pointed out that the 'everyday' of the 5th Marquis was that of an Edwardian aristocrat, not that of ordinary folk.  Succeeding to his title in 1898, within six years he had frittered away a vast fortune on clothes, furs, jewellery, cars, theatricals, etc.; extraordinary profligacy even by the standards of the Edwardian aristocracy.  Much audience laughter at personal items from the estate sale catalogue illustrating the Marquis's exotic tastes!
There were some moving details in this tale of eccentric extravagance: the Marquis regarded a shilling tiepin from a loyal servant with as much affection as grander jewels and friends clubbed together to buy back his coronation robes to spare him the ignominy of attending the coronation without these essential glad rags!  Sadly, the only surviving garment is a decorative waistcoat bought by the music hall star and male impersonator, Vesta Tilley.
The Marquis's waistcoat, later owned by Vesta Tilley
The Q&A session raised interesting speculation about the Marquis's sexuality, given his obsession with theatricals and love of dressing up in outrageous costumes, not to mention his skill at needlepoint and the annulment of a brief marriage to his cousin. Viv Gardner maintains there is no conclusive evidence for homosexuality but perhaps his fractured and isolated childhood (his mother took her own life when 'Toppy' was two), and early continental upbringing, made him appear 'un-English' and unmanly in his tastes.   
The next talk was given by Amber Regis (University of Sheffield) and Deborah Wynne (University of Chester), ‘Reading Miss Havisham's Dress: Screening Great Expectations’, a fascinating presentation on screen representations of the character, Miss Havisham.  The spectre of the ageing, jilted bride whose life literally stopped on her wedding day, and who never removed her decaying bridal clothes, is iconic.
Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham in David Lean's 1945 film version of
Great Expectations

Helen Bonham Carter as Miss Haversham
in the 2012 adaptation directed by Mike Newell
An audience poll revealed that most had heard of Miss Havisham, even those who had not read the novel.  After reading Dickens' graphic description of the character we learnt that the earliest illustration came fifty years after publication, so that all subsequent cinematic interpretations of Miss Havisham were forced to re-imagine her appearance and each reflected the spirit of its age.  From the optimism of the 1945 post war version ('getting rid of a gruesome past') where even in the black and white images there is a sense of her 'fadedness' to the 1998 'updating' of the story for a new audience in which the Kent marshes are replaced by swamps and alligators in California (this seemed an eccentric interpretation with bizarre directorial deviation from the original!). 
Ann Bancroft as Miss Dinsmoor/Miss Havisham in Alfonso Cuarón's film,
Great Expecations (1998)
Members of the audience noted that the two most recent TV and film adaptations (2011 and 2012) cast actresses who portray a decaying beauty more aesthetically acceptable for the 21st century. They were surprised that, after doing the sums, Dickens' Miss Havisham was all of 37! In all representations it is the decomposing of the finery which symbolises the mental decline of the woman.
Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in the 2011 BBC TV adaptation of Great Expectations
The final presentation, ‘Christening Gowns and Family Identity’ was given by Sarah Heaton and Gina Hill (both from the University of Chester).  It focussed on another garment related to 'rites of passage', in this instance christening gowns.  Sarah and Gina outlined the interesting history of christening gowns and the tradition of passing them down through many generations of a family. In England this began when Queen Victoria herself commissioned a gown using the same silk and Honiton lace as in her own wedding dress; this gown was used fifty different times and a reproduction made for continued use, although there are examples recorded as early as 1730. 
The Royal Christening Gown  Image Source:
Both speakers related their own experience of dressing their daughters for, in one instance a traditional church baptism, and, in the other, a modern naming ceremony.  In one case a family heirloom gown was unearthed, in the other a new dress bought for the occasion, yet both emphasised the importance of the ritual in linking the generations; the fabric of the gowns bonded the families and their memories together - the fabric of family history indeed.
This subject clearly touched a chord with the audience, many of whom began to share their own stories. Indeed, throughout the afternoon the comments and questions generated by the presentations showed how thought provoking and entertaining they were.
Some comments from participants at the Textile Stories Study Day:
‘A really inspiring day, I have not been to anything like this before! Informative and unusual.’
‘Excellent speakers – well organised. Warm friendly environment – lovely room. Really enjoyed the day.’
‘Excellent day. Superb range of talks, esp. the Havisham and Leeds archive knitted garments. Very inspirational.’
‘A wonderful day very interesting. Very inspired by the talks and it was great to look at some lovely pieces of work. Thank you to Deborah and the team.’
‘Very enjoyable day, good variety of subjects. Lovely to see so much is being done to record and make accessible the everyday history of people’s lives through their clothes.’
‘Well balanced and very informative. A really interesting day for me. The Lightfoot Letters stood out, the Havisham dress a close second. More please.’
 ‘All thoroughly enjoyable. I loved the Miss Havisham lecture. Very interesting take on the character of women and their place in film.’
‘A very enjoyable event with a diverse interpretation on the subject of textile – the fact pieces were brought in for various talks really added to the experience – especially being able to touch and handle historical costumes from the Grosvenor Museum. The 5th Marquis of Anglesey talk was particularly enlightening, as it was from a theatrical perspective. The Miss Havisham talk was interesting as it included many non “traditional” interpretations or reworkings.’
‘Been a fantastic day thank you – Look forward to the next one.’
‘Enjoyed the day, it’s been very educational and inspirational to develop my creative processes further. It was great meeting others at this event. Great!!!’
‘Lovely day, full of interest & variety. Very pleased that I could enjoy (and have access) as an ordinary person, with a strong interest in textiles, “old things” & social history. Look forward to more.’
‘I have thoroughly enjoyed my day and have enjoyed the varied and informative subjects. Good to know that efforts are being made to preserve more recent trends in textiles and designs. Gained inspiration for my own work!’
‘This was a nice combination of talks. Interesting to hear of link between age of film and dress given to Miss Havisham. Link between people and clothing is good. To get updates on research is interesting.’
‘Excellent range and diversity of talks. Raised a number of interesting points – how we read, value textiles & I hope there are more of these days. Would happily pay!’
‘I have enjoyed the variety of the programme. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the Marquis of Anglesey. I was also interested in the combination of poetry and textiles in the first talk and hearing about the history of the Jewish family and the knitted garments.’
‘I have really enjoyed today. Is such a big topic – I didn’t know what to expect, coming, as I do, from an interest in the retail side of the textile story, but also how textiles have been so important in fashion and class. I was particularly interested in the Yorkshire Fashion Archive – as fashion is everchanging and its production & place of production changes. Great! Thank you.’
‘A fascinating and varied day, with lots of stories to think about. Enjoyed the contrast between the “everyday” clothes & esp liked being able to handle the textiles. Very encouraging to hear about so many different aspects of research. Thanks v. much for a lovely day.’
‘Wonderful day – really enjoyed the day – varied and interesting. I especially liked being able to see, and in some cases touch the fabrics. I hope you’ll organise another one.’
‘Thankyou for a most interesting and thought provoking day. One slight improvement could be in the presentation of costume items – a larger display table & rails so we could see the items more clearly.’
‘It was a lovely event – relaxed yet informative. The presentations were wide ranging & of a high quality. Very thought provoking!’
‘A very interesting day! Enjoyed the range of speakers and approaches.’


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