Tuesday 21 July 2015

Textile Stories: Quilt Stories, The Study Day on 25th April 2015

Our third Textile Stories study day was devoted to the topic of quilts and quilting. Quilts come in many forms and have a long history; the stories they tell can be obvious or hidden. Textile historians have done much to reveal the fascinating stories hidden in quilts. At the University of Chester many of us have been rather preoccupied by the idea of quilting because the Anniversary Quilt, celebrating the University's 175th anniversary, took shape over the course of the previous year. It seemed fitting that we explore the history of quilts and the stories they tell for our 2015 study day.

We listen to some thought-provoking and informative talks from our speakers; some were experts on quilts, their histories or the art of quilting. Other speakers shared knowledge and experience in restoring and preserving quilts and organising a quilt project involving a group of sewing enthusiasts. 

Our first speaker was Christine Garwood and she talked about ‘Painting With Stitches’:

Christine, an artist, teaches textile art.  Her work combines cloth, stitching, colour and texture to evoke the landscapes she loves. Her talk focused on the techniques she used and her own personal journey as an artist inspired by the natural world. She brought examples of her work, from projects she had done as a schoolgirl and work she had done at art school, as well as the 'stitched' paintings she had exhibited as a professional artist. The audience found the diversity of material she used, paint, thread, even plastics, intriguing, and Christine was asked lots of questions about how she used her skills with each project.

Christine has a B.A. (Hons) in Fine Art / Textiles, from the University of London, Goldsmith’s College, School of Art and an Art Teacher’s Certificate from the University of Sussex.

Above are some examples of Christine's work displayed during the day.

Our next talk was given by Jacqui Hyman on ‘Conserving Quilts’

Many of us remembered Jacqui's talk in 2014, when she discussed the exciting discovery of medieval Egyptian clothing hidden away in a Leeds museum, and her research and restoration of these fascinating objects. A textile historian and experienced conservator, Jacqui offered expert advice on caring for quilts. Jacqui emphasised that the quilts made today will be of interest to future generations and that we should think about preserving them, as well as enjoying them now. Her talk ranged from restoring historic textiles in museums to ways of cleaning and storing the quilts handed down within families. 

She set up her stall of textile restoration products, and showed people how to use them. She was busy throughout the day, as members of the audience visited her stall and found out more about protecting their lovingly-made quilts for future generations. Jacqui runs the Textile Restoration Studio: http://www.textilerestoration.co.uk/

Claire Smith (Researcher for the V&A exhibition, Quilts: 1700-2010) gave a talk called, Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories from the V&A’s Quilt Collection’

Claire was involved in putting together the major quilt exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010 and her talk was based on the pleasure of researching a number of fascinating quilts from the eighteenth century to today. She talked about what for her were the highlights of the exhibition, and how the research team set about displaying over 300 years of quilt history. Her talk was well illustrated and we saw the rich history of quilts unfolding, from the beautiful work of well-born ladies in the eighteenth century, to the domestic creation of bedspreads in the nineteenth century, to the stitching of individual stories by prisoners in the contemporary 'prison quilt'. Claire emphasised that each quilt had its own story to tell, and that the challenge for textile historians is to uncover and make sense of each story about each quilt's moment in time.

Pat Salt's talk, ‘From Quilt to Quilt’, expressed her sense of how one quilt leads to another and that each marked a stage in her creative journey.

Pat Salt has developed courses on quilting for the City and Guilds qualification and has taught quilting for many years. She brought along many examples of the beautiful, often intriguing, quilts she had made and she invited the audience to examine them closely. We felt privileged at being allowed to handle such beautiful objects. Many people spent quite some time examining the fascinating designs and discussing how they were made. Pat’s talk covered a range of topics, from techniques and sewing strategies to design and the importance of using your imagination. 

Here are some examples of Pat's quilts on display:

Fiona Roberts and Liz Johnson, both from the University of Chester, ‘The Story of the Anniversary Quilt’

Fiona and Liz, on either side of the Anniversary Quilt, gave the final talk. They discussed the pleasures of working with a team of keen quilters, the discussion of ideas, sharing of materials, the problems of design and how they were overcome, and the excitement of seeing the quilt emerge over the course of many months. 

Many people attending the study day brought along some of their own quilts and the hall was packed with a colourful display which made the event a visual feast! Here are a few of them:

Our helpers, Katie Baker, Hannah Brady and Grace Woodger are taking a well-earned break:

Here are some comments from participants:

Inspirational, ideas flowed like running stitches – binding all together. Thank you.
Liz Leech

Such an inspiring day – full of variety.  Talented artists (textile) with so much to offer.  Most enjoyable day – food was great.
Jacqui Hyman

Very successful day!  Every talk interesting and inspiring.  Looking forward to the next one.
Clare Dudman

Excellent day.  Interesting and inspiring speakers.  Wonderful quilts old and new.  A really well organised day and the catering was excellent.  Very enjoyable and educational day.
CG Fairclough

Thank you so much for arranging such an enjoyable day and with marvellous speakers, all on a variety of subjects but all on quilting and stitching.  I have thoroughly enjoyed my day.
Mandy David

A great day – really interesting, inspirational talks, great food, lovely company.  Please add me to your mailing list for future events.  I enjoyed the mix of academic, intellectual material and practical hints and tips.  Symbolism in textiles would be an interesting theme – runaway quits from the underground railway and in weavings as in Lady and the Unicorn by Tracey Chevalier.  So lovely to get up close and personal with real items – particularly in Pat’s talk and from participants.
Debbie Marais

This has been an amazing day which fulfilled all my expectations.  Every speaker brought a new aspect of the world of textiles to our attention.  One could not help but be encouraged by their enthusiasm.  The day was very well organised – timings, catering etc. were excellent.  Thanks to you all for organising such an inspiring day.
Hilary Watmough

Sunday 31 May 2015

A Textile Story by Grace Woodger

by Grace Woodger

'Millie!' Frances exclaimed. 'What ever have you done?'
            Mildred looked up from the drawing room floor, gesturing helplessly to the quilt on the ground before her. One corner was badly burned, a good few inches of fabric eaten away, and the surrounding squares were singed and stained with soot.
            'Grandmother's quilt, Fannie. Look at it. Mother will never forgive me.'
            'How ever did it happen?' Frances asked. Mildred shifted uncomfortably, avoiding her sister's eye. 'How did it happen, Millie?'
            She sighed. 'Well, if you must know, I was using it as a cape.'
            'A cape?'
            'Yes. And as I turned around the corner flew upwards and landed on the grate, and the edge caught alight. I managed to stamp it out, but I'm afraid it's quite ruined.'
            'Why on earth were you using Grandmama's quilt as a cape?' Said Frances, incredulous.
            Mildred raised her head defiantly, her cheeks flaming. 'I was re-enacting Lancelot and Elaine.'
            'And does Elaine require a cape?'
            'No, but Lancelot does.'
            They stared at each other for a moment, the ruined quilt on the ground between them, before Frances' shoulders began to shake, no longer able to contain her laughter.
            'One day, Mildred,' she laughed. 'You will begin to act like a woman of eighteen, rather than a boy of twelve.'
            'When that day comes, Frances, you have my permission to put me out of my misery.' Her sister retorted, her eyes shining in the dim light from the fire. Sighing heavily, Frances knelt on the floor beside her, picking at the burned edge.
            'Oh, Millie. Look at it.'
            Mildred nodded. 'And she was always so proud of it.'
            'Who, mother?'
            'No, grandmother. She sewed it herself, remember?'
            Frances smiled. 'Yes. No wonder it's quite so threadbare, poor old thing.'
            'Wasn't that a part of her wedding dress?' Mildred pointed to a square.
            'Yes, I think so. And this was one of grandpapa's old work shirts. Quite a lot of these things were his.'
            'And now I've ruined it.' Mildred said, her voice wavering. Frances took her hand.
            'No, not at all. Grandmama made it to tell the story of her and Grandpapa. That story will always be there. Every square is a part of them, as long as we're here to remember.'
            Suddenly, Mildred looked up, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand as she scrambled to her feet. 'Fetch your sewing kit.'
            'Does mother still have the old baby blankets?'
            'Why, yes, but...'
            'I'm sure I can find some of mother's old things. She must have lots we can use.'
            Frances stood up. 'Use for what, Mildred?'

            Mildred beamed at her. 'We can repair it, Frances. Add our own squares to replace the ones I burned. You're right, I haven't ruined their story. I've merely added another chapter.'

Friday 15 May 2015

Patchwork Pieces By Debra Roberts

As a collector of fragments of old fabrics, I am inspired by material values that enable narratives of the past to be visible in the present.  Cloth holds aesthetic and functional values; however, it is preserved for many other reasons, not least the emotional values that are invested in it.  Cloth connects us physically with both tangible and intangible histories, and patchwork quilts are significant objects of history, legacies of fashion, design, process; that tell of family connections and cultural values.

The illustrations below show a small collection of patchworks, all works in progress, pieces that remain unfinished.  Sourced from Antique Fairs, they hold no personal history or connection.  It is what the pieces were originally, that interests me, clothes, furnishings that are no longer useful or fashionable, as pieces of fabric, they are still worth recycling. 

They form part of a research project, to analyse the fabrics, to understand the dates or period when they were produced, and how the designs were printed.

However, whilst a lot of information can be gleaned from the surface of the fabric about the design process, the patchwork pieces are rich in narrative – in this instance – there is much information held on the reverse of the patchwork.

The first image is taken from a patchwork that is in 2 parts – you can immediately see the quilt pattern, on the reverse, the template papers are still in tact.  The papers are cut out of Journals, Catalogues, Hand written notes and letters, dating from 1864-74.  There are references to agriculture (details of calving breed lines), investments, Church records, medical forms, and laundry lists – all quite commonplace.  There is also a reference to Dyrham Park, Gloucester.
There are snippets of handwriting, such as: “…for…sending with….is to resume….it will come…my dear thing…..” Words crop up such as ‘fatigue’ ….

The scraps of information are frustrating, as you instinctively want to know more, but the information has been cut off.  There is the dilemma – the papers should be left intact, as part of the history of the patchwork that should not be removed; however, there is also a strong temptation to take the papers out, and piece together the snippets in an attempt to discover more.

Questions arise – are the paper fragments of the same historical period as the fabric?  Who made the quilt? What do all the agricultural references indicate? 

The second quilt is also unfinished; it shows simple squares of cotton and cotton chintz.  

The fabric is in good condition, there is a developing quilt pattern, and the paper used is largely thick brown paper.  Interspersed between the brown papers are random squares of writing, beautiful copperplate.  There is a postmark, Worthing 67, and an old red stamp, the letter is addressed to Linfield, ..ck Wescott, Dorking.  There is a reference to ‘Georgie’.  There are a number of clues to be resolved. 

The final patchwork piece is in quite poor condition, the silk fabric is beginning to split.  There is a clear quilt pattern.

The paper inserts are a mixture of handwritten notes, postcards, journals.   There are references to Chorley Hough, Chorley, John ….of Preston, Birmingham.  There are 2 postmarks, one barely legible but the word Leeds is quite clear.  The second postmark is very clear, Kettering 9:45pm, Au 20 96.  Another date is discovered – 1899.

This may help to date the fabrics and quilt; alternatively, this may be a store of discarded papers that have been used at a later date. 

There are mixed values evident here, the backs of the quilt pieces, ostensibly of no aesthetic value, hold significant clues, key to deciphering the history and constructing the narratives.  Fabrics are reworked to form new patterns, and the material has a prolonged and useful life.  More so if the quilts had been completed. 
Also evident is the skill and craftsmanship  - each piece is carefully cut and pieced together with exquisite hand stitching.  We become aware of another existence, another hand; we see evidence of decisions being made, choices in colour, fabric.  We become aware of a specific point in time, an event. 

These pieces have been kept, perhaps as reminders of the makers.  They have been preserved in drawers, boxes, suitcases, waiting for the next stage.  The next chapter will reveal more information, helping me detect and analyse the origins and authenticities, delve into the past to reconstruct the history and construct new narratives.    

About the author: Debra Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Printed Textiles & Surface Pattern Design, and on the MA Creative Practice at Leeds College of Art.  Her research interests lie in collections, archives, history and narrative of cloth.  She collects fragments of cloth as inspiration for surface design, and to understand the various processes involved in the production of the design.  As an 'archaeologist' of cloth, she uses the collected fragments to inform the design process, but also to enable a reconstruction of history and narrative, a connection to the past, and an insight into values of production.  Her practice encompasses natural dyes, silk screen print and hand stitch, and these methods are used alongside digital technology, as a means to respond to, interpret, and analyse.  Through these reconstructions she enables

Thursday 2 April 2015

Suffragette Dress by Lucy Ella Hawkins

At the Dressing/Undressing the Victorians: Reading Clothes in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Contexts Conference at the University of Chester (28th March 2015), Fiona McGrath’s paper on ‘Discourses of Fashion: Articulating a Subversive Feminist Voice through Clothing at the fin de siècle’ got me thinking about the political dress of the suffragettes. A paper on suffragette dress was obviously appropriate for – and yet surprisingly absent from – the conference, although McGrath’s discussion of the symbolic language of dress in relation to New Women of the late nineteenth century was certainly related. The daring, stylish and highly visible suffragettes demonstrated a strong sense of the importance and power of dress and self-representation by creating designs, colour-ways, garments and accessories to support their fight for female emancipation.

The suffragettes used clothing as a form of communication rather than simply a form of feminine decoration or ornamentation; instead of using dress to attract and gratify the male gaze, they used it to challenge patriarchy. Not only did nineteenth-century feminists (New Women, suffragists, suffragettes) wear clothes that were practical, functional and convenient – facilitating physical freedom in defiance of restrictive feminine fashions featuring tight lacing and crinoline – but they also used these clothes to make explicit statements about female liberation. Dress became a central element of early feminist propaganda: skirts featuring slogans were worn to advertise suffragette literature and events; ‘Votes for Women’ sashes were worn across the body; symbolic jewellery was worn in the distinctive WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) colours of purple, white and green (representing royalty, purity and hope); and hand-made banners carried by women on marches were almost extensions of their clothing. The suffragettes realised the potential of dress to make powerful and subversive political statements.
By 1909 the WSPU was commissioning a wide range of badges, brooches, pendants and pins as fundraising and promotional items. Suffragette artists used prison-themed symbolic imagery to promote the women’s cause, and suffragettes often wore pieces of chain as pins or brooches to represent their oppression. A tin badge designed by Sylvia Pankhurst (1909-10) for the suffragette campaign depicts a barefoot woman in a loose dress breaking free through a gate, carrying a ‘Votes for Women’ streamer. The Holloway Prison Brooch also designed by Sylvia Pankhurst (1909-10) comprises a portcullis symbol of the House of Commons, superimposed with a broad arrow (typical of those marked on prison clothing), which was presented to suffragette ex-prisoners (often arrested for disorderly behaviour) and worn by them with great pride. Dolls dressed as suffragette prisoners were made and sold to raise funds for the militant suffragette campaign, and a special medal was made as a mark of recognition for those suffragettes who served prison sentences for militancy. However, a more restrained type of Edwardian dress was worn by some women’s suffrage leaders in a deliberate strategy to present themselves as rational and ‘ladylike’ in the face of popular negative stereotypes of suffragettes as hysterical, violent, manly and vulgar.
The suffragettes further illustrate McGrath’s argument that dress is a material signifier which renders rich information about – and provides a more overt description of – women’s characters, beliefs and aspirations. Dress was central to early feminist iconography, the self-fashioning of suffragettes, and the effectiveness of the women’s rights movement. More material evidence for this can be found at the Women, Fashion, Power exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
(The conference organisers, Deborah, Louisa and Sarah, would like to thank Lucy Ella for her contribution to this blog.)

Jane Austen and Costume Dramas in Oswestry

I had a wonderful time in Oswestry recently. The Literature Festival held in March 2015 attracted many people to its various events and was clearly a great success. I had been asked to talk about Jane Austen, Clothing and the Costume Drama, a topic which is close to my own research interests. I asked members of the audience to comment on their own responses to Austen's novels, Regency dress, and the various film and television adaptations of Austen's work. I received many fascinating comments and here is a selection:
Jane Austen is ‘someone to return to again and again. An author to learn from. Regency clothing is wonderful and allows the characters a freedom which is in many ways lacking from Victorian characters. Your talk gave a thought-provoking new perspective.’ (Sheelagh)
‘The costumes are much of the appeal of the televised dramas. Lovely idea for a talk.’ (Carol)
Lydia, Lizzie and Jane
(from the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice)

‘I have enjoyed all of JA’s books and most adaptations of her novels. I find the strength of character of her heroines particularly appealing and relevant to today’s women. [Regency] clothing is light, allowing more freedom of movement and the empire line does cover a multitude of sins! I enjoyed the talk very much.’ (Pam)
‘I prefer reading the novels and wing my imagination. I feel more comfortable with “period” costume being as accurate as possible. The talk was quite illuminating, explaining the subtleties of costume and its influence.’ (Gwen)
‘For me Jane Austen was one of the first women writers to give women a brain! She actually made domesticity interesting. [I find] the soft fabric and free moving Empire line dresses appealing. Loved the talk, fascinated by the idea of the “Bronteisation” of Austen’s novels in film adaptations.’ (Carole)
The 2005 film adaptation where Lizzie and Darcy resemble Cathy and Heathcliff!
Regency fashions ‘are feminine, modest and elegant, a bit like the manners of the time. Your talk has made me feel I should revisit these novels. Fascinating and entertaining talk. So refreshing to hear a not entirely purely literary approach.’ (Rosemary)
‘Jane Austen is one of the very few authors that I reread . I have enjoyed some of the adaptations but always prefer the books. Yes, I think the style of clothes is very important – particularly in the films. They are obviously “Costume Dramas”. I loved your talk! It was very entertaining as well as informative.’ (Maureen)
‘I love the references to everyday life’ in Austen’s novels. The costumes in adaptations ‘reflect the lives of “young ladies” of the period – very feminine, rather sedentary, in many ways impractical and no protection from the weather.’ (Barbara)
Marianne being rescued by Colonel Brandon in the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility
‘Equally enjoy reading the novels and watching adaptations. Always look forward to “escaping” into her world when the adaptations are on TV. I think accuracy of detail very important for enjoyment – I don’t enjoy Hollywood treatment. Love the femininity [of Regency costumes] it looks comfortable to wear. Loved the enthusiasm you have for your subject.’ (Cathryn)
‘Regency costume in adaptations are appealing if they do not detract from the story but complement the story. Very informative talk.’ (Carol)
‘Love the novels. Adaptations are of variable quality with the 1995 P&P top in my opinion, Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson comes a near second. Liked the related Lost in Austen and Bridget Jones. For a short time women’s dress was “natural”, without corsets and shoes were flat. Sad that it was so short lived. Well balanced and fascinating talk.’ (Justine)
I read the whole set of novels in the sixth form and have gone back to them at intervals ever since. My main interest as a teacher of history is how the novels illuminate my understanding of the period. I enjoy the strong female characters and the dry humour. I am interested in the history of costume and did stage costume for college performances. I related to your comment about “real clothes from a wardrobe”. Brilliant! Thank you for agreeing to talk to us.’ (Margaret)

Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Persuasion

‘I enjoy Jane Austen’s observations of women and their social standing and her use of language is superb. [Costume in adaptations] brings to life characters, illustrating the differences between the Bennet girls and the Bingley sisters and their social standing. I liked the fact that you made the point that modern adaptations, although not always accurate, made people read Jane Austen’s books. It did for me, but the adaptation was Persuasion with Amanda Root’. (Linda)
Thank you to all of you who came to my talk, asked such interesting questions, and provided comments for this blog!
Professor Deborah Wynne

Monday 2 March 2015

Reading Testament of Youth

The Drama of Costume Reading Group
Saturday 21st February 2015

The fourth meeting of the ‘Drama of Costume’ Reading Group met to discuss Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth (1933). The choice of text was timely; not only were people’s thoughts turned to the commemoration of those who fought during World War One, but also the new film adaptation of the book, directed by James Kent and released in January 2015, was currently bringing Vera Brittain to the attention of a younger generation. Many participants also remembered the 1979 BBC TV series starring Cheryl Campbell in the role of Vera, and there were opportunities to compare both adaptations as we discussed this powerful and moving memoir. At our reading group meetings we choose novels and other texts which have been adapted for the cinema and/or television, and we consider the role of costume on screen, as well as how the writers have depicted cloth and clothing.

Vera Brittain in her V.A.D. uniform during WWI

We were fortunate to be joined by Dr Phylomena Badsey, an expert on Vera Brittain from the History Department at the University of Wolverhampton. She opened the discussion with an interesting account of the author’s life and work and invited us to browse through the box of books she had kindly brought along, including a selection of Brittain’s novels and political writing and a first edition signed by Brittain herself. It was helpful to hear more about Vera Brittain’s politics, particularly her feminism, and many participants had found it refreshing to read about the War from a woman’s perspective. Brittain served as a V.A.D., both at home and overseas, and wrote very movingly about the waste of young lives she witnessed.


We spent some time discussing the topic of uniforms and how central this was to our visualisations of World War One. Participants wrote down their comments immediately after the discussion. Val Price stated: ‘Until I read the book, WWI was signified by the uniforms of the soldiers. I had not considered the nurses. Uniforms de-personalise those wearing them, they become simply units to be moved around the map’. Yet Val, who currently works in the NHS, emphasised the importance of uniforms in a professional context.

Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain’s fiancé, killed at the front in 1915

The importance of uniforms for medical professionals was seconded by Chris Davies; he agreed that uniforms were ‘vital to symbolise roles and therefore expectations of behaviour’. A retired surgeon, Chris’s interest in Testament of Youth had been prompted by its detailed depiction of medical aid at the clearing stations at the Front. Karen Bond, who also worked in the NHS, focused on the uniform as a marker of professional identity: ‘the wearing of a uniform made an individual a “soldier” or a “nurse”’.


Roland Leighton’s grave (photograph taken by Jackie Davies)

Vera Brittain and fellow V.A.D.s in Malta

Some participants noted that not wearing a uniform could be problematic in war time and we discussed Brittain’s description of her uncle, engaged in vital work in London, unable to join up as a soldier, who was constantly made to feel ashamed of his ‘civvies’. Carol Coles noted that ‘those who “laboured” on the Home Front’ were separated from the soldiers and nurses, and Jackie Davies agreed, stating that ‘it was difficult for those engaged in vital war work who had no uniform’. She added that when she worked as a nurse in the 1960s, the uniform she wore resembled that worn by Brittain, which suggests that uniforms exist within a tradition, a form of clothing which changes much more slowly than fashion does.

Cheryl Campbell in the role of Vera in the 1979 BBC series, Testament of Youth. This uniform resembled the one worn by Jackie in the 1960s.

We all agreed that it was significant that Vera Brittain often referred in Testament of Youth to the clothes that she was wearing at significant moments of her life, such as her description of the blue crêpe-de-Chine blouse she decides to wear to meet Roland, but at this point she receives the telephone call informing her that her fiancé has been killed in action. Many participants felt that this description of the blouse was not a trivial detail, but a realistic touch. Jackie Davies commented: ‘Any young woman would prepare her outfit ready to meet her fiancé. The moment is rendered more poignant by the description of her carefully chosen blouse’. Susan Preston-Hough agreed: ‘She wanted to record everything about the moment’. Sharon Forsdyke also felt that the colour blue was significant: ‘for me a symbol of clarity and hope’.

Blue is the chosen colour for Vera’s clothes in the 2015 film adaptation.
Here Alicia Vikander plays the role of Vera.


One of the passages we discussed in detail is the account of Vera’s visit to Roland’s mother after her son’s death. She has just received her dead son’s uniform:

Roland’s ‘mother and sister [were] standing in helpless distress in the midst of his returned kit, which was lying, just opened, all over the floor. The garments sent back included the outfit he had been wearing when he was hit. I wondered […] why it was thought necessary to return such relics – the tunic torn back and front by the bullet, a khaki vest dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of blood-stained breeches…’

Both Sharon Kelly and Sharon Forsdyke found this passage ‘harrowing’. Carol Coles agreed, stating that this passage ‘is a very powerful moment as it brings home the nature of the injury suffered by Roland. In addition it highlights the fact that the effects were all that was returned to the family as there was no repatriation of the dead bodies’. Val Price felt that the blood-stained uniform brought the war ‘into the relative safety of family and home’, while Chris Davies found it a ‘brilliant description of an awful moment which must have been repeated in many homes’.

Susan Preston-Hough agreed that the description was ‘moving and very sad’ but added that it was ‘perhaps necessary at this time in order that closure could be granted to the deceased’. A similar point was made by Rosamond Peet, who felt ‘at first sight it seems an inhuman thing to do – how can a parent deal with seeing the clothes a child died in? Yet there are those who need to see these things as part of the grieving process. The sparseness of the writing makes the scene more powerful and shocking’. Karen Bond found it ‘poignant, heart-rending and the simplicity and terseness of the language is compelling’. Sharon Forsdyke added: ‘The emphasis on Vera's crepe-de-chine dress, when she's informed of Roland's death, makes the arrival of his blood-stained uniform even more shocking.’

Jackie Davies planting a cross on Roland Leighton’s grave.

Dr Badsey contributed lots of useful information to our discussion; she explained that Vera Brittain ‘trained long and hard’ and wore her nurse’s uniform ‘with great pride’. She also pointed out that it was ‘normal practice to return the belongings of the dead’ to their relatives, and that for Roland’s family it ‘provided evidence that Roland was never coming back’. She also mentioned that officers owned their own uniforms, unlike those in the ranks.

A scene from the 2015 film adaptation of Testament of Youth.

Sharon Kelly pointed out that those in ‘the ranks were allotted uniforms which approximated to their size and shape’, and this must have intensified the visual separation between the officers (in their tailored clothes) and the men. Dr Badsey explained that there were visual differences between different types of nurses, the various distinctions being signalled in their uniforms. She pointed out the ways in which hierarchies and distinctions were signalled through dress.


Hayley Atwell as Hope in Testament of Youth (2015)

Sharon Forsdyke reflected on the clean, starched nurses’ uniform: ‘Aside from the prevention of disease, a clean starched uniform symbolises one-to-one care. If a wounded solider were faced with a dishevelled, blood-stained nurse, I imagine he might think her incapable of caring for him if she had not taken care of herself; he might feel that his fate may be the same as the previous unfortunate; and there is something reassuring about knowing that a nurse in a clean uniform is there just for you, that one wounded soul, that her attention and yours is not distracted by the thought or evidence of another's state of health or demise.’


The V.A.D. nurse’s uniform, front and back view

We closed the afternoon with a clip from the 1970s BBC series of Testament of Youth, as many participants remembered watching it first time round. We watched the scene where Vera starts work at the clearing station in France and, to her dismay, finds she is tending wounded German soldiers. For those who had never seen this early adaptation, the recently-released DVD was now added to their shopping lists.


A scene from the BBC TV version of Testament of Youth.

Several participants had seen the new film version in cinemas. Rosamond Peet had and she felt that the ‘costumes were very pretty in the civilian scenes, perhaps to contrast with the squalor of uniforms at war’. Sharing our ideas helped us to understand the book better, and we will watch the adaptations with a new understanding of Brittain’s achievement in Testament of Youth. As Sharon Forsdyke summed up: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. I understand how Vera may come across as an 'entitled' self righteous member of her class, but putting that into the context of her upbringing, I found her perspective, honest, refreshing and self-deprecating and would certainly have her as a guest at one of my “ideal dinner parties”. Her driving determination to surmount all the odds whilst still being able to embrace the changes, and fight for what is right and just, with a little kicking and thrashing along the way, makes Vera Brittain a model for determined women everywhere.’

Dr Phylomena Badsley added further information about Brittain's work as a nurse and the uniform she wore:

Uniforms of Meaning

Testament of Youth (1933) is filled with references to clothes from school and Oxford University, which demonstrate the interest that Vera Brittain always had in her appearance and throughout the narrative reflect not only events but her emotional state. She took great pride in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform, but she earned the right to wear it by sheer hard work and dedication to duty from the start of her nursing career. A rare, relaxed photograph of her and her brother Edward shows them sitting together in uniform on a park bench.

Vera and Edward Brittain, Buxton 1915

Nurses both VADs (with handkerchief style caps tied at the nape of the neck with mid-blue dress, white apron with Red Cross) and the professional trained nurses, in particular the Queen Alexandra Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) (with nursing veil, gray dresses, red capes) were instructed not to smile in photographs and to maintain professional standards of deportment. All photographs of nurses that we have of the First World War are staged; it was not considered appropriate then or now to show them nursing patients. That is why the written accounts of the actual work they did are so important to our knowledge and understanding of their experience of the First World War.

The image of Vera Brittain which most exists in the public consciousness is of a young woman dressed as a VAD nurse, mourning the deaths of her loved ones, helpless and alone, awaiting an uncertain future. A photograph taken in Trafalgar Square in July 1942 at a Food Relief Rally shows the mature women campaigning for victims of conflict, another in 1961 shows her protesting against the Sharpville Massacre. The older images of Vera Brittain deserve to be more widely known both for her political activism and the courage reflected in her eyes as she looks out at the world around her.

Vera Brittain in the 1960s

Dr. Phylomena Badsey MA was awarded her PhD from Kingston University in 2005, "The Political Thought of Vera Brittain", she has published on Vera Brittain as a war reporter in War, Journalism and History - War Correspondents in Two World Wars (2012). She lectures on nursing during the First Word War and is a Visiting Lecturer and Project Manager at the University of Wolverhampton.