Culture Costume and Dress

5-7th May 2021 Birmingham UK

A Week to go – Meet the Team

April 29th, 2021

With only a week to go before the start of the conference, we are all getting very excited. We had a hectic meeting on Tuesday, catching up. So much done, and so much still to do. As usual though, it didn’t preclude fun and laughter. I have been very lucky over the years to work with such a dedicated and supportive team of people, who are also such entertaining company. You will meet them all at the conference, but I thought you might like to know a little about them, and what they’ve been doing.

In no particular order:

Charmaine Stint is senior development manager in the University’s Research, Innovation and Development team. She has been our mainstay over the years at every conference we have run. Personally, I knew very little when we started about how to organise a conference, but Charmaine steered us through the process effortlessly. This year, we have had new challenges to deal with, but Charmaine brought her expertise to bear and has provided invaluable support. 

Joanna Jarvis has used her knowledge of period dress as a foundation for her research into women in the eighteenth-century. She was one of the founding members of the Dress in Context Research Centre, and has contributed greatly to the success of all our events. This year, Joanna has managed the review process for submissions, a hugely complex and time-consuming procedure, not least keeping track of progress. She also helped develop the exciting programme.

Nazli Alimen joined us two years ago, and has proved to be an enthusiastic and energetic member. Her research interests are wide-ranging, but generally focus on dress as it relates to material and visual culture. For CCD2021, Nazli has taken on, almost single-handedly, the development of the Book of Abstracts. This year, it will take the form of an e-book, and that has presented its own challenges. I haven’t yet seen the finished product, but the drafts look very exciting.

Sandra Costa could be described as a cuckoo in our nest, but we appreciate that she has brought a whole new perspective to our work. She is primarily a landscape artist, whose research focuses on people’s interaction with their environment. Her work with Muslim women, and their interactions with green environments, led to an interest in the significance of their clothing, and she has recently been involved in researching the attitudes of Muslim women to dress and the role of their clothing in constructing identity. Sandra is very experienced in managing conferences, and her support has been invaluable.

Louise Chapman is currently studying for her PhD with the London College of Fashion. Coming from a costume for performance background, her archival research focuses on historical dress and its embodied practice. Louise has been closely involved in all our research events, including the CCD conferences. We have a tradition of involving students of all levels in our research-related work, and this year, Louise has taken responsibility for coordinating the contribution of our Student Associates. Thanks to Louise’s direction, they will be taking an active part in proceedings, and we are all looking forward to working with them.

Sian Hindle, also a founding member of the Centre, has research interests in jewellery, its role in identity, and its significance in marking memories and relationships. Sian has managed the Student Round Table, an innovation we have introduced for the first time, and along with Charmaine has organised the Poster display session. She was also instrumental in developing the programme – and all this achieved in her usual calm and (seemingly) unflustered way.

Poppy Wilde’s research focuses on the posthuman subjectivities, and how these are embodied. She has a particular interest in the current media fascination with zombies. Poppy is, without doubt, the most efficient member of the team. While the rest of us are discussing an issue, she has it done. She recently managed the whole process of our online Dress in a Time of Crisis symposium, and for CCD2021 she has coordinated the hosting and chairing of all sessions.

Sophie Johnson is the newest member of the team. She has recently begun her PhD into public relations and its financial value within an organisation. She is also joint host, with her colleague, Laura Arrowsmith, of the popular podcast, Fashadmix. Sophie, with her knowledge and expertise in PR and social media, has been an invaluable asset, and we all look forward to working with her more in the future.

Bethany Lewis is one of our third year students, who successfully applied for the role of Social Media Manager. She has been an enthusiastic and energetic member of the team, working tirelessly to promote the conference, and has supported all our efforts throughout. Beth hopes to go into PR and social media management when she graduates. We think whoever employs her will be very lucky.

Finally, I have to thank Jane Anderson, lecturer in graphic design at BCU, who has so beautifully refreshed our graphic design, giving it a new and contemporary lease of life.

You may ask, what have I done? I have been clever enough to surround myself with brilliant and exciting people, and have benefited from their wondrousness!

Anne Boultwood

The Bridgerton Effect

March 25th, 2021

I have been watching current fashion trends and wondering if we will see a Bridgerton effect, and when we do how will it look? Will we see princess line dresses in powder blue satin from the early sixties or frilly white dresses with pastel sashes such as I wore to parties while at infant school? Both have featured in the Regency parallel universe inhabited by the world that is Bridgerton, based on the novels by Julia Quinn. With its modern storyline, strong female characters and narrative-led colour-blind casting.

There has been a long and honourable history of fashion responding to the latest film or TV show. Remember Annie Hall (1977) and all those baggy pants, waistcoats and trilby hats? Or more recently, catwalks adorned with red cloaks in response to Handmaid’s Tale (2017) and clouds of Tulle from that pink dress worn by Jodie Comer in Killing Eve (2018)?

Ellen Mironjnick, costume designer for Bridgerton told Vogue magazine (Dec. 2020) that this was a period drama that needed to feel ‘scandalous and modern’. Taking the Regency silhouette of the 1810s she applied a Christian Dior aesthetic, with the V&A’s 2019 exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams as her starting point. There were to be no bonnets, that would hide women’s faces and no muslin, that made women look like Greek statues but quickly crumples into a limp rag. She also subtly changed the necklines of the women’s dresses, replacing the straight line with an elegant scoop shape that is far more flattering.

Updating a period style to give a modern and acceptable aesthetic is a tricky business to pull off. Maintaining the period feel while also allowing the audience to identify with the characters and thus be drawn into the narrative demands walking a fine line. Mirojnick is an experienced Hollywood costume designer with films such as Behind the Candelabra (2013), for which she won an Emmy, The Greatest Showman (2017) and Malificent: Mistress of Evil (2019) under her belt. 

As well as subtly altering necklines and head shapes Mirojnick also used colour to emphasise the up-to-date feel of the characters, adding visual emphasis to their narratives. As eldest daughter of the ‘old money’ Bridgerton family Daphne began the series in pastel blues, moving to more dusky colours and deeper tones of silver and blue. As Mironjnick puts it ‘she begins as a porcelain doll and becomes a woman’. In contrast, daughters of the ‘nouveau riches’ Featherington family were given sizzling oranges, greens and purples. As their pushy mother (played by Polly Walker) puts it at one point, ‘I need them to stand out from the crowd and to be noticed if they are to make advantageous marriages’. You will have to watch the series to see if she succeeds.

Both families – Bridgertons and Featheringtons – have strong mothers each given a personal style. For Lady Bridgerton (played by Ruth Gemmell) her look is more 1950s, nicely pre-dating the early 60s feel of her daughters, but still with the Regency silhouette. My one quibble is with Lady Featherington, whose silhouette is more figure hugging and Edwardian in feel, more 1910 than 1810. Was this to show off her figure, to emphasise her hips, which barely feature in the Regency line? Or to take attention away from her décolletage? Added to the large garish prints of her fabrics is this a reminder of her aspirational status? 

The real matriarch of this society is the Queen (played by Golda Rosheuvel) and she has a delightful eccentricity, after all no one at court would dare to criticise her, so why not have some fun with her look? Her gowns were kept to the formal style worn by the real Queen Charlotte – all the better to set off her outrageous wigs. These were extraordinary, sometimes high, sometimes wide, in a range of tones from hard white to gunmetal grey, but always precisely curled and sculptural. Each added to a superior demeanour accompanied by her withering put-downs.

Bridgerton has caused outrage among adherents to a certain style of period drama, but that is not what this series is. The description above may make the semiotics of the costumes sound a little crude, but by carefully setting up their rules and parameters in advance Mironjnick has been able to create a complete look, one that resonates throughout and gives us a coherent and believable universe. The story is not about Regency heroines with little personal agency waiting with bated breath for the right man, but young women learning to challenge their status. It is a modern story of kicking back against accepted norms and creating your own path; one that not only includes love, but also partnership and agency.

As I write this piece the week’s fashion pages arrive in the newspaper, including a feature on next season’s dresses by Reformation. Their collection includes several styles with low scoop necks as featured by Mironjnick; so maybe the Bridgertoneffect has already arrived!

— Joanna Jarvis

The Joys and Challenges of the Virtual Conference

March 25th, 2021

For the past year, like many organisations, the Dress in Context Research Centre has had to move to an online presence. We had a successful online symposium in August looking at Dress in a Time of Crisis, but now we’re facing the challenge of a much bigger and longer conference, and I’ve been reflecting on the pros and cons of the virtual approach. 

The great advantage of a virtual conference is that we can welcome people from all over the world. CCD has always attracted an international audience, but this year the response from other countries is more marked than ever. We have received submissions from every continent – apart from Antarctica (maybe we’ll get a late request). Given that we also have an awe-inspiring range of topics, this should guarantee some excellent discourse. It does mean that there will be issues around different time zones, and of course, we’ll do our best to factor these into the programming.

By contrast, the significant downside is the absence of real-world contact. There won’t be the usual social opportunities that generally form a significant aspect of conferences, and while this has meant a saving in conference fees (we are only charging a nominal fee to cover our expenses), and less work for the committee, the lack will be felt by most of us. The conference dinner, for example, will surely be missed. These things are peripheral, however. The purpose of an academic conference is to disseminate research, to engage in academic dialogue with peers, and the absence of a social side shouldn’t matter. Except it does. The opportunity for a brief exchange of ideas over coffee; the conversation over dinner that might grow into a future collaboration; the excitement of a student who gets to talk to names they have previously only come across in publications: these are often the highlight of a conference, and what delegates take away.

At CCD we have given much thought to how we might mitigate against this absence. We’ve been devising alternative activities –  some (though not all) may involve alcohol – and we’ll be sharing them over the coming weeks. We still haven’t come up with an alternative to the serendipitous encounter, though. If anyone has ideas, please let us know.

The conference will be hosted on Zoom, something we have all become familiar with over the last year – both professionally and socially. Zoom has enabled us to keep in touch with friends and family, to continue our work lives safely, and to hold events like CCD. Unfortunately, as with many aspects of life, there is a price to be paid. I think we’ve all been surprised by how tiring online meetings can be. After all, we don’t have to move from our desk – or kitchen table, or bed, depending on personal arrangements – the meeting comes to us. The problem is that online encounters operate in a different way to real life, and the nonverbal behaviours that have evolved to make interaction with others easier become overemphasised and intrusive in a virtual world. In real world exchanges, we rely on a raft of nonverbal cues to ensure we understand each other; but these are much harder to send and receive in an online situation, and consequently, we end up working much harder to achieve the same level of understanding. Similarly, because we are constantly staring at the screen, we can’t escape eye contact. In real life eye contact is intermittent, and we feel uncomfortable if it becomes continuous. And perhaps even more stressful is being faced with an unremitting image of ourselves (though I’m told you can switch this off). Research tells us that when faced with an image of our self, for example, in a mirror, we have a tendency to self-evaluate (and as you might expect, women do this more than men). This kind of self-focus tends to be negative, and therefore distracting and ultimately, dispiriting.

While you may think this makes for depressing reading, there is one upside that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the absence of the what to wear dilemma. This is particularly so, perhaps for doctoral researchers who are new to the conference world. I have often seen online discussions around what is appropriate conference dress – not too formal, not too casual, definitely not too short. In a Zoom conference, all that disappears; we can only be seen from the shoulders up, so, as we’ve seen from social media, anything goes.  The news may get even better over time. The growth in virtual fashion allows us to inhabit and share images of different outfits, wear them only once, and make them as  outlandish as we please. This is a move that is very attractive to younger Instagram users, who can clothe themselves in an array of different outfits, yet at the same time salve their sustainability consciences. Recent advances in digital fashion mean that there will soon come a time when we can clothe ourselves in outfits as exotic and exaggerated as we please. Perhaps use virtual clothes to curate a new and exciting digital identity. In the meantime, we might want to think about how we can enhance our image at conferences. Given the shoulder-up view, we might want to focus on a hat. One of the conference papers considers the importance and significance of hats – perhaps we should all take notice!

— Anne Boultwood