Fashion Theory: The Joy of Archives

Advert from Draper's Record, 1950I’ve always had a fondness for old clothes. Whether I’m looking through my mother’s lovingly saved garments, rummaging in a vintage shop or browsing an antique market, touching a piece of the past has always been my most powerful window into history. Whilst looking at images of what people used to wear is fascinating; being able to feel the fabrics and look at the construction has always filled me with utter excitement. Even the smell of clothing that hasn’t been worn for years is thrilling, because it’s the smell of discovery.

After reading Naomi Thompson’s book Style Me Vintage, I realised that I could tell whether vintage clothing stores were merely guessing the dates of the garments they were selling. Knowing when plastic zips became more common, and when fibre content was a legal requirement for clothing labels, is extremely useful when you’re working out whether a seller’s price is fair. However, it was only when I started the MA History and Culture of Fashion course that I realised just how much I would enjoy this type of research. I guess it was inevitable that someone who can usually tell the fibre content just by touching the fabric would be drawn to the garments themselves, rather than their representation.

And, yes, I find this type of research really exciting. Ask anyone who has been with me on a visit to an archive collection, and they will all say the same thing. I’m the one who reacts with childlike glee at the many layers of tulle in a 1950s cocktail gown. I’m the person who points and squeals “look at the collar!” when a dramatic early 19th century tail-coat is placed on a mannequin. I react to proofs of 1940s fashion photographs – complete with handwritten notes from the photographer – and original 1970s bottles of Biba nail polish the way some people react to the Topshop sale.

This may seem a little strange, but you can discover so much more about an object by inspecting it up close. I had little concept of just how stiff stays were, but seeing them laid out in the study room at the Fashion Museum in Bath made it obvious in an instant. After all, most garments, including more modern corsets, can lie reasonably flat on a table! Handling an object can reveal handwriting inside a coat, evidence of mending, clever pleating, hidden fastenings, and even the depth of the pockets. It’s like having a little window into someone else’s life.

My visit to the Symington Archive in Leicestershire, as part of my research for an essay, was particularly thrilling. The archivist helped me look through box after box of mid-20th century foundation garments, and each one held new treasures. Poking around that collection would have been fun anyway, but having a specific question to answer made that afternoon really exciting. Every box we opened either brought me a step closer to precisely dating a garment I owned, and their contents were far more engaging than anything I’d read in a book or on the internet.

Pretty much everyone has a passion in life, or a hobby. Some people enjoy spending a Saturday watching their favourite football team play, hitting the shops, or meeting friends at the pub before a gig. I spent last Saturday at the M&S Archive in Leeds and had just as much fun. Although I have a dissertation to plan and an awful lot of writing to do before the end of the year, I will definitely enjoy doing it. In the meantime, if anyone needs me, I’ll probably be in the LCF Archives looking through old copies of Draper’s Record.

This article was first published on [In]Tangible in March 2014.