Researcher Blog by PhD Candidate Alison Mayne: The Diversions – Adventures in remaking 20th Century Dress & Wearing Your Research …
About the author
Alison Mayne is a doctoral candidate in the Art & Design Research Centre (ADRC) and a Scotland-based amateur maker in knit and crochet. Alison’s research focuses on women’s crafting experiences and perceptions of well-being shared through social media and is diverted by what may be learnt through remaking historical dress.
Alison works as an Associate Lecturer in Fashion Theory at Sheffield Hallam University and as tutor in Design and Screen Cultures at the University of Edinburgh.
In the final stages of her PhD, Alison Mayne has been indulging in a little extra-curricular ‘academic curiosity’ resulting in two conference papers on remaking historical dress. In this post, Alison discusses wearing her research and reflects on the political significance sewing one’s own clothes.
It may seem an odd moment to announce myself as a ‘folkie’ – but bear with me, it’s relevant. I love traditional music, with English and Scottish folk filling our house most of the time. One band I listen to a great deal is The Unthanks – especially a range of albums they called ‘The Diversions’. These were collections of trad songs they loved and wanted to rearrange, creating three CDs in the four years they were supposed to be producing new, self-penned recordings.
Likewise, the two projects I explore in this blog post are known as my ‘diversions’ – pockets of interest which have fed my personal and academic curiosity when, as someone with a final chapter left to refine on my PhD thesis on knitting, Facebook and wellbeing, I possibly should have been at my desk redrafting (or at the very least, posting #amwriting updates on Twitter). These digressions took time to craft, but the calculation of moving into the reading for or writing of another paper (and out again, back into thesis mode) was absolutely worth it. Working on the principle that a PhD is a beginning rather than an end, it is those shiny, exciting diversions that can perhaps remind us that there is a world of research out there which can lead to new adventures post-PhD, as well as help to retain a sense of play and joy in our work.
Hacking the Russians: Experiments in C21st sustainable fashion using the designs of Nadezdha Lamanova and Vera Mukhina
Decorating Dissidence – Feminism, Modernism and the Arts
Queen Mary University London, 3-4 November 2017
November last year saw me wearing two examples of ‘new soviet dress’ at a conference in south London. These multi-piece garments were drafted from the 1923 text ‘Art in Everyday Life’, a supplement for Moscow’s Red Field magazine, where the designs of Nadezdha Lamanova – illustrated by the famous sculptor Vera Mukhina – had been reproduced to encourage people of the new regime to wear clothing suitable for their labour (Wolfsonian, 2018). In this, I had been inspired by the work of Dr Serena Dyer (2014) in working through a sensory methodology in remaking historical fashion as a way of understanding the processes of domestic amateur dressmakers. I had also been influenced by Dr Amy Twigger-Holroyd (2017) in considering the concept of a fashion ‘commons’ where dress across geography and history can be accessed as a resource to help recontextualise how we interact with material culture in making by hand.
For Lamanova, these garments represented a new way of thinking about clothing, as ‘fashion’ was a bourgeois idea deeply embedded in capitalist systems of control and power. Her designs linked to new political ideals as well as modernist concepts in their angular lines and red, white and black palette. However, with fabric in such short supply – Soviet textile production collapsed after the revolution – the patterns focused on repurposing blankets, linen towels and pre-Bolshevik embroidered prayer shawls, transforming everyday items from the old tradition.
The challenges of interpreting a 2D sketch into a 3D form that flows on the body was helped by Lamanova’s own writing on the collection, where (daringly for the time) she encouraged readers to take an individualised approach, allowing the garments to suit the personality and be harmonious with the form of the wearer. Like New Soviet home dressmakers of the 1920s, I faced the challenge of using fabric loaded with problematic meaning – in my case, this was gifted sari lengths of fabric from India, almost certainly produced using polluting and unsustainable processes. I reflected as I made – on my privilege in working using fabric produced by and representing a culture other than my own, the need to use every scrap of the fabric if I was serious about waste and material consumption in the project and my freedoms in making adaptations for my body. It helped to crystallise what I had been thinking about how we are free to use fashion to express personhood, and that what I wear – and what I make – matters.
Fashioned into a Woman: Clothing in Spare Rib 1972-1979
MeCCSA 2018 – Creativity and Agency
London South Bank University, 10 – 12 January 2018
More recently, in addition to reflecting on aspects of my PhD work through contributing to a panel called ‘The Thread That Runs So True: Women, everyday creativity and the medium of fabric’, I gave a stand-alone paper about clothing in Spare Rib magazine from 1972-79. This had been inspired by the British Library digitisation project (British Library, 2018), which allowed copies of the magazine to be viewed online and was followed up by reviewing physical copies in the National Library of Scotland.
I wanted to highlight the different ways that Spare Rib represented fashion and clothing in its first phase, considering the historiography of women’s activism and its emphasis on the handmade as an alternative to consumer culture. The magazine explored commercial fashion from the democratic nature of jeans to a critique of the emerging look for the new 80s woman – where powerful shoulders were paired with hobbling, incapacitating pencil skirts and heels – the challenges of homeworkers in the industry and the historical significance of nineteenth and early twentieth century craft work in embroidery or quilting.
My particular interest was in the treatment of the homemade, by amateurs who continued to hold in tension their making by hand and its associations with female subjugation. One example of this is a feature from March 1973, called ‘Stitchy Fingers’, where readers were encouraged to see home sewing as ‘simpler than simplicity’. I made and wore the dress featured in the article, where simple hand-drawn geometric shapes, paired with tips on measurement, were used to encourage women to free themselves of what society told them to wear or what size their bodies should be. Delivering the paper in a physical manifestation of the research brought to life the problematic issues of referring to fashion of the past as nostalgic, a parody, or a subversive commentary on domestic craft and women’s suppression – particularly where the paper needs to start by affirming the right for fashion to be perceived as having a serious place in the academy.
One unexpected and marvellous outcome of this experience was meeting University of Glasgow Honorary Professor Christine Geraghty. On the final day of conference, she approached me with several issues of Spare Rib, alongside the promise of sending all 60 or so of her own copies of the magazine. Spluttering and a bit weepy at this generous offer, I said I would reimburse postage, but she explained that, as someone who had worked a long time in academia, this was her gift to me as an early career researcher. I can only hope I will take a similar opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ in the future.
What have I learnt from these events (other than that you can wear anything on the London underground and no one bats an eyelid)? There are two aspects I’d like to draw out of these ‘diversions’.
The first is the intensely political significance of sewing one’s own clothes, challenging fast fashion consumption and managing sustainable principles in making. It also challenges societal expectation in ensuring what I wear fits the shape I am, rather than what the industry tells me I should be. Both the Art in Everyday Life and Spare Rib designs were a reminder that women can access tradition, reinterpret it and provide room for self-expression: clothing should not be yet another way to silence what women have to say.
Secondly, I am beginning to understand the importance of keeping a space for ‘academic curiosity’ in diversions such as these. In Mark Reed’s (2017) recent publication The Productive Researcher, he writes about the significance of work being sustained by ‘value-based goals’ which encourage a ‘type of productivity that is about producing a clearer conception of you… happy working less and being more’ (pp.167-8). This is not to ignore the precarity of early academic life but serves as a reminder that keeping space for ‘play and joy’ can help maintain energy in our work, opening up unexpected avenues and connections.
British Library (2017). Spare Rib.
Dyer, S (2014) Shopping and the Senses: Retail, Browsing and Consumption in 18th century England. History Compass 12 (9) pp. 694-703.
Reed, M. S. (2017). The Productive Researcher. Huntly: Fast Track Impact.
Twigger-Holroyd, A. (2017) Folk Fashion: Understanding homemade clothes. London: IB Tauris.
Wolfsonian (2018). Iskusstvo v bytu (Art in Everyday Life). Available at: https://digital.wolfsonian.org/WOLF046688/00001/1j?search=art+%3deveryday+%3dlife
Image credits: Alison Mayne (2017, 2018).
Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SHU, C3RI or the C3RI Impact Blog.