By NJ Stevenson, practice-led PhD student.
“This autumn, CfFC hosted an event in response to a conversation that I had had with Amy de la Haye, my PhD supervisor, earlier in 2017 about engagement with practice. As a practice-led PhD student, you run the risk of becoming buried in lone doctoral research. After three years of researching the development of an exhibition on the intersection between fashion and film costume between 1967 and 1975, we felt that my project would benefit from presenting my progress to a live audience. I invited practitioners who have been instrumental in helping me with my research to be a part of a panel discussion exploring ideas and implications for the realisation of an exhibition. I called the event ‘Rags to Riches’.
Around 70 students, researchers and members of the public turned up to listen to the panel who gave their time so generously: John Bright, costume designer and founder of Cosprop costumiers; Vicki Russell, costume designer and daughter of the film director Ken Russell and costume designer Shirley Russell; the actress Georgina Hale, who featured in Russell’s 1971 film The Boy Friend; and Dennis Nothdruft, Head of Exhibitions of the Fashion and Textile Museum, London.
I introduced the event by presenting ideas on how the narrative of the exhibition was emerging from my research, and in particular, the significance of practices of collecting second hand clothing found in markets in the 1960s. This was corroborated in a discussion with John Bright, who had brought some original garments to show the audience. John explained how he had begun collecting historical clothing visiting the Clignancourt flea market when he attended the Paris collections as a fashion student in the 1950s. John showed us some 19th century bodices and a gentleman’s coat that he had originally dated as 18th century when he had picked it up from a heap on the floor. He later realised that it was a costume made for theatre or fancy dress in the 19th century. John explained how his collection was augmented by donations of non-museum worthy pieces from Doris Langley Moore, who had started the Fashion Museum in Bath. Langley Moore had been a patron of Walthamstow Art School where he had studied fashion.
Also at Walthamstow in the 1950s were Ken Russell and Shirley Kingdon, who later married. Shirley Russell had also studied fashion and when assisting Doris Langley Moore at Bath had learnt how to date historical garments. Her daughter Vicki explained to us how Shirley had started collecting clothes by searching Portobello Market in West London every weekend and, in the same way as John, started amassing a historic clothing collection which became her film costume stock. She opened a shop in 1971, when her collection became unmanageable, and customers could buy original 1920s dresses which she had used in such films as Women In Love and The Boyfriend to wear as fashion items. Vicki had also brought original 1920s pieces from her mother’s collection which were used in The Boyfriend, a 1960s Missoni dress that referenced model/actress Twiggy’s golfing jumper in the film, and a contemporary dress by the label Toast that was almost an exact copy of the 1920s frock worn by one of the co-stars.
I have been researching the intersection between period film costume and fashion as a way to look at patterns of temporality in fashion but both John and Vicki were able to give insight into my findings of the part that original historic garments and museology played in the story. Using The Boyfriend as an example, I was able to demonstrate the layered relationship between what might be seen as two disparate elements, by placing them in the wider framework of popular culture.
Dennis Nothdruft brought further depth with an insight into the administration of a small, independent fashion museum, which has overcome the constraints of a limited collection by collaborating with owners of private archives. The exhibition I am developing, with the working title of ‘Retrovision’, is due to open at the Fashion and Textile Museum in 2020.
The display of two types of garments, fashion and film costume, in the same installation has caused much debate among my supervisory team and fellow curators. However, it was Georgina Hale, who plays Fay in the film production that Russell adapted from Sandy Wilson’s stage musical of The Boy Friend, who was able to offer practical insight. It is not until the actor puts on the costume, she said, that the role comes ‘alive’.
Looking at fashion garments, some curators search for traces of lived lives. That Shirley Russell and John Bright use original garments that had previously seen ‘lived lives’ to bring ‘alive’ a revival of that period on screen is an interesting twist providing a further layer to the research narrative.
Read more about NJ’s research here