The Joy of Archives

By Lorraine Smith

I’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 or a hobby in life. 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 London College of Fashion archives looking through old copies of Draper’s Record.

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26 thoughts on “The Joy of Archives

  1. Pingback: Fashion Theory: The Joy of Archives - Rarely Wears Lipstick

  2. I don’t understand the history of fabric or clothes, but I think it’s great that there are people like you who take delight in how fabric is made and the whole history of it. We all have our own quirky interests. That’s what keeps this world so colourful and fun.

  3. I am a young woman with an old soul – I have always described myself that way. Like you, I am also fascinated with the antiquity and elegance that anything vintage brings. I adore Victorian dressed but these beauties don’t suit the climate that we have in the tropics. Good luck on your venture!

  4. Love your post. I love “vintage” clothing too, but unfortunately have to draw the line at obtaining an MA. Wish I could, though.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!!

  5. Lorraine,

    I truly enjoyed this post. You elaborate your passion for the art and craft of clothing with such tenderness and humanity. It is a fascinating subject when one thinks about what design, construction and the wearing of a garment can represent beyond mere fashion.

    My mother is not a designer, but she is a gifted seamstress who made nearly all of my clothes while I was growing up – even into high school. I’m ashamed that I didn’t appreciate that fully then. (Oh to have a personal couturier now!) However, the concept of quality construction and artful detailing has stayed with me and when I acquire garments or accessories I need to love them. To be honest, without that heartfelt sensation, I usually do without.

    Your description of going to the archives reminded me of the fabric store my mother still frequents, located in New England (Greenfield, Massachusetts). It has the delicious name of Eastern Textiles. Long and narrow and hushed like a library except for the rifling of pages of the pattern books, the thumping of the bolts of fabric as they are flipped over to unfurl the required yardage and then the metallic swish and ping of the shears some times accompanied by the whooshing tear of a straight line by which some fabrics availed themselves after an initial snip.

    The fabrics are lined up like books in stacks, the slim edge of the flat bolts showing like spines of books. enticing you to open them up for the story that was inside. It is hardly possible not to simply touch them all. The well worn pine floor softly creaks and moans as you stroll around or perhaps stride in muffled determination to the place you know holds your desire.

    Best wishes on your dissertation.

  6. A girl after my own heart. I go into paroxysms of joy at pulling a vintage monogrammed handkerchief from a basket–how many tears did it catch? Vintage petticoats and underskirts have swallowed up my other clothes, much higher are they on the food chain! I had what I thought was a dress from the 1920s but after some investigation it turned out to be a costume from the 1960s from a play set in the 20s. Still beautiful but slightly tainted–as if had lied to me, passed itself off as something it wasn’t! It would be a lovely skill to be able to determine the date of all my vintage by myself. Usually I’m such a sucker for the emotion that I feel when I pick something up and the idea I form of the person who once owned it. I try to stick to trusted sellers who have done their homework on their pieces. Lucky you–a fascinating MA Studies programme. (I studied MS in Fashion 🙂

  7. Pingback: My iPhone Lies | Solitary Spinster

  8. I read Style Me Vintage too! Got it as a Christmas present and couldn’t put it down.
    Vintage will never grow old! x

  9. I cannot see anything strange here. I would be a hypocrite to say there was. In the National Gallery in Canberra Australia Ii was privy to seeing an exhibition of couture clothing. Of the most memorable, a vintage dior dress, simple though so clean in it’s lines and so very real in it’s construction.

  10. I’ve only just spotted that there are lots of comments on this post, so apologies for the late reply. Thank you so much for reading this post, sharing it with others, leaving lovely comments, and for sharing your own stories with me. It’s good to know that the world is full of people like us.

    Lorraine (aka Lori)

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