The London College of Fashion archives are a great study resource for staff, students, and external researchers. MA History and Culture of Fashion students Gaba and Helen met with the collection’s archivist Jane Holt to discuss the past, present, and future of the archive.
HS: So, you come from a history background?
JH: Yes, my degrees are all in history. I’m a historian by training, a librarian by profession and an archivist by desire.
HS: What drew you to archiving?
JH: My first job in art librarianship was at London College of Fashion; it was when we still had sites, very different libraries had different sites. When we brought everything back here, to JPS, at the back of one of the rooms, we discovered photographs of the college. I kept saying ‘Oh! This is really important stuff, it’s our story’. Gradually it was recognised that it was an archive. I got started with it, because I worked at the National Gallery and I got the archivist from there to come and have a look at it, give his ‘this is really important, you have to keep this’. And that’s the story of the archive, the story of the college and that amazing photographic record that we’ve got of over a hundred years of the story of London College of Fashion.
GN: Then, could we say you were the one who created the archive?
JH: No, no, no. It wasn’t just me. It was me saying I thought it was important and everyone else agreeing and saying that perhaps we should do something with it.
GN: But before you suggested that that could be part of the archive, did LCF have an archive?
JH: Well, they had it because they kept the photographs and prospectuses and everything, they did happen to go back to 1900s. They were keeping it, but they just thought of it as the story of the college, but what would you do with it? I think it’s quite interesting and that’s one of the key things for an archive: you are conserving the past, you are keeping the past, you are looking after it. But you are also making it relevant or trying to make it relevant to the present and inform what is going to happen and inspire the future.
GN: How do you look at contemporary fashion?
JH: I guess I try to keep an eye on what’s going on. When I see somebody walking down the street with something that’s interesting, I might try to see where that comes from. I like looking at shops as well. I had this conversation years ago, while I was doing my Cultural History MA, I was fascinated by this whole idea of the department store and how, back then, it was becoming almost like a museum and the museum was becoming like the shop. It was when Selfridges started having curated exhibitions and displays. You can walk through a department store and be able to handle all these high fashion objects while seeing them in a curated space; and you don’t have to buy them. Then you can go to the museum –at that point was the birth of the gift shop idea– the gift shop was the way of generating money. The gift shop is a space where you find yourself buying objects in a museum context.
GN: On a similar line, people nowadays talk about the democratisation of fashion. Do you think it is really happening? Do you think fashion has been democratised?
JH: I think it is much harder to say you are this class or you are that class. If we think of Mrs Corner’s archive [housed in the London College of Fashion archive], her dresses show that from the 1950s to the 1970s, she was a middle class woman married to a professional man. What she wore had to be a reflection of her lifestyle, so her clothes were particularly sewed. Now, obviously there are levels of society where you have to wear a uniform (if you want to call it that), you have to wear certain things, but I think that’s much flatter now. At the same time, a lot of people can’t choose what they can afford to wear.
HS: You’re limited in your choice but there’s still a choice to make. It’s interesting to hear people from other places because I don’t think people discuss class as much as we do. It’s become a consumerist class system. We used to have the aristocrat at the top of the pyramid, now it’s the celebrity.
JH: Celebrity culture: you just have to look at the newspapers and compare the current covers of Vogue to their covers in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. They would be celebrity mannequins. Now it’s the celeb, somebody who hasn’t been a model, who is in the front cover. It’s not because she’s aristocratic or anything else, whereas most of the mannequins in the cover of Vogue would be well-known, doing mannequin modeling because why-not?
HS: It’s also to do with the way we view and define success. I think the value of education and scholarship and learning has completely depreciated.
JH: The idea that you could have university education and that makes you a success, it used to be very important. Nowadays a lot of graduates don’t get jobs.
GN: But don’t you think this is somehow related to the high speed of postmodernism? How was it when you were a student?
JH: It used to be. When I was in school, very few girls went to university; I was the first one in my school to go to university. It was a working class, inner-London comprehensive school and I was the first one to go. Because the expectations were that girls didn’t go to university. The expectation was that you went and got a job and got married. I was fortunate that education was free then, you only had to find your course, and if you were lucky you got a grant from the government, but there was a recognition that that couldn’t be sustained.
GN: How did it feel to be the first girl from school to go to university?
JH: It felt like it was the right thing to do, it just felt natural. My teachers were actually quite ‘no, you don’t really want to do that’ and I was like ‘yes, I do’. I felt quite special. They played it down, but I think they were quite proud. I mean, I don’t have a placa or anything like that. My parents were incredibly proud, they just couldn’t believe it.
GN: Being self-taught in many aspects of my career I always reflect on the role of education in certain industries. When studying design or journalism for instance, having formal education implies being taught how to use certain tools that will make your job easier and smoother, however, you can still exercise the discipline without going to university.
JH: That goes back to the story of the college as well, because its origins are in trade schools, schools where students were taught how to actually make things and how to actually produce what was needed. The London College of Fashion was a trade school, girls were taught how to embroider and sew, so the origins of what we are doing now is rooted in that idea.
GN: What’s the difference with what is happening now?
JH: We are still looking to the industries, looking to the practitioners; you are taught by people that are practitioners. There’s a sort of base of people who have been out there or are still out there and bring in that knowledge. So, probably we are in a very interesting and strong position, because we have that practice-based grounding, which is probably a little bit more realistic about what one leaves with at the end of a degree in university.