Introducing the Eccentric Archive

Archive cat

From Louis James’ introduction to Fiction for the Working Man in 1963 to Marina Warner’s account of handling ectoplasm, the archive is a vital research tool for the humanities. However, it is one that demands time, and which adds risk to a research project. Eccentric archives are often uncatalogued and may come directly from private collections, which were not designed for the purposes that academia wants them to fulfil. They intersperse artefacts with documents, truncate and accelerate narratives, and are very hard to encompass. They are an unedited, bewildering and exciting experience.

This blog aims to explore the significance of primary source material in the humanities by drawing on the experience of researchers who are using nineteenth- and twentieth-century collections and archives. If you have a collection that you would like to promote, or an experience that you would like to share regarding archive work, then please contact us.

Issues that we anticipate encountering are absences and silences in the archive; tactile experience; ethics; public engagement; digitisation and its discontents; dead-end research trips; interactions between agents – collectors, archivists and researchers; moments of revelation and despair; connections between collections; methodology; applications for admission / travel and the documents that got away.


Jane Loudon: The Ladies’ Gardener

Lovely and insightful overview of the work of Jane Loudon a particular favourite woman writer.

Guildhall Library blog

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Horticulturalist, novelist and journalist Jane Loudon Webb (1807-1858) faced financial difficulty for much of her life and turned to writing to make a living.  Her father died when she was seventeen, leaving her without financial security but a few years later she enjoyed literary success with her novel “The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century”, published anonymously in 1827.  The tale explored ideas of future technological and scientific developments and among the many who admired the book was writer and horticultural expert John Claudius Loudon.  They met following his review of her book and were married within the year.

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Once she had entered her husband’s horticultural world she wanted to immerse herself in the subject and learn more, so she attended lectures by John Lindley and reviewed books for “Gardener’s Magazine”, a publication edited by her husband. She wanted to assist him in his work but recognized she…

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Digitise All the Things

Beyond Text in the Digital Age: Oral History, Images and the Written Word

It is quite rare that you find that you are learning, sharing and exchanging rather than just enjoying a conference. I came to the Oral History Society  Annual Conference with an interest in materiality which often renders me a digital luddite.  The reason for this is the type of archives and research that I am currently undertaking.  The Liddell Hart Collection of Costume (LHCC), as those familiar with this blog will know, is predominantly an archive of press cuttings from a spectrum of twentieth century UK newspapers.  Everyday Sir Basil Liddell Hart identified and cut out articles on fashion and manners.


Collections of clippings as Anke te Heesen has argued “demonstrate the connections that evolved historically between cognitive and physical practices involving paper […] clippings were created to serve as knowledge tools, the act of cutting them out was as important as their existence as organising them afterwards. Only by removing them from their compositional context (such as the newspaper page) do they gain mobility – the spatial manoeuvrability that allows a piece of paper to become a communications instrument […] (Heesen, 2014:9).


Recently I have been working on Matilda Betham Edwards the earliest woman contributor to Punch.  Her series ‘Mrs Punch’s Letters to Her Daughter’ responds in part to Eliza Lynn Linton’s ‘Girl of the Period’ essay for The Saturday Review in 1868.  The research has involved both digital and material resources in order to understand the context in which Betham Edwards’ work was published.  Looking through Punch for 1868 it is evident but surprising that Punch was reticent to play with the ‘… of the period’ joke.  Finding where it was used is definitely aided by the Gale Cengage Punch Historical Archive which can show you immediately where the use of the phrase is buried in innocuous articles, such as this one.


Searchable digital content does reveal connections that can be overlooked when working with popular culture.

In contrast a set of anonymous scrapbooks also held by the LHCC emphasise how fascinating the term ‘…of the period’ was to the other satirical publications.  The contents span the 1868 to 1872 period and assemble a set of cuttings engaged with the many different facets of the debate about mid-nineteenth century women’s rights.

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From materiality to orality, Femorabilia the collection of women’s and girls’ magazines needs an oral history which will complement the text with evidence of cultural practice.  In the twenty first century this will have to be digital from its inception and attending the conference was to help me plan what will hopefully be a large scale project available to researchers half a century from now.


Everyday experience originally led me to use oral history as a method in the 1990s.  I wanted to understand the actual (rather than operations manual) workings of the Boots Booklovers’ Library. Boots the Chemist was operating a national circulating library from the turn of the twentieth century, as a loss leader, to define the shops as department stores which could finance pharmaceutical research and development.  I would not have understood the working lives of the librarians or the experience of their readers without listening and reviewing their testimony.  However, the research was riddled with horror stories related to the equipment and transcription.

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Mary Larson (Associate Dean for Special Collections at the Oklahoma State University Library) who gave the opening keynote at ‘Beyond the Text’ reminded me of those pre-digital recording days. She invited the large, interdisciplinary and international audience to join her on a tour of an old media warehouse to revisit all the formats of our misspent youth.  The move from analogue to digital is a trend she argued to reclaim orality rather than privileging the respectability of the transcript.

Unexpected presences in recordings were evident at different panels and stages of the conference. Sarah Pyke (University of Roehampton) emphasised how the materiality of the book was there through the sound of rifling and flicking through its pages which became an integral part of one of her interviews.

The development of oral history has used technology to provide missing context with video and film, which alongside the interest in supplementary materials, have all attempted to capture the nuances of the oral. Larson argued that oral history has been waiting for effective digital systems which can capture and present the performance that is oral history.  As we still find the democratisation of the method does not necessarily support greater access and transcription remains a costly secondary barrier.

My interest in the conference lay in how experimentation with digital presence allows for people to creatively figure out the roles for these new tools. Even though Larson warned us that cherry picking bits of content, so tempting with digital editing, can be problematic for context.  The balances between access, context, curation and the evaluation of methodology were addressed throughout the conference.

It was great to catch up with the Reading Sheffield Project set up by Mary Grover in 2011.  Her paper debated how to fund and sustain oral history outside the academy.  She referred to this alluringly as “opportunities and highly idiosyncratic tactics”.  Grover considered the balance between coherent overarching plans on paper and creative potential inherent in the experience of working with different sponsors and the impact of volunteers.  Val Hewson joined the project after the 60 interviews were collected.  These interviews focussed on memories of reading and access to reading material.  Hewson has managed the context provided by their website, combining oral and archive research material which introduces the readers, connects their experience to libraries and bookshops in the Sheffield area, offers analysis, discussion and innovative approaches to interpretation.


One of these, and we heard from several artists during the conference, was the intervention of Eleanor Brown. Her poems, reflections on the orality and experience of the testimony bring a further dimension of accessibility to the recordings.  The material that she has to work with is rich and intriguing both for text and performance.


Whitelands College was a fantastic location for the conference, but to see its real glory you had to go round to the back.


Apart from the many campus cats,


I was very taken with the Burne Jones stained glass.


The displays of needlework from the 1840s to the 1940s.


And running into odd items when you turned corners too quickly.


But I learnt most this time from panels which discussed teaching oral history or the reception of testimony by non-participants (particularly Theresa Aiello NYU Silver and its place on a critical theory module for postgraduate Clinical Social Work programmes). And although there were many interesting panels about projects, special interest groups, references to Brexit and discussions about technique it is broader public engagement which determined my participation.  The panel with Grete Dalum-Tilds (University of Northampton) and her work with Stevenage Museum, Rina Benmayor’s (California State University, Monterey Bay) oral history neighbourhood walking tour & Helen Kingstone’s (Leeds Trinity University) appreciation of how necessary it is to present oral history “so it will be heard”.  The papers and the discussion afterwards were extremely thought provoking.


We learnt that a video mash up for Benmayor’s Salinas oral history allowed for the juxtaposition of opinion and experience on any one place. Creativity is limited by the cost of hardware, software and production but it is possible to give a sense of intergenerational experience and to contribute to possible regeneration initiatives.  The animations used for the history of new towns brought the testimony into focus without intruding on the narratives.  Six minutes of animation cost £6000 and that is extremely cheap.  Kingstone used talking tiles on her display boards.


They hold 80 seconds of audio clips which encouraged people to approach the boards especially if they had arrived in groups. We have found with Femorabilia that people are reluctant to put on the headphones but an initial encounter with a talking tile would advertise the content.

Contemporary digital systems offer a lot of options for research and public engagement but they remain labour intensive, expensive and reliant on extremely good data management. Rob Perks (Director of National Life Stories) reminded us that there is a much greater task at hand warning us that we have 10 – 15 years to digitise all analogue materials on obsolete sound carriers.  The British Library is tackling this through the Save Our Sounds project.  All of which is a lot more costly than moving the clippings into new boxes after a hundred years.


Thanks to Amy Tooth Murphy for great organisation and excellent chairing.  To Fiona Cosson @FionaCosson for providing the title and great tweeting on the day which is the same for Sarah Pyke @SarahNotMaureen and Steven Kent Sieleff @SKSieleff who kept me up to date with what was happening at other panels on an extremely rich and creative programme.

Heesen, Anke te [trans. Lantz, Lori] [2006] (2014) The Newspaper Clipping: A Modern Paper Object Manchester University Press, Manchester

Light Hearted Clothes: Horrockses Post-War Ready to Wear

As Spring is upon us, fancy turns to a new frock and nostalgically to Horrockses’ fresh, flamboyant, fashions of the 40s and 50s.

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At the beginning of the month Lancashire Archives in Preston held a celebration of all things Horrockses.  These included talks by archivist Keri Nicholson, historian David Hunt and design historian Chris Boydell.


Boydell’s talk presented Horrockses Fashions as a case study in the business history of textiles, drawing on business records, design archives, interviews with employees and customers, a study of the clothes themselves (located in museum and private collections) as well as extensive research into branding, retailing, marketing and advertising.

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Lancashire Archives organised a full day’s event with exhibitions, workshops and a display of textile art inspired by the company’s history.  They were supported by the Textile Society with the aim of promoting research and reviving interest in the archive.  The Textile Society had also given a grant to improve the online listing of the holdings, currently focused on the company’s origins.  On the basis of this successful initial work the Friends of Lancashire Archives have launched the Horrockses Collection Appeal to complete the project and promote the use of the holdings.

The day was more than fully attended, with demand far exceeding the availability of places.  The audience was made up of local people, former employees and those interested in textile history who had travelled quite far for the day’s event.

Pattern Book

The jewel of the Horrockses archive is a collection of over 70 pattern books.  Nicholson built up a catalogue sample of the earliest documents from 1712 and the eighteenth-century business records, attempting to make inroads into 60 shelves of documents.  The early correspondence provides insight into how the company’s success was built on international export and maritime trade.  There are also records of employees, individual spinners, an index of child workers and a Sick Club Book from 1798.  Horrockses had a leading role in the Preston Masters Association and in the Lock Out of 1853-1854, which is said to have inspired Hard Times and Mrs Gaskell.

David Hunt put this long history of the expansion and depression through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into context.  Apparently nineteenth-century windows are measured by the number of windows and Horrockses expands from 7 to 18 windows wide.  Hunt focused on marriages, decision making, business arrangements, technology, banking crises and the continuity of the company’s reputation.

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Horrockses’ move into ready to wear fashion is another example of that acumen.  It was an initiative to promote cotton and ensure demand for their product.  However the company had to position itself so that it balanced quantity with the illusion of exclusivity in its production and consumer experience.

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Boydell argues that Dior’s New look, launched the year after the Horrockses’ fashion label, was the perfect style for cotton and required a great deal of fabric for each dress and skirt.  Horrockses was also able to promote and advertise its clothes with appeals to glamour and domesticity, even though they stood out for being different through the vibrant colours and patterns for which they became known.

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An immense variety of patterns were acquired, hence the number of pattern books held by the archive.  The company demonstrated skill in understanding how these exuberant designs would work with post-war fashion’s interest in draping, pleating, colour, playfulness and detail.

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Sketch Fabric

A special treat was to meet the designer Wendy Simpson who had brought examples of her work for Horrockses.  Boydell noted how difficult it is to find information on British design studios and freelancers but the Horrockses pattern books hold some clues.

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The talk concluded with the post-war democratic settlement in four images.  Elite designs, top model and royalty all featured in the brand’s promotion, but the clothes themselves were worn, loved and remembered by women from all different backgrounds.

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Boydell, Christine (2010) Horrockses Fashions: Off-The-Peg Style in the 40s and 50s V&A Publishing, London



Vivacity, Narrative and the Fashion Plate

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Buoyed with success from the first Liddell Hart Collection of Costume study day, on the methodology of the press clipping, we are holding another on the Victorian fashion plate. This time we are in partnership with the Victorian Popular Fiction Association and thinking very much about the ideals, narrative and imaginative space of fashion illustration.

Liddell Hart collected fashion magazines


and individual fashion plates. An important part of the study day will of course be the hands on session which was so successful last time.

For our planning meeting, with Janine Hatter VPFA and Val Stevenson LJMU, we opened up the 1870 folder (theoretically post-crinoline) and immediately the narrative potential was evident. Choosing a cover image for the poster and cfp became challenging.

3a  Far too much was going on here to use it for a poster

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Would we narrow down interest too much if we emphasised the costume ball?  Or should we concentrate on the everyday?

Could we use the narrative potential of conversations?

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Or present characters and situations?

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We eventually settled on the inclusion of the railway station, where we decided that these two are plotting the crime and their escape.


For more see Val’s flickr collection

Dress historians are wary of fashion plates as sources. Lou Taylor advises caution as “they were, are, after all, only idealised images of a seasonal fashion image rather than any kind of stylistic or social reality” (2002:136). She quotes Doris Langley Moore, who collected fashion plates during the 1920s, and who noted “those who specialised in fashion and whose business it was to make news of its allurements set before the public a mixture of facts and fantasies” (1949). Chris Breward, referring to the expansion of fashion periodicals in the 1870s and 1880s, saw fashion plates as “propaganda for a mode” and the experience of consumption rather than dress itself (1997:85). The context Taylor states for the reception of this imagery is the commercial relationship which fashion magazines, as early as the 1830s, had with salons and couturiers. More significantly, “the bourgeois readers of the 1840-1914 period recognised fashion plate images for what they were, the ideal rather than the real” (2002:139).

Belle Assemblée ‘Fashions for May 1839’

Val was very pleased to bring out our copy of Belgravia from 1876 and we looked at the way it portrayed dress. We were immediately struck by the movement of fabric, the enthusiasm for detail and the tactile nature of garments.

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I saw a Mary Braddon centenary exhibition curated by the ICVWW at their 1870s conference this summer.  The ICVWW, based at Canterbury Christchurch University (UK), holds the Mary Braddon Archive of unpublished material which includes correspondence and working notebooks.  The centre is working on a five year project ‘From Bronte to Bloomsbury: Realism, Sensation and the New in Women’s Writing from the 1840s to the 1920s’.  Later in the summer Janine’s Braddon Exhibition toured the country.  She was able to assess the space that we have at LJMU Special Collections & Archives and I am very pleased that we will have an exhibition on view in Liverpool during March 2016.


At ICVWW dress featured in a surprising number of papers.  It was centre stage for Alyson Hunt’s presentation on Mrs Henry Wood: “Furthermore, the constant luxuriating in the details of dress [in the Johnny Ludlow series] threatens to weaken the didactic elements to the narratives, paradoxically providing entertainment through this indulgent sensuality whilst criticising the same behaviour in fictional characters”. I am definitely looking forward to continuing this discussion.

Breward, C (1997) ‘Femininity and Consumption: the problem of the late nineteenth century fashion journal Journal of Design History vol. 7 no. 20

Hunt, A (2015) ‘ “Artlessly Avoiding the Temptation to Exaggerate”: Dressing to Excess in Mrs Henry Wood’s Johnny Ludlow Series’ paper given at ICVWW 2nd Annual Conference

Moore, D L (1949)  Gallery of Fashion 1790-1822 from plates by Heideloff & Ackerman Batsford, London

Taylor, L (2002) The Study of Dress History Manchester University Press, Manchester

Dressed to Kill: Fashion in Victorian Fiction and Periodicals

Saturday 19th March 2016, Aldham Robarts Library, LJMU

We welcome proposals for 20 minute papers on topics including, but not limited to:

  • Fashion as depicted in serialised fiction
  • Fashion adverts, prints and patterns
  • The fashion season, events, dressing for the day, Christenings, weddings, funerals and mourning
  • Men’s, children’s and servant’s fashions
  • Fashion’s role within narrative, such as class, mental state, nationality, character, marital status, empire, transgression and moral worth
  • Fashion industry
  • Costume, masque and fancy dress
  • Theatrical attire, stage, tableaux, circus and ballet
  • Hair styles, toilette, accessories and jewellery

Please send proposals of 300 words and a 50 word biography in Word format to Drs Janine Hatter and Nickianne Moody at: and

Book through Eventbrite



Black Cats and Poisson d’Avril


Postcards sent during wartime are poignant testimony to the experience, emotion and conventions of communication. I have a collection of cat postcards, many of which are mascot cards used by a diverse group of people.   The reasons they were originally chosen and the anecdotes they record are compelling. Black cat postcards were sent by holidaymakers reporting on cats they’d seen, actors booking digs and family members celebrating all kinds of occasions. The largest category is male relatives sending greetings to children, particularly during wartime.


Mascot cards were sometimes carried as good luck tokens but then could be sent back as a keepsake. These cards survive because they were kept and treasured by their recipients.

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Here we have greetings sent from parents to their son and an uncle to his nephew reminding him that the two kittens look like the pet cats at home.

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For Easter 1944 the black cat as a soldier’s companion, was the chosen card to send with a care package: “Dear Friend, Hope you are still O.K and all your pets well. We hope you have as good a time as possible till all is peaceful again and that you are having some sunshine which helps to cheer us up. Please accept these few tokens which conveys all our good wishes to you now and the future is our sincere wishes and good health”.

Others were sent expressly for children’s collections. The card featuring the cat on the table was sent on the 14th November 1916 to Baby Betesh from “Kate’s Soldier, Sweetheart”.

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When I buy cards, I always look to see what the greeting is and whether they have come out of albums, which can tell you more about the family and how their lives developed.

I have a smaller collection of Poisson d’Avril cards, bought because they were sent during the First World War. This was the first one that I ever saw, which I have kept since I found it as a schoolgirl.

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A rough and ready translation (thank you Yarin Eski and Vicki Caren) of the card reads: “The Front, 17th March 1918. Sending this little postcard to the most beloved Berthake, with many kisses from her loving Dad. Remembering our time together 1914-1915-16-17-18. Greetings most beloved Berthake from very far away your loving Dad”.

These cards are quite rare, and so when I found one recently, I had a good look at the message on the back. Poisson d’Avril is the French equivalent of April Fool’s day, with tricks, pranks, hoaxes and the traditional fixing of a fish to someone’s back, undetected, before shouting Poisson d’Avril.


A French address has been crossed out and the card reused, now being sent to Beattie Head at 208 Merrow St, Walworth from her father who was ‘On Active Service’.

I was intrigued by the repurposing of the French cards by Beattie’s father Gus Head. This one originally sent in 1911 for a birthday became a greetings card, and another was sent at New Year in 1918 to Beattie’s mother Alice.

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Several of the cards mention accompanying letters, and Beattie’s growing collection.  This one, sent hoping she had “got over the terrible exams”, was passed by the censor on the 22nd October 1917.

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I have forty-three of the cards that came from Beattie Head’s album. The dealer who sold me the cards said that they came from her partner’s family. The album itself had been bought by someone else a while ago and there had been many more cards that were more attractive than the ones that were left. The remainder were cards from 1917 and 1918 which were damaged, or which came from Gus Head’s decision to send his daughter very different images for her collection than the floral ones previously favoured. There wer still some of the sentimental cards that he sent to his wife and sometimes his messages suggested that Beattie should ask for them to be given to her for the album.

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Here he remarks to his wife in July 1918 “Don’t you think this is very sweet, even postcards bring back happy memories. It means “Doesn’t he look beautiful in his white linen robe of course it ought to be she”.

The remaining cards suggest that they were sent daily with letters, and in response to regular correspondence from Alice and Beattie. In the middle of March 1918 Gus sent a card noting that the subject “will make a change in your collection, which must be getting fairly large by now, will send you some more like this”.

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He continued to send flowers and landscapes, commenting now and then on difficulties with replenishing his stock of cards. Occasionally he would make observations about the environment around him rather than his best wishes for home: “this church is nothing but ruins now, I have passed it many times”.

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And “this is one that has been knocked about, it seems a shame, but it will alter the war”.

In my first purchase of the cards I picked out the remaining picture ones, sent predominantly to Beattie, and a few of the censored cards. By the time that I was fortunately able to buy the rest, I really wanted evidence that Gus survived the war. He did, and from a brief glimpse into his life I was curious about who he was. Amongst the remaining cards was one sent to Bombardier G Head, from H Wells, with greetings from the British Red Cross Society Hut.


There is one card which I feel reluctant to share. It wasn’t sent to Beattie but she acquired it and kept it with the others. It is a copy of Guido Reni’s ‘Ecce Homo’ and on the back in Gus’s familiar but far less firm hand he has written “I am weary, I am lonely. Without a friend I seem to be. I should be destitute only Christ is still a friend to me”.

Further research will tell me more about Gus Head’s life and build on the slight picture here of his knowledge of languages, concern for his family’s health, habits of quiet reflection, fleeting references to duty, and desire for letters from home.  The later cards, sent between different members of the Head family, refer to the continuation of the postcard album, her parents’ birthdays, Beattie’s delight in their coming to visit her and her own travels in Europe.


Timely Collaboration in Print Culture

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Just as the clocks go back it seems more of an effort to travel to a research seminar. But Minna Vuohelainen at Edge Hill University promised more than just the traditional academic paper, discussion and wine. The inaugural event of the North West Print Culture Research Network was presented as a forum offering the scope & variety found at an annual conference. It intends to contribute to a new conversation, unlimited by periodisation, using print culture as an umbrella term to welcome interested parties from different disciplines and stages of their career. A large turn out demonstrated the level of expertise in the North West, a lack of common knowledge about the resources that we have available to us and the need to collaborate. Organised by Vuohelainen, Margaret Beetham and Brian Maidment, in association with RSVP the event was themed around illustration with diverse topics and a strenuous workshop.

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The Network has emerged from the realisation that a good number of scholars and  research students based in the North West work on nineteenth century print culture and that they are more likely to meet up at RSVP conferences in the USA than in Ormskirk or Liverpool. It thus seems a good moment to establish a place for local collaborative discussion and activity especially given that the RSVP conference is not scheduled for the UK for several years.

Maidment observed how many of us he’d worked, supervised or collaborated with over the years and was now pleased to see all together. The subject of the workshop was his efforts, in varying electronic forms, to recreate the teaching experience of periodical research, not just provide or take advantage of digital resources. Currently at Liverpool John Moores he is using Omeka to bring sources and commentary together and in order to present this to us he brought the library specialists with him.

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Starting with one particularly rich print, Robert Seymour’s The March of Literature or the Rival Mag’s [sic] (25th October 1832), part of the ‘March of Intellect’ debate, Maidment set out the context and Anne Foulkes explained the digital means by which it could be disaggregated and disseminated. In fact this print was blamed for Maidment’s entire fascination with the subject and is the focus of LJMU’s Omeka site.   Between 1820-1840 there is a particular articulation of concern regarding popular education which is evident in a print culture that employs both narrative and visual patterning of satire. Publications such as The Penny Magazine and Pinnock’s Guide to Knowledge were challenged by a satirical trope which defined ‘useful’ knowledge against ‘useless’ information and deplored its commodification by monstrous reproductive technology which could package and sell it off piecemeal.

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The examples (original prints not copies) that we looked at for the workshop exercise focussed on a particular part of the debate concerned with the social irresponsibility of educating the working class. We looked at prints satirising the title pages of real or imaginary publications which sought to visualise the failure of such diffusion of knowledge. Following guidelines we were asked to produce a 250 word article on our print and choose particular sections of illustration commenting on the intended audience, the visual discourse and contribution to the public debate. In that way we could contribute to the larger Omeka project.

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This would have been easier to do if, rather than contributing to the project, we had the finished result, and could use Omeka to divide up the page and look at the different ways in which it could be read. Maidment explained that the material needed fluidity to mimic the original offline teaching structure, and integrate the sources with comment while still allowing people room to explore them. Academics can provide enthusiasm and access to material, but digital projects will only be successful if you have a team knowledgeable enough to manage the preparation of images, metadata and address scalability. Having that team with us as we worked through the discussion was invaluable. Practical advice could be given, such as the equipment needed, process, not storing your data on third party software and batch editing.

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Foulkes, Digital Support Coordinator at LJMU, suggested that we looked at some successful exhibitions. Particularly recommended were Virtual Belle Vue by Chetham’s Library and the Story of the Beautiful, Freer Gallery/Wayne State University. She also highly recommended the JISC visual media site. She discussed various aspects of image wrangling and the necessity to learn from problem solving. Her advice included the value of fully understanding Excel, the Dublin Core Archive System and the use of Photoshop.

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An example that she drew upon was digitising images from The Lady’s Magazine, a bound volume from 1801, which was sent for reference to the Lady’s Magazine Project. For this she had made extensive use of Photoshop to edit out the shadow caused by the curving of the bound pages. Therefore the finished product is highly mediated and discussion considered the issues caused by this.

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In further discussion, we lamented that options were not commonly set up for a visual search but relied on thematic text. This is deeply problematic because the character of late Regency satiric conventions disrupts the word by the image, which is the point of the humour. What we have to face Maidment said, is that as people age, collections will be given to the web rather than the library.

The Lady's Magazine Vol. XXXii 1801
The Lady’s Magazine Vol. XXXii 1801

Establishing a precedent, we had speakers from the University of Liverpool, Manchester Metropolitan University, Edge Hill University and Liverpool John Moores University with a desire to expand the membership. Still considering the theme of visual discourses of what could be considered useful knowledge, Desdemona McCannon (MMU) spoke on ‘History of Everything in England: The Illustration of Mid-Twentieth Century Social History’. ‘Horrible Histories’ has now taken over, but I found the Quennells ‘History of Everyday Things in England’ series just as evocative when I was a child. It was interesting to see other schema and approaches to illustration for children’s history books. However there was a lot of networking to be undertaken as McCannon promoted the Journal of Illustration, recently founded to provide a useful research forum. She is also involved in the wonderfully eclectic Women in Print Network. Their next event is taking place in Wrexham but, memorably, they have been to the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft bringing together anthropologists, folklorists, historians and literature scholars to look at illustration. She brought with her examples of chapbooks produced to celebrate overlooked women artists within print culture.

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Bob Nicholson (Edge Hill University) @Digivictorian reprised a paper given at RSVP in Ghent this year to foster a discussion about perspective and method. He compared the generic characteristics (visual and narrative) of Illustrated Police News, when it changed editorship in the 1890s, and the lads’ mag Nuts. The identification of shared framing, negotiating discourse, their account of masculinity and the ambiguity of female agency made for an interesting discussion.

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If the digital humanities are to become a diffusion of useful knowledge, rather than the dispersal of information we need to bring in all layers of expertise. Pay walls, inefficiencies of search engines, the materiality of print culture, and the specificities of visual and textual studies mean that we need to meet up and share what we are discovering. Although experienced with many different kinds of visual culture, I did think beforehand that I was an interloper and many other people had thought the same. We left with a sense that the generosity, purpose, format and subject were timely and relevant. Going to a conference just to learn rather than present research is no longer a possibility in times of austerity. Virtual contact with research is great but we also need to create opportunities to meet and talk in a sustained fashion and on a broad spectrum. Now, more than ever we need to make the most of networking and the regional.

On the way home, in the dark, in an enormous campus car park, I found myself taking part in one of the deals that often occur when you work with popular culture. Delivered into my hands was a donation of nineteenth century periodicals.

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When they were unpacked they looked like this, and confirmed how much we need to build up, share and bring in graduate students for this subject area.

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The Look of Austerity 11-12 September 2015

Last month’s conference was an extremely ambitious event prompted by the organisers’ recognition of a recent surge in austerity aesthetics. Focussing on the immediate post-war years of 1945-51, the conference aimed to explore the effect of post-war austerity on the appearance of people and cities including London, Berlin, Zagreb, Warsaw and Paris. Researchers considered specific class experience and creative cultural practice in the face of scarcity. It tried to move beyond Dior’s New Look although it was never far away even in desperate circumstances.

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The conference organisers, Beatrice Behlen, Bethan Bide and David Gilbert, provided a stimulating, well conceived programme. They made best use of the museum collection and put together a programme willing to embrace interdisciplinary perspectives. For full titles and affiliations please follow the link to the programme.

New archives, personal testimony and preserved garments were a constant delight in the presentations. There was an audible gasp as we were shown the first of the digitised images from the Clarks collection as Judeth Saunders introduced the defiant message the company used to promote their utility shoes. At the tea break I was delighted with the story about a recently donated bag of post-war aprons and silk scarves which also contained a pair of utility knickers.

Single women's black fabric (Barathea)/leather sling-back shoe; Clarks Skyline 'Louisville', 1947 Copyright Alfred Gillett Trust/C&J Clark Ltd.
Single women’s black fabric (Barathea)/leather sling-back shoe; Clarks Skyline ‘Louisville’, 1947 Copyright Alfred Gillett Trust/C&J Clark Ltd.

David Gilbert primed us to think about creative scavenging and everyday wear as well as conflicting visual accounts and very real experience of the post-war period. The most emotional of these was the Rubble Women of Berlin, presented by Irene Guenther and then Lynda Nead’s account of migrants from the Commonwealth starting their lives in Britain by investing in their clothes.

We started, however, with the dereliction of London. Rachel Arnold argued that bombsite photography in Britain created a gaze of austerity signifying the opposite of how American fashion images used the building site. The British photographs established a connection with the imagery of interwar depression and the aesthetic of ruin and resilience as a means of coming to terms with the destruction of WW2. Fashions paused under austerity but left a defiant photographic record as a challenge to adversity. Beaton’s later 1945 fashion images continued to explore bomb damage but expressed an uncertainty for the post-war democratic future which started with greater scarcity and deprivation. Clifford Coffin for Vogue used the post-war realism of the bombsite to juxtapose luxury as something to be recovered.

Researchers from the centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, Dominique Veillon and Sophie Kurkdijian, looked at French couture’s recovery. Magazines such as Elle, founded in 1945 and French Vogue (which had suspended publication during the war) were published with contrasting aims and for different readerships. French imagery and design looked for pre-war sophistication but wanted the main look of the war to disappear. The reaction to and adoption of Dior’s New Look succeeded in being an outrage to austerity: one which was repeated across all the different post-war experiences we considered. Elle addressed austerity through simplicity, practical responses to everyday fashion problems, and advice, and provides the context for an acceptance of ready to wear in France during the 1950s.

For occupied Germany the experience of austerity was one of everything to fear and less than a thousand calories a day. Fashion in Germany came out of abject scarcity. Guenther looked at the role fashion played in the politicised post-war culture. The fashion and textile industries were the first to resurface and clothing was a visible sign of who had won the war and who had lost. For the occupiers it became a tactic of morale, turning the enemy into an ally. The revival of the industry, however, did not acknowledge the German Jewish labour and creativity which had built the nineteenth century and interwar industry.

To salvage uniforms, women had to use natural dyes – beetroot and alder – to alter the forbidden military colour and not lose the cloth. The first fashion shows and magazines celebrated the Patchwork Dress (Flickenkleid) with accessories made from sugar sacks and gas mask straps. The fashion ensembles put together for local designers could only be purchased and made up if the client could provide the material. Fashion magazines in the different occupied zones were permitted to provide an illusion of normalcy, and included practical advice and patterns to help restore the confidence of 11 million housewives bearing the brunt of German reconstruction.

In Britain, the fashion business was largely understood as one of export, and Edwina Ehrman outlined the role played by the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946.  Although considered successful it was viewed as a “typical triumph of disarray”. The exhibition offered few opportunities for home consumption, which was discussed by Sonia Ashmore, who showed us that queues didn’t have to be orderly and could be coupon free rushes, the black market or for emergency shops following the aftermath of bombing. Through her analysis of the Clarks wartime range for export and home markets Judeth Saunders could clearly illustrate the distinctions between utility specification and regulation and American fashion preferences. Demonstrating the range of experience covered by the conference, Deirdre Murphy traced the post-war resumption of presentation at court and the significance of the dress of a debutante. Erhman proposed during questions that museum collections are deficient in 30s tailoring as it simply wore out during the war.

Felice McDowell initiated an interesting closing section by discussing the life writing of journalist Anne Scott-James and how we could situate her fiction in research on the workings of the fashion industry. It provided an excellent introduction to Amy de La Haye’s conversation with Elizabeth Wilson who likewise discussed her fiction, criticism and memoir. The closing thought of the first day was whether austerity was a period or a political landscape.

The conference made quite a lot of reference to film as a source for costume history or a way of revealing values, attitudes and ideologies which were shared and contested during the period. Passport to Pimlico (1949) set the scene for the first day and Behlen put together a fascinating compilation of British Council Films to open the second. Nead gave a careful, excellently contextualised and intense reading of Sapphire (1958) with the secrets of racial politics exposed by “red taffeta under tweed”. Mila Ganeva showed how German film offered the audience the chance to scrutinise the dress of its characters. It also demonstrated the cultural practices and skills that scarcity demanded. Pages from the fashion magazines were translated into film celebrating and debating the complex meanings of Dior’s New Look.

The conference closed by considering glamour. Ellen Wright considered the reception of Gilda (1946) in austerity Britain and Rita Hayworth’s formless definition of glamour. Although, as Wright points out, it was a duty for women on the home front to be glamorous, this did not necessarily mean clothes. British film was very wary, often pairing the glamour girl with the girl next door, who would win out as she was better marriage material and met Hayworth’s definition of restraint, mystique and personal style. Hollywood glamour was an unattainable desire. Bev Skeggs (1997) defined glamour as a performance of femininity with strength. June Ripley picked this up in her analysis of the seaside as new social territory and a liminal gendered space. The American film star Esther Walters used glamour to mediate the powerful athletic female body of the war in films such as Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Hand-knitted bathing suits, however, were decidedly unglamorous.

Hand knitted navy and chevron wool swimsuit circa 1935 Archives of the Worthing Museum
Hand knitted navy and chevron wool swimsuit circa 1935 Archives of the Worthing Museum

The demob suit came under similar scrutiny. Geraldine Biddle-Perry saw it as the concrete form of abstract socialist values. As a dynamic between wants and needs it was an essential part of the language of austerity. Freestyle suits ensured that all men returned to civilian life on the same footing. Again, Biddle-Perry’s work situates clothes in the highly politicised culture of austerity. Rather than the end of the war, the demob suit marked the beginning of the post-war democratic settlement. Danielle Sprecher examined the complexity of producing clothes for men, the role of the northern textile industry and fascinating examples from the Leeds Collection. The private discourse of men’s fashion became subject to government orders.

Utility Mark Leeds Museums and Galleries Collection
Utility Mark Leeds Museums and Galleries Collection

The suits were supposed to make the wearer inconspicuous but there was a distaste for uniformity and the occasional flashier fabrics. However Mass Observation reported that men wanted to wear brighter clothes when returning from overseas to drab British cities.

More of a favourite. 1947 Utility Raincoat Leeds Museums and Galleries Collection
More of a favourite. 1947 Utility Raincoat Leeds Museums and Galleries Collection

Alison Slater looked at teenagers in the north through their diaries and interviews. She gave an interesting example of a mother supporting her daughter to buy an extravagant transparent raincoat which was the bee’s knees. This was a rare instance and the usual damper on young working class women’s fashion was the potent and persuasive force of the hidden matriarchy. Underneath the smart new coats a multitude of sins could be hidden.

Image used with permission from the collection of Dr Alison Slater
Image used with permission from the collection of Dr Alison Slater

Trousers remained a problem, but Bide’s garment biographies from the Museum of London (MoL) collection included an example of bright orange corduroy. The MoL collected uniforms during the WW1 and civilian clothing from WW2. Many of the items were donated following a letter in the The Times asking for clothes which people felt typified the New Look. From these Bide retold histories of making, consumption, mediation and the reconstruction of London. She concluded that Londoners were able to escape austerity through colour, trend and style.

The ramifications of scarcity in Poland and socialist Yugoslavia were evident in distinct cultural practices and products. Agata Zborowska demonstrated how bazaars facilitating trade without a viable currency reflected the immediate post-war culture of everyday life in Poland. ‘Thing culture’, where apparently mundane objects take on new meanings under scarcity meant that ball gowns could and would be purchased for butter. Speakers from the Center for Research of Fashion and Clothing in Zagreb, Lea Vene & Ivana Culjak looked at the new figure of femininity created by the war. Women workers were engaged to stay in employment and their efficiency was rewarded by extra clothing coupons. They contrasted two post-war publications and brought examples which were circulated around the audience: Woman in Combat (1943-1958) which used an emancipatory discourse and Our Fashion (1946) which was more focussed on clothes. Nevertheless Woman in Combat gave knitting tips and designs to expand and rationalise an austerity wardrobe. High fashion received a sceptical reception and clothes at fashion shows that were judged too luxurious were seen as “not in harmony with our reality”. CARE packages from America could be sent to friends and family in Europe. Rebecca Jumper Matheson explained how leading female designers created patterns to accompany the army surplus blankets that were to be sent abroad during harsh winters. Designing for teens, Emily Wilkins was the only one able to offer a pattern for a two piece suit rather than a coat.

To sum up the conference, the organisers chose keywords. David Gilbert’s was ‘detail’ as a small detail could be fashionable in austerity. Bide’s was ‘morality’ which, given what had been learnt about post-war experience in Europe, needed to be used more carefully when contemplating the British discourse of austerity. Behlen chose ‘patronising’ in response to so much advice given to women, but also ‘emotion’. Bide said that colour, absence and presence had been important to the conference, and Gilbert’s final choice was biopolitics. Mine is ‘defiance’ in the face of different degrees of adversity and memories of war.

Tweets from the conference can be found at #LookofAusterity

Details of seminars organised by CNRS

Working in the Eccentric Archive

The main eccentric archive that I work with is the Liddell Hart Collection of Costume. Sir Basil Liddell Hart was regarded as the foremost military critic in Britain between the Wars and was military correspondent for The Times. He was the Government’s principal advisor on Defence from 1935 to 1939. During his lifetime he collected two very different libraries. His military collection is now at King’s College, University of London and his splendid, highly personal library of fashion at LJMU.

 LH folder

The fashion archive was collected over many years as result of an interest he shared with his wife, with whom he was a founder member of the Costume Society. Liddell Hart was referred to by James Laver in Museum Piece as one of the principal authorities on dress in England. The collection arrived at the Liverpool John Moores University in 1978, just before the Liddell Hart Military Room was opened at King’s College.

The Liddell Hart Collection of Costume (LHCC) contains work directly concerning fashion, as well as feminism, the psychology of dress, and the social scene and society at the turn of the nineteenth century. There are books of drawings by famous illustrators, such as Charles Dana Gibson, Mars and Guillaume. There are approximately 350 books in the collection, alongside scrapbook material of cartoons, poems and cuttings on modes and manners of the nineteenth century, and folders of original coloured fashion plates.

The collection includes copies of Liddell Hart’s own writings and correspondence. We recently removed a reply from George Orwell to one of Liddell Hart’s letters and put it in the safe. There is also a good collection of ladies’ periodicals, predominantly nineteenth century, which includes runs of Belle Assemblee; a rarely-found set of Modern Society; two copies of Aglaia: Journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union; and Beeton’s Young Englishwoman, complete with the original free paper patterns.

It is apparent from the collection that his interest in fashion was focussed on corsetry. His biographer Danchev (Alchemist of War) after seeing the collection said “Liddell Hart’s rapt attention was focused on one zone in particular: the waist, its measurements and its displacement. About the waist, the wasp waist, he exhibited a kind of monomania” (1978: 85).

A unique feature of the collection is Liddell Hart’s twentieth century cuttings files from a broad spectrum of the British popular press. These files are the material which formed the basis for his talks and articles. They represent a lifetime interest in following the development of a trend, a public debate and very often a contested fashion style, through articles, images, letters and advertisements.

Special Collections and Archives at LJMU is holding a study day to introduce researchers to the LHCC on Saturday 14th November 2015. The day will focus on the twentieth century material, using two case studies to debate the role of press as a resource for costume history. These will be his particular interest in the New Look during 1948 and the way newspapers represented and responded to fashion in the 1960s. For further information please contact Nickianne Moody

Book a place at the study day here:

Later in the year, in association with the Victorian Popular Fiction Association, SCA will host a second study day on ‘Fiction and the Fashion Periodical’ which considers the periodical and fashion plate as a source for contextualising the experience of the reader. For further information please contact Nickianne Moody