Fashion Illustration as Family History

As those of you who follow our blog will know, we are very interested in the ways personal and ‘official’ histories intersect through dress. We frequently refer to a wide range of imagery and objects – amateur and professional in their creation, private and public in their use – to seek new ways to understand how dress is thought about, worn and represented. This enables us to develop a more rounded view of fashion and dress histories, and look beyond the canon.

One thing I always ask students to do in the first term of MA Documenting Fashion is to bring in a dress-related image or object from their personal or family collection to open up discussion on (auto)biographies of dress, but also to think about history and memory. This is always one of my favourite sessions, and I was reminded of this at the weekend, when I went to visit my parents. My Dad gave me two autograph books that belonged to his Mother and looking through them has been incredibly touching personally, and professionally. What is so wonderful is the care each contributor takes with their ‘autograph’ – and how often a fashion illustration is used as the author’s signature and message to my Grandmother.

Rebecca’s grandmother, Mabel Clowes, when she was at Godolphin & Latymer School

Cover of the album

Covers of autograph albums belonging to Rebecca’s grandmother

They date from 1914-16 – and the pages are filled with pictures carefully drawn and coloured by friends. Clearly inspired by contemporary fashion illustration in magazines and newspapers they replicate, or perhaps rather re-imagine fashions they’ve seen, or clothes they fantasise about wearing. What emerges is a beautiful private world of intimacy and connections made through these drawings. Their friendships and their desire to create a unique contribution are catalogued on the books’ pages, and have been saved for over a century now, passed down through generations.

Because of the period in which the books were completed they also document the war, and these idyllic renditions of femininity and display are punctuated with darker references, as the outside world interferes in home life. Several male friends – including my Grandfather – draw soldiers, warships, and even a Zeppelin scare on Leigh-on-Sea, where my family comes from.

I hope you enjoy viewing these images from my Grandmother’s autograph books, I will share some on our Instagram account too – and please post your own family dress histories. We would love to see them, and to create a more nuanced view of what clothes mean to us.

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