Re-presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art

This Spring term I’m teaching a BA2 course entitled ‘Re-presenting the Past: uses of history in dress, fashion and art’. This was the first dress history module that I ever studied at the Courtauld as a second year undergraduate 6 years ago. Created and initially taught by Dr Rebecca Arnold, it was the first course that captured my enthusiasm for the subject, and prompted me to take my study of dress – as image, object, text and idea – to PhD level and beyond. Over the next ten weeks my eight students and I will be thinking about how history is studied, researched, thought and written about. We’ll be interrogating what history means, how it relates to diverse discourses such as narrative, power, identity and memory, and how our contemporary context impacts on the ways that history is used, presented and re-presented by historians, artists, photographers and designers.

Using theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Raphael Samuel, Jacques le Goff, Jean Baudrillard and many more, we will be considering how history can be re-visited and re-presented through images of dress and fashion. It’s a course that is wonderfully fitting to the cyclical nature of dress and fashion, which continually weaves together past and present with potential for the future. Using images of dress and fashion heuristically, to open out a broader discussion that draws on theory and context, we’ll be considering how objects might contain within themselves an alternative historiography, which could challenge preconceived ideas of what history constitutes.

For their Christmas projects, I sent my students to the V&A British galleries to consider how history is explored through image, object and text within the displays, and to think about how dress and fashion link to national history.

My own explorations threw up some interesting starting points. I began my search for uses of history in the V&A British galleries, 1760-1900, and happened upon a display case exploring the influence of Japan in Victorian Britain. The text panel diligently explained the enormous impact of Japanese art and design in the UK, which was first aroused following the opening up of Japan to British and American powers in 1850. From this point on, Japanese objects began to circulate globally and by the 1870s there was a craze for all things Japanese. The distinctive patterns and motifs of Japanese artistic forms provided a new and exciting source of exoticism to tantalise the curiosity of the British public and its desire for Eastern Otherness.

An example is an orange and green tasseled Japanese gift cover made of Satin silk, with two lobsters embroiders in satin silk thread on the front. The V&A caption vaguely informed us that it was produced in Japan between 1850 and 1880, and then concentrated on explaining that in the late Victorian period it was very fashionable to decorate your home with Japanese objects. The caption read: ‘Textiles such as this, which would have been used in Japan to cover a gift, were particularly popular. The striking lobster design would have seemed very exotic to the British public’.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Hung up flat on the wall of the display case, and thus divorced from its original function as a beautiful and functional object, the gift cover was presented in such a way so as to highlight its aesthetic qualities, which drew a connection to how it would have been originally been displayed, hung up on the wall, in Victorian Britain. In doing so, the V&A presented a very one-dimensional history of these Japanese objects, centered on the perspective of Britain. Although this may have been unsurprising, given that they were displayed in the British galleries, I began to wonder how the objects themselves might tell another history, narrated from the perspective of Japan.

Close up of Japanese silk cover.

Close up of Japanese silk cover at the V&A.

Presented in a very different way, and inserted into a Japanese context, the gift cover could have told another, equally important, history of Japanese art and design production, and how these objects circulated contemporaneously in Japanese daily life. Called a ‘fukusa’ in Japanese, this gift cover would have been draped over a gift, which itself would be presented on a tray. The ‘fukusa’ would be an object of interest in its own right to be suitably admired by the beneficiary, and any guests present. The choice of the gift cover constituted an important part of the process of gift giving and the extent of the decoration reflected the wealth of the person giving the gift, as well as their tastes. The gift cover was then returned to the giver.

This object is just one example of how preconceived histories might be challenged, nuanced, or even re-written in part through a focus on close visual and object analysis. In this particular example, the gift cover contained within itself another narrative of the past – a history narrated from an indigenous Japanese perspective -which the curious viewer might be prompted to further unpick the threads of.