Dress, History & Emotion

Something we discuss a lot on the MA Documenting Fashion is the ways dress is implicated in our ideas of history – on the grand scale, but also in our personal histories too. Early on in the course, we all bring in items from our own and/or family collection to help us unpick the myriad ways we use images and objects to talk about ourselves and situate ourselves within our families and wider communities. These discussions are always some of my favourites, they draw us together as a group, as we share stories and memories, and they allow us to recognize the subjective element within our work as dress historians – how we relate to and use dress ourselves.

I thought it might be interesting for our blog readers to see the things I treasure as part of my family history through dress, and the ways these items connect to wider histories.

My Grandfather & The Compact

My Grandfather & The Compact

My grandfather was in the Royal Navy, and travelled to China in the early 1930s. His wife was left behind at home, but their closeness and love is remembered still in the presents he brought back for her on his return.  These include the powder compact shown here. The outside has a little scene painted on it, and the surface has a slight texture – it warms in your hand as you hold it, and contrasts to the cold metal base of the case. Once opened, traces of the white face powder remain and I think of my granny using it – catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, just as she would have done.

Inside the Compact

Inside the Compact

The compact makes material their relationship, my grandfather’s travels, and the emotions imbued in the souvenirs he brought to share his experiences with his family. It provides an intimate link to the past – my personal history, but also to the role of the military in the 1930s, to international relations and the goods produced for home and tourist markets. It shows us an example of makeup history, and ideals of beauty and design in the 1930s.

My Granny (left) with her Sister.

My Granny (left) with her Sister.

There are so many links to be made through the objects and photographs we save – in a sense we curate our life histories through these and share them with those close to us, weaving intimate and public histories together and showing the importance of dress in embodying emotion and memory simultaneously.