MA Study Trip to New York City: The Dress Archive at the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York archive is an absolute treasure-trove of old clothes. Unlike the majority of other archives we have visited as a group, both in New York and London, the clothes are not wrapped in tissue or stored in boxes, but rather are hung, as if in a shop, on rails. The whole experience of being inside the archive is, thus, one of visceral, fashion-loving pleasure. All of us had to constantly fight the urge to reach out and touch everything.

We were taken through the archive by Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the museum. She showed us dresses ranging in date from the early 1920s to the 1960s. The glittering 1920s party dresses and gowns for costume balls and the brightly coloured, heavily tasseled ‘60s dresses were amazing, but what was most memorable, and indeed most pertinent to recent discussions on our course, were the late 1930s and early ‘40s WWII uniforms.

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum has a large collection of Vera Maxwell garments, including jumpsuits designed for women workers in the factories in 1942. Before creating the jumpsuit, which is both fire retardant and oil repellent, Maxwell conducted a survey of women to find out what they most wanted from their uniforms. Besides the obvious, highly functional elements, these women also requested a neckline that would prevent men from putting ice down their backs – indeed the jumpsuit is perfectly ice-proof too! However, Maxwell was keenly aware of the aesthetic elements too. Very careful attention to detail is paid in the design, such as the shape of the pockets and top stitched pleats in the front, which ensured that the fit was as flattering as possible. It is not only highly functional and utilitarian, but also a carefully made, designer garment, and Maxwell received a government award as a result.

The collection includes both her winter and summer jumpsuits. War restrictions limited the types of fabric available to designers and manufacturers, and extraneous decoration was largely prohibited, so Maxwell used elements such as pleats and darts to make her jumpsuits attractive. The summer jumpsuit is short sleeved and made of a lighter material, with red piping down the side. Again, Maxwell has used a series of pleats down the front of the garment to give it aesthetic appeal and make it flattering on the body.

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

In her other designs, she found imaginative ways to decorate. She traveled to South America, particularly Peru, and imported ornamental ribbons and braids that she used to adorn her garments. She worked hard to ensure that her clothes did not feel as though they were lacking anything. She wanted the wearers to not feel at all deprived, an aim that resonated with the fashion media of the time. Despite the shortages caused by war, the message perpetuated by magazines and films was that there was no deprivation. People used garments such as aprons to spruce up their outfits, and became imaginative, using natural objects like seashells in their jewellery. The prospect of wearing a uniform had an appeal in itself, and magazines ran articles about how to look good in military clothing. Many women who volunteered for service chose which in area to do so based on the attractiveness of the uniform. Vera Maxwell understood this basic, universal desire to look good, and channeled it in the design of her jumpsuits.  The aesthetic qualities she incorporated, as well as the highly functional elements, both contributed to her success as a wartime designer.

Sources:

Pat Kirkham, ‘Keeping Up Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain,’ in   Atkins, Jacqueline M. ed., Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-45 (New Haven and London: BGC/Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 205-228

War Stories: Voices from the First World War

1 Marjorie Brinkhurst's wedding shoes and veil, 1919

Marjorie Brinkhurst’s wedding shoes and veil, 1919

2 Doug Evershed's undercoat

Doug Evershed’s army undercoat

3 Detail of Vernon Evershed display, showing his brother, Doug

Detail of Vernon Evershed display, showing his brother, Doug
With thanks to Brighton and Hove City Council for granting permission to use these photographs

With the plethora of World War One commemorations this year – and for the next three years – it can become all too easy to become inured to the emotional and individual experiences of this period. While the official events linked to the War have been imposing, they have sometimes lacked a sense of the way history can represent interconnected life stories. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’s current exhibition War Stories: Voices from the First World War (12 July 2014-1 March 2015) reconnects us to this more personal idea of the past, which reflects Raphael Samuel’s important focus on ‘history from below.’ It tells the histories of thirteen people – all connected to the local area in some way – who lived through the war, and whose experiences are recreated through, for example, personal photographs, letters, and, significantly, the material culture of their world.

Dress and textiles play an important role throughout the exhibition – presenting a tangible, sensorial link between the people discussed, and their lived experience. The collection of people is diverse and includes Belgian refugees, an Indian soldier, a nurse, and a conscientious objector.  But, through the coincidence of their dates of birth, each lived through the chaos of World War One. And each left behind images and objects that speak of this period, and its impact on their actions, relationships, jobs and emotions. In this sense, they curated their own life story, as we all do, through our choices of what and how we collect and keep our memories. This auto-ethnography has then been edited and re-presented within the current exhibition – connecting narratives of the time with our contemporary approach to looking at and thinking about the past.

The walls of the gallery are painted deepest red, and each section explores one person’s story. From the start, the role of dress and textiles within people’s lives is clear. It is shown as a part of ritual and life stage – a christening robe, and a wedding dress are poignant mementoes. The dress was worn by Marjorie Brinkhurst in 1919, it is accompanied by silk shoes and a veil, a tiny, folded wedding invitation and the stiffly formal photography of bride and groom, best man and bridesmaid. These are tokens of happiness and relief, as her solider husband made it back from the war, and hers is a story of patience and commitment – a caption quotes her daughter, who remembers ‘She met him when she was 16. And they corresponded and became engaged through letters and so she went out and bought herself a ring.’ This shows how conventions were both broken and reinforced by the war – with its prolonged separations and continual uncertainty.

Another display on Vernon Evershed and his younger brother, Doug conveys the way that dress – with its closeness and intimacy to its wearer – can form a precious memento, a treasured connection to someone lost to the war. The glass cabinet devoted to these soldiers contains a soft brown army undercoat, below it, photographs of them as children, and one of Doug in army uniform. Both died in battle – a telegram from Buckingham Palace and a letter from the commanding officer telling the all too familiar tale of sons lost on the Front. Again, the curators use a quote from a relative to show the war’s legacy – ‘For years and years the undercoat was on my grandmother’s sideboard and we had no idea it had any connection with my father’s uncle.’

The exhibition is rich with such detail, weaving together memories and histories – tying together those who fought, with those who stayed at home, through letters, photographs, scrapbooks and oral histories. A nurse’s uniform and images of a local military hospital remind us of women’s involvement in the war, medals and badges recall battles and regiments, and inventories of uniform items supplied remind us of the huge administration that underpinned the military.

The final display describes – visually and in text – the Unknown Warrior – whose body was buried at Westminster Abbey to represent the enormity of loss. Here, textiles played a key role in conveying the ceremony’s solemnity, and its official, state purpose. The coffin is shown draped in the Union Jack, its graphic form a reminder of nationhood that was reflected in the two huge, flowing flags hung from the cenotaph in Whitehall.

Sources:

Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, vol. I (London: Verso, 1996)

http://www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/WhatsOn/Pages/BMAGwarstories12jul2014to1mar2015.aspx