An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential: Heather Norris Nicholson

By :

Katarzyna Falęcka


Forming the third lecture of the Spring 2014 Friend Lecture Series, Dr Heather Norris Nicholson’s talk entitled An ‘Untapped Goldmine for the Dress Historian’: Amateur Film as Visual Heritage and Assessing the Excavation Potential, examined the ways in which non-professional film footage can serve as a fertile resource for the studying of the history of dress. The lecture series emerged from the MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Film and Image in Europe and America, 1920 – 1945, which investigates the common means by which fashion, non-fiction film and documentary images reveal new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Dr Nicholson, who is a Andrew W Mellon Foundation / Research Forum Visiting Professor at The Courtauld, proposed therefore to incorporate alternative sources of visual heritage into academic research. Many examples of amateur film are archived within the North West Film Archives, Manchester, and are readily accessible to scholars. The archive includes 36,000 items from the 1890s to contemporary video production, both professional and amateur.

As Dr Nicholson noted that both amateur film and dress history allow for an independent construction of self-hood and form a mode of communication, also expressing a sense of individual agency. This becomes clear in a black and white amateur film depicting adolescents dancing at a social club in 1957, in a small town close to Manchester. The continuous focus of the camera on the youth allows for the dress historian to analyse the local fashion, the means through which young people communicated their identities to a wider public and the relationship between local dress codes and the urban fashion standards in nearby Manchester. However, every representation requires an analysis of the conditions of its production. The film was made by a local paint manufacturer, who engaged with amateur film making as a hobby. This was not an isolated case; after the introduction of lightweight cameras in the early 1920s film making quickly became a popular recreational pass time in Britain. An increase in amateur film clubs followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heather Norris Nicholson

Heather Norris Nicholson

Amateur films were produced for a variety of reasons: documenting family life, travels, festivities, as well as capturing the steadily disappearing communal life styles. As a source, amateur film raises multiple questions. How do they relate to official imagery? What reasons motivated their production? And how were they used? The film footage by Michael Goodger, a teacher of liberal and general studies in Salford who sought to document the disappearing street life of a working class neighbourhood in Manchester, presents a private and intimate mediation of the changing urban landscape. Seeking to capture the fast changing face of Salford’s housing, he engaged with amateur film making in order to offer teaching examples which were familiar and relevant to his students, many of whom came from the Salford area. Goodger’s films were therefore motivated by the shifting urban ecology and had a pedagogical purpose. As an outsider to the communities he had filmed, Goodger adopted working class dress, at times even carrying a ladder with him.

Theorised by the magazine Amateur Cine World, amateur film steadily became professionalised. The shift from a private use of the camera to one that carried pedagogical and political implications, demonstrates a plurality of motivations for the production of alternative imagery. These films allow us to examine the aesthetics of the everyday, keeping in mind, however, that the camera often alters the scene represented. Nevertheless, amateur footage reflects a mode for storytelling and expresses an idea of self and society, which is crucial for the studying of dress history.


Natalia Murray on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Quest for the New Art

Street festival May 1926, Leningrad

At the end of January, Natalia Murray spoke about ‘The Proletarian Art Enigma’ as part of the Modern and Contemporary Research Seminar. She began with the social and historical background of the Russian Revolution of 1917—aimed at establishing a homogenous socialist state and culture to serve purely political needs—and ended with the year 1921. In her lecture, Murray sought to question whether proletarian art was a reality or a contradiction during this interlude.

The French Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries set an important precedent for the Bolsheviks. Influenced by the writing of Gustav le Bon, renowned French social psychologist, the Bolsheviks understood the power of the image for manipulating the masses. In his work on the psychology of the crowd, Le Bon believed that sentiment, not rational nature, is key. It follows that images, not words, are more powerful in controlling and manipulating crowds. Note that le Bon has been quoted by Mussolini, Stalin, Lenin and Hitler.

Russian Futurists and Leftist artists were quick to support the Bolshevik Revolution and moved to the forefront of new proletarian art . Murray took us through images of the first expressions of this art: from the Futurists’ sculpture of a fumbling eagle located at Peterhof Station nearby the Summer Palace of the Tsar, which symbolised the collapse of autocracy, to agitational propaganda on trains and trams with slogans in German due to the influence of Karl Marx to street decorations reminiscent of parade floats from the French Revolution to items of porcelain and posters by Natan Altman and Vladimir Lebedev.

Possibly the most well-known surviving artistic work from the period is the dramatically staged “Storming of the Winter Palace” by Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Recall the heroic toppling of the statues and masses with torched flames clambering over the palace gates. He based his film on the 1920s public re-enactment of the supposed legendary event of the 1917 Revolution. It epitomised Bolshevik mythology and points towards social manipulation, as in fact the Red Guards entered the government buildings to take control without a shot being fired.

Did proletarian art achieve its individuality; did it create a seismic effect on socialist society? Art as propaganda certainly continued beyond 1921 and was successful for agitational purposes. However the Futurist artists were removed as they ultimately failed to engage the workers who preferred more realistic decorations in a conventional style.