Lightfoot Archive

Launch Exhibition 2nd June 2016

By Alexis Romano

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“The curious are invited to immerse themselves in this rich tapestry and retrace the history of their forebears forever embedded in the fabric that they left behind.”

This message, handwritten and projected onto a wall welcomed visitors to the exhibition launch of the Lightfoot Archive on 2nd June 2016, the personal collection of textile conservator Janie Lightfoot. The extraordinary archive comprises over 1,800 garments, flat textiles and accessories that span an enormous variety of cultures and periods, from 300 B.C.E. to the present day. Under the curatorial management of Helen Spencer and Sandra Dubois, the exhibition unified the archive through a floral theme, presenting and connecting objects as diverse as a 1930s embroidery manual and nineteenth or early twentieth-century Chinese lotus shoes made of wood, cotton and silk. Lightfoot greeted viewers warmly upon entering, and handed them a booklet to guide their journey through the innovative installation. The booklet served as an interface between viewer and display object, and a repository for stickers picturing each piece, which viewers were asked to place appropriately. This exercise echoed the premise of the text, connecting viewers to the objects, and to history, and set the stage for an interactive and entertaining exhibition experience.

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As visitors searched for each object, they also discovered the archive, which forms a part of the conservation studio. The exhibition was scattered and integrated throughout, and therefore reflected the physical connection between archive and atelier. It also indirectly illustrated how Lightfoot’s collection, by providing firsthand historic textile construction information, helped shape and inform her conservation technique.

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This meant that viewers constantly questioned what they were looking at, and which objects formed part of the exhibition. One exhibit consisted of a European folkways dress in an opened archival box. Lit up, it attracted onlookers, who stumbled upon it almost haphazardly, and invited them to take a close look inside. Another garment, a late nineteenth-century black silk gown, was displayed facing a mirrored wall, amid rows of archival storage. This viewpoint allowed visitors to glimpse the spectacular brightly coloured floral embroidery at the back of the dress, as well as give life to the artefact: seemingly caught off-guard, the mannequin embodied the anonymous wealthy young woman who once owned the garment. According to Lightfoot, ‘she’ was on her way home, back to the archive. For Lightfoot, the value of the collection lies in the social histories of the everyday objects, and the many narratives that viewers could imagine and project. She privileges nineteenth-century blue-and-white embroidered fragments that once formed part of dresses or furniture, equally as much as the dazzling pleated gowns the collection contains, their stains and removal attesting to life stories, and the significance of the understudied haberdashery trades. The achievement of this small-scale exhibition was how its innovative means of display exposed these histories and curatorial objectives.

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All photographs were taken by the author on 2nd June 2016.

For more information about the archive, contact Janie Lightfoot, Textile Conservation Restoration Studio, 21 Park Parade, London NW10 4JG. Tel. no.: + 44 (0)208 963 1532. Email: Janie[at]janielightfoot.co.uk. Website: www.janielightfoot.co.uk

Contributor:

Alexis Romano is a researcher and founding member of the Fashion Research Network. She is interested in the ways narratives of dress are shaped through means of display, and some of her visual inquiries can be viewed at Dress on Display. Alexis recently completed her PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, on postwar French ready-to-wear, and the connection of the development of this industry to French and women’s history. She is currently Exhibition Reviews Editor of Textile History.

Lightfoot Archive Launch, 2nd June 2016, London, UK

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