Review/Comment:

The Importance of Promoting New Research: Reflections on my Experience as a First-Time Speaker

Association of Dress Historians New Research Day

Art Workers’ Guild, London, 15th November 2013

By Jenny Evans

The ADH New Research Day call for papers appealed to me as it was directly aimed at early career researchers. This reassuring specification gave me the final push to click send on my abstract email. After the initial excitement upon receiving an acceptance letter from ADH chairwoman Jane Bridgeman, I felt a sense of trepidation. I realised the professional importance of the occasion as it would be the first time that I shared my work with the dress history community. Would the audience harshly critique it or find it utterly uninteresting? Other researchers assured me that the first paper is always the toughest. However this did little to calm me during the days spent tweaking and perfecting Powerpoint slides, the hours of rehearsal and editing, and the final panicked moments deciding on the perfect outfit that would express my identity as a researcher.

Early and anxious, I explored Bloomsbury’s handsome squares before making my way to the nearby Art Workers’ Guild. I was greeted warmly upon arrival and directed upstairs to the Gradidge Room, where ADH committee members were busily setting up the room and organising their book sale. There was a convivial atmosphere and it was easy to strike up conversation. After Dr Bridgeman’s introduction, it was my turn at the lectern.

I spoke first in a session that included Sadie Hough’s paper on British Workwear from 1959 to 1982. My research considers the biographies of everyday and unworn dress in museums, using Walsall Museum’s Hodson Shop Collection as a case study. Common themes and links emerged between our papers, especially concerning the geographical location of our research and the Hodson Shop’s extensive collection of aprons and overalls. A third paper by Matilda Aspinall on historical refashioning in the digital age questioned how clothing can be adapted for the future using historical dress as a starting point. This brought up another unforeseen connection as I recalled a brown crepe 1930s dress found in the Hodson sisters’ home that showed signs of adaption and customisation. Aspinall’s ideas prompted me to reconsider this incomplete and rarely displayed dress as a source of inspiration for future clothing design and museum installation practices.

Liz Tregenza, ADH New Research Day

Liz Tregenza presenting at ADH New Research Day

The papers in the two afternoon sessions proceeded in a chronological order, from Lesley O’Connell Edwards’ discussion of knitted garments in Elizabethan England to Liz Tregenza’s research into The Model House Group and The Fashion House Group between 1945 and 1965. Whilst some of the research was far removed from my own, it was fascinating to hear people talk passionately about unfamiliar topics. I was initially worried about how my research would fit into a programme that included Matteo Augello’s paper on the spectacular Marchesa Luisa Casati and Nele Bernheim’s work on the avant garde Belgian couture house Norine. Yet these fears were unfounded. As opposed to conferences with narrowly defined themes, this event embraced the richness and variety within dress history; it defined the field as interdisciplinary, widened the choice of approaches and methodologies, and allowed for new connections and insights, as discussed above.

The excitement that accompanies new research possibilities, however, may have led some of the enthusiastic participants to speak for far longer than their designated twenty minutes. This sort of problem is understandable when the speakers are new researchers however it should be regulated by event organisers who have the responsibility to instil conference etiquette. Time is of the essence!

The event introduced me to a new network of fellow researchers, which is crucial for people like me who work in organisations with few dress historians. Whilst my university has a strong and supportive general research community, I have sometimes struggled to access the discourse, debate and collaborative opportunities that come about through contact with those with similar research interests. Through the New Research Day, the ADH opened up a world that can feel remote to researchers who work outside the Royal College of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art, Central St. Martins and London College of Fashion. In view of the development of the discipline, in 2011, the ADH, formerly the Courtauld History of Dress Association (CHODA), amended its constitution “to disassociate itself from the Courtauld and embrace a wider remit.”1 Research Days are thus important as the London-based association works to reach out to and connect scholars in wider locations.

The ADH could further these goals of access and inclusion through an enhanced online presence. As a researcher who blogs and regularly uses social media to disseminate my work, I was surprised by the ADH’s limited digital resources. Only basic information about the New Research Day was available online. Whilst the idea of an event hashtag or liveblog may seem clichéd, they could have been valuable archives for those who were not able to attend the conference and as a reference point for the speaker themselves.

The event illustrated the need for dynamic platforms that share and encourage new, experimental research into dress history and that include researchers from varied disciplinary backgrounds. It also created a forum in which early career researchers meet and benefit from the experience of established dress historians such as Lou Taylor and Madeleine Ginsburg. Taylor has written previously about The Hodson Shop Collection, so the opportunity to discuss it with her was highly valuable.1 I have found that submitting conference papers can be an intimidating experience, especially when taking those first steps into a discipline that has a close-knit community. After the event I felt reassured and calm: it gave me the confidence to consider myself a dress historian, albeit one who takes an interdisciplinary approach. The ADH New Research Day plays an important role in providing early career researchers access to the discipline in the current competitive research climate. In addition, it serves to situate the association at the forefront of innovative scholarship.

Notes:

1.   The Association of Dress Historians, 2011. What is ADH? [online] Available at: http://www.dresshistorians.co.uk/about [Accessed: 16 February 2014].

2. Taylor, L. (2004), Establishing Dress History, (Manchester: Manchester University). Taylor, L. (2002), The Study of Dress History, (Manchester: Manchester University).

Contributor:

Jenny Evans is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award student in History at the University of Wolverhampton. She works closely with Walsall Museum and is conducting a detailed study of their nationally important Hodson Shop Collection. You can find out more about her research on her blog: http://hodsonshopproject.com

 

Review/Comment – The Importance of Promoting New Research

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