Fairfax House Exhibition "Revolutionary Fashion"

Posted on 11 July 2012

We go along to Fairfax House for our introductory meeting with the Director, Hannah Phillip, who is curating the exhibition that we will be assisting with 'Revolutionary Fashion: 1790-1820'.

Late May 2011

Helen Weinstein, IPUP Director, offers the most recent round of IPUP internships to myself and two other students in the History and History of Art departments for placements at the eighteenth century heritage site, Fairfax House. We go along to Fairfax House for our introductory meeting with the Director, Hannah Phillip, who is curating the exhibition that we will be assisting with 'Revolutionary Fashion: 1790-1820'. My doctoral research involves working with a very different kind of material culture - archaeologically excavated as opposed to museum collections - so I am keen to find out more about the objects themselves and the challenges and rewards of working with different types of objects. Particularly as this exhibition will include some beautiful late eighteenth century dresses and shoes, it makes a change from the sturdy ceramic fragments which were the subject of my PhD research!

Hannah is very friendly and after we introduce ourselves and our various research expertise, she outlines the exhibition, which is divided into various 'revolutions', including the 'French Revolution' and 'Industrial Revolution' amongst others. She suggests we spend our time as IPUP interns working on specific 'revolutions' that are related to our research. As I have already studied excise duties and technological changes over the period for my own research into branded products, Hannah advises that I focus on the 'industrial revolution' and its relationship to fashion in the period, with a view to writing an exhibition panel to be displayed next to one of the cases of clothing. At present there is no complete loans list, so its difficult to know what items we will be writing about, but Hannah promises to send this over when she has the information available. We finish the meeting by going round Fairfax House, exploring the dedicated exhibition space and the rest of the building, which is a fine example of a Georgian townhouse.

June

At our meeting, Hannah mentioned that another York student would be working on the internship with us, who had worked on Fairfax House's earlier fashion exhibition but wasn't able to come to our meeting. One of my fellow interns, Ruth, sets up a group for us all to be able to swap useful references and sources, as well as be able to contact each other if we think we might be overlapping or just struggling with the challenges of writing for such a different audience.

Early July

June's been a rather busy month, balancing teaching and marking with the PhD and a part-time job. The end of term comes as somewhat of a relief! Rather than spend an afternoon a week on the IPUP internship throughout June, I opted to spend a few days on the research in the first week of July. Its a refreshing change to look at something different and its all adding to the wider context of my research.

Hannah sends through the loans list that contains images of the objects, predominantly women’s clothing (gowns and accessories) but also some men's waistcoats and military uniform. She also attaches some useful notes of her own on the fashion of the period. She advises that the exhibition boards need to be around 300 words in length - not long at all. Once these 'overview' boards have been completed, we can move onto researching individual items or object types, such as headwear or shoes.

My first draft on fashion and the industrial revolution looks at the technological innovations, expansion of the empire and legislation enacted in the eighteenth century that impacted on the types of fabrics that were being produced - in particular, calicos and developments in printing that led to a trend for beautifully intricate printed fabrics. Its a struggle to get it all into 300 words, and I dither about how technical to be. I worry that its a bit dull - I’m finding it difficult to write without having an object as a focus to make it livelier, as I’ve been used to in my thesis. In the end I send it off to Hannah for feedback from an expert.

Mid-July

Meet with Hannah at Fairfax House. She is pleased with my first draft and gives me some really helpful suggestions about making it more focused on the fashion and appreciates my problem about not knowing which garments my exhibition board will appear alongside. There are some amendments to the loans list, but she gives me a preliminary idea of which objects might be grouped together. I have one printed textile, and two gauze dresses with ribbon trims.

Hannah also asks me to write another 300 words on the 'Social Revolution': how life changed as a result of the industrial revolution - for example, the fashion industry became much bigger and impacted on people's daily lives as factories began to supersede home working. Fashion also reflected changes in popular thought: clothing became more egalitarian at all social levels. I promise to email over my revised industrial revolution board along with my first draft of the social revolution board by the end of the month. I am really enjoying how my IPUP internship has a direct value and will be used in the upcoming exhibition.

Late July

I spend a day on research for the 'Social Revolution', but find myself conflicted about how best to write a 300 word board about such big ideas; I want to incorporate an awareness of current historiographical themes and debates about dress in the period but without making it overly complex, bearing in mind the audience will comprise people of all ages with little or no background experience of the subject. At the same time, I don’t want to put forward the view that dress of the period can be read in a very straightforward way - I want to demonstrate that there is more to it than that. In the end I compromise by including anecdotes about Beau Brummell's five-hour daily toilette and penchant for champagne to polish his boots, as well as conveying the importance of fashion and dress about social attitudes.

I also edit my first board and make it much more fashion-focused. I find this much easier, having some dresses in mind to centre the piece upon. Reading through some issues of the contemporary Lady's Magazine, which described the current fashions in most issues, I find some entertaining letters about the 'scandalous' nature of muslin and gauze dresses. I send the two boards off to Hannah, and wait to hear back from her about any future editing and what I can help with next.

Early August

Hear back from Hannah - my panels have been edited slightly by herself and her colleague and will be sent to the designer soon. That means I will get to see the final proofs to check over once more before they are made up. She promises to get back to me with details of any more topics that need researching for the exhibition: a little light relief from editing my thesis introduction. Meanwhile, its back to the PhD…

Mid August

Hannah sends over the final list of panels still needed. She is keen to progress one on headwear, which in this exhibition will be represented by two bonnets and a turban-style hat, as well as some ornate metal and tortoiseshell combs finished with precious stones. I pop into Fairfax House to borrow a book and find Hannah in the middle of arranging the headwear display, so I get a really good look at the objects. Knowing what the panel will be displayed next to, I write 300 words on the neo-classical influence on style, expressed through hairstyle and accessories such as these combs. Reading through guides to fashion from 1813, I find some detailed descriptions of ornate hairstyles and pieces that work really well with the objects. I send a 300 word panel on headwear generally and a smaller piece about bonnets to Hannah the next day.

Late August

The exhibition opens and we are invited to the champagne reception to celebrate. Fairfax House has a dedicated permanent exhibition space, but the objects are also displayed throughout the rooms of the house so visitors follow them throughout their tour of the building. It is very rewarding to see our IPUP internship work displayed throughout the house. Its really interesting to see how our panels were edited to reflect the specific objects they sit next to - I feel that I’ve learned a lot as an IPUP intern about how to write for a different audience. Hopefully I will get a chance to develop this further in the future.

Jenny Basford

PhD History
IPUP Intern