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Notes from the Field: The Underpinnings Museum

Notes from the Field: The Underpinnings Museum

As a newly enrolled MA student in 2012, fifteen years after I finished my first degree, I was looking forward to induction week to help get my head back into academic study. In the years since I graduated, I had undertaken a large number of short courses in a variety of different subjects, including fashion journalism and lingerie construction, but this had merely inspired my desire to undertake postgraduate study rather than preparing me for it. Through courses on photography, Photoshop, fashion journalism, and lingerie construction, I was discovering the labor behind the images, magazines, websites, and garments that we all consume and could see that the knowledge and understanding I was amassing was the tip of the iceberg.

The thing I enjoyed most about these courses was not learning the skills themselves, but sharing this newfound knowledge with others. Discovering that London College of Fashion, UAL, had a Master's course called History and Culture of Fashion (now titled MA Fashion Cultures) was a lightbulb moment for me. Here was a course where I could study all aspects of fashion in greater theoretical depth, building on everything I'd learned before and applying an academic rigor of which I hadn’t previously believed myself capable. I applied and was offered a place to study part-time, so that I could fit my studies around my job, and was lucky enough to be able to get my fees paid by my employer. This is the first of many privileges that I have experienced, over the course of my studies and beyond, and for that I am truly grateful.

The induction week I’d been eagerly anticipating was fantastic for helping me get to know the university’s facilities, for meeting my fellow students, finding out the full extent of what was going to be expected of me, and simply for inspiration. A panel discussion featuring a long-time hero of mine – fashion communicator and change maker Caryn Franklin – helped me think about fashion’s intersections with other topics and the way it weaves itself into our lives, but it was another session that somewhat surprisingly ended up steering me towards a new career path.

I’m not sure why I signed up for the introduction to the London College of Fashion Archives – maybe because I like rummaging around in vintage shops and visiting museums – but I’ll never forget the feeling of walking into that seminar room and seeing a trolley full of archival boxes with some of their contents already carefully laid out on Tyvek-covered tables. There were hats, shoes, embroidery samples, a beautiful 1950s dress, and a spectacular 1970s suit which the archivist, Jane Holt, gave us some background on once she had given us an overview of the collections. It was exhilarating and I was already keen to use archives in my research by the end of the session, but it was Jane’s answer to a question I asked her when everyone else was leaving that ensured the session left a lasting impression on me.

I’ll never forget the feeling of walking into that seminar room and seeing a trolley full of archival boxes, with some of their contents already carefully laid out on Tyvek-covered tables.

Something she said about provenance had reminded me of a garment that was languishing in a drawer at home with all my old costume bits and bobs from when my main hobby was burlesque. Back in 2009, I had booked an appointment with a vintage seller called Pixxi as something fun to do during a weekend visit to the seaside town of Brighton. Upon arrival, my friend and I were led into a large living room which had been lovingly decked out with all the seller’s vintage treasures, displayed on hangers, tables, and mannequins. The space was dressed with antique screens and mirrors, plus gorgeous plants and lighting, so that it felt part boutique and part private salon. Although we were mostly left to ourselves, our host was on hand to answer any questions we had about the items, and there was a screened-off area set aside as a fitting room if we wanted to try anything on. I bought a few things that day, but an unworn mid-twentieth century girdle was the star of the show.

I told Jane about this girdle – describing its dusky pink fabric, good condition and lack of backstory – and asked if I could donate it to the archives. She said that it sounded very interesting and suggested that I perhaps do some research on it as part of one of my course units, then donate the garment and the research to the archive afterwards. The opportunity to do this came in the spring term of that year, and a quick Google search of the text on the label led me to the archive of the girdle’s manufacturer, R & W H Symington. The Symington Collection is a vast resource and my visit ended up getting me hooked on researching underwear history, plus inspiring my choice of Master’s dissertation topic – technology’s influence on bra design in the twentieth century – so that I could make a return visit to look through their extensive collection of fascinating brassieres.

After completing my Master’s course, I started to ponder where all this new knowledge could take me and my train of thought always went back to archives. I looked at job adverts for archive roles and soon discovered that I would need a lot of experience – no doubt obtained as an unpaid volunteer – to get even an entry level position, and higher level vacancies always asked for a postgraduate qualification in archives and records management. I looked into this too, and even got an interview for a distance learning version of the course, but it soon became apparent that I would still need plenty of archive experience in order to do the course. Three months of using up annual leave and condensing my working hours in order to volunteer one day a week in the UAL Archives and Special Collections Centre without losing money – my privilege showing once more – reassured me that I would adore working in an archive full time. However, I would need to take a serious pay cut for several years in order to do so. Like many mature students, I already have a lot of financial commitments and so this career change didn’t look like it would be a viable option.

What I had not yet realised was that I was already taking steps towards an alternative version of this career path. When I was researching my dissertation, I started collecting bras from eBay, Etsy, and vintage shops to fill the gaps in my research that existing UK archive collections couldn’t help with. You might think I’d be the only person with such a weird obsession, filling my spare room with tissue wrapped undergarments that were older than me, but that is most definitely not the case. Back in 2013 I got into a discussion on social media with a London-based lingerie designer called Karolina Laskowska, because I was lusting after one of her designs that sadly wasn’t available in my size. After exchanging a few private messages, I ended up ordering a bespoke set, and headed to meet her once the toile was ready so that we could test the fit and decide on fabrics.

After confirming all the details for my order, we continued to chat and Karolina asked if I’d like to see some of her vintage lingerie collection. She showed me her latest acquisitions and some of her favourite pieces, and we discussed the sadness of having a collection that rarely sees the light of day. Unless someone visited in person and expressed an interest, Karolina’s collection would remain under wraps. How do you share all of the things that delight, inspire and intrigue about a collection of antique and vintage fashion objects? We agreed that good, clear photography was key and that developing something online was probably the right route to take, but we knew that time and money would no doubt prevent this happening.

Once I completed my MA at the end of 2014, I donated my own collection to the London College of Fashion Archives and set about wrapping and listing each piece, recording all the information I had obtained so far, ready for the collection to become used for study purposes by design students and other researchers. After sending an object list to the curator of Undressed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, two of the bras from my collection were loaned for the exhibition. Although I continued to spot interesting objects on eBay via my saved searches, my own collecting tailed off, but Karolina continued to amass beautiful garments that she would often share images of on her blog Knickerbocker Stories, or via social media.

One day Karolina tweeted that she wished that she could set up a museum to showcase her collection, but feared that the cost of acquiring suitable premises would be prohibitive. “If only an online museum was a thing,” she mourned, which reminded me of a project that had been featured on the Costume Society’s blog the previous year, back when I was the editor. Costume designer John Bright set up the company Cosprop in 1965 and had been collecting historic dress for his makers to use as reference for the costumes they were constructing for film and television. Fifty years later, Cosprop received funding from The UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund to digitize the collection and make it available online – an online museum, if you will. The photography had yet to be completed at the time but the project already had a social media presence, so I passed this information on to Karolina. It wasn’t long before she was costing period appropriate mannequins and finding a photographer who’d be interested.

This is how, in the summer of 2016, a lingerie designer, a photographer, and a fashion researcher came to set up a crowdfunding campaign for a project called The Underpinnings Museum, to help share an extensive personal collection of fashion objects with a broad audience of scholars, makers, and enthusiasts around the world. At the start of the project Karolina recruited Tigz Rice, who I already knew for her burlesque and lingerie photography, and we have recently welcomed Liz Denocte to the team in order to run our social media channels. So far we have shared 183 objects from six days of photoshoots, with another 90 awaiting publication and another two-day shoot coming soon. We have curated three online exhibitions, undertaken a collaborative project with postgraduate students from London College of Fashion, run a workshop at the Oxford Conference of Corsetry, and have been cited in at least two PhD theses. All this thanks to the generous donations of time and money from a growing number of lingerie enthusiasts.

I also hosted an extremely successful Twitter conference earlier this year, on behalf of the museum. The call for papers invited anyone with an interest in the history of underwear to submit an idea for a conference presentation and we received some truly fascinating abstracts. On the day, all presentations took the form of a Twitter thread of between 6 and 12 tweets, featuring any images or video content that the speaker felt was appropriate. The aim was to make an academic conference that was freely accessible to anyone in the world – for attendees and presenters – ensuring the wider dissemination of research in clear concise language. Afterwards, I collated presentations from the day into a series of blog posts, and the entire conference proceedings are now accessible in the exhibitions archive on The Underpinnings Museum website.

When we started this project, it was out of a mutual appreciation for the construction of and stories behind the undergarments that can so often end up being a forgotten part of fashion history. We wanted to share beautiful and fascinating objects with others who would appreciate their significance, but out of that has grown a global museum for the twenty-first century and the career change that I didn’t think would be possible. My day job may be unrelated but, in a world where fashion researchers increasingly have to embrace a portfolio career in order to make ends meet, I can highly recommend finding paid work in any field that provides enough money and time off to fund your dreams.

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