Dr Kate Strasdin is Senior Lecturer in Histories and Theories at Falmouth University and Deputy Curator at Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum.
I will happily admit that I am an ‘old stuff’ nerd. As a young kid with an over-active imagination, I found objects utterly fascinating – I wanted to know how they had been used or made or worn and why. As I grew older this focused specifically on dress and textiles. Why did women wear corsets? Why did men shave their heads and sport a powdered wig? What is a crinoline all about? This has persisted into my adult life and luckily I was able to make an actual career out of it, not just teaching this as a subject to Falmouth University students, but the curating of objects too at the Totnes Fashion and Textile Museum in Devon.
Being a curator is endlessly fascinating but being a curator of dress is a joy. Clothes tell stories even after their wearers have long disappeared. They hold secrets in the seams and stitches of their creation. They hold the tales of lives lived, they bear the marks of those lives. An 1820s silk evening dress with a wine stain down the front was a favourite discovery of mine – whose dress had it been, what was the occasion, who spilt the wine…….?
I can remember the first time I volunteered in a dress and textile museum aged 19. In a vault-like storage room I was allowed to explore shelf after shelf of boxes all with amazing labels – 1890s embroidered bodices, 1930s man’s tweed suits, shoes, skirts, gloves, feather boas. On one side of the store a line of rolling wardrobes stretched across an entire wall. Turning the handle of each wardrobe revealed rail after rail of dresses hanging in calico shrouds. Each one was the piece of a person’s life and I was hooked.
So my posts are going to tell some of those stories. It is in fact a specific way of researching and writing known as either a ‘material culture methodology’ or an ‘object based methodology’, complicated titles that simply mean using the stuff that people leave behind to talk about their life and times. It might be the story of a 1950s Dior dress discovered in a Parisian basement, or the tale of a wedding dress made from parachute silk by a Jewish prisoner of war. Learning how to see the stories held in an object, ‘reading’ an object if you like, can inform and inspire your own practice and enable you to see the ‘stuff’ of life in a whole new light.