History & Classics, Interviews
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The frocks of my tears: the academic with a passion for fashion

Fashion

Ten academics from across the country were selected for the 2019 New Generation Thinkers scheme run by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Among them is Dr Jade Halbert, a historian at the University of Huddersfield. Below, she explains how her love of fashion often reduces her to tears.

Tell us about yourself

It would be a cliché for me to say that I have ‘a passion for fashion’. For one, passion isn’t quite emphatic enough – mania, obsession, fixation – are probably more accurate in my case. I cry with happiness at fashion shows and fashion exhibitions (the Christian Dior exhibition at the V&A left me bawling), and I’ve even shed tears over glossy fashion books.

I first realised that I was ‘good’ at fashion when at 14 I won my school’s public speaking trophy with a spirited potted history of British fashion design. This led to essays comparing John Galliano and Issey Miyake, a premature (I was 15) application to do work experience at Vogue, and eventually to a degree at the London College of Fashion. I worked in the fashion industry for a few years as a writer and stylist before going on to a master’s in dress and textile history and then a PhD in history at the University of Glasgow.

I’ve been a lecturer in fashion and cultural studies at the University of Huddersfield since 2017, and being surrounded by dynamic and creative fashion students means I’m now in tears every day!

What is the area of your research?

My work focuses mostly on the production of fashion as it relates to the wider fashion system. Initial research in this area was inspired by my time as a curatorial volunteer in the dress and textile collections at Glasgow Museums, which led me to study 19th-century dressmakers and seamstresses: their skills, how they were trained, how they were treated, and their contribution to the development of a distinctive ‘British’ aesthetic.

My thesis took me into the post-war period. It examined the mechanics of the British fashion industry, from sketch to shop floor, using the Glasgow-based fashion design and manufacturing company, Marion Donaldson – which was in business between 1966 and 1999 – as its main case study.

The modern fashion industry is my current area of research, and I am principally interested in oral histories of the rag trade in the post-war period. This research aims to shed light on the hidden world of the fashion factory, and goes beyond questions specific to socio-economic concerns around workplace conditions to offer new perspectives on the importance of the rag trade and its workforce to the success of British fashion at its productive peak in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is the importance of this research?

My research is about acknowledging and celebrating the rag trade and those who worked in its factories in post-war Britain, and it is also about preserving the culture of the trade and the customs, skills and traditions that were key to its international reputation for excellence. Thus, it provides vital historic context and a new critical understanding of how fashion used to be made in Britain, and how it can be again. This is important because knowledge about the structures and functions of the rag trade and its commercial institutions will be crucial to any successful revival of domestic fashion manufacturing in the future.

Above all, however, by reinstating the rag trade in the history of British fashion, I hope my research demonstrates that making clothes is just as important, interesting, and worthy of study as designing, photographing, or modelling clothes.

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