Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A longer 'about me'

For as long as I can remember I've been interested in history.

I started collecting at an early age too - one of my first collections was coins, and it felt miraculous that I could possess and hold a Roman coin that had been held by Roman hands perhaps a thousand years ago. It was a physical connection to a long gone past, and, while I'm a deeply sceptical person, there is something weirdly magical about this - as if you could still sense some trace of the energy and humanity of those who originally used that coin.

Objects from the past offer an immediate and vivid kind of time-travelling opportunity that you cannot obtain from books or television programmes. Its all very well to read about how they used to heat solid metal irons against a fire, test the temperature with a quick spit on the plate before skilfully pressing their clothes without scorching them. Its quite another thing to actually pick an old iron up and understand in a physical way what that might have involved - a hot iron, and a pile of wrinkled laundry even more so!

Clothing is perhaps the most evocative of all, since it covered the body, was stretched and shaped by the body, and sometimes retains the form of the wearer. It is the most intimate and personal of objects, and this explains some people's aversion to old clothing, as if it were haunted by spirits. The designer Barbara Hulanicki said recently: "As you get older you get more psychic. I can't stand vintage clothes - there's something so intense about their energy even after they've been cleaned."

This aspect never put me off, in fact quite the contrary. It is a big part of their appeal for me.

Playing dress-ups in the garden, photographs taken by my sister sometime in the early 1980s.

You can read about my very first vintage dress purchase here.

I've continued collecting all kinds of old things, in a very scattergun and undisciplined fashion, ever since, guided only by my endless curiosity and continuing delight in finding bargains that relatively few other people seemed interested in at the time. There's an account of my peak collecting years here.

At the same time I gathered quite a substantial personal library of books that helped me understand and contextualise what I was accumulating. In my amateur way, I was teaching myself history through a combination of reading and collecting.

The proprietor of 20th Century Frocks, Patricia Rowberry, in her shop sometime in the 1990s.

An important figure in this collecting mania was my mother, who wore vintage (then known by the much less glamorous term 'second-hand') clothing from the early 1970s on, and eventually started her own vintage clothing business in the late 1980s by literally emptying her wardrobe. We shared an enthusiasm, and often went browsing together. Her shop in Lincoln, 20th Century Frocks, is still fondly remembered by many customers.

The last link above explains how I renounced collecting, sold up everything except what I could fit into a small van, and moved down south to become a mature student at the University of Brighton. I completed a BA in design history, and enjoyed that so much I stayed to complete an MA in the same subject.

What enchanted me most about these courses is that there was an emphasis on the object as a credible source of evidence, and not just archival texts and pictures. I didn't know about it before, but it was called 'material culture' and my experience in collecting - familiarising myself over the years with the look, feel and construction of objects - was a valuable asset in that field.

So I find myself with a foot in two camps - the rigour and nit-picking precision (and often tiresomely obtuse theory) of academia, and the more pragmatic and commercial world of the vintage trade. And I've never lost that sense of magic in encountering the past through things.

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