The costume collection at Worthing Museum & Art Gallery includes 30,000 items, making it one of the largest in the country. It has been described as ‘a gem… outstanding and extremely diverse’ (Dress Collections in Museums and Other Institutions in the South, South East and South West of England, 2018). To build on this, WMA’s major redevelopment plan, Let the Light In will reorganise the museum in structure and in emphasis, through an ambitious building project and the establishment of a new national Costume Research Centre. This studentship thus takes place at an exciting time in WMA’s development; the successful candidate’s research will explore the twentieth-century costume collection and its history, contribute to a collection review and plans for the Research Centre, and inform WMA’s future collecting policies.
A 2009–11 costume audit identified the principal strengths of the WMA collection as home-made and shop-bought twentieth-century fashionable womenswear. Rather than collecting expensive garments worn by famous people or created by celebrated designers, over more than a century WMA has accumulated a large collection of everyday womenswear. WMA’s atypical collecting policy has created a collection that offers a unique opportunity for the analysis of non-elite dress practices and the dissemination of high fashion into the wardrobes of ordinary women in the south of England. This remains an under-researched area of fashion studies and, notably, an under-collected area in dress collections.
Potential research questions include:
How can an examination of WMA’s twentieth-century costume collection enhance understanding of specific areas of non-elite home-made womenswear, for example, in terms of dressmaking skills and fashion adaptation for a range of incomes, shapes and ages?
How can an examination of WMA’s twentieth-century costume collection enhance understanding of specific areas of non-elite shop-bought womenswear, particularly in relation to a specific geography (the south coast of England) but also, for example, in terms of shifting practices in fashion manufacturing, style dissemination, retailing and changing consumer cultures?
How can an examination of the establishment of WMA’s costume collection and collecting policy and practices, past and present, shed light on the priorities and omissions of fashion collecting in museums more broadly?
How can a case study on the redevelopment of WMA’s costume collection into a Costume Research Centre inform future directions in museum practice, policy and display?
Collecting Everyday Fashion will establish core areas of focus within the above areas. At the same time, through the WMA redevelopment project and establishment of the Costume Research Centre, the studentship will provide hands-on training and an inside understanding of curatorial practice in relation to object handling and conservation issues, collections review and management, museum funding, policy development, and visitor engagement. The student will be based in the university’s Centre for Design History, and will benefit from, and contribute to, CDH’s lively research culture of training, events and other activities as part of a well-developed cohort of postgraduate students and academic staff.