Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas. We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.
Alumni Interview Part Three: Rachel Worth, MA (1989), PhD (2003)
Rachel Worth is Professor of History of Dress and Fashion at the Arts University Bournemouth. She is currently working on two books, Clothing and Landscape in Victorian England: Working-Class Dress and Rural Life (I. B. Tauris) and Fashion and Class (Bloomsbury), both forthcoming 2016.
You did the MA in the late 1980s with Aileen Ribeiro. What was the structure of the course like then?
I did the course from 1987 to 1989 when it was a two-year syllabus. The first year was a survey of the history of dress, from the medieval period right up to the twentieth century. It introduced us to a subject that few of us had studied before. Being at the Courtauld, the perspective adopted was very much an art historical one. But as well as Aileen’s core input, there were guest lecturers who would focus on particular periods, source material and / or methodological approaches. I absolutely loved it and soaked it all up! I think I particularly relished the analysis of paintings that the course entailed. It informed how I have looked at art ever since.
In the second we year did a ‘special subject’, ‘Dress in England and France c 1760 – 1820’ which drew upon one of Aileen’s research specialisms. We also wrote a dissertation. Because it was a two-year Masters, there were financial implications for students, then as now. Not only was the course itself intensive, but one of the things that was so much a part of my experience of it was the fact that I had three part-time jobs! I had a daily library job at the Courtauld itself, a Saturday job at Liberty’s in the scarf department, and I taught English as a foreign language to private students.
What were your first impressions of the Courtauld?
It was in a very different location – Portman Square. I can remember well the feeling of being in the basement where the dress history library was located – and it always seemed rather dusty! What was great was that it was only a short walk away from the Wallace Collection, so I often went there at lunchtimes! I think that wonderfully eclectic collection has influenced some of my interests, particularly 17th century Dutch art and a fascination with armour and its relationship to dress. It reinforced a number of the topics that we were studying on the course and the importance of considering different source material in relation to dress history.
What was your favourite thing about the History of Dress MA? Do you have any particularly fond memories?
There were many many things I enjoyed. One of the things that stands out in my memory was that Aileen Ribeiro would take us through a wonderful range of paintings in the context of a particular period or theme. And she would leave the slides – physical slides then of course – in the room for the rest of the day so that we could go back through them and check that we’d got a proper slide list. It was very important to make sure that we had comprehensive notes: – artist, date, location of the work etc. And I still have those lecture notes! They were so useful and I still sometimes refer to them! It was an excellent foundation for things that I’ve done since.
You came from a History background – BA in History at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. Why did you decide to study History of Dress at postgrad?
That’s right: in my BA I’d specialized in social history but I’d always been interested in cultural and art history, and I felt (and feel!) very strongly that dress is an absolutely essential part of social history. At the time, it was most unusual to study dress on a history course. So for me the Courtauld course was the obvious postgrad choice – and it was unique.
As a young child I had always loved fabrics and haberdashery and I was always making things. My mother taught me to sew – she would make all her own clothes. She was born in 1931 so her formative teenage years were in the post Second-World-War period – late 1940s. The suits and evening dresses she made and wore were very much based on her interpretation of the Dior image. In my own teenage years I got totally hooked on the history of dress, perhaps because, as a dedicated daydreamer, I was always imagining how it would be to live in another time and place and dress is such an imaginative way into another world. During my history degree I felt increasingly that there was huge potential for the study of dress but that it hadn’t been ‘tapped’ by the undergraduate history curriculum.
Did you find that the transition from History to History of Art and Dress in particular was difficult?
Not really. After my BA I took a year ‘out’ and worked at the Museum of Costume, now the Fashion Museum, in Bath, as a tour guide and that really fuelled my interest. It was wonderful to be surrounded by actual garments and to imagine the past societies that ‘produced’ them. The people who visited were mostly non-specialists and tourists taking in a number of museums in Bath so you had to try to interest them and make connections. Those amazing garments on display did my work for me and probably helped me to make the transition you allude to.
What did you do after the MA?
In 1990 I got a place on the Marks and Spencer ‘Graduate Management Training Scheme.’ I was really interested in the whole idea of retail. It was an incredible experience: I trained as a buyer (we were called ‘selectors’) and it was a totally different environment from what I was used to. It taught me so much about how fashion is understood on a popular level as well as issues around design and manufacturing for mass production. I loved visiting the Midlands knitwear factories – they were pockets of incredible textile skill and expertise, but they are mostly – sadly – gone now. After two years, I decided that retail wasn’t for me! But having an insider’s knowledge of the company meant that I got to know about the M&S Company Archive – which wasn’t a public archive at the time – and that led to my research for my book on M&S.
In 1991 I secured my first academic job at Staffordshire University, responsible for the dress history elements of a BA and MA in history of design and visual culture. Having done a PGCE before my MA I knew that I would love teaching. Then, in the late 1990s a got a course leader job at what was then the Arts Institute at Bournemouth (now Arts University) At the time they had a Higher National Diploma (HND) in fashion but they were looking for someone to write a new BA. The course that I wrote with my colleagues brought together fashion theory and history, design and marketing, and it’s still running…
And what about your PhD? What was that on?
It was while I was at Staffordshire University that I started my PhD, part-time while I was working full-time. It was a study of potential sources for, and representations of, rural working class dress in the 19th century. I finished writing it about two days before the birth of my son – it’s always good to have a deadline!
Would you say that your style of teaching was influenced by that of Aileen’s?
I’m sure it has been. I have tried to take on board her meticulous attention to detail and her insightful analysis of the work of art or artefact as central to an understanding of dress history. I’ve also taken inspiration from other excellent teachers over time. By the way. I nearly did a BA in philosophy, and I really like to encourage students to think about and analyse concepts and ideas too.
What is your favourite thing about teaching History of Dress?
That depends on whom I’m teaching. If I’m with a first year undergraduate group – say, fashion design students – who’ve never done any dress history before, I love seeing them start to make connections and realise why the history is so fascinating and so important. Equally, discussing in depth an aspect of a student’s PhD research is immensely stimulating. Being in a position to teach something you love and that many people can relate to in so many ways is amazing and a privilege. Even if some students find some of the theory tricky, there is usually a way of presenting it so that they can relate it to something that has meaning for them.
If you could own any piece of clothing, what would it be?
That’s difficult. What I would actually love is to have in front of me and be able to explore an item of clothing that we might see in, perhaps, a 15th century Netherlandish painting by, say, Rogier van der Weyden or Hans Memling.
I suppose that is difficult, because not many of those survive.
I think that’s the point, that’s why I love the idea! My initial reaction when you asked the question was to say something designed by Worth (no relation!) but actually I don’t particularly feel the need to own something that survives and is well documented. So what I would really like is the impossible: to examine something that hasn’t survived, something that we know so well – or think we know – from paintings, but have ever only had a two-dimensional view of.
Do you have any advice for current MA History of Dress students?
…Grasp opportunities that present themselves, and also ‘make’ those opportunities. If you want to do something, never take no for an answer. Absolutely follow any dreams that you have. Stay focused but, at the same time, try to be open to the unexpected because the things that might seem like offshoots may turn out to be really useful later. This is a special time so immerse yourself in your studies – and relish every moment, even – dare I say it – the deadlines!