Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Makes Women: Planning our Conference to Celebrate 50 Years of Dress History at the Courtauld

Fashion Show, Barrett Street School, 1958. (Courtesy of the London College of Fashion Archives © (1958) The London College of Fashion)
Fashion Show, Barrett Street School, 1958. (Courtesy of the London College of Fashion Archives © (1958) The London College of Fashion)

The last few weeks have been increasingly busy for Dr Rebecca Arnold, Lucy Moyse and myself, as we’ve been finalising the last few details of our conference, entitled ‘Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Makes Women’, which takes place on Saturday 16th May at the Courtauld. Preparations began last year, when we decided to organise a conference as part of our celebrations running throughout this year, which commemorate 50 years since Stella Mary Newton first set up the History of Dress postgraduate course at the Courtauld in 1965.

We’ve been looking through the Stella Mary Newton archive that is held by the Courtauld Library for inspiration, and to find out more about correspondence that was sent to and from Stella during her time at the Courtauld. We’d like to thank Phillip Pearson and Anthony Hopkins for helping us to unearth this! We came across an interesting report written by Stella in 1969, which explained one of the difficulties the course had encountered in its early years:

The chief problem that faces this course is the scarcity of printed material of any value at all. This means that it is difficult to direct the students to read. Should they be told to read Panofsky, for instance, although he never refers to dress? The students are urged to go to all the art history lectures they can fit in and the timetable of the course is arranged so that they can do this…They find it most interesting to listen to the approach of the art historians but I try to discourage them from applying aesthetic or stylistic evidence to their own researches, naturally, since they would invalidate their own findings on the evidence of dress’.

It was interesting that Stella seemed to suggest such a division between an object-based and theoretical approach to dress history, and it made us consider how much the discipline has evolved to the way it is studied at the Courtauld today. Examining the material object in close detail is still a fundamental part of our analysis, but our judgement is also informed by many different fields and theoretical standpoints, which we allow to inform our analysis of dress and fashion as a global, interdisciplinary and multifaceted subject. We wanted our conference to reflect this diversity and draw upon the ways in which dress and fashion have been studied over 50 years, as an object and idea. We decided to split our programme into three themes: fashion media, fashion history, and fashion curation. We then invited a selection of scholars whose work we felt would highlight the significant role that women, including Stella, have played in designing, consuming, wearing, promoting and curating dress and fashion. We had a fantastic response from the speakers and chairs that we got in touch with, who were enthusiastic to be involved in the day. Of course, we’ve had to adapt and adjust our day accordingly in view of issues that inevitably arise, usually relating to speakers who wanted to be involved but have since found out that they are going to be away, or could no longer find the time within their schedules.

This then left us to the less academic side of things… organising where speakers and chairs would need to travel to/from, and booking hotels for those who were travelling from a long way away. We are particularly grateful to Jocelyn Anderson, Cynthia De Souza, Ingrid Guillot and Jessica Akerman for helping us to organize our budget and accommodate enough tea, coffee and biscuits for everyone, and, of course, a drinks reception! We’re also finalising a few other surprises, which won’t be revealed until the day, so you’ll have to wait and see…

We’re really looking forward to Saturday 16th May. If you haven’t managed to reserve your ticket yet, then tickets are selling fast, so please do so here: