50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Five: Jennifer Potter, MA (2014)

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.

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Jennifer Potter, MA (2014)

Jennifer Potter is a graduate intern at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles where she assists in developing grant-making programs in various areas of the arts including museum-work and conservation. Additionally, she is currently involved in the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, a series of thematically linked exhibitions across Southern California that explore Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

What led you to pursue graduate studies in the field of dress and fashion and what attracted you to the Courtauld in particular?

As an undergraduate, I studied art history and thought that I wanted to become a curator, but I always had a personal interest in fashion. A pivotal experience for me was seeing the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris where I realized that fashion, like art, connected more broadly to identity and ways of seeing the self. I decided to pursue graduate study in art history, and I knew that I wanted to focus on history of dress and textiles. I was always interested in the visual representation of dress so I think this is what attracted me most to the program at the Courtauld. I also especially wanted to study with Dr. Rebecca Arnold, given her prominent reputation in the field.

 You graduated in 2014. What was the topic and structure of your MA course? 

The topic of my MA course was Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films, and Image in America and Europe, 1920-1945. The course consisted of two parts. In the first term, we studied key methodologies in dress history, and, in the second term, we focused in on American and European fashion and identity during the interwar period. In particular, we looked at fashion’s representation in documentary photography and non-fiction film. The course consisted of seminar-style discussion and object study in several London art and dress collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of London. We also had the opportunity to travel abroad to Washington, D.C. to visit the archives in Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History.

 What was the subject of your dissertation?

My dissertation focused on Irene Castle, an early twentieth-century American social dancer who is most remembered for her refined style of exhibition ballroom dance that she performed in a gown of flowing silk chiffon. My paper argued that Castle used dress as a means of self-promotion and as a marketing tool for modern dance. Through a visual study of three key performance from her career, I situated the dancer within the media and consumer culture of the early twentieth century and positioned her as a key figure in the emergence of the modern woman.

 You were a Student Ambassador during your time at the Courtauld. What did that position entail and did it have a positive impact on your time at the Courtauld?  

As a Student Ambassador, I regularly met with prospective students to share my experience studying at the Courtauld and living in Central London. I had a very positive experience at the Courtauld, and I loved being able to share this with others. I also enjoyed learning about people’s diverse interests within the history of art. MA work is often very solitary and isolating so it was refreshing to meet and share my passion with other students.

What did you gain most from studying at the Courtauld?

The most important skill that I gained from the Courtauld was the ability to flesh out key ideas from a large body of text. I also learned how to analyze objects and images closely.

 You are currently interning at the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, can you describe your role there?

As the graduate intern in the Getty Foundation, I have the opportunity to learn about arts and culture philanthropy by working on international grant-making programs in the areas of art history, conservation, museum practice, and professional development. My primary task is to assist the Program Officers in administering grants which includes reviewing incoming grant applications, composing acknowledgement letters and internal grant write-ups, and updating grants information in the FLUXX database system. As a more long-term project, I am responsible for conducting an evaluation of the Foundation’s professional development grants, a program that supports the attendance of colleagues from developing countries at large-scale international forums for professional exchange. This task involves reading through many historical grant files and drafting reports with recommendations for moving forward.

I also have the opportunity to contribute to the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, a series of thematically linked exhibitions across Southern California that explore Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. In particular, I am working with the Deputy Director to help plan a convention for the research and curatorial assistants associated with the exhibitions.

Foundation work is diverse and dynamic, and I have gained a deep understanding of the lifecycle of a grant, including research, assessment, and evaluation.

Did studying dress at the Courtauld provide you with any particular skills – analytic or practical- that have proven useful in your current job and/or any other of your recent endeavors?

Besides (arguably) being the best dressed person at the Getty, studying dress has made me incredibly detail-oriented and visually-aware. These qualities are especially helpful in my current work in the Foundation where I am constantly multi-tasking among different tasks.

 You completed your undergraduate studies in Florida, your graduate studies in the UK and you are currently working in California. Have you noticed that the different places you have visited possess unique fashion trends?

I think that the social culture of a place and the weather influences fashion trends. At my large university in Florida, there was a lot of comradery around the school and the sports teams, and this shaped how people dress (orange and blue!). Given the climate, there was also a lot of Lilly Pulitzer and flip flops. In London, black was definitely the uniform. Now, in California, I find the fashion to be very laidback and bohemian. Especially in Santa Monica where I live, many people dress for an easy transition to the beach or the gym. I find it really refreshing.

 Describe your style. Has studying the history of dress had any effect on your fashion choices?  

My style is constantly evolving. I travel and move around a lot so I definitely find that how I dress is influenced by where I am. I like to follow trends, but I also am a self-described vegan hippie who enjoys dressing up a pair of yoga pants and making morally- and ethically-minded purchases.

I think that studying the history of dress has actually made me more confident and adventurous in what I choose to wear. I now understand how dress is bound up with body image and identity so it really has become my primary means of expressing myself to the world.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I see myself living somewhere sunny and warm, working in a job that I love, and surrounded by a community of like-minded people who support me.