Alumni Interview Part 13: Margaret Maynard, MA (Courtauld), PhD (Griffith)

Margaret Maynard grew up in Pretoria, South Africa and completed a Degree in Fine Art at Rhodes University, Grahamstown where she specialised in design. She moved on to study both a diploma and an MA in dress history at the Courtauld. Margaret has lived in Papua New Guinea and worked for The University of Queensland in Brisbane before completing her Phd at Griffith University, Brisbane in 1991 on colonial Australian dress. She has since written and lectured extensively on the subject of dress/fashion, both Australian and International, as well as on Australian art.


What are you up to at the moment?

I am always busy and seem to do so many different things. Here goes. This past year or so I have written a catalogue essay ‘Wool Fashions: Comfort, Tactility, Innovation’ for the exhibition The Art of Wool, New England Regional Art Museum (2015) and a long essay on the 19th century for the 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition, the National Gallery of Victoria, March 2016. My interest in colonial fashion is being revived after many years doing other things – it’s really fascinating to relook at early research. I am tinkering with an essay called ‘Australian Fashion Photography: Airlines and Style’ which came out of a large research project on Australian Fashion Photography in the 20th century. I have a book proposal called Back Story: The Photography of Fashion in Australia which has stalled due to image problems. I have been working with two colleagues about to publish a book on Queensland fashion called Remotely Fashionable: a story of subtropical style. This is the first comprehensive account of fashion in the state and I have helped a little with the writing. It was initially published online as The Fashion Archives. I am intermittently working on a project expanding an essay I did for the Berg Encyclopaedia on how cultural concepts of time explain different dress practices and beliefs about clothing around the world.

How did you come to study dress history at the Courtauld?

When I was 20 I worked for the State Theatre in Pretoria and Johannesburg designing costumes and did some teaching of theatre design at the University of Pretoria. I happened to come across a Diploma course on ‘costume’ history that had just started at the Courtauld Institute (in the 1960s). The Institute only took 4 students a year and I was lucky to get a place. I applied for the course and Stella Newton accepted me. The reason? She told me that my ‘African’ background was interesting and exotic!

Tell us about the time you spent at the Courtauld

As a student of ‘costume’ I felt totally at home. It was as if an entirely new world had opened up to me. Before the course started I spent time working with Karen Finch in her conservation studio and we have stayed in touch over the years. Later Karen and Stella undertook some joint CI teaching. As there were so few students we had privileged access to collections and Stella was a marvellous and inspiring teacher. I guess as students we had a bond between us that made it all seem so special. A field trip to Denmark and Sweden was one of a number of treats. Stella was intrigued by Scandinavian ‘peasant’ dress at the time.

We studied at Portman House and could attend art history lectures as well as our own. We were separate from the Art History students and had access to Stella’s rooms in the back garden of Portman Place. We started with lectures on the Greeks (but our first trip was to the National Gallery to look at early Renaissance art). The course progressed up to the 19th century but stopped there as Stella seemed less keen on contemporary dress. It was a packed program. For my Courtauld MA we did a special subject on the 18th century and I did my thesis on Burgundian dress.

What made you want to devote your career to dress history?

As a small child I was fascinated with paper dolls and dressing up. I was always interested in ‘art’ perhaps as my mother was an artist and stained glass designer. I worked as I have said as a costume designer for opera at the State Theatre both in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Initially I wanted to research African dress. But this was impractical at the time and I had no difficulty finding other topics of interest. I continue to be passionately interested in the subject. At the heart of this is my interest in people, now and in the past. Dress of all kinds provides an extraordinary useful method to explore the nature of any culture and to examine both the lives of men and women and their relationships. Dress allows us to interpret their history in a unique way and even to tap into their emotions. Because I had the good fortune to be part of the early beginnings of the discipline, I never lost my enthusiasm. Sometimes I knew I was the ‘first’ to look at certain archival material, literature and imagery from this new perspective. How much more motivation can you get?

How has dress history changed since you finished your PhD?

Yes, dress studies has changed immensely certainly in Europe and the UK. It has moved from somewhat limited interests in chronology and archival documentation to tackle broader issues. I began teaching the subject in Australia in the early 1980s (apart from teaching for a year at the Courtauld) and taught the first courses in Australia on dress/fashion and it was pioneering work! For a start there was little published that students could read. The dress including fashion was regarded by the hierarchy as a novelty but essentially bizarre and linked to sewing! That’s Australia for you. Since the 1990s cultural studies and theory have changed the face of both fashion and dress studies here are elsewhere. Where previously dress was sometimes disparaged, written about defensively and considered frivolous, it has certainly not been the case in the last decade or so. And in academic circles fashion studies are flourishing. There is such a range of high quality published material available which is wonderful. Cultural studies, media studies, history, material culture, women’s studies, ethnography and critical theory has challenged our approach and lifted the bar. Some exceedingly insightful work is being done.

For me there is perhaps too much emphasis on fashion studies today and some theoretical work has moved too far from material objects for me. But fashion is in vogue!! The subject also has professional cachet partly in association with the teaching of fashion design and marketing. It brings in funding and creates momentum in any research cohort. The media loves fashion and exhibitions of fashion are huge drawcards here as in Europe. There are also convenient links to contemporary interests in architecture and design.

How would you like to see the discipline develop in the future?

I feel that the gap in status between dress and fashion studies is not necessarily productive. I understand that interdisciplinary studies are difficult for researchers but I believe dress and fashion studies need to engage more with each other. I can’t speak for the situation in Europe and the US but in Australia I would like to see both aspects of the study equally acknowledged. I feel that ethnography and anthropology and, of course, material culture have much to offer both subjects and more synergy between these facets of academia would open up the area. In Australia, museums are underfunded and many collections languish. They are unable to undertake serious work with their holdings, which inevitably drive ideas. One only has to look at the V&A to see how this can happen. It is important to stand back from the glitzy aspects of fashion and look for other narratives that clothes can offer.

What is the current state of dress history in Australia?

Today in Australia dress history has taken a back seat to contemporary fashion studies which are thought to be more ‘fashionable’ in their links to cultural studies. But I see a new book out from Bloomsbury Dress History New Directions in Theory and Practice which is encouraging, and the public is still drawn to exhibitions of dress as well as fashion. Interestingly I think New Zealand might have more people concerned with dress and objects than here. Unfortunately Australia is made up of state communities, who don’t on the whole collaborate, and the same applies trying to work across disciplines. It is a vast country but with the internet those with an interest in dress should be able to get together more effectively, even if it’s only virtually. It may be the case that there will be a revival in dress studies. I hope so. We also need far more critical attention given to exhibitions of dress/fashion rather than tributes to designers or crowd pleasers. More publishing outlets would be wonderful but currently the prohibitive cost of reproducing images does not make things easy.

If one could get funding for a Centre of Excellence in Dress/fashion things could change – we can’t for instance run day conferences/seminars between the states. It is too costly. And in this part of the world we should be able to approach dress from outside restrictive Western paradigms, and thus undertake more revisionist thinking. It would be an intellectual shot in the arm. I would also like to see non-Western attire and its relationship to European clothing given more prominence.