Establishing Dress History, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-7190-6638-7, pp330.
This sister book to The Study of Dress History deals with the history of writing and theorising dress studies and then charts the history of the collection of ethnographic and regional European dress, with focus on collectors; other chapters cover the early history of dress collecting in museums of decorative art from the mid 19th century, based on museum archive research.
Establishing Dress History is one product of my driving concern to research the gendered and political history of the collection and cultural acceptance of fashionable Euro-American dress in museums of decorative art from the mid 19th century. It is also a product of my aim to open up knowledge of the function, collection and display of European regional/peasant dress from the mid 19th century and to probe its use within national identity design across Europe from the mid 19th century and to promote current museology debate about the content, context and interpretation of ‘fashion’ exhibitions in UK museums today.
One central chapter deals for the first time with the specific history, personalities and debates behind the development of the V&A’s dress collection, including the role of male genre painters and the exclusion of women curators until the 1950s. Later chapters, based on search visits and contacts dating from the 1960s, examine issues of political correctness and the collection and display of fashionable and ethnographic dress during and after State Socialism in Eastern and central Europe. Final chapters offer analysis of the explosion of fashion exhibitions from the 1990s in fine and decorative art museums internationally - in the context of commercially - driven museum funding traumas and the consequent search, via popular ‘designer block-buster’ exhibitions for a new younger audience.
The ideas developed in The Establishing Dress History (2005) and in The Study of Dress History (2002) were put into practice in the 2005 exhibition and book Fashion and Fancy Dress, The Messel Dress Collection, 1865-2005. This exhibition was typical of my approach and dewas the result of a longstanding interest in this collection dating back to 1978. I was then Curator of Costume at Brighton Museum. The Countess of Rosse, still living at her family house, Nymans, in West Sussex, deposited the first of many loans of clothing from her family dress collection. Recognising their couture quality and more specifically the special ‘English-Messel’ character of these garments, I put eight on display immediately and kept a careful watch on developments ever since. By 2002 the loan collection reached 500 items from six generations of women from the same family. I helped raise funding from the Esmé Fairnbairn Foundation and together with Amy de la Haye and Eleanor Thompson, (both ex-students of mine from the University of Brighton) we developed the exhibition and book.
Christine Stevens, Keeper of Collections at the Beamish Museum reviewing Establishing Dress History (2005) summed up my campaigning methodology approaches more effectively than I can myself:
Despite its impressive breadth and depth, it is a very personal account in many ways of the history of the study of dress, both ethnographic and British, the establishment of the important public collections and their curation, predominately by women. It is almost impossible to imagine that this account could have been written by any other dress historian. Lou Taylor’s long career, including curatorship, academic teaching and research, ….gives her an unique insight into the areas covered by this volume… Lou Taylor explored the way in which curatorial approaches are beginning to fuse with new critical theory within dress history, looking at the value which comea out of this process as well as the problems. She reviews arguments, theories and challenges succinctly. (p14-149)
Alyea, in the American journal, Dress, 1/32 2005 noted: [Taylor] highlights just this: how do the conscious and unconscious aims of the curator or institution affect what is collected, what is excluded, and how a collection is maintained, studies and exhibited? The call to self- awareness is the fundamental lesson for future generations of curators.
Shinn in Museum Practice (Spring 2005, p60) noted that Taylor charts the rags-to-riches rise of dress collections, as they bring glitz, glamour and controversy tosome dowdy collections… [describing the V&A’s} … costume collection as the museum’s most popular asset.
Juliet Ash (Design History, 2005, 220-222) writes that Lou Taylor’s books provide scholarly reminders that the history of dress has a long history and that object-based research and museology, interwoven with relevant theoretical explorations, are vital to design historical understanding of dress… Taylor provides a thematic examination of global cross-cultural dress collecting and museological practices situated within both historically-contextualised debates and twenty-first century discourses… This ambitious study is substantiated by extensively research, providing detailed and extremely useful primary and secondary sources and a number of original and beautifully reproduces illustrations.