‘Dress Up’ at the Ashmolean

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to be a speaker at ‘Dress Up’ at the Ashmolean Museum.  Part of their LiveFriday series and held in conjunction with Oxford Fashion Week, the event saw the museum come alive for an evening with catwalk shows, stalls and talks all about the concept of dressing up.  My talk was called ‘Democracy and Dancing: Dressing-up in the twentieth century’ and I explored the inextricable links between music, dancing and fashion between the 1920s and the present day, with a particular focus on working-class youth.  It was a bit of a whirlwind, covering Blackpool’s ballrooms to Cliff Richard to two-tone and ska, and I certainly raised more questions than answers, but it is an interesting area of research that I’d certainly like to develop further, perhaps as a future teaching module.

To complement my talk, I had an ‘information station’ entitled ‘Advice and Aspiration: dressing up with women’s magazines’, on which I put out  women’s magazines from the 1930s to the 1970s to browse through.  As well as trying to answer any specific questions that people had, including advising on possible avenues for donating an old patchwork quilt and explaining why there are so many similar ‘copy-cat’ titles in the periodicals market, this also provided an opportunity to chat more generally about women’s magazines.  These conversations turned out to be some of the most rewarding and illuminating of my career to date!  Whilst I generally find that people are intrigued when I explain that I research women’s magazines in the mid to late twentieth century, it seems that actually having such publications physically present helped to prompt engagement and pushed the discussion beyond the ‘Oo that’s interesting.  Is it really a job?’ level.  Although the range of titles displayed was not comprehensive, I did try to show a variety, from mass market weeklies such as Woman to high-end, high fashion glossies such as Harper’s Bazaar.  Out of them all, the real star of the show turned out to be Woman’s Weekly, also known as ‘the little pink and blue one’ or ‘best for knitting’.  More visitors to the stall picked up this one and talked about their memories of it than probably all of the other magazines put together.  ‘I remember this one!’, they’d enthuse, before sharing stories about their gran or their mum or a friend at college who read it (cont’d)

The magazines on display at my 'information station'Discussing magazines - image not at all posed!

Their comments confirmed widespread scholarly perceptions of Woman’s Weekly: that the patterns were one of its main attractions and that it was/is read mainly by older women.  At the same time, the reactions – and the sheer number them – took me by surprise.  Woman’s Weekly is typical of the magazines that it is too easy for us as researchers to dismiss, malign or generally just neglect.  The legacy of second wave feminism’s disdain for ‘feminine’ popular culture dies hard and Woman’s Weekly and its ilk can seem just a tad too dull, too mainstream, too ordinary, to warrant serious analysis.  Yet the conversations I had at ‘Dress Up’ reminded me how important it is to look at such sources, not in spite of but because of their quotidian qualities.  Millions of women read Woman’s Weekly and continue to do so, its popularity attested to when it celebrated its centenary in late 2011.  Publishers have recognised readers’ loyalty to such titles.  As scholars, we need to do likewise and give more consideration to what it was about these magazines that kept women buying them week after week, month after month, year after year.  The memories I heard made it clear that they occupied an important, if ephemeral, place in women’s lives, but as yet they do not hold a correspondingly significant position in the literature.

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