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Design History Society

On the Margins: Theorizing the History and Significance of Making and Designing Clothes at Home Author(s): Cheryl Buckley Source: Journal of Design History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1998), pp. 157-171 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Design History Society Stable URL: Accessed: 22/10/2010 09:31
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Cheryl Buckley

On and


Margins: Clothes

Theorizing of at Making Home

the and




This article examines some of the theoreticalquestions posedfor design historians studying the ways in which working-class women made and designed clothes at home. In particular the article deals with issues relating to feminist histories of design which seek to locate women within a historical narrative as subjects, but which also try to acknowledgethe 'situated' and 'specific' nature of their subjectivity. At the same time the article foregrounds the writer's role in constructing historical accounts which connect with herown identity and experienceby drawing on oral sources, individual life histories,memoryand Dress-makingat homeprovidesan excellentfocusfor such a theoreticalexplorationbecauseit connects the family photographs. personaland the political. It is an arena in which mothers,daughtersand sisters learnand acquiretheirfeminine identities,and yet it is also a skill which enabledwomen to redefinetheir sense of self through design. Keywords: fashion-feminism-home dress-making-homework-women designers-women's history

Making and designing clothes at home is a form of design practice common to many women.' Throughout the twentieth century women have made clothes by hand, aided latterly by a sewing machine finding space on the kitchen table, and squeezing sewing between other domestic responsibilities. The process of making and designing, the clothes themselves, and the ways in which they were worn, reveal aspects of women's identities. This paper will examine some of the methodological and theoretical questions which arise for design historians studying the ways in which working-class women made clothes for themselves, their families and the local community in Britain between 19L0 and 1960. The paper focuses on the life and design activities of Mary Skelton (nee Hunt) who lived in South Durham between 1897 and 1982, and Betty Foster (nee Halliday, born 1929) who has lived for most of her life in West Yorkshire. Both women worked from home making and designing clothes: Betty Foster made clothes for herself and her family throughout her life, whereas Mary Skelton, who was trained by tailors and worked
Journalof Design History Vol. ii No.

in her parents' small clothing workshop before marriage, made clothes for her family, but also for sale in her local village. I came upon Mary Skelton's particular story during oral history research on cultural identities in the North East of England undertaken as part of a larger project in the Department of Historical and Critical Studies at the University of Northumbria.2 Betty Foster, a home dress-maker from the mid-L940s, is my mother's sister, and I was prompted to elicit her story as I became involved in research connected closely with my own personal history.3 A number of familiar questions about women's relationship to design and to history resurface in this research, alongside some new ones. Most important is how can one write about the place and significance of this type of design within women's lives without merely replicating value systems that contribute to its marginalization?4 In this discussion of design, I am interested in the way that it functions as a process of material and visual representation and as an 'aide-memoire'.5 Linked to this is the question of my own motivations and role as a historian. In this, I am writing

(O 1998 The Design History Society

these might be places which have less power or prestige, such as the home, but which are none the less crucial in shaping women's experiences as designers, consumers and historians. Finally all these writers aim to conceptualize female subjectivity and the place of the female subject in historical writing within a contemporary theoretical context which is indifferent if not hostile to the, notion of the subject. How to frame the subject and subjectivity, and how to respond theoretically to the attack on these from postmodern theorists, are questions which underlie this study.8 Although much can be said on the latter, it is surely significant that 'exactly at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic.'9 For this study, which deals with women who have been largely invisible in history, formulating some sort of theoretical position in relation to the subject is particularly important. For Sally Alexander: 'SubWomen's Histories: Identity, Place, Subjectivity jectivity, and with it sexual identity, is constructed Arguably an account that addresses such ques- through a process of differentiation, division and tions requires a new way of speaking and a new splitting, and is best understood as a process position from which to speak. As bell hooks wrote which is in the making, is never finished or in Yearning. Race, Genderand Cultural Politics, it is complete.'10 Rosi Braidotti uses the terms 'figurabetter to speak from the margins through choice tion' or 'nomadic' to suggest the 'situated' nature of subjectivity: 'The subject is not an abstract rather than to find oneself there by default: entity, but rather a material embodied one . . . I am located in the margin. I make a definite distinc- the embodied subject is neither an essence nor a tion between that marginality which is imposed by biological destiny, but rather one's primary locaoppressive structures and that marginality one tion in the world, one's situation in reality [my chooses as site of resistance-as location of radical emphasisl"' openness and possibility . . . We are transformed,inThis idea of being 'situated' or 'located' is a ,,. . . 1 . dividually, collectively, as we make radical creative ~~~theme that enables me to think about a different ... space which affirms and sustains our subjectivity, which gives us a new location from which to articu- type of historical account which tries to acknowledge that 'I' as a subject speak through the late our sense of the world.6 account that I try to delineate. Virginia Woolf's Feminist writers such as bell hooks, Sally Alex- suggestion that 'we think back through our ander, Carolyn Steedman, Rosi Braidotti, Doreen mothers if we are women' is significant for this Massey, Elizabeth Roberts and Meaghan Morris study which links Mary Skelton, born at the end of have consistently tried to think differently about the last century, to Betty Foster and my mother how women's histories can be written, and there who were born between the wars, to myself, a are common threads in their work.7 In particular post-war baby.12 there is the idea of speaking differently in order to The situated nature of identity is taken up by articulate women's voices. Coupled with this is an Carolyn Steedman in her essay 'Landscape for a interest in the places from which women speakGood Woman' as she describes her childhood in
158 Cheryl Buckley

about an activity which has special meaning for me as daughter and niece in a large family of women, several of whom made clothes at home. In this paper I will try to weave together the empirical evidence of Mary Skelton's life story with that of my family whilst at the same time trying to ask a number of questions about theoretical strategies. My aim then is twofold: firstly to write about the way that a number of working-class women made and 'designed' clothes at home (although as we will see there were significant differences in 'the home' as a site of production); and secondly to consider how this can be done without marginalizing the material. What are the theoretical implications for design history and for the sort of history that I am interested in, of this type of account which deals with a topic still firmly on the margins? How did home dress-making connect with women's lived experience and what was its significance in their lives?

the 1950s and the ways in which she interprets and reinterprets this within a bigger historical framework as she gets older."3 Working as an academic historian, she begins to connect the
personal landscape of her childhood to the

between masculine and feminine, and in which, on

the term local is used in derogatory referenceto feminist struggles and in relation to feminist concerns ... [the] bundle of terms local/place/locality is bound in to sets of dualisms, in which a key term is the dualism these readings, the local/place/feminine side of the dichotomy is deprioritizedand denigrated.1

In one sense or another most places have been 'meeting places'; even their 'original inhabitants' usually The politics of location means that the thinking, the came from somewhere else. This does not mean that theoretical process, is not abstract,universalized, ob- the past is irrelevantto the identity of place. It simply jective, and detached, but rather that it is situated in means that there is no internally produced, essential the contingency of one's experience, and as such it is past. The identity of place is always and continuously a necessarily partial exercise. In other words, one s being produced. Instead of looking back with nostalintellectual vision is not a disembodied mental activ- gia to some identity of place which it is assumed ity; rather, it is closely connected to one's place of already exists, the past has to be constructed.20 enunciation, that is, where one is actually speaking from. 15 The 'home' in which these clothes were made and designed was subject to change, and its meaning was shaped and renegotiated over time, rather than remaining an idealized 'haven' in which essentialist notions of feminine identity were fixed.2 The meaning of 'home' then could be fluid rather than static. For many women, it was a flexible space by necessity in which a kitchen or front room could double as a sewing space. Betty Foster, for example, used her sewing machine on a stool in the front room of her two-up, two-down terraced house after she was married. Various I have been working to change the way I speak and activities operated out of her home including a write, to incorporatein the manner of telling a senseof fish-hawking business which she ran with her place[my emphasis], of not just who I am in the pres- husband and his parents. This involved cleaning ent, but where I am coming from, the multiplevoices and gutting fish and dealing with invoices, orders withinme [my emphasis].8 and receipts." She also made and designed most A sense of place, of who 'I' am, and of how I of her own clothes as well as her family's (my interpret and represent the lives of others shapes sister's and mine included) at home; and she took this study of dress-making, a significant cultural on domestic and parenting responsibilities as activity for countless women. Although women well. Similarly the dress-making workshop run from across class boundaries made and designed from home by Mary Skelton's parents was a things throughout their lives, this particular activ- small-scale industrial enterprise, strictly organized with a labour hierarchy and labour divisions. ity remains on the margins. This is compounded by the fact that the 'things' are clothes and they From the same 'home', Mary's mother later ran a were made locally, mostly at home. In Space, Place bakery as well as the dress-making workshop due and Gender,Doreen Massey suggests: to changing family circumstances.23 Clearly for This history or account of working-class women who made clothes at home is shaped by the politics of my own 'location', my mother's and her family's.16 Partly in response to this sense of personal involvement, but also because of the widely held perception that there is a crisis within feminism, the possibility of trying to speak more directly in a manner which connects with women outside of academic discourse is very appealing."7 As bell hooks said:
at and the of Theorizing Historyand Significance Making DesigningClothes Home 159

broader historical picture: 'Worked upon and reinterpreted, the landscape becomes an historical landscape, but only through continual and active reworking.'14 By this process, Steedman begins to locate herself within a historical narrative. Following a similar theme, Rosi Braidotti emphasizes 'the lived experience of real-life women'. Borrowing from Adrienne Rich, she calls this 'the politics of location':

In response to those who have under-valued and ignored the role of 'place' and 'locality' in the construction of identity and subjectivity on the grounds that these categories are static and essentialist, Massey suggests:

both women 'home' was a more fragmented place than the frozen space of patriarchal mythology. Utilizing the theories of Massey and Braidotti, 'home' dress-making provides an excellent focus for exploring aspects of the locatedness of women's lives and the specificity of their experiences. Both writers provide a justification for looking at the particular, rather than the general, but within a theoretical framework which foregrounds feminist concerns, as Braidotti argues: the defense of 'situated knowledges' clashes with the abstractgeneralitiesof the classical patriarchalsubject. What is at stake is not the specific as opposed to the universal, but rather two radically different ways of conceiving the possibility of legitimating theoretical remarks.For feminist theory the only consistent way of making general theoretical points is to be aware that one is actually located somewhere specific.24 The 'specificity', which emerges from such situated' or local knowledges, enables one to 'identify the gaps, the silences in histories-not only in the hope of restoring a fuller past, but to write a history which might begin from somewhere else.'25 Arguably home dress-making, as one of these silences, could provide a key for those attempting to speak from somewhere else and as bell hooks suggests, to speak in a different manner.26 To write a fuller account of home dress-making requires a change in the nature and manner of the debate regarding what constitutes design, who is the designer, and how we understand the meaning and significance of design. As I will show, the activities of the home dress-maker and the products which resulted do not correspond neatly to 'typical' design methods or archetypal objects. Also the designer's role is much more negotiated and divergent than the usual 'model', and the value and significance of the designs cannot be assessed using criteria which stress innovation, commercial success or viability, and uniqueness. Instead one could argue that dress and dress-making are cultural sites where identity, place and memory figure prominently. As designed objects and as a design method, they are 'unspeakably meaningful', yet undervalued by historians.27 In talking to people about their lives, the significance of specific items of dress is readily apparent. Older women recall160

ing their lives in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, although imprecise about some events, could readily describe those for which clothes held special significance such as what they wore for particular dances, which colour shades their going-away outfits were in, and how their husbands dressed when they first went out together. My mother still talks lovingly of the shop-bought red coat which was my father's first gift to her in early courtship. Memory is clearly one way of trying to glimpse individual subjectivity alongin cull hi ctory memory, way descbe, sctiviy "o affctv orgrehea As wih a

side more orthodox methods: 'Life histories, as they tell us something of what has been forgotten

poem, they may suggest the metonymic signs of femininity particularto a generation.'28

Taking a more subjective view which draws

on feelings and memories provides a way of thinking differently about the individual meaning of clothes and offers a justification for revaluing this particular design activity which is cross-generational connecting mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters. As Juliet Ash has argued: 'clothes relate to our feelings more than perhaps any other designed artefacts, and thus require "subjective" as well as "objective" analysis.'29. These generational ties which can be mapped out in the history of home dress-making give an insight into the broader history of women's lives as well as the peculiarities of individual ones. Home dress-making can provide a context for exploring family relationships; after all it is an activity in which women learn and teach each other skills which form their feminine identities. Memories, and written and oral accounts of individual life histories are methods which enable the particular meaning of dress-making to be interpreted. Although few actual garments remain, family photographs can provide a useful prompt for remembering and reconsidering the significance of individual designs and the circumstances of their production and consumption.30 As Ash says: It is a prompting to our conscious lives of the inexplicable mysteries which exist both in present relations with living people and as reminders of people who
Cheryl Buckley

'Merry Lodge' in Newmarket, and my mother worked for the father of England cricketer, Norman Yardley, in the nearby mining village of Royston in Yorkshire.34 Neither was taught to Mary Skelton andBettyFosterprovide aninter- cook, clean or sew by their mother, although esting comparison in terms of their approach to both taught their own daughters.35 dress-making over a period spanning 1915 to Betty learned to use a sewing machine when 1965. Their lives and dress-making skills and she was in domestic service as a parlour maid. designs can be glimpsed from diaries, oral The machine was normally reserved for use by the accounts and photographs. I first talked to Gwe- ladies' maid, but Betty was allowed to use it to nyth Batey, Mary Skelton's youngest daughter, in make up her first dress.36 This was machine- and 1992-3 after she had written me a ten-page letter. hand-sewn, cut with a pattern from a piece of When we met, she showed me family photo- checked material sent by Granny Davenport (her graphs and a hand-written notebook in which grandmother on her father's side). After she her moter had kept recollections of her life returned from Newmarket in 1949-50 to work which Gwenyth subsequently transcribed for with my mother at Blakey's wallpaper shop in me. This narrative, supplemented by Gwenyth's nearby South Elmsall at her father's instigation, memory, forms the basis of this part of the paper, Betty taught my mother to sew and knit.37 but the nature of the story and the evidence on Once married (Betty in 1954 and June in 1955), which it is based connect with the theoretical they divided the knitting and the sewing between questions that I posed earlier.32 Gwenyth is one them-generally Betty sewed children's clothes year older than my mother, and talking to her and June did the knitting, although Betty who brought into sharp relief the theoretical problems could cut her own patterns, would also cut out posed in writing histories which aim to take fabric for June to make up. Betty learned to cut account of subjectivity, feeling and memory. patterns through practice. She would take clothes Although I interviewed my aunt, Betty Foster, apart to cut patterns from them, and she would and my mother, June Buckley, formally for this borrow friends' clothes and cut patterns from research, my knowledge and understanding of them turned inside out. She was particularly the role of dress-making in their lives is cumula- fond of pleats, and she inserted pleats of all tive, and it is difficult to separate the formal and types into her designs [5].38 Betty clearly designed informal parts of that knowledge. Dress-making clothes as well as made clothes. She not only has been an important activity throughout my designed the overall form (albeit often adapted family life, and I have sharp memories of par- from one seen in the High Street); she carefully ticular garments-their production and their con- chose fabrics and colours, as well as selecting and sumption .33 This personal involvement gives me a combining specific design features for sleeves, keen sense of responsibility about interpreting my necklines waistlines, belts, yokes and pleats.39 aunt aunt andnd mmother's particular dress-making nekiewitieblsyosanpet. my moter'spartiulardres-mak My mother, in contrast, had a more limited role. activities and in locating them as 'subjects' She selected and bought fabrics and colours, but history, albeit as 'nomadic', differentiated and she largely made up the clothes that Betty had incomplete ones. designed and cut out, although there was always discussion between the two sisters as to the overall shape and design of each particular item. in Women's Lives However, in knitting, June took on a more creative My aunt, Betty Foster, was born in 1929, one of role by adapting and developing her own patten. Betty and her sister June Buckley (my terns, and by combining stitches to her own mother), went into domestic service after leaving designs. Between them, they supplemented their school where they learned numerous 'traditional' husbands' incomes-June married a miner and female skills. Betty worked for the racehorse Betty married a market stallholder who sold tripe owner and distiller, Johnny Walker, at his house and twin sets!40For their respective weddings, the
Clothes Home at and the Theorizing HistoryandSignificance Making Designing of

are absent, relations with whom are only dimly remembered despite the objective reality of the item of clothing, the photograph."

bridal gowns and chief bridesmaids' gowns were bought, but Betty made the dresses for the younger bridesmaids.4" Also as was common practice, Betty made covers, pillow slips and sheets for the pram from my mother's wedding dress prior to my birth.42 After marriage, Betty had been given a Singer hand sewing machine by her husband's aunt which she used throughout the next decade making clothes for her own daughter, Alyson (born 1962) me and Mmchelle (born :962) and for me and my sister, Michelle~' (born 1956 and 1959). Both my younger sister and I were dressed through childhood in mainly

learned tailoring skills, eventually running a small workshop from home with his wife, Elizabeth, making pinafores (he was known as the 'pinny man'), black stockings, pit socks, tablecloths and bloomers. As well as the clothing workshop, they also ran a bakery from adjacent buildings. By the age of 12, Mary Hunt was working in the family business, although still attending school:

and B 10 Mother got me my own button-holer my

own knitter, 'finishing off' things were put on a big as well as a scaled down sewing achine. The chair, and my heart would sink! First:I had to do all those dratted buttons and holes. A best pinafore took 2 on the yoke, i at the waist. For bloomers i at each knee, 2 on the swiss band, and 2 more at the back flap. I hated bloomers.47

home-made clothes. It is importantto emphasize

that this was not always down to cost as neither family was particularly poor.43 Rather it was due to the apparent shoddiness of much shop-bought clothing which was turned inside out before The system of production was small-scale and buying to check that the seams were well sewn.44 flexible.48 Only Mary's mother, father and the top hand made complete items, and only her My mother taught her daughters to sew and knit, and as a teenager I made all manner of mother cut fabric knowing exactly how much clothes to be 'in fashion', and there are still she could get out of yardage and how much profit be made. Mary's father went out delivering instances when I'm prepared to get my sewingwould machine out (bought for my 21st birthday by my clothes and collecting new orders, and as a small parents).45 My mother dressed my sister and child Mary had accompanied him on these trips around the South West Durham coalfield, often myself very smartly mainly in home-made clothes, but on passing my eleven-plus examina- being away for a week at a time. Mary recalls: tion which would take me to grammar school and "Looking back I see I had a privileged lifestyle, beyond, my reward was not a satchel and books though I had thought it mostly hard work. I never like my more serious-minded peers, but a brown felt better than others at school, though I was trouser suit from C&A worn with an orange much better dressed . . . In 1912, at the age of 15, Mary's life changed blouse.46 Skelton (1897-1982) made clothes drastically. Following a business friend's defaultMary throughout her life: before marriage as paid ing on a loan for which Mary's father had acted work both outside the home and inside the as guarantor, the businesses had to be sold. home in her parents' clothing workshop, and George Hunt took a ?5 single outward ticket to then after marriage from her own home for her Canada to make his fortune. His wife, two husband, her three children, Ronald, Rose and daughters and a son had to look after themselves, Gwenyth, and for local people. Mary Skelton's although he sent a small amount of money each experiences are particularly interesting in the con- month to help out. With some determination and text of this discussion because she had formal foresight, Elizabeth Hunt persuaded the tailors training as a tailoress both in her parents' business Coates and Sedgewick on Stockton High Street to take on Mary to gain her certificate of apprenticeand with tailors in Stockton and Middlesborough. Her life was characterized by hard work due ship without the normal?25 premium. According mainly to changing family circumstances and to Mary: because her husband was poorly paid. Her I felt exploited as I knew all of the trade and went father, George Hunt, was an itinerant farm straight onto bonus sewing but without the money. labourer from Cheshire who moved to Stockton My day began at 8.30 a.m. A half hour midday for to work in the engineering industry. Instead he our sandwiches from home, and at 5 p.m. the

Cheryl Buckley

employers gave us cups of tea and a jam and bread re-turned, and furbished Up.'53 She used an old sandwich. We worked until 8.30 at night. By year two Jones sewing machine and made her patterns I got Is. 6d. weekly. The third, up to a florin weekly. using the Haslam system of home-dressmaking At the end of my time and the precious certificateI which was a large kidney-shaped board which worked for them just long enough to become top 54 , . , . . hand at bodices, then to Hill Carters.for more money. Shelwas alsoed at sketchinesignstfrom . ............She also adept at sketching designs from was ~50 ^1. All of half a crown a week, and piece work. shops and then adapting elements from them to Like many working-class women whom I've create an entirely new design for which she would interviewed, Mary was prepared to move from produce a pattern. She never bought a paper job to job for better wages irrespective of the pattern, although she copied designs of clothes from Pontings of London's catalogues to which criticism which she attracted: her mother subscribed. This ability to cut patterns Because money was tight at home, I did the very apparently just by 'the eye' was the result of years worst thing in the eyes of the Good Templarsand the of first-hand knowledge of garment construction Salvation Army where I was chorister:I started work for the Jews in Middlesborough!The flat rate of some- dan dresi Gwent a ery mda efr hrsel one of my calibre was then 6s. od. weekly, but in no dance dress which Mary made for herself in time at all I got to 'second' hand, and then 'top' hand Windsor blue' in the mid-193os. It had a sweetagain, and making Los. od. plus bonus on top. The heart neckline with tiny covered buttons all way Jews were, in fact, the best employers I had. They pro- down the back and lace sleeves tightly fitted at the vided us with tea for morning break, 45 minutes to wrist with more covered loops and buttons. It was have lunch. . . and more tea, and our working week mid-calf cut in the 'Princess' style with lace panels finished at 9 p.m. on Fridaynights.51 inserted to give the hem a swing. Mary made a With decent employment outside the home similar dress for her friend, but in red, which they wore for the weekly dance. She also secured, Mary started making ladies' blouses, as apparently made velvet floppy tam o'hanters with self' bows to bwo she wrote, 'at weekends, at night, between church clue which olnters l l ' ' l ' ~~~~coloured bows to be worn on the side which walks and meals'. Mary and her mother park made her look like Maureen O'Hara. Gwenyth aimed to undercut shop-made blouses: described how 'mam had bright blue eyes and Slowly I gained customers by word of mouth, touting almost titian red hair, wavy and in a loose bun at my goods around the back doors of the better off, or her nape. She was very thin then and quite making up my own penciloutlineddesigns[my emphas- vivacious.'55 is] with something just that bit different from the shops. Thus, between Mother and me we went in for custom made goods instead. I soon developed it into Re-thinking the Evidence, Re-telling the Story nightwear, chemises and other clothes . . . Days I Except for the notebook and her daughter's acted as top hand at the Jewish workshop, four nights memories, there is little left to show for Mary a week I worked on orders and we managed to live as 'p Skelton's prolific activities as a designer, craftsdecently as before, or nearly.52 woman and maker of clothes. There are a few Mary Skelton married in 1915, aged i8. Her family photographs which show Mary's designs: husband worked for the railway company in Mary and her mother, Elizabeth in the backyard South West Durham and the family lived in a of Mary's house in Hunwick Station [X]; Mary's railwayman's house at Hunwick Station just out- eldest son Ron with another unknown child [2]; side Bishop Auckland. When Mary married she Mary's eldest daughter Rose as a baby; Rose and gave up paid outside work as was typical, but Gwenyth sitting on a fence at Hunwick Station in because of the low wages earned by railway 1937 [i]; and finally a picture of Mary with Rose workers, she continued to work from home and Gwenyth in Blackpool in 1939 [4]. These making all her children's clothes and making photos are the only record of her designs. Lookclothes for local people. According to Gwenyth: ing at them they appear to be 'nothing special''anything she had was kept for years, renovated, just everyday clothes worn by working-class
the Theorizing Historyand Significance Making DesigningClothes Home and of at 163


I was ever so proud, and mother made the dress in white silk, onto a square yoke. She also bought me real white buckskin shoes with pearl buttons. And she
.-' S22t.

. ... ....

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trimmed a white leghorn bonnet lined beneath the brim with pleated chiffon, the top trimmed with fabric

.... ~i..........2. *... . ..-...

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r uy

Within my own family, there are more photographs, which flesh out the record of what was

made. There is a photograph of Betty Foster taken

when she was in domestic .. 2^:. t.: . .designed e service at Newmarket

from around 1947 wearing a dress which she

and made in a green fabric with white

spots, and pleats on a hip level yoke [i]. A photograph from 1949 shows Betty's husband Wallace before they were married wearing a Fair Isle pullover which she knitted for him [6], and a i MarySkeltonand her mother,Elizabeth n the backyardof photograph taken in the Isle of Man in 1955 shows Mary'shouse in Hunwick Station,South West Durham Betty with her mother-in-law wearing a grey, and lilac skirt and a pale pink blouse peope btwen te wrs-ad yt tey oin topurple peoplebetweethewrs-andyttheyointt which she made and There are
a significant part of this woman's life. Indeed the photographs and the narrative suggest the possibility of a different sort of history of fashion designed [7]. numerous photographs of my sister and me wearing clothes designed and cut by Betty and made up by my mother, June. There is one from 957-8 Cleethorpes in which I am wearing a hand-sewn

and clothing than that usually told. With interpretation, they can give us some idea of the hard

(the year before my sister was born) on holiday at sleeveless dress in deep lemon, orange, pink and green made up by my mother from pieces cut by Betty, and my mother is wearing a home sewn navy and white gathered skirt [8]. A slightly later photograph (1962) shows me and my sister (aged 6 and 3) with my mother and her friend, Joan and her children on a 'club trip' to the Yorkshire coast

work, the sense of value and pride, and the pleasure gained by women from designing, making, and wearing good clothes. In her notebook, Mary Skelton described the excitement Of being a bridesmaid for her mother's sister, and the clothes that she wore:

Mary'seldest son Ron with anotherunknown child


Cheryl Buckley

3 Rose and Gwenyth (on the left), sitting on a fence at Hunwick Station,C.1937-8

5 Betty Halliday at 'Merrydown',Newmarket, C 1947, wearing one of her own designs

or (Scarborough Bridlington)[9].57 My sister and I are wearing lemon and white crepe check homesewn dresses, again cut out by Betty. Another photograph (1964), from a holiday at Mablethorpe's Golden Sands Caravan Park when we stayed in Betty'scaravan,shows me and my sister wearing blue glazed cotton dresses which my mother made up from Betty's cut-out pieces.
. S. AD{*;<,.,




also wearing my mother's hand-knitted cardigans in pale blue [io]. Histories which deal with artefacts of this sort

and lives like these are fairlyuncommon.They fall

between the gaps of disciplines, or they are

women's history, local history, anonymous history. To compound this, these subjectsare difficult
to research because sources are limited. Although

latterly museum curators have begun to address 4 Mary Skeltonat Blackpoolon holiday with her daughters, the gaps in their collections, past conventions of Rose and Gwenyth (on the right),C.1939 museological practice reinforced a hierarchy
at Clothes Home and of the Theorizing Historyand Significance Making Designing 165

6 Wallace Foster, Betty's future husband, wearing a Fair Isle pullover knitted by Betty Halliday in 1949

7 Betty Foster on holiday in the Isle of Man photographed

within fashion by privileging

the designs of

named individuals, high-profile boutiques, and garmentswhich are culturallyor technicallyinnoIn vative."8 addition there are few testimonies of working-classwomen who designed and worked at home for the family.5'9 Clothes made by women for consumption in the home by their families or for consumption in their local communities had only limited value-both in terms of exchange value and aesthetic value. In relation to the latter they were rarely innovative, they were usually eclectic in design being copied from numerous sources, and they were not normally unique. Indeed Betty Foster and my mother worked collaboratively,thereby rendering attributiondifficult. Furthermorethey tended not to be made from sumptuous materials, and although they were often of excellent quality, they were recognizably hand-made. These designs did have special qualities which gave 'added value' for their wearer-they were exclusive in that the

with her mother-in-law, 1955, wearing a skirt and blouse which she designed and made

unique combinationof design elements, materials and colour was distinctive to that one particular garment-however, in a period in which shopbought clothes had a great deal of cachet, they were looked down upon as 'home-made'. In relation to exchange value-even when these types of clothes were made and sold as part of the local economym-theywere part of the unofficial economy and not easily quantifiable. Although feminists have problematized questions of history, value, power and identity in order to recover and explore aspects of women's social, cultural and political lives which remain unarticulated or have been understated, the women home dress-makers that form the focus of this study are barely remembered.Yet I would argue that such accounts can provide invaluable insights into aspects of Britishsocial, culturaland
Cheryl Buckley

some of the gaps which Sally Alexander pointed to. One of Alexander's goals in drawing attention


to these is to try to conceive of a history which

a ^itF! USA,.


might begin from somewhere else-somewhere less orthodox. As Braidotti and Massey have argued, that might mean starting with 'situated' or local knowledges such as those located in the home. From this discussion, it is clear that Mary Skelton's identity was enunciated within the context of dress-makingundertakenboth outside and inside the home.
Both collective and individual memories, espe-

cially those focused on the family, play a crucial part in elucidating the importanceof home dressmaking to Betty Foster and my mother. These memories are partly shared by me, although their
feelings for each other-shaped by the hardships

8 June Buckley and daughter Cheryl on holiday in Betty's caravanat Cleethorpesin 1957-8. Cheryl is wearing a dress

and designed cutby Bettyandmadeby hermother

creative lives, and, in particular,changing feminine identities. The clothes which these women designed and made can hint at forgotten, individual subjectivities which belong not just to a specific generation, but also to a particular "place'.' Mary Skelton's 'life history' as a home dress-makerprovides an opportunity to identify

of their childhood and adolescence-permeate their life histories. Today Betty Foster recalls her designs for home-made clothes with great clarity: she remembers the fabrics, the colours, and the design details (especially pleats). With my mother, she shares the memory of their lives through the clothes that they made. Together they recounted for me their connected histories through an account of their burgeoning dressmaking and knitting prowess which saw them through domestic service, shop and factory work, courtship and marriage, children and family, only slowing down in recent years.
coast, 9 The 'club' trip to the Yorkshire 1962. Fromleft to right:MichelleBuckley, June Buckley,CherylBuckley,Sharon Kemp,JoanKemp and Avril Kemp. Michelleand Cherylare wearing dresses designed and cut by Betty Fosterand made up by their mother

the at and Clothes Home Theorizing Historyand Significance Making Designing of


the specific places and locations in which they lived, ratherthan just the chronological,temporal sequence of their lives. Dress-making defined various stages in Mary Skelton's, Betty Foster's and my mother's lives and the meaning of this is inextricably tied to their 'personal landscapes', just as it also connects to mine. It is this interconnectednesswhich places a responsibilityon us to constructhistoricalaccounts which address the gaps, the silences and the margins of our disciplines. My motivation in working in this way as a

historian is to try to highlight the difficulties of producing accounts which are so close to home, but also to foreground the advantages of 'writing and speaking differently' about women's history. As Jane Flax put it: 'What memories or history will our daughters have if we do not find ways to speak of and practice them?'62
io Michelle Buckley and Cheryl Buckley at Golden Sands CaravanPark, Mablethorpe,1964, wearing dresses designed and cut by Betty Foster and made up by their mother, and cardigansknittedby their mother

University Northumbria of
1 BarbaraBurman at Winchester School of Art has

Although there is inevitably a danger that this recourseto memory leads to nostalgia, I think that thereis a persuasive case for pursuing and exploring 'those inter-generationallineages of mostly oral and feminine identification and exchange' through the history of something so ordinary as home dress-making. In conclusion, studying marginalized creative activities such as home dress-making, throws a number of theoreticalthemes into sharp relief for those interested in feminist design histories. In particularit highlights the fact that the history of making clothes at home is not just about the technologies of production and the processes of consumption, rather it is about design as a mechanismfor the materialand visual representation of feminine identities. It raises certain questions about the differenttools that feminists might use to write about those identities and the different places that they might speak from as historians in order to locate re-negotiated female subjectivitieswithin historical narratives.For the women that I have spoken to for this study, making clothes marked out different stages of their lives: connecting feelings and memories with family and friends. It related intimately to

been working on this subject for some time, she is currentlycompiling an anthology on the subject. 2 See T. E. Faulkner (ed.), Northumbrian Panorama: History and Culture in the North East of England, SpreddonPress, 1996.My essay is entitled 'Modernity, femininity, and regional identity: women and fashion in the North East of England, 1919-1940', pp. 241-72, and it is more broadly framed than this one, dealing with issues of modernity, shopping, consumption, new clothing factories and women workers,alongside case studies of the role of fashion in a numberof specific women's lives. In this paper, my aim is not to outline the various ways in which women negotiated modernity through fashion;it is ratherto pose a numberof questionsaboutwomen's history,subjectivityand the meaning of making and designing clothes for particularwomen. 3 My mother,June, is the third eldest of seven sisters and threebrothers; Bettyis second eldest. They were brought up in South Hiendley part of the mining area of the West Riding of Yorkshire. 4 Although literaturerelating to women and design, and feminist approaches to design history has emerged over the last fifteen years, it remains the case in my view that it is still marginalizedwithin the discipline of Design History. An analysis of
Cheryl Buckley

6 7

recent publishing, particularly papers in the key journals-which are indicative of new researchreveals that the literature on women, femininity, feminism and design continues to be cursory. Women are still a special case, rather than a thread woven into the fabric of the discipline. In the 1995 Spring number of Design Issues (vol. ii, no. i), which was a special issue devoted to the question of how to define Design History, a group of well-regarded and well-known scholars (one woman) aimed to determine its nature and its boundaries. Although feminist critiques of the discipline were heavily drawn upon, there was no consideration of what had been happening to feminist attempts to redefine the subject in the last decade. The feminist intervention in design history, which aims to claim fuller recognition of women's complex relationship to design, has some way yet to go even though much excellent work has been done. This is a term used by Pat Kirkham and Judy Attfield in the introduction to P. Kirkham (ed.), The Gendered Object, Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 3. It is particularly useful for highlighting the way that designed objects act as signifiers for memory. b. hooks, Yearning:Race, Genderand Cultural Politics, Turnaround, 1991, p. 153. hooks, op. cit.; D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, Polity Press, 1994, S. Alexander, Becoming a Woman and Other Essays in l9th and 20th Century Feminist History, Virago, 1994; R. Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994; M. Morris, The Pirate's Fiancee:Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism, Verso, 1988; C. Steedman, 'Landscape for a good woman', in L. Heron (ed.), Truth, Dare or Promise:Girls Growing Up in the Fifties, Virago, 1985; E. Roberts, Women and Families: An Oral History, 1940-1970, Blackwell, 1995; E. Roberts, A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working-class Women, 1890-1940, Blackwell,1984. Feminists have been particularly interested in these questions primarily due to the implications of these for feminist historical and critical studies. See in particular: J. Flax, ThinkingFragments:Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990; and Morris, op. cit. For an amusing analysis of the motivations of those postmodern theorists who are engaged in decentring the subject, see S. Moore, 'Getting a bit of the other: the pimps of Postmodernism', in R. Chapman &

J. Rutherford (eds.), Male Order: UnwrappingMasculinity, Lawrence & Wishart, 1988. 9 Massey, op. cit., p. 215. 1o Alexander, op. cit., p. 107. -i Braidotti, op. cit., p. 238. 12 V. Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Hogarth Press, 1929,

pp. 72-313 Steedman, op. cit., pp. 103-26.

14 Ibid., p. 104. 15 Braidotti, op. cit., p. 237. i6 Pat Kirkham has written on a similar theme in her essay, 'The personal, the professional and the partcollaboration of ner(ship): the husband/wife Charles and Ray Eames', in B. Skeggs (ed.), Feminist Cultural Theory:Process and Production, Manchester University Press, 1995. Many thanks are due to Pat Kirkham for help and many useful suggestions for this article. 17 There has been a spate of recent newspaper articles covering the so-called 'crisis' in feminism, although as one writer pointed out, feminism has been described as being in crisis at numerous times throughout the century. However, as well as the classic post-feminist line that feminism is now defunct as the quest for equality has been achieved-there are other more persuasive arguments that it is overly academic, detached from women's experiences, and too middle-class. Arguably there is still a need to write accessible and interesting accounts of women's history which connect with their lived experiences. (See, for example, Linda Grant's 'Black, white and shades of grey' and ensuing letters in The Guardian,3 June 1997, p. 8.) i8 hooks, op. cit., p. 146. 19 Massey, op. cit., p. 10. 20 Ibid., p. 171. 21 Several writers have attempted to re-think 'the home'. See, for example, E. Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion, Routledge, 1995; D. Spain, Gendered Spaces, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and London, 1992; B. Colomina, Sexuality and Space, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1992; and Massey, op. cit.. 22 The preparation of fish for hawking was mainly done in an adjacent shed, although inevitably these activities spilled over into the domestic spaces of the home. The house in question was on Highfield Road in Hemsworth, West Riding of Yorkshire. Interview with my aunt, Betty Foster and my mother, June Buckley, 29 May 1997. 23 Interview with Gwenyth Batey, 30 January 1996. Letter from Gwenyth Batey to Cheryl Buckley, 5 December 1992. Mary Jane Skelton's Recollections 169

at and of the Theorizing Historyand Significance Making DesigningClothes Home

transcribed by her daughter, Gwenyth Batey, February 1996. 24 Braidotti, op. cit., p. 238. Braidotti uses the term "situated knowledges' to mean local. 25 Alexander,. op. cit., p. 234. 26 hooks, op. cit. 27 From T. Carlyle, SartorResartus, Curwen Press, 1931 (originally 1831) quoted in E. Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Virago, 1985, p. 3. 28 Alexander, op. cit., p. 234. 29 J. Ash, 'Memory and objects', in Kirkham, op. cit.,
p. 219.

40 41


30 Pat Kirkham talks about this in the preface to her



34 35


37 38


book, The Gendered Object, op. cit., pp. XIII-XIV when she writes about giving things that had been her mother's to friends and relatives after her funeral. The things given represented aspects of her mother's identity which had particular meaning and significance for those receiving them. Ibid., p. 220. Interview with Gwenyth Batey, 30 January 1996. Letter from Gwenyth Batey to Cheryl Buckley, 5 December 1992. Mary Jane Skelton's Recollections transcribed by her daughter, Gwenyth Batey, February 1996. I also have a number of family photographs which Gwenyth and Rose allowed me to copy. I would like to record my thanks to Gwenyth for all her help, and to Rose and Gwenyth for access to the photographs. I have a strong bond with my aunt after spending considerable time with her as a child before her own daughter was born. Typically, when my daughter, Kate, was born, she sent me a bolt of woollen 'tartan' fabric that she had bought on holiday in Scotland, for me to make up for Kate. Interview with my aunt, Betty Foster, and my mother, June Buckley, 29 May 1997. Apparently their mother was too busy looking after ten children to teach them much, although she did show them how to make peg rugs using waste pieces of fabric and old clothes. Ibid. Interview, 29 May 1997, Foster and Buckley. Both Betty and my mother recall being bought new clothes every Whitsun. These were bought from shops or they were made up by a local dressmaker, Mrs Goodyear. Ibid. When I saw her on 22 August 1997 to look over family photographs for this article, she drew and described numerous types of pleats that she had inserted into garments. Shopping for fabrics usually took place on Barnsley




47 48

49 50 51

52 53

and Hemsworth markets. Foster and Buckley, 29 May 1997. Ibid. My mother and Betty bought twin sets from his stall on South Elmsall market. Ibid. My mother's was bought at the Bridal House in Leeds. Ibid. My father, for example, was in work throughout his life until he retired from the mines in 1985. He was a faceworker and earned relatively good wages. My parents shared, relatively, in the increased prosperity of post-war Britain buying a television and 'fridge in the early 1960s, and a second-hand Morris Traveller in 1967. They never moved from their first house which they rented from the National Coal Board and subsequently bought in the early 1980s. Betty and her husband, Wallace, were in business after marriage, working with his parents hawking fish from a van around the nearby mining villages. They put down a deposit on a house in 1955, bought a Ford Prefect in 1956, and in 1957 bought a caravan. Foster and Buckley, 29 May 1997. They shopped for clothes in nearby large villages such as Hemsworth and South Elmsall and at the Co-op in Barnsley. Foster and Buckley, 29 May 1997. In my teens and early twenties I made many of my clothes including skirts, jackets, trousers, and I knitted cardigans and sweaters well into my thirties. I've largely given up now, although I still make curtains occasionally. Living in a close-knit mining community and surrounded by a large family, clothes were an act of defiance for me in adolescence. Mary Jane Skelton's Recollections transcribed by her daughter, Gwenyth Batey, February 1996, p. 11. In Stoke-on-Trent, it was common to find small pottery businesses of this type operating from outbuildings at home. As Pat Kirkham suggests, this type of small clothing workshop was not typical in other parts of the North East of England, although it is typical of those in the East End of London, then a major centre of the garment trade. Mary Jane Skelton's Recollections, op. cit., p. 14. Ibid., p.i6. Ibid. Moving jobs for better wages was certainly true of the women whom I interviewed in the course of my work on the pottery industry. See C. Buckley, Potters and Paintresses:WomenDesigners in the Pottery Industry, 1870-1955, Women's Press, 1990, pp. 34-5. Mary Jane Skelton's Recollections, op. cit., p. 17. Letter from Gwenyth Batey to Cheryl Buckley, 5 December 1992.
Cheryl Buckley

54 Ibid. The fashion collection held by Tyne and Wear Museum Service in Newcastle upon Tyne has a substantial set of Haslam pattern boards and books covering children's wear, lingerie, blouses, skirts and accessories. Apparently these were patented by 'Miss F A Haslam, Ord House, Berwick-uponTweed & North East', as the 'Haslam System of Dresscutting'. 55 Ibid. 56 Mary Jane Skelton's Recollections, op. cit., p. 7. 57 The 'club trip' was the annual outing organized by Havercroft Workingmen's Club. Normally the whole village would be deserted on these days. 58 Museums such as the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish, County Durham and Tyne and Wear Museums in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Gateshead and Sunderland have begun systematically to collect working-class clothing and 'typical' High

Street fashions over the last ten or fifteen years. However, due to previous collecting policies there are huge gaps in their collections of this type of clothing which are also now harder to fill. 59 Roszika Parker, The Subversive Stitch, Women's Press, 1984, deals with embroidery, some of which was done at home, although interestingly it still focuses on the exceptional rather than the ordinary. 6o Sally Alexander writes of the way that life histories can 'suggest' the femininity of a particular generation, however in my view particular garments or ways of home dress-making which were intimately connected with and sometimes marked out the stages of individual lives, can function similarly; see op. cit., p. 234. 6i Ibid. 62 Flax, op. cit., p. 221.

Theorizing Historyand Significance Making DesigningClothes Home the of and at