Over the last 6 months things have been progressing here at the POPLab. The team has started creating many of the exciting garments we have unearthed from the archive, and as a result the Lab has transformed from a bland academic office into a colourful research practice space, filled with a burst of colours, sounds and a variety of different textures. Within this post I will provide an insight into our experience of sewing together as team, and discuss how we use mixed-methods in our research, reconstructions and re-imaginings.
One of the first things you notice when you approach the POPLab are the sounds emanating from the office, which instantly transports you away from the busy London road on our doorstep. The whirr of sewing machines coupled the sounds fingers clacking away on keyboards effectively masks the chorus of car horns and sirens outside. For me this cacophony of sounds sums up our approach at the POPLab, combining academic research with artistic practices to gain new understandings of our social world.
One of the first things you notice when you approach the POP Lab are the sounds emanating from the office…
Our making approach at POP isn’t just a matter of simply recreating the patented garments we find in the historic archives. Through our research we gain insights into the lived experiences of the inventors, the problems they were wanting to solve in the inventions as well as the people who might have worn the garments. We do so by exploring the context behind each item, examining what can be gleaned from the patents and reconstructing pieces to uncover new things about these inventions.
We begin by reading the patents in depth, which is normally a collaborative affair. In many cases the text on the patents raises more questions than answers. Some inventors give minimal instructions for making their designs, whilst others include unrealistic images of their garments. It’s often up to us as a team to figure out how to approach making these items, pooling our knowledge together to figure out the best way to proceed.
Alongside figuring out how to make the garments, the POP team also seeks to uncover the socio-political significance behind these inventions. Although most patents discuss the problems that the garments were designed to overcome, without the knowledge of the inventors’ situated contexts, it can be difficult to understand why these problems may have been so significant in the first place.
For example, the image above shows a ‘Bicycle Skirt’ which was patented by Alice Worthington Winthrop in 1895, in Washington, USA. The patent discusses how the garment has the functionality of a divided skirt, whilst its design prevents it from being ‘distinguishable from other continuous skirts’. Without the knowledge that women in the late 1890s could face abuse for wearing bifurcated garments, it may be difficult to understand why this garment was so radical in its design and important for the women who would have worn it (Jungnickel, 2018).
Therefore, to fully uncover the significance behind the garments, rather than just reconstructing them, we also seek to understand their historical context. We do this by delving into related research archives (newspapers, periodicals, personal correspondence etc) to uncover the hidden stories behind why these technologies were created, and what their wearers may have done in and with them.
To fully uncover the significance behind the garments, rather than just reconstructing them, we also seek to understand their historical context.
We then take our research one step further, actively creating and wearing garments to gain a deep understanding of their significance. By doing so the POP team attempt to engage with the experiences of the garment wearers, asking new and different questions about the inventions and gaining deeper understandings of how these inventions worked with bodies and related technologies. This allows us to better understand the inventiveness of the garments within the archives and consider how they might have shaped (and been shaped by) socio-political worlds and people’s lives.
In terms of the Winthrop garment shown above, reading the patent and researching the garment’s historical context provided me a greater understanding of this item’s significance. The act of making and wearing this item however extended this knowledge even further. I could actively feel the heaviness of the fabric. I could experience how the skirts constrained my body and hindered my movement, and how the hem of the skirts trailed along the floor. This caused me to consider new areas to research, such how dirty the pavements would have been in the 1890s. Plus, holding up these skirts to walk may have further impeded women’s ability to move or limited their capacity to carry items within their hands.
Here I’m wearing Winthrop’s transforming Bicycle Skirt in its skirt and cape form. When this item was transformed into a divided skirt, I felt a sense of freedom at how my body could move and take up space. I could imagine how liberated Alice Winthrop might have felt when wearing her garment for the first time.
In this image I’m wearing the same bicycle skirt invented by Winthrop. With the front panel removed it transforms into a bifurcated garment, designed for female cyclists
But it isn’t just the act of wearing which has led to new discoveries. Reconstructing the garments has also resulted in us learning new things which we wouldn’t have discovered from solely reading the patents. In many cases when reconstructing these garments, we have been surprised by elements which were not initially apparent or seen inventors in a new light due to their design choices.
The practice and experience of sewing together has also been a great way to collate and share the skills of each member of the POP team. Rather than each of us working individually on the items we reconstruct, each garment is a culmination of the team’s interdisciplinary knowledge and sewing experience. A design for a jacket patented in 1930s was formed using the pattern for a Kimono made for a past degree show. The question of how we should approach making a neck collar for a pet bird was solved after one of the POP team spotted a commuter wearing a travel pillow on their way to work. As we gain each other’s advice on how to sew particular garments, we discover differences in our approaches, which expands our making repertoire and influences how we reconstruct future garments.
Plus, our dialogue with each other also brings us closer to the inventors. We’ve begun referring to the inventions by their inventor’s names, personifying the garments and talking to them which brings them to life. For us the POP Lab doesn’t just contain the bicycle outfits, automobile gloves and skirts we have reconstructed.
Our dress forms showcase Winthrop, Palmer and Foltz, inventors we feel a sense of connection to through reconstructing their designs.
The making and wearing process has helped the us to gain a deeper understanding of the hidden treasures within the archive and has been an important tool for synthesising the experience and skills of the POP team. It has also allowed us to consider the inventions in new ways and brought us closer to their inventors, which has extended our understanding of the people behind the patents.
Jungnickel, K. 2018. Bikes & Bloomers: Victorian women inventors and their extraordinary cycle wear, Goldsmiths Press.
Pat. 549472. Alice Worthington Winthrop, Washington, USA, ‘Bicycle Skirt’, 5 November 1895. Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org