A few weeks ago, before the lockdown began, I attended a day-long conference at Leeds City Museum on ‘Fast x Slow Fashion: Experiences of Fashionable Consumption, 1720-2020’, which was organised by Bethan Bide and Vanessa Jones to tie-in with the Museum’s current exhibition, Fast x Slow Fashion: Shopping for Clothing in Leeds, 1720-2020. (Although Leeds City Museum is closed at the moment, they’ve made an online version of the exhibition).
Both the conference and the exhibition explored some of the shifts which have occurred in the practice and experience of shopping over the last 300 years. The exhibition begins with a timeline of changes and a consideration of how shopping related to the geography of Leeds both past and present – which the main shopping areas were, when the major markets and department stores were established. Some of the conference papers also explored the spaces of shopping. Jade Halbert (who recently presented this little piece on the future of the high street) talked about the impact Swinging London had on inspiring the establishment of boutiques and boutique-style department store concessions in Glasgow in the 1960s, whilst Nathaniel Dafydd Beard discussed arcades as a space to be consumed, simultaneously a shortcut and a place to linger in and take time out. Jenny Gilbert and Nadia Awal talked about the plans to reconstruct a specific shop – E. Minetts from Wednesbury, which was in operation from 1907-2006 – in the Black Country Living Museum.
Some speakers talked about ways of encouraging consumption. Wendy Smith looked at the importance of the sensory in shopping in her discussion of erotomania – an intense desire for silk – in the nineteenth century. Kevin Almond examined the viability and utility of creating a ‘Made in Yorkshire’ brand, and Katie Cameron explored the changes in visual merchandising at M&S, demonstrating the importance of and attention paid to shop windows and the appearance of stores throughout the brand’s history.
With the ethical and environmental implications of fast fashion and the desire for novelty increasingly being highlighted, the exhibition explores ‘sustainable’ consumption, as well as buying bespoke and ready-to-wear clothing. This topic also featured at the conference. Ruby Hodgson looked at examples from the V&A’s collection of the reuse of eighteenth-century silks in dresses from the 1820s-40s, the silk of the preceding century generally being of a much higher quality than that produced in the nineteenth century. Liz Tregenza discussed the changes which have occurred over the last fifty years in how vintage fashion is viewed and where it can be bought from; as it has shifted from a more subcultural way of dressing to the mainstream, the price of vintage garments has increased and they are now more likely to be sourced from a specialist shop than a jumble sale. Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas also explored the theme of vintage shopping, but focused on Shanghai, noting that the Chinese vintage scene has until recently tended to foreground Western clothing and shop styles, with second-hand clothing often culturally associated with poverty in China.
Shopping was portrayed at ‘Fast x Slow Fashion’ as a task which was not mindless – as browsing online can sometimes feel now – but which required a great deal of skill. Emily Taylor discussed two eighteenth-century Scottish women who purchased goods for themselves and their family and friends whilst touring round Europe, commenting that the use of different languages and currencies meant that shopping in other countries was actually quite challenging. In her keynote, Serena Dyer talked about the importance of material literacy in the eighteenth century. Tasks such as making dolls’ clothes helped teach girls skills which they could then use to project manage commissions and judge the quality and workmanship of clothes and textiles before purchase.
For me, one of the threads connecting many of the papers at ‘Fast x Slow Fashion’ was the personal nature of consumption – whether this was in terms of interactions with shop staff, individuals developing skills and making choices about where to shop and what to buy, and the fact that some of the speakers were using a degree of autoethnography in their approach to the subject. The nature of shopping as a task which everyone has experience of, but which also has an individualistic bent makes it a great topic for a local museum to address; certainly my experience at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is that visitors like knowing the personal story behind a garment and seeing photographs of it being worn. The labels in Fast x Slow Fashion feature numerous stories of the individuals who wore, purchased or donated the objects on display, and not just in relation to the more recent acquisitions and objects. Shopping as a theme is also able to tap into local nostalgia, and Fast x Slow Fashion is very much rooted in Leeds and the particular experiences of that city.
In some ways Fast x Slow Fashion was rather reminiscent of another recent exhibition, An English Lady’s Wardrobe at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, which displayed many of the clothes and accessories which belonged to Emily Tinne (1886-1966). Whilst the exhibition was largely focused on the fashions of the early twentieth century and the items Tinne bought and wore, it also touched on her shopping habits. For unbeknownst to her family, Tinne purchased a vast number of clothes, many of which she never wore and consequently still have their labels attached, and the final section of the exhibition focused on some of the main shops and department stores in Liverpool which Tinne patronised.
Of course, for museums to be able to create exhibitions and displays on the topic of shopping, they need to collect the relevant objects and histories. Leeds Museums did a call out for stories and donations to help them foreground local experiences in Fast x Slow Fashion, whilst it was slightly frustrating in An English Lady’s Wardrobe that the curators could only speculate as to why Tinne bought so many clothes, as she never discussed it in her letters and it was her children who donated the collection to the museum.
‘Fast x Slow Fashion’ illustrated that there have been numerous changes in the sites, methods and culture of shopping over the last 300 years. At the present time, when physical clothes shops are all closed and even many online retailers have suspended deliveries or run out of stock, it is hard to say what the future holds or what the long term effects of this crisis on retail might be. But what is certain is that the ‘Fast x Slow Fashion’ conference was a thoroughly interesting day, and the exhibition is well worth a visit when Leeds City Museum reopens.