The concept of "practice as research" or "performance as research" (PaR) has been coming up a lot in my personal and online conversations lately, and I wanted to write a little about its significance and my experience of the method as an art historian. In essence, rather than analysing static historical objects (for example, the manuscript of Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness, or the seventeenth-century jacket in the Victoria and Albert Museum that once belonged to Margaret Layton), this method calls for researchers to engage in some form of historically-accurate recreation. In doing so, the researcher not only gains a comprehensive idea of how the item/object was constructed, but, more importantly, focusses on how it was seen, understood, and experienced by contemporaries, which places an emphasis on more ephemeral aspects such as light, colour, space, sound, smell, and gesture.
In the humanities, as seems often to be the case, early modern literary scholars (broadly defined) have been early adopters of PaR, with a brilliant example being Staging of the Henrician Court. While this was a huge project staffed by senior scholars, many arts disciplines (music, creative writing, film, and drama) run workshops where students are encouraged to learn about their historical art form by doing. Recently, I decided to use this method to increase my knowledge of one of my most cherished areas of research: historical dress. With no practical training in this area, I was very fortunate to spend a week at the School of Historical Dress in London.
Run by Jenny Tiramani (read our interview with her here), The School offers small classes on a wide variety of topics as befitting the expertise of the School's tutors (including embroidery, ruffs, leather goods, felt goods, smocks and shirts, lace, and stays). In each class, an object is made by the participants - bags, cuffs, hats, embroidery samples - using historically accurate methods and materials. The School has a small but impressive collection of garments and fabrics, not to mention a great library and the Janet Arnold Archive, all of which are made available to the participants to help facilitate their learning. I was the only one in my classes with no experience with a needle, but all that really meant was that my stitches were not as small or as neat as my class-mates. I still completed an embroidery sampler, made a cuff, stitched some stays, and spent a wonderful week enriching my passion for dress!
I have studied seventeenth-century English dress for a number of years, but these classes dramatically increased my understanding of historical fabrics, types of stitches, cuts and construction methods, relative costs, and how to distinguish between bobbin and needle lace. I am now much better equipped to connect a description of a garment in an inventory, or account, with the physical object, or to ascertain the garment, fabric, and form/s of decoration seen in a painted portrait. I also have an increased appreciation of the practicalities around washing, starching, and setting garments; how different garments shape the way one someone stands; the huge variance in the colour and weave of linens; and the different roles and methods of tailors and seamstresses.
It has been, without a doubt, the most informative, engaging, and inspirational experience of my time in London to date. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I strongly encourage anybody who has the opportunity to undertake a class (or several) at The School of Historical Dress! I also suggest checking out their book series Patterns of Fashion (four volumes available and volume five is in progress).
On a slightly different note, an example of my approach to the history of dress using archival material can be found in an article I published with Costume in March 2017 on the wardrobe goods of Anna of Denmark.