I have worked as a lead costume pattern drafter and tailor for film, theatre and TV for over 25 years, creating garments for world-leading performers of acting, opera and dance, both in the UK and internationally. Ultimately, I have a career that many MA Historical Costume candidates would be aspiring to achieve. So why, at 45, did I decide to return to academic study?
Like many people around the world, the COVID-19 lockdowns provided time for self-reflection, without the distractions of day-to-day work. In my case, film work of six-day weeks and 10-hour days. With the enforced shutdown of productions, for the first time in over 25 years, I had time to be creative and undertake research solely for my own means and enjoyment. I began to indulge daily in perusing the expansive online collections from museums around the world, reinvigorating my love for historical fashion and costume.
When I studied my degree in Costume Interpretation during the late 1990s, at Wimbledon School of Art, the course was almost wholly based around practical construction, with supporting research. The internet barely existed and pretty much all research was primary source-based, visiting museums, galleries and libraries.
Undertaking a Master’s was an opportunity for focused self-development. Admittedly an opportunity to indulge in a subject area I adore, and most importantly, to develop my academic research and writing skills. Discovering the extent of what is now accessible online has led to great nourishment. Still, I must confess primary garment research is my ultimate love.
In 2007, I emigrated from England to New Zealand. Costume courses are very sparse on this side of the world and pretty much non-existent above an undergraduate level. I knew I would need to look overseas to find a suitable course. It was very clear in my mind that I wished to focus on historical costume, rather than design or more generalised art history. I also needed to find a course that would be willing to take me on as an online distant learner, and part-time, as I would need to continue working while studying. I reached out to Rebecca Pride, the award leader for MA Historical Costume at AUB, to discuss the possibility. A special exemption was granted due to my unique circumstances and my professional experience in the costume industry.
Studying part-time is working well for me. The total hours allocated to the course are the same as full-time study; however the additional reflection time has been invaluable. Providing the opportunity to contemplate the direction of study, time to pursue deeper lines of enquiry with external sources in a timely manner, and space to develop key academic skills in regards to research methods, reading papers, and critical reflection.
One of the biggest challenges is the time difference, as on occasion I have missed live afternoon lectures and workshops, as they’re in the middle of the night here. Therefore, I have relied on sessions being recorded and uploaded for access. This is not always possible, as, for instance, there have been some cross-course lectures that have not been recorded, and on-site training opportunities with design technologies and computerised production techniques that I really wish I had been able to attend. Also, when studying online, there is limited opportunity for peer connection and sharing individual projects and progress.
Initially, I desperately missed the expanse of resources I was familiar with for primary research, within the UK’s vast array of historical landmarks and collections. However, the accessibility of online digitised documentation is immense – these days increasingly so.
The first introductory set project on the course was garment observation. For those studying on site, artefacts in AUB’s own collection would be observed. However, it was necessary for me locate my own artefact to study. With this in mind, I contacted Auckland War Memorial Museum (AWMM) to make a working connection, and with two film productions based in the 18th century coming up, I took the opportunity to view any artefacts of that era that they had. European settlement did not happen in New Zealand until the mid-19th century, so garments predating that are, on the whole, Heirloom Eurocentric artefacts.
This initial project led me to volunteer at AWMM, where I have continued to research and document their oldest Eurocentric garments and update the object files. This research has, in turn, led to the invitation to become a research associate with the museum, as well as a collaboration with Curator Jane Groufsky to write and publish a book entitled Heirloom Textiles. The depth of my research into 18 artefacts (and counting) also resulted in an application to the Geoffrey Squire Memorial Bursary 2023 from the Costume and Textiles Association UK, which I won, providing a substantial research grant.
The ongoing research at AWMM has 100% become the focus of my Master’s. However, this was not my initial intention; when I enrolled on the course, I did not have a definitive plan for my main area of study. One of the great aspects of the course is that it is divided into three modules – the first has prescribed projects to introduce key skills for academic study and specific historical garment research methods, while the other two focus on a main body of work. The direction of this is self-determined, which allows the key focus to adapt as research develops. It can even be two different projects.
Undertaking the Master’s has provided a broader and deeper study into historical costume, as within my normal working practice research needs to be quick and concise.
Being open to saying “Yes” to creative opportunities has taken me on some amazing adventures and career journeys. If returning to study appeals, then just do it. Initially I was concerned about how I would cope with the written aspect, having not written a formal piece of work for over 25 years. However, through practice within the contextual journals that support the MA journey, it has become an aspect I now highly enjoy. I can also honestly say that studying the MA as a mature student is providing an enriched experience. One that a person with life and career experience can truly appreciate.