Amber Butchart is a fashion historian on a quest to reveal the secrets of our sartorial past and place the semiotics of style in a wider cultural, political and social sphere. She has contributed to productions for BBC 1 & 2, BBC Learning, Radio 4, Channel 4 and Sky Arts, from the Breakfast News to Making History and Woman’s Hour, and she presents a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A museum looking at issues concerning the clothed body in fashion and performance.
As the red-haired half of the Sony-nominated Broken Hearts DJ duo she co-hosts a weekly radio show on Jazz FM focussing on swing music, with an emphasis on rediscovering forgotten women of the Jazz Age. A former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, Amber has spoken at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, British Museum, Royal Academy, British Library, Wellcome Collection and British Film Institute, and she is an Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion. She is currently writing a book on the history of nautical style to be published in 2015. Fashion Miscellany, her compilation of vestimentary oddities, is out now.
What is an historian?
A theoriser of unknowable truths.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
I’ve always been fascinated by old objects and they’ve always played a big part in my life. My initial degree was in English but I was more interested in the socio-historical context to the texts we were studying that the content of the texts themselves. I subsequently worked as Head Buyer at the vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, as my other love was old clothes. I was never interested in fashion as a system when I was growing up, I didn’t read fashion magazines as a teenager, but I was an avid charity shop scavenger and always loved dressing up and creating narratives through clothing. So it was through working with the objects themselves that I became interested in the history surrounding them. I studied for a Master’s degree in History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion, and the rest, as they say, is literally history.
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
There could never be just one! I would be useless on Desert Island Discs. I’m always finding new favourites, but at the moment it’s The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in 18th Century England (John Styles), Revolution in Fashion 1715-1815 (Kyoto Costume Institute), and Valerie Steele’s China Chic: East Meets West. Valerie Steele would be a perennial on my list.
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?
BibliOdyssey is great for sending you spiraling down wormholes of ephemera, covering areas as diverse as Victorian fashion plates, 16th century cartography and early modern matriculation manuscripts. To say there’s something for everyone would be an understatement.
What is your favourite historical place?
I’m at my happiest when I’m at Blackpool Tower. There’s a circus, a ballroom, an aquarium and a clown museum. Seriously, what’s not to love?! The whole of Blackpool makes me unfathomably happy from the Pleasure Beach to the Winter Gardens. I grew up by the sea and have a penchant for seaside towns at the best of times; Blackpool really rules the roost in that respect. The entertainment heritage of the place feels very much alive to me. I think that’s because I’m usually there for the Showzam! festival of circus and magic, so there are always great performances going on, and often it’s the annual magicians’ convention as well. So many seaside towns – Blackpool included, as well as Lowestoft where I grew up – have a host of social problems bred through years of declining industries, from fishing to boat building and tourism. But I can’t help but by seduced by their magic.
Having said that, some of the times I’ve most enjoyed Fashion Week is when the collections are shown in historic buildings. I always love being at the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge, and I saw one presentation at Middle Temple Hall. While everyone was queuing I snuck off to obsess over the heraldic panels.
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?
The Enchantment Under the Sea dance, November 12th, 1955
You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?
I have a few different jobs so I’m never full time on any one project, which can be both a blessing and a nightmare in equal measure. It also means a ‘normal’ working pattern doesn’t really exist. At the moment I might spend my day lecturing or at the Jazz FM studio then will spend the evening researching fisherman’s smocks at home, or trawling through old magazines at London College of Fashion library, which thankfully for me is open til 10pm. Deadlines always involve a lack of sleep and a lot of late nights. I defy that not to be the case for any writer or historian!
Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?
My research is a branch of art and design history rather than being period specific. Using material culture, objects and images to tell wider stories about culture and society. However, if people suddenly stopped wearing clothes I think I would choose the long 18th century as my speciality. But let’s make it a very long one.
Why is history important today?
Within the traditions of art and design education, history is important to understand the journey we’ve been on and to inspire and inform contemporary practice. This is why Outsider Art can be such a source of intrigue, as it sits outside of the critically conceived ‘canon’.
In a wider sphere, but still from an educational perspective, it’s invaluable for fostering an understanding of the importance of weighing up evidence, assessing sources for perceived bias, analysis of arguments and forming a critical dialogue with the past. These are all transferable skills, and all enhance our culture, which is why complaints about ‘state money spent on obscure Norse mythology’ etc always ring so hollow.
There’s much to be said about knowledge of the past enriching the present and informing the future. I’m not sure if we always pay heed to the lessons history teaches us, but it’s nice to know we have the option.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
The desire to adorn the body is as old as humanity but the conventions we stick to today certainly aren’t. Louis XIV – the Sun King – oversaw the birth and development of many of the luxury industries that we associate with France. He was obsessed with shoes, especially high heels, which had been worn for horse riding by men in Persia for centuries. The colour red – at the time costly to produce – was favoured by the king for his heels. Only those admitted to his court were allowed to wear such markers of virility, wealth and status. It just goes to show that our ‘gendering’ of clothing changes over time, the arbitrary associations we have are entirely cultural constructs. Plus Christian Louboutin was certainly not the first person to make a red soled shoe sexy.
For more of the same, you can see my Fashion Miscellany, out now.