If, perhaps, textile collections do not sound very exciting to you, then how about fashion and shopping?

As part of the SALC Work Placement module, I was fortunate to be given a place at National Museums Liverpool (NML) as a Collections Assistant. I was able to gain insights into professional collection management as well as relishing the opportunity to explore the stories of various objects. In other words, I had fun at work. Surrounded by amazing artefacts from ancient worlds, and trying to create dialogues with them – I could not have been more thrilled!

My job was mainly about managing textiles. I would say, working with textiles is one of the best ways to explore the fashion industry and to shop more wisely. 

When I handled and researched the textile pieces of NML’s collection, I felt I was a witness of the evolution of women’s costumes, with a pair of glasses probing into fashion history. From the interwar periods to the current century, from glimmering evening dresses to utility uniforms, from international brands such as Hugo Boss to local favourites such as Laura Ashley – all were within reach. And most importantly, by exploring their stories, I got to know the tradition better. For instance, a swimming costume of a middle-class lady who lived in the 1930s resembled a belted dress or a jumpsuit, telling us that women had to conceal their bodies in contrast to today’s bikini. Another example was, several silk waistcoats in my project looked still very ‘in’, even though they were manufactured in the 1930s. They were of a nude colour, slim cut, well-made, decorated with pearl buttons. They could be the subject in any fashion magazine of today, just like an article I read several days ago whose heading was Nude Colour Is the New Trend for Spring 2020

Ladies’ swimwear and silk waistcoat from the 1930s, NML collections, 2020. Photo: Esther Y. Ding

Studying the textiles enabled me to look into the characteristics of different fabrics and their applicability. Silk is extremely susceptible to light, especially radiation; therefore it requires being stored in a dark room with very low light levels. There are different types of materials: natural and synthetic, some are more durable and non-allergenic than others. Knowing this was not only an accumulation of placement experience but also a useful guidance for selecting appropriate clothes for different dressing purposes and caring for them properly in daily life. I am able to differentiate between some fabrics and talk about their features now. A chance to be a wiser shopper.

The placement experience was an intriguing and insightful journey, through which I earned practical skills of managing textiles as well as an enhanced understanding of how artefacts could provide an excellent snapshot of people’s lifestyles and social changes.

Esther Y. Ding is a student on the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies.