Dr Emily Brayshaw completed her PhD in fashion, performance costume and design history at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building in 2016. Emily works as a lecturer and tutor in Design History and Thinking and Fashion History and Theory at UTS and actively researches and publishes in these fields. In addition to her work in academia, Emily is a theatre costume designer. Her wide interests include: the display and consumption of luxury in fashion, costume, theatre and film; popular culture in all of its vulgar glory; German literature; art and aesthetics of the Weimar Republic; architectural ornamentation; and the viola.
Tell us about your PhD research.
I’m a fashion and performance costume historian. My thesis, Costuming the Feathered Showgirl: Trans-Atlantic Fashion & ‘Primitivism’, c.1890 – 1930, examines how indigenous feathered ceremonial attire, ethnographic displays and Modernist art influenced fashion, and textile and showgirl costume designs in France and America between 1890 and 1930.
I came back to academia after more than 15 years working in the corporate sector, so I had memories of doing my honours thesis in English using books and video tapes. It’s interesting to think how networking technology has changed how we research. Of course, I had to do some significant archival research at libraries in New York for my PhD, but the digitisations of collections in the US and in France meant that I was able to use online archives for much of my research. I think all good historical research involves physical archival research at some point to examine primary resources, but the content available in digital archives means that researchers have so many more options and sources to work with. It’s fantastic.
Why does it matter?
A PhD is a complex beast that brings so many different strands together. My PhD has numerous lessons from history that can we can learn from in our current political and economic climate. One important lesson is how designers from a range of disciplines can use critical thinking skills to create iconic, timeless looks on a tight budget and using materials that they already have to hand. This includes product designers, fashion designers and technology designers. This has vital implications for sustainability and environmental protections: the planet can’t afford our desire to keep producing more and more goods from raw materials. Why don’t we reuse and repurpose what we already have to create new, innovative designs? Other designers have done this in the past. Why can’t we look at their methods to enhance our own designs and improve our world?
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I’ve got a few pieces on the go at the moment. I’m finalising a case study on the Futurist haute couture designed by Drian for the Parisian fashion house Maison Paquin and worn on stage by the French music hall star, Gaby Deslys (1881 – 1920), in 1913 and 1914. The work is contributing to a book that discusses methodological approaches to the study of performance costumes.
I have nearly finished a piece on the aesthetics of Kitsch in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. I found an unpublished manuscript by one of the leading practitioners of the Bauhaus movement in some archives in Germany early last year. The work contributes to the conversation that German intellectuals were having at the time around the slippery nature, and indeed where, the aesthetics of Kitsch belonged in Weimar society.
Interestingly, there has been a lot of discussion around the aesthetics of Kitsch and Camp in the fashion world this year, with major fashion labels embracing and expressing these aesthetics in their designs. If you’re in the know and have “good taste”, then Kitsch can be witty and amusing. If you don’t have “good taste”, then Kitsch can still appeal to you through their sentimentality and their easy, unchallenging nature. This broad appeal means that Kitsch aesthetics are easy to consume, which offers comfort and joy to people who are alienated and struggling to make sense of the world. I think this is a fascinating reflection of humanity in late-capitalism.
What do you love about being an historian?
I love digging through archives. I love finding that one nugget of gold that hasn’t been seen for 100 years, but which ties an entire thesis together and proves my hunch. I also love engaging with different disciplines, theories and philosophies to examine my findings. A few years ago, I learned that the British Army used to send fallen Officers’ uniforms back to their families during the First World War and I couldn’t let that go. Imagine being terrified for your loved one every day, only to learn that he had died, and then you receive in the mail the very clothes he had been shot and killed in with the blood, mud and bullet holes still in them.
I was fascinated by how uniforms, which were such a symbol of power, glory, and masculinity, became objects that terrorised and traumatised people within the context of the Great War. I used Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida to consider the primary resources I found to help me to understand why this was so. My book chapter about this, “Remembering Roland Leighton: Uniforms as the Materials of Memory and Mourning in World War I”, will appear in The Materiality of Mourning: Cross Disciplinary Perspectives (eds Newby. Z. & Toulson, R.) next year.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The lack of full time academic positions available to ECRs, which is tied to the casualization of academia, is most the challenging thing facing ECRs. It is difficult to sustain a research career with a lack of funding and the lack of affiliation with a University. I also have found that teaching and research go hand in hand, as I read more widely in order to teach, while conversations with students can spark ideas for new projects. A full time role in academia would allow many ECRs to teach in the semester and research in the semester breaks without having to worry about how they are going to afford to eat.
Interestingly too, I recently read an article in The Chronical of Higher Education entitled, ‘Historians Want to Be Cited in the Media. Here’s Why It Matters’ that raised another point in relation to this issue. The article discusses the feeling of anonymity that historians experience as their work gains attention from the news media, but is not credited. Instead, the rigour, expertise and training required to do our work is misunderstood – it’s like people think we wave a magic wand and TA DA! HISTORY! As ECRs, we are all too aware of the need to demonstrate that our work has impact and reaches a wider audience. These media citations would benefit us immensely, as well as the institutions with which we are affiliated. It would help universities to demonstrate why and how our work matters, which is so important when vying for funding, including funding full time positions.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I’d love to see the places that I write about and that I’m passionate about. I would go to the first half of the eighteenth century to hear Johann Sebastian Bach conduct and perform in Leipzig. I would go to Belle Epoque Paris and experience the intellectual life and the theatre. I would go to New York in the 1920s and to see the Ziegfeld Follies and to see George White’s Scandals that featured George Gershwin’s music and Erte’s extravagant, feathered costumes. I’d go to Weimar Berlin to see Brecht’s plays performed. I’d go to pre-invasion Australia. I’d go to late 15th Century France. There are so many questions that can only be answered by the people who lived in those times. And don’t we all wish, like Doctor Who, that we had a TARDIS?