Belinda Naylor, talks to Ben Whyman about her documentary on BBC Radio Four and how studying MA Fashion Curation helped her to tell stories about clothes.
1: Tell me about your time studying the MA Fashion Curation. What skills and insight did you gain from the course?
I began my course in September 2014 and completed it in December 2015. I had always wanted to study fashion but was unsure about what path to take. My work at BBC Radio 4 sometimes gave me opportunities to explore fashion but I wanted to dig deeper. When I discovered there was a dedicated course for fashion curation; I knew this was perfect for me. I wanted to take an intellectual journey through fashion and I think this Masters did just that. So much attention was paid to theory as well as practice and it opened my eyes to a world of fashion and museum practices that I did not know existed. I learned how to write a good essay, to be rigorous in my research and that you can’t take short-cuts when you’re writing!
I really valued the collaborative nature of the course. Our class was 12 strong with students from all over the world and of different ages and I loved the variety of projects that we worked on together. It also taught me my strengths and weaknesses and where I can apply them in my future practice.
I enjoyed the fact that fashion was taken seriously; a sentiment that is not often echoed in contemporary culture. We were given permission to open our minds to the possibilities of curating and that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Fashion rules can be broken; and fashion curation means finding the most inventive and engaging way to tell stories about clothes.
2: Tell me about your recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘When Women Wore the Trousers’. Where did the idea come from? What stories were most appealing to you, and how did these stories help tell the narrative?
Amy de la Haye introduced me to two CfFC alumni, Fiona McKay and Xenia Capacete Caballero who, like me, had an interest in work-wear. One of the projects we discussed was the story of the Pit Brow Lasses, who famously wore trousers to work in the mines in Wigan in Lancashire in the mid to late 19th Century. Fiona and Xenia had been commissioned to write a book on these women and we wondered if we could marry our interest in work-wear and the story of these pioneering women and turn it into a documentary.
What appealed to me was the social history aspect and that women were the centre of the narrative and that it also explored fashion intellectually. I have worked in radio for many years but never made a full-length feature and it was important to tell the story in a way that engaged the listener for 30 minutes. I thought this was a really strong idea and submitted a proposal to the bi-annual Radio 4 commissioning rounds.
I spent quite a lot of time with Fiona and Xenia, trying to work out the best way to tell the story and knew that I had to add lots of texture and colour, hence the music that runs through the programme, the location recording, use of archive material and crucially, having the actor Maxine Peak to read the oral testimonies from the Pit Brow Lasses. One of the highlights was interviewing Amy (de la Haye) in the British Library discussing the Society for Rational Dress Gazette. She provided crucial fashion facts in a very engaging manner and it was great to give her a platform when I had learned so much from her. There is no doubt that the research skills and the confidence in my abilities that the Masters instilled in me were responsible for a successful commission.
3: The notion and practice of ‘curation’ is rapidly and increasingly taking on new meanings – the process of curating is morphing and changing before our eyes. Where do you see the practice of fashion curation in general going? How do you see your own practice evolving?
I think fashion curation is increasingly important in our cultural landscape and see the practice thriving and growing. I relish the fact that it is fluid rather than fixed. One only has to look at the prominence of fashion exhibitions in museums around the world to realise that they are as vital as the next Manet or Picasso block-buster. Fashion archives tell us as much about social history as a pot or a painting and they should be given the same space and opportunity for discourse.
I see my own practice evolving in a non-museum space. Although I would love the experience of working in a museum; the reality is that unless one is prepared to volunteer for a considerable length of time, getting a paid job is well-nigh impossible. I have no museum training and I see that as a positive because I’ve always found the rules and regulations around museums too restricted for the path I would like to take. I come from a theatre background and have put on shows in all sorts of spaces which are not traditional theatres. My preference is to tell stories through immersion, interaction and story-telling and to knock down that fourth wall. If I can achieve that as a fashion curator; I’ll be happy with that.
Belinda Naylor is a producer and researcher at BBC Radio Four.
For more about studying MA Fashion Curation
Read more from Belinda here