‘A crucial area of thought in all the social sciences at present is the relationship between people and things.’ (Gosden and Marshall)
Handling peoples’ clothes in an archive or a museum, particularly clothes that belonged to dead people, can be a powerful experience. They are not simply empty, discarded pieces of material, but rather retain their meaning and impressions depending on the person they once belonged to. Gosden and Marshall refer to this as the ‘cultural biography of objects’ – in that material culture can form its own value and create its own life story depending upon who once owned it and the life processes that it may have passed through. For me, clothing also offers some link to the physicality of a person, especially if they are now gone.
In the old Cunard building in Liverpool, the British Music Experience has on display in a glass cabinet some dresses that belonged to Dusty Springfield. One is full length and turquoise; the second is short, pink, and silk. It is odd seeing these dresses suspended on headless mannequins when they are so familiar to anyone who has seen them featuring in footage of Dusty performing. I was particularly drawn to the turquoise dress which was rather plain apart from the beaded neck and hemline.
The sleeves feature turquoise bows set amongst flowers and crystals and elaborate hemming. It falls, from an empire neckline, straight to the floor. Despite being especially designed for Dusty there was a curious homemade feel about the dress. Information to the side of the display claimed that Dusty always wanted attention drawn to her face when she was on TV and so often the necklines and bodices of her dresses would be embellished to draw the eye upwards. While it was possible to see the material and dimensions of the dress, it was not possible to see how the dress moved. I started to look for footage and pictures of Dusty wearing the dress and managed to find some, though it is brief and grainy, further highlighting the somewhat spectral nature of her absence. In some ways that is the melancholy of clothes in a museum, they serve to highlight that the owner is not there. I was surprised how fluid the dress looked, how loose the beading was, and its shimmery-ness, despite the film being black and white.
Yet as a cultural object, the dress contains a history. It has survived and outlived Dusty herself. It is a link to the past, but the dress now also has a significance and life of its own. There is an immediacy about it too – unlike a flat photograph, a three-dimensional object can evoke and invoke the physical in different ways. We see the dress and think of Dusty. The past and the present become drawn together and with an object preserved in a museum there is a certain amount of security about its future too. I like the play of presence and absence. I also like objects, even when – perhaps especially when – they are melancholy objects.
The British Music Experience, Cunard Building, Liverpool L3 1DS