Manuela Menzi’s dissertation on the Elizabethan ruff was a little different than most, it contained an experimental practical element. The essay won the Cultural & Historical Studies award (given across both Fashion and Textiles and Jewellery programmes) so we caught up with the BA Textile Design graduate to say congratulations and to hear what it was like to dress like an Elizabethan.
Congratulations on your prize. How did you choose the ruff as your subject?
I am interested in body transformation and how we restrict and deform our bodies, so started reading all I could find. There was a lot about the corset, tattoos and so on, but almost nothing about the neck. Which is odd, because all over the world there are amazing techniques on how humans reshape and restrain the neck.
It’s a decidedly historical object…
I think fashion is especially good at digging up the past. Fashion cycles can be long or short, but there are so many historic ideas just waiting to be reinvented. The ruff is a good example; the idea has been dormant but if you look closely you’ll see that it’s being reinvented by several designers from Alexander McQueen to Gareth Pugh.
You made and wore your own ruffs! Do you think historical research should be combined with performative and embodied practice?
For me that practical angle is very important. I spent months reading about how it felt to wear a ruff but this was all overshadowed by the experience of wearing one myself. I found that my perception and physicality changed a lot. I was forced to stretch my neck as far as I could and my back became extremely straight, it might have improved my posture!
The eating and reading were really difficult, as I had to change my basic habits, it was impossible to see my plate or my book. I dropped a lot of my food over and over, some of it onto the ruffs, some of it onto my lap.
Fashion is so strongly linked to the human body, it is only natural and also quite easy to wear whatever you are writing about. It’s a luxury to work or study in an industry where the experience is so immediate and personal.
On awarding Menzi with the prize, Jane Tynan, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies, commented: “We felt it demonstrated an original and creative contribution to fashion history. The dissertation is based on thorough and rigorous research and sophisticated analysis. Manuela’s use of ‘living history’ – reconstructing and wearing several different styles of ruff – showed real commitment to her research, offering an intriguing insight into the subject.”