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Dr Ben Whyman graduated from London College of Fashion's MA Fashion Curation in 2010 and completed his PhD research degree in 2019. He is the manager of the Centre for Fashion Curation (CfFC), UAL.
As manager of CfFC (based at LCF) since 2012, I have been busy working on funding bids and our approach to the Covid-19 lockdown, which significantly impacted on most of our projects. Thinking laterally was key during this time.
The changing landscape of the world is only going to increase the challenges. But between these restrictions there are the spaces for potential, where exciting creativity can and is emerging, to help us tell stories about the clothes people wear. We just have to explore our work, past and present, and interrogate the gaps in-between these restrictions to unearth new directions of travel.
It was in my sub-conscious I think from a very young age; I loved visiting local museums and galleries and looking through books of old paintings. Is it a surprise my first degree is in Art History?! I then undertook a post-grad diploma in Museum Studies (at the same time I worked as a curatorial and exhibitions assistant in a publicly-funded art gallery). I wanted to understand how heritage, museums and curation worked together. Over a long period, as I was finding my place in the world (including moving to the UK and working in arts project management), I came to study a short course in fashion and lifestyle journalism at LCF (early 2000s). I then secured a job at LCF, and soon after started the MA in Fashion Curation. Studying this programme gave me time to understand that all my previous skills in visual and material culture were leaning towards my personal interest in clothing, memory and the biography of objects. My curiosity about how clothes are part of our cultural and social narratives and our personal and private lives came together in one course.
In 2012 I commenced my PhD (part-time). I could shape all these interests into my thesis, giving me the opportunity to dive deeply into my fascinations.
Creativity is contagious. Being surrounded by a group of imaginative, creative, rigorous researchers and practitioners who inspire me with their questions, is contagious. ‘Activate’ is a word I associate with CfFC.
CfFC have just launched the ‘Exhibiting Fashion’ online archive, which is very exciting. It is a resource for students, academics, journalists, anyone interested in the history of displaying fashion. We are working hard to ensure our archive has a global reach. We realised, once we got started, just how many exhibitions of physical fashion objects there have been around the world! It’s one of those “forever ongoing” projects.
What a question to ask someone who completed their PhD a year ago!! There’s a lot of necessary soul searching, finding equilibrium after seven years part-time study and juggling the day job. I’m getting close to publishing my PhD research in a way I’m happy with. Pondering what comes next is gratifying….
I looked at various MA courses and PhD supervisors at different Universities, but the expertise based at LCF cemented my decision.
As soon as I read the course outline (this was in 2008), everything clicked for me. I realised all my interests and study to this point would stand me in good stead for this course. I still remember my interview with the course leaders at the time, Amy (Professor de la Haye) and Judith (Professor Clark). I was nervous, but it soon turned into a fascinating conversation about displaying dress, men’s clothing and studying. Their support on the course (and later, on the PhD) was essential and vital to my enjoyment and success.
On the MA: engagement with students as interested in the field as you are. Discussions in class with Amy and Judith. Judith reading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in class one day (it brought the practice of spatial awareness alive).
On the PhD: engaging with my Director of Studies, Amy, on my long part-time journey brought to life the joy of creative research. My thesis was in a conventional format (written rather than practice-based), so we played with words a lot which was enjoyable. Also – we re-imagined what we could do with a conventional thesis, exploring our understanding of writing as practice.
Having conversations with my co-supervisors Claire Wilcox and Alan Cannon-Jones was also hugely beneficial to my research journey. Being able to explore ideas by bouncing them around, hearing them land in the room – did they make sense? How could I re-craft that idea? Those small conversations had a huge impact on the final thesis.
The whole process has made me “research” courageous – to question, to analyse other people’s work, and how my research is reflected within the field. Rigour is another contagious element of research – once you get going with a body of work it becomes your workmate. The more you uncover, the more you realise you need and want to find out more! A wonderful vortex of contradictions.
State the obvious (be brave).
Grant me a couple of pieces of advice.
Writing your thesis: the way I work, I write a lot. And then I write some more. And then I refine things, edit. Take the reader on your journey. Highlight transitions.
Our place in the field of fashion studies: we are just part of a bigger picture. Without those researchers and theorists who have come before us, we would have little to work with. Our explorations now are about building on those historical ideas and developing fresh ideas around dress and fashion for future generations. We’re on a continuum. Be humble.
Living with contradictions in fashion studies: we need to learn to live with contradictions in our research and in the ongoing development of fashion studies. Fashion is a fundamental element of most societies and cultures, and there are many contradictions within that. As theorist Audre Lourde put it, we need to learn to face our contradictions personally, and in our position in society and culture. We need to inhabit them and live with them. Contradiction is also where a lot of creativity resides – it offers that space within which to explore new creativity. Opposition is healthy, as long as we undertake our interactions with integrity, rigour and empathy.