Last year, University of Westminster commissioned White Line Projects to set up and curate a menswear archive that would be part of the fashion department at Harrow Campus and on the same floor as the newly established MA Menswear Course, run by Ike Rust. The brief was to create a handling archive for both education and the industry. It has been an amazing journey for us, where we not only worked with a great team but we also had the opportunity to handle and research menswear pieces.
Established as the Westminster Menswear Archive, the archive has examples of some of the most important and exciting menswear garments from the last 100 years, including garments by some of the most iconic menswear designers, military garments, workwear and sportswear. Although the majority of the pieces in the archive are garments, there is also a growing collection of accessories and related ephemera.
The archive is aimed to encourage and develop the study of menswear design from a technical and functional point of view. The archive is also intended to advance the general knowledge of menswear as a design discipline and as a resource tool to inform contemporary menswear design.
From the very early stages of this project, the archive was very popular with students from the MA and BA fashion design courses, including both mens and womenswear. Students found the archive useful for carrying out research throughout their design process. Some days we would even have three students at the same time!
The archive is currently divided in eight main collections. As you enter the archive, the first thing you see is the Designers collection, which includes pieces from iconic designers such as Alexander McQueen and Massimo Osti, as well as alumni such as Liam Hodges and recent Westminster Fashion graduates.
Of particular interest to students, due to the construction, fastenings, prints and materials, is the Active and Casual Sportswear collection. It holds a diverse range of garments, from motorcycling and hunting jackets to an extensive range of mountaineering outfits, as well as brands such as Adidas to United States Rubber, to name but a few.
Currently, the largest collection in the archive is Uniforms. It includes a substantial selection of police and firefighters uniforms, as well as postman and other professions. But the most popular and largest section within this collection includes military garments, with coveralls and camouflage being the most popular items amongst students.
Smaller collections developing rapidly are accessories and tailoring, as well as the denim and heritage brands. By the time we finished the project, the archive was also starting to collect pieces from the 19th century.
There are numerous steps to take in the process for setting up of an archive. In summary, first and foremost is to determine the aim and the objectives of the archive and secure funding, followed by, amongst other things, acquiring garments and ephemera, auditing and cataloguing them, curating the collections, and developing a Collection Policy for management, development and maintenance.
We worked with Westminster Fashion to develop a brief which, together with the director of the archive Andrew Groves’ tireless campaigning, not only contributed towards approving the concept of the archive by the university but also secured funding from the Quintin Hogg Trust for the set up and the maintenance of the archive for at least one year.
At the time, the fashion department already held about 100 pieces that were part of the study collection for students and teachers. Over the course of two years, the university acquired an impressive collection of around 900 pieces. Some garments were acquired through donations from teachers, alumni as well as current students. Yet, the majority came from auctions, such as Kerry Taylor Auctions, and online purchases.
The next step was the process of auditing, consisting of conducting condition reports for each of the garments in order to assess their conservation status, as well as research on dates, materials, provenance, designer, etc, in order to decide how the archive would be organised in terms of collections.
After finalising the curation of the archive, we created the ID codes that identify the garments, as well as designing the swing tags, which contain the main information of each garment. Alongside this, we produced bespoke padded hangers tailored to the size of each garment with the help of students, as well as sourcing all materials such as boxes, garment and bags, before developing a collections policy. We also collaborated with furniture designers to design bespoke furniture for the archive. In addition, we advised on online database platforms that were functional and user friendly not only for the archivist but also for students and industry.
The main challenge that arose during this project was to create a handling collection that was totally accessible to students while following museum conservation standards. The brief was to create a handling collection to work as a resource for teaching and learning, however, the fashion department did not want to replicate a museum setting, with garments hidden from view.
The level of accessibility to the garments was very important for the university and importance was placed on students being able to examine the garments up close. The experience of the visitor was crucial here. Therefore, museum protocols would not necessarily apply in the same way in an archive of this nature.
As open storage, the archive space brought numerous conservation challenges in terms of environmental controls and infestation risks. We also identified that some garments needed more strict handling and storing rules than others due to their conservation condition, value or the type of material prone to infestation.
Taking all those considerations into account, it became obvious that a compromise and a balance for minimising all those factors had to be taken. Therefore, we chose beautiful tyvek bags and museum conservation boxes only for those garments at higher risk.
In particular to those hidden pieces, the swing tags with information and images became crucial to minimise the need to handle the garments unnecessarily. In order to create a consistent and modern aesthetic for the garment images, a Styleshoot machine was acquired. Mostly used within retail to photograph large volumes of items within a short amount of time, this has enabled the team to create images for both internal records as well as for external promotional use for the archive. Social media tools such as Instagram and Facebook enable both students and members of the industry to keep up to date with new acquisitions and get a sense of the archive’s importance as a design resource.
We would like to give our thanks to the following people involved in this project:
To Ike Rust, MA Menswear director, and Robert Leach, BA Fashion Design senior lecturer, for their advice and support.
And finally to Andrew Groves for granting us such a great opportunity to work on this project.