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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Martha Cruz

I am a researcher, writer, and editor interested in the social and cultural histories of fashion. 

My previous research looked at how late-nineteenth-century academic women in the UK dressed. I was interested in the notion that while the modern woman in London was characterised by her fashionable short hair, trousers, and her Crème de Menthe frappe drinking at Cafe Royal, women students were depicted as dowdy blue stockings having rejected the frivolities of fashion in lieu of more 'serious' interests. I looked particularly at women studying at Oxford and argued that they challenged the ‘cultural intelligibility of women’s fashionably-dressed bodies as docile and ornamental’, not by rejecting fashion but by reformulating their relationship to it. 

My research on the RCA/V&A programme continued looking at the themes of fashion, gender, and education, however, my area of focus shifted. After seeing the Africa Fashion exhibition, I started looking at West African, particularly Ghanaian fashion cultures. Missionary education and the import of cotton cloth were central to colonialism in West Africa. My Object essay focussed on the production (in Manchester) and consumption (in West Africa) of an alphabet wax print that 'allude[d] to the value of education' Following this research, my MA dissertation explored discussions of fashion in the interwar urban press in Accra, Ghana.

ABC 'Alludes to the value of Education'

When I first visited the Africa Fashion exhibition at the V&A I was drawn to a piece of fabric. On the rectangular sample was an alphabet in near totality, missing just half an ‘O’ and half an ‘H’. The alphabet was ordered, A to Z, arranged on illusory shelves that echoed a stack of building blocks given to children as didactic playthings. Below the podium-like stack lay a ribbon of cursive script, another alphabet, running not from beginning to end but from ‘k’ to ‘a’. Sprouting from the negative space between steps another perpendicular alphabet emerged as if etched into a solid surface, calling to mind a child’s handwriting ledger. These letters sat atop a crackled plane, and as my eye moved across it, it caught irregular spots and cracks, like the lines on a human palm. Just over a quarter of a clock sat in the top left corner - upside-down. Although in this sample there were no repeats, I could feel an iterative rhythm. Tilting my head, first to 90° and then straining to try and make a full 180°, I was unsure from where to view it.

abc ankara
Ankara c. 1948. London, Victoria and Albert Museum (CIRC.396A-1948)
clock with star letters coming out of it
TNA BT 52/ 2653 Registered Design 39417 28th July 1911

The fabric from which the sample was taken was designed and manufactured by the Calico Printer's Association (CPA) in Manchester and donated to the V&A’s Circulation Department by the CPA in 1948. It is a printed cotton, a wax print produced specifically for a West African market. Emerging early in the nineteenth century, initially through failed mimesis of Indonesian batik, wax prints became hugely important cross-cultural commodities exported from Manchester and Holland to West Africa. The sample is part of a subset of wax prints that depict the Roman alphabet, and the now ‘classic’ ABC wax print has been iteratively redesigned ever since its conception in 1904.

The exhibition interpretation panel read: "This sample of ankara features the popular 'ABC' pattern, which [...] alludes to the value of education."

I wanted to know more. Thus, I set out to explore why the alphabet was initially printed on cloth? Why the fabric initially sold? Why it remained so popular? How it came to symbolise education? Did the fabric serve a didactic purpose? How did the alphabet fall on the body? Could the alphabet be trademarked? Who might have worn it? In mid-century West Africa, when class, education, and colonialism were intimately intertwined how was this fabric consumed? What was the relationship between English literacy and dress in interwar West Africa?

a boy wearing the wax print fabric
Taken by Mary S. R. Sinclair, Ivory Coast, 16 February 1936. London, British Museum (Af, A16.55)
alphabet wax print
“Cloth”, 2000s, British Museum (Af2006,15.16)
market scene, girl second from left wears wax print
‘A Market Scene, Abuja’, Nigeria Magazine No. 33, 1950, p. 137. (Photographer unknown)

My research looked at design processes, records of consumption, and wider social histories in tandem, thinking about the social biography of the fabric and how and why it was iteratively redesigned and consumed. In order to do this I drew on a wide range of fabric samples, pattern books, oral history interviews, newspaper articles, magazines, photographs, and business records, alongside a body of design historical and anthropological literature. I visited the Science Museum and CPA archives in Manchester, and also worked with material from the V&A archives and the (extensive) records of the 'Board of Trade: Patents, Designs and Trade Marks Office and successors' held at the National Archives.

'Ordinary Native Attire will not be considered Fancy Dress'; Fashion, Gender, Class, and Nation in 1930s Accra

When researching West African literary culture for my object essay, I came across the writing of Mabel Dove. Born in Accra in 1905, Dove was a journalist and writer who, in 1954, was the first African woman to be elected into a national legislative body in the continent. An article announcing her entrance into the Gold Coast Assembly stated:

"In particular, she would press for legislation to regulate customary marriage laws which prove ineffective against those men who marry "cloth ladies" (illiterates) only to send them away when they intend to marry "frock ladies" (literate girls). Whether she will be able to convince the 103 men she will meet in the Assembly only the future can tell" (West African Review, September 1954, p. 829)

Having been researching a piece of fabric that 'alluded to the value of education', I was struck by the explicit link drawn between educational status and style of dress. I carried on researching Dove's work and found that she had anonymously co-authored a daily women's column published in the West African Times (the first African-owned daily paper published in what is now Ghana) from 1931-1935 under the penname ‘Marjorie Mensah’. The column often focussed on the intertwinement of nationalist and feminist ideals, drawing on a range of global cosmopolitan frameworks in order to redesign a modern African, or more specifically 'Gold Coast', womanhood. ‘Marjorie’ discussed dress extensively, and, whether she was commenting on the clothing of those around her (often at elite social events in Accra), discussing the ‘correct’ ways to wear new apparel on sale at the newly opened Kingsway department store, or advocating for the adoption of national dress for women, there were always inflections of the political.

Through a close reading of the column, alongside trade records, and contemporary photographic sources, my research unpacked themes of fashion, gender, education, class, and nation in 1930s Accra. Mabel Dove and the other Marjorie Mensah writers fashioned a cosmopolitan usable present that was pragmatic, seductive, and keenly aware of the tactical importance of visibility on a global stage. By looking at fashions that were critiqued in the column, it also became possible to think about a more diverse set of fashion cultures that were locally oriented.

mabel dove, smiling in the west african review
One of the few photographs I could find of Mabel Dove. Published in the West African Review in 1954.
first page of the west african times
The first issue of the West African Times. 19/03/1931.
“I would like to see the ordinary native cloth in the hand of some woman of creative genius transformed into something approaching in loveliness and simplicity the dress of the women of Ancient Greece. I should like to see a new Helen walk the walls of our mother Troy. I am firm in the opinion that our women certainly look more of a representative type when dressed in cloth than in all the tinsel, frills and finery of the Western world. I have seen more natural beauty, grace, and charm among those of us who are called "cloth women" - a term I very much object to - than the high street lady in the latest creations of London and Paris. There is a sort of justice that the cloth seems to bestow to the tall, elegantly well poised form of some of our women that would make an unexcelled "Reynolds" -- so perfect, form, poise, manner and taste seem to blend in a grand unison of natural expression and simple splendour. Paris in the age of Madame Pompadour and the splendid Louis is a different Paris today. Though one age seems to be the parent of the other. There is no reason why the simple cloth cannot pass through a similar transition as dress did in Europe.”

'Marjorie Mensah', Women's Corner, The West African Times, 23 April 1931

To Be Adorned

I wrote a short essay for Anna-Rose McChesney and Billy Paterson's recent photobook "To Be Adorned".

"‘To Be Adorned’ is a collaborative project between photographer: Anna-Rose McChesney and graphic designer: Billy Paterson. Together we have created a photobook containing 100 photos of people in outfits that they find meaningful in personal spaces in their rooms such as their bedrooms or living rooms. The book contains a foreword and introduction written by the sociologist Angela McRobbie and an essay about social studies of fashion by a History of Design student called Martha Cruz. It also includes 100 interviews Anna-Rose carried out with each of the subjects she photographed."

The book can be preordered on Anna-Rose's website.

essay in book, held open by hands
picture from book
picture of book