Research Network

Compact with Lipstick Holder and Integrated Cigarette Case, brass and enamel, 1950s, DMDA handling collection

Dress accessories were as ubiquitous in the past as they are in our contemporary culture. Carried, manipulated, admired, and enjoyed, these objects were embraced by both men and women. They could be of artisanal making, mass produced, or a combination of both. Some were devices of health management, offering us glimpses into the medical principles and therapeutics of the past. They also help us to understand gender constructions, cultural borrowing, and the wider trading networks that brought their raw materials to Europe. Others reveal untold stories about innovations in design and technology and their commercialisation. But their processes of production also carried a human and environmental cost, from traditional or more modern forms of slavery, to the plundering of resources.

These little objects – usually abundant rather than rare, simple and cheap rather than self-consciously meaningful and precious – defy the fixed classifications and terminologies into which they are now often frozen within museum catalogues. The research of their many-layered stories requires many specialists from different fields of study. The DMDA aspires to be a forum for the truly interdisciplinary exploration of these themes which, in turn, enhances the museum visitor’s engagement and their experience of the objects.

We are specifically interested in collaborating with scientists on a deeper and nuanced understanding of the many different materials that dress accessories are made of. These range across different plastics, resins, metals, animal bone, ivory, silk, stones, enamel, porcelain and wood. We hope to forge interdisciplinary dialogues between humanities’ scholars and scientists with an expertise and interest in the study of such materials. The DMDA, in short, is not meant to be limited to the view of historians, but to radically open object-study to science and its public understanding.

Furthermore, the DMDA is committed to exploring the past by forging connections with contemporary beliefs and practice. In this way, the DMDA will interpret its exhibits not only synchronically, but where possible will also to read them diachronically. For example, our current understanding is that being close enough to smell someone else’s body odour shows that we are also too close to their potentially COVID-infected aerosols. Is this understanding related to the function of a vinaigrette in nineteenth-century Europe? Has the nineteenth-century belief in the medicinal powers of certain substances a comparator in superfoods and trendy smoothies in our own society? Does the tie-up between fashion and functionality that we see in mobile phones have correspondences in the past? We welcome the expertise of scholars, who can help us forge meaningful diachronic readings of this kind.

To achieve this, the DMDA has a handling collection of representative examples of all key object groups (see the ‘Project’ description). These can travel, be handled by both the general public and specialists, and can undergo any academic or laboratory investigation required to answer larger questions.

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