In her own words, Amber Jane Butchart ‘has had a lifelong love affair with dressing up, and is lucky enough to have turned this obsession into a career.’ Amber is a writer, broadcaster, historian and lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at the London College of Fashion She’s got an MA in History and Culture of Fashion and hosts the ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A, examining everything from the origins of gothic fashion to the legend that is David Bowie. She’s also fashion director at The Museum of Curiosities- her next event there looks at Pop Art and Fashion. And you can read more from Amber on her fashion history blog, Theatre of Fashion.
She’s just written a book about fashion’s obsession with all things sea; Nautical Chic is out at the end of the month.
OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
AB: I have a few different jobs so I’m never full time on any one project, which can be both a blessing and a nightmare in equal measure. It also means a ‘normal’ working day doesn’t really exist. At the moment I might spend my day lecturing or at the Jazz FM studio then will spend the evening researching sailor uniforms at home, or trawling through old magazines at London College of Fashion library.
OM: Have you always wanted to be a fashion historian?
AB: No, my career path has not been enormously straightforward. I’ve always been fascinated by old objects and they’ve always played a big part in my life. My initial degree was in English but I was more interested in the socio-historical context to the texts we were studying that the content of the texts themselves. I subsequently worked as Head Buyer at the vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, as my other love was old clothes. I was never interested in fashion as a system when I was growing up, I didn’t read fashion magazines as a teenager, but I was an avid charity shop scavenger and always loved dressing up and creating narratives through clothing. So it was through working with the objects themselves that I became interested in the history surrounding them. I studied for a Master’s degree in History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion, and the rest, as they say, is literally history.
OM: What was the hardest part about becoming a fashion historian?
AB: It’s not exactly a linear career trajectory, or a guaranteed wage, so the most difficult aspect is balancing work and life (i.e. making sure you don’t spend all your time working), and also making sure you can pay the rent! But the payoff is that you get to spend a lot of time researching, which I love.
OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
AB: Researching different areas for different projects, going through archives, discovering unknown or forgotten stories. Also seeing your research come together as a book is pretty good!
OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
AB: Hmmm, that’s difficult. Fashion as an industry is quite amenable to women in powerful positions, so not from that perspective.
But as a fashion historian sometimes people can be sneery about the ‘fashion’ element, which I feel is gendered, as fashion & clothing is traditionally seen as a ‘female’ area. History will tell you this isn’t entirely the case, however, for example King Louis XIV had a huge shoe obsession.
Generally no, I don’t feel like I’m treated differently, but I know there can be problematic issues in industries I work in, such as academia.
Amber on BBC Breakfast
OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become a fashion historian? What qualifications and experience do you need?
AB: I would say the best career advice is don’t give up. Basically, IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to establish a career in the creative or heritage sectors, you’re expected to do a lot of work for free which is really unfair as the system is privileging people who have resources to draw on to cover this. That’s why charities like Arts Emergency are so great, trying to extend the reach of arts careers more fairly across society.
So you have to have a lot of perseverance, to work extra jobs, or be prepared to live on very little for a long time. With regards to qualifications, I have an MA, but many people also go on to do a PhD. It’s not mandatory, and I’ve never been able to decide what one area to spend 3+ years working solidly on, but for a career in fashion academia it’s one of the established paths.
OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
AB: Well I don’t believe in fashion faux-pas, so I’m safe from that perspective, although I’m sure many people would disagree! Having your first book out is quite terrifying, as you’re constantly thinking you’ve got something wrong.
OM: What does success mean to you?
AB: Being able to pay my rent and bills, through doing the things that I love, while also maintaining a semblance of a social life.
OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
AB: The usual: equal pay, equal (and more subsidised) childcare, equal representation in parliament. Those structural changes are essential, and will help to address wider issues around women in public space, whether it’s a night club or a newspaper.
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