Our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library display for October marks Black History Month with a showcase of writers from around the world. From literary giants like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to unjustly neglected writers like Bessie Head, our display is a starting point from which to explore black voices.
Among many from the Americas we have: Zora Neale Hurston, who portrays the harsh realities of life in the Deep South in nevertheless rich poetic language; Ralph Ellison whose prose urges the reader to confront the painful truths of political struggle; Maya Angelou and Alice Walker whose appearance on the literary scene in the 1980s offered a view of black women’s lives written from the inside.
African writers like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and more recent British voices like those of Aminatta Forna, Colin Grant and Jackie Kay investigate cultural dislocations and rediscoveries of heritage across continents.
We have interspersed our biographies this month with the works of some of these writers and hope you will enjoy both.
We are inaugurating a new strand of our displays this month, which will link some of the books in our Biography Store Collection to current film and TV, and also commemorate those famous people who have recently died. So this month, as the film “Goodbye, Christopher Robin” comes out, we have books on A. A. and Christopher Milne, and on Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe who are portrayed in the film “Borg vs. McEnroe”. Sad news of the death of Liz Dawn prompted us to display her autobiography.
The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library
While many of us will be familiar with major actors such as Gandhi, Jinnah, Mountbatten, and Nehru, staff researching for the display this month discovered that, for example, in 1905 Curzon, as viceroy, divided Bengal into two administrative divisions along roughly religious lines, though the resulting political crisis led to re-unification in 1911.
Also on the British ‘side’, a new viceroy, Minto, took over in 1906, and Kitchener was also involved in events around this time as British military chief in India.
Edwin Montagu, as Secretary of State for India, was responsible in 1919 for several reforms that gave Indians more influence in India.
Atlee and Cripps of the post-War Labour government were also involved, the former having been a supporter of Indian independence for years.
There were also many less well-known politically active individuals from the Indian ‘side’ at the time, including one woman, Sarojini Naidu, a poet, and the first woman to become the governor of an Indian state (United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, 1947-49).
Maulana Azad, the senior Muslim leader of the Indian National Congress, promoted Hindu-Muslim unity, secularism, and socialism, and was prominent in the development of education in India after independence.
Subhas Chandra Bose, another senior Congress politician, later fell out with other Congress leaders and tried to end British rule in India with the help of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.
The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library
To get us in the mood for next month’s Wimbledon Tennis Championships, our Biography Collection display for June (in the foyer of the Lending Library at Kensington Central Library) features stars of the Wimbledon courts from the distant and more recent past.
One of the most interesting features of our unique collection is that its huge breadth and scope (over 80,000 volumes spanning more than two centuries) allows the opportunity to rediscover names that have receded over the decades, as well as those we grew up with (who in the 50-ish age group can forget the flowing hairstyles and theatrical tantrums of Wimbledon in the 70s?!) and those we’ll be hearing a lot of again over the next few weeks.
So, we’ll be displaying a fascinating book on Maud Watson, who was the first ever Ladies’ Singles champion in 1884 (though the MBE she eventually received was not for her tennis glory but for her work as a nurse during the First World War). Victorian modesty prevailed even on the courts, and it is difficult to imagine how she played at all in a floor length skirt over corset and petticoats. Alongside her will be much more recent, glossily illustrated books on the likes of Andy Murray and Serena Williams.
I have to admit my knowledge of tennis could be written on a ticket for Centre Court, but the stories in these books cover universal themes of ambition, glory, struggle and how emotions and relationships are managed in the glare of publicity and the rigour of remorseless training from a very young age. And that thwack of ball on racket, against the cheers and groans of the crowd, must be one of the most evocative sounds of this time of year.
If you would like to learn more about our special collection of biographies, we will be having an event on Wednesday 14 June, from 2 to 3pm as part of the Festival of Learning. We will be giving an introduction to the collection and then a chance to look at some of our most interesting books. Book a free place at your nearest Kensington and Chelsea library.
Did you know that Kensington Central Library is home to the Biography Collection? It contains approximately 80,000 books with over 1,000 new titles added each year. One of our readers has said that it ‘equals the British Library.’
It began as part of the Metropolitan Special Collection which was set up among the London boroughs in the 1950s. Every title in the collection is available to view and borrow.
Every month, the library staff put together a display from the collection; this month’s display features the Kennedy family to mark the centenary of the birth of the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy on 29 May.
Warning! Searching the online resource the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) can be addictive as “all human life is here”. Most people use this dictionary to search for a specific individual. However you may not be aware that using the advanced search options and selecting other search criteria will create lists of names of the great and the good… and also, it must be said, the not so good.
To use the advanced search facility, click on one of the “More Search Options” displayed beneath the main search box.
Curiosity led me to check how many people there were with Kensington and Chelsea links by using these terms in the ‘place search’ category option. The result was over 3000! However this figure is misleading, as a casual check of a few entries revealed that the connection was often limited either to their unfortunate death in one of the borough’s hospitals or attendance at one of the borough’s schools.
I whittled down the 1975 Kensington entries to 122 by selecting the “Law and Crime” category from the drop down list of occupations (found in the “Fields of Interest” search category). Amongst the list of lawyers and judges I found John Christie, the Notting Hill mass murderer.
You may wonder why he is included. The DNB does not only include the great and the good. To quote the website “the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century”. In the case of Christie, the miscarriage of justice leading to the hanging of the innocent Timothy Evans, to quote Christie’s DNB entry, “played a significant part to the subsequent abolition of the death penalty in Britain”.
Finally it is also worth investigating the “Themes” tab to display the large number of collective biographies brought together under such topics as climbers of Everest, British monarchs, First World War poets and significant military and political leaders involved in that conflict. Other lists include a number of founder members of institutions and other significant groups.
Recently, Rachel Worth, Professor of Dress and Fashion at Arts University Bournemouth, delivered a presentation on the history of Marks & Spencer at Chelsea Library. This post is based on what we learnt about the high street giant from Rachel’s fascinating and insightful lecture.
From very humble beginnings in a Penny Bazaar stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market in 1884, Michael Marks and – from a partnership that began in 1894 – Thomas Spencer together built a company that would become Britain’ s biggest clothing retailer.
Today, Marks & Spencer is a company synonymous with quality, reliability and customer care, but do we associate it with fashion?
Well – yes! Marks & Spencer was at the forefront of bringing accessible and fashionable clothing to the masses, at the same time being a pioneer in using new textiles, displays techniques and marketing methods – including the use of “supermodels” before the word was ever invented.
In the 1890s most working class people made their own clothes, and initially the market stall sold haberdashery (dressmaking materials). The sales slogan of “Don’t Ask The Price, It’s A Penny” summed up the business model. By the outbreak of World War One the company had expanded considerably and had diversified into homewares, but clothing remained at the heart of the business.
Marks & Spencer revolutionised how we bought clothes and also how clothes were sold, focusing on ready-to-wear affordable goods; high quality, well designed and fashionable clothing. In the 1920s M&S was ahead of most other retailers in its marketing and retailing methods setting an upper price limit on clothes. It also accepted the return of unwanted items, giving a full cash refund if the receipt was shown, no matter how long ago the product was purchased, which was unusual for the time.
It entered into long term relationships with British manufacturers, and sold clothes of the “St Michael” brand, introduced in 1928. As the company dealt directly with manufacturers it was able to keep prices low and to maintain input in the design and quality of clothes sold in its stores. It was one of the first companies to introduce standardisation in sizing. It also aimed to cater for all members of the family; children’s clothing and ready-to-wear suits being particularly popular.
Pioneering methods included having its own textile laboratory to enable the testing of fabrics and dyes before mass production, and the use of rainmaking machines to test water repellent fabrics. New synthetic textiles were particularly popular between the 1950s and 1970s. These included Tricell which was first used in 1957. Another synthetic fibre called Courtelle was first launched, nationally, by Marks & Spencer during the 60s as was Crimplene and Terylene.
These fabrics were easy to wash, often drip dry, easy iron and held their colour or shape. Terylene, for instance, meant the fashionable 50’s woman could have a permanently pleated non-iron skirt. The introduction of Lycra in the 1980s revolutionised hosiery, swimwear and underwear because of its elastic properties.
Marks and Spencer has always been design conscious, and no more so than in the 1950s when designs were Paris-inspired with an interpretation of the New Look being all the rage. Colour coordinated clothing and jersey knitwear enabled the fashionable women on a budget to change her look , updating key pieces when on a tight budget.
Display and marketing was always a key element of the presentation of M&S fashion ranges. Before the days of mass advertising it was the window display that dominated; these were eye catching and innovative (see above). Early advertising concentrated on the opening of new stores, but post-war the company began to employ models in print media using the well know faces of the day, including Twiggy in the 1960s:
The heyday of this form of mass marketing was the 1990s when M&S began to use supermodels such as Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer. Here is Vogue’s front cover of July 1996 with Amber Valletta wearing a Marks & Spencer shirt, which we found in our archives at Chelsea Library:
If fashion is a concept based around our attitudes to clothing then Marks and Spencer is part of its fabric: with its high quality/ good value ethos, innovative and strong relationships with customers, and its technological innovations it led the way in fashion for the masses. Our thanks to Rachel for revealing some of the secrets to the success of the company over the last hundred years.
We noticed some new trends on the King’s Road over the past week… garden inspired shop-fronts, beautiful floral dresses and new visitors to Chelsea Library, who are exploring the area whilst visiting the Chelsea Flower Show. Surrounded by so much floral beauty and enthusiasm, we’ve also caught the flower fever and been inspired to explore fashion and flowers in our Costume & Fashion collection.
The Chelsea Flower show in the 1920s:
And we love this image of the flower show in 1918, showing off the fashions of the time:
In our Vogue magazine archives we found lots of garden-inspired illustrations, fashions and adverts from the May and June issues in the 1920s. In May 1926, as well as checking out the flower show, here is what you mind find shopping along Sloane Street:
And from the same month, an illustration of a fashionable garden of the time:
And when it rains…
We liked this arty picture from Vogue May 1924, with the shadows of trees in the background, entitled Flowered crepe is a medium of the mode:
In June 1929, a model poses in a rock garden:
In fact, everywhere we looked in the May and June Vogue issues we found flowers and gardens. Here is Twiggy in May 1967 and on her dress is a “Pyramid Myriad of Flowers, triangles of tiny multi colored ones….”:
In the 60s Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell had a chic Chelsea boutique Quorum, and we found this great floral design of theirs from 1968:
Fast forward again to May 1988, a budding affair:
We hope you enjoyed taking a quick browse through the flowers and fashions at Chelsea Library. There is lots more to discover in the library and online, in the Berg Fashion Library Online, which you can access for free with your library card.
Maja Erhovnic, Tri-borough Reference Librarian, writes:
In the 1960s and 70s London libraries collaborated to create designated specialised collections that would together form a remarkable London-wide collections net covering different sections of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Kensington Central Library’s subjects were 920 (Biographies) and 390 (Folklore and Customs).
Although the idea of a centrally co-ordinated mega collection has disappeared from the local authorities’ agendas, some libraries keep and maintain their specialist collections up to date. Here in Kensington Reference Library we stock the Folklore and Customs Collection.
The Folklore and Customs Collection covers a variety of interesting topics that range from Witchcraft, Sex & Marriage, and Feminism, to Mythology and Death Customs (take a look at our previous post, Vikings, Pumpkins and Dancing with Deer Horns).
A large sequence covers a family of tales (fairy tales, folk tales, myths etc) from across the globe.
One of the values of these types of collections is archiving books that would have otherwise been withdrawn – probably decades ago. What we have here is a rich source for anyone interested in how people all over the world tell stories of their existence, how those stories change over time and how over time their essence stays the same. What’s the essence of people’s tales?
The way I personally see stories is that storytelling is about the reasoning, struggles and joys of our existence through imagination.
And that imagination is as vast as the universe. And imagining doesn’t have to stop once the story is told, even in cases when one story is already written down. Stories transform, they always will. Because life changes, the world changes, why would stories of our existence stay the same? They don’t, they change.
Thinking about this recently, I noticed how the notion of transforming the stories we thought were set in stone seems to be talked about more and more, and how these story transformations are reaching mainstream. I think that’s a good thing. I read Russell Brand’s children’s story The Pied Piper of Hamelin yesterday and though it was beautiful.
But don’t let my opinion about tales and stories take over your view of what the essence of storytelling is. Make your own story. But before that, I invite you to listen to another story, another view – that of an author of a book, a writer of a song, a painter of a mural, a stranger at the till, a person down the pub, a colleague, a neighbour, a fellow traveller…What is their story telling you about you?What is the story you want to tell?
I wish all readers an open heart and an abundance of beautiful stories in 2015!
If you are interested in looking at any of the materials in our Folklore and Customs collection, please ask a member of staff or contact the libraries team.
Have you ever looked at old family photographs from before 1940 and wondered what they could tell you? I found out that they can give a direct connection into the lives of the people portrayed in them through the clothes that people wore.
In an absolutely fascinating presentation at Chelsea Library in late October by the fashion expert and author Jayne Shrimpton, I learnt about history of fashion in ordinary family photographs.
In the nineteenth century photography was a cutting edge technology, but by the early twentieth century photography became more accessible with the advent of the Box Brownie camera. This meant that ordinary families could start to take their own photos and as a result pictures were more informal and can give us more information on the daily lives and fashion preference of our forebears. This eventually began to replace the more formal professional images often printed on postcards done in a studio setting.
Jayne showed us that by reading the fashions in a photograph correctly you can date images, but you can also study the history of fashion by looking at the images.
Fashion a hundred years ago was moving away from the formal and quite restrictive styles of the late Victorian era.The period between 1910-14 saw the development of a much more practical style with the introduction of shirts and ties for working women, and the gradual raising of hemlines. That fashion staple the pencil skirt first appeared. It was during this time the lounge suit for men began to appear and moustaches became all the rage.
Women of all classes would dress for formal occasions, and we saw some great images of women in afternoon dress of linen or cotton, wearing extremely large hats and gloves even when taking tea with their neighbours outside the back door.
Children’s clothing began to change: some of the photos we were shown had little boys still dressed as girls until they were of an age to be “ breeched”, when they would start to wear trousers or even shorts. By 1914 girl’s dress was moving towards a more boyish or more practical style, maintaining their femininity by wearing a huge bow on the side of their heads.
The development of more active life styles led to the development of sportswear and also influenced the introduction of knitwear for a more casual look. Jayne showed us images of specific clothing for cycling, golf, and tennis and for the more wealthy and intrepid ski-ing and skating outfits
During World War One women’s garments became shorter, they began to cut their hair shorter and the overall look was much looser. Many young women undertook war work whether in factories or in the Women’s Land Army (est. 1917), where for the first time women wore breeches or jodphurs, covered by an overall coat to maintain modesty. Of course after the war it was straight back to wearing skirts.
When dating your family photographs Jayne advise looking not only the rise and fall of hemlines, but also what people are doing and what is in the background, for example the modes of transport, so if there is a car you can often date the image from the make and model.
In the 1920s people still “Dressed to Impress” but studio images were in decline and these would only be taken for special occasions such as weddings, christenings etc. In these images as Jayne explained, you can see a history of fashion through the generations with older women still wearing black floor length gowns and their daughters and granddaughters in more contemporary clothes and hairstyles.
By the late twenties and early thirties the photos showed another shift for both men and women. This is particularly true of sport and leisure wear. During this period it became increasingly fashionable to have a suntan and as a result women’s bathing costumes began to change from the modest and concealing fashions of the early 20’s to the much skimpier versions with cutaway sections by the 30’s, and other beachwear clothes such as the introduction of beach pyjama’s.
Men’s swimwear generated some discussion after the presentation because men used to swim in the nude but with the introduction of mixed bathing this was no longer acceptable. By late Victorian times they were wearing trunks but with a vest section which everyone agreed was to hold the trunks up as they were of a knitted fabric . Most of us may have heard a story from our grandparents about their swimwear being so wet and heavy it fell down when they came out of the water!
During this time men’s began to wear informal styles, flannel trousers, sports jumpers, plus fours, and even on occasion shorts. Three piece suits became more relaxed, and had a boxier style; pinstripes were popular as was the Trilby hat.
Women’s and girl’s hemlines rose even further to knee length and their hair became shorter. Knitwear became an established part of dress and new fabrics such as jersey and rayon enabled more women to look stylish and modern and to keep up with the latest trends.
I went home after the talk and dug out some of the family photos and looked at them with renewed interest- large hats, hairstyles, hemlines, were all there and as a result of Jayne’s talk I was able to get a better idea of the dates.
If you are interested in fashion, or forthcoming fashion related events, why not join our mailing list by e-mailing your name and contact details to email@example.com. Or, if you follow this blog, you will see regular features on our fashion and costume collection, and you can look at photographic images from our archives in our local studies Library Time Machine blog.
With thanks to Jayne Shrimpton, who allowed us to use her images here. You can find these photos, and much more, in her book Family Photographs & How to Date Them.
Shrimpton, Jayne. Family Photographs & How to Date Them. (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2008) pp.123, 138, 161 and 163.