Grant Watson<You made a transition between studying textiles and fashion in art school to working in the fashion industry as a designer. How was it to be working as a black fashion designer in Britain in the late ’80s?
Christine Checinska<Well, in the 1990s I became really senior at Laura Ashley, rising in the ranks to become Principal Designer before I left. And in that position, I remember going to represent the brand at Vogue House. When I arrived, I had the distinct feeling of someone almost looking past me, as though I wasn’t the one, couldn’t be the person from Laura Ashley. . . maybe I was introducing the person from Laura Ashley, maybe I was the driver of the person, or the PA. I remember how the person looked over my shoulders and was a bit flustered. Another pivotal moment for me was when one of my colleagues from our American office said to me: “It’s really cool that you’re Head of Design, because you’re not exactly an English rose.” And yes, it’s shocking. But it’s that moment that stayed with me, that then led me to do the MA and the PhD. In some ways, that remark set me on a track that leads to where I am now.
And that comment was meant as a compliment, but it wasn’t really, was it? And I remember thinking, what does that even mean? And what am I meant to do with it? And it was a year or two later that I embarked on my MA, and I got really into the research. Carol Tulloch was just starting out when I was doing my MA. And she happened to be a friend of my MA tutor. So, I knew of Carol’s work very early on in her career, but also early on in mine. And she recommended the reader Black British Culture and Society. And that was the first time I had in my mix a homegrown cultural studies book where I could read writings by people like me, by other African Diaspora scholars, and there was a fashion section with people writing about textiles, writing about the visual arts. That became a kind of a Bible. But really, it was that person’s comment, at Laura Ashley, that has stayed with me.
GW< At what point did you start the MA?
CC< Three years after that comment, after I had left Laura Ashley, and was made redundant at my next job, at Margaret Howell. And I thought, what do I do now? I don’t want to go back to the high street brands. So, I embarked on an MA. My thesis was sort of unpacking the comment that this person had made. It was more broadly about the absences within the fashion canon and in fashion academia around the Black presence. And what do we even mean by Englishness in dress or Britishness and dress? What do we mean by Caribbeaness? And I’d already started researching the Windrush generation. Because one of the things that I enjoy doing alongside all of the other bits and pieces is creative writing, and I had been writing short stories around the Windrush moment. For my MA show, I created an installation. I knew I didn’t want to make another collection; I didn’t see the point. And I felt I couldn’t explore what I wanted to explore through making a garment.
GW< Going back to the Laura Ashley aesthetic, was it something that you analyzed before encountering Tulloch? How did you understand it for yourself?
CC< I would say no, I don’t think so. I enjoyed designing there. I sort of threw myself into it. And I think probably the New Romantic in me loved designing the ruffled shirts and the big ball gowns. I got really excited by that. We also used to do a lot of research in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library, and I’ve always loved history. So, there was this historical research that went into designing the pieces.
GW< What references do you remember from the National Art Library?
CC< It was ’70s magazines and all sorts of histories of fashion. We would also go to the Fashion Museum in Bath and the Blaise Castle House Museum in Bristol, looking at the different historical period pieces, searching for details. We also had loads of the original prints that the Ashleys had created—I remember in particular two color block prints, really beautiful ’60s designs. I genuinely loved all of that, and all the patchworks that were lying about the office that you could use for inspiration. Also, it was a very, very design-led business, so it felt like an extension of art school for all of us. It wasn’t about ripping pages out of magazines for inspiration; it felt really creative. Even though I was designing this very narrow definition of an English Look, there was great abundance within that tiny framework, because you could be wholly creative, and you were encouraged to do that. We also drew everything on the body, which I still do now. You know, my first job was at Chelsea Girl/Concept Man, so it was just about churning out designs. At Laura Ashley you had time to do design research, you had time to draw by hand if you were the fashion designer, or paint by hand, if you were the textile designer. And we used to do internal fashion shows when the collection was ready. In those days, the international wholesale teams would come over from Japan, Europe, and the States, and we’d have these fashion shows, quite big productions. Even though it was this little kind of English look brand, we were doing the real fashion thing. And I think I must have been conscious of being the only black person in the village when I was at Laura Ashley as the top designer—I must have been aware of that. But I probably just thought, well, this is the way the world is. I’m always the only black person, and I just kind of got on with it and sort of threw myself into the designing of the product.
GW< About that comment from the American colleague? Did it puncture that a bit?
CC< I feel that it did puncture something, it absolutely triggered something. A kind of a searching as to where do I fit and what do we mean by these terms?
GW< And the PhD, was that on the heels of the MA?
CC< Yes. I ended up going to Goldsmith’s and I had Janis Jefferies in Visual Art and Françoise Vergès in Cultural Studies as my supervisors.
GW< What was your proposal?
CC< My question was about the absence of black people within the fashion canon. And it was about the power of clothing to speak. It was about impact and absence, essentially, and looking at the genealogy of Black style. Everything began for me with the Windrush, but the idea was to go back towards enslavement then come forward to the present day. It was about fashion, race, and culture.
GW< Can you talk about some of the ideas and the journey of those ideas? Were you making or researching materials, or a bit of both?
CC< It was a bit of both. I think when I started, the intention was to make and then I lost my father that Christmas, and I somehow couldn’t make anything, so I was sort of collecting things, but not really doing a great deal with it. Some of the icons if you like, or materials that drove the story of the dissertation on, were things like a wonderful illustration of Toussaint Louverture’s coat buttons I found. On this illustration are little scenes from plantation life in Jamaica in the West Indies. And I used that as the starting point to begin thinking about the clothing. I’m assuming they were commissioned; I didn’t find out very much about them. They were just, you know, an incidental image in a book. But I really sort of homed in on those, and the illustrations and representations of drawings by Agostino Brunias, who was one of the painters of plantation life in the West Indies. The V&A have some of his work. So that then led me to the V&A to look at the actual drawings and paintings that the buttons reproduced. But the buttons were incredible, and I like the way that they’re almost like commemorative pins—a bit like the Rock Against Racism badge. And I always felt it was almost like plantation life had been fossilized. I found that really, really powerful. And so, all through the thesis there are these objects that anchor or open up the discussion. Enslavement begins with those coat buttons. I started talking about the hierarchies within plantation slave life, and how that’s reflected in clothing, or the lack of clothing or just the total absence of clothing. But then how on feast days and holiday days, Carnival for example, there’s an opportunity for the enslaved to wear their best clothes, and their best clothes then would have been a mixture of African garments or accessories, the clothes that the slave masters would give them (so cotton linen shirts and trousers, which wore out so they would have been ragged), hand-me-downs from the masters, and also military clothing, which was either traded or purloined. But it was always this kind of creolized mixture of different elements that came together and were customized. There is evidence that slaves would customize their own gear, and they did have their own aesthetic within whatever they could find. The Long Song, the BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s book of the same title, gives a wonderful pictorial essay of what Jamaican plantation life was like in terms of dress. And there’s a key scene where a young slave girl steals the mistress’s buttons, and then the mistress is like: “I’m sure there were more buttons on this.” And the slave girl says: “Well, I don’t know, they must have gone off in the wash.” But you see her in the scenes before chopping them off for herself.
GW< Were there illustrations of those costumes? Where they pieced together from archaeologist reports?
CC< A lot of it is pieced together from archaeologist’s reports. And also, there are slave narratives where you often get a description of what someone’s wearing, or what they possess. Also, in runaway slave advertisements—almost like a classified ad, or a flyer—would often include a description of what that slave was wearing, or what they ran away with. So that’s how you get a sense of what would have been worn on the plantations. Really interesting. But I remember when I first started, I didn’t realize that that was a way of finding out what was worn. I remember ringing up a major London museum, and they just laughed when I told them what I was trying to find out. I said, “I want to find out about the clothing of the enslaved on the British plantations in Jamaica,” and the voice on the phone laughed.
GW< How did you feel about that?
CC< Mortified and angry and confused and all of those things, because it was right at the start. I didn’t really have a clue how to go about it. And I thought, well, I found these drawings in the V&A and I’ll see what the British Museum has. And then after a while, you just get a bit savvier on where to find things. At the time, there was a wonderful book by White and White, called Stylin’. I think that was one of the first books on African Diaspora dress, and it goes right back to enslavement. I looked at how they found pieces to study, how they found information. I used that as a methodology guide, really. I found a way to begin, and then I started to do my own research, and then it kind of snowballed.
GW< How would you describe your anger about the comment from the person at that museum?
CC< It’s hard. That’s a hard one. Because remember, I started in 2003, so it’s a long time ago. This was before we had things like Kim Jenkins’s database on fashion and race, before Carol’s book came out, before Monica Miller’s book came out. Part of me did just think, “well, maybe this is a ridiculous project, maybe, this doesn’t exist, why am I doing this?” There’s that awful thing around race where the person making the comment or reacting to you somehow has this power to make you have a sense of shame. It’s like a cloak of shame is there. And then you get angry. But the initial thing is that cloak of shame, and you want to apologize for even asking such as a stupid question. I felt frustrated and angry.
And then for many years, I almost took myself out of the whole fashion theory arena, because I thought, well, you’re not understanding what I’m doing. Instead I looked towards African-American scholars, but I also looked towards art historians and art critics. I found Third Text, I found Iniva, and I made my own “fashion theory,” in inverted commas, based on what I could see that people are doing in the visual arts. I found Stuart Hall very early on. That was my route. And in a sense, it’s only really now recently that I’ve had my writing published in fashion books. There was a whole period of about ten years or more, when my work was published all over the place, but not really in a fashion history or fashion theory books. I think it’s because I actively took myself out. I thought, no one understands what I’m doing. I can’t find the right methodologies for my topic, so I’m going to create my own methodology. It was partly through looking at what artists are doing, you know, or art critics who were doing a little bit of literature as well. Who is doing work on Caribbean writers? How did they critique that? I put those things together and created my own way of working.
GW< That incident, I don’t want to dwell on it unnecessarily if it’s not significant, but it sounds like the big, authoritative institution is saying, “how dare you research your own history, which has been taken away from you in the first place?”
CC< Yes. And I really do remember the voice. It was a female voice and there was a laugh, and then she said, “well they just wore what their owners would give them.” And that was when I moved from shame to anger—“they, they”—they just wore what they were given. And it’s interesting being where I am now, because obviously, I’m part of the big institution, the V&A. I think that those experiences have made me pull away from many big institutions. They’ve made me carve my own path. It’s about finding my own story, and myself and my voice; it’s not about me wanting to have a highfalutin job in a big institution. I’m doing this research because it relates to me. And it’s important. And you know, there’s a part of me that feels I’m doing it for my parent’s generation, and for people like them. And I have a healthy distrust of big organizations, which is founded on those previous experiences, really, of, you know, being the only black girl in the class, or the only black designer at Laura Ashley. And if something rattles you—like that comment about not being an English rose, or the laughter when I said what I wanted to research—those things stay with you. And I think that it’s interesting, this question of anger, because the anger doesn’t really stay. But it energizes me to think well, how am I going to do this, then? This really does need to be done, then, you know, if that’s the thinking, then this has got to be, this is important. This has got to be done.
GW< And how do you feel about this from the perspective of your own history? Because we’re in a very particular period now in relation to race politics. But there have been lots of different phases that you’ve experienced. How is your research, your work, or your practice finding itself now in this current moment?
CC< It’s a strange time, because I feel that because of the historical moment we’re in, and also, because of my new role, as Curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion at V&A, suddenly, people are finding the work that I’ve been doing all this time. Also, suddenly people are wanting to put me into the “decolonizing everything” school of thought, whereas I kind of feel with every bone in my body, that that term and those ideas almost operate like another big organization, a big institution. And so again, every bone in my body doesn’t want to be in that. I still want to do my own thing. It feels as though I’ve probably been “decolonizing” ever since I began this work, but I didn’t know to call it that. So, at the moment, I feel I don’t want to necessarily suddenly tag my work as decolonizing the fashion industry or decolonizing textile cultures, because I think I’ve been doing that all along. I’d rather carry on doing it than telling people I’m doing it, if that makes sense. And the word democratization keeps coming back to me, because I feel sometimes when we talk about decolonization now, it’s become this kind of a brand. And for me, it feels as though I’m still measuring myself against somebody else’s yardstick. If I’m calling myself a decolonization person, whereas, I don’t want to have to give my work a label.
It is certainly not my intention to take anything away from the important work that decolonization scholars are doing; I simply feel I have always charted my own course. The phrase “somebody else’s yardstick” points to W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” (from his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk), which defines a psychological state that results from enslavement and colonization, where we as Black people constantly, though subconsciously, measure ourselves against the colonizer and the colonizers’ systems—we will always come up short. I feel that the term “decolonization” has been co-opted and therefore has lost its potency.
Listen to part 3 of the interview with Christine Checinska here.