Amber Butchart: fashion rebel

Amber Butchart. Photography Leonie Morse

Amber Butchart. Photography Leonie Morse

Some people make you feel as though you’re just not trying. Take fashion historian Amber Butchart. Writer and broadcaster, Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion, one half of DJ collaboration, the Broken Hearts, former head buyer of Beyond Retro; somehow, she has found time to put together Fashion Miscellany: An Elegant Collection of Stories, Quotations, Tips and Trivia from the World of Style, out February 3rd. A second book, about nautical style, is scheduled for next year.

BJ:Fashion Miscellany – fun to write?
AB:Yes, you’re darting about from one thing to another. I could write down stuff I already knew but research other things as well.

BJ: Now you’re writing about nautical style?
AB: The book covers lots of areas but all through the filter of nautical style. It’s a more traditional research process, looking at sources, at trends historically, at the reasons why trends catch on at certain points in history.

BJ: Why nautical?
AB: I’ve always been interested in nautical style. I grew up by the sea and I’ve always loved that aesthetic. When I did my MA at LCF, it was the subject of my dissertation.

BJ: It’s a recurring trend in spring collections …
AB: That’s why I was surprised there wasn’t a book out there already. It’s like military. Some seasons it’s stronger than others but it’s a perennial. You get pieces like the Breton top, which is a classic in the way a little black dress is a classic. It’s interesting tracking the development of those items.

BJ: Why the continued interest?
AB: In this country, we have a big love for the ‘holiday by the sea’ aesthetic. The sea has been so important for the history and economics of this country. Plus, you have lots of different things going on. With the naval look, there’s military styling, braids, gold embroidery. With the sailor collar, you’re playing into the idea of the seaside holiday. The sailor is a real trope of masculinity and the fashion world loves playing with those ideas.

BJ: You describe yourself as a fashion theorist. What is fashion theory?
AB: It’s interdisciplinary. It’s got aspects of art history in it, of material culture, of curation and museum studies, of sociology, even geography. But essentially, it’s investigating why people choose to wear what they do at different points in history.

BJ: Does it enhance your experience of fashion?
AB: When I do catwalk reviews, I’m always interested in inspiration and influences, what’s been drawn on to arrive at that specific garment. From the designer’s perspective, it’s important they have that background so they can reference moments from fashion history, even if they want to deconstruct them. For a consumer, it’s not that relevant. Not everyone needs that set of references.

BJ: Dressing up is important to you?
AB: I love to put together an outfit showing references through my clothing. This dress I’m wearing now, for example, reminds me of Russian constructivists. I can imagine someone wearing this on a Soviet poster with a megaphone and amazing typography so I team it with a Russian-ish shawl. The way you create a narrative through fashion editorial, it’s the same kind of idea.

BJ: Have you always been into fashion?
AB: I’ve always really enjoy playing with clothes. I’ve always loved old clothes, always gone to jumble sales and charity shops. But I wasn’t interested in fashion. In fact, I was quite anti the idea of fashion as a dictatorial system. After working at Beyond Retro, I got more interested in trends; seeing how old clothes get re-purposed in contemporary fashion got me interested in the world of fashion itself. Then I did the MA in History and Culture of Fashion at the London College of Fashion and that was it.

Quite anti-fashion: Amber Butchart dresses up. Photography Anthony Lycett

Quite anti-fashion: Amber Butchart dresses up. Photography Anthony Lycett

BJ: Do you participate in fashion?
AB: At the moment, there are so many trends, there’s something for everyone. When I was a teenager, I’d specifically not get something if I thought it was in fashion. I’m not like that any more. If I see something I like, I’ll get it – if I can afford it – regardless of who else is wearing it.

BJ: What do you love about old clothes?
AB: When fast fashion didn’t exist, when things had to be done by hand, you had a greater quality of workmanship. And I like the patina of older garments. It feeds into my interest in history.

Clothing is so visceral. You wear it on your body and it can tell you so much about the people who wore it. Sometimes, you know the stories behind a piece. I bought a two piece glittery suit from a vintage shop in Toronto which had been owned by a pianist showgirl in the sixties. Knowing that adds something to the outfit.

BJ: Do you have favourite shops?
AB: Beyond Retro because I was there for so long and it’s still quite affordable. I still love charity shops and odd markets. China Town in New York, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul – places like that. I get a real rush from scavenging in unusual places, where the odds are stacked against you.

Selling the past: Beyond Retro

BJ: Is there a high street shop you respect?
AB: A lot of them are trying to change but we’re not there yet. People need to learn to start paying more for their clothing. With crises like the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in Bangladesh, people are becoming aware that someone somewhere is paying the price for cheap clothing.

Historically, textiles have been so expensive. Textiles were among the items most regularly stolen in the 18th and 19th century. When you don’t have mechanized systems, the time and effort that goes into producing them is phenomenal. We’re quite divorced from that process now. We need readjust those issue in our minds and realise the consequences.

BJ: The recent campaign against angora is social media has been very effective. What’s the impact of new technology on fashion?
AB: Social media can be important in spreading those kinds of message. It’s also accelerated the cultural production of everything. That’s great in that it makes catwalk presentations more accessible. There’s not so much of that nasty ‘Mean Girls’ attitude that shows can have to them.

However, the speed fashion now operates at is quite damaging. Designers are expected to produce so many collections in a short space of time. Because things are seen immediately, the high street can replicate it almost before the designer has it in store.

BJ: There seem to be a backlash in that designers are spending longer investigating trends. Pastels seem to have been around for a few seasons, for example.
AB: It’s good for designers to a very distinct process of evolution rather than changing direction every show.

BJ: Any great tasters in fashion history you’d recommend?
AB: Fashion: the Whole Story, edited by Marnie Fogg is a great visual book that goes through different cultural dress practices. Chris Breward used to run the MA at LCF and is now Professor of Cultural History at the University of Edinburgh. He’s written a book called The Culture of Fashion.

BJ: As part of Broken Hearts, there’s a strong element of performance in your work.
AB: We’ve been involved in a lot of ‘performance art slash cabaret’ events such as Working Man’s Club at Bethnal Green, Bistroteque and fashion events too. When we DJ live, we play a range of music going back to the 1920s. It’s about creating a seamless experience between the visual and the music. We always dress identically. We got the same haircut but Nisha’s is black. There’s a lot of references, from showgirls to the creepier side of twins that you get in The Shining, or that Diane Arbus portrait. Glitter, sequins and then something darker …

Broken Hearts at the Louis Vuitton Yoyoi Kusama launch

Broken Hearts at the Louis Vuitton Yoyoi Kusama launch

BJ: You have a radio show – Peppermint Candy on Jazz FM Saturdays at 6 pm.
AB: It’s swing, so mainly 1920s to 1950s. We talk a lot about culture and style and we like to keep it contemporary so we often relate it to stuff going on now. We also spend time exploring forgotten women from the jazz age – like Fred Astaire’s older sister Adele. She was actually more talented but has just been washed out of history. There was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who some people credit with writing the first ever rock and roll song. And there are some amazing gospel quartets from the 1940s. For me, there’s a similarity in the feeling of some of that music to some contemporary reggae and ragga I like.

BJ: There’s a strong feminist thread through your work.
AB: There are feminist underpinnings in what I do in that fashion historically tends to be denigrated. People think it’s not important, that it’s girly and superficial. I think that line of thinking fits into the idea that women’s interests are not important. Because historically fashion has been aligned with women, even though that’s not the case in practice.

Reappraising that is good to do. A lot of people don’t realise that, without fashion, the Industrial Revolution may not have happened. Initial developments in producing textiles, the trade routes, all these things helped grow economies and helped countries become what they are today. Without them, the world would be a very different place.

BJ: There is a wide belief that fashion is superficial.
AB: I disagree with that. Firstly, sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with being superficial as long as that’s not all you do. Secondly, for those reasons I just covered, fashion drives technology and trade. It grows economies. It’s also a site for personal expression. Clothing responds to the changes going on in society and culture; historically, it’s a real reflection of class and status. It’s anything but superficial.

Amber Jane Butchart’s Fashion Miscellany, £8.99, illustrated by Penelope Beech, Ilex Press. For more information on Amber Jane, visit her blog