After completing an MA in Medieval Studies at the University of York, Lucy Adlington became a specialist in costume history. She recently set up History Wardrobe and now travels the country giving talks on art history, politics and literature. She is the author of six fictional novels and five fashion history books, and her latest novel, The Red Ribbon, is out now.
I confess I didn't much like history at school. I never found it relevant. It was only when doing post-grad work that the realisation dawned: history is about people. It's essentially us in different times and different circumstances.
I love the way objects can tell stories from the past. Clothes are an incredibly rich source of information about people's lives. I'm constantly curious about clothes in time – who wove the cloth, who drew the designs, who stitched the fabrics, who wore the fashions – and, what happened to them afterwards.
History Wardrobe was set up as a new and exciting way of presenting history to adults. I offer 25 different presentations covering 250 years of social history. Right now I’m absolutely immersed in the 1940s and have been giving talks on this era across the UK. I work with two fantastic colleagues: Meridith (Merry) Towne and Lucy Ridley. We have an amazing display of original fashions and accessories – and we always wear original garments on stage or exquisite replicas made by Merry. Some of them are very rare indeed.
It should be obvious when we’re on stage that we love our job. One of the best aspects is chatting with the audience, especially those in the North – my goodness, they have some stories to share.
I read read read all the time. Recently I’ve been reading Northern authors for a new costume talk entitled All Writers Great and Small. I’m enjoying James Herriot, Joanne Harris and the wonderful Winifred Watson book Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which was written in Whitley Bay.
The Red Ribbon blends my three passions of writing, history and clothes. I’ve long been interested in Holocaust history and it’s such a powerful story. Survivor testimonies make clear that being stripped of your clothes on arrival at a concentration camp was a deliberately humiliating and dehumanising experience. In contrast, regaining proper clothes gave survivors a strong sense of identity and dignity again.
Tens of thousands of people were forced to labour in Nazi textile workshops during World War Two. They made SS uniforms and mended soldier's gear. The Nazis held Jewish life in contempt, yet they were happy to exploit their talents.
The startling bit of wartime history that sparked The Red Ribbon is even more chilling. Not content with furnishing their homes with Jewish plunder and flaunting stolen valuables, high-rank Nazis indulged their love of fashion in the middle of hell itself: they were 'clients' at a fashion workshop set up in Auschwitz concentration camp.
Hedwig Hoess, an Auschwitz commandant's wife, established a small workshop called The Upper Tailoring Studio. Here officers' wives and female SS guards were fitted for day dresses and evening gowns – all stitched by prisoners. Few details of the workshop survive. Of the 23 women known to have worked there, we have a few names and (so far) only three partial biographies. In writing The Red Ribbon I wanted to explore this little-known aspect of wartime history. The book is fictional. The characters are not based on the original women. Instead I have drawn on the multitudes of Holocaust memoirs as my source, in addition to memories of my own grandmother sewing.
I chose to write for the YA audience to introduce new readers to history, but also to highlight the fact that many of the issues of the 1940s are still with us now. We live in a diverse society. We still have choices to make about the way we interact with people who are different from us. We have to decide whether this will result in conflict or community.
The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington is out now. For more information about History Wardrobe visit www.historywardrobe.com