Lecturer in History of Dress and Textiles

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by Sarah Marten

Dr Rebecca Arnold has been in post at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, for just two months, bringing a wealth of experience in teaching, research and writing to this prestigious institution. Her particular interest is the development of ready-to-wear fashion in the twentieth century, and associated issues surrounding the body.

Rebecca has travelled extensively, both in America and Europe, enabling her to develop a network of important contacts which have helped her to forge a career within this fascinating sector. Her dedication and drive are obvious, divided equally between her students and the academic world of research and published work.

What does your job involve?

Delivering various courses on our undergraduate degree in History of Art is a key part of my job. Here at the Courtauld Institute of Art teaching is research led, which means that topics and themes link to our academic research. “Dress and Identity in Twentieth Century Britain” links to a historical period, whilst “Sensory Encounters with Dress and Textiles” is a topic-based course. Both these courses form part of my teaching workload, which includes preparation, delivery and marking. Actual time spent teaching amounts to about six hours a week and the necessary preparation can occupy much more of my time.

Are you a personal tutor?

Yes, I am responsible for the ongoing pastoral care and academic progress of a group of ten students, and we always meet at least once a term. Problems facing students include issues like settling into university life or difficulties with essay writing to financial worries or family problems. I always refer students to specialist help if needed, including our team of counsellors at the University of London.

Are you involved in teaching postgraduate students?

Next year I will be course leader for our new MA in Dress, Body, Space and Modernity: Fashion in the City, 1919–1939. I am currently working on the course description, content, delivery and methodology, as well as recruiting students for the first intake in 2010.

What do you apart from teaching?

As well as writing books and articles I am developing a major exhibition “Readymade: Fashion for Everyone in New York and London”. This will take place in 2013 at the Museum of London and the Bard Graduate Center in New York. Organising an exhibition like this involves close collaboration with other colleagues, something which is important to me. Currently I am researching the object list – deciding what we should include in the exhibition and the range of material that needs to be borrowed from museums, archives and private collections in London and New York. I will also be editing and writing for the catalogue.

What about your own research?

Research is vital to me, and this job is ideal as I can fit the research around my teaching. The teaching facilitates my research. Most weeks I am able to set aside a day for research, although, because I am new to this post and therefore writing completely new courses, there are some weeks when teaching and preparation absorbs most of my time.

Is there much administrative work involved in your job?

I sit on academic and research committees, both of which involve a number of meetings. Paperwork, dealing with emails and attending other meetings are all necessary parts of my work.

Why are international links important to you?

Developing international contacts is vital, as this gives you the opportunity to accept lecturing opportunities overseas and to keep in touch with academics around the world. Developing a visible presence, both in the UK and overseas is important.

Why did you choose this work?

I have always been interested in fashion and enjoy investigating the historical and social contexts of dress. Because I love writing so much I had thought of becoming a fashion journalist, but while undertaking work experience on a magazine I realised that I was much more interested in the academic side of the subject.

After graduating from my MA, I was offered two different part-time posts at Kent Institute of Art and Epsom School of Art teaching cultural studies within the fashion and textiles degree courses. This was a great opportunity, and gave me the experience I needed to apply to Central St Martins College of Art and Design to teach the same subject to the fashion, textiles and jewellery students.

In 2001, I developed the BA (Hons) in Fashion History and Theory at Central St Martins, which was the first course of its kind in the UK. At the same time I completed my PhD at University College London, undertaking research into New York Sportswear and Images of Women in the 1930s and 1940s.

How do you motivate and engage the students?

Our students here at the Courtauld are highly motivated and very visually aware. Part of what I teach is how to connect visual imagery to material culture – so how paintings and photographs link to actual dress and accessories. We also look at descriptions in novels, diaries and letters, to see how these connect to dress.

What are your working hours?

I normally work between the hours of 9 am and 6 pm, Monday to Friday. Evening and weekend work is not uncommon, although this is not a chore as I love what I do. There is no clean cut-off point between my job and my life outside work.

How does this job fit into your work-life balance?

I always make sure that I take regular breaks when I switch off completely and don’t check emails. Going to the cinema and visiting art galleries are other ways I relax.

Which of your qualifications were the most useful?

All my qualifications have been really beneficial. Whilst at Kings College London my undergraduate tutors encouraged me to link my interest in dress, art and architecture to history. Writing an essay each week provided an excellent training, and I also learnt how to be thorough and questioning. The MA helped me learn more about dress and the kind of sources available on the subject, and my PhD enabled me to consolidate my learning and to provide the challenge I needed.

What skills and personal qualities are important?

Flexibility is most important, since all students are different, and in university teaching you have to switch from small groups to large with ease. Open-mindedness and the willingness to learn from other staff members are essential qualities. Much of a lecturer’s work is shaped independently, but it is important and rewarding to be part of an effective team as well. In the same way you can also draw on support from the wider academic community. Academics also need to be self confident, determined and disciplined.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I love the challenge of working in a university with like-minded colleagues. I really enjoy teaching; it is so rewarding to see students develop their skills over time.

Any Dislikes?

There can sometimes be a heavy administrative burden, and it can sometimes be hard to switch off from work in your spare time.

What prospects are there and what ambitions do you have?

Within the Courtauld Institute of Art there is a clear promotion structure, and I can see a number of possible roles for the future. I have only just started here, and there is a great sense of being at the start of something new and exciting.

What advice have you got for people interested in this career?

In the early days you need to network as much as possible, and attend as many seminars and talks as you can. You really do have to generate the work yourself, especially at the beginning. Having books and papers published is also vital, and you will also need a PhD.

If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?

It would definitely be a job connected with writing, possibly journalism.


After taking A levels in English, German and History, Dr Rebecca Arnold studied History at Kings College London. She then attended the Courtauld Institute of Art to complete an MA in the History of Dress. After some time working as a lecturer in art colleges, Rebecca moved to Central St Martins where she set up and ran the BA (Hons) in Fashion History and Theory. Rebecca then moved to her present position at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has also been guest professor at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University and was a research fellow and lecturer in the History of Design Department at the Royal College of Art and a visiting fellow at the V&A Museum.


Dr Rebecca Arnold’s published work includes

Fashion: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

The American Look: Sportswear, Fashion & the Image of Women in 1930s and

1940s New York, (London & New York: I.B.Tauris/Palgrave, 2009)

Fashion, Desire & Anxiety: Image & Morality in the 20th Century, (London & New Brunswick: I.B.Tauris/Rutgers University Press, 2001, 2nd edition 2009)


‘Vionnet and Classicism,’ in Fashion: Critical & Primary Sources, Peter McNeill, ed., (London & New York: Berg, 2008)

‘Movement and Modernity: New York Sportswear, Dance and Exercise in the 1930s and 1940s,’ in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, (September 2008)



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