Social History and Material Memory
With the centenary of World War One beginning this year, Jane Tynan author of British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki talks about the role of Social History to today’s society. We publish a range of books on World War One. Social History, the history of everyday life, or what is often called ‘history from below,’ gives voice to the experiences of ordinary people in the past. But this is not the only reason to do Social History. History is inescapable; we live with history whether or not we acknowledge it. Thus, we cannot afford to exclude aspects of everyday life, because by doing so we deny ourselves a full understanding of the past.
Historians help the democratic process, ensuring that we are not solely relying on social memory to inform our decision-making, but on rigorous research. Nostalgia for the past – often a mythical past – is just as toxic as a blind belief in progress. History, as a discipline, challenges politically motivated misrepresentations of the past, and acts as a corrective to propaganda and myth. The setting up of History Workshop Journal in 1970s Britain reflects the turn to a people’s history to counter the political conservatism of the discipline of History.
Since then, many strands have flourished, including women’s history and labour history. Our languages, literature, artworks, artefacts and technologies have a past. We are living histories; part of being human involves understanding links between the past and the present. To understand the importance of, say, voting in elections, we benefit from a better understanding of the historical struggle for universal suffrage.
Traditionally viewed as marginal to the Historians’ primary interests, the impact of Social History has shifted the focus from the study of political leadership to the politics of everyday life. According to John Tosh, in The Pursuit of History, Social History is ‘the sum of the social relationships between the many different groups in society.’ It is not about assembling a political narrative, but situating political events against a backdrop of social, cultural and economic histories. Through Social History we can examine subjects as diverse – and ordinary - as sex, migration, literacy, childhood, medicine, leisure, popular music or shopping.
My own work has been made possible by these shifts in the discipline of History. Researching military uniform might seem trivial, particularly considering the gravity of war and conflict, but it struck me that the neglect of serious historical research on what soldiers wore in the past ignores a critical part of war experience. In my recent book, British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki I studied a range of images and texts, soldiers’ personal accounts, photographs in popular newspapers, tailoring trade periodicals and ephemera. What looks like Design History, in fact utilizes methods borrowed from Social and Cultural History.
My goal was to build a social history of khaki uniform, taking great care with the interpretation of vastly diverse sources. It became clear to me that the tailoring trade had an investment in the issue of clothing supply for the army. War office publications were a rich source of information on the official control over men’s bodies during wartime, but they also offered insights into the experience of soldiers who wore the clothes. Parliamentary debates reflected the views of political leadership on clothing, and it came as a surprise to me that it took up a great deal of their time and energy.
I pieced together a social history through the inter-connections that emerged between the various sources: word and image, official and popular, personal and public. I was not solely interested in the design and appearance of the khaki uniform, but also in how clothes became part of the narratives of war. What I found was that military masculinities were performed through everyday practices, in ways that often challenged the reliability of representations. I wanted to discover how the body of the soldier, including its clothing practices, formed myths and memories of the First World War.
Images were a key source for my research. John Tagg, in his fascinating book The Burden of Representation, argues that the Historian should not be solely concerned with the contents of the photograph, but with how they are used. Photographs can only be interpreted through the institutions that set them to work. This inspired my research, particularly when I tested popular images against official sources, such as War Office manuals and Parliamentary debates.
Through this process I could then consider who uniforms were made for and why, which helped me to determine what they have come to mean in the collective memory. Studying the material life of clothing is not about aesthetic beauty, but can reveal how garments become objects of use value, exchange value and symbolic value. If history is inescapable, then we must come to terms, not only with the reality of events, but also with the structure of everyday life in the past. This involves taking even the most ordinary, everyday objects and images seriously.
Jane Tynan is a Lecturer at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, London. Her current work concerns cultural histories of military design, particularly relating to dress and the body, but she also has published on other aspects of visual and material culture.