University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Exploring the transgressive use of clothing by female groups from the 1920s to the 1970s

Emily Jays graduated in Summer 2021 with a 2:1 in History and Sociology. Her dissertation was titled “Transgressing Gender Norms and National Identities Through Dress: Three 20th Century Case Studies”. This explored how clothing was used by flappers within 1920s America, butch lesbians and transgender women in post-1950 Britain and Muslim women and the veil in French Algeria and modern day France.  She is now studying a Master of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, with an intersectional approach on the relationship between working-class women, higher education and their habitus. She is about to start the process of applying for PhDs, in which she hopes to do abroad.

Last year, I presented my undergraduate dissertation research at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR). My experience, from initial interest to the conference itself, was nothing other than positive. I had applied for another conference about which I had spoken with one of the History team at Portsmouth, Mike Esbester; because of this he informed me of the BCUR. I was somewhat sceptical due to it being a multi-disciplinary conference, however I thought I would have more regrets not applying than doing so and not being accepted. Before I submitted my application, I informed Mike and my personal tutor, Natalya Vince, that I wished to apply, and they were on hand straight away to help me with my abstract. A few back-and-forths via email of abstract drafts and my application was ready to go. This really helped me go into the process feeling confident and knowing that I had given my best work, and whatever the outcome would be I would be fine.

Photograph of Colleen Moore in the film We Moderns

Silent film actress Colleen Moore was considered the archetypal flapper in films like Flaming Youth (1923) and (above) We Moderns (1925).

A few weeks later I found out that I had been accepted into the conference and would be presenting my ideas and research – I was over the moon about it! From there – Mike, Natalya and Julian Ingle (Deputy Head of the University’s Academic Skills Unit) helped massively in preparing my presentation and making it the best it could possibly be. There were a few practice runs with other students who were also in the conference watching, as well as times when tutors from the department came to watch and give their feedback. Of course, this was all done over Zoom which at first was a strange experience but you soon get used to it. Seeing the faces of my tutors pop up on the screen to come and watch my presentation was so comforting and their feedback was invaluable. The communication from Julian, who led us UoP students through the process, was second to none. We were aware of what was needed from us and what was happening at all times, as well as his vast experience to give us feedback.

The conference itself was so enjoyable and it was great to see other subjects and perspectives from students all over the country. We had a group chat over the 2 days which was lovely, as we could all communicate and cheer each other on when we were due to present. The only negative thing I can say is that it would have been so much fun to have gone to Leeds for a few days and had the full experience. With that being said, the BCUR team’s organisation was fantastic and the whole thing run over Zoom was seamless.

The cover of Rebel Women (1960) by Harry Whittington.

The cover of Rebel Women (1960) by Harry Whittington.

One of the most important things I have taken from the conference was that by presenting a part of my dissertation, it really allowed me to solidify my line of argument. By speaking my research aloud for others, who perhaps are not familiar with that part of history or the subject itself meant I had to ensure there was clarity in my presentation and argument. Although of course this took up extra time near the end of the year, the process helped significantly and my writing of my dissertation was better for it, as I achieved a first!

Another way in which the process benefitted me significantly is my confidence in my own research and ability. To be chosen to present but also receive a positive response to my work from my tutors and those at the conference was a great feeling, particularly as my subject was relatively niche and others were intrigued. Being amongst other researchers was a great buzz and very inspiring, which has given me the boost to apply for a PhD in the near future after my MRes this year.

If anyone was unsure about applying, I would tell them to just do it. Every part of the process was a learning experience and the whole time was extremely enjoyable. I have absolutely zero regrets. Thank you to the University of Portsmouth team and my tutors for their support and encouragement!

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