Last month, and getting in touch with my geographical roots, I returned to the ‘mother ship’ that is the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) at Kensington Gore in London. The occasion was the International Conference of Historical Geographers (ICHG), an enormous 5 day-long gathering with a 40 year pedigree. The logistics involved in organising a conference on the scale of the ICHG are almost unfathomable. Near on 700 delegates, 60% of whom travelled to Kensington Gore from overseas, were in attendance. The conference booklet (which detailed the abstracts of all the presentations) was the size of a telephone directory. Following in the footsteps of Darwin and Livingstone, it seems that present day geographers who frequent the RGS remain up for a challenge. I refer here to the sticks of Brighton Rock supplied in our complimentary conference goodie bags, which were not for ingestion by the faint hearted (or, for that matter, by the weak toothed).
I delivered my paper, on ‘Dressing For The Dude Ranch In 1930s America’, as part of the programme comprising the ‘Materiality and Historical Geography’ session. The session presented me with a well-timed opportunity to test out some of the themes and ideas I had encountered during my Buckskin and Ballgowns project at the Autry museum archives in LA only a month or so prior. I found room in my allocated 15 minute presentation slot to include some of my blogged-about findings on denim and divorce ranches. I also forwarded my thesis: that the dude ranch vacation of the 1930s was not only about holiday makers dressing up as their wild west idols but that it was also a space in which a novel cult of dressing down was emergent. Being short on time, I made full use of the opportunity to illustrate my paper with supporting images, and showed off the rich – and sometimes just plain amusing – visual sources I’d been working with out in Los Angeles. A picture, after all, is able to speak a thousand words. And there is no greater truth when it comes to the ‘hit and run’ scheduling of an academic conference.
Many years ago, as a doctoral student, my PhD supervisor assured me that only good things could come of delivering a conference paper. Today, I remain convinced that conferences are worth the effort, or efforts (including those labours that involve searching for the funds to support travel and attendance; actually having something relevant to say; and, mustering the courage to set oneself up in front of peers). One of the ‘good things’ relates less to one’s own work and more to others’. I was thrilled and delighted to share a stage with some other academics working in my broad area (for example, Merle Patchett on the study of incomplete or half-made historical objects, and Bethan Bide on repaired clothing held by the Museum of London). But I was equally thrilled and delighted to engage with subjects outside of my area, too (the BBC 2LO transmitter and the InterCity125 train among them).
Also ‘good’ was the Society’s close proximity to Exhibition Road and, especially, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. After my conference session, I hot-footed it (stick of rock and all) to the V&A’s Savage Beauty/McQueen ‘blockbuster’ show, which lived up to all of its rave reviews. Even in its final few days, the exhibition was jam-packed (and possibly even over-stuffed) with visitors taking in the awesome theatrics of it all. Viewing McQueen’s work tout ensemble was a reminder of just how influential his designs were (and remain), not only conceptually, but also on the more commercial world of the everyday wardrobe, impacting everything from hipsters to peplums. I also managed to squeeze in a late-entry ticket to the new ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’ exhibition, which is bound to be as equally enticing a draw card. But just one thing: explain to me, V&A, why no inclusion of podiatry or orthopaedics?
Good things, so the saying goes, are threefold. Thirdly and finally, then, I returned home from my adventures in London to find a copy of my latest publication on the doormat. Good things, in this particular case, come in brown cardboard packaging from Routledge. [Click here for book details – noting chapter 3 in particular].