An Interview with Amber Butchart
Aliya Jefferson, BA (Hons) Textiles Surface Design Student
Amber Butchart is a Fashion Historian, and as she explains in this interview with Level 5 Textiles & Surface Design student Aliya, she has had a diverse career. Amber's most recent successes have been the BBC series A Stitch in Time and her current book The Fashion Chronicles: The Style Stories of History’s Best Dressed.
Amber Butchart visited us at The Northern School of Art, Hartlepool, on October 9th 2018. Before her lecture, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have a one-to-one interview. I wanted to find out more about Amber’s life, and her journey to success. I was incredibly nervous to meet Amber; however, she was extremely warm and pleasant. The interview was genuine and inspirational, radiating to the audience in the room. Her face lights up when answering questions about her career. Amber lives and breathes fashion history, having a true passion for her job, which has been the key to her success. She is down to earth and relatable, and has a genuine interest in the students studying at The Northern School of Art. It was such an amazing opportunity to interview her; the answers to my questions will hopefully give some motivation and encouragement to students of all creative practices.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE NORTHERN SCHOOL OF ART?
Well it has been a gloriously sunny day, so my first impressions which are aided by that, have been fantastic. I have been given a tour of the, costume design area and the costume archive as well, which is brilliant. The space is incredible, in the Victorian building with its moulding on the ceiling, and these enormous sky lights as well. That just has so much amazing light coming in to the work spaces. So yeah, it’s just been fantastic, there’s so much going on here. It is great!
IT IS GREAT WORKING IN SUCH A CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT.
Yeah, I can imagine, and the fact there are so many disciplines so close by as well, that you can all really kind of work together, with people studying other things to kind of, you know, create these whole different things.
YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER AS A HEAD BUYER AND TREND ANALYST, DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR STUDENTS WANTING TO BREAK OUT INTO THIS SORT OF INDUSTRY?
I was a head buyer and trend analyst for a vintage clothing company, so the route into it was very, very different from if you were doing that for a high street company, or a big design company, or fashion brand. My route into it was quite unorthodox anyway. I did an English degree initially, and I did not really know what I wanted to do when I finished University. I just always really loved studying, reading, and writing, and over the summer after I graduated I rather realised the other thing I had always loved was old clothes, and so, I got a job in my favourite shop, which was a vintage clothing shop. I just worked on the shop floor initially, but at the time, it was a very, very, very small company as well…a tiny company. I worked on the shop floor, but I would spend my lunch breaks reading books about fashion history, and I was quiet eager to learn the context to the product that we were selling. It was through that essentially, that I became the head buyer because the company were looking to expand. They were looking to have someone in charge of quality control essentially…and training the people who were picking the clothing for us, into how you can date things properly what things were on trend. What things to look for in that respect as well. So, it was through that, that I became the head buyer and trend analyst. If you wanted to do a more orthodox route into the industry, you can do fashion merchandising and buying courses, things like that. I learnt on the job I guess, which was a lot of fun.
SO, SORT OF LIKE AN APPRENTICESHIP?
Yeah, I guess so, kind of, yeah kind of. I think it is useful having spent time working on the shop floor as well. Because you really get to know the customer, and get to know what people are after, so you don’t start completely isolated from the people who are actually buying the things that you’re making the decisions about. So, I think that’s quite important, definitely.
YOU ARE NOW A FASHION HISTORIAN AND HAVE A VERY UNIQUE STYLE. WHERE DOES THIS INSPIRATION COME FROM, AND DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PERIOD OF HISTORY?
Well my inspiration comes from all of my work luckily, because I just get to spend a lot of my time researching different periods of fashion history. In terms of favourite periods, in the twentieth century, I am a big fan of the 1920’s. Which I think is obvious in some of my styling, but I really like mid-18th century men’s silhouette, with the breeches and the stockings. That was something that inspired me quite a lot when I was dressing for A Stitch in Time, the TV show, and seemed to relate quiet strongly to some of the areas that we were covering throughout the show.
ARE THERE ANY PERIODS OF FASHION THAT YOU WOULD AVOID AND WHY?
Avoid? No I don’t think so. I mean, I think some people would definitely say I maybe have quiet questionable taste at times, so I am not afraid to try anything out. I like many bright colours, I like a lot of garish patterns, I like a lot of head wear. So definitely, I certainly would not rule anything out. I think you are limiting yourself too much. I would always give it a go definitely, yeah.
IN REGARDS TO TRENDS INDUSTRY, WOULD YOU SAY YOU ARE EVER INFLUENCED BY TRENDS?
I guess everyone is influenced by trends to a degree, because it effects what is in the shops. It literally affects what is there for you to buy, which is why when some people say that, you know, the fashion industry has no impact on them, it is just not true. Because it has an impact on all of us, it affects what is in the stores. Having said that, I do not follow trends super closely; if something happens to be on trend that I like it is quite good because it means you have easier access to it. But I certainly, whether something was on trend or not, wouldn’t be affected as to whether I would buy it or not, or, wear it or not. There were times in the past when I was a teenager, I was very anti-mainstream fashion, and if something I liked came on trend, I would avoid it. I would be very annoyed that everyone was suddenly wearing these things that I liked first. But I’m not like that so much anymore.
BESIDES FASHION, DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER OBSESSIONS?
I guess in term of things that I do not have enough space for, which I suppose is quiet a good way of thinking of obsessions; clothes, books, and would be the other one as well. I obviously love books about fashion history. I wish I had more space, so I could have a whole library in my flat that would be absolutely a dream for the future; so yeah, I guess books or clothes have always been, sort of my biggest expenses. And, the things that I sort of, you know, use the most space on. So that yeah, and they’re tied together in terms of my profession. So, it does make sense.
IT’S JUST EVERYTHING I SUPPOSE YOUR PROFESSION, IT’S NOT JUST YOUR JOB, IT’S, YOU’RE LIFE I SUPPOSE?
YOU CAN TELL THAT THROUGH THAT IN THE WAY YOU DRESS AND YOUR BOOKS.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, thanks. Yeah it is. It is kind of a life style profession, I guess.
DID YOU HAVE A PIVOTAL MOMENT WHERE YOU REALISED THAT YOUR LIFE WOULD GO DOWN A FASHION HISTORY PATH?
Yeah, I guess it sort of was that moment. I did not really know that a fashion historian was a profession that you could have. After I initially graduated, I think that was definitely the moment where I realised clothes were something, were the other real passion I had always had. On top of books and learning, reading, and writing stuff, so I guess that would kind of be the pivotal moment definitely, yeah.
YOUR CURRENT BOOK THE FASHION CHRONICLES: STYLE STORIES OF THE HISTORIES BEST DRESSED, WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION BEHIND IT, AND IS THERE ANY BODY YOU COULD HAVE WRITTEN MORE ABOUT?
I could have written more about everyone in the book. The format of the book is great because it makes it. Every person in there, you can give a bite size overview of who this person was and why dress played an important function in their life or their work. It is also the bite-sized nature of it can be frustrating. So there are one hundred entries in the book, and each entry had to be about four-five hundred words. For each one of those I would have maybe twenty/thirty pages of notes and research. I would then need to try to cram my research into four-five hundred words. Everyone in that book I could have written a whole book about. Some of them have had whole books written on them, just on their wardrobe, especially people like Marie Antoinette. There are a couple of books that specifically look at her through her clothes, through her wardrobe. So yeah, absolutely everyone in it I could have written more, I could have written loads more. I will have to do a volume two!
DEFINITELY, A GIANT ENCYCLOPEDIA VERSION?
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOUR CAREER IN TEN YEARS TIME?
That is a really difficult question. I mean, it would be great if I was able to still be doing the kind of stuff that I am doing, in ten years. I really like the variety of things that I do. I give many talks, hence being here. I teach at universities, I do the bits and pieces in broadcasting obviously and I do the writing, so, it’s a really nice, kind of mixture of different things. I would just like to be doing all of it, in ten years’ time. Just to know that it was sustainable for the future, I guess. It’s great, I feel very lucky to be able to do the variety of things that I do. So, I just hope people remain interested, for ten plus years, and I can carry on doing it.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER ENDEAVOURS YOU WOULD LIKE TO VENTURE INTO?
I love travelling so I think maybe it would be great to do some more research, which involves travelling. I guess doing the same things that I am doing now, but just bigger projects, better funded project, which is what everyone in the arts is after, more funding, to do what they want to do. I have some ideas for projects that I really want to get off the ground, that involve researching in China and Russia, and places like that. To be able to do that, to incorporate travel even more into what I do, that’s something I’d really love to do. I am interested in Russian and Chinese history as well. I was in China for a bit over this summer, and there’s just so much, it’s just so fascinating. The differences historically, how people around the world have presented themselves through clothes., ideas around how you clothe the body, all of this kind of stuff. I would love to be able to do some more in-depth research in those places, definitely.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL ADVICE FOR STUDENTS WHO ARE PLANNING FOR THEIR FUTURE EMPLOYMENT?
It’s really standard obvious advice but...just don’t give up. Be prepared for there to be a lot of hard work, there will be an awful lot of hard work. It is not regular hours. You know, whether you are working on a costume design, or whether you’re working in academia, or fashion history research more broadly, or fashion design, none of these are industries that keep regular hours. So if you want to be able to switch off at the end of the day, and just work a certain number of hours per week, it’s probably not for you, unfortunately. But if you absolutely love it and you live and breathe those kinds of subjects, then just carry on and work hard…and don’t give up. There are no short cuts. You just have to work hard and believe in yourself as well.
I THINK THAT IS WHAT YOU FORGET SO OFTEN, TO BELIEVE IN YOURSELF...
Yeah, exactly. Believe in yourself and keep on going, basically. That is what you have to do.
Amber’s book The Fashion Chronicles: The Style Stories of History’s Best Dressed is available from Mitchell Beazley Publishing.