Professor Evelyn Welch becomes a dedicated follower of fashion

A major new project exploring the changing fashion trends in Europe from the Renaissance to the late 18th century has been given the go-ahead after Queen Mary, University of London, secured a grant of nearly €1m from Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA).

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Robe and petticoat,Sackback gown, Dress, France, 1775-1780, copyright V&A Images
Robe and petticoat,Sackback gown, Dress, France, 1775-1780, copyright V&A Images

The three-year project, entitled ‘Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800’, is launched this month, and will be led by Professor Evelyn Welch, of the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Professor Welch, an expert in early modern visual and material culture, will explore how and why fashion accessories, such as wigs and ruffs and textiles like lace and silk, came into vogue across Europe while others failed.

Professor Welch explained, “I’m asking why it made sense for men from Spain to Sweden to shave off their own hair and wear someone else’s – we explain this with the term ‘fashion’, but what prompted this popularity?”  

She notes that by the time wigs fell out of fashion, the industry was one of the largest employers in Europe and the changing styles had real economic consequences, particularly on some of the poorest members of society who lost their jobs. “We can dismiss fashion as frivolous but changing attitudes to our wardrobes have similar consequences today, often on a global scale.”

The project uses a range of techniques from mathematical modelling to hands-on curatorial investigation to track the innovation, development and spread of other fashionable goods such as textiles, brands of perfume, knitted stockings and starched ruffs.

The research will explore how governments promoted, or in some cases, tried to stop these goods from moving across Europe. The project will feed into the major re-development of the ‘Europe 1600-1800’ galleries at the V&A, offering an opportunity for close collaboration between museum curators and Queen Mary academics. 

Professor Welch and her team will also be working with contemporary fashion designers and students to stimulate new creative initiatives.

Competition for the HERA research grants has been particularly fierce, with 59 project teams chasing funding and only 19 being successful. Of those, 18 have either UK humanities researchers or partners involved, claiming the lion’s share of €16.5m available (up to €1m per project) to explore cultural dynamics and creativity.

Other collaborators on the project include senior scholars, curators and postdoctoral researchers from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Danish National Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen, The National Museum of Denmark, The Centre for Fashion Studies, University of Stockholm, and the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Associate partners include museums based in Sweden and Denmark and substantial dress and textile collections, and the economist Paul Ormerod of Volterra Consulting.

Professor Welch is the new Vice-Principal for Research and International Affairs at Queen Mary. She is also the programme director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s £5.5m strategic programme, Beyond Text: Performances, Sounds, Images, Objects.

Author of award-winning Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600 (Yale, 2005), Professor Welch has recently completed a new monograph, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence (Rodopi Press, 2010).

Organised by HERA and facilitated in the UK through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) the Joint Research Programme (JRP) has enabled trans-national Collaborative Research Projects (CRPs) in two humanities research areas: Cultural dynamics: Inheritance and identity and Humanities as a source of creativity and innovation. 

Note to Editors

The project Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800 is financially supported by the HERA Joint Research Programme ( which is co-funded by AHRC, AKA, DASTI, ETF, FNR, FWF, HAZU, IRCHSS, MHEST, NWO, RANNIS, RCN, VR and The European Community FP7 2007-2013, under the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities programme.