Fashion Archives on Film— a closer look at Beatrice Pratt

February 18, 2016 -

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Beatrice PortraitIn summer 2015, The American Museum in Britain and the Fashion Museum were awarded a grant by the South West Federation of Museums to undertake the Fashion Archives on Film project. As the title suggests, the project aimed to bring to light some of our more hidden archives. In the Fashion Museum’s case, the focus was their collection of fashion pages from Victorian newspaper, The Illustrated London News. In the case of the American Museum, the personal archives of Beatrice Pratt, New York socialite and mother to Dallas Pratt, one of our founders. Taken together these two collections explore 100 years of fashion, from the 1840s to the 1940s. Working with the Fashion Museum, our aim was to catalogue and digitise these archives to enable people to access them more easily, and work with students from Bath Studio School to create a series of short films based on what we discovered.

As a member of staff at the American Museum, I knew Beatrice from the elegant portrait of her which hangs in our downstairs gallery. I had heard that she was very wealthy and a great lover of fashion, but had led a tumultuous life, remarrying four times. I was interested to know what our group of Year 12 students would make of Beatrice. Would they like her, or be put off by her haughtiness?

A team of our volunteers had done a wonderful job of transcribing Beatrice’s letters, which made digging into the archive a lot easier. The students uncovered newspaper clippings that Beatrice had kept when she appeared in the press, personal letters to family and friends, and photographs showing the elegant interior of her New York apartment. The letters tell of a frenetic social life, full of glamorous parties and engagements. There are, however, many poignant moments: her several short marriages, and letters from her young children, Cynthia and Dallas, away at boarding school and clearly disappointed that they did not see their mother more often.

The students were given the difficult task of presenting Beatrice’s complicated character on film. An obvious facet of Beatrice’s personality was her passion for glamour, which the students compared to contemporary celebrities and fashion bloggers. If Beatrice was alive today, they reasoned, surely she would be showing off her latest shopping haul on YouTube along with the other fashion vloggers? Based on information in Beatrice’s letters and press cuttings they created a series of vlogs showing her preparations for the 1916 Ball of the Gods at the Astor Hotel and one of her annual shopping trips to Paris (click on the image below to watch this film).

Trip to Paris

The students were also keen to represent Beatrice’s family tree, to give some context to her life and her relationship to Dallas Pratt. They carefully drew an apple tree, which they transformed into a moving image using stop-motion animation software. Gradually, apples appear, each carrying the image of a member of Beatrice’s family.

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Finally, the students wanted to give viewers some more in-depth information about Beatrice, so they decided to make a more traditional documentary piece. This gave them the opportunity to film footage of some of Beatrice’s clothes, which are in the American Museum’s collection but aren’t on display to the public. Under the guidance of Sherylee Houssein from Create Studios they learned to film close-up shots, as well as using a camera track to film smooth, moving shots. A trip to the Fashion Museum allowed the students close access to garments from the 1920s, by designers whose clothes Beatrice was known to wear. These shots were incorporated into the documentary, adding to its visual richness.

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By the end of the project, the students had produced five short films about Beatrice, all of which are available to view here. They worked incredibly hard and we are really impressed by what they produced. So, by the end of the project, what did they think of Beatrice?

Tiffani said: ‘When we got the initial information about Beatrice I wasn’t too interested, but as we went into her personal representation of herself, and the letters, and the things she’d done, we found out that this woman was really intriguing and we really wanted to make these videos to tell people about her.’

We hope you’re intrigued by our films about Beatrice Pratt too. Let us know what you make of her!