Research and Mrs Exeter

I saw an excellent paper the other night, “Inhabiting an Ageing Body: Old Age, Fashion and Beauty Culture in the Twentieth Century,” by Charlotte Greenhalgh. I’ve an active interest in representations of old age. Deb Waterhouse-Watson and I wrote an essay on old age in children’s fantasy for Harleys and Hormones: Ageing, Popular Culture and Contemporary Feminism, and I’ve even been turning my own hand to representing old age in a story about Glinda. Greenhalgh focussed on an historical approach, examining first hand accounts of men and women talking about their relationships to fashion. She also used Vogue as a key source of information and, in particular, the career of Mrs Exeter. Mrs Exeter was a fictional character, but through her, Vogue explored how older women could relate to and adapt fashion. Her first appearance in the late 40s led to a successful ‘career’ right up to the early 60s. She coincided with a period in fashion that valued sophistication and experience and produced styles that suited and flattered mature bodies.

I was immediately fascinated by the character. I spent the following morning researching her. I found a couple of articles, a book chapter, a few references elsewhere. I found some old Vogue magazines and pattern books that featured her, though most were out of my price range. I was happily discovering a new interest, but around lunch time, I began to feel guilty. I said to a good friend that I was really wasting my time, because I wasn’t immediately planning to write an article. She responded that I actually didn’t need a reason to research Mrs Exeter. Besides, a reason might come along in the future.

Research in the university system today is very ‘outcome’ based. We rarely receive funding or spend time on research that won’t result in an article, a book, a grant submission. It occurred to me, though, as I looked at my haul of Mrs Exeter information, that surely part of an academic’s job is to research, to be curious, to learn? As we become more outcome-driven, our curiosity muscle weakens from neglect. We stop learning and become focussed solely on our own increasingly stagnated, intellectual contribution. Of course, outcomes are vital. My realisation is that universities are increasingly reducing support for research that isn’t tied to an outcome, yet such research is the essential groundwork for intellectual development. Even in my desire to justify my attendance at a paper – “because I have an active research interest” – signals the changing culture in which academic curiosity is becoming steadily endangered.

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