Obituary: Janet Arnold

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SPEAK THE name of Janet Arnold to any costume specialist or enthusiast, and the reaction would be one of appreciative recognition. Her publications, especially the Patterns of Fashion series, published in three volumes between 1964 and 1985, A Handbook of Costume (1973), and her monumental Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (1988) made her known world-wide. Her advice was sought, and lectures eagerly commissioned, from Stockholm to Tokyo, from Ankara to Washington DC.

She was a unique combination of scholar, artist and teacher with, in addition, practical experience of the cut and construction of clothes both as haute couture and for the stage. Through her work she changed the perception of the study of dress for a wide range of professionals - art historians, curators and conservators of dress, designers of theatrical period costume - and for generations of students, some of whom went on to teach in their turn.

Arnold taught how to look at costume in paintings: how to date each from the other; how to detect later copies of paintings from faults in the costume. She advocated scrupulous recording and preservation of original stitching, and close co-operation between specialists and conservators, citing her discovery, during conservation, of five 16th-century stitches through layers of material in the breeches of the Swedish nobleman Nils Sture, proving that the suspiciously well-preserved black worsted was of the same date.

Her emphasis on the importance of studying cut and construction enabled her, when working on the Medici graves clothes in Florence, to reconstruct the original appearance of garments of Cosimo I and Eleanora of Toledo where no more than a few fragments of shaped cloth and joined braids survived.

By taking patterns and photographs, and making meticulous line-drawings of construction details in parts of garments not normally visible and by her wide and detailed research of costume shown in other media and described in documents, she made historical dress more accessible and comprehensible to students and designers, and helped to make such studies a respected part of the history of art.

The quality of her research was recognised by two great honours. In 1981 she was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London; and in 1998 she received, at the newly built Shakespeare's Globe Theatre at Southwark, the inaugural Sam Wanamaker award for services to the theatre.

Born in Bristol in 1932 and educated there at the Red Maids School and the West of England College of Art, Arnold developed a love of the theatre, having been taken from an early age by her mother to the Bristol Old Vic, the Theatre Royal founded in 1766. In her student days she worked there in the wardrobe, gaining experience of cutting out period costumes; and when she came to London in 1954 her spare time, when not playgoing, was spent in the wardrobe at the Mermaid Theatre.

She had followed her intermediate certificate in arts and crafts and national diploma of design in dress by an art teacher's diploma and certificate of education from Bristol University. Feeling the need for knowledge of modern couture tailoring and dressmaking techniques, she postponed teaching, instead observing professionals and trying her hand in the London workrooms of Frederick Starke and Victor Stiebel.

During the later 1950s and 1960s she taught, first at Hammersmith Day College, then as a senior lecturer at Avery Hill College of Education. After a brief appointment as Research Lecturer at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, in Farnham, she began in 1978 her long association with the Department of Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway College, London University.

While there, she was awarded a three-year Jubilee Fellowship, followed by a five-year Leverhulme Research Fellowship. In 1992 she was appointed Visiting Professor in the History of Dress at the University of the West of England, in Bristol.

Teaching work and regular income were intermittent, as Arnold took unpaid leave to travel for research and to write her books, financed by freelance work and fellowships, including a Churchill Fellowship in 1973, and a Paul Mellon Visiting Fellowship at the Yale Centre for British Art, in New Haven, Connecticut. Invitations to work on special projects abroad concerning 16th- and 17th-century dress, led to published research on the collections of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, and of the Royal Armoury in Stockholm, and the Medici graves clothes.

She acted as consultant to many museums in Britain, and was involved in research projects on the funeral effigies at Westminster Abbey, the Spitalfields graves clothes, and work on the finds from Henry VIII's ship the Mary Rose, raised from the seabed off Southsea in 1982.

The first exhibitions of costume from the BBC TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R, in which, as Queen Elizabeth, Glenda Jackson had worn a gown inspired by the "Phoenix" portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, were initiated by Arnold. She worked for the BBC in 1972, researching and partly writing six short programmes entitled For the Sake of Appearance. In one of these, The Devil's Fashion, she demonstrated the construction and starching of 16th-century ruffs. Two 20-minute films, Looking at Costume and Fashion and Fabric, were also largely her work.

Arnold wrote many articles, particularly for Costume, the journal of the Costume Society, and for Waffen-und Kostumkunde, published in Munich. Her early books, the two Patterns of Fashion covering the years 1660 to 1940, and A Handbook of Costume, were written in response to a need she found when teaching. Her books of the 1980s, Patterns of Fashion c1560- 1620, and Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd were the result of even more painstaking research, and made her reputation as the leading authority on dress of this period. The transcription of three inventories of clothes and jewels belonging to the Queen in 1600, gives an unrivalled picture of every aspect of Elizabeth I's wardrobe of robes.

Janet Arnold had a gift for making - and keeping - friends. Through all her work and her illness from cancer she maintained a voluminous correspondence in her clear, flowing hand. Whenever her treatment allowed, her gallant spirit enabled her to continue with her articles, and with work on the inventories of Henry VIII, and even to go to the theatre.

It was with deep emotion that in July this year she stood with Mark Rylance on the stage of the Globe, to receive the Sam Wanamaker award from Zoe Wanamaker, surrounded by the wardrobe staff and the cast of The Merchant of Venice in their superb costumes. She did not manage to reach her next goal, the opening of her retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in February 1999; but with typical thoroughness she completed her choice of drawings and of theatrical costumes inspired by her work, and had written all the text for labels before she died.

Janet Arnold, costume historian: born Bristol 6 October 1932; Jubilee Fellowship, Royal Holloway College, London University 1978-81, Leverhulme Fellowship 1982-87, Honorary Research Associate 1991-95, Honorary Research Fellow 1995-98; Visiting Professor in the History of Dress, University of the West of England 1992-98; died London 2 November 1998.