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They are, on the face of it, the ordinary clothes of a woman living in the 1960s easily washed Crimplene dresses in fashionable op art prints. Yet the garments that have just gone on display in Brighton’s Churchill Square tell the story of a woman “extraordinary in her ordinariness”.
Concetta Trotta was an Italian who married a British serviceman in Italy in the last year of the Second World War and was brought over to Brighton when the war ended, then unceremoniously dumped, along with the couple’s five year old son Reg.
Suddenly single and alone in a foreign land, she found herself living in a Jewish women’s boarding house that would later be demolished as part of the 1960s slum clearances which made way for the Churchill Square development.
A lone parent with a foreign accent, it would have been a tough life, says EJ Scott, a design MA student at the University of Brighton and curator of the exhibition. But she managed to find herself jobs in shoe shops around Brighton and eventually worked her way up to a top sales position at Russell Bromley in East Street.
Her clothes reflect her circumstances: “They’re fashionable but not overly so. They’re made from a fabric that was easily washed and didn’t require ironing remember she was a working single mum. She would have looked respectable and in control.”
They were donated to the University of Brighton’s dress history teaching archives by local vintage dealer Hannah Warwick. When Concetta Trotta died in 2012 her son,
who still lives locally, had discovered hundreds of dresses that his mother had kept over her lifetime. “Perhaps because she’d been through such hard times when she was younger she didn’t want to let things go,” suggests Scott. There were more than he knew what to do with so he passed many garments on to Warwick.
Scott had studied the garments as part of his undergraduate degree in the history of fashion and dress and was reminded of them when walking through Churchill Square one day.
“It occurred to me that this was the area where Concetta once lived and that this is probably the sort of place she would have shopped were she a young woman today. I thought it would be interesting to look at a slice of social history through clothes.”
Five glass display cabinets normally used to advertise products on sale in the shopping centre have been used to display the dresses, worn by Concetta throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Posters explain more about her background and life, and the history of the area.
Such an exhibition is a first for Churchill Square and represents a growing interest in recording the fabric of “ordinary” lives.
“Museums tend to show the very best of design but there’s a move towards looking at the everyday as well. The University of Brighton is very interested in so called ‘everyday dress’ because it tends to tell the story of the lives of everyday people which is, after all, most of us. I like the fact her story is part of Brighton’s history how many people remember the Jewish women’s boarding house? it’s about immigrants finding new homes, and it’s about a remarkable, ordinary woman.”