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  Janet Arnold (1932–1998), by unknown photographer Janet Arnold (1932–1998), by unknown photographer
Arnold, Janet (1932–1998), costume historian, was born on 6 October 1932 at Duncan House, Clifton Down Road, Bristol, the only child of Frederick Charles Arnold (1898–1976), ironmonger, and his wife, Adeline, née Jacob (1895–1985), a nurse, daughter of the Revd Thomas Jacob and his wife, Elizabeth Hawkins. It was from her mother and the Hawkins family of Devon that she was said to have inherited her sharp mind and abundant energy. She attended the Red Maids School in Bristol (1943–9), where her deep regret at not qualifying for the orphan's uniform of tippet, red cloak, and bonnet revealed an interest in dress that proved long-lasting. After obtaining her intermediate certificate in arts and crafts at the West of England College of Art, Bristol, she studied design in dress for the national diploma (1949–53); in 1954 she obtained the certificate of education at Bristol University and her art teacher's diploma. She then sought a year's experience in the London couture houses of Frederick Starke and Victor Stiebel. This self-selected training equipped her with a rare mix of artistic, academic, and practical skills.

Arnold's enthusiasm for all forms of theatre was also important to her work and life. She saw more performances than seems possible, the last only two nights before she died, and, as a student and young teacher, she worked in her holidays in the wardrobes of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, and the Mermaid Theatre. She also travelled whenever possible to study theatre architecture, production, and costume design.

From 1955 to 1962 Arnold was a lecturer at Hammersmith Day College, London and, from 1962 to 1970, a senior lecturer at Avery Hill College of Education, variously teaching art, dressmaking, fashion, and theatre design. Gradually her holiday travels came to focus on historical costume; she built up a superb slide collection and began to accumulate her own drawings and patterns of surviving garments. The idea of publishing scale patterns for the use of students and amateur doll makers was conceived at Hammersmith, but came to fruition in 1964–5 with the publication of Patterns of Fashion, vol. 1: 1660–1860 and vol. 2: 1860–1940. These unique books combined research into visual and archival sources with exquisite drawings of surviving costumes and accurate scale patterns dependent on an object-based investigation of cut and construction. They were quickly seized upon by museum curators, theatre designers, and re-enactment groups, as well as students. She was an inspiring teacher, generous with her time and knowledge, but also setting a high standard. It was to teach her students the basic principles of research that she wrote A Handbook of Costume (1973), the most comprehensive guide to primary sources for costume study.

In 1970–71 Arnold took a year's unpaid leave to work on her Handbook and during that year she also rethought her life. In place of a full-time job and a marriage which would have taken her away from London, she chose insecurity and the freedom to pursue her research. It was not easy to maintain the mortgage repayments on the tiny terraced house which became her permanent home, nor to finance her research and theatre tickets; few of her many friends knew what careful housekeeping lay behind her continuing hospitality. She survived by teaching short courses to fashion and theatre students and working as a freelance lecturer throughout Europe and North America, despite her refusal to fly. From 1971 to 1975 she held a half-time post of research lecturer at the West Surrey School of Art and Design, and was also awarded a Winston Churchill travel scholarship. Then, in 1978, she began a long association with the department of drama and theatre studies, Royal Holloway College (later Royal Holloway and Bedford New College), University of London, supported by Jubilee and Leverhulme research fellowships.

As Arnold's reputation grew, the research that she fitted into every trip increased as museums and other institutions sought her advice and made rare items available for her to study. What became a punishing schedule was made bearable by quiet summers spent in a caravan on the Cornish cliffs, where she prepared the patterns and drawings for many articles, and two important books: a third volume of Patterns of Fashion (1986), covering in great detail the period 1560 to 1620, and Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (1989), a superlative example of tightly focused historical research.

Arnold was nominated an honorary research associate and then honorary research fellow at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, London, but the awards that gave her greatest pleasure were her election as fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1981) and the presentation at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in June 1998 of the inaugural Sam Wanamaker award. She had been more or less adopted by the Globe, as she was by other institutions where her catching enthusiasm, generosity, and creative drive forged friendships as well as scholarly partnerships. It was not surprising that, on 25 April 1999, more than 500 people arrived individually at Shakespeare's Globe to celebrate her life, to say thank you, and to share their experiences of her.

Unexpectedly, one might say uncharacteristically, Arnold had developed lymphoma in 1996. With the help of a sympathetic consultant, she held it at bay while she prepared a retrospective exhibition of her work for the Victoria and Albert Museum (held in 1999) and a fourth volume of Patterns of Fashion (forthcoming). She died at her home, 4 Brayfield Terrace, Islington, London, on 2 November 1998, and on 13 November was buried with her mother at the parish church of St Andrew, Sampford Courtenay, Devon, among her Hawkins ancestors.

Santina M. Levey


The Times (14 Nov 1998) · Western Morning News (16 Nov 1998) · Daily Telegraph (24 Nov 1998) · The Guardian (25 Nov 1998) · The Independent (25 Nov 1998) · S. M. Levey, ‘Janet Arnold FSA: an appreciation’, Fashion (winter 1998) · A. Hart, ‘Janet Arnold FSA (1932–1998)’, Newsletter of the English Costume Society (winter 1998) · M. Oates, ‘How Janet underpinned the patterns of fashion’, Western Morning News (16 Feb 1999) · W. Blausen, ‘Janet Arnold's life celebrated at Globe Theatre’, Newsletter of the Costume Society of America, 25 (summer 1999) · Costume, 34 (2000) · Southampton, Janet Arnold's papers · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · b. cert. · d. cert.


Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, collection of programmes and other theatrical material · U. Southampton L., collection of drawings, patterns, slides, lecture and research notes |  Blaise Castle Museum, Bristol, historical costume and clothes · Museum of Costume, Bath, historical costume and clothes · St Fagan's Museum, Cardiff, historical costume and clothes · V&A, historical costume and clothes


photograph, 1998, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in Levey, ‘Janet Arnold, FSA’, 3 · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, priv. coll. [see illus.] · photographs, U. Southampton, personal archive