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Dorm decor: Research charts the history of the student bedroom

Posted on 15/02/2013

Archives, Royal Holloway, University of London

From an iconic image of Bob Marley to a Trainspotting poster, the modern student has often decorated their bedroom in a way that makes a statement about their identity.

But students have in fact been using wall space to express their personality as far back as the 19th century, according to research presented by Royal Holloway.

A leopard skin rug, the skin of a dead crocodile and even the skeleton of a medieval nun are just some of the exotic and unusual items that students in the Victorian era used to distinguish themselves from their peers.

“Just like students today, young men and women in the 19th century took great pleasure in decorating their new spaces when arriving at university,” said Dr Jane Hamlett, from Royal Holloway’s Department of History. “The walls of student rooms have, for more than 100 years, been used to show self-awareness, an attachment to family and school, but also a new sense of identity.”

Royal Holloway’s archive holds a rare and unique collection of 56 photographs of the rooms taken between 1896 and 1898 and has provided an interesting insight into the students’ lives.

“These spaces offered women in particular a new kind of freedom, an escape from the demands of domesticity and family”, Dr Hamlett added.

“At the time these were taken, it was unusual and even shocking for women to be at university at all. So the photos offer us a glimpse of what these new female students made of university life when they experienced it for the first time.

“Surprisingly, female students don’t seem to have felt that they had to portray themselves as feminine. One of the Holloway rooms even contains a crocodile skin – a classic symbol of manhood in the Victorian period.”

One of the case studies, Miss Shocksmith, a music prize-winning student in 1895, used decoration to reflect her personal interests, hanging a picture of a young girl playing the violin. The researchers also found that portraits of family members were prominent in the rooms at Royal Holloway, as were allegiances to former schools and sporting interests, with a number of tennis rackets featured in the photographs.

“It is also interesting to note the importance of fashion and the ‘latest’ trends,” said Dr Hamlett. “The popularity of the aesthetic movement can often be seen in the photographs, with fans and parasols pinned to the walls and Japanese screens in the rooms. Seen as foreign and exotic at the time, students used these decorations to transform their rooms into alluring and exciting places.”

The research will be presented at Royal Holloway on Tuesday 26 February, at 2pm, in the historic Picture Gallery. Places must be booked in advance. For details, please visit the event’s webpage here.


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