Bal maidens, fishwives and carnival queens: meet Fran Rowse’s ‘Cornish Maids’

12 February 2024

Portrait of Cornish girl wearing dress, makeup and tiara - from Cornish Maids photography project by Fran Rowse
Cornish Maids - Fran Rowse - 1
Type: Text
Category: Our graduates

Fran Rowse graduated from Falmouth University’s Fashion Photography BA(Hons) degree in 2020. Born and raised in Cornwall, her heritage is the inspiration behind her photography project Cornish Maids – a collection of portraits of Cornwall’s young women and girls that aims to confront contemporary ideas of Cornish culture. With a new exhibition in the wings, Fran is now taking the project to the next level.  

Fran Rowse’s Cornish Maids project took flight during her time at Falmouth University and she has since exhibited the work in London, Bristol and Cornwall. She’s also delivered fashion and regional identity workshops for local young women and published a book, which won her numerous awards. 

Although the idea for the Cornish Maids project had been on Fran’s mind for a long time, it was at Falmouth University that she found the resources, support and connections to make it a reality. “I’ve been hugely supported by Falmouth University, both while I was a student and as a graduate. The lecturers used their connections as working professionals outside of the University to help me in my career.” 

I’ve been hugely supported by Falmouth University, both while I was a student and as a graduate. The lecturers used their connections as working professionals outside of the University to help me in my career.

Speaking recently with the BBC, Fran said that the aim for the project was to give a voice to the lives and aspirations of the young women and girls growing up in Cornwall today. "I wanted to show girls where they really live, away from tourism, away from beaches, away from ice cream shops, because that is a façade. Cornwall is one of the most poverty-stricken places in the whole of northern Europe, let's talk about that. How do we fix that? We have a huge amount of food banks, let's talk about that."  

In many of the images the subjects don prom dresses, big hair, jewellery and makeup, set against a backdrop of back alleys, caravans and council flats. This striking contrast is key to Fran’s message about female identity in Cornwall. In an interview with Refinery29, she said: “I want people to look at this work and see the reality of where I live. I want them to see both the ugliness and the beauty, and the different sides of femininity and heritage here.” 

In the same interview, Fran recalls the inspiration behind the concept. “It was the early 2000s and I was watching my friend’s older sisters get ready for prom. In that moment, the space was filled with girls supporting each other, celebrating each other, doing their hair and completely, unashamedly enveloping themselves in femininity and female friendship. I’d never seen anything like it.” 

Fran is now working on the second chapter of the project. Continuing to work in fashion, casting and photography, and with her distinct documentary style, she’ll be mixing charity shop finds with designer pieces to create inspiring new looks with the people she photographs.  

As the project develops and broadens its reach, Fran hopes to create an ever-growing community of Cornish women, offering a place to get to know themselves and celebrate those who came before. “This project is all about showing, teaching and bringing together women in Cornwall to uplift and confide in one another, and to learn about our forgotten historical counterparts too – be it bal maidens [young women working in the mining industries] or fishwives, nurses or carnival queens,” she told Refinery29. 

As well as developing new work and events for the Cornish Maids project, Fran is also building a Cornish contemporary archive – a space for all women and girls to contribute images, texts and objects up to the year 2000. This will be an archive built for women by women telling female Cornish stories. Fran is currently looking for contributors for the project. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can contact Fran via email.

If you’re in Cornwall, you can also explore Fran’s work through her upcoming exhibition at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange from 13 February to 13 April. The work will also feature as part of the gallery’s first ‘First Fridays’ events – a new series of monthly late openings with art, talks, performance, food and drink – on 1 March. Fran will be showcasing her work (and serving up pink cocktails!) alongside an all-female line-up of artists, performers and speakers. 

You can find out more about Fran's work through Instagram @franrowse_ and on the Cornish Maids website

You might also like