Finding the Humanity in Clothing – Joy Feagan

Numbers scare me. I’m not one of those humanities students who says they hate math just because, but I’m not used to seeing a ton of numerals in the type of works I like to read. While it may be an inaccurate perception, when I start seeing numbers my “this piece is decentering human actors!” alarm goes off. Numbers make me think of the longue durée. I flash back to reading Fernand Braudel’s meticulous descriptions of Mediterranean geographic features, and his related silencing of, you know, people.

Material culture should help reveal more information about people. After all, clothes aren’t superficial, because people aren’t! But when a piece goes into a hyper-detailed look at the physicality of the clothing, my alarm starts to go off. Where is the humanity in 10in x 5in?

Reading Joan Severa and Merrill Horswill’s piece, “Costume as Material Culture,” didn’t help. The structured layout of their methodology, and then their equally structured analysis of three individual dresses, made me feel like I was reading a lab report. In their introduction, the authors explained their belief that analyzing clothes can reveal information about a culture (53). I’m with them there. But the piece was ultimately not about people, or even learning new information about a culture. The authors did “deduce” some information about the women who may have worn the dresses, but their overall point was modeling a methodology to extract information from clothing that is already “representing any culture well-known to the researcher” (64). Their measurements didn’t really teach me how to use clothes to learn about people, but rather how to use people to learn about clothes. I’m much more interested in the other way around.

I found images from this ad campaign here. I have some philosophical issues with the slogan.

My mind started to open thanks to Valerie Steele and her explanation for the importance of tedious measuring in her piece, “A Museum of Fashion is More than Just a Clothes Bag.” Steele shared that her experience of measuring dozens of corsets led her “to questions whether the proverbial 16-inch waist was at all typical of the nineteenth century” (332). Here I have been convinced of the value of measuring! Through this mass effort Steele was able to learn something new about clothing styles in the nineteenth century, revealing information about culture, and, in turn, people. Though, this is from measuring dozens of corsets. What helpful, personal information comes from measuring just one?*

Then, in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects the historian did exactly what the title says. This lovely piece grounds its analysis in the differences between a mother and daughter’s field hockey suits from different eras at Radcliffe College. Ulrich observes that the differences between the two outfits “exemplifies a crucial transition in women’s clothing and education in the early decades of the twentieth century” (67). In this case, including a close look at the suits’ features helped contextualize differences in perceptions of womanhood and sport between just two generations. Ulrich did include measurements of the mother’s suit, but I felt like I understood her observations about the different suits without the numbers. Other features she pointed out, like the bow on the more recent suit, plus the images were enough. In this instance, the measurements weren’t really helpful, but there was enough additional information about the wearers that the piece didn’t feel at all separate from humanity.

Beverly Lemire’s chapter, “Draping the body and dressing the home” concluded with the note, “textiles and clothing are among the most personal relics of the past” (99). And Lemire didn’t include any measurements! But, even without numbers, at times the role of people felt lost. For instance, she wrote about a cut along the side of a bed hanging. Lemire hypothesized about how and why the cut came to be. Ultimately, drawing on the theory of Arjun Appadurai, Lemire notes that the object’s imperfections encourage consideration of “the ways in which its ‘social life’ was shaped” (88-9). Now, this is a relatively small quibble. Lemire’s piece includes significant discussion of people. This quote, however, almost personifies the hanging, decentering the actual humans who owned, used, cut, or “socialized” with the hanging. Out of this quibble comes a bigger realization: humans can be decentered without the use of numbers! Finding the humanity in a piece isn’t about whether or not measurements are included. Instead, it rests much more on the analysis surrounding the measurements, like in the case of Ulrich.

It’s worth noting that I also read a chapter from Ulrich’s book, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. Like Lemire, in this work Ulrich uses almost no measurements. Homespun is intensely personal, as Ulrich details the lives of the women who made the pieces she highlights. Yet as the Lemire example revealed, even without measurements analysis can be impersonal. But Ulrich provides names, sometimes faces, and diary entries. She cares about the clothes, but only for what they reveal about people.

All of these readings included multiple assertions about the power of material culture to learn about the past. I agree. Sometimes, though, I can get lost in the details of an object and feel separated from the person, or peoples, cultures, etc. that made and adorned the object. With the right context and accompanying information, though, I shouldn’t be lost for long.

*Steele also brought up some interesting notes about the frequent critiques of fashion museums for being “musty” or “superficial” (334). The public historian in me wants to engage more with this idea because it brings up a lot of thoughts I have about corporate museums and the entertainment value of museums, but that feels like something for another blog post on another day.

Fashion and Clothing as Rhetoric – Ryan Langton

In his chapter titled “Why We Need Things,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines the meanings and relationships that humans imbue objects with when they choose to own or keep them. Whether “demonstrating the owner’s power,” “reveal[ing] the continuity of the self through time,” or “giv[ing] concrete evidence of one’s place in a social network,” material things contain great symbolic weight for humans as social creatures (23). In light of the readings on clothing and fashion for this week’s class, I keep thinking about how clothes perform a specific function that mixes all of these functions: clothes and fashion operate as a form of rhetoric. In Jennifer Price’s chapter on the controversy over bird hats, she describes how upper-class women spearheaded the movement against bird hats as a product of their understandings of a woman’s domestic moral power and their perceived status as the aesthetic and moralistic vanguard of polite society. As the arbiters of proper domestic and natural morality and stewardship, women used their rejection of bird hats to signify their place in a community of socially-minded women who could exert new avenues of force and power in social clubs. Similarly, Leslie Shannon Miller describes in her article on corsets how the constrictive nature of the garment inculcated an “aura of high morality and youthful discipline that went hand in hand with the message of physical youth,” creating a way for women to sartorially demonstrate their virtue (137). For both Price and Miller, women understood that clothing “was always meant to be seen and interpreted by others,” making fashion a non-verbal rhetorical strategy where women signaled their values, power, and status to themselves and society (L. Miller, 143).

This concept of clothing and fashion as rhetoric inspires concerns, nonetheless. Some of these concerns are described in Daniel Miller’s “Why Clothing is Not Superficial.” In the selection, Miller warns against the predominant “semiotic perspective” of material culture studies that views fashion as a superficial mask that signifies deeper truths, demonstrating how ideas of superficiality collapse in the cultural and social contexts of Trinidad, India, and London. While I agree with Miller’s critique of superficiality as artificially locating “truth” within a person rather on their clothing or around them, I do not think his examples disprove the semiotic perspective he mentions (18). Whether it is Trinidad’s “saga boys” or “galleying”, India’s saris, or London’s anxiety-prone fashion scene, these tangible materials signify broader cultural or social processes and norms. Outer clothing does not semiotically represent inner truths, but instead visible evidence highlights invisible societal forces. The different practices and meanings behind clothes in Trinidad coincide with a society “relatively egalitarian” that “prefers metaphors which suggest that people are to be defined by their current abilities and achievements” (20). The battles between saris and the shalwar makiz in India is representative of debates over gender and femininity (31). The anxiety-produced conformity of London is a visible manifestation of the “burden [on women]…to know for themselves what is they want and who they want to be” that came about through feminist empowerment (38). Superficiality should be done away with, but not concepts of clothing and fashion as visible signifiers of societal processes or norms.

Another concern that Miller only hits on is the fact that clothing can lie (13).  The distance between rhetoric and reality can vary, and a few of the readings touch on this. While the sartorial abandonment of bird hats by upper-class women conveys the belief among late-nineteenth-century Americans that women were at the heart and center of misconducts against nature, Price also highlights how this rhetoric somewhat obfuscates the reality of the economic markets that rampantly hunted and killed these birds. With these tensions of rhetoric and reality in mind, can objects and material culture studies stand on their own or do they need to be supplemented with other traditional historical sources to fully check against these differences?

Works Cited

Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi, “Why We Need Things,” in History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, eds. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 20-29.

Daniel Miller, “Why Clothing is Not Superficial,” in Stuff (Malden, Massachusetts: Policy Press, 2010), 12-41.

Leslie Shannon Miller, “The Many Figures of Eve: Styles of Womanhood Embodied in a Late-Nineteenth-Century Corset,” in American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, ed. Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman, (East Lansing: Michigan State Press, 2000), 129-147.

Jennifer Price, “When Women were Women, Men were Men, and Birds were Hats,” in Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 157-209.