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.
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.