“Clothing, Hats, Jeans, and…Definitions of Self” Reading Blog on Material Culture 1

This article by Jennifer Price provides a concrete example of the impact of material culture on the public sphere. The piece sparks a discussion, “Was social reforms like conservation based on outcry over nature, or differing opinions of gender norms?” The article traces the origins of the modern American conservation movement, not to ecological activists of the 1960’s, or federal conservation acts, but to an uproar over women’s hats.  The analysis of the efforts in the 1900’s, that led to major social change, is inherently rooted in material objects such as women’s hats.

A major aspect of this activism was tied to social structures of the Victorian Era and perceptions of femininity. Victorian ideals in America had rigid stances on gender roles dividing men and women and public perceptions of both. “The definition of Woman as the keeper of morality made this one issue resonate at a higher moral volume than any other”[1] Victorian perceptions of gender roles made women’s stance on issues more salient compared to those of men. This allowed the creation of “women’s clubs” that was the origins for the Audubon Society, which spearheaded most of the efforts for the conservation movement over women’s hats.

The debate revealed more about perceptions of femininity and gender that was beneath the surface of material objects. The rhetoric of both men and women of the era, reveals how closely tied the material aspects of society are tied to personal identity. These perceptions changed with the times, as noted by Price that in the past “…French elite defined beauty as a shared essential attribute of both women and birds”[2] This definition of beauty reveals the close ties between American and French sense of fashion. Price notes that public perceptions changed radically. “The place for dead birds, is not above a pretty woman’s face”[3] The radical shift in perceptions of women’s fashion was directly tied by female activists who pushed for conservation and accountability of natural resources. ‘the blowup over the bird hats had engendered the creation of new organizations, laws, preserves and policies”[4] This activism, Price ties to modern American conservation methods and movements, revealing the impact material objects can have by the continuation of this discussion in the American way of life.

This discourse speaks to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notions of material culture, “Thus, the kinds of selves individuals chose to build have great consequences for the material culture and the natural environment that must be despoiled in order to create it”[5] This quote ties into the tangible impact of material culture on American society. One determinant to Price’s field of research is most of the key figures in this debate are wealthy women, and this stratifies the historical narrative presented. The key themes of material objects and their effects on the environment and social norms, is something that is at the core of Price’s analysis of the Audubon Society and public discourse over women’s hats. Price’s research reveals the influence of material objects on social norms and social change.

Figure 1: Image of Rhetoric used by conservationists [6]


Clare Sauro’s writings on fashion industry acts as narrative framework for the broader context of the city of Philadelphia’s rise to prominence and decline in terms of the fashion world. The piece reveals the question, “Can Philadelphia return to the heights of a fashion center in America?” This historical research reveals the variety of trends and tastes of the American identity. These shifts reflect the structure and dismantling of gender roles through a history of Philadelphia’s fashion prominence.

In the 1800s, Philadelphia was the fashion capital of the American Republic. These tastes were a reflection of early American influences. Clare Sauro writes, “Despite this reputation, the fashions worn by Philadelphians largely originated in Europe’[1]. The prominence of French aesthetics on American cultural thought, was also noted by Jennifer Price. Another example of Philadelphia influence in material fields, was through its publishing network. Sauro uses the example of Godey’s Lady Book, “Became famous for its hand tinted fashion plates. These… often were redrawn from French originals”[2] Through these published magazines Philadelphia in a sense controlled American perceptions of high fashion through many ways.  By maintaining a stance on both the craft itself and the dissemination of tastes.

Sauro points to the decline of Philadelphia’s prominence in the fashion industry to changes in social norms in the 20th century. As fashion tastes for men and women shifted into greater variety, Philadelphia at the time became less of an authority on modern fashion trends, in comparison to New York. Sauro notes due to economic hardships, “By 1931 French imports had dropped 40 percent as department stores, specialty shops, and manufactures turned to domestic talent to produce new styles”[3] These new styles, were more casual than the norms established by Philadelphian department stores. Another aspect that affected Philadelphia fashion was the prominence of suburban malls that began in the 1950’s which drew consumers away from the city. “Although no longer a global center of manufacturing, the Philadelphia region remained headquarters to several prominent fashion companies such as Lily Pulitzer, Destination Maternity, and Urban Outfitters”[4] The fact that Philadelphia is still a home to these fashion institutions speaks to the intrinsic value Philadelphia has created through its long history in the fashion.

This piece was incredibly informative about Philadelphia’s long history in the fashion culture. This narrative starting with the early days of the American Republic, and Clare Sauro provides the evolution to modern times. Given the social context of Philadelphia’s history in the spotlight of American fashion, it is no wonder the city is such a wealth of information and resources on material culture. Clare Sauro traces this history of Philadelphia’s fashion and illustrates many figures tied to the city. She touches on Grace Kelly, one of the icons of Hollywood Cinema, and other material like a Stetson hat. At the same time, Sauro takes time to connect Philadelphia fashion to other prominent individuals like Mae Reeves.[5] Overall the piece is an important research material for understanding local context of material culture, and American identity fashion shaped.

Figure 2: Image from Godey’s Lady’s Book [6]

The concepts tied to Clare Sauro’s piece on “Fashion” and David Sullivan’s “Department Stores” overlap in numerous ways. The subjects are truly two sides of the same coin, and one could not achieve the same meteoric success in American history without the other. The piece brings on a discussion “Was opulence the key to a successful department store, or its role as a community institution?” The prominence of fashion in Philadelphia was only made possible through the prestige placed on department stores by the city itself. This piece offers an interesting analysis and historical context for a modern-day institution on a local level. The emphasis placed on both fashion and department stores in Philadelphia adds to the city’s wealth of resources and history of material culture.

David Sullivan chronicles the history of department stores in the context of Philadelphia. The prominence of this is important as the Sullivan notes the decisions and design choices made in Philadelphia developed “A nation model, Market Street became home to the giant stores known as the Big Six which were close to the rail terminals and subway stations”[1]. Philadelphia’s role in defining areas of fashion did not just emphasis the material goods, but also the presentation and consumption via these opulent department stores.  One of the most prominent of these department stores was Wanamaker’s, which became national recognized as a success. “The building was opened in 1911 with an address from President William H. Taft, making it the only department store to be dedicated by a sitting president” This presidential seal of approval reveals how important of an institution these department stores were to Americans in the 1900’s.  However, lauded these department stores were, an important factor in their success was at the local level, not the national. Sullivan emphasizes, “the giant stores became stages for pageantry that underscored their role in civic life and the culture of downtown” It was this kind of pageantry, such as window-dressing for Christmas made these department stores such a success. However, just as Philadelphia declined in terms of fashion authority, in recent history these cultural institutions struggled to remain salient. “While department stores seemed to be booming in the 1960s, they had in fact passed their peak as discounters, malls, and big-box stores offered wider selections”[2] This decline would persist throughout the 1970s and ‘80s with most of the famous “Big Six” sold and absorbed into larger corporations instead of the original family owned business of the 1870s.

This piece provided a new and informative history on a subject that, while is a cultural institution seems to have been understudied by traditional historians. It reveals the transformations of a local community across multiple decades. Like Philadelphia’s role in the fashion industry, its prominent department stores reveal how much of an emphasis is placed on material culture. It is relevant that as Sullivan notes, Philadelphia was one of the first major cities to operate these massive department.

Figure 3: Illustration of John Wanamaker’s Department Store [3]

The piece “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” by Daniel Miller is an interesting examination of cultural practices and clothing. The piece encourages a discussion of why has an in-depth study of clothing has not come sooner, when the subject is so rich in understanding the human identity. His piece examines practices of clothing and identity that is a cross-cultural phenomenon that reveals more about human nature and attitudes than anything else. Miller uses numerous examples to make a case for an in-depth study of material objects such as clothing, and the rich analysis of the aesethic choices people make.

Miller’s close study of Trinidadian cultural perceptions provide an interesting example of different trends and fashion. Miller cites the Trinidad’s custom of Carnival “Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and remade annually”[1] This emphasis on material and individuality Miller connects to deep rooted components of Trinidadian culture and history. With this example, Miller suggests “Next, we need to look in more detail at how things such as clothing come not to represent people, but to actually constitute who they are”[2] It is with these insights as well as other cultural examples that Miller argues a need to study clothing as a topic of academic merit.

Miller traces the roots of superficiality in material objects directly to a specific philosophical train of thought known as “depth ontology”. He explains, “The assumption is that being-what we truly are- is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition with the surface”[3]  This analysis directly sums up the reasoning for why clothing has so long been ignored as a cultural study. Miller’s analysis of Trinidadian fashion culture flaunts these conventions of self, proving the direct opposite is true.

Miller’s examination of clothing and different cultural factors provides an interesting and informative reading. He brings to light information and analysis to argue for a more serious study of material culture. Through the examples featured, he reveals succinctly more about humanity and cultural understandings than a dozen philosophical tomes. The piece truly provided a fair reasoning for a study on a global scale and how material objects reveal more about a culture. It is important that these piece touches on diverse and more internationally based focus on material cultural studies. Especially when so much of the literature in these readings are based on American material objects. The piece brings up numerous examples of customs in Trinidad. However, one way to make his point more concrete is more symmetry in his examples. Later in the text Miller focuses solely on the sari and analyzes this. If Miller had provided an actual example of Trinidadian clothing instead of customs and practices, his argument would be a bit clearer. Despite this the piece was still incredibly informative and brings forth a discussion on clothing and the deeper cultural meanings material objects can possess.


Figure 4: Image of a Women in a Sari [4]

Leslie Shannon Miller’s piece, “The Many figures of Eve: Styles of Womanhood Embodied in a late 19th century corset” traces the history of the use of corsets and the weight of public perceptions on a material object. Miller’s research brings about an important discussion of the toxic effects of patriarchal values imposed on women. The inherent question in the piece seems to be why did women spend countless years suffering under these inherently harmful conditions. Miller argues corsets more than any object speaks to patriarchal values and morality, that were harmful to women on a psychological level and had physical repercussions. Miller’s analysis speaks to the fact that humans place multiple meanings on material objects that can have serious effects on an individual.

Miller goes into extensive detail on various components of what makes up a corset, (with helpful pictures) and the implications of this.  She sums this up in, “Likewise the shape that the corset bestowed upon her body was meant less for her appreciation than for the gaze of the public”[1]. This notion is rooted deep in the material object itself, with its unnecessary but aesthetically pleasing lacework. Besides contextualizing and analyzing the corset itself, Miller goes into the harmful effects women suffered by simply wearing the piece of clothing. “The corset prevented all types of bending from the waist, any form of deep breathing and sitting in any positon other than on the edge of a chair”[2] One major aspect of the corset that truly speaks to the harmful effects is the whalebone that acts as a spine to the corset. The combination of silk and whalebone summarizes the toxic dichotomy of the social factors related to the object. “The wearer’s tactile experience was thus one of firm whalebone encased in plain-weave pongee: the gentler satin weave was reserved for those who beheld her” More than anything the very design of the object reveals more about social expectations of women in the 19th century.

This piece was incredibly well researched and an interesting read. The level of detail that Miller goes into her analysis of a corset, made the daily suffering of 19th century women all the more palpable. It brings to life the day to day realities that are based on antiquated morals, and Miller’s research made aspects much easier to understand. One suggestion on the piece would have to be, often Miller brings up anti-corset literature and medical effects of corset. A visual representation of these would bring the reality of this suffering home to a modern audience. On that note, reading this piece reminded me of an article I read about the movie The Favourite. The film is a period piece on 17th century England, and actress Emma Stone discussed her costumes (which featured corsets). “After about a month my organs shifted because they have to”[3] The modern example adds to the real-world effects of corsets Leslie Shannon Miller documents.

Figure 5: Image from The Favourite [4]

Helen Sheumaker’s piece “Grooming, Clothing, and Accessories” provides an incredibly detailed analysis on material objects. The piece spurs as discussion asking if these ordinary objects are so significant to American identity why have they not been studied sooner? The specific examples Sheumaker uses would be considered antiques to modern audiences, and old-fashioned such as lip gloss from the 1930’s. However, these objects as Sheumaker points out have an incredibly long and interesting history, and are objects that are not only the roots of modern conveniences. On another level, these objects simultaneously speak to the values and ideas of American culture and identity between men and women in American society.

One of the more interesting examples of Helen Sheumaker’s analysis was “Lorna Doone Jeans.” This object is one of the best examples of society values can evolve and shape the definition of an object. Jeans are an invention that is uniquely American and Lorna Doone’s disruption of the norms was out of necessity of her lifestyle, but also reflect how cultural values change over time. Helen Sheumaker recounts of Lorna Doone, one of many who became part of the counter culture of the 1960’s. Sheumaker describes the uniqueness of her jeans, “The jeans, originally typical blue jeans, traveled her patched with fabrics from her adventures until 1975”[1]. Sheumaker explains the deeper context, “For beatniks, hippies and the serious-minded civil rights workers, to wear denim was to demonstrate a desire for social and cultural change”[2] This example shows how material objects can become so heavily associated with a specific time, place, or set of values, on top of remaining an object.

Helen Sheumaker’s research spans numerous time periods of American history through the context of simple household objects. It is an interesting approach. Not only that but Sheumaker uses this opportunity as vehicle to reveal diverse stories within the American mythos. For example, she takes time to promote the ingenuity of African-American innovators when faced with a consumer base who was not being marketed to in mainstream media. One such was Madam C. J. Walker who, “Created an industry of black hair care that included products, salons, and franchises”[3] This kind of attention to detail is incredibly important and educational of the deeper history within material objects.

While Helen Sheumaker’s piece is incredibly well-researched and covers a variety of topics, it’s description and significance focus seem almost like set-up. Readings these sections made me want to read more content and information on one topic, only to find Sheumaker’s analysis had reached its conclusions and moved on to the next topic. If the piece had a narrower focus, it would be more effective, though I realize it would only cater to an incredibly niche audience if done the piece had done this.   Despite this, Helen Sheumaker’s writing provides a unique understanding of material objects and the long histories that are closed tied with them.

Figure 6 Image of Lorna Doone Jeans [4]

[1] Sheumaker, Helen “Grooming Clothing and Accessories”, from Artifacts from Modern America (Santa Barbra: Greenwood, 2018) pg 111

[2] Ibid., Sheumaker, pg 144

[3] Ibid., Sheumaker pg 108

[4] Ibid., Sheumaker pg 110

[1] Miller, Leslie Shannon “The Many Figures of Eve: Styles of Womanhood Embodied in a Late 19th Century Corset” in American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture ed. By Jules David Prown and Kenneth Haltman, (East Lansing: Michigan State Press 2000) pg 136

[2] Ibid., Miller, Leslie pg 136

[3] Nordine, Michael ‘The Favourite’; Emma Stone’s Corset Made Her Organs Shift’ IndieWire 27 Oct 2018 https://www.indiewire.com/2018/10/the-favourite-emma-stone-corset-1202015849/

[4] Image Source Ibid., Nordine, Michael

[1] Miller, Daniel “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” Stuff (Malden, Massachusetts: Policy Press, 2010) pg 15

[2] Ibid., Miller, pg 23

[3] Ibid., pg 16

[4] Image Source,“Why Saris are Indian Material Culture” Google Images JSTOR Daily

[1] Sullivan, David “Department Stores” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (Rutgers University, 2017) https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/department-stores/

[2] Ibid., Sullivan “Department Stores”

[3] Image Source “Wanamaker’s” Google Images Department Store Museum website

[1] Sauro, Clare “Fashion”The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (Rutgers University, 2017) https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/fashion/

[2] Ibid., Sauro

[3] Ibid., Sauro

[4] Ibid., Sauro

[5] Ibid., Sauro

[6] Image Source “Treasure of the Rare Books Room- Godey’s Lady’s Book” Google Images Milwaukee Public Library Website


[1] Price, Jennifer “When Women were Women, Men were Men, and Birds were Hats” from Flight Maps: Adventure with Nature in Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2000) pg 72

[2] Ibid., Price, pg 81

[3] Ibid., Price pg 83

[4] Ibid., Price pg 61

[5] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly “Why We Need Things” pg 28

[6] Ibid., Price pg 83

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