“Fashion! Turn to…the next page” Material Culture Reading Blog Week 2


Beverly Lemire’s piece “Draping the body and dressing the home: the material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500-1800” engages readers to look closely into material culture. The conclusions she extracts about English trade relations are incredibly informative and interesting. Lemire’s analysis brings out a discussion suggesting can we really trace the social and political atmosphere in which an object is created through analyzing the object itself? Lemire’s research analyzes the relationship between English and Indian trade networks, through the products consumed by English markets. Lemire traces the cultural impact of the cotton products and its effect on English consumer tastes. Lemire also stresses the unique opportunities in this field, through the lens of the Atlantic World.

Lemire’s analysis of the rise of “Indian cotton” among English consumers is thoroughly detailed and traces a broader discussion of English markets. One concept that Lemire reminds her audience is, “innovations and amendments to the home and dress were designed to buffer the sometime harsh physical world”.[1] This is an essential aspect of the material should always be considered. Lemire goes even further in her analysis of “Indian cotton.” Her research doesn’t simply focus on the object itself but also the conditions that led to the object prominence. She examines records from across the centuries. Lemire notes the existence of literature such as, “The Merchant’s Ware-house Laid Open; Or the Plain-dealing Linen Draper. Shewing how to buy all sorts of Linnen and Indian goods…”[2]In Lemire’s research the culture is placed an equal level of study with the object, revealing similarities between them.

Another aspect of Beverly Lemire’s research that was incredibly eye-opening was the unique research opportunities within the study of material culture. She uses the example of Adrienne Hood’s research into textile production. In order to truly study this subject, Lemire recounts how Adrienne Hood learned how to weave.[3] Lemire praised Hood’s work stressing “a close reading of objects, particularly those routinely made and widely used, can create unexpected vantage points from which to assess the historical terrain”[4] This example stresses the unique approach to research within the field.

Lemire piece is incredibly informative about early history of western material culture. Her research does a great job of tying that early history all the way to the twentieth-century. Her use of examples and references to other prominent historians in the field really illustrate the vast amount of study that has gone into understanding material culture. One aspect I found interesting was her discussion of pockets in the 18th century, as before reading this I thought complaining about the lack of women’s pocket was a modern phenomenon. Her writings however tie this cultural discussion to its roots, and she accomplishes this with other examples as well.


Sources “Draping the body and dressing the home” Response

[1] Lemire, Beverly “Draping the body and dressing the home: the material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500-1800” in History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources ed. Karen Harvey (New York: Routledge, 2009) Pg 90

[2] Ibid., Lemire pg 89

[3] Ibid., Lemire pg 92

[4] Ibid., Lemire pg 93

5 Image Source “Weaving Loom” Google Images woodrunnersdiary.blogspot.com


Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Ian Gaskel’s piece “A Field Hockey Dress: Fit for a Knockabout Sport” is an informative study that ties material objects to a rich history. The piece spurs a discussion, asking what role does sports play in understanding both local history and American history? The analysis in this piece provides an opportunity for a discussion across a variety of subjects. It is primarily focused on the life and experiences of the object’s donor Elizabeth Wright Plimpton. However, an examination of the material produces a wider discussion on women’s education and changing cultural perceptions in the 20th century.

The piece analyzes an important aspect of women’s education through the context of Elizabeth Plimpton’s life and material objects. It is Plimpton’s lifelong dedication to sport and intellectual improvement that spurred her to donate her old hockey uniform to her alma mater. Ulrich points out a key detail, “The dress is a more powerful record of her undergraduate days than the scrapbooks”[1] Ulrich asserts this as the attention to detail in preserving the dress some sixty years after the fact, is much more valuable than the newspaper clippings her scrapbook contains.

Beneath the surface of the study of this object is the cultural history of women and sports, and the debates of the time. While Radcliffe was in the process of shaping its own identity with students like Elizabeth Plimpton, they had to challenge the rhetoric of the time. Ulrich cites Professor Edward H. Clarke of Harvard, “Who warned that serious study might damage a young women’s reproductive capacities”[2]   This was a justification for Harvard’s unwillingness to promote co-education between the two schools. Ulrich traces the one of the many trends that led to Radcliffe’s success was through sports as well as academics. Ulrich also notes the changes in culture through an examination of Plimpton’s uniform and the appearance of previous uniforms. Ulrich analysis of the practicality of Plimpton’s uniform in comparison to others, is a meaningful example of the changes in perceptions of women in the 1920’s. Ulrich stresses the significance of this artifact by noting Elizabeth Plimpton’s admirable dedication to both Radcliffe College and physical education across her lifetime.

I found Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s piece incredibly informative, on an aspect of history I personally, wouldn’t have thought to examine. Her piece was a brief study that featured a wealth of information. Her research ties her discussion of the material effectively with the larger cultural discussions it is a product of.  One aspect I think would have made the piece more informative would be a deeper reading into the contrasts between Elizabeth Wright Plimpton’s uniform and the previous uniform. Though the later history of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s subject provided a kind of “narrative closure” to the piece, it seemed less essential to the piece as a whole.

Sources “A Field Hockey Dress: Fit for a Knockabout Sport” Response

[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Ian Gaskel et al., “A Field Hockey Dress: Fit for a Knockabout Sport” in Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects (New York: Oxford UP, 2015) pg 64

[2] Ibid., Ulrich pg 66

3 Image source Ibid., Ulrich pg 65

This excerpt might be my favorite piece out of the readings for this week. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s writings in Age of Homespun Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth was an incredibly insightful read. The piece seems to ask the question, “was one the precursor to women’s campaign for equal rights in America spurred by modernization of the Industrial Revolution?” My own personal experiences definitely had a hand in my impressions of this reading. The subject manner and the Ulrich analysis of changes in New England culture as a product of the Industrial Revolution was incredibly interesting and informative. Ulrich’s piece (which was referenced previously in Beverly Lemire’s writings) proved just how rich an analysis of material culture and society can be.

Ulrich uses the ordinary objects such as the unfinished stocking to the discuss the origins of American-made silk and changes in perceptions of gender as a product of modernization. Some of the examples Ulrich uses stresses the prominence of knitting in early American society. Ulrich recounts, “Whether they labored in factories, performed outwork at home, or carried their knitting needles to new homes in the West, New England women defined their lives through work”[1] This concept of women using their ideas of “work” as a source of identity comes up again and again in primary sources Ulrich uses. The productivity of women in New England of this time speaks to the American idea of the “Protestant work ethic” that is a part of the American identity. Ulrich notes in one letter Sarah Sheldon tells her son, “And should you turn out to a spend thrift…gambler, or a trifler-We should be like a tree stript of all its levels and branches” [2] Sarah Sheldon’s letters reveal the emphasis on work and the influence women of this era possessed.

Ulrich traces the changes in culture through primary sources like letters and in the objects preserved themselves. She also stresses that with modernization perceptions of women and gender radically changed. Ulrich points out “An abundance of factory made cloth expanded the standard of clothing a family required; new concepts of cleanliness required a greater investment in laundry”[3] This example of societal expectations were one of the major shifts from homespun objects to manufactured finished goods. Ulrich cites the letters of Persis Andrews, “I suffer for common shoes suitable for the season & so does my child, & I am in a great need of factory cloth…”[4] Ulrich cites many examples such as Persis Andrews of women who used their craft to display their own autonomy and provide additional income for their families. The kind of ambitions and educations these women possessed also fueled an awareness of social ills. Ulrich cites the rise of women abolitionists of this era[5] She also stresses the importance of women championing for their own rights as was the case of women factory workers, (which was a new phenomenon of this industrialization)[6]. Ulrich stresses the key point, “Women deserved to be heard because they were workers, not because they were morally superior to men”[7] This idea of women’s equality I thought was interesting as its almost anti-intertextuality with the notions expressed in Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America from last week’s readings.

Overall, I really enjoyed this piece, especially its use of numerous female perspectives which is something that is not often the case in a study of the modernization of the antebellum period. The piece was well-developed and well researched and used both the objects and historical context to trace changes in women’s roles in a time period. As a knitter, this piece was an incredible wealth of information on a whole other level.

Current knitting work in progress is “Feather and Fan” stitch Ulrich mentions in the reading

[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “An Unfinished Stocking, New England 1873,” in Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) pg 376

[2] Ibid. Ulrich pg 385

[3] ibid., pg 389

[4] Ibid., pg 387

[5] Ibid., pg 389

[6] Ibid., pg 392

[7]ibid., pg 390

8 Image Source Personal Photography Taken by the Writer

Joan Severa and Merrill Horswill’s piece “Costume as Material Culture” was an incredibly descriptive and interesting reading. The piece spurs a discussion “what is more informative of historical study, traditional approaches or material culture?” The piece developed in-depth the parameters of studying material cultural, using the example of women’s fashion effectively.  Not only did the piece work with definitions of material culture, but also provided a working model and tested it with in-depth analysis of examples. The model that Severa and Horswill described can be an effective standard for any sort of analysis of an object in the study of material culture. The combination of all these elements made the piece an effective reading into the field of the material.

One thing that is interesting that Horswill and Severa point out are the variety of definitions of “material culture.” The authors cite two examples of definitions that offer radically different identifications of the study. They cite author Leland Ferguson’s definition “All of the things people make from the physical world-farm tools, ceramics, houses etc.”[1] whereas Jules Prown defines material culture as “the study through artifacts (and other pertinent historical evidence) of belief systems”[2] These two definitions reveal the complexities of material culture and the kinds of objects that fall under the definition of material culture studies. Though Severa and Horswill focus on the fashion and how analysis of fashion reveals a deeper cultural context and study. They write on the costume, “…may be expected to reveal evidence of attitudes, belief systems, and assumptions which shed light on a culture”[3] Not only do the authors establish their priority on fashion studies, they also explain and contextualize their analysis.

Severa and Horswill provide an interesting outline of their methodology and also explain the kind of jargon associated with material culture in layman’s terms. This is incredibly helpful to someone like myself who have just dipped their toes into learning about material culture. One thing Severa and Horswill include is a “Fashion note” as well as their analysis. “In order to check the style of any women’s dress of the nineteenth century, it is first necessary to relate it to a fashion plate… published records that indicate American versions of French fashion plates.”[4] This piece of information on its own is a useful tip when studying material culture. On another level, it is also reveals the impossible standards of women’s body images of the time. So, these fashion plates on their own speak to the same kind of belief systems that the authors use as an aspect of definitions of material culture. The analysis that Severa and Horswill use on their study of the three dresses is a wealth of information and practices in the study of material culture.

As a whole Severa and Horswill’s writing illustrate a practical model for studies in material culture. Their analysis shows the true depths of a study in material objects that speaks volumes compared to traditional historical analysis of a time period. I feel that their analysis works on so many levels because they provide the reader with both written analysis of these objects and photographic so the reader can directly refer to their conclusions with the object itself, and even draw their own interpretations.

Sources “Costume as Material Culture” Response

[1] Joan Severa and Merrill Horswill “Costume as Material Culture” in Dress 15 (1989) pg 51

[2] Ibid., Severa and Horswill pg 51-52

[3] ibid., Severa and Horswill, pg 53

[4]Ibid., Severa and Horswill pg 56

5 Image Source “Fashion Plates” Google images antiques-art-collectibiles.com

Valerie Steele’s piece was an insightful resource for information about fashion in the context of museums. Her expertise in the field shines through her in-depth analysis of the importance of “fashion museums” in the context of museum studies. Her piece suggests a discussion, “What would we do to preserve such an important part of our culture without fashion museums?” She applies methods articulated by Jules Prown of material culture studies. She uses her own research as a concrete example of the need for both a better appreciation of material culture and fashion museums as a resource for the field.

Like many other pieces, Valerie Steele stresses the importance and beneficial impact of object based research. She uses the methodology of Jules Prown as a guiding tool of her argument hammering this importance. Also like the kind of methodology spelled out by Joan Severa and Merril Horswill, Steele stresses the length and process that goes into research into material objects. Steele highlights an important part of material cultural studies. “Although Prown does not explicitly say so, the comparison of objects is also an important part of this methodology”[1] Here Steele brings up a good point, which is another practice that can be useful in a study of material objects

The unique and interesting aspect of Steele’s piece is her analysis of fashion museums, which is especially informative given her status as the curator for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She cites the kind of cultural backlash to the concept of fashion museum and deftly argues in support of such an institution. . “Books after all represent the accumulated wisdom of the ages, while the fashions of the past are often regarded as a monument to the vanity and defective tastes of our ancestors”[2] Steele proves with her own research and examples, backed up by an articulation of the methodology of both Prown and Fleming, the necessity as a culture for fashion museums. She cites how a variety of audiences have engaged with the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Every year, thousands of students and hundreds of designers and manufacturers utilize the museum’s collections, which consists of approximately 50,000 garments and accessories”[3] Here Steele counters the ideas of a fashion museum’s existence is purely based on vanity.

I loved that this piece provided a new kind of context for material culture through a public history kind of analysis. Valerie Steele’s passion (and coincidental family history) made me want to look more into this museum I hadn’t even heard of till reading this piece. One of the slight criticisms I have about this piece is the obvious bias Steele has for Jules Prown, she stresses Prown’s methodology and leaves this more developed than contemporary analysis by Fleming. Other than that, Steele’s piece is very well organized and informative. When I researched this museum, I discovered that part of their collection is some of the clothes worn by Lauren Bacall. I pulled up an example of the kind of analysis of the material objects they have on their website.

Sources for “A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes-Bag” Reading

[1] Valerie Steele, “A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes-Bag” in Fashion Theory 2 (1998) pg 330

[2] Ibid., Steele pg 330

[3] Ibid., Steele pg 334

4 Image Source The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Website “Gifts of Lauren Bacall” http://fashionmuseum.fitnyc.edu/view/objects/asitem/5406/13/dynasty-desc?t:state:flow=548064fa-3cad-4d91-8abd-f0652335df9f


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