The piece that I chose as part of my object analysis is this dress. Just from simple observations, I could tell there was just an incredible amount of detail within the object itself. I’m really looking forward to getting started the more research-based component of the class, especially now that I’ve read a bunch of material on the subject. This week, I got to dive deeper into the technical aspects of material culture study, with all the various models of research methods from prominent figures in the field. After reading through the different kinds of strategies in object-based research, I can see interesting aspects in each of the researchers looked at. I’m not necessarily going to adhere to solely one model, but really employ bits and pieces of the methods suggested from these researchers. All this on top of leaning towards my own strengths and preferences in terms of formulating research. Different aspects of these writers’ methods are something I will surely keep in the back of my mind as I research, as they are some of the most qualified on the subject of material culture.
The first step I will take in this research is to really analyze this dress. I will try to approach it from as many angles as I can think of. The kinds of examples of analysis from the previous reading, is definitely a kind of benchmark I should ascribe to. This kind of analysis is something I’m looking forward to doing. I will look at from both a kind of stylistic approach, analyzing such things as the color, design elements and what not, as well as the technical aspects. I’ll have to measure the different components the dress, (something I thought of yesterday when looking at the incredibly tall mannequins at the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, the mannequins reminded me how much simple measurements can matter). As I stressed earlier, an analysis of the kinds of motifs could be important in understanding the social history surrounding the dress, as well as just another example of in-depth analysis of the object.
After I analyze the dress itself and its characteristics the next step I’ll do is trace its history. This historical analysis would work on multiple levels, tracing the history of the wearer of the object (maybe the dress was worn for some significant event?) it would be interesting if I could find some records or photographs of someone in 1870 wearing the dress. On another aspect, I’d trace the history of the department store where the dress was sold, and the kind of history gathered about this store and its founder could speak to Philadelphia’s role as a fashion center of nation. A third aspect I’d trace would be the dressmaker, as dressmakers and artisans played a vital role in creating the object itself. In order to truly research my object, I feel that’s important for me to learn how to sew, so I can truly appreciate the level of craftsmanship and effort that went into making this dress. With industrialization, I know most of it was machine-made with some handmade aspects, but I still think learning the skill will be beneficial to my research. In terms of sources I will definitely use multiple resources to gather a history of fashion from the time, not just locally in Philadelphia but to see internationally if these standards effected some aspect of the dress. For example, we’ve learned that Philadelphia fashion is very indebted to French tastes, I’ll have to look further and see where this dress lies in that kind of context.
Some of the important things I will keep in my mind, in my analysis are what kinds of stories that can come out of this dress. I’ll want to research the history of the object itself, and that can be aided by research into the actual composition of the dress. Perhaps the textile material was only found in a very specific place and that speaks to ideas of trade and relationships between Philadelphia and other cities. On top of understanding the object itself, I will look into Darlington & Runk Co., the department store in which it was sold, tracing the history of the store and its founder. Also, I want to add more perspective to this research, beyond the kind of elite status that this dress on the surface seems to signify. The dress itself especially to modern sensibilities seems to give of an aura of high society, what with the gold embroidery and beads. In an effort to “egalitarinaize” the kind of voices in this study, I want to research more into the perspectives of ordinary seamstresses who created material like this dress. This aspect is similar to the ideas Jennifer Black advocated, examining women’s roles in creating material culture through scrapbooking, which at the time was not considered academically worth wile because of gender biases. “Historians privileged men’s work in the public sphere of politics and economy while many historical dimensions of women’s work would languish until the late twentieth century women’s movement pushed female scholars to examine and recover these topics” Black stresses there is a wealth of material in scrapbooks that was scoffed at for decades because of gender biases.
The detailed analysis of the object is an incredibly important step, that is essential to articulate an understanding of material culture. This aspect fits into the material aspect of this study, and a social history of the many factors surrounding this dress fills in the details of cultural context. When these two pieces work together, the analysis is strengthened and works across more levels than a focus on one or the other.
Like Fleming research, model I think it would be incredibly beneficial to research the kinds of motifs and artistic choices within my object. No stone is left unturned in Fleming’s analysis of the cupboard, tracing the design motifs in great detail. Fleming writes, “This new mannerist decoration, such as the turned half-pendants that are broader at the top and taper towards the bottom came into the Anglo-American tradition from the Flemish Netherlands” My object is embroidered with countless what looks like floral patterns and lace, that could speak to the time in which it was made, as well as work on a purely aesthetic level. I also think it would be important to look at not just similar dresses, but dresses that came a generation before and after my object. This kind of research would make the key aspects of my object more palpable by comparison, and reveal the kind of values expressed through clothing over time. This is the kind of research that Joan Severa and Merril Horswill implemented successfully. Like Charles Montgomery’s methodology I feel exploring the artistic and social contexts surrounding this dress is incredibly important. Montgomery’s background in art history is incredibly evident as he stresses the importance of context in his writings. “Whereas by law the wares of the English silversmith must be stamped with letters indicating date of manufacture…in the colonies no mark was required.” An analysis of the artistic trends related to this dress in terms of style and composition, would reveal a wealth of information. Prown’s models and research (which are highly regarded by those who study material culture) suggests the most beneficial way to research material culture is through our senses, and the analysis I hope to make through identification and observations leans into this practice. “Material culture as a study is based upon the obvious fact that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of the presence of a human intelligence operating at the time of fabrication” This kind of analysis of an object as a sign of the human mind at work, is something I would consider when thinking of the construction of the dress itself.
Learning more about this local history through a resource like this object, I think is incredibly important and an interesting method. This research can shed light onto an aspect of Philadelphia history that speaks to one of the many reasons the city has gained notoriety in the past. Through a combination of adherence to the suggestions of prominent resources, and my own emphasis on the story of this object and the many people surrounding, a new kind of cultural context can be gleaned. By examining such an interesting object of the past, I have the opportunity to learn more about the history of the City of Brotherly Love, through a unique lens. Not only do I hope that research will speak volumes upon the social history and its importance. At the same time, I hope that the practices and methods I’ve outlined will allow me to develop as a researcher through analyzing new means of study.
 Jennifer M. Black “Gender in the Academy: Recovering the Hidden History of Women’s Scholarship on Scrapbooks and Albums,” Material Culture, Vol 50 no. 2 (2018), pg 46
 E.McClung Fleming “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model” Winterthur Portfolio 16 (1981) pg 165
 Charles F. Montgomery “the Connoisseurship of Artifacts” in Thomas J. Schlereth ed., Material Culture Studies in America (London: Altamira Press, 1999) pg 148
 Jules David Prown, “Mind Matter” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982)
IMAGE SOURCE: Photograph taken by the author