The history of dress and fashion can be described as the analysis and interpretation of human dress and appearance from prehistory until the immediate past. As with any historical subject area, dress historians aim to represent and interpret the past as faithfully as possible, but unfortunately the transient nature of the materials associated with human attire hampers the study of dress history; organic materials such as cloth, leather, and fur decompose readily. Further, before the Industrial Revolution, textiles and clothing were labor-intensive and frequently costly. Clothes and accessories were used up, worn out, passed down, and repurposed. Therefore, without abundant surviving objects, the question of how we know about the dress of the past arises.
Sources employed for the study of dress history include documents, visual representations, and material artifacts. Documents include all manner of written records such as wills, inventories, wardrobe accounts, bills of sale, advice on dressing, as well as eyewitness accounts of how people dressed in the past. An early example would be the Roman historian Tacitus, who described the dress of the inhabitants of central Europe in Germania in 98 C.E. The visual record includes paintings, drawings, engravings, sculpture, photographs, and, more recently, motion pictures. Visual representations of dress sometimes may be misleading; thus researchers must authenticate their veracity before using them to draw conclusions about dress history. Material artifacts consist of extant clothing, which is plentiful in museums for the years since 1800, but relatively rare before that time. Archaeological fragmentary remains help to fill the gaps in prior centuries. These fragments survive in microenvironments where temperature and moisture are constant and pH levels do not degrade fibers or skins. Examples of microenvironments in which organic materials are preserved include deserts, glaciers, peat bogs, tombs, burials, and shipwrecks in cold, deep water.
The terms used by dress historians have undergone change over the years. For decades, authors of books, creators of college courses, and organizers of professional societies adopted the word “costume” to refer to dress history. It was thought that costume was all-embracing, a label that included ancient and medieval dress as well as “fashion.” The latter, it was argued, developed in West Europe in the mid-fourteenth century and spread to European colonies in the New World, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Scholars labeled dress worn outside these geographical areas “traditional,” “national,” or “ethnic.” In Europe, the descriptor “folk costume” prevailed for the dress of rural peoples. Among many American scholars, especially anthropologists, “dress” emerged as the preferred term. Today most people think “costume” means theatrical or dress-up clothing, although the word prevails in some circles. Scholars in cultural studies have argued that “fashion” is the dominant concept. This raises questions currently under debate about when and where fashion was practiced in the past.
Humans have been curious about the appearance of people from unfamiliar cultures for centuries. Soon after the invention of the printing press in 1439, publishers began circulating woodblock prints of historic and contemporary dress from faraway places. Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti Antichi (1590), one of the most successful of this genre, enjoyed widespread popularity in Renaissance Europe. Illustrated travel books are another early source; Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations (1567) depicted the dress of Near Eastern and Mediterranean peoples whom he observed while journeying to the Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Explorers also recorded native peoples on the maps of the places they “discovered.” Illustrated books of “national costumes” have continued to appear right up to the present day to promote national identity.
Approaches to the study of dress history—from practical to theoretical—link to the disciplines benefitting from the field’s scholarship. Initially the history of fashion and dress served the interests of select groups of people: theatrical costumers for stage and screen, museum professionals, curators of costume and textile collections, and educators at colleges and universities. The earliest approaches charted the subject by describing, cataloging, and illustrating dress worn by the various peoples of the world. Auguste Racinet’s Le Costume Historique (1888), published in six volumes with 477 lithographs of costumes, was the first serious attempt at a history of Western dress; it covered attire from the ancients through the nineteenth century, and it established the West European emphasis of all subsequent costume histories until today. Max Tilke, a German illustrator, costume designer, and ethnographer, began documenting so-called traditional dress in Russia. While in residence at the Caucasus Museum in the 1910s, he painted the costume collection, meticulously placing garments on models and also laying them flat. In this way, he captured structural details, thus giving his costume work an original and innovative emphasis. In 1922, he published a book that shows this technique titled Orientalische Kostume in Schnitt und Farbe (Oriental Costumes: Their Designs and Colors).
The French and the English have been leaders in chronicling the history of Western fashion, followed by Americans. Cecil Willet and Phillis Cunnington wrote many books based on their collection of English women’s fashions, now housed at the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Manchester, England. Individually, as a couple, and in collaboration with others, they wrote almost two dozen books about fashion history. The Cunningtons are recognized as the first researchers to focus on everyday dress and the undergarments required to achieve the prevailing silhouette. The longevity of their solid research on material artifacts is demonstrated by The History of Underclothes (1951), which was reprinted by Dover in 1992. Three comprehensive histories of fashion have stood the test of time. François Boucher’s 20,000 Years of Fashion, first published in 1966 and reprinted in 1987, is a one-volume encyclopedic book illustrated in color that mainly uses artworks as a source. James Laver became interested in the history of fashion while serving as keeper of prints, drawings, and paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He penned several books; one of his titles is now in its fifth edition as Costume and Fashion: A Concise History (2012). Millia Davenport was an American theatrical designer whose 1948 The Book of Costume remains a valuable, comprehensive reference work based on artifacts and visual sources. These titles are still cited by scholars today
Many costume histories focused on women’s dress, which shortchanged men’s and children’s dress. Costume history textbooks corrected this problem. American colleges and universities with curricula leading to textiles and fashion degrees instituted history of costume courses early in the twentieth century. Although textbooks came and went, two gained widespread use: Blanche Payne’s History of Costume (1965) and Phyllis Tortora and Keith Eubank’s Survey of Historic Costume. Payne, a faculty member at the University of Washington, traveled to museums in the United States and Europe where she made pattern drafts from extant garments and sourced original artworks to illustrate her book. It was the most widely used textbook until the 1989 appearance of Tortora and Eubank’s textbook, now in its sixth edition with a change in authorship.
Theater costume design curricula also required costume history, and for many years, the leading theatrical textbook was Historic Costume for the Stage by Lucy Barton of the University of Texas at Austin. First published in 1935, it focused on styles frequently used in theatrical productions and was accompanied by a supplement of scaled pattern drafts for key garments. A History of Costume with 600 Illustrations and Patterns, by Karl Köhler, first appeared in English in 1928 and Dover republished it in 1963. Its contents were compiled from research performed in the nineteenth century by Köhler in German collections and was augmented by Emma von Sichart with her own research and that of several additional European scholars. Its illustrations include many scaled patterns, both those developed from recreations of ancient dress and ones taken from later extant garments worn in the book’s photographs. Although not explicitly a textbook, attention to garment structure secured its place in stage costume construction courses.
The history of men’s dress remained on the back burner for decades, undergoing scant attention in comparison to women’s dress, despite the contributions of textbooks. Farid Chenoune’s A History of Men’s Fashion rectified the lack of attention to men’s dress in the 1990s. More recently, scholars are casting an eye to the history of men’s fashion to explore such issues as the popularity of Ivy League style and the image of the dandy. This attention is resulting in articles, journals, readers, essay collections, exhibitions, and catalogs focusing on aspects of men’s dress.
Mirroring the academy at large, major shifts in the scholarship of dress history began to appear in the 1960s. Scholars in humanities disciplines who had previously ignored dress history started directing their attention toward fashion. Theories and new approaches in linguistics, art history, history, anthropology, and cultural studies spread to the dress arena, unleashing a torrent of new interdisciplinary research.
Some of the earliest work focused on dress as a form of communication. French philosopher and linguist Roland Barthes wrote The Fashion System (1967), in which he took a structural, semiotic approach by analyzing meaning in images and words rather than dress artifacts. This, along with other works such as Fashion, Culture, and Identity by sociologist Fred Davis (1992) inspired dress historians to think of dress as a silent language, communicating meaning. This influence was also evident in museum exhibitions such as at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. Curator Linda Baumgarten analyzed the symbolic language of dress using the Foundation’s archives and collection of dress artifacts. The work resulted in the exhibition “What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothes in Colonial and Federal America,” accompanied by a book of the same name (2002).
British authors led the way in establishing costume history as a subject worthy of exhibitions and academic inquiry in the art history field. The first keeper of the Gallery of Costume in Manchester, Anne Buck, wrote numerous costume histories, of which Dress in Eighteenth-Century England (1979) exemplifies her careful scholarship. The establishment of a graduate program in dress history at London’s Courtauld Institute of the History of Art in 1965 lent credibility to the subject. The Courtauld’s art historical approach trained numerous successful authors and museum curators. Its first director, Stella Mary Newton, used both textual and visual sources for her landmark studies Health, Art, and Reason (1974) and Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince (1980). After Newton’s retirement, art historian Aileen Ribeiro took up the reins, publishing a series of books and essays on fashion in art, notably The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750–1820 (1995). [Link to ref: Riberio, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750–1820. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.] In her numerous works, Ribeiro has explored artistic conventions, stressing that the dress seen in portraits may not be what sitters wore on a day-to-day basis. From America, Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes (1978) influenced a generation of art historians through her consideration of the depiction of the clothed and unclothed human body in art.
Developments in the history of publishing on dress since the 1970s reflect the increasing number of scholars across humanities disciplines interested in the topic. The field began separating along two different paths: one that focused on the study of material artifacts and another that explored cultural meaning; the latter often did not include objects in research. The path that emphasized cultural meaning over objects fell under the “cultural studies” umbrella. The two camps and their primary, but sometimes overlapping, approaches define the field today. An excellent introduction to the key approaches is Lou Taylor’s The Study of Dress History (2002).
Research in the discipline of history exemplifies these two approaches. Curators in history museums work with objects to express themes while scholars trained in the historical method employ documents. For example, to commemorate the United States Bicentennial, Smithsonian curators Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman used objects for their landmark exhibition and catalog Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America (1974). They argued that industrialization provided good, reasonably priced clothing for all Americans, mirroring the United States’ democratic political system. Because the research resulted in an exhibition, it and the accompanying catalog featured numerous objects. Some of the best work by historians who study dress does not begin with objects, although they are sometimes used to illustrate ideas. Daniel Roche, a French historian, examined inventories to argue that a clothing revolution occurred in the late eighteenth century in The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ancien régime. First published in French in 1989, the book was translated into English in 1994. Beverly Lemire, an economic historian, has produced a number of fascinating works based on documents, such as her study of fashion and cotton consumption in Great Britain, Fashion’s Favourite (1992). Lemire is one of the few historians who has made the effort to learn about objects to better understand her subject. Her work marked a new direction for historians studying dress, who had previously focused their attention on production of textiles and fashion rather than consumption.
Historians only started looking at clothing as a topic worthy of examination in the 1960s, when the discipline elevated social history to a branch of historical inquiry worth pursuing, paralleling the rise of cultural studies. Many noteworthy studies by historians have been published since then, mostly non-object-oriented. John Styles’s Dress of the People (2007) is an example of work that looks beyond the dress of the rich and famous in eighteenth-century England, which is what survives in museums. He illustrated his text with swatches of fabrics typical of everyday dress in the eighteenth century as well as prints and drawings. Historians of earlier periods do not have much in the way of artifacts to study, but that does not prohibit introduction of new interpretations. Extant garments that date from before 1700 are extremely rare. Thus, researchers must turn to surviving documents. In her Fashion in Medieval France (2007), Sarah-Grace Heller, a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance period, studied sumptuary laws and French romance literature after which she argued that French aristocracy exhibited the changing consumer preferences associated with a fashion system much earlier than previously believed.
While cultural studies flocked to fashion, object-based studies continued on both sides of the Atlantic. Janet Arnold, a theatrical costumer, completed careful studies of extant English dress dating from 1540 to 1940; she developed and tested patterns from extant garments, publishing her work in a book series titled Patterns of Fashion. Theatrical costume designers still consider Arnold’s work to be the “bible.” Arnold was equally adept at documentary research, producing a landmark study based on examination of the inventories of Queen Elizabeth I’s Wardrobe of Robes (1988).
Professional organizations devoted to the study and preservation of historic costume formed in Britain and America. The Costume Society, founded in 1964 in England, inspired costume scholars across the pond in America to establish the Costume Society of America in 1973. Each society organizes symposia and publishes a refereed journal, Costume and Dress, respectively. The core members of both societies embrace object-based research methodologies. In the United States, object-based studies gained new respect after historian E. McClung Fleming (1974) and art historian Jules Prown (1988) published essays on methods to study artifacts as material culture. By following the methods outlined in their essays, researchers went beyond connoisseurship by placing objects in cultural context.
Cultural studies formally developed in British universities, notably the University of Manchester. Cultural studies scholars are especially interested in the intersection of dress and appearance with class, race, ethnicity, identity, gender, sexuality, the body, and social agency. Christopher Breward articulated its application to dress history in The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress (1995). In the United States, Valerie Steele began a successful publishing career with Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (1985), which portrays the agency of Victorian women in relation to fashionable dress. Steele also serves as director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, which mounts exhibitions of historic and contemporary fashion, often accompanied by full-color catalogs. Susan Kaiser’s Fashion and Cultural Studies (2012) introduces key research that bridges fashion and culture, including historical perspectives.
The cultural studies approach found a champion in Berg Publishers (now part of the Bloomsbury Group), which launched a successful book series called “Dress, Body, Culture” as well as a quarterly journal entitled Fashion Theory, both in 1997. Special issues of Fashion Theory have addressed history methodologies (Fashion Theory 2, no. 4) and museum fashion exhibitions (Fashion Theory 12, no. 1). More recently, Intellect, a Bristol-based academic publisher, has entered the scene with a number of journals focusing on fashion and popular culture that include history research.
Until recently, the field was also divided geographically into Western and non-Western dress, separating regions of the world that embraced continual change in dress—meaning the West—from those that favored customs and traditions, that is to say all regions other than Europe and its colonies. The study of non-Western dress became the domain of anthropologists, who marginalized the subject for decades. Two classic studies that recognized the importance of dress in culture have stood the test of time: Justine Cordwell and Ronald Schwarz’s Fabrics of Culture (1979) and Annette Weiner and Jane Schneider’s Cloth and Human Experience (1989). Both of these books consist of a collection of essays by scholars working on the meaning of cloth in society. In essence, dress history still adheres to this division of Western versus non-Western, although efforts are underway on several fronts to globalize the history of dress.
Scholars guided by postcolonial theory and ethnohistorical perspectives have argued for a reframing of the analysis of fashion practices and processes, suggesting that alternatives to Western-centric concepts more accurately portray how dress changes over time. Such thinking has produced many studies that record taste systems and fashion change in cultures and times outside of the modern Western canon. Two scholars stand out as pioneers in this area, influencing many dress historians. Sandra Neissen potently argued for expanding the limits of the definition of fashion to include non-Western contexts in her essay “Afterword: Re-Orienting Fashion Theory” (2003). Art historian Margaret Maynard shone new light on influences on recent dress history in Dress and Globalisation (2004). While based upon relatively recent research, this book shows that the fashion process is simultaneously global and local.
In the early twenty-first century, Joanne Eicher masterfully headed the creation of the first English-language encyclopedia of world dress. The resulting Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion launched in 2010. The content focuses on the past three centuries, with some entries providing earlier histories. The entries were authored primarily by anthropologists and historians, many of them writing about their own cultures. The printed work spans ten volumes and is organized geographically. The encyclopedia undergoes constant revision in its online form within the Berg Fashion Library, through the addition of new entries such as this one. The encyclopedia is well illustrated.
The time and dedication it takes to produce landmark studies on non-Western dress is demonstrated by anthropologist Patricia Anawalt’s monograph Indian Clothing Before Cortes: Mesoamerican Costumes from the Codices (1981), which contains over 350 illustrations and charts. These accompany her analysis of the historical record, the indigenous codices and early European accounts that revealed the garment types and their meanings within various Mesoamerican cultures prior to 1591. Many valuable reference works on the dress history of non-Western cultures have been published, including those in languages other than English. Much research on the history of regional dress has yet to be integrated into the larger history of dress.
Like other humanities disciplines, the archaeology field often marginalized the study of dress unless spectacular remains were discovered, such as jewelry made of precious materials, or even more rarely, an intact ensemble preserved in a burial site. The work of Elizabeth Barber, ranging from weaving recreation to analysis of the textiles worn by the Ürümchi mummies, has helped to change this situation. Initially in search of the sources of ancient Greek pottery painting, Barber compiled a broad range of evidence from the archaeological record to trace the history of weaving, and implicitly of dress, in prehistory. Of her several books, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1994) stands as the popular favorite. Increasingly, archaeologists are better able to describe and interpret the dress of the prehistoric and ancient past as new research becomes available. Through archaeological discoveries and ethno-archaeological research, our understanding of technologies, materials, techniques, migrations, trade routes, and patterns of exchange enlarges our knowledge of dress history.
Another way that new interpretations of dress and fashion history are presented to the public is through exhibitions, which are often accompanied by catalogs. Museums in major, and not so major, cities around the world regularly mount groundbreaking dress exhibitions after months, even years, of research. The so-called “fashion cities” are home to the best-known costume collections in museums. In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum is highly regarded; in New York, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology mount regular exhibitions; in Paris, it is the Musée de la Mode et du Textile and the Musée Galliera that collect and show historical and contemporary designer fashion. In recent years, the public interest in fashion exhibitions has increased tremendously. Attendance at the 2011 exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” was 661,509, the eighth-biggest show on record at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, revealing that greater numbers of people than ever are drawn to exhibitions exploring fashion history. The Costume Institute’s exhibition openings also function as major fundraisers, earning the title “Party of the Year” through involvement of fashion insiders and celebrities.
To further satiate the appetite for fashion and dress history, museums and historical societies are posting costume collections online. In some cases, individual entries go beyond simple catalog descriptions by offering well-developed essays. The best sites offer multiple views with zoom capabilities. Online exhibitions are also appearing, making it possible for people anywhere in the world to study objects in collections.
The explosion of interest in fashion among scholars in humanities disciplines in the last decade has led to the publication of a handful of fashion readers. These readers are designed for students, scholars, and anyone interested in fashion. Editors assemble critical readings from a range of viewpoints, and many of the selections draw from fashion history scholarship. One reader that focuses exclusively on fashion history is The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives edited by Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil (2010).
To conclude, the history of dress and fashion is enjoying its newfound time in the sun as a subject of scholarly inquiry. No longer restricted to theatrical costume designers and museum curators, it has moved to center stage, where it has attracted a multidisciplinary audience. Scholars from around the world are continually offering fresh perspectives through conferences, journals, book series, and exhibitions. Object-based inquiry continues to be important because describing and categorizing new discoveries or long-forgotten artifacts is elemental in scholarly discovery. Much knowledge remains to be developed given new discoveries and innovative thinking.
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