Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

West Europe


Lise Skov (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Preface to West Europe

Encyclopedia entry

Pages: xvii–xviii

In an encyclopedia of world dress and fashion, intent on not privileging the West, the representation of West Europe poses a special challenge. The problem is not lack of knowledge. Dress and fashion have been studied in great detail here compared to practically any other continent, but in most cases, fashion has been seen as a phenomenon that originated in and has centered on—and, to some extent, been contained in—Europe. That approach tends to cut the connections and continuities to non-European dress. This volume takes up the challenge of translating the world-dress formula of the Encyclopedia into a representation of West Europe in four ways.

First, the country-specific articles, that is, those that narrate and analyze the development of dress and fashion within specific European nations, which are a unique feature of the Encyclopedia, implicitly challenge the notion that West European dress and fashion can be described from a single perspective. The volume features articles about seventeen countries and four ethnic and regional groups. The sheer number of articles increases understanding, not least because, divided in this way, the “small nations” outnumber the “great powers,” to use the standard nineteenth-century conception of Europe’s cultural mosaic. But the insights do not come only from counterposing big and small; the approach also reveals that big countries, such as Spain or Germany, have been relatively overlooked by international scholarship. A strength of this volume is the contribution of writers from within the various countries, providing descriptions and analysis not widely accessed in contemporary literature on dress and fashion. Authors of the country articles were requested to focus on the period from the eighteenth to the early twenty-first century. General overviews and articles specifically on the early history of dress precede the country articles in the table of contents.

The country articles also capture a new research trend of studying fashion at the local level. Beginning in the late twentieth century, new fashion histories are being written in countries such as Portugal, Holland, Finland, and Denmark, and this volume has been able to tap into this emerging scholarship. Taken together, these articles show up a wealth of details and varieties within the family semblance of European nations.

Second, an attempt has been made to bring forward Joanne Eicher’s concept of ethnic dress by foregrounding the discussion of what in West Europe is primarily known as folk dress. This includes both an interest in “what folks wear,” that is, popular, nonelite dress practices, and the role of dress in signifying ethnic, regional, or national identity. The latter phenomenon is very unevenly found in West Europe in the early twenty-first century: In Norway, it is estimated that the majority of adult women own a bunad (national-dress outfit) and wear it for formal occasions, while in many other countries, national dress has a minute circulation. In the United Kingdom, the discussion of national dress has always come second to that of occupational dress.

The perception of ethnic dress, and its relation to fashion, is one of the divides in European scholarship. The aim of this volume has not been to join that battle, so it is merely reflected in articles by scholars from different disciplines, including archaeology, art history, business studies, cultural anthropology, cultural studies, design studies, dress history, ethnology, geography, history, literature, social anthropology, and sociology.

Third, an article entitled “Interpreting ‘Civilization’ through Dress” has been included as a companion to the articles in the other volumes on the influence and dominance of Western-style clothes. Although fashion and dress are often considered fairly “harmless” subjects, great symbolic significance has been attached to them, not only historically (for example, through uniforms), but also in the early twenty-first century (for example, in the debates about and legislation against certain types of Muslim dress in West Europe).

Fourth, a section is devoted to the fashion industry as one of the areas where European heritage has highly material effects. This includes an attempt to denaturalize notions of European style and show how the production of European fashion is highly institutionalized. Although the manufacturing base has eroded in West Europe, European brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Hugo Boss are still household names in middle-class homes around the world, and Europe, characterized by small markets, discerning middle-class consumers, and fast-moving goods, has delivered the new business models in this area—from Benetton in the 1980s to Zara and H&M, which are paradigmatic of the “fast fashion” of the early years of the twenty-first century.

For these reasons, the present volume is not merely an update of earlier handbooks; it presents Europe in a genuine world-dress perspective. As such, it is intended for an interdisciplinary audience of students, scholars, and the general public and as a library resource for design schools, universities, and business schools. The long articles form a resource for student projects in dress history as well as in marketing; the strength of the articles is their essayistic structure that presents a contextual framework for all the details.

When first contacted in 2006, I was thrilled to be invited to join the encyclopedia project but did not anticipate quite how big a task this would be, nor that turns of events at Copenhagen Business School would require more teaching and research obligations. For this reason, I have relied on the support and goodwill of a great number of people. Most of all, I would like to thank Joanne Eicher for her encouragement, Kathryn Earle for her drive, and Sarah Waldram for her calm patience. I also want to thank Valerie Cumming, who undertook editorial work at various stages as the volume’s Consulting Editor; my husband, Brian Moeran; and my assistant, Louise Kure. Finally, I want to thank my daughter, Ursula Teodora, who has grown out of girlie dresses and into skinny jeans since this volume was started, for seeing the beauty of it all.

Lise Skov

With thanks to Linda Welters