Methodology / Dress History / Historiography

Barthes, R. 2006. The Language of Fashion. Oxford, Berg.

Roland Barthes, widely regarded as one of the most subtle and perceptive critics of the 20th Century, was particularly fascinated by fashion and clothing. The Language of Fashion brings together all Barthes’ untranslated writings on fashion. It presents a set of essays revealing the breadth and insight of Barthes’ long engagement with the history of clothes. The essays range from closely argued essays laying down the foundations for a structural and semiological analysis of clothing to a critical analysis of the significance of gemstones and jewellery, from an exploration of how the contrasting styles of Courrges and Chanel replayed the clash between ancient and modern to a discussion of the meaning of hippy style in Morocco, and from the nature of desire to the role of the dandy and colour in fashion.

Breward, C. 1998. ‘Cultures, identities, histories: fashioning a cultural approach to dress’, Fashion Theory, 2(4), 301-313.

Part of a special issue on methodology. Research in historical dress was applied to art historical studies in British academia during the post war period. The dating of clothing and its representation in paintings was seen as a useful tool for authentication and general connoisseurship. The emphasis on creating linear chronologies and stylistic progressions has to some extent influenced the nature of fashion history writing since. Various approaches have been adopted since the late 1970s establishment of new art historical thinking, in which social and political contexts were prioritized over concerns of authorship and connoisseurial value. The arising debates undoubtedly challenged assumptions that had originally underpinned the serious study of fashion. Many of the defining aspects of new art historical approaches, which drew on ideas from Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis and structuralism or semiotics, encouraged debates incorporating problems of social identity, the body, gender and appearance/representation. Breward concludes that the cultural studies slant often makes dress historians defensive. It is a field full of disagreements, as it is so difficult to reach a consensus on what the study of culture actually entails. An interdisciplinary area where certain methods have converged, it allows us to understand cultural phenomena and social relationships that were not accessible through other disciplines, thus enriching our knowledge of fashion, which has always played a central role in cultural and social processes.

Breward, C. 2008. ‘Between the museum and the academy: fashion research and its constituencies’, Fashion Theory, 12(1), 83-93.

This article takes a personal perspective on the shifting relationship between fashion research generated in the British higher education sector and in the museum context over the past ten years. It identifies the impact of new interdisciplinary approaches and funding opportunities and argues for the positive benefits of collaboration between the two professional fields The article reflects on the author’s experience of working on three distinct exhibition projects at different styles of institution and indicates how the curatorial process enriches and is enriched by a reflexive understanding of research.

Burman, B. and Turbin, C. eds. 2003. Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective. London, Blackwell.
Gordenker, E. E. S. 1999. ‘Is the history of dress marginal? Some thoughts on costume in seventeenth-century painting’, Fashion Theory, 3(2), 219-240.

This article introduces some of the problems and challenges facing the historian of dress when looking at Dutch and Flemish art. It addresses three specific examples of seventeenth-century paintings in which the costume has been overlooked, misinterpreted or misunderstood: a servant’s costume in The ‘Kitchen Maid’ by Joachim Wtewael, Anthony van Dyck’s portrayal of male dress; the painter’s attire in Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Art of Painting’. In each case, the discussion not only deals with surviving garments, but with their representation and an awareness of how they would have been worn. In doing so, the importance, as well as some of the pitfalls, of writing about past fashions emerge.

Jarvis, A. 2009. ‘Reflections on the development of the study of dress history and of costume curatorship: a case study of Anne Buck OBE’, Costume, 43, 127-137.

On 12 May 2007, almost exactly two years after her death, the Costume Society held an Anne Buck Memorial Study Day in London entitled ‘Studying Four Hundred Years of Fashion’. This paper was written and delivered as the introduction to the Study Day. It attempted, through an examination of Anne Buck’s work as curator of a costume collection, in particular as Keeper of the Gallery of English Costume, Manchester, from 1947 to 1972, to assess her outstanding contribution to the study of dress history and to the development and use of dress collections in museums; and to consider her legacy to historians and curators today, thirty-five years after her retirement.

McNeil, P. ed. 2008. Fashion: Critical and Primary Sources. Oxford Berg.
McNeil, P. 2008. ‘‘We’re not in the fashion business’: fashion in the museum and the academy’, Fashion Theory, 12(1), 65-81.

This article examines relationships between the museum fashion exhibit, viewing publics, and historians. It takes as a case study ‘AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion’, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 3 – September 4 2006, as an example of a possibly new type of exhibition merging art-historical research with contemporary styling and viewing practices.

Palmer, A. 1997. ‘New directions: fashion history studies and research in North America and England’, Fashion Theory, 1(3), 297-312.

Voids in fashion scholarship can be partly explained by the fact that the study of dress often carries negative associations. The traditional study of dress history has been largely based on old art-historical methods of stylistic analysis, without integrating this with economic or social history. A contributing factor is that there is little formal academic training that addresses fashion or costume history; and fashion has to fight to gain recognition as a legitimate area of study. The article compares the teaching of fashion history in England and North America, and Palmer uses some sample case studies to illustrate the validity of employing a multidisciplinary methodology that is based on material culture. She concludes that material culture analysis has to be set within a broader academic framework and not just be for its own sake. Liaison with scholars in other areas should be encouraged, as it is through cross-disciplinary interaction that more dynamic research can be pursued.

Palmer, A. 2008. ‘Untouchable: creating desire and knowledge in museum costume and textile exhibitions’, Fashion Theory, 12(1), 31-63.

This article examines various intellectual and physical challenges of exhibiting costumes and textiles in European and North American museum settings where artifacts cannot be handled or physically experienced by visitors. It describes different museological and commercial solutions and suggests reasons for the various approaches taken to collections and on-going rotating displays. It also describes the author’s own experiences with costume and textile displays in different institutions in the USA and Canada since the 1980s.

Rexford, N., Cunnington, P., et al. 1988. ‘Forum: research and publication’, Dress, 14, 68-82.

A panel discussion on research in costume history and its publication, at the Costume Society of America’s meeting in Cincinnati, 1988.

Ribeiro, A. 1994. ‘Antiquarian attitudes – some early studies in the history of dress’, Costume, 28, 60-70.

Based on a paper, ‘Antiquarians and the history of dress: from Randle Holme to J R Planché’, given in September 1992 at the Anglo-Dutch conference on Textile History held at Tilburg, on ‘Social Aspects of Textiles and Clothing’.

Ribeiro, A. 1998. ‘Re-fashioning art: some visual approaches to the study of the history of dress’, Fashion Theory, 2(4), 315-325.

Part of a special issue on methodology. This article argues that a study of art history is one of the key approaches to the study of dress history. A knowledge of art history provides an essential ‘databank of images’ through which we can access and visualize clothing. It is through art that we can best perceive the changes in dress and appearance that define fashion; this cannot be evidenced as easily in extant garments or written documents. There are close links between dress and art. Both are non-verbal languages and both are social and visual experiences, both private and public. They record and interpret aspects of human life, and provide valuable testimony to the culture, manners and vision of the times in which they exist.

Steele, V. 1998. ‘A museum of fashion is more than a clothes-bag’, Fashion Theory, 2(4), 327-335.

Part of a special issue on methodology. One of the most valuable methodologies used to study fashion history is the interpretation of objects, as it provides unique insights into the historic and aesthetic development of fashion. A specific methodology for this was devised by Jules Prown, and articulated in the Winterthur Portfolio. In this article Steele attempts to explain Prown’s methodology which comprises three sequential stages: description, deduction, and speculation. She also describes E. McClung Fleming’s model for artefact study as it supplements Prown’s approach. Steele illustrates Prown’s approach by describing how she used it to study a woman’s dress in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. She then uses the methodological approaches to justify fashion museums. Steele concludes that the interpretation of objects, also called material culture methodology, can provide a powerful tool to address the problems that frequently beset fashion museum exhibitions – whether antiquarian or superficial.

Styles, J. 1998. ‘Dress in history: reflections on a contested terrain’, Fashion Theory, 2(4), 383-389.

Part of a special issue on methodology. This article is concerned with the difficulties, conceptual and methodological, of reinserting dress into history. The author reflects on the tensions between object-based and other modes of scholarship that have dogged the history of fashion and dress. These tensions are strong and intractable, most obviously because they often reflect professional divisions between those who study surviving garments and accessories (museums) and those who study dress through images and words (higher education). Styles concludes that what is required is a new self-consciousness about the range of issues that the history of dress now embraces. It is now a point of intersection for scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, and this is what underpins its respectability. Fashion requires a commitment to a mode of enquiry combining elements of both conceptual and empirical work – and a willingness to monitor and reflect on other approaches.

Tarrant, N. E. A. 1996. ‘The portrait, the artist and the costume historian’, Dress, 22, 69-77.

The author reflects on the use of portraits by the costume historian, with particular reference to Allan Ramsey’s work.

Tarrant, N. E. A. 1999. ‘The real thing: the study of original garments in Britain since 1947’, Costume, 33, 12-22.

This is a revised version of the paper given in July 1997 at the Fiftieth Anniversary Conference for the opening of the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall, Manchester, in 1947. It is dedicated to the Gallery’s first Keeper, Anne M Buck, in anticipation of her ninetieth birthday.

Taylor, L. 1998. ‘Doing the laundry? A reassessment of object-based dress history’, Fashion Theory, 2(4), 337-358.

Part of a special issue on methodology. This article outlines the disputes and debates that have taken place within the field of dress history in Europe and North America over the last twenty years, set in the context of the ‘Great Divide’ between object-centred, curatorial/collector based approaches and ‘academic’ social/economic/cultural studies methodologies. This divide was seen to (mostly) male social/economic historians, who place no value on close assessment of garments or fabrics, set against (mostly) women curators and collectors, who see close object study as the crucial basis of any social/consumption analysis. A second context is the history of the reluctance, within museums of decorative art, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum to accept fashionable Euro-American dress within their collections. In a riposte to these attitudes, discussion lays out the significant, pioneering collecting/curatorial role undertaken internationally by women dress historians, such as Doris Langley Moore, Anne Buck, Yvonne Deslandres and Madelaine Delpierre, Irene Lewisjohn, Aline Bernstein and Polaire Weissman in the 1930s-50s, faced, as they usually were, with demeaning nicknames such as the ‘frock girls’. Finally, through an account of recent good practice case studies, this text addressed positive multi-disciplinary developments in the academic and museums worlds apparent by 1997, which, it was argued, were starting to overcoming the negativities of this ‘Great Divide’ between ‘academic’ and object-centred dress history.

Taylor, L. 2004. Establishing Dress History. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

A study of the historiography of dress and of dress collections in a museum context.

Tseëlon, E. 2001. ‘Fashion research and its discontents’, Fashion Theory, 5(4), 435-451.

Until recently, fashion has not been seen by Academia as a worthy topic for serious study, as it is in media discourse. Other than in fashion columns, fashion issues feature in ways that underline their perceived triviality. The field of fashion studies exhibits the symptoms that are common to subjects in search of a discipline. This article highlights some of the main disadvantages that characterize research in fashion studies – unfruitful appropriation of the natural science method, misuse of theory, and meta-theoretical confusion – and discusses each in turn.

Warwick, A. and Cavallaro, D. 1998. Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and the Body. Oxford, Berg.

The body has been the focus of much recent critical attention, but the clothed body less so. In answering the need to theorize dress, this book provides an overview of recent scholarship and presents an original theory of what dress means in relation to the body.

Identity relies on boundaries to individuate the self. Dress challenges boundaries: it frames the body and serves both to distinguish and connect self and ‘Other’. The authors argue that clothing is, then, both a boundary and not a boundary, that it is ambiguous and produces a complex relation between self and ‘not self’. In examining the role of dress in social structures, the authors argue that clothing can be seen as both restricting and liberating individual and collective identity.

In proposing that dress represents ‘a deep surface’, a manifestation of the unconscious at work through apparently superficial phenomena, the book also questions the relationship between surface and depth and counters the notion of dress as disguise or concealment. The concept of the gaze and the role of gender are approached through a discussion of masks and veils. The authors argue that masks and veils paradoxically combine concealment and revelation, ‘truth’ and ‘deception’. Here the body and dress are both seen as forms of absence, with dress concealing not the body, but the absence of the physical body.

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