The Material Culture of Dress

It’s been a little over a year since I dove back into my thesis research – Katherine Carson Breckinridge, the letters, and Maison Redfern. When I was in college and people asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated, I’d tell them I wanted to be a curator. I was a history major and knew I didn’t want to teach. And I didn’t want to go to law school. I really wanted to play with the stuff. I liked old things and enjoyed learning all about them. That folks is material culture.

Material culture is the physical aspect of culture in the objects and architecture that surround people.

I didn’t know at the time that it was material culture. I discovered that around my junior or senior year in college. I was trying to decide what classes to take – you know those electives with cool titles. One of the offerings that semester was called Material Culture. After reading the course description, I felt like someone had written the class just for me. It said students would explore the history of the 19th century through the objects of time – so something to that effect. Sign me up!

So I learned about silver and furniture and firearms. And I learned about Public History. See the class was cross listed as a graduate level class and most of the students (all but 2 really) were graduate students. I was completely lost and terrified. They used words I didn’t know or understand. Ephemera. Nomenclature. Provenance. I could barely say them, let alone spell them. And the readings – this was a real history class. In history you almost always have to read the book (or at least you should) but usually you read the book and attend the lecture and that’s it. No this was class participation – we’d discuss the readings. I didn’t know what I’d read and definitely couldn’t discuss it. I sat to one side and frantically took notes and tried to not get called on.

But that class sparked a deeper love for the objects. For the stuff. It was what I wanted to do all along. I just didn’t know what it was called. So I was going to become a public historian and focus on material culture. That was the plan.

I’d always loved fashion. Not just clothes but fashion. I loved flipping through Vogue in junior high and being in awe of the fashion – art really! – in its pages. Furniture is cool. And silver is pretty. And firearms are challenging. But dress/costume/fashion tells so much about the people and the time. And not much of it stays around like furniture, silver, and firearms. Textiles are fragile. I’d argue more fragile than any other material culture areas. Clothes just don’t survive. We sweat in them. We wash them. We hand them down. And they just wear out. The fibers back down and the garment turns to rags. So the study of fashion/dress/costume is a delicate business.

Much of what is left to study are pieces from the wealthy. Garments made of silk or wool embroidered with elegant patterns or woven with flowers. We have illustrations from early fashion magazines but those don’t do the garment justice. And in some cases we have photographs of the person in the garment and those are helpful to get a feel for how the garment looked on a person, but still not the same as the garment itself.

In my new research on Redfern, I discovered no fewer than four new books (published since 2005) on the material culture of dress/costume/fashion. These are super exciting to me.

  • Lucy Johnson’s 19th Century Fashion in Detail
  • Valerie Cumming’s Understanding Fashion History
  • Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim’s The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion
  • Lydia Edwards’ How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century

So before Katherine Carson Breckinridge and the dress, there was Material Culture and I fell in love. And now after my little midlife crisis with yarn, I’m falling in love all over again!

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