Fashion Archival Research

“Fashion brings together creative authorship, technological production and cultural dissemination associated with dress, drawing together designers, producers, retailers and all of us who wear garments.” (Fletcher, Grose & Hawken 2012: 8).

During a recent visit to the Archives Ontario facility at York University, I toured the restoration lab and looked at rare photographs, and learned about histories that were not included in the dominant discourse. If you are not familiar with the archive you can learn more about it here:

Overall it was fascinating, but for me something was missing: embodiment.  I started to think about clothing archives, and why are they also important? Old clothes can be stained and threadbare due to wear, they easily pick up and can carry odours, they can all too clearly identify a previous sustained corporeal engagement with the item. However, I would say in spite of this, that if a picture is worth a thousand words, than an object must be worth ten thousand or more. The tactile, physical, individual and unique examples of garments and their uses can be utilized as an object of in-depth analysis and can thereby break down stereotypes, and challenge the formation of hegemonic historical narratives.

     I’m reminded of Giorgio Riello’s article “Things that Shape History: Material Culture and Historical Narratives.” on non-documentary evidence, and material culture wherein he asserted that object-based research provides “heuristic independence” and freedom to make new judgments free from larger philosophical and historical narratives. Riello identifies the large range of information that can be gained from article analysis and provides, as an example, a stomacher (a type of front panel inset in a dress, that can also function as a corset) from pre-1750’s found bricked up in a wall. The analysis of which revealed to various research teams information on such diverse areas as the: archaeology of capitalism, bio-diversity in marine biology, economics, textile printing, clothing/ sexuality and gender, and even the process of de-commodification of an item of clothing through mutilation (Riello 2009).

     Learning how to evaluate our objects for their socio-cultural information outside of cultural clichés and normative processes of simplifying and codifying information is invaluable. The tactile and sensory engagement examining of a garment can add a vitality to the learning process that would not be gained from viewing the same garment on an electronic device. People lived and wore these clothes, and as object-based pioneer Jules Prown said: “objects created in the past are the only historical occurrences that continue to exist in the present”. I would argue for the vital importance of objects as they are standard bearers of the truth of a situation when written commentary may be subject to hyperbole or bias. As when Valerie Steele, the director of the Fashion Museum at FIT in NYC faced with (yet another) polemical museum quote about extreme corsetry, was tempted to shout: “measure the corsets and dresses in this exhibition before you talk to me about 13-inch waists!”.

Fletcher, Kate, Lynda Grose, and Paul Hawken.  Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change. London: Laurence King, 2012.

O’Connell, Mark. “The Fashion Museum as a Pedagogical Tool”. Ryerson School of Graduate Studies”. 2015.

Riello, Giorgio. “Things That Shape History: Material Culture and Historical Narratives.” in History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources. ed. Karen Harvey. Routledge (2010): 163-190.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion is More than a Clothes-bag.” Fashion Theory 2, no. 4 (1998): 327-335.

@Mark O’Connell 2017, all rights reserved, no reproduction without authorization

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