Weekly readings: toward a history of fashion

Fashioning the Bourgeoisie prompted me to examine some of my own theoretical assumptions about studying fashion. By default, I think of fashion in terms of gender and class, so initially I found Perrot a bit jarring. My notes for the first twenty or thirty pages are questions about why Perrot just left a quote equating fashion with undesired feminized traits sitting unexamined, why he talked about the sexualization of the female body but not the male, why women were not portrayed as actors. But then it dawned on me that I was looking at the issue differently. Perrot was not simply discounting the agency of women, he was discounting the agency of men as well.

Objects, and larger societal trends, are the actors in his story.* Despite this being a Material Culture seminar, despite object analysis, despite semiotics discussions, I still found Perrot’s approach a little disconcerting. As social history, it’s a very bloodless book…but it’s not a social history, and my preconceptions that fashion=social=women when it comes to historical subjects probably a) reveals something problematic about the way in which historical inquiry is shaped and b) reveals something problematic about limitations in my personal approach.

When researching the crazy quilt, I found it quite easy to revert to the “Who is this woman?” approach, in the hopes that it would reveal other women. And it has, and that’s useful, and I need to dig backward farther, but that’s not the whole story, or the only story. I also need to bring the object back to the foreground, I think. My initial secondary research was about general quilting trends. It was great background material, but I may be making a mistake thinking of it in terms of “background.” True, nothing I’ve read speaks to this quilt specifically. But Perrot’s book is an example of how to examine objects in such a way that generalization doesn’t matter, in fact becomes a feature rather than a bug.

Such an approach has limited application to the exhibit project. No matter how deeply we delve into the context of the objects’ use and creation, an exhibit still fundamentally showcases the specific stuff on display. But I think it’s still a useful exercise to divorce some of my research from the specific. More broadly, I think shifting focus over the course of the project—vacillating between general and specific, rather than simply progressing in one direction—is both practically and theoretically sound. Prown discussed the nonlinearity of object analysis. I like the approach both because human thought isn’t necessarily neat and will wend in unexpected directions, and also because it specifically undermines conceptions of linearity and progress, providing a useful bit of disruption and encouragement to reflect.

* In contrast, human actors abound in Ribeiro. Her nineteenth century is populated by individuals actively choosing their dress, setting wider trends or creating representations of them. The approach is top-down—Perrot diverges right from the title page—but the attention to human agency is the thing I find more notable than issues of class. Which is perhaps illogical, knowing the way less privileged classes (to say nothing of individuals) end up represented (or not) in sources and historical inquiry.