Clothing Thesis Project

Super Quick Explanation:

This site was created as part of my undergraduate thesis project at Hampshire College. I created the site to be an ongoing resource, so it will continue to be updated long after graduation, but the core of the site is actually an academic public history project spanning my final year at Hampshire, fall 2010 through spring 2011. At its simplest, the project involves researching historical clothing, sewing reproductions based on historical documentation and reasonable supposition, and documenting the progress via notes and this site, which is intended to be a readily accessible resource for other researchers and historical clothing enthusiasts.

Exciting Lead-In to Very Long Explanation:

I promise to tell you all about the thesis project, in excruciating detail, but before I can do that, I think I should probably explain how it is that I can make a website as a thesis, that it’s not actually called a thesis, and how it is that I’ll be graduating college with a Bachelor of Arts in Public History and the Applied History of Clothing and Needle Arts. Seriously.

Much Longer Explanation:

First of all, I must say that I delight in the pure fact that there exists a legitimate, degree-granting, fully accredited, and well-respected institute of higher learning where it’s possible to study something like this. Or, well, just about anything, actually. In the case of some of my friends, they’re graduating with degrees in “narrative theory as applied to medical anthropology and gender studies,” “mathematical methods of ratemaking for personalized automobile insurance with application to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” and the very concisely titled “electric bike.” I transferred here because there was nowhere else that I could study what I wanted to study, in the way I wanted to study it.

Hampshire College is the alternative education brainchild of its elder-sibling-institutions in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts: Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and UMass Amherst. Together, all of them make up the Five College Consortium, and can boast, among other things, an absolutely incredible shared library system. (But which did not actually inspire the characters on Scooby Doo.)

Hampshire has only been around for four decades, so it’s the baby of the bunch, but it has real clout of its own. It turns out that graduate schools and employers are actually quite keen on receiving thorough transcripts with detailed written evaluations instead of mere GPAs – they find all the detail very helpful. There are no grades, no numerical credits, no exams, and no majors. Most courses are very writing intensive, and workloads are, to put it very mildly, not light. The resources of the college, the Five Colleges, the library, and the area, provide incredible opportunities to anyone willing to dive in. You can study an incredible range of things here, in almost infinite combinations – as long as you can convince at least two faculty members that it’s a viable thing to study, and persuade them to be on your committee.

Hampshire has its own way of doing pretty much everything, and its own terminology for, again, pretty much everything. (Including an intimidating quantity of acronyms.) Instead of classifying students by year, students are classified by Division. Division I is usually the first two semesters, and comprises a breadth of work across different areas of study and modes of inquiry; it’s semi-comparable to general ed at a traditional college. Division II is usually the third or fourth semester through the sixth semester, and it comprises the central body of a student’s studies, allowing them to focus on their main area(s) of interest while also exploring other areas, as guided by their faculty committee. Div II is also the time when students are preparing and planning for their Div III.

Division III takes place during the final two semesters of a student’s time at Hampshire, and for each student, the Div III is a massive, independent project which is essentially expected to comprise a meaningful contribution to their field. The sheer scope and variety of Div IIIs are Hampshire is incredible, though rumor has it that mine manages to be especially peculiar (it has corsets!). My own approach to the divisional system has of necessity been rather peculiar, because I’m a transfer student. This means that I’m actually in my final semester of Div III during my fourth semester at Hampshire. Fortunately, I came to Hampshire knowing rather specifically what I wanted to study, and that a master’s degree in Public History was the next step – so that helped me to start filling in the blanks.

The title of my Div III is what goes on my diploma as my major: Public History and the Applied History of Clothing and Needle Arts. That was – honest to goodness – the simplest way I could think of to accurately portray what I’m doing. It’s actually much more straightforward than some Div III titles, which customarily include a pithy beginning and a colon. Mine has neither: clearly I am a rebel amidst rebels.

This is what I said about the project overall in my official contract:

For my Division III project, I intend to explore the history of costume in a multi-faceted way, utilizing research, writing, and the process of actual garment construction to craft a deeper understanding of an under-developed area of study. I will frame my work in the field of Public History, in which I intend to pursue a Master’s degree after graduation. As a discipline, Public History moves beyond the academic realm to bring historical understanding to the public, and to communicate with the public about history. I feel strongly that the study of historic costume is important, and part of the work of my Division III will be formulating precise arguments as to the ways in which an understanding of the clothing and needle arts of the past can be enriching, enlightening, personally relevant, and even contribute meaningfully to sustainable, responsible living. Similarly, I will also explore ways in which Public History in a larger sense can offer functional tools and relevant inspiration for the present and future, expanding on the discipline’s core mission of meaningfully educating the public about the past.

Of course, it goes on from there at length (at very great length), but that’s the beginning, and it’s the core of what I wanted to do. The project has morphed through several changes, most significantly that I wanted to try to have a physical exhibit at a local museum, but when that didn’t work out, I shifted back to my original plan of using the internet as a vehicle for public history. I planned to write a proper scholarly paper (similar to what I did for my independent study in spring 2010, but on a much larger scale) documenting the clothing I constructed and my approaches to historical clothing research, but as this site has grown, I have realized that such a paper would be redundant, and not nearly as useful as this site could be. I already proved to my satisfaction that I could write about the historical clothing research and reproduction process in a scholarly way, in proper history paper format, during the independent study. Now, I want to focus on historic clothing and public history rather than on historic clothing and academic history.

The purpose of this site is not only to document the research and reconstruction process of my Div III (also known as the clothing thesis project), but in a larger sense, to create a dynamic public resource on the study of historic clothing and the process of reproducing historic clothing. It is a means for me to provide copious links to other sites, especially specific posts and articles, as well as references to printed resources. It is a place for me to evaluate sources and discuss the process of researching historical clothing, in ways which I hope may be helpful to others.

Clothing is, unfortunately, a very marginalized area of historical study. It is not usually seen as a “respectable” area of inquiry for “serious” scholars. Therefore, many resources in historical clothing are popular rather than scholarly sources, which means that they are often lacking in references or citations. Ironically, however, even properly Chicago-style cited scholarly sources about historical clothing can be – in my opinion – hideously inaccurate; scholarly credentials are no guarantee, especially when the subject at hand is theory of fashion or dress. Particularly when corsets are involved.

Because the history of clothing is marginalized by the field of history, it is necessary to delve into many other areas, and a variety of public and popular sources, to collect research on historical clothing. This includes books on art, theatrical costuming, fashion, dress/clothing, cultural history, social history, photography, and museum publications about their collections. There are also primary sources, of course, which can be accessed directly or somewhat indirectly, as in extant garments which are photographed and displayed in books or online collections; original fashion plates, illustrations, cartoons, and photographs, which can be viewed online or in compilation books; and various written sources of information which can be accessed online, on microform, or in reprinted forms, from magazine clothing articles and period sewing manuals to remarks about clothing in novels and diary entries. By combining primary sources, nearly-primary sources (primary sources viewed in an indirect way which limits full access), secondary sources, tertiary sources (which compile or catalog secondary sources), and ambiguously defined types of sources such as online historical sewists’ forums and costumers’ dress diaries, it is to be hoped that a fuller understanding of a given aspect of the study of historical clothing can be reached.

I believe in sharing research, and in using the research of others when I can. This means that I am putting all of my work online, and that I have dived into every remotely related book I could get my hands on. And, combining the two, it means that a significant part of this site is the annotated bibliography, which currently contains nearly 100 entries, the majority of which have critical annotations which detail the book’s contents and my analysis of its usefulness as a resource for the study of historical clothing. Naturally, access to primary sources is fantastic, and in order to truly understanding historic clothing, we need to be able to see the ins and outs of it, but secondary sources, especially good ones, are a solid start. But because it can be so difficult to determine whether a book is “a good one,” especially if it must be ordered sight unseen, I am trying to share what I have learned about the many, many books I am working with, in the hopes of making that part of the research process a little easier for others.

(And, too, so I can remember which books were useful for what! I won’t always have such ready access to a massive library system and to Inter-Library Loan, and I’ll need to plan my borrowing and purchasing carefully. The annotated bibliography functions as a note-keeping system for myself as well as a resource for others – like most of this site.)

This site also includes an extensive (and designed-to-grow) glossary of terms for fibers, fabrics, and materials, which I created in order to streamline the process of defining different materials. I hope to continue adding to it, and trying to differentiate references based on time period increasingly. It uses quotes from various sources to help define and describe different materials, and how they were and are used, and how terms have changed over time.

Perhaps most obviously, this site includes entries for each sub-project that I researched, began, or completed during my Div III (or during the preparatory independent study), as well as entries for each individual garment. For the full ensemble or partial ensemble projects, there can be many entries. Because I am inclined to be very overly ambitious and set out to do do more than I could have possibly had time for, many of these entries are for garments which have been researched but not created. And of those, some do not even have the full research posted online yet. But it is nevertheless a start, and it is a foundation for documenting both research and reproduction. For project work beyond my time at Hampshire, I will use new posts to add information, leaving the original base entries intact, to differentiate between work done during (and, very well, immediately following) Div III, and work done later.

I hope that by making readily available my research, my collected links and references to resources, and detailed descriptions of my research and reproduction process, including pitfalls and mistakes along the way, I can help others through the murky process that is the study and documented reproduction of historical clothing. Or, for that matter, through any process of researching and/or creating and/or refashioning and/or caring for clothing and/or costumes. While my focus – the documented reproduction of historic clothing – is specific, I quite cheerfully branch out into other related topics (and sometimes some rather unrelated topics as well), and I certainly have no objections to others having different interests!

My Div III, and by extension this site, has as part of its mission the goal of persuading people that clothing is important, and worthy of study and attention. I am particularly making the case for historic clothing, but I feel that this concept also extends readily into other areas. In particular, I am intrigued by the connections between clothing and sustainability, especially the ways in which learning from historical approaches to clothing can inform and enrich a sustainable approach to dealing with clothing. I went into my thoughts on this area in some detail at the page on Clothing and Sustainability. In part because because of this sustainability angle, a portion of the materials for my Div III was funded by a grant from the Social Venture Fund operated by the Lemelson Center for Applied Design, at Hampshire College (both of which are doing wonderful things in general, by the way).

I also worked with the Lemelson Center to use their classroom and sewing equipment to teach two co-curricular classes on sewing, during the 2011 January term and the 2011 spring semester. The Jan term class was Custom Corset-Making, and the spring class was Historical Sewing Techniques for Practical Use. These classes were available as EPEC (Experimental Program in Education and Community) classes to Hampshire students (and community members), and both could be taken for full academic credit as courses, by any student who chose to formally register the class as an independent study, which I arranged to have supervised by one of the members of my faculty committee, Donna Cohn. It was (and is) important to me to to share the skills and knowledge that I have with people who were interested in such things – and teaching these classes also provided me with an excellent opportunity to use my fellow students as guinea pigs for trying to figure out approaches to teaching sewing to groups of people.

Other pieces of my Div III include the course with Jim Wald that I took last fall on historic preservation, for which I made an online resource center for textile conservation as a final project; the amazing interpretation internship I had at Old Sturbridge Village last summer; and the guest lecture on the history of corsets that I gave this past March in the course Sex, Science, and the Victorian Body, taught by Lise Sanders and Pam Stone. In general, I have spent a great deal of time trying to convince people that the corset is not inherently a tool of oppression or an instrument of torture. Also, steel corsets are a myth. I promise.

Now, as I approach my final meeting with my committee – Jim Wald, Lise Sanders, and Donna Cohn – and strictly speaking am coming to the very end of my Division III, I cannot help but feel that really, my work is only just beginning. Rather than a project that I pick up, and put down down again after two semesters, my Div III has been a coming together of all my past inquiries into the history of clothing, a focusing, and a building of foundations. I’ve built a body of knowledge, developed a method of research and documentation, and created a collection of painstakingly researched historical reproduction, and historically inspired, garments. And woven throughout it all, I have created this site, which I can and will continue to use, to keep track of my notes and bookmarks, to document my research and my progress, to make tutorials and information available, and to keep myself centered and focused as I traipse through future paths. I will always have the foundation of this site to return to, and to remind me of what I began here at Hampshire, during my Division III.

*****

For further information, these internal pages may be of interest:

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