Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shameless Plug: Americans in Paris: Designers, Buyers, Editors, Photographers, Models and Clients in Paris Fashion

The MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory and Museum Practice is hosting their annual Graduate Studies symposium on May 8th, 2010. Each year, the Advanced Professional Seminar class spends a semester researching, writing and planning this unique Fashion Studies event, learning the skills needed to write and present a professional paper in front of an audience. The symposium's theme is generated by exhibitions held at The Museum at FIT; this year, the theme centers around Americans in Paris, coinciding with MFIT's latest exhibition, American Beauty.

Many of the presenters are accomplished students at FIT. All have previously worked on the Graduate Studies exhibition on Delman shoes, and many hold internships in costume or conservation institutions around New York.

If you are in the New York area, I encourage you to come out on Saturday afternoon for what will be a most enlightening event. The schedule is listed below (click to enlarge it):

Hope to see you there!!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fashion and Field Work: An Effective Case Study

I often have conversations with peers about how to garner more credibility for fashion studies. The difficulty lies mainly in the fact that there is little to no "defined" methodology for our field - I've run up against this wall several times during my experiences at school. For example, my approach to fashion studies as an anthropologist is different than, say, a historian, a chemist, even a designer's own approach. Of course, a set methodology takes years to develop and until collaboration between disciplines is more concrete, this goal may be even farther out of reach.

In my case, the future of anthropology relies on practicing field work, generally set up within two categories - archaeological, and ethnographic. The latter concerns cultural anthropology, for it is developed based on interactions with and observations of people, not just things and places.

Much ethnographic research within the field of fashion studies pertain to indigenous cultures, who's traditional uses of dress are still practiced today. Although intriguing, this research only benefits our understanding of a specific cultural practice, not fashion studies as a whole. In order to legitimize our field, there needs to be a reform in the way ethnographic fashion research is carried out.

Frances Ross' field research on the "bespoke" and "demi-bespoke" tailoring industry in present day London is an excellent example of progressive ethnographic research in the field of fashion studies. Utilizing such research approaches as participant observation and qualitative interviewing, Ross (Course Director at the London College of Fashion) investigated "what is currently happening in the industry in terms of textiles, colour, style and manufacture" (Ross, 281). Her article published in The Journal of the Textile Institute (2007:i. 98:n. 3) maps out a perfect methodology for future studies that would be taken seriously by any anthropological expert.

Ross introduces her topic with a brief history of the London tailoring districts, many of which became subjects of her study. She continues with a list of publications concerning "Men's bespoke and ready-made tailoring texts" to support her project (Ross, 283). Her study rationale explores the concept of "phenomenological research," her decisions to use qualitative over statistical data and a relative definition of ethnography which may not be so easily understood by those outside of the field of anthropology (Ross, 283). She includes her sampling and interview methodology, and provides a chart of participating establishments, their location, date and time of interview and other establishments that were subsequently recommended to her by each interviewee.

A lengthy section is dedicated to actual interview snippets which support her research. The tailors featured discuss topics such as definitions of "New English Tailoring," fabric choice innovations, technological advancements and how they are implemented within the tailoring industry, and stylistic influences upheld by current tailors.

Ross' study is intriguing and incredibly well put together. Other similar studies have been attempted but none have resulted in such a smooth presentation as "Refashioning London's Bespoke and Demi-Bespoke Tailors." I'll keep Ross' methodology and approach in mind for future studies. I'm also interested in finding similar studies to keep on hand as examples. I'll be applying for a Fulbright fellowship soon and will need all the polished ethnographic field research I can get!

Breward, Christopher. "Cultures, Identities, Histories: Fashioning a Cultural Approach to Dress." Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 2.4

Browne, Ray B. and Pat Browne, Eds. Methodologies in Archeology, Anthropology and other Fields.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays.

Gott, Suzanne. "Asante High-timers and the Fashionable Display of Women's Wealth in Contemporary Ghana" Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture,13.2

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Methodology.” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (Spring 1982).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Responsible Fashion: Africa
Global Mamas employees pose for a picture during batiking.

Since entering into the world of fashion studies, I have longed to combine my love for dress with another passion of mine - community outreach. If academic fashion fails me in the end, my backup plan is to establish sustainable, responsible fashion production centers around the world.

Time Magazine predicts that "green" technology and various related occupations will pull the world out of this economic rut. But of course, not everyone has the background or capital to start a non-profit from the ground up. That's okay - this is the perfect time to begin supporting fair-trade fashion organizations. Part of contributing to a green economy is by purchasing its products. It is only until people start buying sustainable and fair-trade fashion that it'll make an impact on the entire industry (aka it will get cheaper).

To create awareness, I'm going to produce a series of posts dedicated to various geographical regions hosting fair-trade or sustainable fashion and textile production centers. In light of a recent grant I proposed, I'm going to start with Africa.

Global Mamas
Interns accepted? Yes
Can you visit? Yes. They have workshops in Ghana, including a retail store in Cape Coast. Many fair-trade shops in America host their products.

Global Mamas is a subdivision of the Ghanaian non-profit organization, Women in Progress. Founded by Peace Corps volunteers Renea Adam and Kristin Johnson in 2002, Global Mamas has provided opportunities for women to increase their personal revenue and create localized, woman-owned businesses across Africa. Adams and Johnson believe that “helping women gain economic independence is the most effective way to reduce dependence on foreign aid and steadily create a prosperous society.”

All Global Mamas products are created by Ghanaian residents in workshops across the country. Traditional methods such as batik, bead making, weaving and soap production are used to create clothing, home goods, jewelry and bath items which are then shipped to fair-trade distributors in Europe and America. (Click to expand post)

Interns accepted? Unknown.
Can you visit? Generally, yes. Send an inquiry to Max and he can let you know.

The success of SUNO is proof that fashion, sustainability, responsibility and fair-trade can work together to create competitive products in a global fashion economy. Max Osterweis, an American designer and film maker, created SUNO after realizing that the textiles he collected on various trips to Kenya could be used to create marketable clothing in the Western fashion industry. Osterweis took into account the political and economic situation in Kenya when he began his company, employing locals at workshops in Nairobi and Nakuru. SUNO allows employees to not only showcase their talents and artistry, but provides them with a chance to rebuild themselves financially after recent political unrest decreased capital from foreign tourism.

SUNO also utilizes locality on the domestic front as well. All design concepts are conceived in New York City's garment district, where patterns and sample pieces are drawn up and sent back to Kenya for their final construction. NYC's garment district has seen a revival in recent years, with many designers returning back to the area's warehouses to produce clothing and accessories, instead of outsourcing. Osterweis connects charity and couture, spreading awareness of fair-trade practices through his high-end designs.

Interns accepted? Unknown.
Can you visit? Unknown. Their collection can be purchased online or in stores in the UK.

Amana's initial philosophy is "to make beautiful clothes with ethical origins and to illustrate that environmentally and socially responsible fashion can equate to exquisite design and quality." Launching their first collection in 2007, London designers Helen Wood and Erin Tabrar employ the services of women from a village called Ain Leuh in the mountains of Morocco to manufacture their designs. They source materials such as organic cottons and silks, and work with companies in the United Kingdom to produce low-impact dyes for their gorgeous collections.

The word "Amana" is Arabic for "delivered in trust," a trust that can be upheld through the company's choice of eco-friendly materials and methods of production. They even provide a list of their credentials on their website, to prove their legitimacy and commitment to responsible fashion. They also offer their products at competitive prices, acknowledging the fact that sustainable fashion can only do its job if it is available to the masses, not a privileged few.

Please check out these companies, and the role they play in supporting fair-trade practices within the fashion industry. If there are some other companies working in Africa that you know about, please pass them along! I'd love to take a look at them and possibly work with them in the future.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

NYC Fashion Studies Symposiums - A Chance for Collaboration?

Graduate programs across the 5 boroughs have sent out invitations for their end-of-the-year symposiums. It is my goal to attend as many of these as possible, to see what others in the field of costume, fashion and textile studies are up to. Many of these symposiums consist of final-semester student papers, but it does get me wondering - if all of these schools promote their own symposia, is there any chance there could be a city-wide collaboration? It seems silly that I should have to schlep all over town just to hear a few relevant papers at each institution.

Presenting papers or projects at conferences is vital for scholars of fashion studies. The field's visual nature warrants exposure of intriguing topics. These events build up academic credibility and look fabulous on resumes and CVs. They also allow established experts to provide feedback and/or collaboration, which means support for your research. These experts may also lead you in new directions, such as further education and even occupational opportunities.

Of course, academic calendars vary institution to institution, and not every graduate program emphasizes fashion and textiles in their curricula. Even so, there are enough people out there - professors included - that could benefit from mutual exposure in a setting such as a symposium. NYU had four presentations (which were really well done and enlightening!), and there will be six presentations for the symposium at FIT. There are at least three relevant presentations from the Bard Graduate Center's symposium and one from the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons consortium - and I'm only referring to student works here. That's more than enough people to represent a full-day fashion studies symposium.

Time and dedication to organization is most likely the culprit. Any event consumes personal time - something many scholars have little of to begin with. People need enough time to solicit participation, review submissions, find a space, schedule a keynote speaker and formulate some kind of entertainment. There also needs to be a significant budget for renting a space, advertising, publications and refreshments. All of these factors I'm sure have contributed to lack of city-wide university collaboration.

Clear notification of events open to public submissions must be established as well. Although the CH/P conference was open to outside participants, I received the invitation two weeks prior to the deadline - whereas those graduate students had about a semester or so to work on their submissions, it gave myself little time to formulate a topic relevant to the theme. Part of the work I do for Worn Through is to sift through websites like H-Net for relevant conferences, and CH/P never appeared until a CH insider sent me the criteria.

There has been a lot of animosity between graduate programs lately, which may contribute to the separation of events (although that seems like an immature notion on the academic system's part). Professors wish to exhibit their students in the highest way possible - it looks bad if student representation ratios are uneven, not to mention the intellectual content structures of one institution may be totally different from another. I don't really buy MA-program competition as an excuse for non-collaboration, but I also don't rule it out.

For those of you who study/teach in the NYC area, what do you think about the possibility of a combined symposium for those involved in academic fashion studies? This could eliminate the need for separate events, or occur on top of curriculum-based ones. Are there any points I might have left out concerning this topic (aka is this an unrealistic goal?), and most importantly, are there people out there who would be interested in organizing, presenting and attending an event like this?

Those from out of state with relevant advice, please chime in as well! I am definitely interested in collaborating a more consistent exposure setting for fashion studies work and a conference - even a small one - sounds like a good idea to me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Scholarly Writing: Primary Sources

Sketch by Madame Gres for Bergdorff Goodman, from FIT Special Collections

In light of my recent Midterm assignments and spring break hiatus, I think it's appropriate to dedicate this post to scholarly writing for fashion studies. It's also a personal reminder that I have two research papers due at the end of May...oops.

Once you've developed your thesis, finding evidence to support your claims is necessary. You may have a brief list of titles or inspirations used to define your topic, but most research papers typically benefit from bibliographies of five pages or more. Seem like a lot? You'd be surprised how much you can find.

The easiest way to define a primary source is to figure out the context from which it was written. Is it in first person? Does its words or construction define a time period? Is it a commentary or written from a modern viewpoint?

Examples pertinent to the field of fashion studies include:
  • Tangible objects - fashion scholars have the advantage of studying surviving objects in order to support their research in a way that, say, a war historian or a medical anthropologist can not. Looking closely at the cut and construction of an object, analyzing its materials, and researching any distinguishing stamps or labels provides excellent evidence for our field.
  • Photographs - these provide pictorial evidence of garments and accessories as they were meant to be worn. We visually see how a dress falls on the body, the kind of event it would have been worn at, and what types of people it was worn by. They can also be helpful with dating - other objects featured provide clues. Photograph technology - daguerreotypes, Polaroids, glossy, etc. - help narrow down time-frames as well.
  • Sketches and Fashion Plates - A sketch or fashion plate can reveal oodles of information. If you are lucky, you'll find a signature of the illustrator, a date, the name of the object, technical notes, etc. Fashion plates, the precursor of fashion magazines, are abundant in many collections. Although human features are often exaggerated, they provide insight as to what was fashionable at the time.
  • Newspaper and Magazine Articles - these usually have dates attached to them. Useful for charting the progress of designers, style changes and important events in fashion history.
  • Advertisements - ads are great for placing research contextually. Trends, constructions and designs can be dated if they are found within newspapers, magazines, even commercials. You can tell by an ad what kind of audience it is trying to reach, what companies were producing certain styles and who endorsed them.
  • Historic Documents - these are most useful for scholars interested in pre-modern dress (when actual objects are scarce and photographic evidence does not exist). Many personal accounts, such as Antoine Furetière's descriptions of 17th century court dress in Dictionnaire Universel, help historians and theorists "visualize" clothing and accessories. (Click to expand post)

  • Paintings - although they are the "photographs of the past," paintings are not always historically accurate. This is especially true for commissioned paintings, where the artist was at the mercy of the patron's requests. Many portraits, for example, depict elaborately rendered textile patterns that may have never existed (ie: the portrait of Eleonara di Toledo and her son, painted by Bronzino, features a dress fabric that was probably inspired by a panel or curtain).
  • Diaries/Autobiographies - while these provide wonderful personal insights into the minds of, say, fashion designers and enthusiasts, they have the problem of being biased and/or exaggerated. Personal quotations are better sought out from newspapers or magazines to ensure accuracy of statements and opinions.
  • Film - some people use movies to study costume, but documentaries because feature real-life representations of how clothing sits on a body, and how it is used in action. Films can be tricky; costumes can be exaggerated or designed with an artistic "vision" in mind. Some costumes are also used based upon what will work for the film, as opposed to what is actually fashionable or regularly worn. Also keep in mind, a film released in 1961 does not necessarily represent 1961 fashions - larger gaps may exist between film production and when it's released to the public.
  • Novels, poems and songs - although generally fictional, inspiration for these works are can be drawn from feelings for or during a certain time period. However, the way in which an author, poet or song writer uses aesthetic imagery may be allegorical or used to emphasize character qualities, not illustrating what might have actually be worn in the time and place of the literary work. Some descriptions of dress and fashion are sensory and help readers visualize how a garment or accessory would sound, feel, smell, but scholars should always proceed with caution when using them to support a thesis.
  • Museums - most (if not all) museums have some kind of costume or textile collection. If you'd like to look at a garment or accessory up-close, make an appointment. Most museum staff members are happy to accommodate these requests and provide any other information you may need.
  • Archives - Photographs, documents, sketches and advertisements (basically anything paper-based) can be found within the archives of a museum, company or private collection. These too are usually appointment-based, however more and more institutions are willing to scan items and send them via email if you know exactly what you are looking for.
  • Libraries - many museum, university and local library collections can be accessed by the public. Places like the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library have facsimiles of rare books, manuscripts and scholarly publications that may aid in your research.
  • Historic/Personal interest societies - members of these are knowledgeable about their specific topics. You'd be surprised how willing they are to help out! For example, a film society may point you in the right direction when in search of documentaries featuring daywear from the 1950s. An easy internet search will bring up this information.
The Ohio State University's History program has compiled a list of institutions with significant costume and textile collections. I suggest bookmarking it for future reference!