From The Archives: Ground Shift

On Teaching Fashion: Ground Shift.

Please enjoy this article on the past and future of our field.

What makes a program vibrant? What causes a program’s demise? I know these are complex questions that are not easily answered. While some programs seem to be fading out others are busting at the seams. I am interested in tossing this question out to you and getting your thoughts. Image above from Cornell archives, see link below.

Wornthrough has readership from many kindred fields including Fashion and Apparel, Costume Studies, Curatorial Practice, History and Textiles among others. In conversation with colleagues I generally hear two stories: their department or educational program is thriving OR their department is closing, or their alma mater is thriving OR closing.

Judy Chicago at work in the studio on “The Dinner Party”

I was educated within a lineage of textile practice that I feel a strong since of connectedness and pride towards. I imagine you feel the same way about your academic upbringing and “the field” you call your field. In reality, academic lineage is socialized, taught and adopted to benefit past, current and future in the line of academic inquiry.  What happens when the lineage collapses? What are the benefits of a flourishing academic lineage?

My mentor Annet Couwenberg and research assistants

What does success mean in a program? A few considerations gleaned earlier this week from former professors and colleagues:

  1. Engaged faculty who are active as teachers AND makers/designers/theorists
  2. Connections to Industry (a bridge to opportunities)
  3. Active alum (if not with financial contribution with contribution of time)
  4. Field trips or some form of discovery learning
  5. Embracing and shaping to the needs of the evolving student
  6. Diverse faculty (age, discipline, teaching methods, background)
  7. “Soft and hard” Skills (conceptual, innovative, creative abilities combined with practical, tangible, analytical skills combined with people skills)

The connectedness I feel is not unlike the pride and since of purpose you might hold for your personal academic upbringing and how it has shaped your teaching practice.

How is your Alma mater faring? Weather you teach, curate or write I wonder how your current department or educational program is doing? How has your academic lineage helped or hindered you on the job search? How has it shaped your teaching? What key elements would you say promote success (or failure) in a department?

Textile education image sourced online

It saddens me when I hear of a (insert your field here) educational program in high potential area like a major city (in this day and age of DIY, Project Runway, Kitting Revolution, Exhibitions of design,etc, etc) closing.  I know that many closings are related to budget issues, and that department leaders are trying the best they know how, that they might know for example that they are out of touch, yet do not have the resources to bring in new faculty.

Indicators of demise: mono-cultural thinking and or rigidity toward shifting ground.  “Higher-up” administrations lack of comprehension of what is considered a niche field, although last time I checked everyone wears clothes. As our students evolve so must we by continuing to learn, by remaining engaged with work, art, writing and by embracing and learning from students. Keep current in the culture of what you teach and practice. If you are not excited, your administration and students will not be.

Indicators of success:  Willingness to innovate, engage with community, be visible to the world and align in mission with peers at the departmental meeting room table. To use textile metaphors, in the way previous generations weave tapestry emerging textile students are weaving communities, imprinting policy, knitting innovations that are tangible and practical.

Collaboration between MICA fiber students and J Shoe Corp.

It is essential to keep the momentum of the hothouse academic environment going by reaching out to alum and by connecting alum to current students.  Some examples might include: inviting alum in to shake things up, connecting your students to your alum and to students in kindred programs. Build a bridge of opportunities with students, administrators, colleagues, community and kindred programs. Reach out to find connections that do not yet exist among other departments in your school, industries or organizations  in your community.

I propose we reach out to each other to interlace lineage. We are a diverse group of clever and passionate academics. Also, I challenge each of you send some form of support (be it time or money) to your Alma mater. As well,  reach out to one alum from your department if you currently teach or a local organization or industry to inquire about collaborating. Looking forward to comments!

Relevant articles:


From the Archives: Global Mode: The Diesel Niqab

For Easter weekend, we will look back at my post from September 2013, in which Diesel presented interpretations of religious dress in their world-famous denim.


When Diesel’s first ad campaign under its new artistic director, Nicola Formichetti, came out in late August, bubbles of disapproval and disappointment and loathing about one of the many images in the Reboot campaign arose and floated around blogs, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post. The discussion circled around a shallow “offensive/edgy” binary deemed innate to the image, which discussion commentators (and commenters) fell into naturally: here is a semi-naked, white (?), tattooed woman wearing a niqab presumably made of Diesel denim, a studded back pocket over her face as design accent. And: go.


From Diesel’s 2013 “Reboot” advertising campaign.

Huffpo asked its readers “Did Diesel cross the line?” without really drawing one in the sand; you can imagine the comments that question encouraged. The intense disagreement suggests that the question of whether this is “offensive or not”–because it’s not provocative or daring or challenging, it’s offensive…or it’s edgy–is to be determined by the individual observer, not by the cultural observer.

Some commented on Formichetti appropriating a “sacred niqab” out of its religious context to further his career, others insisted that veils are a social–not a religious–construction, and very few noted that this garment was not meant for actual consumption, not going to be following the “plus-sized” found model and Casey Legler, other models in the campaign, down any runway. Shock factor was mentioned and determined to be in very poor taste. Opinions!

There are so many question-layers of agency in the niqab image: the core issue of the agency of women in Middle Eastern countries, their societies so often clumped together, misunderstood, and ascribed the worst social woes of each; the agency of Eastern imagery and objects in Western consumerism; the role of artistic director as artist, as representative of an international brand, as a member of the fashion system.Questions of one’s Muslim-ness and whether the image offended morphed into that age-old conversation about who is “allowed” to be offended or make pronouncements about offensiveness to Muslim women.

Many Muslim women spoke out, mainly against the ad. The threat of Islamophobia in America is very, very serious and the further complication of this garment–especially as regards sexuality–can be seen as irresponsible. Responses like that of Shruti Parekh are vital to the maintenance of real, true, and thoughtful perceptions of the diversity of Middle Eastern cultures both in America and abroad. When presented in a considered manner, the opposition to this campaign helps foster “dialogue.” But I continue to be struck by the frenetic use of our generous avenues of communication by some to exploit exploitation. What is the difference between an international brand using intentionally inflammatory images to spark conversation and a fashion blogger using intentionally inflammatory language to do the same?

One difference is, of course, that even if this garment is not for sale, the rest of the collection is. Designer Kenneth Cole is another famous seeker of controversy, criticized often and loudly for his Twitter advertising “jokes” about Syria and Egypt (and sandals and riots). Cole sees his fashion-maker status as an opportunity to get people talking, and his detractors see him as exploiting international crises and news items to drive sales.Some who disagreed with his tweets created interesting and engaging opposition, but the majority found an easy target and denied Cole the “dialogue” he supposedly seeks to incite, fighting his tactics because it looks good or because someone tweeted their inspiring disappointment first and everyone loves a trending hashtag. Is Formichetti the new Cole? Should a supposedly “off-the-cuff” tweet be considered in a different context than an orchestrated campaign?

Is the Catholic imagery in another of the Reboot campaign’s advertisements too tame to incite commentary in 2013? Is a tattooed young drag queen in a studded denim mitre expected in the fashion sphere? If boychild is naked under that robe, is it offensive, or might it be construed as a clever nod to certain scandals that have plagued the church in recent years?


From Diesel’s 2013 “Reboot” advertising campaign.

Those who are offended by the interpretation of Pope Joan above might be as disheartened by the commodification and dilution of the power of their religious garments as Sana Saeed, who wrote about the Diesel niqab: “Long dreaded the day that ‘THE VEIL’ [would] become so subversive that capitalism [would] just consume it. Then this Diesel ad.” When it comes to religiously-affiliated dress, whether Catholic or Muslim (or whatever), what is powerful and what is oppressive? I think both of the pictured garments represent both of those adjectives. Do they belong in the realm of fashion advertising?

Only one writer, Angel Millar, remarked on the nature of the material used to make the “make-shift niqab,” noting the juxtaposition of All-American Denim and its freedom/democracy/mainstream/(pop?) connotations with the staid/oppressive/religious of veils:

A denim niqab seems at once to indicate a rejection of both Western values and religious literalism, and it seems to hint at the fusion of East and West on the level of material culture.

Millar gives two examples of Islam’s influence on Western fashion: Poiret and Chalayan. The first was meant to establish the long connection between the two worlds; it may be generous to say “Islam’s influence on…” instead of “The West’s co-opting of…”, but the point is: this is not as new as some think. But the use of the niqab/burqa to intentionally provoke in the Reboot ad is perhaps better compared to Chalayan’s “Burka,” a collection from 1996, which is called “challenging” and “art” (links nsfw). If Diesel had presented this niqab in a runway show as opposed to in an advertising campaign, would it have landed differently? Does Chalayan, seen as a high-fashion artist, have more leeway to explore these themes than Diesel, seen as a mass-market brand, or are their approaches fundamentally different?

How does “I am not what I appear to be” intersect with the niqab image? What are the social questions that may be answered by society at large or by a majority, as opposed to left up to each consumer, observer, and citizen? Is there a line to be crossed here, and how would you define it? Please leave your respectful comments below.


Domestic Affairs: Spotlight on the Lacis Museum, Berkeley



The Lacis store was established in 1965 by Kaethe and Jules Kilot, “as a haven for the textile community and all involved in virtually every aspect of the textile arts,” according to their website. It is a truly unique store that offers antique garments, as well as reproduction underclothes (like the crinolines creating a chandelier effect in the image above) and clothing for living historians and reeneactors, a magnificent bookstore and library, as well as supplies for every textile art imaginable. It is truly a haven for practitioners and lovers of the textile arts alike.

Following Kaethe’s passing in 2002, Jules Kilot founded The Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles above the store in 2004. Over the years Kaethe and Jules had collected thousands of specimens of textiles, including examples of pre-Columbian Peruvian handiwork, 17th-century European lace, and 19th-century machine-made lace. Jules told me during my visit at the end of March that the museum was born out of his desire to preserve “the humanity” of the textile arts, and to keep that aspect of them alive. Since one of the things that has always attracted me to material culture in general, but dress and textile history in particular, is that sense of being connected to the people of the past, this is a sentiment I very much agreed with, without expressing half so eloquently. After his wife passed away, hundreds of letters poured in to tell Jules how Kaethe had touched their lives — establishing that Lacis was much more than a retail store, it was a community in and of itself.


Tucked away in Berkeley, the museum does not get much attention, when it really should. I was there to see their current exhibition, Smocking: Fabric Manipulation and Beyond. Mounted as a joint venture between Lacis and the Smocking Arts Guild of America, this excellent exhibition gives visitors the entire history of smocking from its origins in English peasant workclothes to its current use as decoration or even a technique to practically sculpt using fabric. The museum has even displayed one of Anne Hathaway’s costumes from Les Misérables, which makes use of smocking as both shaping and decoration (no photos allowed, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to go yourselves if you can).


At first sight the exhibition appears deceptively small, but it is not. There is a great wealth of objects of various styles, regions, patterns, and periods; the pieces are not placed in any particular chronological order, nor are they ordered by style or technique used, instead seemingly haphazardly about the exhibition space as they fit. Rather than confusing the visitor, I feel this emphasizes the universality, beauty, and usefulness of smocking throughout history as you look at pieces from the 19th century next to contemporary gowns. And yet as you move through the exhibition you notice there is a methodology in place — objects are grouped together by their type rather than the technique. You will observe an entire wall of christening gowns (seen above), without knowing until you read the labels which are antique and which are contemporary. This is a masterful stroke by the museum, drawing visitors to examine the garments more closely, so that after you have identified the 19th-century christening gowns, you start to notice details that were common place then, but that we — with our mass-manufacturing-influenced aesthetics — no longer think to add. Such as the pin-tucks and embroidery you see in the detailed shot below to conceal where the hem of the gown has been sewn since white cotton’s naturally being somewhat sheer would otherwise show a stark line.



Smocking’s beginnings can be traced — as I said above — to the work clothing of English peasantry. Large shirts were sewn to cover the worker’s regular clothes and protect them from dirt, and wear and tear. Smocking was developed as a way to fit the garment to the individual without losing the freedom of movement needed for the manual labour tasks required. It was also a way to make this somewhat mundane garment beautiful.



In the usual trickle-up-affect of fashion, the technique was copied by the middle-class; looking at the dress below, I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t have been worn by a woman who ascribed to the dress reform and aesthetic movements. The borrowing of a “country” textile technique, and the looseness of the fit seem to point in that direction. It is certainly quite a contrast with the lattice-smocked costume from the BBC series Copper set at about the same time, which has a much more fitted waist and the expected mid-19th-century silhouette.

WP_20140328_053    WP_20140328_055 19th-century gown from the Lacis collection




WP_20140328_058 BBC costume from Copper


Smocking experienced a revival first in the 1930s with the advent of the home pleating machine, and then in the late 1970s when it was popularized as part of the artwear movement as a way to manipulate and sculpt fabric. During the 1930s, the advent of the home pleating machine (seen below) was rather well-timed considering that the economic depression of the decade meant there was a new necessity to sewing at home, and smocking is wonderful for growing children: its stretching ability means the clothes can grow with them (provided the shirt or dress is long enough, of course).



This is what I typically think of when I think of smocking: children’s clothes. According to both Jules and Erin Algeo, the store manager who curates many of the museum exhibitions, this is quite a common perception of smocking, and it is a practice you still see today (that stretch ability for movement and growth is more durable than lycra and far prettier). There are quite a few children’s pieces on display, below are two of my favorite examples: a child’s dress from the Lacis collection from circa 1940, and a contemporary piece called “Golden Gate Bridge Dress” by Sarah Douglas, one of the women who brought smocking back in the 1970s.

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The 1970s shared a trend with the 1930s: the “peasant” look, with bloused sleeves, “ethnic” details (such as smocking), and revival of handcrafts made its way into fashion.

WP_20140328_008 Nellie Durand smocked blouse, 1975



WP_20140328_015   WP_20140328_014 Nellie Durand smocked evening dress, 1979

This exhibition began with the donation of Sarah Douglas’s collection of not only antique pleating machines, but all her archives, notebooks, patterns, and other materials to the Lacis Museum. Sarah Douglas, along with Nellie Durand and Mimi Ahern helped to bring smocking back into the focus of the textile arts community in the 1970s, publishing books of instruction and patterns. Before them, Grace L. Knott had taught English smocking in Canada through her own school in the 1930s through the 1970s. Today smocking is used not only in clothing, but in any decorative textile arts, such as the ornaments pictured above. The archival materials of all four women, including their notebooks, smocking samples, patterns, instructions, etc. are on display in the museum.

Since the Lacis staff are so knowledgeable in the textile arts, this is a truly informative exhibition, tracing not only the chronology but the breadth of this simple, historic technique. I won’t say I came away brave enough to smock myself, but I certainly know where to go should I decide to start and have any questions. They have published a book to accompany the exhibition that gives instruction in the techniques as much as it gives smocking’s history.

Off in the Lacis classroom area — they offer several classes on various sewing techniques, their most popular recent course being on corsetry — there is a smaller exhibition space showcasing several of their historic lace pieces, and the Les Misérables dress.

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After visiting  the exhibition, I went down to thoroughly poke about the store. I spent a large amount of time in their absolutely amazing book/library section — including antique or out of print texts that ranged from 19th-century how-to textile arts books to Aileen Ribeiro books. There were shelves upon shelves of vintage garments and textiles, and the shop was never empty. The staff’s knowledge of the textile arts is incredible, making it possible for them to help people even through email inquiry or over the phone. They work to restore historic garments and host classes to teach living historians, reenactors, costumers, or anyone really how to make historic recreations, the basics of sewing, or how to care for their own antique and vintage textiles.

WP_20140328_097 Uchikake on display in the shop

WP_20140328_098    WP_20140328_099 Vintage undergarments & textiles for sale


WP_20140328_102 Heaven!

The San Francisco Chronicle called Lacis Berkeley’s “best kept secret,” I found it to be a treasure trove of knowledge of the textile arts, their practice, preservation, and history. That’s even before you step into the museum upstairs. Lacis, I will be returning!

Are there any treasure trove museums, shops,  or organizations in your area or experience that you would like to share? Have you been to Lacis? What did you think? As always share your thoughts in the comments below, and if you have any events or exhibitions you want to share with Worn Through be sure to email me.


CFP: Midwest Popular Culture Assn/Midwest American Culture Assn

The Midwest Popular Culture Association and Midwest American Culture Association will be hosting their annual conference October 3-5, 2014 in Indianapolis, IN.

Topics can include, but are not limited to, fashion as it is represented in literature, film, television, or music; fashion as it pertains to current popular culture or popular culture of any time period of the past; the fashions of celebrities; or sociological implications of fashion in our culture.

Abstracts must be 250 words and address any aspect of fashion to the “Fashion” area of the submissions website. Please include your name, affiliation, and e-mail address with the 250 word abstract. Also, please indicate in your submission whether your presentation will require an LCD Projector.

Additionally, there are graduate student travel grants available! More information may be found here.

Deadline for submissions: April 30, 2014

Please upload all proposals here.

Any questions may be forwarded to Kelli Purcell O’Brien at



On Teaching: Interview with Marian O’Rourke-Kaplan

I will always remember the first day I met Marian O’Rourke Kaplan, Associate Professor at the University of North Texas in the Fashion Design Program. It was the first day of the Draping course and  I had never draped before, so I was unsure what this course would entail. The room was filling up with students and people began chatting with each other. Then, in walks Mrs. O’Rourke-Kaplan clutching the newest edition of Vogue magazine with her T.A. following closely behind her. Mrs. O’Rourke-Kaplan sets the magazine on the table and begins flipping pages. The room goes silent. We are all looking at her, wondering what is she going to do. She tears out two pages and hold them up. “Which design do you prefer?” she asks the class. “Raise your hand if it’s the Donna Karan dress.” A few hands went up. “Raise your hands for the Armani jacket,” more hands went up, including mine. She pinned the winning Armani jacket magazine page on the mannequin; her T.A. handed her a pincushion, scissors, and some muslin; she swiftly began tearing fabric and pinning it to the mannequin. She was slicing through the muslin with her scissors and fabric was falling on the floor in irregular shapes. We were all quietly mesmerized watching her every move. After about ten minutes she put her supplies down and announced, “You will be able to do this at the end of the semester.” We all stared in amazement at how she draped an exact replica of the Armani jacket right before our eyes.

Marian O'Rourke-Kaplan image from

Marian O’Rourke-Kaplan image from

The first day I taught my own Draping class, I thought about Mrs. O’Rourke-Kaplan. She had so much confidence and that instilled confidence in me as a student. She had draped an Armani jacket in front of us and it looked just like the photograph. I was impressed and so excited to return to the next class so that I could learn this skill. If you are wondering if I did the same demonstration on my first day of my Draping class, the answer is no. But I tell my students this story every semester as I slowly and carefully demonstrate draping techniques. I have kept in contact with Mrs. O’Rourke-Kaplan over the years as I consider her a mentor. I find her to be a kind, generous, and a creative teacher. When I started teaching I often thought about what she did in the classroom as a guide to how I wanted to teach. She has also self published Pattern Essentials: A Student Handbook, that I am currently using in my program, filled with information on notching, measurements used in standard pattern making, among other information. I recently asked her for an interview to share her career as a fashion design teacher.  

How did you get your first adjunct teaching job?

I was working in [the] industry and the designer at Jay Jacks was teaching a draping course at El Centro Community College,  he was wanting to step out and asked if I was interested, I went and interviewed and my Wednesday nights each long term were spent teaching draping for the next 13 years.  That is where I got the bug to teach.

What was the most surprising thing you learned your first semester teaching?

Coming from [the] industry there were many terms and phrases that were embedded in my vocabulary, and I used them assuming the students understood…that is what I learned, never assume you are understood, explain multiple ways till the students grasp the concepts.

What was the most challenging thing you experienced as a teacher?

Staying patient with the students and not reacting to seemingly inane questions when in reality if one asked the question there are probably several others who had the same questions but were afraid to ask.

Can you tell me how you moved from an adjunct to the position you have now?

I taught full time at a proprietary school for three years and grew weary of the bottom line mentality.  I went back to get my MBA degree so I could diversify my qualifications and ideally start a new career path.  When all was said and done I missed the fashion business and went back to [the] industry, first with Jay Jacks and onward in the Dallas market.  It was over these years that I did the adjunct work.

Do you have any advice for adjunct teachers who hope to move up in the university?

The more teaching experience you can get the better your chances are. Industry experience will set you apart from the other candidates; it is invaluable when you work with students to be able to cite experiences in the real world, making it relevant to the career path they are training for. Teaching a class here or there while you are working in the industry is an excellent way to build your CV and prepare for a university position. They do require an advanced degree in the field or, as in my case, an advanced degree and an appreciable number of years’ experience in the field to balance it out. My MBA coupled with 20+ years’ experience in the field made me an excellent candidate. There are MFA, MA and MS degrees in apparel offered around the country, but PhD programs are rare.

I would love to hear from the readers about your favorite teacher that inspired you to teach. I’m also interested in your most memorable experiences in the classroom. Please share your story in the comments below.


Forever the Explorer: Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! review

You may have been forgiven for thinking that the recent exhibition about Isabella Blow, fashion stylist and patron extraordinaire of the 1990s and 2000s, at Somerset House here in London, was a sneaky opportunity to catch a glimpse of Alexander McQueen’s retrospective Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum, New York in 2011.

Display of Alexander McQueen designs in the exhibition

To be fair, many sections of the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition consisted entirely of garments, accessories, photographs, videos and, of course, hats that were the work of designers and models whom Blow had ‘discovered’ throughout her career as both stylist and muse of British fashion in the last decades of the twentieth century.  These included McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald, Philip Treacy, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl.  It was hard not to disagree with the NYTimes who suggested this was an exhibition as much about the designers nurtured by Blow as it was a celebration and insight into her own contribution to the history of fashion styling.

Photograph of Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by Dave LaChapelle, 1996

And yet, this emphasis on Isabella Blow as the ultimate ‘discoverer’ of fashion at the edge, fashion which didn’t fit in, fashion that was anxious, acted as a critical thread throughout the exhibition. From her family roots, which include Lady Vera Delves Broughton, the grandmother whose ethnographic photographs of peoples from places such as the Papua New Guinea are now in the archives of both the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Society, to her support in and influence upon key collections by Treacy and McQueen, Blow is presented as a fashion explorer, someone who goes where others mostly fear to tread.  As a result, her decision to support the most exotic and self-critical of designers has been mythologized in much writing about fashion in the late 1990s (Evans, 2003; Breward, 2003; Craik, 2009).

Photograph taken by Blow’s grandmother Lady Vera Delves-Broughton in 1934 of Papa New Guineans

This is certainly played out in the opening section of the exhibition, as the visitor is taken on a biographical journey that highlights both her discoveries and inspirations in an anthropological way, with all the objects on display lit by singular spotlights while the surroundings remain in almost complete darkness.  Moving though the various videos, garments, printed ephemera, I felt as if I was at the British Museum, glancing at rare finds that had only seen the light of day after a lifetime of obscurity.  The decision to display the portrait of Blow by Noble & Webster, as one of the first objects encountered acted as a bewitching fashion totem, suggestive of both the exotic and the wild things to be discovered in the rest of the exhibition.   The interior details certainly lent themselves well to the macabre and the mournful, whether it was walking through a plastic curtain more at home in a cold storage facility or following the curve of dark red, heavy, curtains as shrouds for the start and end of the exhibition.

Noble & Webster portrait of Isabella Blow, 2002

Although it was exciting to see so many examples of McQueen and Treacy’s work on display, for me the highlights were two exhibits featuring the outfits worn by Blow that were apparently put together from archival photographs and newspaper cuttingsWorn on Blow inspired mannequins with their downturned, red-lipped mouth and size, one set was arranged in a circular room against the backdrop of an interior from Boddington Hall, her estranged ancestral home.  The other set of outfits flanked the visitor either side, and were set against a recreation of her favourite outdoor location for photographs; where the lawn met the hedges on her husband’s estate.

First set of Blow’s outfits, set against the backdrop of Boddington Hall

These two displays capture Blow in all her glory as muse, stylist and patron.  This is a woman whose approach to fashion was far from entrepreneurial but embraced a love of historical references, contemporary designers and creative visions.  However, it was a surprise not to see the curators including references of their own efforts to represent Blow in all her many guises.  As a result, Blow is represented as the final product, rather than a work in progress, which means the visitor gains little more insight into this woman’s approach to dress than what has already been covered in heavily edited texts and images.

Second set of Blow’s outfits on display

Interestingly, Alistair O’Neill, one of the co-curators of Fashion Galore: Isabella Blow, wrote an engrossing but perhaps esoteric text called London: After a Fashion (2007) which suggested that the motif of the masked figure  allows the wearer to “wander, phantom-like’ through the fashion world, excavating what she likes, ignoring the banality of everyday life.”(O’Neill, 2007:18)  Clearly, Blow, with her passionate commitment to headdresses of all types, always appeared masked even if her face was not completely obscured from view.  Yet, it also seems that the curators have chosen to maintain the various masks that we assigned to Blow throughout her lifetime.  The decision not to show how Blow in fact styled herself or handled her life beyond fashion compound the myth of her as the ideal ‘discoverer’, whose own motivations never come under further scrutiny.

A Blow-like mannequin wearing a hat by Philip Treacy

Nonetheless, a set of displays aimed at revealing the more mundane details of a woman who lived for her love of fashion could have provided the more observant visitor with a sense of just how complex and contradictory Blow was.  Once I had got past the rather bizarre display cases, which I was surprised to discover were designed by Shona Heath, it was fascinating to learn how Blow would wear odd shoes, always write in pink pen, ignore magazine budgets, give McQueen falconry lessons or not think twice about damaging her outfits as the result of late night parties and too much time spent near a burning candelabra.  It was a rare moment in the exhibition when I thought ‘What was it like to actually live as Isabella Blow?’

Isabella wearing odd shoes, something she did quite frequently.

Yet, the display of her peculiarities, for me, reiterated just how much Blow’s ability as a stylist was clearly tied up with her cultural capital as fallen aristocrat, embodying the ‘upper-class raffishness and eccentricity’ characteristic of bohemian women (Wilson  2003:110).  Wilson (2003) also suggests that these women often had complex relationships with their own sense of achievement and this certainly seems relevant in the case of Blow.[1]

Isabella Blow (2002) Diego Uchitel, wearing Philip Treacy

Watching a video featured by Selina in a previous Worn Through post, featuring commentary by those who knew Blow, I was struck by the insight offered by Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Interview magazine, on the way in which Isabella Blow struggled with her various visions of herself.  Sischy suggested that it was this conflict of self-vision that caused Blow such a turbulent interior life, arguably leading to her suicide in May, 2007.

[1] Elizabeth Wilson (2003) Bohemians: The Glamourous Outcasts London, Tauris Parke


Museum Life: Metadata, narrative, and emotion

For the past few years, much of my time has been spent documenting or overseeing documentation of uncataloged collections. This month I’d like to explore further a question posed by Ingrid in a Worn Through post last year, which is (to paraphrase): how do you retain the donor’s emotional connection to the garment once it enters the museum, and how do you allow for multifaceted interpretations beyond this story? 

In the case of the collections I work with, the question is slightly different: how can you keep the focus on the physical garment in addition to the connection to its famous former owner?  How can the audience learn from the object beyond simply the famed association?  And through the use of digital collections databases, how can the visitor come away with a deeper understanding of the historical and personal significance of an everyday article of clothing?

Below I’ll discuss one garment whose narrative has been somewhat obscured.  Present in the personal effects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician, novelist, spiritualist, and creator of Sherlock Holmes, are two pairs of socksColleagues regard them with bemusement, as objects of the absurd or strange in an otherwise familiar assemblage of conventional archival items (letters, photographs, drafts of works, etc.). On more than one occasion, the socks have been conflated with underwear, another item low on the sartorial scale (or perhaps a reference to three undershirts in the Doyle personal effects?).

Socks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22 Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Pete Smith

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Pete Smith

As Jeremy Farrell plainly states in the first sentence of his informative and thorough study of socks and stockings in Western fashion, “Stockings and socks have rarely enjoyed the limelight.” (Farrell 1992: 5).  Socks lack the sexiness and glamour of the stocking or the romance of the chivalric object, and their familiarity and domesticity precludes any heightened interest.

Sewn to the interior of the lilac-colored pair of socks are labels with Conan Doyle’s name, most likely there for the purposes of identification when the socks were sent out to be laundered or cleaned (distinctive red threads mark the socks as well, also found on the neckline of the undershirts). There is a handwritten note connected with one pair of socks that was once literally pinned through the fibers and has since been removed for conservation reasons.  The physical connection is now severed, but the note remains housed with the socks.

Socks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22 Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Jenn Shapland

Socks (detail)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 22
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Jenn Shapland

The note, written by Doyle’s second wife, Lady Jean Leckie Doyle, reads, “ “The socks which were on my Beloved’s feet–put-on by the nurse after he had passed on–+ which I took off + replaced others with my own hands.” In this annotated pair of socks lies the intersection of the everyday and the mundane with one of the most profound experiences of one’s life—the passing of a loved one.

Socks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 23 Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Jenn Shapland

Handwritten note by Lady Jean Leckie Doyle,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Personal Effects, Item 23
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Jenn Shapland

In documentation, how does one combine “just the facts” metadata with the messiness of feeling? The emotional object and the standardized categories and required fields collide.

Scholars have observed for a while now that the database record is hardly an objective accumulation of facts.  “Facts” and “interpretation” are not necessarily mutually exclusive in documentation—there is no such thing as a truly “objective” voice in database records (Cameron 2010: 166-169).  Most importantly, everything is framed according to the institution and their particular mission. In a study of the material life of Gertrude Stein, Wanda M. Corn points out that a suit made by Pierre Balmain for Stein is first and foremost described as a fashion object designed by Balmain in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection database (Corn and Latimer 2010: 91).  If the suit was in the Ransom Center’s collection of Stein’s personal effects, it would be framed firstly as a “personal effect” of Gertrude Stein’s, with Balmain secondly categorized as a creator.

At the Ransom Center, the focus is on revealing the creative process of authors and artists through documents.  So what is creative about a pair of socks? Lady Doyle has annotated other objects and documents in the personal effects and papers, commenting on their meaning and personally marking them as significant. After Conan Doyle’s death, she was concerned with emphasizing his commitment to spiritualism (Lycett 2007: 464) rather than his fiction writing. Many of her notes reflect this, or draw attention to her own abilities as a medium–a talent she enjoyed and astutely wielded, and that Conan Doyle praised (Lycett 2007: 403, 419, 436).

By making this connection explicit, the socks become more than a “tales of the weird” story from the archive.  They show how Lady Doyle chooses to frame the memory of her late husband and interpret various everyday or extraordinary acts or circumstances for posterity.  They are an example of an individual’s process of memorialization. Through Lady Doyle’s note the socks and their usual mundane meaning are, in a way, transformed.

The connection of human emotion and feeling with articles of clothing can often be overlooked, or dismissed.  It is possible to preserve and present these stories for discussion through good metadata and images available online for public access.  At the very least, the “associated names” field connects Lady Doyle to the socks, the “description” field can include a transcription of her note, and multiple photographs can provide an image of the note as well as close-up details of the socks that reveal a life of wear and repair.

Linking together documents from different formats can create a dynamic narrative of a garment.  As in the exhibition Hayley-Jane highlighted last week, contextualization of personal clothing with supporting archival material makes for rich interpretation. Reproducing or showing the original documents side by side with the garment can be perhaps more manageable–and powerful–in the temporary, physical gallery space. It can be more difficult in the online database, depending upon the ability of databases to “talk” to each other (if they’re separated by format, and documented according to different standards or procedures, as they are at my home institution).  And of course there are copyright considerations to keep in mind when reproducing images of photographs, letters, and other archival materials online, which can be either straightforward or very complicated.

A note in the Doyle manuscript collection, essentially a to-do list, reminds the Doyles to purchase various items and “Pay Cleaners.”

List Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Collection Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin Photo by Jill Morena

Handwritten list
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Collection
Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
Photo by Jill Morena

This note can contextualize the socks beyond the interpretations of lowly fashion accessory, spiritualist object creating a connection to the deceased, a relic of sorts symbolizing an intimate proximity to Doyle, or the personal grief of or authoritative documentation by a spouse. Here it emerges as an everyday object in a string of upper-class household errands or the work of early 20th century laborers in England—something to be tagged, picked up by laundry staff, washed, dried, possibly mended by unknown hands, and returned to the Doyle home.

Many collection databases online include opportunities for different interpretations and contextualization through public tagging and comment, something that is also a feature in the fairly new digital collections platform at the Ransom Center through the software CONTENTdm, for which I’m currently preparing records and images of a few costumes and personal effects collections. These public comment links are somewhat buried in the individual records, so I will be interested to see in the future if and how users utilize them.

Including information in a record about an item’s exhibition history provides further context. To return to the Stein/Balmain record at the V&A, this link takes you to images of other items included in the same exhibition, or you can explore items in related categories, such as gender and sexuality. The Museum at FIT does a phenomenal job of reproducing context for items in their exhibitions, including bibliographies, links to other online sources, and videos, a few discussed recently by Brenna and Jon.

Museum and archive collection databases available to the public may provide a wealth of quickly searchable information for the scholar or researcher, but may be less than dynamic for a high school teacher looking for narrative material for classroom teaching, or for the curious, casual browser of the museum website, for example.  And yet thorough documentation must precede dynamic, multifaceted interpretation.

How are you working to tell narratives online with the records of clothing in your collection databases?  How are you linking information across formats or sources outside of your collections, or including outside commentary? Please send links, sources, or comments.

Sources cited and further reading:

Ash, Juliet. 1996. ‘Memory and Objects.’ In The Gendered Object, P. Kirkham (ed.), 219-224. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Cameron, Fiona and Robinson, Helena. 2010. ‘Digital Knowledgescapes: Cultural, Theoretical, Practical, and Usage Issues Facing Museum Collection Databases in a Digital Epoch.’ In Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, F. Cameron and S. Kenderdine (eds.), 164-191.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Corn, Wanda M. and Latimer, Tirza True. 2011. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cvetkovitch, Ann. 2012. Personal Effects: The Material Archive of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Domestic Life. nomorepotlucks. 25: archive.

Farrell, Jeremy. 1992. Socks & Stockings. London: B.T. Batsford Limited.

Lycett, Andrew. 2007. The man who created Sherlock Holmes: the life and times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Free Press.

Stallybrass, Peter. 1998. ‘Marx’s Coat.’ In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, P. Spyer (ed.), 183-207. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Styles, John. 2010. Threads of Feeling: the London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770. London: The Foundling Museum.


You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Branding

fashion books from

In the world of fashion, branding plays perhaps the most important role in attracting consumers’ attention, interest, and dollars. The ways in which a company promotes its image and creates awareness of the brand can have a positive or negative effect on the consumer depending on his or her values. The three articles below highlight different aspects of fashion branding, from the effect that color can have on the consumer to the innovative branding strategies of online retailers and sustainable fashion brands. These articles will make you more aware of the ways in which brands seek your attention–we hope you enjoy!

1. Lapolla, K. (2014). ModCloth: A case study in co-creative branding strategiesGlobal Fashion Brands: Style, Luxury & History, 1(1), 85-102.

This article examines how to integrate co-creation into the foundation of a brand for female millennials by using ModCloth as an innovative example. ModCloth is an American online clothing retailer that specializes in vintage, vintage-inspired and indie designer apparel. The observational research uses the building blocks of co-creation (dialogue, access, risk assessment and transparency) defined by C. K. Prahalad and V. Ramaswamy as an initial framework for understanding approaches that invite and encourage customer participation in a brand. According to Prahalad and Ramaswamy, value creation is shifting from product-centric to personalized consumer experiences based on interactions between consumers, consumer communities and companies. An analysis of ModCloth’s company, e-commerce website and online community provides insights for opportunities to enhance company/customer interaction. This analysis extends the building blocks of Prahalad and Ramaswamy and is simplified into a new framework that places dialogue at the centre of a co-creative branding strategy. As a result of this research, the framework serves to illustrate dialogue as an entry point to access, risk assessment and transparency. – Full Article Abstract

2. Ridgway, J., & Myers, B. (2014). A study on brand personality: Consumers’ perceptions of colours used in fashion brand logosInternational Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, 7(1), 50-57.

Creating a likeable, relatable brand personality is one way that fashion brands can connect with consumers and increase profits. However, few studies have investigated how consumers perceive personality traits from a fashion brand’s marketing communications. The colour used in marketing communications is a powerful tool that helps consumers to make inferences about fashion brands. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether, upon exposure to a brand logo, consumers will assign personality traits to the brand that correspond with commonly held colour associations. An online survey was conducted with a national sample to test the hypotheses of the study. Findings indicated that consumers attributed brand personality traits to brand logo colours according to commonly held colour associations for some of the colours in the study. Knowing how consumers perceive the colours used in brand logos will help marketers to convey the appropriate brand personality traits of their brand. – Full Article Abstract

3. Weiss, C., Trevenen, A., & White, T. (2014). The branding of sustainable fashionFashion, Style & Popular Culture, 1(2), 231-258.

The major focus of this article is to highlight the consumer’s understanding of sustainable practices in the context of fashion branding and how it relates to purchasing behaviour. The authors questioned 151 consumers through snowball surveys transmitted via social media to measure consumer receptiveness to sustainability as a marketing issue. They suggest there is potential value for both wholesale and retail companies to create sustainability standards and branding methods in order to highlight this important message; such efforts could include an industry-wide logo, trademark or rating system. The authors argue that a concerted educational campaign is needed to promote mainstream consumer awareness and adoption of sustainability standards. The results of the study show that consumers do value products made using sustainable practices. Moreover, when asked if it made a big difference in their purchasing decisions, the answer was yes, as long as the price did not increase significantly. The conundrum was that many respondents we surveyed just did not seem to fully understand the meaning of sustainability. As a result, the authors recommend a threefold action plan for the fashion industry: 1. Convey and educate in an easy, transparent way what sustainability means for the consumer, clarifying the myriad of mixed meanings within the industry; 2. Consolidate and streamline industry standards and create federal benchmarks for measuring the sustainability of fashion manufacturing processes. This will prevent companies from ‘green-washing’ their products through trumped-up advertising; and 3. Establish and publicize a standard sustainability logo, trademark or ranking system to provide consistent product labelling and allow consumers to choose sustainably manufactured products. – Paraphrased Article Abstract


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CFP: Reimagining, Reframing, and Reflecting American Studies in the 21st Century

American Studies Association of Texas: Reimagining, Reframing, and Reflecting American Studies in the 21st Century

November 13-15, 2014

Sam Houston State University

This Call for Papers invites submissions that examine the controversies of the field, both resolved and ongoing, through the varied lenses of scholars across disciplines.  We ask the broad question: as society becomes more global, in what ways do scholars, artists, and musicians reimagine, reframe, or reflect what it is to be American?

Possible questions to consider:

  • How has American Identity shaped or been shaped by concepts of American Individualism?
  • How has the conflicted political past/present reshaped American Identity?
  • How has our own art and music reflected the American Ideal?  Are there such things as uniquely American food, music, art, culture?
  • Has the embracing of multicultural elements in society reflected or deflected our understanding of what it is to be American?
  • How is multiculturalism reflected in current American culture?

Papers are invited from a variety of disciplines which reflect the conference theme, including:

  • Advertising
  • Art (visual and performing)
  • Commerce
  • Décor/Design/Fashion
  • Film
  • Gender (in America)
  • History   (General, Cultural, Economic, Social)
  • Libraries/Museums/Parks
  • Sports
  • Zeitgeist

Abstract deadline: July 1, 2014

Abstract length: 500 words

Please submit abstracts to:

For more information, please contact Barbara Miles at


Rat Race: Getting Noticed

As a young academic, especially as I draw closer to the end of my PhD, I am increasingly realising the importance of getting noticed. As students enter their post-MA or post-PhD world, they inevitably need to stand out from the crowd in order to reach the next stage in their careers, whether that is a PhD scholarship, a post-doc, a museum post, or a teaching position. The easiest way to do this is to increase people’s awareness of your work. I touched on this in my posts on internships and conference papers, however this post will also look at social media and networking.

There are five main things which I feel are essential in building that vital reputation.

1) Experience

It is essential to gain experience in your chosen field. If you want to go into academia, get teaching experience. If you want to work in museums, volunteer and undertake internships. If you want to go into fashion journalism, write and publish. I have personally been offered paid work out of volunteering and internships, so cannot emphasise enough how useful this can be.

2) Web Presence

Although maybe young academics find posts without it, I think that building a web presence is a massive boost, but only if it is a positive one. Join twitter, write your own blog, keep an academic profile, join, join LinkedIn. All these things are massively helpful not just in getting you noticed, but in enabling people to have a good idea about what you do. Like it or not, online academic ‘stalking’ happens. People will google your name, and the more impressive your web presence, the more engaged and active you will seem. However, you must maintain your common sense. Posts about wine at post-conference social gatherings are fine, but make sure you don’t go beyond the ‘approachable but professional‘ boundary.

3) Conference Attendance

Keep attending conferences, and keep giving conference papers. Even when you’re in your final writing up stage, and not producing any more new research, do keep your face and name out there. Even when you’ve graduated, if you’re in a stop-gap job, try to keep presenting. This keeps your name in the minds of your peers, and keeps you engaged with current research. My own conference presentations have led to offers to write articles (sometimes paid) for magazines, to write review articles for journals, and offers of work.

4) Publications

Although getting into publishing is a complicated business, as I explored in a previous post, it is important to keep trying. Moreover, once you’ve got something published, don’t relax and think you’ve got that box ticked. The more you have published the better. If you’re struggling to get journal publications, write a blog and write for magazines.

5) Keep working! 

The hardest thing to do when you have people constantly telling you about all the extra things you should be doing is to keep your thesis afloat. It is important to remember that your thesis is your priority. If you’re struggling to juggle conferences, social media, publications and your research, your research has to come first. It is all well and good looking impressive to people, but you have to have to research to back in up.