Interview: Joanne Eicher

As a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Minnesota Apparel Studies PhD program I had the good fortune of working with Emeritus Regents Professor Joanne Eicher in the classroom and also as the chair of my dissertation committee.

Many of you are familiar with Eicher’s widely cited work, including Dress and Identity and The Anthropology of Dress (Dress. 28, 50-79).

Recently she completed editing the print addition of the 10-volume Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion for Berg Publishers. She agreed to talk about that project with me, as well as answer a few questions I had curiosity about and I thought would interest the readers of Worn Through.

    M: Let’s discuss the Encyclopedia project: what is the scope of it, what was it like putting it together, what were some of the biggest achievements while making it, what makes it a valuable resource?

    J: The scope is geographic, and putting it together meant depending on others—thus a cooperative, collaborative project. Biggest achievement is that it does not privilege the West that most histories of dress written in English do. The geographic focus makes it a valuable resource, also by having indigenous scholars writing from the vantage point. They know the inside details of dress and fashion for their own culture.

    M: What is your perspective on the direction of dress/fashion academia that is reducing or eliminating history & culture at most schools and beefing up retail and product design?

    J: The aspects of history and culture are intimately tied to retail and product design because designers, retailers, and merchandisers are concerned about their customers and what is called market segmentaion. It is the historical and cultural perspectives and knowledge that provide the base for good customer satisfaction.

    M: Can you briefly shed light for those unfamiliar with the origins of studying dress in academia, and its evolution through Agriculture, Human Ecology, Design, Business, Art programs and more, and how they differ or overlap?

    J: Wow—this is a BIG question. The study of textiles and clothing as it was first called in Home Economics started with a concern for education for women and looking at these areas of life in regard to women’s roles in the home and educating women at university levels that included knowledge of research and more sophisticated view points regarding the home as the base of family life. Many Colleges of Home Economics (later called Human Ecology) were based in Colleges of Agriculture. Design had some roots there as well, but also was attached to art programs and product design. Colleges of business were not as often concerned about products as such but the management and selling of ANY product, so knowledge about textiles about construction of garments, etc. was not critical. Anthropologists were interested in gathering information about cultural artifacts from the beginning of fieldwork but as most were men at the time, it was primarily a descriptive endeavor. There is also a briefer history of interest in psychology, marketing, and sociology that I will not go into here. It has only been such the 1950s that in Human Ecology that the significance of dress began to be recognized and later in the other disciplines as the word “fashion” became less a “dirty word,” and recognition that what people wore began to emerge.

    M: What are some good books, documentaries, or websites you’d recommend for people with an interest in dress and culture?

    J: Another BIG question. Looking at the bibliographies of books you find on dress and culture is one way to get a list of what to read. Also the list of references at the end of each article in the encyclopedia helps for a specific interest. My own co-edited book in the third edition with Sandra Evenson and Hazel Lutz, The Visible Self: Dress, Society and Culture, has an extensive bibliography as well as Phyllis Tortora’s Survey Of Historic Costume: A History Of Western Dress. I constantly read and usually my favorite book is the one I have last read.

    M: Can you briefly discuss how you got started in studying dress and what it was like to be an early scholar in the field. How was it working with G. Stone?

    J: I did start studying and researching dress as a result of being a graduate asst with Gregory P. Stone for my MA degree and becoming familiar with his work from his dissertation that resulted in his article, “Appearance and the Self.” Later, after teaching at Boston University, I returned to Michigan State in the Department of Textiles and Related Arts where he had collaborated with faculty for his research and my career path was set.

    M: At my PhD oral exam we discussed the pros and cons of the insider vs. outsider perspective when doing research on a cultural group. But I do not think you mentioned your opinion on it. What are your thoughts on that topic?

    J: The insider has knowledge and often connections the outsider does not have, but must have good training in being able to see the topic objectively enough to research and write about it. My own research in Nigeria in the Niger Delta had the combination of my colleague who was Kalabari and an insider as well as a trained social scientist and me as an outsider with a strong interest in the meaning of dress and textiles.

    M: Do you have favorite research projects that you’ve participated in?

    J: Always the current project is the favorite, but my Kalabari fieldwork dominates in being most fascinating.

    M: What will you do next after completing the Encyclopedia?

    J: I am continuing to commission additional articles for the next three years for the online version and am also continuing as the series editor for Dress, Body, Culture for Berg Publishers which at this point already has 52 books published since the first in 1997.

The Encyclopedia launch party is happening Oct. 22 at the University of Minnesota. See my previous post aboutit for details.

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