Teaching Fashion: Recreating the Past

What to do?

In developing classroom protocol, I incorporate a variety of learning opportunities to address the extremely different learning styles presented in my department.  Instructing designers, who attend to be more abstract or hand-on learners, and merchandising students, who tend to be more concrete learners, has allowed me the opportunity to develop hands-on interactive assignments and group collaboration in addition to research and classroom discussion modes of teaching and learning. I am always looking for and thinking about ways to add a twist to learning – keeping it rigorous while developing important skills but also making it fun. You must admit, learning while you enjoying what you are doing is a much more pleasant way to pass your time. Of course, as an instructor, you are not going to please everyone all the time but I try to incorporate varied types of assignments so everyone has at least one thing in the semester that plays to their strengths.

Case in point – my history of dress classes. The study of historic dress is split into two semesters at my university. One semester (History of Costume) covers Ancient through 1790, the second semester (History of Fashion) covers 1790 through present day. I talked about final project choices for History of Fashion in one of my earlier posts (Teaching Fashion: Multiple Choices). In a few months I’ll write about the final project choices for History of Costume. They’re different and the students are excited about them already. But back to the subject at hand.

The history classes are the only classes where I am guaranteed a mix of merchandising and design students. Both majors are required to take both classes. So these are the classes where I really see differing strengths academically and differing detail interest in historic clothing.  History of Costume is the class where I have taken the opportunity to really let the design students shine by crafting a mid-term project that allows the students to recreate an historic object.


The goals of the project are:

  • To research, analyze, and recreate an aspect of dress from the time periods and places covered in the course.
  • The piece is NOT to be a contemporary piece with historic influence.  It is to be a recreation of a historic piece.
  • To gain an understanding of the construction techniques used in the time period to construct the object.
  • The object(s) is the students choice. This could be an article of clothing, an accessory (jewelry, headdress, etc.), footwear, outerwear, or body related (hairstyles, haircolor, make-up, etc.).


The students choose a partner and are allowed to choose to recreate ANYTHING within the timespan covered by the course that falls under the broad definition of dress. This could be jewelry, clothing, make-up, hair, shoes from anywhere in the world from the ancient period to the late 18th century. The students research the techniques used to construct their choice and recreate to the closest approximation possible choosing materials and construction techniques that closely replicate the original materials and construction. This is made to fit one of the partners because they model them in class.


Along with the piece student create a Written Outline answering the following questions:

  • What is the OBJECT you are analyzing and recreating?
  • What is the SOURCE of your object?  Is this a direct replication of an existing artifact or visual source? Or an object you created based verbal description?  If your object did not come from an artifact or visual source you must explain how you came to the ‘formation’ of your object.
  • Item Description. Describe your item.  What were the construction techniques and  common materials used in creating the object in the historic period?
  • Choice of Materials. Why did you choose the materials you chose?  What kept you from choosing the exact materials originally used?
  • Relationship of the object to the time period When was the object was worn (place/occasion and dates)? Who wore/used the object? How did the object relate to other objects of its type in the time period (ie – what other type of outerwear/headdresses/body shaper was there)?  Was the object a new introduction to the culture or did it replace an existing product (ie – new type of headdress)?  If it replaced something, what was it that it replaced?


I also stipulate the number and types of bibliographic source needed.


I actually came up with this project as a masters student. A fellow student and I decided to recreate headdresses (mine medieval, hers Byzantine) as a final project in a medieval art history course. It was incredibly eye opening to attempt working with authentic materials – or at least as authentic as we could access and afford. I am not a designer so I figure if I could do a reasonably decent job on something like this, my students will be able to do the same. And they have not let me down.

Last year projects included 18th century hats, Egyptian broad collar necklaces, an Eturscan tebenna and a gorgeous late 16th Century muff. I wish I had the image that the students used to copy the muff. They replicated it very closely. I keep waiting to see them wearing around campus but no such luck.

Egyptian Broad Collars were very popular last year. Four pairs of students choose to do this recreation. It was very interesting to see how they interpreted the materials the designs. Each group of students used completely different materials – with one going to so far as to handmake and handpaint the beads used to create their piece. It was stunning and unfortunately I do not have a good picture of that one.

As an added incentive, the results of the projects are displayed in the department. The cases are in a very high traffic area and people from all over the university were able to see and comment on the creations. I’ll write on the who, how and why of the displays at a later date.

This year students have decided on several kinds of shoes including poulaines and Roman sandals. They are due at the end of the month. I’ll post pictures of the 2011 products then.

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1 Comment

  • janet March 04, 2011 07.33 pm

    fun project! I’ve been brainstorming a project like this for myself. Traditional techniques were usually passed down through an oral tradition or from person to person. Industry and technology have made many of these techniques obsolete. Today, many people are researching and trying to discover these forgotten methods and are communicating globally online. I wonder how accurately I could replicate a historic object using only online resources as a guide. I would love it if I could make this an independent study and then visit the object itself and do a side by side comparison with my own. I feel I could learn a lot and would love to know how far I could push it. Would I purchase the cloth or could I spin and dye my own yarn first?


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