CSA 2011- Boston Uncommon: Revolution & Evolution in Dress- Symposium Recap Part II


This is the second half of a two part recap.  See the first part here.

As the second half of the Costume Society of America symposium began, Friday morning continued with more juried papers, research exhibits, and a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston where curator Pamela Parmal, offered a private gallery talk on the recently ended exhibition Scaasi: American Couturier (see images below).  Afterwards, a reception was offered for CSA attendees, which took place in the Global Patterns: Dress and Textiles in Africa show, which runs through January 2012 and contains some gorgeous examples of weaving and beadwork amongst other things.

A friday session that I found extremely interesting was the scholar’s roundtable titled: Innovations in Fashion & Dress Scholarship.  This panel was comprised of Marilyn DeLong, Professor of Apparel Studies from the University of Minnesota, Anne Bissonnette, Curator of Clothing & Textiles Collection at the University of Alberta, and Howard Vincent Kurtz, an Associate Professor of Theater Design at George Mason University.

Bissonnette began the session with a presentation titled Être du Metiér: Madeline Vionnet, Betty Kirk, and the role of Craftsmanship in Fashion Design & History, which was an examination of Betty Kirke’s practice-based approach to researching Madeline Vionnet’s work.  Through taking up ‘improvisational draping’, a method of creating toiles that Vionnet had utilized, Kirke was able to develop her own specific methodology that allowed for a reconstruction of the structural integrity of extant Vionnet garments prior to the distortion and wear that is common with bias cut clothing.  Kirke’s work is often cited as integral to understanding Vionnet, and the patterns that she so painstakingly created are often referenced–and even appropriated– without a respect or understanding of the time and care that went into creating these patterns on the end of the researcher.  Bissonnette questioned, why with the importance and acclaim that this innovative approach has earned, have we not seen more similarly creative and hands-on type approaches to research.  One excellent book, Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns, that Mark Hutter did a recent WT guest review for, was an example of this type of innovation in research that was noted amongst the audience, but many seemed to feel that there is still a void for more practice based work in dress history today.

Marilyn DeLong was next to present in this session discussing Innovations in Dress: From the Lens of Sustainability.  DeLong looked at 20th century dress practices to see what ideas have transitioned into the 21st century in terms of sustainability.  She outlined a shift from consumer to ‘user maker’ and identified economics, self sufficiency, and creativity as many driving consumer motivations behind the DIY movements that are so popular today.  She gave several interesting examples of local Minnesota events that she had witnessed that exemplify such practices, as well as tied these ideas into a more national and even global narrative by looking at innovations and vehicles such as popular sites like etsy and ebay, alongside events like clothing swaps.  An important question that was raised, addressed the potential concern that environmental conscious through clothing might been seen as “fashionable” in today’s world.  Would that mean that these practices are in danger of taking on the abbreviated lifecycle of a fashion trend that will eventually pass and perhaps one day be seen as unfashionable and thus undesirable to the average consumer?

Howard Vincent Kurtz wrapped up the session with his presentation titled: Costumes Take Center Stage in a Museum Setting, in which he discussed his crossover from the theater world to exhibition design.  Although he was initially discouraged by both the museum and his institution during his first curatorial endeavor, ultimately Kurtz was able to apply his theatrical design background to the material culture of the museum collection in a way that allowed for the display of many decorative arts items that otherwise would have languished in storage, and which created an exhibition that was highly successful for the museum.  This in turn, then led to future curatorial projects for Kurtz.  One thing that he stressed–which was echoed in different ways throughout the prior two presentations–was the necessity to be creative with your approach to research and work, and to resist complacency just because that is the way that things have always been done.  An emphasis was placed on finding a balance and ways to “blur the line” within a job, looking for those opportunities that might transcend a more traditional employment description.

Always an interesting speaker to hear, Alexandra Palmer from the Royal Ontario Museum headlined Saturday morning with a presentation on her recent book that chronicles the work of Christian Dior, which was awarded the Millia Davenport Publication Award by the CSA.  Palmer provided a captivating glimpse into the life of the couturier, discussing her initial resistance to researching such a widely documented and successful designer, and sharing a variety of interesting images with the crowd which did not make it into the book for one reason or another.  Palmer placed emphasis on researching the aspects of Dior’s career which had not been widely discussed, looking at his boutiques and licenses, as well as deliberately avoiding the more traditional iconic images that most associate with the designer.  She did point out, that the design of the infamous bar suit was first developed by Dior during his time working as a modiste for Lucien Lelong, and that the most widely disseminated image from the Corrole Collection (pictured below) was shot six years after the collection debuted.

The final day of the symposium concluded with more juried papers, a workshop on preparing a book prospectus, and two amazing panels that I was happy to catch.  One of my favorite presentations overall was titled, The Graveyard of Fashion: Towards an Archaeology of the Wardrobe.  It included presentations and discussion by Alison Matthews David from Ryerson University, Hilary Davidson from the Museum of London, and Caroline Evans from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.  Alison Matthews David began with her presentation Shawls & Sarcophagi: The Relics of Two Fashionable Dancers, comparing the tragic death of dancer Emma Livry alongside that of Isadora Duncan.  Matthews focused on the place, the garment, and the gesture as important concurrent contributors towards their deaths, and examined the way that the remains of the garments that they were wearing in their last moments of life have been preserved and stored today.

This was a tough act to follow, but Hilary Davidson shared her research on Victorian burial clothing from several places in England, easily claiming the crowds attention.  Identifying shrouds, robes, and other quickly constructed garments as a sort of ‘imitation clothing’, unusual insights into the lives of different socio-economic classes and how those distinctions were exemplified through burial etiquette was illustrated.  Caroline Evans presented last, with an intriguing examination of one of Denise Poiret’s robe de minutes—a basic T-shaped sac dress, that her husband couturier, Paul Poiret claimed could be constructed within 30 minutes.  By investigating Denise Poiret’s role in collecting, and in a sense archiving–many of the garments, photographs, and diaries that documented the life of her and her (ex) husband, after their deaths, these objects acted as hieroglyphs or “archaeological fragments that lead us back to a marriage, a business, and a way of life.”  The important idea to be gleaned from these three interesting presentations is that the traces of history left behind–whether they are sweat-stains, other marks of wear, or even poor quality material–provide meaningful information about the life of the object, and in turn society and history.  Modern fashion curatorial practices, which choose to preserve and display only the most pristine examples of clothing, can often obscure other important parts of the greater picture that also have value.

There were so many activities and presentations that I did not have room to address, and I am curious to hear what other interesting papers I may have missed out on while attending other sessions.  Overall, I have to say I found the opportunity to meet so many people with similar interests to be really beneficial and inspiring, and many CSA members went out of their way to be welcoming and inclusive.  Although the cost of attendance can be rather high, I strongly encourage students and young professionals who have not yet had the opportunity to do so, to make an effort to go to a symposium.  For those who have been attending for many years now, I hope to see you again in Atlanta next Spring!


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