Museum Life: fashion studies and material culture


In October, I had the opportunity to attend the 4th annual Fashion Now & Then conference at LIM College in NYC. This three-day conference involved a good mix of participants–designers, industry entrepreneurs, librarians, archivists, and professors–that resulted in a wide range of topics discussed.  Sessions were concurrent and it was not possible to attend every one. Some good presentations and resultant discussions included the state of corporate social responsibility and sustainability practices in the luxury market, African companies that challenge the dominant Western aesthetic and modes of production in fashion, new directions for online shopping and the increase in consumer data collection, the limitations and possibilities of querying databases and data mining in fashion research, and opportunities for research in various online resources, including Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, the Photographic Collection at the The American Museum of Natural History, and the André Studios collection at the New York Public Library–and the exciting announcement that the administrative records of the Costume Institute will be available for research in 2015.

The opening reception included a book signing with Holly Price Alford, Associate Professor in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising and Director of Diversity for the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Alford discussed her changes to the 6th edition of Who’s Who in Fashion, which will include color photographs and a more diverse array of practitioners in fashion, such as journalists, photographers, costume designers, and accessory designers.

One particular panel focused primarily on the current state of instruction in fashion studies, assembling a range of sources and approaches for research, such as paper-based archival records (the Costume Institute records, referenced above, and the potential avenues for research within that collection), object-based teaching methods, and a survey of programs nationally and internationally.  I felt a summary of two presentations in this panel would be a nice follow-up to my October post on balancing knowledge of material construction and theory in curatorial work.

Presenter Chloe Chapin began her career working for 20 years in costume design in the theater.  Now simultaneously an assistant professor and MA candidate at FIT, Chapin described her experience with costume and clothing in the academic setting as quite different.  She began her presentation with a juxtaposition of visuals that aptly summed up the jarring shift in her daily experience.  As a designer, her world consisted of “physical objects, bodies, and patterns”, presented onscreen with images of hands working with needle and thread, at sewing machines, and draping fabrics.  At FIT, Chapin’s daily world has transformed into a word cloud of theory and theorists: Simmel, Veblen, Foucault, Barthes, semiotics, and consumer studies, to name a few. In the face of this startling change of focus, Chapin set out to understand “what is this discipline of fashion studies?”, and “what are the training programs” out there in the world and “how do they market themselves?”

Chapin has mapped out the various approaches of programs nationwide and internationally, concluding that fashion studies programs need to better market themselves and make their program philosophy better known to prospective applicants (she also acknowledged that with all the different approaches to the field, there is room for everybody to share expertise on their preferred approach).  So far she has compiled lists of programs along seven themes, including textile sciences (research and development), practice-based design theory, museum studies, and cultural studies.  Chapin is in the processes of creating a website with all of this information accessible in one place, similar to her existing site that brings together fashion and textile museum collections and their various approaches, Fashion & Textile Museums.  This upcoming site should prove to be a valuable resource for students, professors, and prospective students alike.

Diane Maglio, professor in the Fashion Department at the Larry L. Luing School of Business, Berkley College in NYC, presented on her approach to object-based studies in and outside the classroom.  With the work of Jules Prown, Charles F. Montgomery, and Igor Kopytoff as her foundation, Maglio described how she guides students through engaging with garments and objects in their research.  She first draws in students through asking for personal, emotional responses to the object in question, with subjective questions such as, “are you a leader or a follower?”  She then balances the student’s personal interpretation with considering the object’s history in its contemporary context.

Maglio generously answered a few of my questions during a very busy time in the semester, and offered a few more thoughts on the presentation and the student’s learning process.

For their research projects, are students able to study garments within an archive or study collection, or is their engagement largely through exhibitions?

From my experience as an adjunct at FIT, students there have the added benefit of both museum collections and study collections. Our students have no study collections, therefore we rely on exhibitions, museum permanent collections and artifacts in historic houses. The major drawback is the inability to handle garments or objects. When students tap into visceral reactions to what they see, they add a dimension to their engagement with the object and maker and with what they have read or seen in print form.

Urging students to draw on personal feelings or forge emotional connections with a garment is an effective technique in heightening students’ engagement with material objects.  Do you find it difficult to then balance students’ contemporary, personal reactions and opinions with contextual, historical research?  Or do you find students are hesitant to engage personally with an object?  Are they more comfortable with emotional distance, or more comfortable with emotional engagement?

Whether students are more comfortable with emotional distance or with emotional engagement is not easily answered because the student body is so culturally diverse. Some will take naturally to looking at objects from the inside out, while others need to ease into the method. Ultimately, like other assignments, they learn how to do it and then, hopefully, apply the methods to objects they handle in their business life. Students are not so much hesitant to engage with an object as they are unfamiliar with the technique or method. At first try, some students tend to drift from engaging with the object as if it had a unique personality to responding from their own personal experience. In the fashion scenario, the garment or object has a personality. In the business of fashion, successful professionals will develop respect for their ‘intuitive’ reactions which are, in fact, developed through the understanding of the Zeitgeist, material culture and consumers.

Maglio is planning to invert the process by starting with a familiar, personal object, which will allow students to closely and tangibly interact with the pieces:

I am so pleased with the material culture object analysis assignments based on museum exhibitions, I plan to flip the class.  Material culture methods will be studied at home.  Students will bring personal objects to class. Each group can follow all the steps in the material culture analysis (description, deduction and speculation) with the added benefit of being able to touch the objects. This assignment will require students other than the owner of the object to complete the analysis.

What Maglio’s presentation and responses have underscored is that analyzing and understanding material culture is a learned skill, and that students must be trained to really deeply engage with garments and accessories.  Despite numerous successful fashion exhibitions over the past decade or so and the growing acceptance of these exhibitions as academically and intellectually relevant, there is still the lingering perception amongst the general public–and even within museum/archive institutions outside of their respective costume/fashion departments–that fashion and costume is just “eye candy” and what can be learned from an exhibition or collection of fashion is minimal.  I have also heard from students in various university departments the misperception that engaging with objects on a material level is not “academic” enough, and is only useful for seamstresses, conservation work, or fashion and film fans who want to touch their favorite items–not for “serious” academics. Continuing to emphasize that material culture analysis is a learned research skill is very important, as well as that an initial emotional connection or response can lead to a deeper understanding and investigation of the history and use of the object.

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1 Comment

  • Raul Cornier December 24, 2014 11.44 am


    I saw your thread on LinkedIn regarding PhD programs, which I am also interested in. I am a fashion history Master’s student at the University of Rhode Island. I have recently finished the program’s course requirements and will start working on my thesis shortly.

    I am a career changer, so I do not have significant professional experience in the fashion history field, or connections with professionals outside my program. My interests are in twentieth and twenty-first century fashion, fashion subcultures, and cultural identity in dress. In addition to finishing my program, I share a costume collection with my sister, and on occasion I post on my blog, The Sin Embargo (, have taken on projects as a stylist, and I am looking into resale opportunities and dealing since building this collection.

    I look forward to seeing your webpage on dress-related PhD programs. If you are aware of any opportunities that you believe may be a good fit for me, I’d be happy to learn about them.


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