Reissue of The Visible Self: Interview with Joanne Eicher

The Visible Self

2015 will see the reissue of The Visible Self, a seminal text many of us have encountered in our study of dress. Co-Author Joanne Eicher, PhD is Regents Professor Emerita from the University of Minnesota and was my professor for Dress & Culture graduate level course as well as served on my dissertation committee. She was kind enough to share with us her thoughts on the research, writing, and publishing process of The Visible Self and the state of fashion scholarship/publications today.

In conjunction with this interview, the publisher of The Visible Self, Bloomsbury, has provided a copy I can give away to one fabulous Worn Through reader! (U.S. mail address only, apologies, I need to save on postage and I’m in the U.S.). Below the interview you’ll see instructions. UPDATE: WE HAVE A WINNER THANK YOU!

M: This is the Fourth edition of The Visible Self (TVS). Why was now the right time to do an update and reissue? What is different?

J: My co-author, Sandra Evenson, and I have worked through updates for various parts of the text and wanted to take advantage of Fairchild Publishers commitment to providing ancillary materials to faculty to enhance the basic concepts in the book. A revision allows us to review the images and update them with many new examples as well as use refinement of John Bodley’s ideas regarding sociocultural systems that we relate to dressing the body as a communication system and refinement of our own ideas as well that develop over time and with our reading of current research and scholarship.

M: Do you see this as a book for undergraduates or graduates?

J: We see it as appropriate for both levels, although it will no doubt be primarily used for undergraduates. In late March, however, I am presenting a seminar in London with MA students from both History and Culture of Fashion and Fashion and Film at London College of Fashion as well as students from Critical Fashion Studies and Journalism pathways of MA Communication at Central Saint Martins. The seminar focus will be a give and take on the Definition and Classification System of Dress that we present in the first chapter of TVS.

M: What kinds of courses could it be used in?

J: The book has been a basic text for courses on understanding the sociocultural significance of dress and fashion, using a three-pronged approach of viewing the physical base of the body for dress, its aesthetic aspects, and the sociocultural significance in cultures across the world. Our book makes students think about dress in other cultures as well as viewing dress and fashion from a more limited “Western” perspective. We want them to ditch stereotypes about other cultures and what may seem exotic when looking at others from an outsider’s point of view.

M: Do you think it can be used in pieces/chapters or is best read as a course-long textbook?

J: Of course, an instructor is free to use parts of the book for various purposes, such as the initial chapters about “what is dress” and “what is its significance,” to “what do we know about dress” and “what are the sources of information,” or to use the sociocultural perspective chapters or the aesthetic chapters to fit into or enhance/supplement another course. We see the book serving the purpose effectively to provide an overview to understanding that fashion and dressing the body are mainstay activities in all societies across the world and not “special” to the immediate world around us and students.

M: Is the book intended for international audiences?

J: The revised edition, just out in August of 2014 has been adopted in other countries as well as at least 40 universities in the United States. The adoptions abroad are in Scotland, England, Wales, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Japan so far.

M: Are there differences in the way the United States and other countries are studying apparel?

J: Often, at least in the UK and Europe, textbooks are not usually chosen for use as much as basic readings from specific books. In the United States and Canada, the textbook is a more common approach that synthesizes knowledge and provides extensive bibliographic references for readers.

M: How did you address different learning perspectives in the book?

J: Our questions at the end of chapters provide a wide array of possibilities for different points of view across cultures with discussion by students and instructors.

M:The Visible Self covers a vast amount of material. It is a mix of collected writings and textbook-style explanations with a plentiful amount of images. Can you discuss the process for dealing with a large body of information and how to wrangle it into one cohesive publication?

J: Our first edition of TVS was text only with no readings, authored by Mary Ellen Roach and me as colleagues. We wrote first drafts of various chapters that came from the courses we taught at our two universities (University of Wisconsin, Madison, for her, and Michigan State University for me) which were based on the ideas, the starting point, we developed in editing our first book together, Dress, Adornment, and The Social Order in 1965. We had a very similar point of view having received our PhDs at Michigan State University in a combined Anthropology and Sociology Dept at that time. Each of our drafts were shared with the other one and then carefully scrutinized and worked over in discussion (we most frequently met in person when writing). The end result was an amalgamation of ideas, It was difficult to say at the completion, “this is mine.” You have a co-author, Sandra Lee Evenson, so dividing the work was certainly part of the process. We worked similarly to the way Roach and I began which was also true for 2e and 3e when Hazel Lutz was also a co-author. Both Sandra and Hazel had worked with me as students and we shared similar perspectives, but they brought new points of view as well. Sandra and Hazel had extensive experience in design and construction with Sandra also having retail experience and Hazel having had depth in anthropology in graduate work. The three of us shared fieldwork and knowledge of South Asia Indian dress and textiles as well.

M: You start the book with 4 chapters that compile a “systematic study of dress” with classifications, dress society and culture, records of types of dress, and writer interpretations of dress. By putting this framework first and foremost it serves as a foundation for this line of study. Do you feel the current academic apparel programs are addressing each of these issues?

J: I do not have any research about what other programs have as a base, but my impression is that many focus on the world most familiar to their students, American culture. We are committed to the idea of the basic similarities of human beings across the world with the differences that come about cross-culturally as icing on the cake.

M: You have a portion in your book on the types of scholarly publications that established the study of apparel. Thankfully in my doctoral program I took a course with Gloria Williams about the history of writing in our field. I took contemporary writing, which covered the early 20th century to the present, and I was always disappointed the course on earlier writings did not fit into my schedule. From what I can tell, these types of courses are rare. Scholarship in our field has been spreading and shifting since its inception. Each expansion provides fresh new perspectives however it does appear some of the foundation/past is not considered, and a canon in our field is dissipating. How did you decide which to include in The Visible Self and can you discuss this issue in general?

J: I am a wide reader across disciplines and the references we cite in the 4th chapter, “Written Interpretations of Dress,” reflect the three prongs I discussed earlier of focus on the physical, aesthetic, and sociocultural aspects of dress. This is an expansion/revision/update of the chapter that Roach and I were determined to include in our 1973 first edition, as we wanted readers to know how extensive the study of dress is and how broad a base it has.

M: The book addresses international dress, ethnic dress, religious dress, and how those concepts intersect with tourism in home countries and identity issues with immigration and relocation. Can you address a few of the main points from these chapters?

J: Our main purpose, again, is to have students think about the role of dress in their own lives and compare and contrast with the lives of others, whether other cultural groups in their home country, whether they are students in the US or elsewhere. There are many specific differences in the US and Canada with our histories of immigration and influx of people from all over the world, continuing to today.

M: This section of the book made me think of two things: Do you feel the mainstream press/popular media explores these concepts empathically or one dimensionally and what is the impact on public perception of ethnic/religious dress?

J: I think it depends on what press/media you cite/read. Some sources like the New York Times are very thorough in presentation of various examples. Some sources, perhaps like popular magazines, may be less so. I think you are asking what could be a research question to be pursued for its answer. Also, there is always a great deal of discussion when these markers of cultural identity are appropriated. Would your research indicate that is appreciation or misunderstanding or just an expected outcome of globalization? Not sure I understand this last part of the question. I think whatever answer comes out, depends on the specific source to be cited.

M: Can you talk a bit about publishing? What do you think is the future of academic publishing on apparel?

J: The publishing world seems to be all agog on publishing about dress and fashion, particularly picking up on the word, “fashion.” [There was] an article that was published in 2013 on the numbers of articles that are coming out on the topic of fashion…(Style and Substance: Fashion in Twenty-first Century Research Libraries) which is pretty fascinating. Just going into any bookstore or even to the fashion section on the web for Barnes and Noble or Amazon is astonishing in regard to numbers of titles and varied related topics. I am editor of two book series on dress/fashion for Bloomsbury Publishers and we have 61 titles in Dress, Body, Culture, a series that began with its first title in 1997 and two titles to date with my most recent series, Dress and Fashion Research. Journals are pouring forth along with books and many publishers are entering this field with titles.

M: Where is the scholarship going in terms of print-academic or mass market, e-books, journals, blogs, multi-media? What are the important things for a scholar/researcher to consider about when, where and how to get their ideas out there?

J: Scholarship seems to be going across all media—The Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion of ten volumes was published in hardcopy in July of 2010 and went online in September, 2010. I have been commissioning 100,000 words yearly since then to add to the online version. I think we have wide-open spaces for publishing possibilities in our field. Blogs are thriving, books and ebooks, too. Journals, magazines, newspapers, TV pick up the stories. People have begun to acknowledge that the way we dress is an important part of life and our identities.

One person (in the U.S) will be the recipient of this $100 book for free! Please email and in 50 words or less tell us why you feel you need this book. Email subject line: The Visible Self Book Giveaway. We’ll review responses through Wednesday February 18, 2015 and shortly thereafter notify the winner, who we will choose based on who wrote the most convincing appeal. Please include your U.S. mailing address. UPDATE: WE HAVE A WINNER THANK YOU!

Please email me your correct response.
Thank you.

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1 Comment

  • Dr. orna Ben-Meir February 16, 2015 04.20 am

    Dear Monica
    I would be glad to recieve Joanne Eicher`s book to my private library. I am teaching undergraduate and graduate students for fashion and costume design in 3 colleges in Israel.
    Best wishes,


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