Today Worn Through would like to present a guest post from Hannah Schiff, a current Master’s candidate in New York University’s Costume Studies program. Her research primarily focuses on the strange and unusual, centering on curiosities and outliers throughout history.
In addition to my passion for antique and vintage dress and textiles, I was drawn to Costume Studies in large part due to its interdisciplinary nature. A quintessentially human phenomenon, dress is linked to virtually all aspects of life, from fine art to politics, anthropology to economics. Fashion may often be marginalized or trivialized, but one may argue that this is done, in many instances, as a response to the overwhelming power clothing and textiles have over us.
In attending The Fourteenth Annual Richard Martin Visual Culture Symposium, an event hosted by the Costume Studies program at New York University, I was pleased to see the interdisciplinary nature of this field on full display. The four M.A. candidates and guest speaker, Dr. Alison Matthews David, made it clear through their dynamic and varied presentations that the boundaries of this discipline are limitless.
The evening began with the presentation of Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, by Dr. Alison Matthews David of the Ryerson School of Fashion. A rich and visually stimulating talk, Matthews David took the audience on a forensic journey through some of history’s darker moments in the conception of aesthetics. Her strong language (including references to “satanic mills” and “homicidal luxury”) acted as vibrant punctuation for a series of fascinating topics discussed, namely the intersection of disease and dress, toxic processes and dyes used, and fashion accidents.
Specific examples explored included the use of mercury in millinery, the 1778 development of an emerald green pigment created with arsenic, and the tragic death of a prima ballerina in 1862 after her tutu caught flame. Matthews David’s use of quotes from primary sources, and her deep exploration into the scientific, psychological, and sociological causes behind these varied fashion traumas made for an engaging talk. Her forthcoming book on the subject promises to be just as inspired as her presentation, and while waiting for its release I would encourage all who are able to see her work on display at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
The first M.A. candidate to present was Felicity Pitt with her talk entitled Bare-Cheeked Bicycling: Trick Cyclists and the Eroticism of Female Bicycle Riders, 1885-1900. This cheeky presentation chronicled the impressive feats, both on wheels and in society, of female daredevils at the turn of the century. Pitt’s research primarily focuses on 25 cigarette cards advertising these female performers, which reside in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The talk, centering on voyeurism, objectification of the female body, adoption of masculine influences in female dress, and displays of curiosity and taboos, demonstrated how these performers also engaged in impressive social feats in order to balance out their subversive behavior. “The mere sight of a woman riding at this time is a trick,” states Pitt, underscoring the fact that the athletic skill of these revolutionary women was perhaps only a piece of the equation which brought them notoriety.
Following Pitt, Anna Burckhardt presented a strikingly original topic entitled Walking Weavers: Ethnicity, Gender, and Tradition in Contemporary Indigenous Columbia. As the title suggests, this research has a strong anthropological component, and is a refreshing contribution to a field dominated by the study of Western dress throughout history. Burckhardt spoke passionately about the gendering of weaving and themes of reviving tradition in spite of geographic and cultural displacement.
Specifically looking at the chumbe, a woven band of cloth, usually in bright colors, Burckhardt illustrated how this woman-woven textile is an umbilical chord which connects the woman’s hand to the land of her people. Burckhardt’s personal experiences conducting research in the reservations of Silvia and La Maria in Columbia lent further support to her discussion, and her visual aids, many of which were pictures she took during her time there, offered undoubtable proof of the agency and support system weaving provides for these indigenous women.
Continuing on the thread of autonomous women, Bruckhardt was followed by Stephanie Kramer presenting You Look Good in My Dress: Courtney Love, Grunge and the Role of Gender in Postmodern Subcultural Style. Of the topics presented, Kramer’s was perhaps most accessible to the audience, for while grunge may have emerged as a subculture, it rapidly gained media attention and made household names of musicians such as Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. However, while much existing scholarship (and press) have traditionally focused on the male contributions to the grunge sound and aesthetic, Kramer shows the strong influence wielded by Love by placing her within the framework of theorist Simone de Beauvoir.
Tracing Love’s journey through the three phases of womanhood de Beauvoir outlined, Kramer provided compelling support for her assertion that Love subverted each of them. Above all, Kramer’s use of quotes from Love, such as “I am a woman. I depend on artifice as I have been taught,” vastly legitimized the agency of a woman commonly ridiculed by the media rather than seen as an originator of a trend and a figure consciously in control of her image.
Rounding out the evening, Eric Zhang brought levity to the symposium with his presentation Just Landed Like Fresh Tilapia: Race, Gender, and Ambivalence in Asian American Drag Performance. Zhang, like Burckhardt, provided a much needed discussion about a minority rarely represented in fashion or academia. Tracing the construction of identity of several drag queens featured on various seasons of the television series, RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as queens who have not participated in the show, Zhang looks critically at the ambivalence of gender and race in Asian American drag culture.
Assessing the “rhetoric and aesthetic of race,” Zhang locates these performers as falling “somewhere in between being Asian and American,” calling the audience’s attention to the tensions present between race, gender, and the presentation of the two. Although video clips from Drag Race elicited laughter from the audience, they also provided solid evidence supporting Zhang’s interpretation of the complex relationship between gender, race, and the development of a performer’s persona and personal ideologies.
As the vastly divergent presentations of The Fourteenth Annual Richard Martin Visual Culture Symposium illustrate, Costume Studies is a discipline with endless possibilities for research. Trauma induced by fashion, female trick cyclists at the end of the nineteenth century, the links between tradition, textiles, and cultural identity in Columbia, the subversion of gender norms and theory by a female grunge music and style pioneer, and the search for identity among Asian American drag performers may all be seemingly disparate subjects. At their heart, however, they are tied together with intersecting themes of gender, race, identity, and the impact of dress and textiles, and have been masterfully woven together by the five scholars to show the numerous impacts fashion has on human experience.
Opening Image Caption: Open until June 2016, The Bata Shoe museum in Toronto plays host to Fashion Victims: The Pleasures & Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.
Did you attend the symposium? What did you think? Have you attended other symposia with student speakers that you would like to share with Worn Through readers? Please feel free to share your thoughts and impressions in the comments below.