CFP: Creatures of Comfort, 1650-1950

Rienzi, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s house museum for European decorative arts, celebrates its 15th anniversary as a public collection with the symposium, “Creatures of Comfort: 1650-1950.” By examining the period from 1650 to 1950, how and why did the concept of comfort evolve and become an important part of European and American cultures? What objects, inventions, aesthetic or cultural changes improved ones’ physical or emotional well-being simply by making life more comfortable?

Rienzi houses a significant European collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, porcelain, and silver from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. Built in 1953 as a residence and now a house museum, Rienzi evokes the fine European country houses of the 18th century with formal, yet comfortable, furnishings, entertaining and private spaces, and rooms specifically designed for the enjoyment of family and friends. Rienzi also retains many modern amenities such as central air conditioning, a dishwasher, an elevator and other luxurious essentials that defined the ultimate comforts in America in the 1950s.

The “Creatures of Comfort: 1650-1950” symposium offers academics and emerging scholars an opportunity to explore the ever-changing role of comfort in European and American cultures. The symposium will take place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from Friday, September 19, 2014, through Sunday, September 21, 2014.

Call for Papers

We invite masters, doctorial students and emerging scholars to direct all submissions to  Selected participants will be notified by July 1, 2014. Participants will be offered a $600 travel and lodging stipend.  All presentations will be given on Saturday, September 20, and Sunday, September 21, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Deadline for abstracts: May 1, 2014

Abstract length: 400 words outlining a twenty-minute presentation, along with a current CV

Possible themes of investigation may include, but are not limited to:

  • Interiors
  • Design
  • Architecture
  • Dining
  • Privacy

Leisure Activities

  • Etiquette
  • Gender
  • Costume
  • Travel
  • Technology
  • Economics 

The keynote address will be given on Friday, September 19,2014 by Dr. Joan DeJean, Cultural Historian and Trustee Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research includes the cultural history and the material culture of late 17th- and early 18th-century France.  She is the author of ten books on French literature, history, and material culture, including, The Essence of Style, How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, and SophisticationThe Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began, and her most recent publication, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City.


Historical Dress on the Small Screen: The Great British Sewing Bee

‘I watched Bake Off and couldn’t believe how upset people got,’ Chinelo says. ‘Now I totally understand. At one point I couldn’t even thread a needle, my hands were shaking so much.’[1]

The statement above was made by Chinello, one of ten contestants taking part in a BBC television programme called The Great British Sewing Bee, currently on air here in the UK.  This second series succeeds the first in both size and grandeur.  While the first was set over four episodes and located in a Georgian building in the heart of Dalston, East London, this one contains eight episodes and places more contestants in a lofty but grander converted warehouse by the Thames, offering everyone panoramic views of the capital city at the front while at the back, there is an extensive, well stocked haberdashery at their disposal.

The Great British Sewing Bee invites the participants to take part in weekly sewing challenges, which finds them spending two days completing three tasks: make a basic pattern, customize a piece of ready made clothing and finally making their own pattern, which must fit to a live model.  Their efforts are judged not by an audience vote but by two authoritative figures, who in this case are a Woman’s Institute sewing teacher with more than forty years of experience teaching and a director of a successful tailoring company located in Savile Row, London.  A television host, whose fundamental role is to mediate between the novice participants and the expert judges on behalf of the viewer, also joins them.

Contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee, Series 2

Each week, the two judges decide which contestant must leave the competition, based upon their performance across the three set challenges.  The most concise and in-depth review of the programme can be found in The Daily Telegraph, where Kate Bussman highlights how the nature of television production creates much tension for the contestants as they are constantly required to stop their sewing for ongoing sound bites, camera shots and set pieces.

For me, the most interesting contestant in The Great British Sewing Bee is Chinello, a twenty-six year old dressmaker who does not use paper patterns, having learnt to cut forms directly onto the cloth.  Chinello’s approach to clothesmaking is riveting because she engages with fabric directly, choosing not to mediate the process with the use of representational tools such as paper patterns.  Her process involves thinking and working with design in a very three-dimensional way; Chinello is like a living, breathing 3D printer.

The setting for the series is an old Thameside warehouse, seen here in the background while Chinello, one of the contestants, is cutting out her pattern in the foreground.

Another fascinating part of the programme is the way in which the historical context and social commentary about dress is approached.  Every week there is a theme explored, which might be a particular era or the type of material being used in the sewing challenges, such as stretchy fabric or patterned textiles.  The television host then engages with a range of scholars and academics to discuss interesting aspects of that weekly theme.  This part is fascinating because they draw upon a range of scholarly disciplines, from anthropology to consumption studies to performance and fashion, in an effort to contextualise the weekly challenges set for the contestants.

Prof. Giorgio Riello, Textile Historian, who discusses the advent of chintz and printed cottons in the 18th century

The Great British Sewing Bee provides us with a contemporary snapshot of academic interest in fashion, dress and textile studies. Craik’s (2009:264) identification of five types of fashion writing – language of fashion, fashion reportage, promotional writing, critical writing and intellectual analysis – makes no mention of the representation of these studies within the media of television yet it seems that in this one programme, there is visual evidence of all types of fashion writing taking place.[2]

My interest in fashion and dress television programmes, particularly with a focus on historical context and cultural commentary, has its roots in a childhood spent avidly watching The Clothes Show each week.  The Clothes Show was this unique mix of contemporary affairs and intellectual discussion about fashion and dress but whose content has now been taken over by the internet or reality television programmes that concentrate on how to improve the individual identities of ordinary people through fashion and dress.  These would include Trinny and Susannah’s What Not to Wear, How to Look 10 Years Younger or Gok Wan’s How to Look Naked, to name but a few of a growing genre focused upon the daily anxiety of colloquial dress.

While the Great British Sewing Bee has a lineage that certainly relates it to reality television programmes (its sister production is The Great British Bake Off), it does go some way to filling the gap left by the likes of The Clothes Show with its efforts to discuss and inform the viewer about the wider scholarly interest in fashion and dress.  In future, it could be part of a small archive of British television programmes that focus on fashion and dress history, perhaps beginning with Doris Langley-Moore’s What We Wore in 1957.  I would be very grateful to hear of reading suggestions on the subject of historical dress and its representation through the medium of television.  With the increasing complexity of internet coverage, it seems there is still a place for television to capture our attention with contextual discussion of dress and fashion for longer than just a brief click.  Research into how this is done, with particular reference to the second half of the 20th century, is definitely worth further consideration.

[1] [Accessed 10 March 2014]

[2] Jennifer Craik (2009) Fashion: The Key Concepts Oxford, Berg


Small World: Where is This Character From?


Ok so this is a bit of a frivolous post, but I have a nagging question for readers that I don’t think I’ve asked before (If I have my apologies):

I have a handful of Disney “It’s a Small World” items that I adore, and recently put in my daughter’s bedroom as part of an international theme. However, there is one boy magnet I purchased in 2002 and in all that time I’ve never been able settle on where he is supposed to be representing. I’ve got my guesses, but I’m curious of your thoughts.

Certainly some global fashion expert can identify the details?

I know they recently came out with a TV show and are updating the ride, however I cannot seem to get the info from those websites either.

Yes…I’ve spent too much time on this! I guess that’s a born fashion researcher right?!


Henrik Vibskov exhibition, Helsinki Design Museum

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This week, I am taking a break from the UK, having just returned from Finland, where I had the pleasure of staying in Fiskars, a small village whose claim to fame is being the original location for the country’s largest metalware brand.  Fiskars is internationally known for their ergonomic orange scissors, which anyone who has ever dabbled in dressmaking or taken up fashion design as a more serious pursuit will be familiar with as an iconic tool of the trade.

With cloth and pattern in mind, I made the journey into Helsinki to the national Design Museum to see an exhibition about the menswear designer Henrik Vibskov.  I went with an Icelandic product designer who was very enthusiastic about Vibskov, and to whom I had to admit I had never heard of him before.  I became vividly aware of how little I knew about Danish contemporary dress, let alone Scandinavian fashion.

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On my return home, I skimmed Berg’s Companion to Fashion for some kind of further reference but found nothing.  Yet, perhaps that was part of the problem.  What was I looking for?  A nice summarized discussion on the identity of Scandinavian fashion that would explain the cultural identities of several quite distinct geographical locations?  Well, yes, sort of.  Searching on this site, I was pleased to find Arianna’s review of Fashion Scandinavia and to discover Vibskov is one of several Scandinavian fashion designers recognized within a wider international discourse on the subject.  This was certainly reiterated within the exhibition by a huge graphic timeline of his career in the main room. It was also a canny opportunity to showcase the museum’s new visual identity including font and logo designed by the Finnish branding agency Bond.  However, the question of fashion design as an aspect of a national identify played only a small part in the overall exhibition as it was dedicated more to an exposition of the range of outputs produced by Vibskov since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2001. 


Vibskov is presented in this exhibition as a designer and an artist, a creative individual, credible in both worlds. In some ways, he is perfect for a museum to exhibit because his work crosses such diverse mediums from sound and film to clothes and sculptures.  His ability to cross disciplines is recognized in a list of accolades that include both distinguished art and design prizes.


A small exhibition, it is loosely arranged chronologically, although the fit between sculpture and space seems to take precedent over the organisation of the artifacts.  However, as the exhibition is accessed from two sides, it is possible to start with the now and work your way back or start with the past and work your way here.  Therefore, each room appears to stand alone as well as playing a role in an overarching biographical narrative.

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There is a strong tactile quality to Vibskov’s work, whether it be in his use of inflatable shapes, foam props or textile creations, and I was especially drawn to his graphic knitwear, frenetic prints and the Fringe project from 2000/2001.  There is no doubt that his sartorial designs are beautiful and humorous, also wearable, which I thought was well reflected in the decision to display them on coathangers and not mannequins.  However, having watched some of his shows, which often involve lots of motion and theatrical techniques, the absence of a kinesthetic connection with the clothing was noticeable throughout the exhibition.

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Nonetheless, in one room, I was drawn to a men’s jacket from his The Stiff Neck Chamber Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that featured a retro flamingo print.  Hung up next to the other garments, it could have been mistaken for a pair of kitsch pyjamas.  Overlaying the fabric were black strips that externalized interior seams.

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A striking piece, I was then quite excited to discover another room dedicated to the display of an installation for the same collection.  Featuring black birds that were similar in form to flamingoes, they were hung from the ceiling to create a forest of birds.  Vibskov explained that for the show, the birds were laid on the floor appearing as upside down kites, before being hoisted up where their very long necks created material lines through which one could walk in and out.  It was lovely to find myself seeing the installation within which the garments had been shown originally.  So then imagine my joy when, in the final room, I noticed a photograph from the show placing all three aspects together!

However, this interest in conjoining garments with show sets, immersing the visitor into a more embodied experience of Vibskov’s world was not often reflected in the curation of the exhibition, with emphasis placed on displaying his outputs in isolation so it felt more like an art exhibition than one focused on exploring the design process.   I often think this is a missed opportunity whereby the different aspects of how clothing is made, worn and represented can come together for the viewer to better understand what is arguably a intricate design process.


The curator suggests that it is a celebration of creativity yet I think the exhibition is more a celebration of a recognised creative as there is little said about the process of creativity or the business of fashion.  This exhibition seems to be a logical step after Vibskov’s art exhibition in Paris last year and a monograph published by Gestalten in 2012 in establishing the designer as a key signifier of Scandinavian fashion design.  There is just one glimpse of the design process, where the visitor is invited to gaze upon Vibskov’s sketchbooks, samples of printed textile designs and collected ephemera that demonstrate his work in process.  This is perhaps only matched by a film in another room that documents the setting up of a show in Copenhagen, where Vibskov makes explicit his intentions for his visual style.


I find exhibitions about fashion designers slightly problematic, particularly when they are located in design museums.  I noticed this when visiting the Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2009Although it was a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary fashion on display, the decision to present his work as art rather than design meant there was no discussion of Chalayan’s collaboration with Puma nor Marks & Spencer’s Autograph range.  This surely limits how much we can understand the world of fashion as a complex place where design and art are arguably blurred activities, influenced by social, cultural and economic factors. These exhibitions would benefit from reflecting upon the way in which particular designers understand fashion as art, design and/or craft in an effort to engage the visitor in these same debates.

To conclude, I think I agree with Valerie Cumming, who in her book Understanding Fashion History (2004) argues that exhibitions which emphasise one designer are challenging for anyone who is interested in the role of fashion in the 21st century because they provide little opportunity to compare or contrast their designer contemporaries.  This is often a frustration I have with these exhibitions because they choose to celebrate the work through the lens of designer as original artist.  There is rarely a critical perspective by which to assess the work and its impact beyond the assumed status of creative celebrity.  Cumming also makes the point that when considering whether fashion is art, it is difficult to assess when academic scholarship of male dress is generally absent from the debate.  The exhibition of Vibskov’s work certainly attempted to address that imbalance yet, overall, I felt disappointed with a curatorial decision to approach the subject in such a singular fashion.



Fashion Projects Profiles Punk Style

Our colleague Francesca from Fashion Projects graciously took some time to profile my book Punk Style. We talked about the study and the inspirations.

Thank you to FP for the nice post!

Check it out here.


CFP: The Legality of Dress

The Association of Dress Historians invites proposals for papers for its summer conference entitled The Legality of Dress: Historical and Modern Approaches to the Control of Clothing and Textile Production, held July 12, 2014 in London, England. Contributions from a historical or contemporary perspective from anthropologists, legal practitioners, historians, art & dress historians, military historians, curators, designers, makers and manufacturers will be welcome. It is hoped that an interdisciplinary, trans-historical approach will enrich discussion, provide insights and contribute to the evolution of the discipline of Dress History. Papers, to be illustrated with a Powerpoint presentation, should be twenty minutes in length.

  • Historical/philosophical attitudes to the control of clothing
  • Dress regulations that have shaped or challenged identities (personal, national, professional, gender, etc.)
  • Aspects of historical sumptuary laws
  • The dress of justice and education: regulations for lawyers & academics
  • Diplomatic and official dress
  • Rules & regulation for civilians at regal courts
  • The regulation of dress for orphanages, hospitals, factories & prisons
  • Legal dress regulations in the military
  • Manufacturers, designers & legislation for copyright & patents
  • Law, dress & gender past & present
  • Fashion house licensing: designers, authorship and copyright

Deadline for abstracts: February 28, 2014

Abstract length: appx. 300 words

Submissions should be sent to

For further information see the events/conference webpage at:



Anarchists of Style…Muse Edition: Anita Berber

We’ve written about Anita Berber before here on Worn Through, the “priestess of depravity,” dancer, actress and muse to many during her years in Weimar Berlin. The contemporary images of Berber speak volumes, and viewing the highly-sexualized, sometimes fetishist styling she has inspired in today’s designer’s and photographers demonstrates her lasting ability to shock her audience through art. In this post on Anarchist Muses, we present Anita Berber as a representative of the overt (and ambiguous) sexuality adopted and celebrated in modern fashion.

View previous posts on Anita Berber here and here.

Images contain nudity.

Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber by Otto Dix, 1925          Berber - Another FW 13e

By Otto Dix, 1925                             Cate Blanchett for AnOther, F/W 2013

berbercocaine380          Berber - Vogue Germany Feb 2014

By Madame D’Ora, 1922                    Vogue Germany, February 2014

Berber - DOra Pannier          Berber - Zac Posen RTW Autumn 2008

By Madame D’Ora, 1921                    Zac Posen RTW Autumn 2008

Berber - wSebastian Drost           Berber - Vogue Germany Oct 09e

Berber and Sebastian Droste, 1922       Vogue Germany, October 2009

Anita-Berber          Pam+Hogg FW 2013

Berber with her monocle                                 Pam Hogg F/W 2013



CFP(s): Dressing for the Occasion and Luxury Retail Operations and Supply Chain Management

Today, we have two CFPs to share with you! Note the quickly approaching due dates for submissions.

First up: Dressing for the Occasion. This fall, the Costume Society of America’s Midwest Region will be hosting its annual symposium September 26-27 in Minneapolis-Saint Paul; this year’s theme is “Dressing for the Occasion.” Worn Through editor, Monica Sklar, will be in attendance – be sure to say hello!

“Occasion” is a particular time, especially when something happens that involves thinking about how to dress–such as seasonal changes and special events. Come to the CSA Regional meeting, September 26 and 27, 2014, in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Minnesota to learn about “Dressing for the Occasion.”

Autumn is a spectacular season in Minnesota—along the majestic Mississippi River leaves begin turning vibrant color, squirrels make ready for the coming winter, and CSA members will enjoy the opportunity to tour costume collections, the many theaters and the enticing extras that make Minneapolis-Saint Paul such a vibrant community. Did you know that Minneapolis is home to the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture, the Mall of America, Target Headquarters, the American Craft Council—and that many artists actively design and live in warehouse lofts in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul?

Special conference tours will include the Goldstein Museum of Design’s Historic Costume Collection, the Guthrie Costume Shop, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Textile Center, and the Minnesota History Center.  During your visit, attend one of the many repertoire theaters, including the famous Guthrie Theater or MN History Theater.

Deadline for Abstracts:  March 1, 2014.

Send to:

Abstracts of 250 words; send cover page separately with presenter and contact information and preference for presentation or poster.


Next: Luxury Retail Operations and Supply Chain Management

Philadelphia University’s Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce is pleased to sponsor the Third International Workshop on Luxury Retail Operations and Supply Chain Management to be held April 14 and 15, 2014 at Philadelphia University.

The luxury goods category is significantly outpacing other consumer goods categories. With greater emphasis placed on globalization, the challenge is to determine what consumers are seeking and what they value, when it comes to luxury.

The United States of America is the number one luxury market in the world. Philadelphia, historically known as the Workshop of the World, and home to Philadelphia University, the first school of textiles in America, is the ideal location for presenting research and discussing issues of craftsmanship, creativity and branding of the luxury artisan.

Authors are invited to present abstracts related to, but not limited to, different luxury areas such as:

  • Perceptions of luxury in the 21st C;
  • Artisan/ craftsmanship & Savoir Faire of luxury goods;
  • Heritage, lineage and product curation;
  • Manufacturing strategies & practices of luxury companies;
  • Collaboration & integration among designers, manufacturers and distributors of luxury goods;
  • Supply chain & distribution;
  • Retailing (in situ & online) of luxury businesses;
  • Marketing & branding narrative of luxury products;
  • Legal issues surrounding the luxury world in the 21st C;
  • Luxury business models;
  • Emerging market economies for luxury goods;
  • Sustainability & slow fashion in today’s luxury world;
  • Media/social media’s role in luxury fashion.

Abstracts of 250-350 words.

Authors must supply a structured abstract set out under the following sub-headings:

  • Purpose
  • Design/methodology/approach
  • Findings
  • Originality/value (mandatory)


Please provide up to 10 keywords which encapsulate the principal topics of the paper.

Deadline for abstracts:  February 21, 2014

Send to

Full papers are also welcome, not required.

*Authors with best papers will be invited to submit a full version for publication in a special issue Luxury in the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management.


Notes on a chazza shop

Since I was able to afford to buy my own clothes, I have been a committed fan of charity shops, or chazza shops as they are also known here in the UK.  It was not just because they were cheap, and it felt like the best thing to have bought several outfits for twenty pounds.  It was also, and continues to be, a complete thrill to find garments that came with an incomplete story, where I could then attempt to fill in the gaps like identifying particular labels, certain cuts or different fabrics.  I have always been fascinated by the way in which charity shops try so hard to exorcise donations of their previous owners and yet it is this connection with the past that makes them such highly prized items of consumption.  I was over the moon when Second-hand Cultures by Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe was published in 2003 because here was a text that was putting my sense of joy and intellectual curiosity about charity shops into a valid academic context.

Yet, more than being able to piece together a puzzle, I could also add to their sartorial tales.    Even now, I can locate a piece of clothing by where I bought it and what I was doing at the time so, in this way, my wardrobe is a museum of me.  I can continually experience my own social, cultural and economic history through what I wear.  My clothes tell the story of not just British charity shops but also of places such as Montreal’s Value Villages, Berlin’s Humana department store or the huge Salvation Army warehouse on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Humana store, Berlin

I grew up in the throes of charity shop expansion across Britain, where we now have around 5,000 across the country representing a myriad of charitable organisations.  Having set up the first charity shop in 1949 and with the lion’s share of shops, ‘Oxfam’ became a firm colloquial expression for any charity shop one might visit or donate to on a British high street.  By the 1980s, these unique institutions were busy professionalising their interiors with co-ordinated fixtures and staff training for volunteers.  However, this could be seen as slightly ironic, given that charity shops are not legally ‘shops’ but rather sites for the exchange of gifts, which means they benefit from large tax exemptions, unlike ordinary retailers.

A typical Oxfam shop in Britain

Since the 2000s, charity shops have been criticised for their role in a very profitable but under scrutinised global economy of textile redistribution, where charities deal in overseas markets via private brokers.  A great book that explains this complex relationship between your local charity shop and a distant market in an African country is Karen Tranberg Hansen’s Saluala: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, which I recommend for anyone interested in this subject.

Salaula – secondhand market in Zambia

Interestingly, knowing this has not yet stopped me from visiting charity shops.  In fact, this only makes me more enthusiastic to engage with these places, perhaps because shopping there does go some way to reducing what is brokered elsewhere.  Most charity shops can only sell 20 percent of donations given, which means they are under incredible pressure to redistribute waste within an already small second-hand cycle of goods.  This is why I particularly like TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development), a small group of charity shops based only in London and Brighton.  Their aim is to be a shop for, not of, textile recycling, where clothes on sale are often reworked donations by employed designers using donations.  What is exciting about TRAID as a charity shop experience is that they have sales where everything is two pounds, something that is very uncommon across nearly all other charity shops but arguably helps to reduce the quantity of unsaleable stock.

TRAID, recently opened in East London

Recently, another layer to these secondhand stories was made when I found myself in a local charity shop face to face with an old student who had recently taken on the role of assistant manager.  My arms full of threaded possibilities, we discussed how the shop had streamlined its layout, with clothing arranged by colour, not just size or type.

In my experience, these peculiar retailers have always oscillated between the jumble sale and the department store as retail models of spatial organisation.  This is because their design arguably evokes ideas and values held about the notion of charity.  A charity shop presents a complex location where ethical imperatives bash against monetary gains.  Not just a site of interaction between customer and retailer, the charity shop often involves three parties: the volunteers who make hands on decisions about what to sell and not to sell, the potential customer who will bring in funds and finally, but perhaps most importantly, the donors whom have certain expectations about what happens to their ‘gifts’.

Co-ordinated display of clothes

Donors can prefer to observe charity shops as places with little organisation, similar in form to a jumble sale, because it suggests that their philanthropic input is much needed.  However, from a consumer perspective, a department store layout is more conducive to someone who may have little desire to shop there or is unsure of what to look for.  It is often the aim of the charitable organisation to appear just as professional as for-profit retailers on the same high street, both as a way to remain competitive and to prove their worth to the customer.  It is not unusual to find a customer asking for a discount in a charity shop, as happened while I was chatting to my old student.  The move away from the jumble look is also a move away from haggling and discounts, all of which is possible when the goods on sale are essentially gifts. 

The jumble sale approach

Yet, there is another consumer, who prefers the messier approach as it provides he/she with the opportunity to ‘find’ something of value, rather than being told what it is through various visual arrangements.  These are often the more middle-class sort, who see themselves as amateur connoisseurs and deplore those who try to take that away from them.  Admittedly, as the conversation came to an end between myself and my student about the new changes to the shop, it was clear I had become that middle-class sort.  While I was bemoaning what I saw as negative change, my student was praising it as positive innovation.  My student, in her new role as manager, saw the visual opportunities associated with the re-organisation whereas I felt slightly cheated out of personal opportunities to ‘discover’ valuable goods!

On final reflection, I think charity shops are intriguing places, where all sorts of expectations and assumptions are thrown up in the air.  Part of the wonder is their attempt to catch and put these down into some kind of order.  I would really like to explore this topic further, especially with the idea of charity shop as cultural metaphor or how they can act as spaces for memory making.  If anyone is already doing this, or has any related thoughts about their experience of charity shops, please do get in touch.

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From the Archives: The Anthropology of Immigration

This post was originally from July 2013.

backpacks richard barnes nyt

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured photographs of objects left behind by South American immigrants crossing the border into America. Jason De Léon directs the  “Undocumented Migration Project,” which collects, catalogues, photographs, and exhibits these “things they carried” and oral histories as witness to the experience, which De Léon describes as violent and traumatizing, comparing it to the forced migration of Africans earlier in the history of the United States.

The photographs featured in the Times are a mix of those taken by collaborator Richard Barnes in situ, and of objects exhibited out of context, en masse at the University of Michigan (where De Léon is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology). Combining video, photographs, and found objects, “The State of Exception” was the first exhibition of the UMP’s years of work. Whether in the “wild” or arranged in a blank museum space, the massive accumulation of objects (clothing, backpacks, shoes) highlights the personal, human side of this experience and obviates the scale of northern migration.

This method may not be moving to all, as this anthropological study uses material culture to expose and explore a very controversial topic. But a well-worn axiom of our field is that clothing is common to the human experience, and children’s dirty, abandoned backpacks featuring Dora the Explorer and other cartoon characters tug at the heartstrings. De Léon notes that within a day’s walk of the border, he finds mostly water bottles and other objects we generally think of as disposable, impersonal. Would exhibited photographs of those be as moving? Or might they look like a bunch of trash (perhaps further stigmatizing those left them)? What is different about clothes, shoes, backpacks? Where do Bibles and pictures of one’s family fall on this scale?

Although a comparison of the two experiences is inappropriate, these photographs reminded me of the documentation of victims in the Holocaust Museum. The infamous pile of shoes, ironically, serves not to put a face to the vast, unimaginable suffering, but rather to show how anonymous people can become.

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Photograph by Richard Barnes, part of the exhibition “State of Exception,” published in the New York Times Magazine July 21, 2013.

What is it about a pile? De Léon encounters piles of all kinds of things when he began his anthropological study, and in interviews often mentions the “worn-out shoes” he finds–especially the tiny ones. As an anthropologist, De Léon sees his job as making these anonymous objects personal, in order to understand the migrating people individually, as a group, and also to expose some realities of the experience to those who may see the immigration issue abstractly. The Smithsonian plans to accession these objects collected by the UMP in the summer of 2014.

What do piles or masses of objects communicate to the visitor in a museum setting? Are real, tangible (but untouchable) objects in a museum building more moving than photographs of the objects where they were found? Or vice versa? Is this a manipulative practice, or a realistic one? Have you seen this exhibition, or have you been to other exhibitions using large volumes of material culture that have stuck with you (for better or worse)?

Please leave your comments below!

Photo Credit: Richard Barnes for the NYT, 2013.