The first serious use to which research in historical dress was applied in British academia during the post-war period lay in the area of art historical studies. The careful dating of surviving clothing and its representation in paintings was seen as a useful tool in processes of authentication and general connois-seurship. The emphasis on the creation of linear chronologies and stylistic progressions that art historical directions dictated at the time has to some extent influenced the nature of much fashion history writing since. Various approaches have subsequently been adopted following the self-conscious establishment of a school of new art historical thinking in the late 1970s, in which social and political contexts were prioritized over older concerns of authorship and appreciation or connoisseurial value. The arising debates undoubtedly challenged those assumptions that had underpinned the serious study of fashion in the first place. Indeed many of the defining aspects of new art historical approaches, which drew on ideas from Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis and structuralism or semiotics, encouraged a fresh prominence for debates incorporating problems of social identity, the body, gender and appearance or representation. These are issues that lie at the centre of any definition of fashion itself, though it might be argued that their effect has been to nudge concentration away from the artefact towards an emphasis on social meaning.1 Rees and Borzello (1986), in their introductory text on the new art history, use instructive examples of the resulting paradigm shift which had broad implications for the study of fashion history. In their
1. Palmer, Alexandra, "New Directions: Fashion History Studies and Research", Fashion Theory, Vol. 1.3, 1997.
definition of the more cultural scope of new art historical approaches, they state that "when an article analyzes the images of women in paintings rather than the qualities of the brushwork, or when a gallery lecturer ignores the sheen of the Virgin Mary's robe for the Church's use of religious art in the counter-reformation, the new art history is casting its shadow".2
However close it came to interrogating the cultural meanings of objects depicted in paintings and other forms of cultural production, the new art history remained largely concerned with issues of representation, the relationship between culture and image. Design history, a relatively young discipline compared to the history of art, has perhaps been able to take on board the complexities of social considerations, economic implications and cultural problems that inform and are informed by objects in a less fixed and self-conscious manner. The relationship between production, consumption and the designed artefact, which has always been central to any definition of the discipline, demands an investigation of cultural context, and is well-suited to the study of historical and contemporary clothing. As design historian Josephine Miller has stated:
This is a multi-faceted subject and in some ways can be seen to relate to almost every area of design and many aspects of the fine arts. It needs to be placed firmly within a cultural context, against a background of technological and industrial change, literary and aesthetic ideas. In the post-industrial period, the marketing and retail outlets, together with developments in advertising and publishing techniques, have brought a new set of considerations with them. Moreover, the study of dress and its production cannot be separated from women's history.3
Ten years on, the expansion of post-colonial studies and the examination of masculinity and sexuality might broaden her list, but it stands as an indication of the potential held in clothing for a design historical and broadly cultural approach. It is surprising then, that despite its fitness for the field, the study of dress and fashion still remains marginal to wider design historical concerns. This perhaps reflects the discipline's roots in industrial and architectural design practice, with their modernist sympathies. A theoretical and inspirational aid to students of industrial and graphic design, design history as originally taught in art and design colleges tended to prioritize production in the professional "masculine" sphere, re-enforcing notions of a subordinate "feminine" area of interest, into which fashion has generally been relegated. The relatively late establishment of fashion-design courses in
2. Rees, A. and F. Borzello, The New Art History, London: Camden Press 1986.
3. Conway, Hazel, Design History. A Student's Handbook, London: Allen & Unwin 1987.
British art colleges and polytechnics during the 1960s further encouraged a separate provision for contextual and historical studies in clothing and textiles that has probably influenced the semi-detached nature of fashion in the design historical canon ever since.
Related disciplines, including cultural studies and media studies, have arguably taken the politics of identity and appearance - "fashion" - closer to their core, but tend to concentrate on contemporary issues and confine themselves, in tandem with art history, mainly to the study of representation and promotion, using social anthropology and semiotics as tools to define meaning. Significantly, cultural studies finds its history in a literary rather than a visual tradition, and objects of study reflect those roots, existing as texts to be decoded in the present, rather than reflections or remains to be recovered from the past. Whilst much of this work has found its way through to the teaching of fashion students with their more pressing contemporary interests, broader historical issues have remained largely beyond their concern. This brings me to my own limited intervention in the field, a textbook designed to present fashion history in the context of contemporary historio-graphical debate.4 In the face of a potentially confusing and contradictory conflict of interests, I aimed to incorporate elements of art historical, design historical and cultural studies approaches in an attempt to offer a coherent introduction to the history and interpretation of fashionable dress. Used together carefully, these methods promised to provide a fluid framework for the study of fashion in its own right. They could also be set within a wider argument concerning the nature of cultural history generally, which has fostered concepts of diversity rather than prescriptive or narrowly defined readings of historical phenomena. Roger Chartier in his essay that appeared in Lynn Hunt's anthology of new historicist writings outlines the problems in his discussion of the concepts of "popular" and "high" culture, an area especially pertinent to the history of fashionable clothing and the dynamics of cultural studies:
First and foremost, it no longer seems tenable to try and establish strict correspondences between cultural cleavages and social hierarchies, creating simplistic relationships between particular cultural objects or forms and specific social groups. On the contrary, it is necessary to recognize the fluid circulation and shared practices that cross social boundaries. Second, it does not seem possible to identify the absolute difference and the radical specificity of popular culture on the basis of its own texts, beliefs or codes. The materials that convey the practices and thoughts
4. Breward, Christopher, The Culture of Fashion, Manchester: Manchester University Press 1995.
of ordinary people are always mixed, blending forms and themes, invention and tradition, literate culture and folklore. Finally the macroscopic opposition between "popular" and "high" culture has lost its pertinence. An inventory of the multiple divisions that fragment the social body is preferable to this massive partition.5
It is the central contention of much recent work which places clothing in the cultural sphere that clothing has played a defining, but largely uncredited role in the formulation of such differences, microscopic, highly subjective, and deeply personal though their manifestation in dress may be. Fashion therefore requires a method of analysis that takes account of multiple meanings and interpretations. Reductive connections between social influences and fashionable appearance have dogged much fashion history, unaware as it has sometimes seemed to be of the difficulties and complexity of agency. It is here that the new cultural history, in tandem with more recent work in cultural studies, is of use, presenting a more questioning framework which allows for explanations that are multi-layered and open ended. The historians Melling and Barry have presented a model that acknowledges difference and tensions between new cultural approaches, suggesting a more positive use for the harnessing of divergent directions:
It would be misleading to present all these changes as moving in harmony and in a single intellectual direction. For example, there is a clear tension between the emphasis laid by some, notably literary critics, on the autonomous power of the text and language, compared to the interest of others in recovering the intentions of historical actors. Put crudely, the former are seeking to deconstruct the identity and rationality of historical actors, while the latter strive to reconstruct them. To some extent we are seeing, within the concept of "culture" as a basis of historical explanation, a revival of the standard sociological debate between "structure" and "action". Should culture be considered as a given system or structure within which past actors are predestined to operate? Or does the emphasis on culture place higher priority on human creativity, on self conscious action by the individual or society to change their condition. It would be ironic should this false dichotomy become too well entrenched, since the notion of culture has in many ways been invoked precisely to avoid the need to choose between structure and action, but the danger remains, if concealed by the inherent ambiguity of "culture" as an explanation.6
These are useful suggestions for considering the relationship between fashion and culture, though the passage also introduces the deeper problem of pinning
5. Hunt, Lynn (ed.), The New Cultural History, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.
6. Melling, J. and J. Barry, Culture in History, Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1992.
down the notion of culture as a neutral descriptive category in the first place. T.S. Eliot in a famous passage from his Notes towards the Definition of Culture could state categorically that "culture ... includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the Twelfth of August, a cup final, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century gothic churches, and the music of Elgar."7 Ten years later at the birth of cultural studies in Britain as a specific discipline, Raymond Williams rejected this largely pastoral, romantic and commodified vision to present what he saw as a more inclusive, realist definition of culture that encompassed "steel making, touring in motor cars, mixed farming, the Stock exchange, coal mining and London transport".8 Forty or fifty years on, both readings of English culture are marked by the effects of nostalgia and the subjective positions of their narrators, but Williams, together with Richard Hoggart,9 incorporated the idea that culture is a contested and social field in which production and consumption find no easy union and the activities, customs and philosophies of the working class conflict with, or differ from, those of the gentry. Their work established that culture is political as well as aesthetic in its forms and effects.
Between the two positions evolved the formation of a modern school of British cultural studies which aimed to examine precisely the circulation of such constructions and their social power. A purer history of the discipline would trace its roots back to the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research established in Germany in 1923, before moving to the United States, with its largely pessimistic and critical take on the effects of mass culture. There isn't the space here to outline the continuing development of cultural studies as a discrete discipline, and I'm not sure that I could do it the justice it deserves anyway. Graeme Turner's recent British Cultural Studies: An Introduction provides a more than adequate overview of the historiography and its emergent methods.10 What I do propose to offer instead is a broad discussion of the key areas in which cultural considerations have made a direct impact on the writing of fashion history over the past decades. These fall largely under the categories of textual analysis (semiotics, film and magazines), the consideration of audience and consumption (ethnography, history and sociology), the role of ideology (hegemony, subcultures and pleasure) and the political question of identities (race, gender, sexuality). These
7. Eliot, Thomas Stearns, Notes towards a Definition of Culture, London: Faber, 1948.
8. Williams, Raymond, Culture and Society 1780-1950, London: Penguin, 1958.
9. Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy, London: Penguin, 1958.
10. Turner, Graeme, British Cultural Studies, See above, London: Routledge, 1996.
are obviously neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive divisions, but they do indicate the key ways in which clothing and fashion have finally become a vehicle for debates that now lie at the heart of visual and material culture studies.
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