Saturday 15 June 2019

Let's Talk about the F-word by Susan Vincent

I’m a dress historian. Since this is my first blog for The History Girls, I thought I’d clamber onto my soapbox (I don’t need much persuading) and rant a little about ‘fashion’ – or the f-word as I like to call it. Although I swear like the proverbial trooper, as a dress historian ‘fashion’ is a word that seldom sullies my lips.

So why is this? What have I got against the F-word?

First off, fashion is only a tiny part of the bigger dress system and it plays only a supporting role in the life-long drama of us and our clothes. Let’s think about this for a bit. In childhood – from babygrows to school uniforms – we’re not wearing fashion. Let’s face it, for the most part we’re not even wearing things of our own choice.

Then we grow up … and that makes surprisingly little difference. What we wear to work has to meet dress codes, whether those codes are overt (as in uniform) or unarticulated (as in what colleagues wear and line-managers expect). At home we relax in garments that we deem comfortable and practical – things to wear on the sofa watching Netflix, or when cleaning the bathroom. Special, ritual occasions also have their own sartorial norms and expectations. Think wedding dresses – the bride and the guests – suits, and even funeral wear.

All these are finessed by fashion, but their fundamentals lie much deeper. Then in older age our relationship with fashion becomes even more distant, as the clothes that are made for young bodies no longer fit, and as growing physical incapacity weighs in to influence us.

And don’t get me started on the other factors that impinge on our choice of garments. As every one of us knows, we make purchase decisions not on the basis of fashionability alone, but also within the constraints of price, fit, fabric, availability, body image and subjective aesthetics. I might like a trend, but loathe it on me. Or I might like it on me, but it’s uncomfortable, or too expensive, or entirely unsuitable. (What you do mean, historians aren’t wearing diamond tiaras this year?)

We even wear garments – or let’s be specific here, I even wear garments – that I don’t much like, but have bought in desperation at not finding anything to fit my body and my needs any better. In these cases, it’s the least worst option.

My point is that most of what we wear – most of what anyone has ever worn in the past – is not fashion. And as a dress historian, what I am interested in is how people have lived their lives with and through these clothes of theirs.

How has a person’s garments helped shape their physical experiences and their emotional lives, their memory and their relationships? What can dress tell us about much bigger cultural ideas – about decency, health, technology, work, wealth? Looking at dress, what can we read about ethnicities, age and gender? What are the economics and politics of production? How are garments obtained, maintained, re-used, and disposed of? What effect does the life cycle of clothing have on the environment? on resources? on the health of the workers who made them?

The list of questions is endless, but by using the word ‘fashion’ we shut down the conversation we can have with clothes. We limit our view of this whole, rich sartorial world. It’s like being interested in food, but looking only at cordon bleu cooking and the experience of dining at restaurants.


There’s actually much more to my dislike of the F-word – when you look closely at fashion even as a sub-category, it wobbles alarmingly and threatens to disappear, and I actually suspect that fashion is not a thing at all, but an idea and an aspiration. However, this will do for a start.

In the meantime, if you’ve enjoyed the – yes, I do have to use the word here – fashion plates in today’s blog, then take a look at the Rijksmuseum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (at the Costume Institute Fashion Plates). Both have wonderful online collections of costume prints, and far too many hours can be frittered amongst their delights…

Susan Vincent

If you're interested, the images above are, in order:

1. ‘Bonjour! Chapeau, de Camille Roger’, Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Costume Institute (Women 1921, Plate 018)

2. ‘Théorie de l'Art du Tailleur: Costumes d'enfants’, October 1837. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (no. RP-P-2009-3155)

3. ‘Godey’s Fashions for February 1872’, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia, 1872. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Costume Institute (Wedding 1870–1929, Plate 006)

4. Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur, Handlung, Kunst und Mode, Leipzig, 1796. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (no. RP-P-2009-2753)

5. ‘Costume Parisien, Cheveux à la Titus’, Journal des Dames et des Modes, 9 April 1799. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (no. RP-P-2009-1425)

6. ‘Costumes Parisiens, Robe de chambre’, Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1913. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (no. RP-P-2009-1779)

7. Wenceslaus Hollar, ‘Winter’, London, 1643. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (no. RP-P-OB-11.250)


Unknown said...

Cool beans 10/10

Susan Price said...

Very much enjoyed this, both text and images. I look forward to your next blog.

abigail brieson said...

I'm so looking forward to your posts! Recently I've been thinking much about clothing expectations vs. reality. Not that many of us can match body type and appearance and unlimited budget to media images, but it often seems an either / or proposition; one 'fits' into 'fashion'; or one does not. There is no middle ground.

Penny Dolan said...

I really like the term "dress historian" and your view of fashion. Thanks and welcome!

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting, and thanks for the links to the online collections!

Catherine Hokin said...

I would genuinely wear the bottom outfit. Great post, looking forward to more on this subject - just emerged from researching the 1930/40s German clothing industry for the thing that will be announced soon and it was fascinating.