Currently Reading: The Study of Dress History by Lou Taylor

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately,  even more than usual.   That is just a small warning that there will probably be quite a few book reviews here in the coming weeks.

I put the book for today, The Study of Dress History by Lou Taylor on my list of books to find after reading Lynn Mally’s review of it on AmericanAgeFashion.  This is not a book about fashion history; it is a guide to using good research technique in the study of what people have worn.

Published in 2002, Taylor spends a good deal of print explaining why dress history is important.  She talks about how in some circles, dress historians are considered to be little more than measurers and describers who spend their days recording the tiniest of details of the object before them.  By the time one finishes this book, it is pretty clear that the study of clothing is more than just studying the object.

Taylor identifies and discusses many of the sources of information about clothing.  There are, of course, the garments themselves, but that is just the beginning.  We can find fashion information in literature.  It is found in art, including paintings, drawings and cartoons.  We find clothing information in photographs and in motion pictures.  And oral histories are another valid source.

What Taylor really stresses is that in the study of dress, it is vital not to rely too heavily on just one kind of source.  Of course, that is true of all historical studies, and was hammered home in my own university studies.  But I loved how she clearly showed the pitfalls of assuming too much from any one source.

You might realize that I love oral history and the sharing of our own clothing experiences.  But there are so many times that those of us, even when we are of the same age, have different memories of a fad or a particular fashion.  A lot had to do with where we lived, but sometimes things just did not happen as we remember.

I have a good example to share.  A lot of people got really upset when on an episode of Mad Men, Peggy Olsen was hanging her pantihose to dry.  The year was 1962.  The cry went up across the internet, “There were no pantihose in 1962!  I remember!  I was there!”

I did not start wearing stockings until 1967 or so, and my first hose were worn with garters.  About 1968 pantihose became readily available in my town, and we all switched to them.  Does that mean that pantihose were not available until 1968?  That’s what my experience was.

The above ad is from 1960, and clearly shows that Glen Raven Mills was selling pantihose in that year.  So yes, it was correct for Mad Men to show a character wearing them, even though in my corner of the world, they had not yet caught on.

Another caution is to not assume from the ad that despite the fact that pantihose were available, that they were widely accepted and worn.  Even though they were a great idea, they did not replace stockings with garters overnight.

This is what Taylor means by not using just one set of evidence.  The more information we have, the better and more complete a picture we can draw of the past.

If you are interested in the study of history I can’t recommend this book enough.  It is really a great guide to the resources available to clothing historians.

7 Comments

Filed under Currently Reading

7 responses to “Currently Reading: The Study of Dress History by Lou Taylor

  1. PLEASE post your review of this…can’t wait…i am unfortunatly too busy right now-must read it asap-

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  2. I studied under Lou at Brighton Poly in the late 1980s, she was just developing her theory of research back then – in response partially i think to the prevalent marxist theory of everything approach that was so insidious. She also made a tv show with accompanying book called Through the Looking Glass along with Elizabeth Wilson, which also worth a read if you can get it.

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  3. I’ve read Through the Looking Glass, another wonderful book! What I remember most from it is the insight that many of our expressions about people’s characters, “down at the heels,” etc., originated in descriptions of how people dress.

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  4. Book sounds good. I read a similar one recently and its a fascinating subject

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  5. Thanks a lot! Another interesting book to read!

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  6. Pingback: Currently Reading: The Study of Dress History b...

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