Research and Truth

I am not a quilter (though I have finished two already pieced tops) but I love reading quilt history and research articles. This book, Quiltmaking in America, Beyond the Myths is currently on my reading list. It’s a collection of papers written between 1980 and 1989, and originally published in Uncoverings, the journal of the American Quilt Study Group.

This book was published in 1994, five years before the publication of Jaqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard’s  Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. This book started one of the all-time great quilt myths, that of the Underground Railroad code quilt. According to the authors quilts with special symbols were hung outside the safe houses that took in people fleeing from slavery. It’s a nice story, but under close scrutiny, the myth is revealed. Many of the symbols were based on quilt blocks that had not yet been developed in pre Civil War days.

The narratives and portrayals that emerged were more compelling than the myths they sometimes replaced.

We all love a good fantasy every once and a while, but when it comes to the study of the past, the myths just get in the way.

Last week I was at the Goodwill bins and uncovered a book on fashion history. Or rather, it is a collection of short biographies of innovative designers, starting with Hermes and ending with Gareth Pugh. I thought this would be a good introductory book for someone who wanted to know more about fashion history, so I bought it though I generally don’t buy books that rehash the same old designers.

I picked the book up this morning and started reading, and almost immediately I was confronted with some of fashion history’s enduring myths.

The Gucci saddle shop myth was debunked by careful research by  Sara Gay Forden for her 2000 book House of Gucci. She proved that the story was simply not true, that Gucci never was a saddler.  . It seems as if the story was fabricated in the 1970s as a way to establish some horsy roots for Gucci.

The article on Paul Poiret hints at the corset myth – that he was the first to free women from corsets. But even more disturbing was a passage about the Ballets Russe. Poiret never designed for the Ballets Russe.

What happens when I encounter a mess like this is that I get increasingly mad. How can fashion as a field of study be taken seriously when a fashion writer and historian does not fact-check, and ends up with a book riddled with errors.

The final straw was in the Mainbocher article. Not only is the date wrong, but also the branch of the service for which he designed uniforms. That was it. I was done.

I don’t pretend to know everything about every designer, but I do read a lot, and I visit every fashion exhibition I can. I’m just a hobbyist when it comes to history, and yet I spotted five errors in the first fifty pages. So frustrating. And what a shame. It’s now off to the recycling bin.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Research and Truth

  1. lauriebrown54

    I hate that! I’ve seen that in a couple of fashion articles, and I see it in gardening books. I’m reading a book on heirloom plants right now, and I’ve found I think three errors so far. I feel like Archer, saying “Read a book, people!” And I’m not an expert on, well, anything!

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  2. Thanks so much for commending the work of the American Quilt Study Group, and helping to spread the debunking of “Hidden in Plain View.” As a quilt historian, I continue to be amazed at how the “quilt code” continues to spread. I’m enjoying reviewing your earlier posts.

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  3. it used to drive me crazy how many quilters would also propagate the notion that American quilting came out of the feed sack tradition. Um no. Women of leisure were quilting with specially made quilt fabrics in the 19th century.

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  4. jacqstaubssyahoocom

    Thank YOU! The”truth of the matter…is..(my humble opinion) the convenient “rewriting”of anything that gains instant authoirity without doing the work. also As i personally discovered with the so called historians of a nationally known and highly regarded museum school! The rewriting of truth /scam for $$$ and instant recognition was /is /should be illegal? To make matters worse they refused correct information!

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  5. While I’m not a quilter either, I do love history and am always one to point out errors as well! So I applaud you for pointing out these errors!

    I had a similar case happen when I was reading an autobiography, and the author got some info wrong about a person and I had to just stop reading!

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  6. The UGRR quilt myth comes up constantly — just yesterday when CBS Morning News visited a community quilting group in Tutwiler, MS. Editing has gotten very sloppy (probably publishers’ cost-cutting). I figure if I notice an error because the reference is something I know about, then what other errors are there for things with which I am unfamiliar?

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