If you notice the subtitle of this recently published book, A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, then you might have correctly guessed that I love this book. Written by two museum professionals, the book gives an organized method of evaluating any piece of clothing.
One of the old criticisms of dress studies was that professionals often gave the appearance of being concerned with just what can be measured. The description of an item in a collection might give the dimensions in minute detail, every smudge and tear would be measured and noted, and every bead counted. But what did all this information tell the researcher?
The answer is quite a lot, as long as you are asking the right questions. In order to understand a garment, the first step is observation. The means to note not only the things that can be measured, but also other information contained within the garment itself. Are there any alterations? What is the fiber content? Are there labels? Mida and Kim give a list of forty questions that help you gather the information in the garment.
The next step is to reflect on the information and what it means. You also need to take time and reflect on your own reaction to the garment. Would you wear it? Does it appeal to the senses? Are you reminded of other garments by some aspect of it? Is there any documentation on this garment? Reflection is time-consuming, but is a necessary step in understanding the garment and where it fits into an area of study.
The last step is interpretation in which you connect all the information and make conclusions. Your conclusions will depend on what your objectives of study were to begin with. This is what makes the study of fashion so fascinating.
The authors work through each of the three steps, and then they present seven case studies using their method. All the right questions are asked as each garment is closely observed. There are plenty of photographs to show what they are looking at as it is described.
One of the case studies is a Lanvin wedding dress and matching veil. By close observation it was determined that this dress had been altered.
Close-up photographs show that the fabric in the sleeves is a newer, synthetic fabric, and is not original to the dress. The original trim was reused on the new sleeves.
The label is missing from the dress, but is still present in the veil. You can see that some material (and awkward stitching) had been added to the veil.
Another case study was of a late Victorian velveteen and wool bodice. Part of the reflection of the piece involved looking at period fashion plates to find similar styles. This helps not only with dating but might also provide clues into the social and economic class of the original wearer.
Also of use is the study of period photos. It is rare (but delightful) to have a photograph of the wearer of the actual garment, but even photos of people wearing similar garments can be of use.
As this garment is close to the era of ready-made clothing, another avenue of study might be into the way companies like Eaton in Canada, and Sears in the US were operating dressmaking services. Could this bodice have been made in this manner?
These interior shots show the complexity of construction.
The book was written as a guide for students and researchers, but I think many people who deal with clothing could learn a lot from it about how to read a garment. I especially liked the sections on taking what you see in the garment and looking for external information . In the world of the internet it is increasingly easy to search museum databases, find newspaper ads and references, and to find similar garments for sale. Information about labels is readily available on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource.
The Dress Detective does not give the researcher all the knowledge that one will need in looking at old clothes. It would take a much larger book to tell things like when the NRA eagle label was used, the invention of the zipper, or the first use of synthetic fabrics. These are the facts that have to be learned by the researcher, or else researched. A book of these dating tidbits would make a great companion to The Dress Detective.