Clothed in Meaning: A Personal Journey in the History of Fashion

Today we are happy and excited to present a guest post from Noelle Reilly,  a senior at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, studying History and Anthropology.  Noelle was a student this summer in the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program, where she took on a research project involving shawls in the collection.  Here she reflects on her encounter with this distinct form of material culture.

I didn’t think I would be studying shawls. As a Historic Deerfield Summer Fellow, it was my task to come up with a promising research topic for the summer of 2014. I struggled with indecision, too interested in anything and everything to possibly narrow it down. After a lot of intense deliberation and help from my faculty and peers, I finally decided to focus on a recently acquired collection of 1807 French fashion plates in the Historic Deerfield collection. A large number of these plates depicted beautiful cashmere shawls. I thought it would be interesting to research the adoption of shawls as a fashion accessory and to compare their functions in Europe with their functions in the young United States.

Courtesy of the Henry N. Flynt Library, Historic Deerfield.

My research involved a delightful combination of textual sources and material culture. To understand the rise of shawls’ popularity, I read books on textiles history and the rise of the Empire Style in Western world. To understand more about shawl commerce in the Connecticut River Valley area, I browsed through decades of newspapers and the account books of local merchants. In the collections at Historic Deerfield and the Memorial Hall Museum of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association I was able to view authentic cashmere and imitation cashmere shawls from the early 19th century. In examining this variety of sources, I learned that the same object can have different meanings and serve different functions among various cultures and peoples. In one region, a shawl might be viewed as an object of beauty and seduction, and in another, as a tool of modesty and practicality.

Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Hall and Kate Peterson Fund for Minor Antiques, 2013.22.

Throughout this project I was not limited to studying only the fashion developments of the early 19th century. Researching the history of a single item—the shawl—allowed me to explore numerous facets of the 19th century world, including production methods, economies, international commerce, technology, animal husbandry, and cultural interactions. Shawls led me on a historical journey that I had not expected. The journey began in northern India, in the province of Kashmir, where the original shawls were woven as cultural garments. As shawls’ popularity boomed in Europe and the United States in the early 1800s, imitation production centers sprang up in the United Kingdom and France to meet demand.[1]

The journey of cashmere shawls continues today. Imitation cashmere still provides a cost-effective alternative to the luxurious and often costly fiber. The choices we face when buying scarves or shawls today are extensions of the same consumer culture that has blossomed over the past several hundred years. The choices we face with our clothing involve both financial and cultural factors. One realization I had during my research was that there is often more to what people wear than simply looking good or staying warm. In the case of the shawl during the Empire period, they were most certainly convenient for covering women’s newly bared arms and shoulders, but beyond that, a draped shawl conjured thoughts of Neoclassicism and democracy in the wake of the French Revolution. In other words, peoples and cultures create meaning for their clothes in a way that transcends functionality.[2]

This summer I learned that the history of clothing can be as rich and exciting as the history of politics or war. As cultures make collective decisions about what clothing means, individuals make the choice to stand by these meanings and display them in their own lives. Clothing can hide, accentuate, expose, and deceive. In cultures of conformity, sometimes making a bold choice about personal clothing and adornment can be as brave as taking a radical political stance. One of the easiest ways to express oneself is also one of the easiest ways to stand out and to receive criticism. Indeed, many American women were taunted for their adoption of the light, revealing dresses of the Empire Style in the early 19th century. And yet, trends catch on; people do impractical things to nurture a value or meaning that they themselves have created. It makes me wonder about today’s world and the choices we make with our clothes. As I sit here writing this, the shirt I am wearing could be making a cultural or political statement. But do the clothing choices I make reflect an inner value system that is uniquely my own or one that is fully imposed by the culture that I have grown up in? This might be a question that I cannot answer myself. It might just take a future historian to consider all of the influential factors that shape our modern perception of fashion to decode and deconstruct the meanings we clothe ourselves in.



[1] John Irwin, The Kashmir Shawl (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1973), 4-5; Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 125.

[2] Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress (New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc., 1989), 265.

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Prowling Around Paisley

A recent trip to Scotland gave me a chance to add dimension to what I’ve already learned from the Historic Dress project’s exploration of shawls. An invitation to a conference in Glasgow (on early modern women and work) provided the chance to do some touring around, and to prepare for the trip I wanted to learn more about Scotland’s textile industry. For obvious reasons I started by reading about the history of tartans, and visits to the National Museum of Scotland as well as a variety of castles and other sites afforded opportunities to see portraits and other paintings that plot the history of this iconic fabric. Another textile-related highlight was seeing the Great Tapestry of Scotland–a truly spectacular effort in conception, design and execution, as the dozens of photos I snapped will attest! Though I was sorry not to be able to get to New Lanark (which I heard great things about from other travelers), the Islay Woolen Mill, where we could see (and hear) the machinery in operation, was a highlight there.

But given this project’s focus on shawls, it was exciting to find Paisley included on the Scottish Textile Trail. Located very near the Glasgow airport, it was an easy stop to make. Most travelers probably head to Paisley to see the beautiful Paisley Abbey, but I was happy to get to walk the streets and try to contemplate the setting behind the shawls we investigated as part of our project, and to imagine the men and women behind their making.

Driving into the city center, which is just 20 minutes on the M8 west of Glasgow, street signs mark Cotton, Thread and Gauze Streets, placenames that signal the city’s distinctive history. The Paisley Museum and Art Gallery contains a permanent exhibit, “Shawls! the fabric of Paisley.” Exhibits interpret the history of shawl production globally, and particularly in Paisley, explaining that while Paisley was neither the first nor the only city to manufacture shawls, it did so on such a large scale that shawls with the boteh or buta motif became synonymous with the town. The exhibit begins by explain the Persian origins of the distinctive droplet-shaped design element, which crept into British visual culture beginning in the seventeenth century via fabrics imported from British India, and particular the region of Kashmir, at that time referring to the valley between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range. In the eighteenth century, Paisley became a major manufacturing center of shawls incorporating this design, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, the town was a leading producer of both loom-woven and printed shawls, the latter lowering the price point and making shawls accessible to a broader swath of the public. The site also became a center of thread production. The surprisingly modest number of shawls on display is nevertheless enough to allow visitors to appreciate the evolution of shawl design over the eighteenth and nineteenth century, from the long rectangular textiles of the neoclassical era to the triangular shapes of the 1820s and 30s, when shawls 6′ square were folded diagonally, the point nearly reaching skirt hems. The advent of another new silhouette in the 1840s, when wide crinolines made the triangular styles impractical, meant another evolution in the history of Paisley shawls. New cloths, typically 11′ by 5’6″–called Paisley plaids, though they were not plaid in design in the modern sense; the term referred to the rectangular shape–were folded and draped to create an outergarment that could be worn over these gowns.

Though the Paisley shawl managed to adapt to several decades of changing fashion, it was the arrival of the bustle that made further adaptation untenable. The cherished shawls of the previous century migrated to trunks and chests, awaiting a revival that never came. The collapse of the shawl as a required accessory hit the city hard. This, coupled with economic crises and labor unrest, meant that the second quarter of the nineteenth century saw many mill closings. The exhibit tracks the history of workers in the city, including landmark labor actions in response to the changing economy. Paisley is a fascinating place.

Other sites in the city to flesh out the story include the Sma Shot Cottages, the Thread Mill Museum, and the Dooslan Stane or Stone (a meeting place of the Weavers Union in the South of Paisley). Needless to say, I’m eager to go back — and to check out other stops on the Scottish Textile Trail.

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Resources from our CSA panel presentation

On Thursday, May 29, 2014 HistoricDress.org was part of a panel presentation at the annual symposium for the Costume Society of America in Baltimore, MD, “Sharing our Collections Online: Why and How.” The panel included presentations by

  • Kathi Martin of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University
  • Gayle Strege and Marlise Schoeny of The Ohio State University
  • Arden Kirkland of the Vassar College Costume Collection
  • Kiki Smith of Smith College and HistoricDress.org
Below are links to many of the resources we mentioned in our talks:

 

Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University (Kathi Martin)

http://digimuse.westphal.drexel.edu/publicdrexel/index.php

A Comparison of Archival Data and Image Standards – National Archive (link to a PDF)

Link to invitation to contribute terms to the upcoming edition of Chenhall’s Nomenclature: http://community.aaslh.org/nomenclature-submissions

 

The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection (Gayle Strege and Marlise Schoeny)

Collection website: http://costume.osu.edu/

Fashion2Fiber website: https://fashion2fiber.osu.edu/

Fiber Reference Image Library website: https://fril.osu.edu/

Vassar College Costume Collection (Arden Kirkland)

website: http://vcomeka.com/vccc

blogs:
http://pages.vassar.edu/vccc
http://tryingonhistory.blogspot.com

featured exhibits:
http://vcomeka.com/vccc/exhibits/show/fbfw/intro
http://vcomeka.com/vccc/exhibits/show/fashioning/introduction

example 360 rotating views:
http://vcomeka.com/vccc/exhibits/show/fashioning/rotating-views

360 photography video tutorials:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAEC580A3D8D7DCA2

contact: arkirkland@vassar.edu

Costume Core

guide under development for best practices in cataloging costume for digital collections
http://www.ardenkirkland.com/costumecore/

comparing fields from current costume collections:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AksZZ8V6CbDxdHVzQlp0b1VwdmNCZ0JUTzBxQUQtV1E&usp=drive_web#gid=2

Existing Standards:
Visual Resources Association – VRA Core 4.0 – http://www.loc.gov/standards/vracore/VRA_Core4_Intro.pdf
Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA) – http://www.getty.edu/research/publications/electronic_publications/cdwa/index.html
Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) – http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/aat/
Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) – http://www.vraweb.org/ccoweb/cco/selections.html

Introduction to Linked Data:
Linked Open Data – What is it? (by Europeana) – http://vimeo.com/36752317
What is Linked Data? (by Manu Sporny) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4x_xzT5eF5Q

 

Historic Dress (Kiki Smith)

blog: http://historicdress.org/wordpress
online prototype collection: http://historicdress.org/omeka
2nd prototype: http://cdm16858.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16858coll9

Shawl exhibit: http://historicdress.org/omeka/exhibits/show/borderdesign/intro
Wrapper notebook: http://historicdress.org/omeka/exhibits/show/wrapper-series

contact: ksmith@smith.edu

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Spending a semester where fashion and technology intertwine

Next up in our series of posts from students in the first-year seminar “From Cotton to Kevlar” is one from Kate Grynkiewicz. Like many students in the course, she enrolled on a whim, but came away with some surprising insights.  We’re so glad her last-minute addition of the course worked out so well!

One of my favorite gowns because of the floral pattern and the sashed waist. (Worth Gown, object#156788, from http://www.metmuseum.org/)

Walking into this new freshman seminar on the first week of classes, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, I took this class mostly because I wanted that one extra credit it offered. I was stressed out that I would be behind on my credits before I even started college. I have always been interested in fashion, and history was never the boring, tedious class it was for so many of my friends. What I got out of this class was more than I ever expected. For a class that only meets once a week, Marla and Jon bombarded us with a whirlwind of information every passing week.

As one would anticipate from a fashion history class, I learned tons about how fashion has changed throughout the ages, and how these changes impacted the world. One of my favorite lessons was Marla’s lecture on the evolution of the woman’s silhouette. From huge hoop skirts, to the scandalous flapper, to the feminine 1950’s housewife, we covered it all. It broadened my knowledge of fashion history and strengthened my passion for it as well.

What I did not expect from this class was the amount of new technology I would be exposed to and encouraged to try out throughout the semester. This was the part of the class I spent the most time playing around with. I won’t lie, at first I was a bit annoyed with the amount of time it took to become well versed with interactive online tools, such as Timeline JS and WordPress. But, in my opinion, the end results were well worth it. I am proud of the work I put into creating the two timelines I made over the semester, as well as the web page I built with my group on the history of fashion news. While I am still certainly a newbie to constructing online web exhibits, Jon and Marla structured the class in a way that forced me to step out of my comfort zone and experiment with new technology. Yes, it was frustrating at times. But I walked away from the class with a tool belt of useful skills I’m sure I will apply to a variety of different areas of study throughout college.

While I am not a history major, any history classes I take in the future I will try to take with Jon or Marla. They both made sure they were readily available for any questions we had, and trust me, I had lots of questions when my group was finishing up the online web exhibit. Overall, I took away much more than I imagined I would when I enrolled for this class the night before classes started. It was insightful, it was fun, and above all it gave me skills I will use for the rest of my life.

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From Rudolph Ackermann to Joan Rivers: The Evolution of Fashion News

This post by Katelyn Dube is the last in the series from students in our course “From Cotton to Kevlar.”  Her team (which also included Kate Grynkiewicz, another poster here) produced a web exhibit tracing the history of fashion news from Ackermann’s Repository (UMass holds a run that still includes fabric swatches inside) and Godey’s Lady’s Book to Vogue and finally to television shows like Joan Rivers’ Fashion Police and What Not To Wear.  Among the many interesting insights to emerge from their presentation is the way fashion news today is as much about “don’ts” as “do’s.”

First – I can honestly say as the weeks progressed in my “Historic Dress Meets Digital Humanities” class, I grew deeper and deeper into the subject matter. Whether it was taking a closer look at the science of fabrics or achieving a new perspective on a woman’s wardrobe in the Civil Rights Movement, the lessons never ceased to amaze me.

Once we were assigned into our final group projects and I was put into “Fashion News,” it was safe to assume that picking an even more specific subject would be a little overwhelming. My group and I were late on coming up with the topic, swimming in apprehension on the possible choices. With Thanksgiving break coming in at full speed, we knew that finishing the project beforehand was definitely a priority. We eventually got past our “humming” and “hawing”, deciding that the external aesthetics of a given piece of fashion news is essential and has definitely evolved into something completely different from a century ago. There is a lot riding on a magazine cover, believe it or not – everything from the pictures to the text. It can make or break the audience’s attention.

Starting over two centuries back in time, Ackermann’s Repository was the first magazine we focused on and my personal portion of the project. After researching Ackermann’s and getting my hands on an actual archival piece from the Du Bois library, I was very fascinated with the absence of clothing on the cover. However, the inside of these magazines were incredibly elaborate with detailed drawings of women in full dress along with real, embroidered fabrics in each issue. Ackermann focused on many aspects of society i.e. art, literature, commerce, manufacturers, politics, along with fashion. Ackermann’s Repository‘s lack of external layout calls for the theme of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Despite its long and intimidating front pages, Ackermann’s held a lot of interesting information that would be hard to find in a fashion-related magazine today. Fast-forwarding to 2013, magazines are slowly and steadily becoming an “out” source, and television is ruling the competition. Shows like “What Not to Wear” and “Fashion Police” are ultimately what people want to see: a harsh critique by notoriously famous celebrities, i.e. Joan Rivers and Khloe Kardashian. We ultimately learned that the transition from a subtle, classy, and simple execution of fashion advice to ridiculous projections of what’s right and wrong is definitely the real deal these days.

Regarding the tech-based aspects of our project, this was our main concern. We were confident about our info but intimidated by the detailed layout of WordPress. Not one of us had worked with this tool before so challenge was an understatement. All the codes, HTMLs, miscellaneous letters, and “<”s were a foreign language. My group-mates and I spent hours at the library – cutting, pasting, font-ing, and layout-ing. In retrospect, I’m glad I learned the logistics of WordPress and I’m almost sure it will benefit me in the upcoming years.

We were anxious to see other exhibits and many questions along the way, but the ending result was rewarding. We finished on our deadline and I can honestly say it was one of the most collaborative groups I’ve ever been in. Everyone’s exhibits were intriguing and I am happy to say this class was an awesome experience.

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A Student’s Perspective

With the semester coming to a close, we’re pleased to introduce a series of guest posts from students in the course Cotton to Kevlar.  Thanks to first-year student Andrea Moore for launching these reports from the class!

When I was creating my first ever schedule for UMass Amherst during the summer orientation, I decided to take a one credit seminar. The seminar was the Cotton to Kevlar seminar. I couldn’t tell you what my exact reasons for taking this seminar was–it’s been months since I made that decision–but I was curious as to how exactly fashion had changed throughout the years and what relation that had to the corresponding historical events. I’m also fairly certain that I wanted another credit for the Fall semester but that’s beside the point.

A screenshot from Andrea’s fashion timeline, created with TimelineJs

The first class of the semester started with the usual introduction to the class and the sharing of names. Kiki Smith from Smith College came to show a sample of clothes from the Historic Clothing Collection located at Smith. While I don’t remember every article of clothing looked like, what struck me the most was the dresses from the ‘60’s. I’ve heard the expression that trends come in and out of fashion over and over again but I don’t think I really understood how that could happen until I saw the dresses and realized that they looked like something I could wear today and my style would not be considered “retro”. I left that class with a strong desire to try on the dresses.

From then on, the seminar became a little break in the week. Because we met only once a week, the workload was much less than most of my classes. The low workload, the 50 minutes in class a week, and the fact that I took this class purely out of interest let me have more fun in the class and not stress too much over the work like I did in my other classes. This is not to say that work didn’t stress me at all, oh no. The most stressful assignment was due on October 28. For this one, we had to browse several different online websites for photos of clothes from the 1890’s to the 1950’s. The we had to assemble 30 images into a timeline using the Timeline.js program (http://timeline.knightlab.com/). I liked the browsing for photos but that website really frustrated me. Organizing the photos in a Microsoft Excel-like spreadsheet, uploading it, and then realizing that the photos didn’t show up added many more hours of technical difficulties than I would have liked. In the end, however, I finally got everything to my liking but it was not without some hard work.

Another screenshot from the Timeline

After the Timeline assignment most of the work was not as time consuming until it came time to create our final project, the online exhibit. The exhibit required research and information that I had a hard time finding. Eventually I found what I needed began the process of adding it all to a Word Press blog post, which took a few days, and then edited it. One of the last things I did with my group for the exhibit was provide links on our homepage to specific articles and add navigation bars at the bottom of each post. This was honestly the part I liked the most about the exhibit as I got to do a bit of not-too-difficult problem solving.

While there were some harder projects, this class, for the most part, was fun, easy and let me explore a little part of a subject I had some interest in. To anyone thinking about taking this class, be prepared for a few dense technology readings, a quick look at different fashions and styles from American history and an overall enjoyable course.

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“Denim Revolutionaries:” The Women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Politics of Dress

Recently, our “Cotton to Kevlar” class was treated with a visit from Tanisha Ford, an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research explores “fashion, performance, and women’s rights activism” (http://www.tanishacford.com/). Professor Ford  teaches a popular course on “Feminism(s) and Fashion,” and is at work on a book titled Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment, which “uncovers how and why black women use beauty culture and fashion as a form of resistance and cultural-political expression”—so naturally we were eager to involve her in our course from the get-go.

Civil Rights March on Washington DC (August 28, 1963); photo: Warren K. Leffler. This photo shows marchers in their “Sunday best:” note the fabrics, accessories, and hairstyles.

In her visit to the class, she focused on the clothing and the politics of denim—and especially the bib overall—in the Civil Rights movement. To prepare for her visit, she asked students to 1) Peruse a photo album of images from the civil rights movement, paying particular attention to the role denim does and/or does not play in the visual archive of the movement; and 2) Come to class with a short piece of writing (about 500 words) that reflects upon your relationship with denim–from your encounter to the present. Be ready to share in class.

When we gathered for her presentation, she began by asking people to talk about their experiences with denim. She told us about a memorable moment in her own sartorial past when, once she had her first “real” job, she splurged on expensive jeans from Citizens of Humanity; it “felt like passage into adulthood,” she explained (and happily, the jeans “lived up to the hype.”) Students talked about their reaction to skinny jeans (both pro and con: one said, “I could sleep in a pair of jeggings!”), to participating in trends indirectly via thrift shop alterations. One of the men in the course reported avoiding jeans, which he finds too confining given roomier alternatives.

Professor Ford then walked us through a set of images that helped us grasp the importance of denim when it appeared among Civil Rights activists. We analyzed photos from the era, observing how “church” clothes – the skirts, shoes, pearls and pocketbooks visible in the image above – that had long served as symbols of middle-class black respectability (given that the Civil Rights movement grew out of black churches, this also makes perfect sense) now gave way to denim. And not just any denim, but especially the bib overall.

Charles Moore – Alabama Fire Department Aims High-Pressure Water Hoses at Civil Rights Demonstrators, Birmingham Protests, May 1963

I was mesmerized, in particular, to hear Professor Ford talk about the motivations behind this shift. Activists, radicalized by their experiences across the south, adopted overalls as a gesture of solidarity with the working men and women they encountered along the way. Also—and this struck me most powerfully—lightweight cottons and heeled shoes were simply impractical in the face of waterhoses and attack dogs, and dresses and skirts no asset given the fear of sexual assault.

Activists Dorie and Joyce Ladner in bib overalls. Click here for an oral history of their work in the movement.

Over time, as Professor Ford helped us see, activists “adapted to the realities of life in the movement,” and it’s a change that can be observed in their clothing. Pleated skirts and beauty-parlor hairstyles gave way to overalls and jeans, and in time, afros and dashikis. In the end, it was a superb example of how fashion and clothing history can illuminate topics well beyond the sartorial.


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Everything Old is New Again: Gibson Girls, Flappers and the “New Look”

We have been hurtling forward in time, and on timelines, in our course “From Cotton to Kevlar.” On Monday, as we reached the turn of the twentieth century, our syllabus read: Educate your Eye:  Browse Flickr Commons, Luna, ARTstor and UMass Special Collections. Come to class ready to present a timeline visualization (using Timeline.js – http://timeline.verite.co/) that demonstrates the changing shape of women’s (or men’s) fashion–at least 30 images total–from the 1890s through the 1920s and 1950s.”

The aims of the assignment was threefold. We hoped 1) to help students gain some experience using robust online collections of visual sources (URLs we hope they return to in their college careers); 2) to see for themselves the great transformations that women’s clothing underwent in these decades, and 3) to help them gain familiarity with timeline.js, a terrific tool that we hope each team will employ in their exhibits.

Both within and across the timeslines that students brought to class, we could see the shape of change, and also the way that the database or resource on which a student chose to focus shaped the result.  A student who worked principally in Artstor, for instance, tracked more extreme changes than another student whose timeline was grounded in Flickr photos of everyday Americans going about their daily business. Another student incorporated several ads into her timeline, providing insight into how ideas about “what’s next” or “what’s now” were disseminated.  In class, the timelines supported a discussion of the evolution of silhouette, and what shifting focus—that is, the rising and falling emphasis—on busts, legs, hips and shoulders told us about the ever-evolving place of women in American life in the decades that flanked the advent of women’s suffrage.  The effect of wartime and post-war exigencies surfaced, as did the changing construction of “femininity.”

Most students reported a fairly steep learning curve as they worked to master the software, but the results were worth it.  We’ll look forward to seeing how these skills and insights inform the work yet to come.

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Fashion Shoot (A Hands-On Tutorial of Digital Imaging Tools)

Cotton, linen and viscose top, under the USB microscope

Our most recent class meeting of “From Cotton to Kevlar” was one of experimentation and play.  Jon asked us to read Chapter 3 of Rosenzweig & Cohen’s book Digital History, to inform a discussion of the pros and cons of making things digital.  After looking at digital versions of Ackermann’s Repository (a resource for the team projects), the jaw-dropping work of the Berliner Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) to reconstitute the Stasi archive, the presentation of objects “in the round” by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and UMass’ own very-impressive effort to make George Washington’s handwriting searchable, we talked as a group about the power of search engines and the preservation and presentation aspects of digital access.  Students seemed especially alert to the ways that digitization facilitated the preservation of items that normally might be lost, and expanded the number of items that one could easily share. For instance, students noted that family photos are easily shared digitally: once we used to be limited to just our own photos, but now it’s easy to share images among family members.  In fact, most of the examples offered centered on family genealogy—suggesting that the findings of Dave Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Presence of the Past continue to hold true among this rising generation.

One thing we didn’t discuss, but that I was thinking about as we looked at websites like these (and others we explored, like London Lives), that present large caches of European primary sources, was the relationship between digital archives and our collective carbon footprint, as online collections transform relationships between research and travel.  There are other related implications here as well; as my colleague Jon noted, these sites also allow people with more limited financial resources to engage in archival research.

Up close and personal image of a knitted scarf

But then we turned to the inevitable highlight of the afternoon: the toys.  Jon showed us Gigipan views of President Obama’s first inaguration and insect specimens at the North Carolina State University Insect Museum presented by National Geographic.  On the syllabus, Jon had asked us to “bring your favorite piece of clothing that you would like to digitize. This might be a piece of clothing from your own wardrobe, your grandmother’s, or something you picked up at a thrift shop.”  Out of bags and backpacks came T-shirts, tops, hats, caps and shoes.  One student modeled a vintage coat that she’d word in a theatrical production, which Jon photographed using a Gigapan and a Canon G10 camera.  Most fun for me was the USB microscope.  One student produced a colorful top made of cotton, linen and viscose; under the microscope, the fabric was transformed into a beautiful grid, stunning in its perfect regularity—quickly contrasted by another woman’s knitted scarf, which under the microscope became a rugged terrain of gray and white fiber.

We also played around with the smartphone application “123D Catch” by Autodesk, the makers of “AutoCAD.”  Two students who had brought objects that lent itself to this tool—a gladiator sandal and a fedora—photographed their objects from several angles and watched as the software created a 3-D image.

Both the microscope and 123D Catch have a good bit of “wow factor.”  How might we use them in the exhibits to come?  Next week we will form teams and assign topics: can’t wait to see what’s next!

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Clothes Shopping Meets the Museum (An Introduction to Online Exhibits)

This week in our course “From Cotton to Kevalr,” Jon Olsen introduced us to basic concepts in design for web exhibits. First we read Paula Petrik’s discussion of the “Top Ten Mistakes in Academic Web Design,” which drew our collective attention to the selection, size and format of graphics and images; the size, density, length and contrast of text; and other matters where technology meets content. Then we turned to an assessment of several online examples.

Jon invited us to look at four examples of web exhibits, to guide our conversation: The Canadian War Museum’s exhibition on the War of 1812; Clark Remix, a project of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; “Inventing Europe,” a “pioneering collaboration between historians and cultural heritage institutions throughout Europe”; and “U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” an online project of the Minnesota Historical Society in observance of the conflict’s sesquicentennial. In addition, students were asked to “come to class ready to present shortly on your own favorite shopping website (not Amazon). Focus on why you like how the site functions.”

In class, four teams of students huddled around their respective laptops, looking at one of the four sites and comparing notes about what worked for them and what didn’t. When we reconvened, each team reported their observations. What did they like in terms of the site’s organization and navigation? What did they notice about relationships between content and format? Of the sites reviewed, “Inventing Europe” seemed to hold the most appeal. Students appreciated its straightforward style and organization. Clark Remix offered impressive bells and whistles, but the need to download new software to participate in the site was off-putting to some; others found the interactives offered on the War of 1812 site to be either too juvenile to engage college students or confusing, like “quizzes” that preceded rather than followed the sharing of content. In its easy-to-navigate format and brief (ca. 200-word) texts, “Inventing Europe” proved the easiest to understand, and hence the most appealing.

When the conversation turned to websites that students engaged with as literal rather than fictive consumers, a handful were named as models of design: Etsy, Rent the Runway, and American Apparel all received mentions. Praise for Rent the Runway centered on the ability to zoom in on the garment to see the fabrics involved, and the presence of images from all sides, to see how a garment hangs on the body. Etsy offers not only appealing content presented in a visually appealing way; it also “curates” (if we can use a verb in a way that has become controversial) the goods on display via the gatherings of “handpicked items” selected by members. The student who mentioned American Apparel directed our attention to the photography and the models, who seemed to look more familiar than many high fashion models. Jon suggested we consider J. Peterman, which on its catalog and site (famously) presents narratives that put the objects on display in imagined contexts. He also showed us the Google Art Project to demonstrate the power of Gigapixel images (something we will hopefully be able to try out in class soon as well).

And so, just as last week we began educating our eyes in terms of the chronology of clothing design, this week we began educating our eyes in terms of web exhibition, and particularly the way users engage objects in online settings. I for one have started paying more attention to the ways that exhibition design could learn from commercial enterprises. The discussion reminded me of a powerful conference paper delivered several years ago by the always-thoughtful Steven Lubar (Director of the Public Humanities program at Brown University), where he noted that museum visitors sometimes seem more engaged with objects in the museum gift shop than they do objects in the galleries, prompting some collective musing about what it is that curators need to learn from that end of the museum enterprise. How can we get visitors to look at the collections with equal care and attention? Jon’s set of exercises helped us think about what it is that we appreciate when buying clothing that might translate to good design in the study of clothing – a fruitful line of inquiry for the weeks to come.

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