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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