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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