From Cotton to Kevlar: Fashion History Meets Digital Humanities

Historic Dress co-conspirator Jon Berndt Olsen and I have just got some terrific news.  In September, in connection with this larger Historic Dress project, we have been given a green light to offer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst a new First-Year seminar, “From Cotton to Kevlar: Fashion History meets Digital Humanities.” Our aim is to try out some ideas that animate Historic Dress while also introducing students to digital approaches to humanities research and interpretation.

The course is part of a larger program at UMass that gives new students an opportunity to work closely with faculty members on subjects they are especially passionate about.  Teaching this course seemed a great way to continue to explore, in collaboration with undergraduates, the material and archival resources associated with fashion history in the Five Colleges area while also continuing to build content for this online-resource-in-the-making.

In our course proposal, we wrote: “Clothing from any time and any place is a historical document: it sheds light on values, technologies, aesthetics, gender and class expectations, politics and economics associated with past cultures. From the boycotts of the American Revolution to the cotton market during the American Civil War to the 20th-century development of high-performing fabrics like rayon and Kevlar, fashion history is inextricably entwined with larger developments in our history. Today, digital tools are helping scholars from a range of disciplines research and write about clothing and fashion history. Students in this course will expand their knowledge of and competencies with digital tools like high resolution imaging, database management and Internet publishing as they read and write the history of American apparel.” Students in the course will read and think about fashion history while also creating new online content, probably in the form of an exhibition or exhibitions based on their own independent research in campus and local collections.

A specialist in Public History and New Media, Jon Olsen will tackle the DH elements, in alternating weeks devoted to topics like “Clothes Shopping Meets the Museum (Introduction to Online Exhibits);” “Fashion Shoot (A Hands-On Tutorial of Digital Imaging Tools);” Tailoring Your Vision (Project Planning and Implementation); Cutting and Sewing (Online Exhibit Building); and Advanced Cutting and Sewing (More Online Exhibit Building) – watch this space for another blog post on our aims there.  We’re hoping to schedule the courses in a new Team-Based Learning facility on campus (classrooms with large, round tables, each with three built-in laptops, and large wall-mounted monitors all around the room) to facilitate looking and learning collaboratively.

Meanwhile, I will help students see how fashion history is inextricably entwined with larger developments in American history.  I am eager to show them the wool suit George Washington wore to his first inauguration—a gesture to American manufacturing independence—as a way into discussions of political consumption in the Revolutionary era; the ties between their own wardrobes and U.S. trade policies, the history of domestic textile and clothing production, and the recent tragedy in Bangladesh will (if all goes well) become clearer to this group of UMass first-year students.  Global networks of production and consumption will emerge as students map the clothing in their dorm room closets. The larger histories behind Nylon, Rayon, Kevlar (I would love to find ways to link this discussion to our campus’ incredible Polymer Science programs) will illuminate the braided relationships between industrial innovation and fabric production. And I have already asked our colleague Tanisha Ford to share her work on “Denim Revolutionaries: SNCC Women and the Politics of Dress;” I would love, too, to assign the new (and prizewinning) book by our former colleague Kathy Peiss, Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style.  All of this will be great preparation, too, for the larger survey course I hope to some day develop, tentatively titled American History/American Fashion.

We have much still to work out about the syllabus and assignments, but there are many ideas in play. Students might study and scan the run of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts in the library’s Special Collections. They might study images of students and faculty, analyzing the sartorial history of UMass in its first half century.  They might help document as-yet-uncatalogued costume collections in our area.  The options are wide open.

I will be planning the course over the summer.  Any thoughts on what to assign?  Already I have too many ideas for readings I’d love to share, but need to pick ones that will work well with first-year college students. If you have had success with something, please share!

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