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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