Off and running: the semester begins

I am writing these words wearing an iconic piece of clothing. But I didn’t understand just how iconic until yesterday, at the first class meeting of our freshman seminar “From Cotton to Kevlar: Historic Dress meets Digital Humanities.”

A photograph of black yoga pants, shown from the waist down.

The ubiquitous yoga pants.

The course, as another post here explains, aims to introduce students to—and get them excited about—the scholarly opportunities of historic dress as they learn some of the ways digital humanities tools can help them study clothing from the past, and share their insights. As an icebreaker exercise, my colleague Jon Olsen and I asked students to write down an article of contemporary apparel that future historians will need to study in order to understand the world of early 21st-century UMass undergraduates. The black yoga pant won hands down on the “most-mentions” front.

What else should museums be collecting to document this moment? Answers included rompers, North Face jackets, skinny jeans, T-shirts, sweats and (sadly, to my mind, though accurate) combat boots. Surprisingly, no one mentioned baseball caps, platform shoes, Uggs or some of the other ubiquitous and/or of-the-moment items that we see around Herter Hall every day.

It was a revealing glimpse into the sartorial landscape of the campus–and a great start to the semester. After a brisk review of the syllabus and course expectations, we then plunged into the real treat for the day: Kiki Smith had brought over three boxes of highlights from the Smith College costume collection. Among other things we got to see Annette Kellerman’s one-piece wool bathing suit (“banned in Boston” at the dawn of the 20th century), the very collars that gave us “white collar” workers, women’s gowns both elegant and practical, a 1960s Pucci dress alongside its more approachable department-store counterpart, and a 1930s man’s robe best described as “early Abercrombie”.

A photograph of Kiki Smith standing at a table showing some historic costume objects, with Marla Miller behind her, and students seated all around.

Kiki Smith shares some objects from the Smith College costume collection with the UMass freshman seminar “From Cotton to Kevlar: Historic Dress meets Digital Humanities.”

In another UMass classroom this semester, students in Professor Tanisha Ford’s course Feminism(s) and Fashion in the African Diaspora?will be journaling about the clothes they choose to wear and the ways those choices are read by others around them—a great idea for connecting students to everyday clothing and their many implications. Professor Ford will be visiting us later in the semester, to share her research on black women’s history, fashion and body politics, and the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Among the many aims of both of these courses is helping our students become more aware of the many, varied and braided histories they step into when they reach into the closet each morning.

I have four pairs of black yoga pants, so I could easily donate one to this curatorial cause. As I slipped out of my own first-day-of-class ensemble (vintage ankle-length black and white polyester skirt, black cotton and modal t-shirt, white slap watch, black Naot “Peace” sandals) into my black yoga pants, I took a moment to appreciate their current status as a go-to item for women of all generations (I know this because my 72-year-old mother has four pairs as well). And I paused a moment too for another thought: this is going to be a fun semester.

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