Part 6 of a 6-part series on aspects of fashion theory, specifically cultural studies and object analysis. Written partly to reassure myself that I do understand the concepts and partly to help clarify things for others, this post is based on notes I took during a lecture at London College of Fashion by Dr Shaun Cole.
What can clothing tell us about where and how it was made, who wore it and the society they lived in? A lot more than you’d think! Jules Prown presented an artifact analysis model in his 1982 paper “Mind in Matter: An introduction to material culture theory and method”, which explains how you can obtain the most information by progressively structuring the analysis of your chosen object. (N.B. This was not a process developed with clothing objects in mind.) He split the it into three stages: Description, deduction and speculation.
This description stage requires a clear, concise description of the object. List things like the garment’s physical dimensions, colour, shape, fabric type/appearance, construction, the presence of labels and the wording they contain. Mention if the item is damaged, incomplete, or if it appears to have been altered. Don’t use any previous knowledge at this stage – merely describe what you can see. For the deduction, you’ll use your own knowledge and reflect on your interaction with the garment. Think about what it would be like to wear, how it compares with other examples (is it typical?), and what it reveals about the owners’ taste/wealth/status/etc. Use your knowledge of dress history, garment construction and textile production for this stage. If you have limited knowledge, look it up!
The final part of the process is speculation, which leads to broader questions reflecting on the material nature of clothing itself and its status in history and culture. If the garment is old, consider why this particular item has survived. To directly quote a handout we were given in class: “It’s important to question the value of a garment in aesthetic, social, economic, cultural and historical terms. By doing this you can arrive at new knowledge and insights.” This is all well and good, but there’s only so much information you can obtain from the garment itself. Without additional information to allow you to put the object analysis in context – e.g. letters, oral history, photographs – The real meaning and stories behind a garment can never be discovered.
2015 UPDATE: Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim have proposed an alternative method of object analysis specifically for clothing in their book The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, based on three main phases: observation, reflection, and interpretation. It’s a very useful book with case studies and checklists, so I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy if this is something you are interested in.
Main image via Housing Works Thrift Shops‘ Flickr photostream. Other image by lipsticklori.