History and Sociology of Clothing: Some Methodological Observations

Up until the start of the nineteenth century there had not been, in the true sense of the word, a History of dress, but only studies in ancient archaeology or of qualitative inventories of garments.2 At first, the History of dress was an essentially romantic notion, either providing artists, painters or men of the theatre with the necessary figurative elements of ‘local colour’, or enabling the historian to establish an equivalence between vestimentary form and the general mindset of the time or of the place (Volksgeist, Zeitgeist, spirit of the times, moral disposition, atmosphere, style, etc.).

Truly scientific research on dress started in about 1860 with work by scholars and archivists such as Quicherat, Demay or Enlart,3 or by medievalists in general. Their principal method was to treat dress as the sum of individual pieces and the garment itself as a kind of historical event, the main aim of which being above all to locate its date of birth and the circumstances surrounding it.

This kind of work still dominates, to the extent that it continues to inspire the numerous vulgarized histories that abound to this day and that are linked to the development of fashion’s commercial myth-making. So the History of dress is yet to benefit from the renewal of historical studies that has been taking place in France for the last thirty years:

This renewal 4 The Language of Fashion has taken account of the social and economic dimension of History, of the links between clothes and human emotional phenomena as defined by Lucien Febvre, of the demand for an ideological understanding of the past as postulated by Marxist historians.

In fact, it is the whole institutional perspective on dress that is missing, a gap all the more paradoxical given that dress is both a historical and a sociological object if ever there was one. So the inadequacies in histories of dress that we have so far are, first and foremost, those that are evident in all historicist forms of history. And yet the study of dress poses a particular epistemological problem which we would at least like to underline here:

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namely, that posed by the analysis of any structure as soon as it is placed in its history but is not allowed to cease being a structure. An item of clothing is indeed, at every moment of history, this balance of normative forms, all of which are constantly changing.

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