Preface and Introduction
History, any history, is a construct made in the mind of the historian, and as such is a story of the past as seen by the person writing it. Back when history was only written by upper class white males, sure enough “history” was all about the doings of dead upper class white males. As social classes churned, and men of lowly origins became educated and wealthy enough to write and read histories, their “history” became about class struggle and economy. As people of color began writing history, no surprise, “history” became about racism and man’s struggles to overcome it. As women wrote, “history” became about sexual politics, and the history of domestic life. This is a dramatic over-simplification, but it is at core, true. History is “about” whatever the historian thinks is important and interesting, and the facts of the past are unearthed and preserved like archeological objects, only when a person is there who thinks it is worth digging for them. The historian takes the bits of the past that make sense to her/him and arranges them into a form that tells the story of the past as the historian sees it. The better the historian, the closer their “history” corresponds to the reality of the past, but all historians, no matter how talented and prolific, can only reveal a piece of the past to their readers. Their choice of which piece of the past to illuminate, depends on the historian’s interests, gender, class, age, social and racial group, and thousands of tiny less definable personal attributes that make the historian an individual human.
I preface The History of Fashion and Dress with this statement, because I don’t actually see this course as just a history of different bits of clothing worn in different time periods, but rather as a “History of Western Civilization” course as taught by a female, white, middle class, middle aged costume designer, who thinks that what is important isn’t what people wore, but why they wore it. And who thinks that the history of fashion and dress is the history of everyone. Where the history of politics primarily concerns the power struggles of the upper classes, and the history of war, the power struggles of men, fashion history is about struggles between rich and poor, men and women, East and West, and indigenous populations and colonists.
Clothing for me is a beautiful visual demonstration of the social and emotional needs of it’s wearers, and as such, shows in a clearly understood visual way what people of differing times and cultures wanted socially. Western Fashion is a good beginning, in that it has gone through so many rapid changes and bizarre extremes that it has examples of nearly every kind of clothing function. So I will teach a brief over view of my “history” of Western Civilization, as seen by a female, white, middle class, middle aged costume designer, Through The History of Fashion and Dress. Naturally, this being the case, it will illuminate what I think is important in history: aesthetics, the position of women, technological innovations in garment manufacture, sex fetishism, personal self expression, social and political revolutions, and of course, clothes.
Go to the Class Message Board at eGroups, and post a short, one paragraph statement that explains “I am interested in the History of Fashion because…..”
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Images from Racinet’s Le Costume Historique, 1878