Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reflections on My Study of Historic Costume

This evening, I spotted a new book on titled "African Costume and Textiles". Because I know so little about costume in Africa (other than what the standard costume texts based on Western civilization regurgitate about the clothing of ancient Egypt), I eagerly read the product description, which I'll quote in part:

Celebrating African costumes and textiles, this volume draws on historical and modern pieces from the Zaira and Marcel Mis Collection. The extraordinary works presented exemplify the craftsmanship of highly skilled African weavers and provide insight into the lives and culture of various ethnic groups. ....

The book presents a breathtaking variety of costumes, textiles, and accessories used for everyday wear and for special celebrations, and explores the different techniques, influences, and meanings behind these colorful works of art. The essays describe the history of the development of these techniques and the richness of the symbolism in this form of cultural heritage. The superb photography showcases the splendor of these intricate and exquisite textiles.

I found this description disappointing. Why? Because, to me, this description is characteristic of a type of costume book I have come to find very disappointing. There is a type of costume book that features colorful, interesting, and exotic museum or collectors' finds, but simply presents photographs of them, with some identifying information. There is no context provided as to how that type of costume evolved, why it was worn, or whether and why the use of it died out.

It occurred to me, though, that one reason I have so many books of this general type is that, once upon a time, I found them satisfying. Although I still wanted to know more, I was thrilled just to see color photos of an exotic costume that a particular people wore, at a particular place and time.

Remembering that reminded me that my choice of costume history sources has evolved over time. Looking back, I'd say that I have gone through the following phases in my pursuit of information about historic costume:

* The "oh, wow!" phase. This one arguably started when I was only 4, and came into possession of a large (over a dozen) hoard of 8-inch tall dolls, each dressed in the "native" costume of a different country. I was enchanted by the variety and sheer number of different, colorful costumes that were worn by peoples about which I knew nothing, and by how much those costumes differed from the everyday costume that was worn by me, my family and friends.

* The "What did they wear?" phase. This is the phase I'm referring to when I talk about the start of my interest in historic costume at age 15 or so. At the time, I was becoming interested in the political history of England during the Middle Ages, so I looked for books that appeared to have all the answers about what people wore during the Middle Ages. (Fortunately for me, the first such book I found was the Cunningtons' history of medieval costume, which, as far as it goes, is still deemed to be fairly accurate, even though it is based almost entirely upon art analysis.) I had not yet realized that, with the arguable exception of the last 250 years or so, scholars have yet to gather sufficient information for anyone to be able to say, with certainty, that we know exactly what was worn by people in previous historic periods.

* The "Collect the set!" phase. This phase, which overlapped for me with the "what did they wear?" phase, was when I became inspired to learn at least a little about historic costume worn by anyone in any culture during any time in history (except from about the mid-20th century to the present, a period which never has greatly interested me for some reason, despite the fact that I'm living in it.) The fact that I knew nothing about what people wore during a particular time was often sufficient reason for me to buy a book that purported to have information about it. (Even now, I'm interested in such books--but now I have higher standards for whether they are worth my time and money.)

* The "How were the clothes made?" phase. I'd say I got here after college (roughly 30 years ago), when I got my first job and had the money to spend on lots of new books. By that time, I knew by heart the basic outlines of what is commonly presented as the "history of Western Costume". Now I wanted more detail about how each outline was created and what made apparently similar dresses different. That meant delving more into period underwear and support garments, and learning about how period clothing was cut, sewn, decorated and dyed. I wanted this knowledge in order to make more authentic-looking costumes, as well as to increase my knowledge of historic costume in general.

* The "Search for More Trustworthy Sources" phase. This phase started for me in the early 1990s, when I stumbled over Carolyn Priest-Dorman's and Christina Krupp's Compleat Anachronist booklet on Dark Ages Northern European women's costume. Their booklet opened my eyes to how much we can learn about historic costume from archeology, even where the surviving evidence appears to be minuscule. I experimented with their suggestions for how to reproduce the costumes they discussed, and schemed to get my hands on the sources in their substantial bibliography.

While I was engaged in this search, the Internet sprang into being, making it possible for me to take my search for better information global. Since the mid-1990s, I have obtained copies of many books and articles I would never have dreamed existed, back when local libraries were the best available sources of information accessible to me.

* The "Can I Add Anything?" phase. Over the last few years, I've been reading sources--particularly about the Viking age, which has become my primary area of interest--and thinking about the implications of what I'm reading for the currently accepted picture of period costume. Though work and other factors keep getting in the way, I am slowly moving toward focusing my efforts into research that might help, at least in a small way, advance our knowledge of what people in northern Europe wore during the Viking age.

That's where I'm at today. Even now, though, I remain interested in non-Viking costume, and my sewing projects continue to hopscotch all over recorded history.

If anyone reading this has any comments on the shape of their own quest for knowledge of historic costume, I'd love to read them.


  1. Hello,

    I've just found your blog by following a link on A stitch in time's blog, and enjoyed reading this post. My journey is kind of similar to yours, but being on a student budget I never invested in books, but only saw them in libraries. I remember loving my mother's collection of dolls in national dress from the various countries in Europe she'd visited and found the long skirts enchanting.

    I found the Dark Ages Complete Anachronist about the same time as I found a copy of The Hogom Find and other Migration Period Textiles in the uni library. Alas, someone borrowed my copy of the CA and then moved house and lost it, so I have neither.

    Now that I've finally finished my degree and have a job, perhaps I can start purchasing costume books (well, I do own a copy of Woven into the Earth). If I don't spend all of my cash traveling instead...

  2. I remember the days when I could only get costume-related books from libraries. Congratulations on having a job and no longer being a broke student! still sells CA 59, so you could order a replacement copy if you'd like to have it for old times' sake. It's $4.50 (no extra charge if they send it Media Mail; $1.58 if you ask for US First Class Mail). I don't know if you're in the US or not, and I don't know what the rates are for delivery if you're overseas.

    Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed my post.