Why study dress?
The study of dress supplies us with an opportunity to approach common topics in art, social studies and language arts classrooms from a fresh and engaging perspective.
Dress is not only visually stimulating, but also undoubtedly relatable. We know young people are already constructing their own understanding of identity through dress, at a time when identity formation is crucial to their development. Dress’ strong ties to self expression mean that our varying, intersecting identities allow us to experience clothing and adornment in different ways. Past social and political movements provide a basis for conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and culture, while dress acts as a vehicle to move the conversations from past events to the personal, present and future. Learning about the power of dress in historical movements allows for a wide range of new material to supplement common subjects already covered in educational spaces. It opens up space for discussions about social structures, culture and self-reflection.
Dress is “a way of communicating ideas, values and aspirations through clothes. Through our attire, we announce who we are and where we belong–or where we aspire to belong–in society."
Richard Thompson Ford
Dress is a habitual, pervasive part of our collective human experience, and yet in our most formative years most of what we learn about it goes entirely unspoken–merely observations and experiences we hold deep within ourselves as a means of social survival. Adolescence is often the crucial beginning to years of identity exploration and self-realization. And clothing is one critical tool amongst many for self-expression, communication and social navigation. But how often are young people given the space to process through societal perceptions and reflect on their own relationships to what they wear?
Dress is “key to ideology. It so legitimates power that the mere fact of switching clothes can bestow a person with ruling-class prestige...Fashion can be both oppressive and emancipating, glorious and terrible, revolutionary and reactionary at the same time.”
The powerful and pervasive nature of dress is even bigger than the individual. Its importance stretches beyond our perceptions of self and touches entire social structures. The bonnets rouges (red hats) of the French Revolution teach us that dress can signify solidarity and unity in the face of tyranny. Green carnations in the time of Oscar Wilde teach us that dress can be a discreet means of resistance, a way to cultivate safe spaces and connection in the midst of oppression. Facemasks, goggles, and the all black attire of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 teach us that our dress can be a means of protection; from physical police violence, from a raging pandemic and from state surveillance and persecution. History is full of examples of dress moving beyond self-expression and into the realm of politics, resistance and revolution. And while these social and political movements are about much more than what people wore, dress as a manifestation of culture, as a ubiquitous symbol of the zeitgeist, provides a unique lens through which we can examine movements of the past, which in turn can aid our understanding of the present and shape our dreams for the future.
“The same kind of critical method with which we approach a novel, a poem or a when we write a review of a film or drama should also be adopted when we approach the so little approached field of fashion. We should pay, that is, attention to fashion as a language, as a witty manifestation of form, as one of several ways in which the physiognomy of a people or an epoch shows itself.”
If educators can devote class time to analysis of poems, novels, films, plays and visual arts, then dress deserves its place amongst those cultural artifacts in the classroom, not just for the sake of consistency, but because its pervasive, relatable nature has the potential to bring history to life in new ways and give young people another tool to help fashion a more liberatory future for themselves and others.