"Charlie Chaplin Hat Trick" GIPHY. Accessed February 2, 2019.
Clothing and other sorts of adornment are tangible representations of embodiment – what Jules David Prown deems a “partnership of function and style” in his article “Mind in Matter” (13). An object that is worn is used and experienced more personally or intimately than other forms of material culture. Beyond what Prown highlights as a manifestation of personal identity through adornment is utility – how and why the object is used while modifying some portion of the body in a certain way (to cover, reveal, constrict, extend, burden, relieve, soothe, discomfort, protect, endanger, strengthen, weaken, warm, cool, darken, lighten, etc.).
Prown encourages scholars of material culture to first consider an object’s value – inherent in the materials themselves and their (re)use, demonstrated by its usefulness, and imbued by the transitory sentiments of those who possess it based on emotions, aesthetics, spirituality, or interpersonal symbolism (3). An object accrues more meaning for scholars if it “witnessed” or “survived” historical events or is considered “representative” of a specific culture or community (3-4). In order to analyze this confluence of elements, Prown suggests the following methodology:
- Describe observable details from the physical object itself. First, substantial analysis tells us measurements, materials, and composition. Second, analysis of content tells us about the meaning behind aesthetic details. Lastly, formal analysis tells us details in two- and three-dimensional terms, including color, light, and texture (7-8).
- Deduce the relationship between the object and the perceiver. First, sensory engagement tells us how one experiences the object on a physical level (e.g., see, touch, hear, smell, and taste). Second, intellectual engagement tells us how an object is understood, used, or interpreted. Finally, emotional response tells us what feelings the object evokes, how and why (8-9).
- Speculate on the history of the perceiver and object. First, theories and hypotheses provide contingencies for understanding the cultural value of the object. Second, a program of research will allow us to verify these ideas using provenance, historical context, etc.
Conversely, E. McClung Fleming’s classic approach to material culture analysis, as described in “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” seeks to identify five properties of an object – its history (where and when it was made, by and for whom, why, and who else owned it), material, construction, design, and function (156). In order to glean this information, Fleming suggests four operations:
- Identify what the object is using a loose taxonomy of function, material, construction, and/or content. Then, determine whether it is genuine. The five properties of an object should emerge from its identification. External sources like provenance and historical context may be used (156-157).
- Evaluate the object’s quality in terms of aesthetics and construction, then quantifiable elements such as size or cost. Similar objects may be used as points of comparison (157).
- Analyze the relationship between the object and its culture. Its function reveals behaviors and interactions between the wielder, their environment and fellow humans. Both its use and design may convey “status, ideas, values, feelings, and meaning” (158).
- Interpret the significance of the object in the now. Is the object valuable because of its association with a historical actor or event, expensive or rare, innovative or well-designed, symbolic or representative of a specific culture (161)?
Meanwhile, Charles F. Montgomery’s involved method in “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts” examines several elements of an object while prioritizing aesthetics:
- Appearance – overall impression, emotional reaction, shape, design and details (145).
- Form – measurements and proportions of the object (145-146).
- Ornament – style, composition, intention, and purpose of design and details (146).
- Color – hue and intensity, their symbolism (146-147).
- Materials – quality and origins, identifiable using direct sunlight, magnifying glasses, cameras, microscopes, x-rays, ultraviolet light, and carbon dating (147).
- Technique – quality of craftsmanship, skills and methods, unique details, and unification of components (147-148).
- Trade – brands, dates of manufacture, etc. to help identify origin (148-149).
- Function – how the object was made and intended for use (149).
- Style – a synthesis of the preceding elements; how aesthetics and utility overlap (149).
- Date – using previous information, given historical context and comparable objects (150).
- Attribution – using a creator’s signature or speculating based on stylistic similarities (150-151).
- History – provenance in the form of documentation, genuine or not (151-152).
- Condition – natural aging and wear, genuine or not (152).
- Evaluation – based on importance and rarity; aesthetic, cultural-historical, or monetary value (152).
However, I am most interested in the gaps and silences revealed by material culture studies. What historical information is absent, missing, or erased from or by the physicality of an object? As Jennifer M. Black demonstrates through her article “Gender in the Academy: Recovering the Hidden History of Women’s Scholarship on Scrapbooks and Albums,” the artefacts of marginalized people are often excluded from scholarly categories and methodologies. The elitist, pseudo-scientific study of “stuff,” its circumscription by academia and other institutions, obscures the relative value placed upon and gleaned from everyday things. Further, as historians, we will never know the full stories of the objects we study. We deal in speculation.
For my study of a bowler hat this semester, I propose the following methodology:
- Description – First, use the five senses to understand the hat qualitatively. See the shape, colors, materials, construction, composition, weight and other details – begin to speculate about the implications of these elements. Feel the texture, and smell the inside and outside – use these details to hone the previous descriptions, especially regarding material and condition (aging and wear). Lastly, measure the hat. I want to assess the object absent context and gather first impressions. Considering the object “in a vacuum” will allow for more hypotheses to emerge before being limited by a specific cultural and historical scope. Through this process, I would also like to juxtapose uninformed assumptions with rich context.
- Use – How was the hat worn and how often? What was its functional and symbolic utility? I ask these questions because I want to examine how the hat (like other kinds of adornment, re:Prown) was embodied by the wearer, what purpose it served and what meaning it held. How did it feel to wear the hat (physically, emotionally, aesthetically)?
- Value – How much did the materials cost? How much did the hat cost to make? How much did the wearer pay for the hat? How much did the wearer need this hat? Was it one of many or the only one? How much did the wearer care about this hat (sentimentally, aesthetically, culturally)? And how did these values change over time? How much is this hat worth now (monetarily, historically, symbolically, sentimentally)? I ask these questions because I want to understand the various facets of value with which the hat has been imbued by society, its wearer, and the historian. Drawing these distinctions reveals how all value is relative to context.
- Context – Investigate clues such as brands, dates of manufacture, creators’ signatures as a lead for historical research to contextualize the object. Identify any accompanying documentary evidence and provenance. Use this information to hone theories on how the object was experienced by the wearer. Given this information, I will be better able to assess the broader cultural significance of the hat, as well as its microhistorical significance to the wearer.