This conundrum resounds in academic scholarship – the so-called “canon” of fashion history. For example, I find myself struck by the contents of the 99-page encyclopedic entry for “Dress” on Oxford Art Online, written by Aileen Ribeiro, Margaret Scott, Hero Granger-Taylor, Jennifer Harris, Jane Bridgeman, Diana de Marly and Eleanor Gawne. Billed as a resource for the history of a fashion – replete with bibliographies for various regions and periodizations – the authors open their introduction with the following statement:
“This article is concerned primarily with the history and development of secular dress in the Western tradition. Further information on dress is given within the relevant country surveys under the heading ‘Textiles’, and articles on the following civilizations and countries have separate discussions of dress: see Ancient Near East, Burma, Cambodia, People’s Republic of China, Early Christian and Byzantine art, ancient Egypt, Etruscan, Islamic art, Pre- Columbian Mesoamerica, Nepal, Society Islands, Sri Lanka, Tibet. See also Beadwork.” (1)
And yet, the heading of the entry defines “dress” as “clothing or ornament used to cover and adorn the body” (1). Perhaps the authors thought only westerners cover their bodies… Then again, the Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines “dress” as “covering, adornment, or appearance appropriate or peculiar to a particular time” (much like our previous definition for costume), while the New York Public Library treats it as synonymous with “clothing.” Perhaps the authors were overwhelmed by this flurry of terminology. I know I am. Even still – why are “relevant country surveys” (whatever this means) consigned to the “textiles” heading? What’s the difference between “dress” and “textiles?” With “dress,” I sense the authors’ implication of western “civilization” – the attire of “civilized” bodies, and the “superior” act or ritual of dressing. Meanwhile, with “textiles,” one is led to imagine fabrics draped over nakedness in some semblance of a “garment.” There is no consideration of construction, style, or ensemble (their sociocultural implications) – only the white anthropological gaze set upon indigenous crafts and folk traditions. In other words, the act of covering bodies is classified as more or less “sophisticated” or “aesthetic” based on scholarly positionality, then subjected to different frameworks.
Also note which civilizations and countries receive their own discussions of dress – mostly Asian and Pacific Islander, ancient or pre-colonial cultures. Also note the impermanency of borders – cultures and nation-states alike. For example, China in 1000 BCE is not China in 1400 CE or China today. When narrating the history of fashion in China, does one only include a particular region’s dress once it’s been colonized – subsumed within the borders of the nation-state and, therefore, the historiography? Conformity to imperialist (oftentimes Eurocentric) conceptions of time and space through the application of rigid and canonical periodizations and nation-state borders limits our scope, our ability to identify broader patterns, collectivity, and gradations in historical experience.
I conclude with some observations from Philippe Perrot’s seminal work, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. As his English translator Richard Bienvenu points out in his preface, Perrot challenged scholars to ask why some material culture is not considered worthy of historical preservation and study, such as “inconsequential” clothing items like socks and undergarments (xi). In doing so, he pushed purveyors of fashion to go beyond surface-level aesthetics and study the sociocultural (even psychological) implications of individual clothing items. Throughout the book, Perrot describes the conferral of “status,” “self-respect,” and “worth” to those who tactfully engaged the fashions of their contexts at a cross section of identity and (under)privilege. In turn, the act of covering bodies – the rituals and material culture involved in it – take on symbolic meanings which ultimately afford them a place in the archives and the historiography.