"Bra Burning Feminist from Daria" GIPHY. Accessed January 19, 2019.
When studying material culture, how do we parse materialism and consumerism? Take, for instance, Daniel Miller’s chapter “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” in Stuff, which warns against the biases of western scholars who study material culture. Miller bandies about several buzzwords in the space of one paragraph without taking the time to define them for his reader – “material culture,” “materialism,” “materialistic,” “consumer society” and “modern mass consumption” (22). However, what one might gather from this cluster of terminology is that while materialism holds that “people are constituted by things and appearances” (22), consumerism includes the capitalistic underpinnings of such a philosophy (or, the production and consumption of said materials within a capitalist system). Therefore, words like “materialistic” have taken on connotations of superficiality because of a narrow, western economic perspective. As such, we find that the white anthropological gaze may romanticize and celebrate the labor and handicrafts of other cultures, yet condescendingly critique the value placed on specific material goods like clothing (15). These scholars fail to identify the role that stuff plays in our everyday lives – the interplay of aesthetics and physicality, spirituality and social politics – beyond production and consumption.
In turn, how do we differentiate between histories (and historiographies) of fashion, clothing and costume? These terms are similarly bound up in cultural connotation, race, gender and class, yet often conflated for the sake of an argument or agenda. Let’s take the Oxford Dictionary definition as a starting point (though note it’s hardly an unbiased source of information) –
- Clothing: clothes collectively; Clothes: items worn to cover the body
- Fashion: a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration, or behavior (also, their production and marketing).
- Costume: a set of clothes in a style typical of a particular country or historical period.
Early on in his chapter, Miller describes fashion as “the collective following of a trend” and style as “the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it” (15). While Miller, an anthropologist, concerns himself with the study of clothing – its popularity and how it is worn or used – historians lay claim to the study of costume – drawn to the term for its use of periodization, then versus now. I would argue, however, that historians more often find themselves studying fashion rather than clothing. Working with extant primary sources, they will focus on clothing that was popular or, rather, visible and well-documented – typical of certain demographics (such as white, middle- and upper-class women).
This issue is well evinced in Jennifer Price’s “When Women were Women, Men were Men, and Birds were Hats” in Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature In Modern America. The chapter is littered with generalizations, playing into gender dichotomies while attempting to critique them. Price investigates how the members of women’s organizations at the turn-of-the-century rallied against bird hats as part of a growing national conservation movement. In doing so she asks how these women acted as women (67), going on to outline gendered expectations such as feminine purity and women as paragons of virtue and advocates for societal morality. Except – Price neglects to mention these gendered expectations, these roles and identities, were very specific to white, middle- and upper-class American women (except passingly at the end of her chapter on page 99). Yet, throughout the text, she hints at these complex dynamics without any further discussion. For example, men would joke that a bird hat made a woman “look like a laundress carrying home her day’s work on her head” (76) – implying that only those who were not laundresses (and, likely, could afford to employ them) would wear bird hats. Likewise, Price also discusses how affluent businessmen were rendered blameless by the campaigns of these white, middle- and upper-class women. Campaigns targeted the women who wore the hats, but not the men who sold them. The men who dealt in the economics of supply and demand “were not immoral,” simply “amoral” (93) – merely spurred to sell to hoards of female consumers. After all, in a capitalist society, who is the victim and who is the perpeturator? Ultimately, Price argues that both the market and fashion are human inventions, in which “both” genders are complicit (96) – but what is gender without race and class?
To that end, who drives the production and consumption of fashion – of all material culture? In “The Many Face of Eve: Styles of Womanhood Embodied in a Late-Nineteenth Century Corset,” Leslie Shannon Miller suggests the male gaze and, in tandem, feminine sex appeal and desirability, drive such trends. Contrary to the philosophy of the bird hat controversy of the 1900s, “the importance of men in the propagation of corsets was condemned again and again by doctors and dress reformers” (140). As one doctor put it in 1886, “If men would refuse to marry women who wear corsets, how long would it be before corsets are out of fashion?" (140). Conversely, in the chapter “Grooming, Clothing, and Accessories” from Artifacts from Modern America, Helen Sheumaker cites the 1968 “Freedom Trash Can” demonstration as the fabled origin of feminist “bra burners” (140), wherein activists disposed of items that symbolized women’s oppression – false eyelashes, girdles, and bras. So, what role do aesthetics and materiality play in gender, racial and economic subjugation? How much does the onus and illusion of a societal standard fall on those who conform (for fear of retribution) versus those who passively consume or actively judge (and reinforce said standard)?
Lastly, let’s consider the relationship between clothing and other material culture to our bodies – the stuff we put on, in, and around ourselves. Daniel Miller discusses the “prosthetic quality” of the pallu (“the decorated end of the sari that falls over the shoulder”) in everyday tasks and social gestures (25). In helping to hold, clean, or cover, clothes (among other things) can add to the body’s functions. Meanwhile, other items may constrict or reshape us. Sheumaker relates the health issues associated with wearing bras (140), while Leslie Shannon Miller describes both the physical and cultural significance of removing of such garments – “The salient image here is that of the ‘loose’ (or simply ‘loosened’) woman who sheds her morals as she sheds the confines of her clothes” (141). Material culture and body politics inform one another. Beyond clothing, we also use accessories, not to mention shampoos, face washes, and makeup we use to cover up or alter our appearances. As Sheumaker puts it, “sweating, dandruff, bad breath, and acne are the things of nightmares for most adolescents: ordinary issues of the human body define whether one is acceptable to others or not” (105). The stigmatization of natural bodily functions promotes capitalism – the buying and selling of goods that will “alleviate” these “embarrassing” issues. In turn, these goods comprise material culture and a history of social, cultural, political and economic commentaries on the human body.