"Feudal China Animation by Yang Hua Chun" GIPHY. Accessed March 6, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/ancient-beijing-m3SgylPA0MAlq.
Let’s return to a previous post. I attempted to define “clothes,” “clothing,” “style,” “fashion,” and “costume” – differentiating between seemingly synonymous subjects for the sake of historical (or anthropological) study. Using the Oxford Dictionary and Daniel Miller’s chapter “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” in Stuff, I settled on the following:
Clothes: items worn to cover the body
Clothing: clothes collectively
Style: the wearing of clothing, hair, and accessories in a manner unique to an individual body.
Fashion: a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, accessories, or behavior; the collective following of a trend; the production and marketing of said styles and trends.
Costume: a set of clothes in a style typical of or popular in a particular country or historical period.
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. In my previous post, I argued that historians tend to study fashion. Working with extant primary sources (often what was sent to archives by wealthy donors), they focus on clothing that was popular or, rather, well-documented – typical of a small and privileged demographic (such as white, upper-class women) – rather than what was commonly worn in a certain context.
The design and arrangement of material culture within a given environment aids in modifying one’s sense of space and time. In turn, space and time may convey an intersection of identity politics – such as race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. For example, Angel Kwolek-Folland describes the rise of scientific management in offices and factories in “The Gendered Environment of the Corporate Workplace, 1880-1930” in The Material Culture of Gender: The Gender of Material Culture, edited by Katharine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames. In the interest of reinforcing a sense of “hierarchy” (or, a classification of those above and below) and “efficiency” (or, what is considered a productive use of time), the layout of “fixtures … desks, chairs, cabinets, and water coolers” were altered to modify behavior and “facilitate particular interactions” (161). As such, the subjective value with which bodies and labor are imbued – the influence of capitalism on lived experience – is evinced in material culture.
"Call Her Savage, 1932" GIPHY. Accessed February 17, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/4JXRVBMI1emY7WQzDb.
As discussed in last week’s post, I’m interested in the gendering and sexing of material culture. However, beyond twentieth- and twenty-first-century marketing and commodification, how has this process worked? How can the shape, movement and utility embodied by an object itself suggest gender and sexuality?
As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich illustrates in “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts” in American Furniture (edited by Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley) – “to a twentieth-century eye, the graceful curves of a cabriole chair leg might appear ‘feminine,’ a massive chest with stubby bracket feet, ‘masculine.’ In the colonial world, the gender attributions were probably reversed. In both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a well-formed leg was one of the defining attributes of an upper-class male” (47). In other words, because constructs of gender and sexuality are fluid, subject to change, and vary throughout time and place, material culture (much like other primary sources) cannot be read through a presentist lens – or a Eurocentric one, for that matter. The elements of a single item – its materials, composition, production and consumption – can be and have been gendered and sexed in a variety contexts.