Fashion History Methodology - new video!

Hi, everybody – it’s Cassidy! I started this YouTube channel months ago but I’ve been really lax about actually making videos. But we’re far enough into the Coronavirus that I’m ready to work on getting into Youtube. It is hard for me, because I’m not really used to watching myself … except that I am getting more used to watching myself due to all those Zoom meetings.  (Please tell me that other people obsess about how they look even though they know nobody’s watching them …)

What I’m going to try to do to get more familiar with this whole format is adapt some of my posts from AskHistorians into videos (which in theory should work a lot better than trying to do podcasts about fashion history, like I was doing for a while (and thank you to everyone who supported that venture!) since I can add in visual aids, which are pretty important to this subject). AskHistorians is a forum on Reddit where people can come in and ask questions about any aspect of human history and while they’re not guaranteed answers, it is guaranteed that the answers they do get will be informed and based on academic sources and real expertise. I’m part of the moderation team there, and I also write answers: at first just on fashion history, but I’ve branched out into social history and women’s history, mainly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Along the way, I started also focusing on queens and aristocratic women from the middle ages to the mid-twentieth century. Here is a link to AskHistorians , and here is one that will take you directly to the profile page that shows you almost every question I’ve answered, sorted by date and topic.

So the following is adapted from a post that I wrote on AskHistorians to explain how we “do” fashion history – what we call “methodology”. It’s worth discussing because it’s not the same as forms of history that just focus on text, or just on images, or just on artifacts. We can use all three to learn about how people dressed and how they thought about their clothing, particularly in the west. And it’s important to add that last qualifier, because very often we talk about “18th century fashion” or “1920s fashion”, for example, without specifying that the same clothes weren’t worn globally – if you go back far enough, that they weren’t even worn all over Europe. I study western fashion history, and when you go back a couple of centuries, I have to admit that I study English and French fashion history above all, as do most American and British fashion historians.

On to methodology.

Primary textual and visual sources are applicable to every type of history, including this one. Primary sources are texts or images made during the time period that you’re studying: some important ones in fashion history are diaries, newspaper articles, fashion plates, portraits, and that kind of thing. These are really useful for obvious reasons, but it’s so important to use them critically. You have to learn to be aware that artists might change details of the clothing being worn by a sitter, for instance. At the same time, it’s important to learn specifically how they tended to change details. If you just assume that anything you want to see is realistic and anything that doesn’t fit your notions of clothing from the period is “artistic license”, you’re not going to get everything you could out of looking at these images: you’re just confirming your own preconceptions.

In the seventeenth century, European writers began to deliberately create records of contemporary fashion or regional dress. Technically, the first known is from 1590, Cesare Vecellio’s De gli habiti antichi et moderni di diversi parti del mondo (on antique and modern clothes of many parts of the world), but one of the best-known is the Recueil des modes de la cour de France (Collection of fashions of the French court), designed by Nicholas Arnoult and printed in the late seventeenth century. It depicts the formal and informal summer and winter dress of the men and women "of quality" at the French court. 

Although it was most likely done to give artists examples to copy rather than to spread awareness of the fashions, it was the precursor to the regularly-distributed periodicals like the Galerie des Modes (Gallery of Fashion) and the magazines that followed it, Magasin des Modes (Fashion Shop) and Cabinet des Modes (Fashion Cabinet), which were published every few weeks and sent out to subscribers in Paris and around the country in the late eighteenth century. 

Other magazines, like the English Lady's Magazine, might include a single fashion plate with a brief description mixed in with its literary content around the same time. 

In the nineteenth century, more and more of these were published, and so we have a fairly good idea of what was fashionable where from then on. Usually fashion magazines promised that the clothing and accessories they showed were spotted by the artist and/or editor on the street, in the theater, at court, or in the dressmaker's salon. 

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we also have sketches by designers themselves, frequently dated. These work as a similar type of document tying a specific style to a specific time and place. 

We also often use portraiture and other types of artwork when they can be dated in some way. Many of them are very detailed and give good indications of construction and material.

Other highly useful primary sources are letters and diaries. A pro of fashion plates is that they tell us what people saw as "up to date", but a con is that we don't know exactly how fast people were copying them, and what was considered normal variation in up-to-dateness. Personal documents give us important information about individual men's and women's experience with their clothing - what they bought and when, issues they had with prevailing fashions, what they were making fun of as dowdy, and so on. In periods before fashion plates and for people who weren't affluent enough to pay attention to them, we're also big fans of wills and probate inventories, which can tell us at least how many items someone owned, and often what color and fabric they were. Of course, the downside to these solely textual documents is that we don't know how the clothes they describe were cut and made.

In some cases we’re very lucky to have a mixture of both! An eighteenth century Englishwoman named Barbara Johnson was conscientious enough to create an album that documented her purchases of fabric throughout her adult life and what her dressmaker made with them. For instance, the first page shows us a sample of a blue silk damask she bought for half a guinea a yard in 1746, and lets us know that it was made into a petticoat. The blue-printed white linen underneath it was bought in 1748 for a gown. Some pages also include contemporary illustrations or fashion plates that help to give an idea of what the gowns looked like when made up.

The other big type of primary source we use is actual clothing, of course. (Here's the link to the wedding suit in the video, with pattern!) These can range from actual Victorian gowns made by Parisian couturiers, still in pristine condition, to tiny fragments of wool and linen excavated by archaeologists from Bronze Age dig sites. The physical garment evidence we have prior to the early modern period is mostly archaeological, bits that survived due to the qualities of the soil or being near metal jewelry and fittings, though we do have some full or nearly full garments that have survived in tombs and bogs. 

As with the previous categories of evidence, there are pros and cons.


  • The clothing exists in the real world, and so we know it definitely wasn’t imagined the artist or writer, but something that could physically have been made.

  • We can examine it closely for information about how the fibers were spun and dyed, how the pieces were stitched, how it was made to fit to the body, etc.


  • It's usually not firmly attached to a date unless the archaeological find is close to datable material, or there’s family history tying it to a specific event.

  • ... And family history can be very wrong, off by generations (although I will say that usually family history from the 1880s through the present appears to be correct most of the time).

  • We don't know what the wearer thought about it, whether they considered it to be well-made or fit properly or be aesthetically pleasing.

So we have to be careful about coming to conclusions. A gown might be dated "1876-1877" by a curator who knows what she's doing and is aware that it most closely conforms to the current fashions of that period ... but it may actually have been made in 1878 by a person who didn't want to be, or couldn’t be, on the bleeding edge of fashion and brought out for special occasions over the next several years.

A third type of source that’s becoming more and more accepted is experimental archaeology - or, as we could also call it, costuming and reproduction. (I personally like the phrase "historical recreationism" because it implies the attempt to accurately recreate by using historical methods and materials, without the baggage of the words "reproduce" or "reproduction", which imply a perfect duplicate.) Using the methods of inquiry I described before, people can try to make and wear garments to see how they work, and what can be learned by following historical methods of weaving, dyeing, or construction. 

I think this is most useful when it comes to questions of "why did they do that?" - for instance, why did dressmakers in the 1860s and 1870s sometimes put thin pads in front of the armscye, at the sides of the chest? It turns out to help to smooth out wrinkles. Or "how does it feel to manage a bustle, a neck stock, suspenders, etc.” One great example of this is Hilary Davidson's recreation of a pelisse worn by Jane Austen.

The big danger to this method, however, is that it’s easy to go beyond the historical methods to use modern ones – like because it "just makes sense" to take a dart in an ill-fitting bodice, even though they simply didn't do that in some periods, or fit to a modern perception of comfort or aesthetics. This is why it's so important, when using experimental methods to prove a point in fashion history, to document everything and be able to explain why one fiber/fabric/stitch/etc. was used over another. And, honestly, to be prepared for someone to raise a point that you missed!


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