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Constructions Of Beauty: Sexuality And Issues Of Gendered Dress, Clothing As A Powerful Container Of National And Community Identity

Since the 1980s new generations of academics, collectors, curators, and enthusiasts have discovered the value of the study of dress as an analytical research tool through which to examine aspects of social and economic history, material culture, cultural and gender studies, art history, anthropology, and sociology. As a consequence, the study of the history of dress has been transformed from its marginalized place of professional connoisseurship and amateur enthusiasms to become a firmly established academic and museum-based subject.

In the world of ethnography, a reconsideration of the cultural significance of clothing coupled with a rejection of old imperial approaches to ethnographical artifacts has revolutionized the field. In the early twenty-first century ethnographical museums have reconfigured their collections and displays, creating "living culture" exhibitions. These, as Michael Ross and Reg Crowshoe insist, must "see the world through another's eyes" and must ensure that "respect [is] given to another world view" (p. 240). Many ethnographical museums are also faced with serious questioning about their right to hold on to artifacts that are specifically sacred to their communities of origin, who now demand their return.

The study of dress, especially European-American fashionable dress, has long had to deal with accusations, usually from male academics, that the entire subject is a frivolous, female, trivial interest. However, the use of material culture and history of consumption debates have finally overwhelmed these prejudices. Material culture approaches stem from the premise that all goods carry a weight of cultural meanings that can be specifically "read" through object-based and consumption analysis. Anne Smart Martin states that "material objects matter because they are complex, symbolic bundles of social, cultural and individual meanings fused onto something we can touch, see and own" (p. 142).

Even when the clothes themselves have gone, their shadows survive through archives such as diaries and family accounts. Amanda Vickery studied the dress of Mrs. Elizabeth Shackleton, a well-off textile merchant's widow from the north of England, through a set of surviving personal papers dating from 1762 to 1781. Vickery concludes that Mrs. Shackleton used her clothing to identify her exact place in her gentry/merchant-class community. She did this by simplifying aristocratic style, consuming fashion with care and consideration, and altering her favorite clothes. Vickery shows that some clothes became so important to Shackleton in terms of family memory that they acquired talismanic characteristics. Vickery declares finally that her study of Mrs. Shackleton indicates significantly that women were highly responsible managers of "daily household consumption" (1993, p. 274) and far from frivolous spenders.

In 1998, Christopher Breward usefully outlined dress research developed from cultural and media studies. He noted a new interest in dress within social anthropology and semi-otics, for example, citing approaches by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes as offering "cultural signifying systems, allowing the scholar to examine the social specificity of representations and their meaning across different cultural practices" (p. 306). Such dress-related representations include issues of behavior, the construction of appearance, the political question of identities (race, gender, and sexuality), subcultures, and semiotic interpretations of dress in films, literature, and magazines.

Caroline Evans discusses punk dress (with its patched-together use of schoolgirl uniform, bondage dress, and aggressive hair styling) as epitomizing a set of signs whose meaning is changed "through being jumbled up, re-ordered and re-contextualised next to other signs" (1997, p. 107). Fred Davis, in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (1992), also examined clothing as a nonverbal means of communicating social identity, "as this is framed by cultural values bearing on gender, sexuality, social status, age, etc." (p. 191). In refuting the trickle-down style-diffusion theory, he concludes that there are two fashion systems at play at the turn of the millennium, the globalized world of mass, commodified, international fashion and the "veritable cacophony of local, sometimes exceedingly transient, dress tendencies and styles each attached, however loosely, to its own particularity, be it a subculture, an age grade, a political persuasion an ethnic identity" (p. 206).

Feminist approaches.

Vickery, Jane Gaines, and Elizabeth Wilson have argued that feminist consumption analysis of the 1970s all too easily accepted a male view that women's interest in dress was frivolous and that women had indeed allowed themselves to become "the gilding of the patriarchal cage," on display for male pleasure (Vickery, 1998, p. 274). Wilson comments how strange it is that "when so much else has changed there still exists such a strong hostility to fashion amongst so many radicals" (p. 28). She proposes that feminists should accept "fashion as a legitimate and highly aesthetic pleasure," (p. 33), a view shared by Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton, who wrote in 1989 that fashion "is a field in which women have found pleasure in the elaboration of meaning—meaning which is there to be taken and used" (p. xv).

Analysis of male dress.

A new development in the 1990s, building on Farid Chenoune's innovative History of Men's Fashions (1993), has been the emergence of new critical examinations of menswear. This differs from the subcultural focus of Dick Hebdige in that it looks at a far wider social range of male clothing. Christopher Breward, Frank Mort, and John Tosh focus on the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries rather than on earlier periods. Their studies investigate not only the style, retailing, and consumption of men's clothing, but also the cultural processes surrounding the construction of masculinity and they provide, for the first time, an analysis of gay culture and its impact on mainstream dressing.

Thus, the whole field of dress history and dress studies has undergone a dynamic transformation since the 1980s, though it is useful to remember Patricia Cunningham's warning of 1988 that dress historians should not "follow other approaches blindly, but rather let our own questions and materials lead us to new approaches" (p. 79).

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