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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Every week should be fashion week!

By Justyna Zajac, Associate Publicist

New York City’s Fashion Week may have officially kicked off last Thursday, September 9th, but it was Fashion’s Night Out (Friday, Sept. 10th) that really seemed to launch festivities. Serving as a celebration of the industry and of anyone with an affinity for dress, FNO encouraged stores and boutiques to partake in one glorious garment party and gift clientele with a variety of freebies and fun. You could listen to DJs spin tunes and play foosball in Bergdorf Goodman, take glam photos at DKNY, have Vanessa Carlton serenade you with a piano in Ann Taylor, or sip champagne while browsing accessories in Michael Kors.

Therefore, in the spirit of NYC Fashion Week, I present an interview conducted by Berg Fashion Library online Publisher Kathryn Earle, with the Editor of the print Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Joanne Eicher and Professor Phyllis Tortora of Queen’s College on the critical role dress and fashion play in human existence.

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Kathryn Earle: Why should anyone study dress? Isn’t that a frivolous topic?

Joanne Eicher: That is the usual question. I think people who like to think studying dress is a frivolous topic, like to think of it as something superficial, but actually studying dress relates to the study of human behaviour, because all people are dressed, whether they have garments on, or whether they are dressed with tattoos, or – I mean, you are dressed when you comb your hair, when you are dressing your body – what do you think, Phyllis?

Phyllis Tortora: I am agreeing! Precisely that, and the advantage of the Encyclopedia is that it looks at every aspect of dress, ranging from the social context to the highly individual.

KE: So, what can I learn from how people dress?

JE: Well, you can learn about the technology of a society, you can learn about differences among people as well as similarities, you learn something about economics – I mean, you learn a great deal about society in general, or specific ones.

PT: You also learn a great deal about history, in that the way in which people dress in different time periods can give us an insight into that particular time period. For example, there was a time when only men wore trousers, women did not, and it really said something about the social roles of those individuals – and then of course, we’ve got an enormous industry, the fashion industry, which has developed around the idea of fashion. Fashion is not imposed by an industry, but fashion is a basic, I’d say almost primal impulse to adopt something that connects us to other people in our era.

KE: What’s difference between fashion and dress?

PT: Well, dress is what you – I don’t want to be so simplistic as to say what you wear, but in fact that’s how most people view it, whereas fashion’s characteristic is that it is a taste that is shared by many people, for a short period of time and that it changes. And that’s the key element of fashion, is the change part.

KE: You’ve both been teaching and publishing on this topic for a number of years how has the study of dress changed over that time?

JE: Well, that’s a really complex question because I think the study of dress is so interdisciplinary that it has been studied by many  different people at many different points in time; historians have always commented or described how people have dressed, economists have been interested in industry, and in the production/consumption – we certainly have people in the fashion industry who’ve been interested in the study of dress…I think you have to look at it as far as who’s studying dress, so if you’re talking about people studying fashion, then you have some people who study design, you have other people who study meanings, so you have anthropologists, they’ve always been interested in the role of dress and people’s behaviour, so I’m sure you have some other comments about that.

PT: Well, I would focus on a slightly different area, and that is today, there’s also the professional aspect, of where people want to go in their professional development, and that can be on the undergraduate level, that can be on post graduate level, and cover a wide range of career opportunities and career directions, each of which has its own areas of specialisation that would be included in the study of dress.

KE: Thank you. There are other reference works that have been published, what’s special  about the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion that you devoted the last – what, seven years of your lives to?

JE: I think one of the most interesting parts of this particular ten-volume project is that it’s organised geographically, so that the range of the way people dress, and around the world, is covered, it doesn’t just have a western bias, because if you look at most of the histories of costume – and my colleague here, Phyllis, has written one of them – generally because they’ve been the ones we’re most familiar with, written in English, have covered the western world, and yet when we look at the history of the world, we look at Egypt, we look at China, and we look at India, we’re looking at civilisations that reach back many thousands of years, the advantage of the Encyclopedia is the fact that we are looking at all regions of the world, and so we’re covering a much broader range than is covered in most of the other kinds of work that deal with the history of dress.

PT: I think that the Encyclopedia is unique, and we have Joanne to thank for that, because her focus, for as long as I have known her, has always been worldwide, and I think the idea of bringing together in one collection of volumes works about dress in all parts of the world, is going to present to the readers of the Encyclopedia a far broader view of dress than can be found anywhere else, and I say that without hesitation.

JE: There were some earlier works, there was a man named Racinet, there were some other kinds of works, and these were usually just depictions, and they were descriptions of what people were wearing, but not really with any analysis or any comparative material, and I think, ours is being published in 2010, then we have the advantage of having people who are writing from many different disciplines, because the Encyclopedia covers the disciplines of people writing from history, from costume history, from anthropology, from design, you know…and some others that I’m not remembering right now, but it really is very wide-ranging.

PT: Well, I think also that each volume tries to be sure to be comprehensive, in the sense of giving some indications of the role of dress for the individual, the role of dress in religion, the role of dress in all the activities of life.

KE: This project has been conceived of as a print publication as well as an online resource, what do you see as the advantages of the two media?

JE: Well, the hard copy will always exist as a print archive, the online medium allows easy updates, because actually in terms of print publications we have a much longer period of time to have another volume come out, and with the way technology is going, we now have a combination of the two, so that the hard copy will be the base copy, and online will be an easy way of keeping things up to date. In the reference world they often call them “updates;” I like to call them additions, because they are additional articles that are being added. In this particular case we are going to have twenty a year coming up ten at a batch, so you don’t have to wait for another two years, three years to have another whole set of volumes but you can start having additional materials. Here at the Costume Society we’ve been hearing some papers that will make some very good additional articles.

PT: Yes, and I think, given the growth in electronic resources, that this will be a very easy and natural fit for the generation that is totally comfortable with the electronic media, that in time they will probably ignore the printed volume and concentrate entirely on the electronic, while there are those of us who are not quite so adept, who will be very happy to have the hard copy.

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