AHA 2016 Fashions

ProfessorIn case you have not seen it, Vanessa Holden has written a great post on the fashion choices made by the historians attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.

She identifies four styles:

  1.  The Classics
  2. The Job Candidate
  3. Department Diva/Department Don
  4. Dandies and Femmes

Here is her description of the “Classics”:

These historians are established. They have tenure. They have book(s) featured in the Exhibit Hall. They sit on committees. The adjective that best describes this most prevalent set: comfortable. The masculine dresser will undoubtedly wear slightly oversized trousers with light wrinkles from multiple days of wear, a solid button down shirt, a lamb’s wool V-neck sweater or a blazer in a solid color, black or brown trouser socks (though white athletic socks aren’t out of the question), and black or brown slip-on shoes like loafers, New Balance sneakers in a solid color, or boat shoes. The feminine dresser also has a recognizable aesthetic. They’re wearing a draped top that gestures towards Eileen Fisher’s fashions, leggings or black trousers, and sensible shoes. This look has carried many an academic through an entire career of AHA meetings. 

Read the whole post at AHA Today

The Author’s Corner with Sally Dwyer-McNulty

Sally Dwyer-McNulty is Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  This interview is based on her book Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism(University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Common Threads?
SDM: When I was conducting my dissertation research, I examined yearbooks from the first diocesan high school for girls in the country, the John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia. While looking at the yearbooks, I was surprised to see that throughout the early years of the high school, the girls were not in uniform. The students from 1911 to 1923 came to school in a variety of outfits, and then in 1924, the “civilian clothes” were gone, and the student appeared in uniforms. Even though clothing and uniforms were not on my radar as far as a topic (for that dissertation chapter I was looking at how educational approaches in Catholic girls’ schools changed between 1920 and 1962), the observation about the clothing stuck with me. After finishing my dissertation, I began working at an art college, Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. It was in this creative and visually-charged environment that I decide to go back to those yearbooks and dig a little. I wondered why the school would choose uniforms in 1924 and why and how the phenomenon spread. In my mind, the Catholic school uniform was an iconic aspect of Catholic culture. But I realized that icons, too, have a beginning. The uniform query turned into a conference paper, and then a published article. After that I began to think about other examples of Catholic attire and new questions began to form. Putting all my questions together became the book proposal

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Common Threads?

SDM: I contend that the adoption and consistent use of Roman collars, religious habits, and Catholic school uniforms in America was not inevitable, but rather it was a strategic and meaningful choice. Once adopted, Catholic clothing became, and continues to be, a significant means of cultural identity, communication, and political expression both within and beyond the church.

JF: Why do we need to read Common Threads?
SDM: There are many reasons to read Common Threads, but I will focus on just two. First, it fills a significant gap in both American and Catholic cultural history. Distinctly clad Catholics (men, women, and youth) are part of many Americans’ personal experience. Likewise, outfitted Catholics are characterized in American literature, television, and film. Nevertheless, until now, there hasn’t been a single study devoted to understanding the Catholic clothing phenomenon. Observers and practitioners of Catholicism often recognize that clothing plays a role in Catholic expression and identity, but what they don’t often appreciate is the history of this iconic feature or the intra and extra- Catholic politics surrounding these wearable symbols. This study begins to address that lacuna with an accessible resource on the history and significance of Catholic clothing in America. 

And second, this study is timely. News coverage of people, issues, and event within Catholicism seems to have grown over the last decade. The activities of women religious, Catholic school closings, sexual abuse by priests, debates on homosexuality, and the distinctive leadership (and attire)  of three different pontiffs has introduced Americans to one or more issues, often controversial, regarding Catholicism. Common Threads, by examining such long swath of history, 1830s to the present, provides the historical background as well as a unique lens, material culture, from which to understand Catholic values, history, and politics.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SDM: I always enjoyed history classes in high school, but I didn’t consider history as a career until I attended college. When I went to college I became enchanted by the possibility of doing what my professors did. They read what appeared to be countless books, traveled for research, presented at conferences where they would meet up with old friends from graduate school, and best of all conducted terrific classes. I enjoyed listening to lecture as well as participating in discussions. Finally, all my professors dressed comfortably. That might not seem important now with so many workplaces adopting casual attire, but in the 1980s both men and women often wore suits to work.  As a 20 year old – I felt I could read, discuss, and write in comfy clothes my whole life. It was then that I decided to be a historian. I chose American history because I was fascinated with American culture during the Cold War. I just couldn’t get enough of it. My passion for American religious history came later – after I read Susan A. Glenn’s, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Then I was hooked on the interplay between history and religion.

JF: What is your next project?

SDM: I am planning an oral history project to gain a better understanding of the lived experience of Catholics and maybe even non-Catholics who wore Catholic clothing. When I talk to students, colleagues, friends, and strangers about Common Threads, more often than not, someone shares a Catholic clothing story with me. Some tales are serious and some humorous. For instance, a friend of mine just told me a funny story on the way to a conference. He attended an all-boy high school in Toronto in the mid-1980s. Close-fitting trousers were in vogue at the time and young men narrowed the trousers of their pants to keep in style. The religious men who ran the school did not approve of the “skinny” look and made a rule that pants had to be wide enough so a student could take off his trousers without removing his shoes first. According to my friend, a teacher would stop tapered pants wearer in the hall and just say, “Take off your pants.” Clearly, that was one way to get the students to wear looser fitting trousers. In all seriousness, though, I’d like to learn more about what Catholic-identified clothing meant to the people who wore it and how they viewed its significance. Common Threads provides an introduction to the topic of Catholic attire, but there is much more on the topic to consider and I am looking forward to that undertaking.

JF:  Thanks, Sally!  Great stuff.  For other installments of The Author’s Series click here.

Do Clothes Make the Humanities Professor?

Robert Watts, a professor of English and Philosophy at Drexel University, thinks so.  In this piece he reflects on the fashion statements made by all the “frumpy” looking graduate students who taught him in college:

The graduate students who taught me wore old, faded jeans or frumpy, wrinkled corduroys. They donned tennis shoes of the sort worn by junior high students, only theirs were dirtier and scruffier. The women, as I recall, dressed better than the men, though only slightly so. Of all the graduate students who taught me, I recall only one — a woman who taught Introductory French — who looked good. She wore elegant blouses, pressed skirts, and polished pumps. I was surprised when I learned she was not a tenured faculty member. Her clothes spelled seniority.
These graduate students, I was convinced, were making a statement through their frumpy outfits, but what was that statement? Was it that highly educated people have to dress ugly? That the world was full of ugly and that my classmates and I needed to face that fact? Or was it that my fate in life would be controlled by ugly? In the end, I had to face a question of my own: Did I have to look like them when I grow up? 

When Watts became a professor, he found himself descending “into the same frumpiness” as the graduate students who taught him, but he eventually had a change of heart and now wears a suit to work.  (And no, it does not appear that he has become an administrator).  Read all about his transformation here.

A few years ago I was chatting about faculty fashion with some recent graduates of the Messiah College history department.  One of them described my choice of clothes as “the uniform.”  I knew exactly what he meant.  I tend to be pretty predictable in what I wear.  My “uniform” consists of a pair of khaki pants, a button-down shirt, and a pair of sensible brown loafers.  On days when I am in the office, but do not have a class to teach, I usually wear jeans with my button-down shirt and sensible brown loafers.

I don’t like ties and I only wear suits or sport coats on very, very rare occasions.

I remember a conversation I had about a decade ago with a friend and colleague who wore a bow tie and sport jacket every day to class.  He said that he dressed this way because he took a very casual and friendly approach in his classroom and liked to “hang out” with his students after class.  The bow tie and jacket, he claimed, was a way of keeping some professional distance between him and his students.  (By this logic, professors who teach with an air of authority or do not “hang out” with their students can wear jeans, a t-shirt, and an old pair of Chuck Taylors to class).  Whatever the case, I thought it strange that my colleague had devoted so much time to his wardrobe philosophy.

But Watt’s article raises an interesting question.  Why do humanities professors tend to dress so frumpy and ragged?  What kind of statement are they trying to make?

The Story Behind Godey’s Lady Book

I am doing a directed reading this semester with a student who is interested in early American material culture.  Today we discussed Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America.  I read this book in graduate school, but upon reading it again I remembered just how good this book is and just how valuable it was to me as I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

On several occasions throughout the book, Bushman discusses Godey’s Lady Book, a fashion and conduct guide for women that was best selling periodical in Victorian America.

Over at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, intern Susan Lydon provides some historical context for this very valuable primary source.

Here is a taste:

Leaf through the pages of Glamour or Vogue in mid-March and the inventory will reveal that American fashion designers’ thoughts have turned to the spring line.  Here at the American Antiquarian Society, when our thoughts turn to fashion, they turn to hoopskirts and side curls and to the famed fashion plates of Godey’s Lady’s Book.  As March is women’s history month, we thought it the perfect time to examine this “Lady’s Book.”


As you might know, Godey’s Lady’s Book was the number one selling periodical in Victorian America.  Mr. Godey himself calculated the number of readers at a million by the eve of the Civil War.  You might also know that the colored fashion plates at the beginning of the magazine were its most famed component.  But did you know that the colored plates were hand painted?  That the ‘lady editor’ of the magazine was vehemently opposed to including fashion plates in a woman’s periodical?  That the magazine played an integral role in establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday?  That hoopskirts were gigantic during the Civil War?  All of this information and more can be found in original issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book in the collections at the American Antiquarian Society along with secondary source material on the creation of the magazine.  Godey’s Lady’s Book contains not only a wealth of information about Victorian fashion but also about the culture of bygone America. 

The ‘lady editor’ of Godey’s Lady’s Book was Sarah Josepha Hale, a literary-minded social reformer whose civic-minded zeal rivaled that of Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  She edited the magazine along with its owner, Louis A. Godey, from 1837 to 1877.  Many are familiar with Hale solely for her authorship of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but Sarah Hale’s accomplishments reached far beyond a poem for children.  Formal education for women at the time was scant.  Hale derived much of her education from a brother who attended Dartmouth College and tutored Sarah at home.  After losing her husband at a young age, Hale went on to support her family through literary means, successfully submitting novels and shorter pieces to publishers.  She edited the Boston-based Ladies’ Magazine, the first women’s magazine in America.  In the magazine, she included original literary pieces by American authors, an unusual practice at a time when American magazines borrowed largely from those of Europe.  As editor, she promoted women’s education and worthy social causes.  She spearheaded the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument and founded the Seaman’s Aid Society of Boston to give monetary relief to the families of poorly paid sailors.

Read the rest here.

Going to the Beach: 1870s Style

The Virtual Dime Museum blog has a post on 1870s beach fashions that would make any reasonable person believe in the virtues of progress. It seems like flannel was “in” in 1870. Here is a taste:

When you go to the beach this summer, take a moment to consider how it would feel to be wearing the equivalent of flannel pajamas – because this is just what you’d be doing if you lived in the 1870s.

In 1872 white or colored flannel “with shaded bands and woven fringe” was suggested for bathing costumes – matched with flannel bathing caps and flannel shoes, too. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 1, 1872, p. 3) Peterson’s Magazine agreed: in 1870, they noted that

…the best materials used for bathing-dresses are gray or dark-blue flannel, being the lightest in texture, cheapest in price, but [than?] moreen or tweed [!!]; and some persons recommend common bed-ticking as being better than anything else.

Read the entire post here.

Wolf: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

In the eighteenth-century America Quakers (at least a few of them) refused to eat sugar grown on West Indian plantations because it was grown by slave labor. Patriots refused to drink tea that represented the tyranny of the English government.

Women consumers have often been at the forefront of these types of consumer boycotts. Today women have led consumer-boycotts of sweated college t-shirts, coffee and produce.

In a column at Project Syndicate: A World of Ideas, Naomi Wolf challenges women to think even more deeply and more morally about their shopping habits. Of course this lesson applies to the consumer practices of men as well.

Here is a taste:

I confess: I do it, too. Like most Western women, I do it regularly, and it is a guilty pleasure every time. It is hard to listen to one’s conscience when one is faced with so much incredible temptation.

I am talking, of course, about cheap trendy fashion. I’ll visit a Zara – or H&M, or, now that I am in the United Kingdom for the summer, the amazing Primark – and snap up items that are “cute,” effectively disposable, and so shockingly inexpensive that one does a double take.

I need to face my addiction – and so do all women like me…

But what has been liberating for Western women is a system built literally on the backs of women in the developing world. How do Primark and its competitors in the West’s shopping malls and High Streets keep that cute frock so cheap? By starving and oppressing Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican, Haitian, and other women, that’s how.

We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions – and usually by women. And we know – or should know – that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.

But, like any family secret that would cause us discomfort if faced directly, we Western women turn a blind eye to it…

Most of the two million people working in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women, and they are the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, earning $25 a month. But they are demanding that their monthly wage be almost tripled, to $70. Their leaders make the point that, at current pay levels, workers cannot feed themselves or their families…

Western women, we should challenge ourselves to follow this story and find ways to do what is right in changing our own consumption patterns. It is past time to show support for women who are suffering systematic, globalized, cost-effective gender discrimination in the most overt ways – ways that most of us no longer have to face. Let us support a fair-trade economy, and refuse to shop at outlets targeted by activists for unfair employment practices (for more information, go to http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1485).

If women around the world who are held in the bondage of sweated labor manage to win this crucial fight, that cute dress at Primark may cost a fair amount more. But it already costs too much to the women who can’t afford to feed and house themselves and their children.

That $3 pair of adorable lace-up sandals? The price – given the human costs – really is too good to be true.

Something for all of us to think about while we hit that Fourth of July sale at the mall.