I'm in my final term of coursework. I have two directed studies, one on the material culture of the eighteenth century, the other on materiality and my own art practice. You may not first notice, but there is a lot of overlap, especially this week. Right now I am reading about what material culture studies is, what critical fashion studies should be, and a bit of deCerteau's Practices of Everyday Life thrown in for good measure.
Why do I do what I do? Why should it matter?
Jules David Prown, thought to be the father of Material Culture Theory, wrote about why the study of material culture is so important.
“Material culture is the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society at a given time. The term material culture is also frequently used to refer to artifacts themselves, to the body of material available for such study. Material culture is singular as a mode of cultural investigation in its use of objects as primary data, but in its scholarly purposes it can be considered a branch of cultural history or cultural anthropology. But the material of material culture is too diverse to constitute a single field. In practice it consists of subfields investigated by specialists – cultural geographers or historians of art, architecture, decorative arts, science, and technology.
Material culture as a study is based upon the obvious fact that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of the presence of a human intelligence operating at the time of fabrication” (Prown 1982, 1).
Prown gave us a classification of objects that we study under the heading of material culture. He also explained why the things left to us are often more important than the words, due to the simple fact that throughout human history, we have been predominantly illiterate. Not only does Prown remind us of how objects are viewed, their inherent value, he asks us to question those implications of value through examining why the objects have remained, either through collection or through their materiality. He tells us that by using our senses instead of our minds to examine objects (rather than words), we are able to "get into the skins of individuals who commissioned, made, used, or enjoyed these objects"(Prown 1982, 5).
Two things struck me, both made me understand better why it is that I do what I do...making historical reproduction clothing to wear and use...
“The methodology of material culture aspires to the objectivity of scientific method, afford a proceedure for overcoming the distortions, it makes visable the otherwise invisable, unconscious biases of our own cultural perspective. Awareness of what one normally takes for granted occurs only in the forced confrontation with another norm” (Prown 1982, 5).
And most importantly...
“Cultural expression is not limited to things. But the techniques of material culture should be part of the tool kit of the well-equipped cultural scholar” (Prown 1982, 5).
A more recent article, written by Michael Yonan goes back to the roots of Prown's work to give us a better understanding of where material culture studies is today. Yonan still questions why the discipline of art history fights against techniques of material culture study, holding on to old notions of 'high' art, and 'craft', or 'low' art. Many feel this dichotomy is outdated. Yonan informs us
“Today material culture studies resists simple disciplinary classification; it exists instead as an interdisciplinary space within and among multiple academic categories, transcending even the larger academic division between humanities and the social sciences.
The result is a true transdiscipline in which a great diversity of objects, paired with a wide selection of interpretive modes, results in seemingly limitless potential for understanding things and what they might mean or have meant for different communities and individuals in specific settings” (Yonan 2011, 233).
This idea has certainly informed my own practice throughout my career. I have gone from thinking very discipline centric, in that I constructed clothing for the theater, using modern techniques, to quickly understanding that I needed a background in art history as well as fashion construction/theatre studies. Little did I realize at the end of the 1980s that there were others who sought out a more interdisciplinary approach. I looked at archaeological finds, the sociology of immigration and trade, religion, and also art history, all things that Joanne Entwistle would have us examine as fashion historians. When I realized that the techniques I was using to create clothing were not ones that would have been used in other historical time periods, I wanted to learn more. Construction methods, drafting methods, and then the study of cloth production were all important to my interdisciplinary approach.
Recently, I have begun to consider the agency of the things around me. The tools in my studio, what they allow me to create, but also the reproductions themselves. Am I using these objects in the manner they would have been used in the period I am studying? How would they have been regarded? Were they simply mundane, everyday objects, or did they hold value? How much value can we ascribe to a utilitarian object...if it wasn't there, how much would I miss it? I am also considering the motions I go through, throughout my day, throughout the yearly cycle. What do I need to help me live a better, easier life? What would my historical counterpart have needed?
These are questions I hope to have an answer to by the end of the semester. I'll be posting about breeches construction, shirt construction, and the like, but I will also be writing about the materiality of my practice. I hope I don't bore you all too much.
deCerteau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Entwistle, Joanne. 2000. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Prown, Jules David. 1982. "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method." Winterthur Portfolio 1-19.
Yonan, Michael. 2011. "Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies." West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 232-248.