Narratives of Dress: Two-Day Symposium Looks at Role of Fashion in the Classroom

Photo by Tziona Breitbart '16 | Garments from Smith's dress collection.

Photo by Tziona Breitbart ’16 | Garments from Smith’s dress collection.


Olivia Goodman ’14
News Editor

Last weekend Smith welcomed speakers and guests for the symposium “Narratives of Dress: What Can a Garment Say?” In the lead-up to the symposium, photographs and museum vitrines had been displayed throughout campus showcasing items from Smith’s own dress collection, and students were also invited to submit photos of themselves in typical attire.

The two-day symposium welcomed experts from the U.S. and Britain who spoke about the role and importance of dress in the study of women, culture, art and history; the place of fashion in schools and museums; and the significance of studying fashion as a factor in cultural evolutions and the lives of women.

Theater professor and Director of Smith’s Costume Collection Kiki Smith opened the symposium with a welcome and overview. With the goal of “fostering discussion about how clothes can be great resources as material culture in our curriculum here,” Smith also highlighted the importance of studying diverse types of clothes. “I’d say this symposium is more about clothing and dress, not fashion. That’s not to say that there aren’t very fashionable pieces in the collection and on exhibit, but to understand what the middle and lower classes have worn we need to record a variety of clothes.”

Smith alum Sonnet Stanfill ’90, a curator in the contemporary fashion department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, spoke about the challenges of overseeing a textile and garment collection during a time when public interest in fashion exhibits are at an all time high. Other speakers discussed a wide range of topics including African American style, the importance of conserving historical clothing and how to read these objects as “documents,” among others. The weekend also included a tour of Smith’s Historic Dress Collection and ended with the panel discussion “Dress in the Classroom: Faculty/Student Presentations.”

Lane Hall-Witt, lecturer and director of the Diploma Program, spoke on the use of Smith’s historic clothing collection in classes. “What most excites me about teaching a course on clothing and fashion at Smith is the remarkable variety of historical sources we have available right here on campus,” said Hall-Witt, who is currently teaching a new course at Smith called “The Democratization of Clothing in the United States, 1780–1930.” Making a distinction between historical study of dress and modern notions of fashion and its industry, Hall-Witt commented, “In terms of ‘fashion’ specifically, I have been deeply uncomfortable with its place in our culture and society. I look out and see millions of individuals living in utter poverty, and I ask why we commit so much of what we are and are capable of to fashion. That said, it’s also important to appreciate that many of the practices associated with fashion have evolved, historically, out of efforts to address extremely complex social and cultural problems.”

Professor of French Studies and Comparative Literature Janie Vanpee focused her remarks at the symposium on themes from her first year seminar titled “Re-Membering Marie Antoinette.” “The class explores the material culture, the space, places, and things that surrounded Marie Antoinette and shaped her,” said Vanpee. Because Smith does not own any dress or costumes from 18th-century France, Vanpee uses other campus resources such as engravings found at the SCMA that depict costumes, activities and interactions of the French elite of the 1700s, culminating in a student project creating online exhibit showcases. “This project is collaborative,” said Vanpee. “It showcases objects, articles of clothing and furniture in their settings and shows how Marie Antoinette’s daily activities depended on a network of accomplished craftsmen and a complex economy of creative design and labor-intensive production.”

Cara Tomaso ’16 was asked to speak on the symposium panel by Hall-Witt. Her presentation was based on her final class project, which she is working on with Hayley Bezubka ’14. “Since Hayley and I were both really inspired by the Godey’s Lady’s Books that we uncovered in the College Archives, we thought it would be fun to find something in the Historic Clothing Collection that we could tie back to editions of Godey’s from the same era. We settled on a green and black day dress from the 1860s, and at the panel I discussed exploring how the dress was made, its historical context, and how it ended up in Smith’s Historic Clothing Collection.”

Given the nature of a discussion of “Dress in the Classroom” on a college campus, the topic of current student attire when attending class at Smith was also touched upon. Hall-Witt admitted, “I suppose one thing that has surprised me mildly – and I’m being serious here – is that none of my students has showed up in pajama bottoms. My class meets at 9 a.m., so I just assumed that this would be a go-to ‘look’ for some.” Kiki Smith noted the sartorial diversity found on campus. “I love all the variety and the common themes, such as lots of black. Lots of blue jeans, fleece, and bulky scarves,” said Smith. “There are great varieties of combinations each student puts together every day.”

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