Roundtable: Crafting Protest, Fashioning Politics: DIY Lessons from the American Revolution

This Colonial Couture post is by Zara Anishanslin, assistant professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware. Her latest book is Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016). Follow her @ZaraAnishanslin.

Homespun, Thomas Eakins, 1881, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Homespun, Thomas Eakins, 1881, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Please, sisters, back away from the pink.”

So women planning to attend the January 2017 Women’s Marches were urged by the writer of an opinion piece in The Washington Post. “Sorry knitters,” she continued, but making and wearing things like pink pussycat hats “undercuts the message that the march is trying to send….We need to be remembered for our passion and purpose, not our pink pussycat hats.”  To back up her point, the author opined that “bra burning” dominated—and thus damaged—popular (mis)conceptions of women’s rights protests in the 1960s. Please, ladies, she exhorted, don’t repeat the mistakes we made in the ‘60s by bringing fashion into politics. Continue reading

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Roundtable: Of Records and Rituals: Native Americans and the Textile Trade

This Colonial Couture post is by Laura E. Johnson, associate curator at Historic New England. The exhibition Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love from Historic New England, which she curated, will open at the Eustis Estate Museum in Milton, Massachusetts, in May 2017.

“Echatillons Etouffes d’angleterre a l’usage des Espagnolesen Europe y en Amerique,” (Samples of English stuffs in use by the Spanish in Europe and America), Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Museum and Library

I’d like to build on Kimberly Alexander’s question from last week, “How can we write history when we do not have the original object?” There are many ways to examine a textile and its context without the physical object, as she demonstrated so ably. Much of my research on Native peoples, identity construction, and the Atlantic textile trade is based by necessity on a combination of archival resources, rare portraits, and archaeological evidence. Trade records, price lists, descriptions of treaty meetings, and other archival sources offer a wide range of evidence about textiles and how Natives consumed them, even in the absence of the pieces themselves.

Textiles were among the most lucrative and desirable of imported objects in the early Atlantic economy.[1] The French, Dutch, and British all relied heavily on textile production for a substantial portion of their national revenue. Woolens and linens raised, spun, woven and finished in these areas drove international commerce from the 13th century.[2] Native Americans presented an enormous potential market for their products as the domestic market became increasingly saturated. As one scholar has stated, it could have been termed the “cloth trade as easily as the deerskin trade.”[3] Continue reading

Roundtable: Ambassador in a Hat: The Sartorial Power of Benjamin Franklin’s Fur Cap

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Joanna M. Gohmann, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in 18th– and 19th-Century Art, at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Benjamin Franklin (Augustin de Saint Aubin after Charles Nicholas Cochin, 1777, private collection)

Benjamin Franklin (Augustin de Saint Aubin after Charles Nicholas Cochin, 1777, private collection)

While acting as the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin wore a fur hat to express his American status. The French enthusiastically accepted Franklin’s use of the topper, seeing it as an embodiment of the ambassador and a symbol of America and the American cause. When he first came to France in 1767, Franklin wore the clothes of a polite, fashionable Frenchman—a fine European suit and powdered wig—as a way to show respect to the French court. When he returned in 1776, he abandoned all the decorum of French dress and instead wore a simple, homespun brown suit, spectacles, and a large fur hat. He cleverly adopted this style as a way to garner attention and appeal to the French for support of the American cause.[1]

Continue reading

Roundtable: Making American Pompons Great Again

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Ben Marsh, senior lecturer in history at the University of Kent. His current research project is “Unravelling Dreams: Silkworms and the Atlantic World, c. 1500-1840.”

Super Bowl LI

Super Bowl LI

In July 1760, an American correspondent writing to a former neighbor in Surrey, England, graciously thanked them for dispatching a package across to South Carolina, risking the perils of transatlantic post during the Seven Years’ War, to send some cosmopolitan gifts. The gift of a fan was heralded as a “curiosity,” the suit (probably linen, though this descriptor was scored out) was apparently “universally admired,” but the real coup in the package was unquestionably the pompon. Not only was the pompon the prettiest these Americans had apparently ever seen, but the girl it was intended for was delighted “the more so as they are the first of ye fashion that have reach[e]d this part of the world.” Continue reading

Roundtable: Colonial Couture

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Christian Dior (2011) and Dorothy Quincy Hancock Scott (ca. 1772)

You’re invited…to The Junto’s first roundtable on fashion as history in early American life. In step with New York Fashion Week, we’ll present a new perspective daily on how the material question of “what people wore” shaped personal politics and national identity. We’re, er, bursting at the seams with guest contributors, so watch this space for a new post (or two!) every day. Thanks to a diverse array of scholars, over the next week we’ll get a better look at the sartorial identities of the enslaved; explore Native Americans’ role in the textile trade; take in the view from Benjamin Franklin’s Versailles; meet the artisans who bound up the loose threads of Atlantic World couture; and more. Continue reading

Guest Post: Janine Yorimoto Boldt, “Looking at Early American (Art) History”

Janine Yorimoto Boldt is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. She is writing a dissertation that explores the social function of domestic portraiture in Virginia between Bacon’s Rebellion and the American Revolution.

1956-561“Why should a historian read your dissertation? How can portraits tell us something new, rather than confirm what historians already know?”

The historian on my dissertation committee posed these questions during my prospectus colloquium. They haunt me when I sit in the archive and now it hangs over my head while I write. These questions only enhanced the feeling of the disciplinary divide between art history and history that I already observed. One of my comprehensive exam fields was early American cultural history. Reading early American history, I noticed how few historians engage art historical scholarship. Usually, the art histories are relegated to the footnotes as an obligatory afterthought. For example, after mentioning the fact that so-and-so had a portrait a footnote reads, “for more information on portraiture in the colonial period, see these [three sources here].”

To be fair, in the field of art history, there are few recent monographs that focus on early American art, and fewer that are object-centric. Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011) and Jennifer Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (2014) are recent and excellent studies of early art that place the object at the center of their analyses. Several cultural historians write about artists or write histories that revolve around art objects, but they tend to circle around the object instead of engaging in deep material and visual analysis. Biographical information about producers and consumers take center stage, rather than foreground the art as an agent. In the field of early American art, especially the colonial period (and on artists other than John Singleton Copley), there is a lot more work to be done.

When asked about current trends in historical scholarship, a recent visiting historian on campus told graduate students that we need to engage more with visuals. When they said this I was thrilled! I agree! Then, they said, “but not how to do visual analysis. That’s not important.” Why not? Why do so many historians dismiss the importance of the visual? Surely images can function as more than “wallpaper” and portraits can be used as more than illustrative of a historical figure’s likeness. At another event, after presenting an argument based on visual analysis of a woman’s portrait, a historian told me to “stick to evidence” from documents. However, this woman left virtually no archival evidence. All that she left to posterity was her portrait, and an unusual one at that. Do I not have an obligation as an historian to interpret this piece of historical evidence to the best of my ability in order to tell her story? Doesn’t the portrait count AS evidence in and of itself?

Certainly there are some disciplinary divisions in training and method. However, as the humanities become increasingly interdisciplinary, I hope that the divide between history and art history closes a bit and more historians choose to engage with art. We live in a hyper-visual world and historians can help students learn to think critically about historical images to prepare them for critically engaging with contemporary media. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for incorporating art into history classes and scholarship:

Discuss images in class. I have seen many historians use PowerPoints with images in lectures and presentation. Do more than use the images as simple illustrations. Pick a key image and dissect it as you would a primary source document. Ask questions like:

  • Where was it displayed? What does that say about visibility the intended audience?
  • How was it meant to be seen? Is it a small image meant to be held close? Was it part of a set of images? Was it a large statement piece?
  • Who made it? Who commissioned it? Why?
  • What can the image tell us about this event/person/culture that written documents cannot?

Think about assigning images as primary documents. In assignments that involve analyzing a primary source, consider using a image as an option. Or, consider pairing an image and a document.

Think critically about whether the image you include is appropriate. Are you using a images from the 1850s to illustrate an event in the 1770s? Include an image caption that references, at minimum, the date of creation and the artist. Dates matter!

Use images as evidence. Images are forms of material culture and are cultural texts. If your research brings you to images, try to do more than include them as “wallpaper” illustrations. Images are material, they are constitutive of culture, and visuality is formative.

As an American Studies graduate student, and an undergraduate with a double major in art history and history, I have taken a number of “traditional” history courses. Except for material culture seminars, I have not seen images used widely in the history classes. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in how other disciplines engage with art. Do you have any other suggestions for utilizing images? Do you regularly use images or assign art history texts?

Guest Post: 84th Annual Anglo-American Conference Recap, Fashion

Kimberly Alexander holds the Ph.D. in Art and Architectural History from Boston University. A museum professional and scholar, she is adjunct faculty in the History Department at University of New Hampshire. Her book, “Georgian Shoes Stories From Colonial America” will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2016.

The 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians was held in London at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This year’s theme was “fashion.”

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For the first time in its distinguished history, the AACH selected ‘fashion’ as its theme, confirming for many scholars the recognition that the field of fashion history, and its attendant subfields, have attained validation. To quote the conference program:

“Fashion in history is a topic which has come of age in recent years, as scholars have turned to addressing what is chic and what is style over the ages and across different cultures. The history of fashion, and the role of fashion in history, is not just confined to the study of dress and costume, but encompasses design and innovation, taste and zeitgeist, treats as its subjects both people and objects, and crosses over into related disciplines such as the history of art and architecture, consumption, retailing and technology.” Continue reading