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The Costume and Textile Collection

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such—such beautiful shirts before" (p. 92) The Cornell Costume and Textile Collection is an archive of more than 10,000 items of apparel, accessories, and textiles. It is used as a study collection for courses in the Department of Textiles and Apparel, and is visited from time to time by classes in fields such as Theater and Dance, English, and Anthropology. Individual students and other scholars may visit the collection by appointment to pursue their own research projects. The collection is also accessible online. A treasure of the collection is the 1925 Eissner beaded dress that can be viewed in 3-D rotation with zoom capabilities.

See other high resolution photographs of artifacts from the era in the Cornell Costume Collection.

Dress and Identity: the study of dress as an intellectual pursuit

Beaded Dress
Green satin beaded evening dress c. 1925, Gift of Laurie Berke-Weiss '71

Dress has been defined as the total assemblage of additions and alterations to the body, a total effect created by garments (or lack thereof), hairstyle, accessories, and even things like cosmetics, scent and tattoos. How we dress is how we communicate who we are—this is true whether you are an avid fashionista or the sort of anti-fashion person who grabs the first thing that comes to hand when you roll out of bed in the morning. In either case, there is a statement being made, and we all know how to recognize the messages. It has been said that within 30 seconds of walking into a room we know which people we want to meet and which we don’t—and that can only be a response to appearances. So the study of dress is a study in the social/psychology of groups and individuals within their culture.

We may all be sensitive to what sort of people wear what today, but the language of dress in other times may not be so obvious to us now. Therefore much of the study of the history of dress is the study of the meaning of dress. Most historians do their research in text sources of the period in question. Historians of dress are engaged in a special area of history known as material culture studies. To do material culture studies one examines the physical artifacts of a given period—in our case, the clothing and accessories—and then explores their meaning through research in text archives that provide a context —letters, diaries, old fashion magazines, and more.

Literature can be a rich source of meaning for the historian of dress; conversely, the examination of actual clothing can shed light on the meanings in the literature. Many authors use descriptions of the dress to communicate the personality, values, class of their characters. F. Scott Fitzgerald certainly does this, and nowhere so effectively as in The Great Gatsby. Other authors well known for their marvelous depictions of dress-as-character-development include Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Nick Hornby, and Somerset Maugham.

Dress has also been described as part of our environment, but as the near environment, most personal and intimate of any environment we create for ourselves. As such it is our most personal expression of self, in the context of the broader environment of our times, well worthy of study.

 

Charlotte Jirousek
Charlotte Jirousek

Charlotte Jirousek is Associate Professor in the Department of Textiles and Apparel at Cornell and the curator of the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection. Her interests center on the relationship of Islamic dress and textiles to European dress, and the history of Ottoman textile industry and trade, particularly as evidenced by surviving vestiges of traditional textile production technologies and systems.