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Current Short-Term Projects

THE MAKING AND MEANING OF DRESS: FALL 2011


Organizing Fellow:
Kiki Smith, Theatre

Coordinating Fellows:
Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Education & Child Study
Jessica Nicoll, Director & Chief Curator, Museum of Art

Participants in the recent short-term project, The Making and Meaning of Dress (organized by Kiki Smith), spent a day among the collections of 18th, 19th, and early 20th century dresses and clothing accessories at both Historic Northampton and in Smith's own theater department. These images document some of the beautiful and interesting objects they considered. Photos by Mary Ellen Birkett.

Northampton Historical Society

Sewing Tools

Northampton Historical Society

Shoe

Northampton Historical Society

Shoes

Northampton Historical Society

Sweater

Northampton Historical Society

Thimbles

Smith

French Embroidery

Smith

Jessica Nicoll

Smith

Von Klemperer Dress

Smith

Undergarments

Smith

Yellow Top

This past summer, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City waited up to three hours for admission to the Alexander McQueen exhibition, a retrospective of the designer's dazzling gowns, outlandish costumes and feathered headgear. Certainly the remarkable popularity of the show derived, at least in part, from the sheer beauty of the garments and their exquisite craftsmanship. But the exhibition also drew its crowds for other reasons. The dresses of Alexander McQueen somehow served to capture the zeitgeist of their time, and the iconic power of clothing—freighted as it is with political, economic, and social significance. McQueen’s designs embody the loveliness and vulgarity, complexities and contradictions of a post-modern world. They remind us, in short, how potent a symbol "dress" can be.

This fall we are hoping to bring together faculty from across the College whose research addresses the subject of dress and costume from a variety of perspectives: artistic, historical, sociological, anthropological, philosophical, economic and political. Dress suggests questions across every field. How, for example, does dress change from one era to another and what does that change mean? What is the symbolic significance of certain forms of embellishment across time and culture? From a production perspective, how are new fibers created and what are the environmental and economic implications of that work? What are the legal and ethical issues that arise with the mass production of fashionable garments? How do conspicuous consumption and the proliferation of knock-offs impact the notion of "dress as art"? What does the history of clothing production reveal about women's work and changing circumstances? Is there a history of women's dress at Smith that reflects the College's changing identity, aspirations and ideals?

Apart from sharing our work with one another, a second goal of this short-term project is to begin to think together about the contours and possibilities for a Center for the Study of Dress at Smith College. Smith has recently been offered the extensive costume collection at Historic Northampton, which is composed of garments and textiles dating from the early eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. These materials, combined with the College’s permanent collection of costumes, would make the basis for a first-class research center—one that would house, conserve, and display a great range of clothing, textiles, and accessories. How could such a center serve to support existing courses and new curricular initiatives? What would it look like and where should it be located? We hope to brainstorm some answers to these questions.

Finally, to facilitate that discussion, we will visit selected sites with collections that serve to support the study of dress, such as the Smith College Museum of Art, with collections that offer a visual record of the history of dress; the Smith College Archives and Mortimer Rare Book Room, with their volumes and periodicals on early dress; the Theatre department’s costume collection, a resource that many on campus have never seen; and Historic Northampton.

Interested faculty should email the Kahn Institute’s Director, Rosetta Cohen (rcohen@smith.edu) by October 14, 2011 to apply. In your email, please include the title of the project and explain why you are interested in it, what you would bring to it, and what you hope to gain from it.

PROJECT SCHEDULE:

  • Friday, November 18, 4:30-7:00 pm
  • Saturday, November 19, 9am-4pm


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