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   Date: 10/2/09 Bookmark and Share

What Do Your Clothes Say About You?

Kennedy Professor Comments on Dress Styles

Caricature of Lady Emma Hamilton as an artist's model. By Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827).

Visiting professor Aileen Ribeiro will discuss the transformative aspects of dress and undress, and how the female body is enhanced by clothes or by their absence in her lecture "Naked and Profane: Women, Dress and Morality" on Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 5 p.m. in Graham Hall, Hillyer.

As the Ruth and Clarence Kennedy Professor in Renassance Studies, Ribeiro's upcoming talk is the second of three lectures this semester. Her next talk, on Oct. 27, will be on "Fashioning the French Revolution."

In addition to the lectures, Ribeiro, the Oak Professor in the History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute in London, also teaches a course this semester, titled The Mirror of History, in which she examines how clothing reflects so many aspects of society—political, economic, social and cultural.

Below, Ribeiro shares her thoughts with the Gate.

Gate: What do our clothes say about us? What do your dress styles say about you?

Aileen Ribeiro: Clothes say everything about us—who and what we are, and what, perhaps, we aspire to be. My clothes? Perhaps not a fair question as I've had to pack a fairly small wardrobe, which has to be interchangeable for a range of occasions—lots of grey and black, and quite a few scarves to vary the monotony. I suppose that says I'm fairly practical—the majority of my clothes are informal—but I do like expensive accessories—folie de grandeur, perhaps, on an academic's salary!

Gate: What is your perspective on modern American dress styles?

AR: American dress styles—I can only remark on what I've seen here on campus: casual and comfortable—which is why I feel at home here. Americans really invented the casual look, I suppose, with jeans in the mid-19th century; interesting that they've become classic, worn by everyman/everywoman. The students here on the whole wear T-shirts and jeans with Smith hoodies—I think in this cold weather I might adopt such a garment myself—but there are some interesting variations on a theme. I've seen—especially in my class—some innovative and stylish modes of dress.

Gate: How susceptible are we in our dress styles to marketing, peer pressure, etc.? How much are we affected by practicality and attention to comfort?

AR: Of course, we are prone to look like our peers. We cannot really avoid the current fashion aesthetic, which is also partly created by the media, the power of advertising. Our life styles now are more determined than in the past by practicality and comfort, but if we really wanted comfort above all, women certainly wouldn't wear tights or high heels, or men wear ties!

Gate: Do you have any advice regarding people’s dress choices?

AR: Advice—it's a foolish and presumptuous person who gives advice! The temptation is to offer the clichés of the women's pages of fashion magazines and popular journalism. If pushed, I would say: evolve your dress sense as part of your own personality/lifestyle, and don't be afraid to experiment.

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