While the devil may be in the details when it comes to fashion, I must say I welcome Satan. Put the magnifying glass up close to a fashion item, and it reveals so many different things from a variety of perspectives. One question leads to a plethora of even more questions. This detective work is at the foundation of the study of fashion! I personally love it!
Take any item in our extensive collection (by the way we have over 15,000 items in the Fashion Resource Centre). Depending upon who you are and what your interests are you can study the item from multiple angles.
Let’s choose a cocktail gown from the 1950s.
If you are a student of design you may examine the garment from a structural perspective. Just why did the designer decide to use a strapless neckline? Was it because the “Nude Look” had become all the rage? (The “Nude Look” was a play on Dior’s famous “New Look” as strapless gowns became popular and gave the shoulders great exposure!) Was it because the sensual shoulders of their client deserved to be highlighted? Did the structural technique required to create a strapless gown provide an interesting challenge to the designer? Simply questioning that small detail results in even more questions and digging to figure out the motives behind the creation of this dreamy dress. It’s enough to stump Sherlock Holmes!
A student of design may choose to look at a different aspect of the dress. In this case, the detail may be the embellishments on the cocktail dress. A close examination of the choice of lace, beading or rhinestones reveals whether this was a handmade or utilized machine production. If it was handmade how was it done? What impact would this have had on the value of the garment then, and what impact does it have now?
If you are a student of textiles you may be interested in the choices used to create the fullness in the skirt and the tightly fitted bodice. In a period when stretch fabrics as we know them today were not available and the choice to design a strapless gown would have required the consideration of structures within the bodice to fit as well as to support. The lovely fullness required of the silhouette of this period would also mean a choice of fabric for the skirt and/or the crinoline which would support that fullness. Considering the colour of the garment now versus then reveals fume fading that has changed the colour of parts of the dress rather than the whole. Is it of interest to the textile student that while the skirt and bodice have faded the seam binding and zipper have not?
A student of history may look at a different detail in the dress. He/she may examine the garment from the perspective of its silhouette. Can we determine the date of the item from this silhouette? Is the silhouette in keeping with the fashion of the period? The strapless neckline and full skirt may emulate the work of Christian Dior or other designers of this period. If there is a label we can determine where this might have been purchased which will also tell us whether this is an inexpensive reproduction of Dior’s “New Look” or one which made its way to a Canadian fashionista via special contracts retailers had with couture houses at the time.
The stylist, in contrast, may look at this garment and imagine the woman who wore it and what she would have worn with it. Considering the time period which hats, handbags, jewellry and gloves would have been worn with this? It’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
From a social perspective when might this dress have been worn? What season? What time of day? To what event would it have been worn? The answers to these questions help to determine whether the appropriate hat would be for daytime or cocktail, and if the jewellery would be encrusted with rhinestones (perhaps only after 5:00pm). Would the shoes be dark or light? Would the wearer be a young debutante or a more sophisticated woman?
So, it is the details that often inspire the journey students and stylists alike take when looking at fashion pieces of the past. It gives us an appreciation for the time and devotion required to understand the pieces we are lucky enough to still have. And in the case of our cocktail dress – so many questions – and just about one garment!