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In the fall of 2016, the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, opened an exhibition called A Century of Style: Costume and Color 1800-1899. This was the Kelvingrove’s first exhibition of period costume since the 1990s, and as a fashion history student studying in Glasgow at the time, I was eager to attend.
I was making my way through the exhibition, taking notes and pictures for class, when I stopped in front of a yellow evening dress. The dress dated from the late 1800s and was elaborate, as befits eveningwear from this period: The corseted waist was offset by the generously wide lapels of the bodice, and the entire skirt and train featured heavy beading. The light color and elegant lines were made even softer by the dim exhibition lighting.
A large, gold-framed mirror hung behind the dress and offered my reflection back to me. I was wearing my usual all black, and the dark purple on my lips was the only concession I made to color. I had dressed to appear as unobtrusive as possible, a resigned and familiar routine to hide the body I was so tired of inhabiting. I looked at myself in the mirror next to that yellow dress, and I felt the pleasure of visiting the exhibit drain away.
I was living in Scotland and attending the University of Glasgow for a master’s degree in dress and textile histories. The program was completed over one year and consisted of two semesters of coursework plus several months of research and writing a dissertation. I was attracted to this particular graduate program because of the blend of theoretical and object-based approaches to dress and textile histories. We spent time in the classroom discussing readings and conceptual ideas, but we spent just as much time handling actual objects and applying those theoretical lessons to tangible pieces of history.
Having access to museums with dress collections — a large draw of this graduate program was its location in Scotland, a country with a rich textile history — meant that exhibition reviews were a frequent part of our coursework. I wrote about my visit to the Kelvingrove for one such assignment, and some of my body-related thoughts made it into my review. I tried to keep the personal to a minimum, but I did mention how the mirrors created such an obvious contrast between the clothing of the exhibition visitors and the clothing on display. Next to this paragraph, my professor wrote “Interesting perspective, nice touch.”
While I appreciated the positive feedback, I felt conflicted by my professor’s comment. This didn’t seem like an interesting perspective to me; it was how I felt every day, made even more ironic by my current position as a student of fashion. So many days I sat in class, physically uncomfortable and already exhausted from the basic morning ritual of getting dressed, and did nothing but stare at pictures of clothes, think about clothes, and talk about clothes. I wanted something more from these discussions — I wanted something to make me feel better — but I didn’t know what.
These feelings about my body were not new. I am in recovery from an eating disorder, and I also have body dysmorphic disorder, a disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts about a flaw (real or imagined) in one’s appearance. While there is certainly a time in my life before these diagnoses and before recovery, there has never been a time in my life when I liked my body. What was new was that, for the first time, I was spending my days doing the one thing I had always wanted to do: study the history of clothing. Just as surely as I have always disliked my body, I have always loved clothing, and I can’t separate one from the other.
Not long after beginning my graduate program, I visited a therapist at my school’s counseling center, where I attempted to sort through some of these contradictions. I explained my anxiety about potentially doing a PhD program and wondered how to incorporate my personal experiences into my academic research. The therapist encouraged me to keep both elements in balance: “your interest in textiles and the textile of your body.” I love that phrase: the textile of my body. It is a phrase that felt true and like something I already knew the second I heard it, but it also provided a breakthrough moment where I realized just how interconnected my relationship with my body and my understanding of fashion history are. I can see how my different ways of interacting with clothing — be it as a student in academia or as a lifetime collector and wearer of vintage clothing — gave me a very different perspective through which I could understand and work through what was going on with my body.
Clothing and the body have always been intertwined, and there is ample discussion around the “body” and its relationship to contemporary fashion. However, it was specifically examining the history of fashion in an academic setting that allowed me to trace so many of the current, harmful ideas around our bodies back to their deep-seated roots. Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, puts forth one of my favorite arguments in her text The Corset: A Cultural History (2001). Steele suggests that the corset did not so much disappear from women’s wardrobes as it became internalized through diet, exercise, and body sculpting. A “hard” body became the new ideal at the end of the 20th century, the logic being if you have a hard body — particularly a hard midsection — you have no need for a corset (or shapewear in general).
I started wearing vintage clothing in high school, and it was in the process of creating a “new” wardrobe that I first started to interact with fashion history. Years before I would learn about these objects in the classroom, I wiggled myself into girdles and fumbled through attaching my first pair of stockings to a garter belt. Wearing vintage gave me a way to circumvent my insecurities about my body in whatever clothing was in style — why worry about how you look in skinny jeans when you can take yourself out of the equation altogether and wear a 1950s house dress to school? At the time, I wasn’t thinking too deeply about the connections between my body and historic fashion; I just loved the clothes.
Ten years later, I still wear vintage and now sell vintage clothing full-time, and I have learned everything from very practical to very profound lessons. The practical: When going to an estate sale, wear clothes you don’t care about getting dirty because you may have to crawl behind a washing machine in a terrifying basement to get at a stash of 1940s hats. The profound: how to savor that rare moment when I try something on and it fits me exactly right. I think about the woman 60, 70, or 80 years ago whose body was the same size as mine, and I wonder if she ever had trouble getting dressed in the morning. I like to think not — I like to think she only ever lived joyfully in this shared body of ours, and I hope that one day I can extend that same kindness to myself.
Working with historic clothing, regardless of the setting, requires a knowledge of repairs, from stain removal to sewing techniques. Only recently have I realized that the language of clothing repair applies beautifully to my journey to heal my relationship with my body. All those days in a classroom, I wanted something from a fashion history textbook to unlock a secret to dealing with my body and getting dressed. I didn’t realize that just by putting on another old piece of clothing I patched up and going out into the world, I was doing that very repair work I so needed. One repair at a time, I stitch my way toward a finished product that looks something like healing.