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The Definition

Fashion History can be described as the study of the clothing a person wears. This definition can then be broken up into: political and social context, gender studies, and clothing as art.

Political and social context

Every person puts an idea or concept in context whether they know it or not. Applying historical context to the socio-political narrative is another story. When studying Fashion History or other forms of material culture there is a point in your journey of study that you see multiple connections. For example, punk rock was defined by piercings, revolting youth, New York City and London, and the 3-chord progression. But along with this stereotypical historical narrative comes what the revolting youth were wearing and how it was a complete contrast to that of the Mods (Uk) and other clean cut subgroups. Clothing in subcultures is paramount, if not to the subgroup themselves but to those that want to label them.

Most punks in the Uk were at odds with the constant reminder of being under the English Union Jack flag that essential melded three cultures into one under the British Empire's banner/flag. This iconic image was seen everywhere on punks: jackets, albumn covers, shoes, tattoos. Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, and Betsey Johnson were able to capitalize on the "punk look" very early in the subculture's infancy. And that is how we come to the golden word we hold so dear: fashion. Fashion and media open up a subculture to a bigger audience. As pictured above, even African Americans from Philly.

Gender Studies

Dandyism is the revolution of gentlemen taking great pride in their lingual prowess and appearance. This notion of pride in appearance translated to African Americans, at home and abroad, wanting to imitate social elite Europeans. Monica L. Miller's book Slaves to Fashion is a great study on the concept of Dandyism and how it translates to “black diasporic identity”.

The study of identity is paramount when understand the human being in a historical context. While most histories previous to the 21st century discuss kings and those in power the scholarly community has slowly shifted focus to the little guy. This includes the baker, the pauper, the candlestick maker, and yes even the artist. Studying the human being helps to interpret the socio-political climate of the time. There are also humanitarian benefits to studying gender.

Clothing as Art

This specific element of studying fashion history requires a lot more technical training than the other two. Unfortunately this is the piece of the puzzle that is purported as the most important aspect of studying fashion. All three of these focuses in on a specific piece that all three should be taken into consideration when forming a narrative.


Most people entering the field of scholarly study know that they are getting into a lengthy and weighty discussion about everything they read, touch, experience. I know it is starting to happen to me: It is a gift and a curse. I will do my best to update the "Clothing as Art" section of this feature but no promises. It is my hope that you walk away from this with a better understanding of everything involved in the study of fashion history. Next post will discuss the careers in fashion history.

Original article written by Joy Davis, June 2012 for and

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