Fashion is a complex and compelling cultural force, at work in many societies, past and present. On Friday 2 May 2008 the Material Culture Institute at the University of Alberta hosted an international symposium exploring facets of this topic. Speakers travelled to the event from Canadian, US and UK institutions, with two speakers based at the University of Alberta.
Beverly Lemire, founding Director of the Material Culture Institute, noted that the subject of fashion was long neglected by academics and only recently accepted as a legitimate area of study. The speakers then offered a rich array of thought-provoking presentations, well illustrated with visual and artefact materials. Topics ranged from the social politics of French inter-war haute couture (Mary Lynn Stewart, Simon Fraser University) to the impact of Native designers on economic development in Canada (Cory Willmott, Southern Illinois University). Julia Petrov (Human Ecology, U of A) offered a fascinating look at the early twentieth-century origins of the first collections of dress at the Museum of London and the Victoria & Albert Museum. This was an entirely male project, based on the private collections of historical genre painters in the late Victorian era and the gender politics of this early process of collection-creation was particularly noted. Sarah Cheang (London College of Fashion) traced the significance of the fashionable practice of dressing in Chinese robes in inter-war Britain, noting the tensions implicit and explicit in this cultural cross-masquerade. Karen Tranberg Hansen (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL) reported on the newly developing fashion sector in Zambia and considered the significance of these regional designers. Issues common to many papers were noted in discussion, such as the male policing of fashion in various societies. Likewise speakers observed the importance of fashion as an economic driver in many communities and a source of individual opportunity. Arlene Oak (Human Ecology, U of A) ended the day with an intriguing analysis of the meanings and effects of TV make-over shows and the ways in which participants negotiated their ?re-making?.
There was a full house at the symposium, with participants from universities and museums, as well as professional home economists and members of the public. The lively question and answer sessions made it clear that there is much more to say and much more to discover about the makings and meanings of fashion.