Front Matter - Editorial

Front Matter


Élise Dubuc
Laval University

A Look at Clothing: Body and Substance

1 The study of clothing has completely changed over the last thirty years. At the invitation of anthropologists, many researchers from a wide variety of universities have come together and developed a new field of academic study.1 Today, clothing is considered a "total social fact." It is known to have an economic, technological, historical, social, political and symbolic impact. Thus, the study of clothing is an extremely complex field, requiring a constant renewal of interdisciplinary co-operation. For this reason, Material History Review decided to dedicate a special issue to it.

2 Among the significant advances over the last few decades, structural analysis and semiology have allowed clothing to be seen as a form of communication.2 However, we have moved away from making a too narrow analogy between the system of language and that of clothing.3 The current trend is to consider more thoroughly the specific relationship between clothing and the body. Bolstered by the development of women's studies and consumer and cultural studies, this approach, which widens the field of study, requires new conceptual tools,4 yet to be developed. Now that clothing is understood to be a pure reflection of the spirit, as is language, we can begin to study it as a practice. To avoid past mistakes, such as relating the subject of study too closely to an approach, we must ask new questions and try to understand the duality of clothing: the body and substance.

3 Given the wide range of topics, gathering together a few articles clearly cannot encompass all aspects of the study of clothing. Each contributor to this issue has a different perspective. Each article studies in context a specific aspect of clothing, and provides a thorough analysis that highlights the diversity of the issues, which often forces us to change our outlook.

4 Whether draped, shaped, or cut and sewn, clothing is a particularly complex technological product. The materials used (textiles, leathers or other) have themselves undergone two or three transformations. The production chain is thus deeply linked to the heart of societies. The first three articles deal with the material and technical realities of clothing. The studies by Hélène Paré and Douglas Nakashima, as well as my own, highlight the importance of the symbolic meanings connected with the process.

5 The other two articles deal with the issue of post-colonial dress. All of the strategies, which vary depending on the colonial context, become a complex maze with time. With merging interests and interactions, clothing allowed the conqueror to impose his social order, either by imposing his own system, or by doing away with it and developing a sectarian clothing hierarchy that isolated the different social groups. In addition, clothing allowed the colonized society to free itself, encouraging the emergence of new dress codes. Due to its visibility, clothing also helps express a group's identity. It shows the ability to resist, adapt and challenge. The articles by Mélissa Gauthier and Elizabeth Lominska Johnson show how the historical aspect has left its mark on the material and practices, even once the body is no longer involved.

6 Dealing strictly with economic history, Hélène Paré studies the making of the beaver hat, a standard part of a man's outfit. As the hat has lost its place in society with men today, it is hard to understand how much energy was devoted to its manufacture. This topic, which deals with the history of techniques, is doubly symbolic for Canada. Conducted at the expense of the aboriginal peoples, beaver-fur trading played an important role in the establishment of European colonial empires in North America, and helped these empires keep their colonies economically dependent on them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Relying on unpublished archive documents, Hélène Paré exposes a lesser-known period of history, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when hatmaking was on the rise in Montreal. She has put an enormous effort into analysing and interpreting the data and placing the facts in context. The article vividly describes the hatmaker's craft and provides a clear understanding of the inter-relationship between the organization of the work, workforce, tools, wages and workplace relationships prior to the steam era, when manual dexterity was still the most important factor.

7 Still on the topic of techniques, Douglas Nakashima takes a distinctly anthropological approach. His study focuses on the common eider-skin clothing worn in Sanikiluaq (in the Belcher Islands), in Nunavut. However, his main theme is the analysis of the knowledge of the Inuit and the construction of their clothing, which combines knowledge and know-how. The study and description of the techniques, presented according to the principles of cultural technology proposed by André Leroi-Gourhan, are based on the theory that there is a relationship between technical and economic considerations and the social and cultural manifestations. The article highlights the extensive knowledge and skills developed by Inuit women responsible for designing and constructing clothing. Taking his cue from the works of Marie Roué on the clothing of the Samis,5 where the choices are based on durability, comfort, level of protection and impermeability, Douglas Nakashima shows that aesthetics and symbolic significance are intimately linked to the technical process. Although the uncertain supply of raw material means the use of alternate strategies, in the ideal model of representation, the plucked bodies of birds (males, females, young) used for clothing metaphorically correspond to the bodies of the humans they cover (men, women, children).

8 In my article, a comparative analysis underscores the importance of representation in the recent creation by the outdoor industry of clothing for extreme climates, and the Inuit's improvement of their clothing systems over the centuries. After examining some basic technical principles that govern these two clothing systems, I raise questions about their cultural differences, in terms of the relationship to the body, movements and the organization required to artificially maintain an acceptable environment, no matter how limited. Clothing is not seen here as a passive object, but as a dynamic system that requires knowledge and know-how to perform effectively. According to the imagined sensibilities of the eastern and western parts of the country, the extreme Arctic or high mountain environments provide a unique view of how these new elements are socially and symbolically organized by urban communities of young sports enthusiasts. By focusing on clothes made in the style of men in the south who set out to defy in their own way an environment already conquered by the Inuit, I conclude by questioning the gender differences in these areas of representation, where acculturation is not necessarily easy, but expresses itself in such simple everyday activities as getting dressed.

9 Mélissa Gauthier provides a historical retrospective and an ethnographic study of women's clothing in Mayan societies in northern Yucatan. She first shows how colonialism was founded on racial segregation, where supposedly biological differences were incorporated into social divisions, demonstrated in their dress code. The evolution of the political situation, particularly with the rise of the Yucatan identity movement, gave successive layers of significance to clothing. It should be noted that, in keeping with its role as a sign of identity, clothing is closely associated with occupation, language spoken and place of residence, for those who dress in the European style and those who wear local garments based on Mayan clothing. Mélissa Gauthier goes on to examine several subtleties in these practices, based on the results of her ethnographic research. She notes that the differences are due less to a piece of clothing as such than to how various pieces are worn together, whether it be the colours, the embroidery, the use of a petticoat or, if applicable, the length of the petticoat, hairstyle or jewellery, which includes gold teeth. The author reveals that the significance of clothing has today been transformed into an identification of different generations. Thus, she calls into question previous studies and proposes a progressive model that combines constant changes in the style and arrangement of clothing, and its significance.

10 Finally, with a wealth of almost twenty-five years experience as curator of ethnology at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Elizabeth Lominska Johnson examines the specificity of clothing collections. Her accounts, based on sensitive personal reflections about her work with articles of material culture that remain intimately linked to the bodies they covered, also document very significant recent advances in museum practices, which to some extent challenged the museographical establishment. A leader in Canada in developing relationships of greater equality between Western museums and aboriginal peoples, the Museum of Anthropology has, over the last few decades, begun to rethink its methods, allowing as much direct access as possible to its collections. In her article, Elizabeth Lominska Johnson analyses the development and consequences of this policy on clothing collections. She emphasizes the uniqueness of these collections, particularly the need to monitor access due to the fragile nature of the materials, and the relationship between the body and the collections through the antique garments most often kept in museum archives. She astutely examines the conflicts between the private and the public, visual and tactile perceptions, and the different cultural perceptions of clothing in terms of the animate and inanimate. We hope these concerns about representations and the various restoration methods will be positively received in the museum community as a whole.

11 The art and techniques of constructing finery and clothing have been deeply rooted in the history of civilization since the beginning of time. As both the result and reflection of the interaction of individuals with their natural and social environments, clothing remains a boundless topic. Happily, the study of clothing has today become more structured. From the edges of Nunavut to the north of Mexico, through work relationships and daily activities, with what archives and museums can preserve, the examples presented here each reveal some aspects that link clothing to a person's body and the spirit of societies.

Guest Editor,
Élise Dubuc
1 See Justine M. Cordwell and Ronald A. Schwarz, ed., The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment (The Hague and New York: Mouton, 1979), vii + 519 pp., illus., and Yves Delaporte and Monique de Fontanès, ed., Vêtement et Sociétés I, Proceedings of meetings held on March 2 and 3, 1979 (Paris: Société des amis du Musée de l'Homme, 1981), 370 pp.
2 Overall, the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss on structural anthropology and, more specifically, those of Roland Barthes, inspired by the works of Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics, had a considerable impact on the way clothing has been studied since the 1970s.
3 See Grant McCracken, "Clothing as Language: An Object Lesson in the Study of the Expressive Properties of Material Culture," in Material Anthropology. Contemporary Approaches to Material Culture, Barrie Reynolds and Margaret Stott, ed. (Lanham and London: University Press of America, 1987), 103-128.
4 Given the development of a new field of study, many works on clothing published in recent years present summaries on the evolution of concepts in various university fields. See the excellent introduction in Joanne Entwistle's The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and the Modem Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 258 pp.
5 See in particular the article by Marie Roué, "Anthropologie du vêtement : de la sémiologie à l'ethnoscience chez les Samis et les rockers parisiens," in Bulletin d'histoire politique 10, no. 2 (2002): 47-57.