“Decolonizing Fashion: Ottoman and Euro-American Dress, 1700-1920”, a winter 2022 seminar at the University of Michigan, was an eight-week hybrid course that examined how fashion histories are written and what it means to deconstruct or decolonize those histories. It was an ambitious project, and the twelve intrepid students in the class gave it an excellent try. A number of the students had previous experience in various aspects of the fashion world, but no one had done fashion history before, so we began by examining actual garments and accessories, as a researcher would do when conducting primary research for a fashion history project. Each student chose a piece from the professor’s collection, loaned for this purpose, and had to assess the object based on criteria the class discussed in advance. What is important to know about a garment? Fabric, shape, construction, owner, provenance, date? And how much of this can be determined by a careful examination of the piece itself?
Next, we moved on to the thorny problem of decolonizing fashion history. What exactly does that mean, and how can researchers contribute to that work? What challenges will they encounter? Investigating these questions involved addressing the collecting and exhibition practices of the museums and historical sites where researchers look for collections of historic dress. Whose clothes make their way into museums and whose are left out? What kind of photographic evidence is available to substitute for missing garments? The students went looking (online) for museum collections that displayed the material culture of non-elite, ethnic, or marginalized people, and made some exciting discoveries, for example, an eighteenth-century pocket reportedly belonging to an enslaved woman now in the collection of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. To understand more about what decolonising fashion involves, Dr. Jonathan Square, assistant professor of Black Visual Culture at the Parsons School of Design in NY, visited the class virtually to talk about his research on Brooks Brothers and the clothing they made to be worn by enslaved people.
In the meantime, we began our examination of Ottoman women’s dress with a virtual visit to the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we saw a selection of robes, dresses, undershirts and trousers. In class the previous week we had debated whether seeing objects online could ever be an adequate substitution for in-person viewing; the Ratti visit showed us conclusively the value of online access.
As everyone in the class realized from the outset, fashion is an intensely personal art form and one which all humans experience in some way. As we continued our study of Ottoman dress, we also spent considerable time thinking about decolonizing fashion, as well as fashion history, and what that might mean. These conversations informed the final project of the class, an examination of a single object, modelled on the entries in the Objects That Matter section of the Fashion and Race Database, https://fashionandrace.org/database/, which present a culturally significant clothing or textile in its original context and then discuss contemporary instances of cultural appropriation and misuse. Students were encouraged to choose objects which had personal significance, and their choices reflected the diversity of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds among our small group. They included the rosary, Jewish headgear, henna painting, the dress of the indigenous Sami people in Scandinavia, the kilt, and more. In many cases, because of their personal connections to the material their oral presentations, delivered in person on the last day of class, were extremely powerful. It was a dramatic end to a very full and rich eight weeks.