Book Review: The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim
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Threads Reviews The Dress Detective: A practical guide to object-based research in fashion
The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015) moved straight to the top of my reading list the minute I heard of it. For decades, I have studied historic garments, vintage garments, and new delights from fashion weeks. I’ve wanted to be inspired, and, dare I say it, challenged to replicate the fashion, detail, or methodology in one of my own creations. This book looked to be a long-awaited resource for sleuthing out the ways of superb design.
It was not what I expected.
The authors have approached this topic in an academic manner for exploring the process of archiving information about a garment for historic purposes, as a sort of textbook in an apparel or museum-studies program. This might be helpful for students of garment history or preservation but is of marginal value to the designer.
The “method” they describe is based heavily on a version of material culture study that was, in part, pioneered by Jules Prown, a Yale art history professor. The idea is to take note of every detail objectively before you start interpreting what those details might mean. That process instills a different view of a garment from the construction aspect that is typically pursued by a person who sews.
These authors study with intent to step inside the physical space of the wearer, to embody the influence of the garment on the wearer and the people in the wearer’s proximity. They consider elements such as comfort and hygenic conditions: Was the garment created with an element of discomfort for a purpose? What were the odors involved? Was there staining? They also ask whether wear produced stressed areas in the garment, and at last, did these aspects have a social relevance?
After an explanation of the examination/evaluation process, the authors provide seven case studies. There are interesting current and archival photographs and commercial illustrations to accurately depict the garment and reflect its time. There are also supporting footnotes for extended research should the reader desire.
This is an entirely new facet to fashion that may offer little usable information for the sewing workroom, however enlightening it is in recording a garment’s historic or social significance.
As the pages continued, I longed for useful information about the garment construction and found the physical description and social significance perpetually less interesting. This book offers a lot of “what” and a bit of “why,” but I was hoping for more “how.” That may be of less interest to a museum professional, but for a creative sewer, it’s essential, and it’s what makes our detective work so much fun.