Freshman seminar looks at clothing as a social force

Jenna Weissman Joselit looks over the roomful of freshmen in front of her and asks them to perform a warm-up exercise: Chart the major moments of your lives through clothes. "If you pop open your closet, can you recall your lives?" she posits on the first day of the freshman seminar "Getting Dressed."

Out come tales of the "ring that saved my life," the first dress ever made by an aspiring designer and the black, hooded jacket one student wore constantly with her hands buried inside it that led her to earn the nickname "Pockets."

"The objective, of course, is to encourage them to think about themselves," said Joselit, a visiting professor of history . "But it's also to get beyond that and to think seriously about clothing, which they're not inclined to see as a kind of larger social force and as something that relates to memory and history."

The seminar is an inquiry into the social significance of clothing and a close examination of the relationship between clothing and identity in 20th-century America. To explore that juncture, students keep a literary sketchbook in which they record their observations about the ways clothing comes into play in the news, in their surroundings and in their own lives. The journal helps the students hone their powers of observation and learn key skills for examining the world.

Ann Glotzbach '05 used those skills to create an illustrated book that chronicles her life through footwear. In the book, we learn that she was running in her beloved Keds sneakers at age 7 when she found out her mother had had polio. When her family moved to a new city in the eighth grade, she regretted wearing her navy-blue sandals with lemons printed on them on the first day of school – everyone else was wearing tennis shoes. And she remembers looking down at her feet as she walked into the church for her grandmother's funeral and seeing the square-toed classic pumps she had worn for the occasion.

"The class has made me realize how powerful clothing really is," said Glotzbach.

"The students are learning to parse, interpret and make sense of the physical world around them," Joselit said, "using the same kinds of critical skills that they bring to bear in analyzing an economic forecast or a primary source."

Honing students' powers of observation

When the class met in mid-October, the lively conversation Joselit conducted ranged from observations about 19th-century corsets to remarks about weekend attire on campus. Joselit asked the students about the field trip they had just taken to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where, in addition to corsets, they were shown paisley shawls from the turn of the century and a $10,000 Chanel suit from the 1960s. Joselit asked the students to characterize the tour guide's approach to the clothes.

"Technical," someone said. "Aesthetic," said someone else.

They differentiated that view from the perspective taken by the class, which explored what the clothing told them about historical perceptions of class and gender.

The corsets demonstrated "how body image has changed over the years," said Vivian Weng '05. The Chanel suit showed that the Fashion Institute of Technology was primarily concerned with clothes that had been made for one class of people, the wealthy, said Mary Bynum '05.

"People use fashion to identify with a certain group, the same way that teams have uniforms," Weng said.

Joselit turned to Ben Eachus '05 after several other students had offered their comments and said, "You talked about seeing doormen (in New York) wearing flags, to fit in."

He replied: "Well, clothing is a means of protection. (These days) you're as American as the clothing you wear."

Seeing clothes as an integral part of how people define themselves as Americans is exactly what Joselit does in her new book, "A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character and the Promise of America." Published over the summer by Metropolitan Books, "A Perfect Fit" is a study of the way that clothing was perceived as an agent of morality in the United States between 1890 and World War II. The New York Times hailed the book as "witty and enlightening," and said Joselit has a "peerless gift for turning up amazing artifacts where few historians bother to dig."

Joselit's book is an engaging and often humorous account of the serious attention that Americans once gave to what their attire said about America as a nation. Whether or not women wore skirts that covered their ankles, for example, was perceived as a matter of national import. Opponents of the shorter, knee-skimming skirts that gained popularity in the 1920s urged women to "swing the pendulum of styles and manners back toward an age of purity, piety and the elusive ankle," according to a quotation in Joselit's book.

Joselit studies what is known as vernacular culture, the everyday details and objects of life. She has written books that explore topics such as the role of summer camp in Jewish culture, the artifacts of the American Jewish home and criminality in Jewish communities in the early 20th century. She has taught at Princeton for several years, in the religion, American studies and history departments.

In conjunction with reading Joselit's book, the students in the seminar analyze clothing's role in history and in modern society. They re-enact the 1986 debate among Supreme Court justices over whether the law permitted a Jewish Air Force captain to wear a yarmulke with his uniform. They conduct interviews on and off campus, exploring questions such as: Do people of different racial backgrounds feel constrained to wear certain clothes and not others? And they research the way attire intersects with religion and etiquette.

Mary Katherine Sheena '04, who took the course last year, said, "I learned that every aspect of our society is woven together, and to understand the bigger picture, one needs to examine things that are considered insignificant and perhaps superficial by many, like clothing."

And studying a social phenomenon such as clothing makes the past come alive for students. "Fashion is such a good way to get personal with history," said Julia Straus '05.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601