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J-Term Course Explores the Art of Dress Through U.Va. Historic Collection

Why do so many men wear khakis and blue blazers?

According to Gweneth West, professor and head of costume design in the Department of Drama of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, the style is rooted in a tradition established by “Beau” Brummel, an arbiter of men’s fashion in the early 19th century.

As it turns out, the decisions we make about current wardrobe choices in everyday life stem from a rich and varied history.

In her January Term course, “The Art of Dress: Conformity and Individuality,” which West has taught since 2009, she leads her seven students in an exploration of the external influences of fashion choices and how these choices express identity in public life.

After only a few days, the students had gained a wealth of knowledge about the art of dress – the psychological, economic and political implications of fashion, its impact on culture, and what clothing choices reveal about the person – and have explored their own personal wardrobes in the context of the history of dress.

Further, during the course, the students are being presented with the opportunity to examine in detail historical garments utilizing a major research tool – the University of Virginia Collection of Historic Dress.

Housed in the costume department of the Department of Drama, the collection was officially established in March 1999 and includes pieces dating from c.1795 to c.1965. Curated with great care by West, it provides a unique opportunity for students of costume design, the history of dress and acting.

According to West, this highly specialized collection is one of the best study collections of historic dress on the East Coast.

Over the years, West has carefully organized and arranged the collection, preserving many of the clothes in acid-free boxes and paper.

“When I initially came to U.Va., this amazing collection was in complete shambles,” West said.

In the past, people donated clothes to the drama department because they wanted them to be used onstage, giving them to a special place and not just a thrift store.

“But the clothes aren’t wearable because they’re in the process of disintegrating all the time,” West said. “Fortunately, as the curator, I’m the main person who puts my hands on them.”

The ongoing challenge has been to find available space in the drama building for this remarkable teaching resource. West hopes that one day a specially designed space – with controlled temperature, humidity and lighting – will be developed solely dedicated to the collection.

Revolving exhibits of select garments from the collection are regularly displayed in the lobby of the Culbreth Theatre in connection with productions for both the Drama Department and Heritage Theatre. Recently, West exhibited clothes from the collection at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville to accompany her lecture at a fundraising party to celebrate the premiere of season three of “Downton Abbey.”

At a time when online research seems to prevail – when photos and information seem readily available everywhere – the value of an actual collection of this scope is obvious.

The U.Va. Collection of Historic Dress offers the J-Term students a tactile experience that is unique to West’s method of teaching. Her students touch and feel the fabric; they study how the costume material drapes on their hand. The students examine the line, cut, color, construction, ornamentation and textiles of historical garments firsthand.

“I try to teach my students to have brains in their fingers,” West said. “One of the most beautiful rewards about having this study collection is you can feel the textile and turn a garment inside out and see what’s there.”

Most of the students who take West’s course are initially interested mostly in fashion. But by the end of the course, they have a deeper understanding of the art of dress. They explore the psychology of dress and the expressive factors that include the desire to impress – beauty, religion, tradition, conformity, individuality and the zeitgeist of the historical period.

The students learn to analyze their own relationship to clothing in terms of a character biography. Using tear sheets and visual boards, the students give a presentation about themselves in terms of their own personal psychology.

West follows this with a crash course in the history of dress – a quick survey to understand what the look is for every period. She then focuses on the periods that are available in U.Va.’s collection, and the students select the periods they are interested in investigating.

“Then in this crazy kind of scramble, I go downstairs and find the garments,” West said. “I know all the clothes so well that I can easily find the ones that will match up with a student’s chosen period.”

Through this hands-on learning experience, West’s students begin to view clothes less as artifacts and more as historical links to their current attitudes about fashion in contemporary society.

“What I love about the class is that it helps us to understand that clothes are about human beings – they’re not about fashion,” West said. “The art of dress is about how a human being uses or adjusts to fashion, how much their individual expression is in those clothes.

“I think by studying the art of dress, especially through the tactile experience with the historic garments, we get a better insight into ourselves and become more understanding, even compassionate, about why people wear what they do.”

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