Costume History and Fashion Theory

In a new blog post on the CommsWomen platform, Sasha Hull, a student at the University of Alabama, College of Communication and Information Sciences, analyses an article on costume history and fashion theory by Jennifer Harris, published by Bulletin of the John Rylands Library

“Costume History and Fashion Theory: Never the Twain Shall Meet?” by Jennifer Harris discusses the distinct yet interwoven areas of costume history and fashion theory. Harris loosely explains costume history as the cultural and social-economic aspects of dress. For example, women in colonial times wore long skirts and petticoats whether they were milking cows, quilting, or going to town. Fashion theory, on the other hand, tends to emerge from cultural and critical theory, this includes using sociology, anthropology, and gender studies with an emphasis on identity and personal symbolism. Costume history and fashion theory should be interconnected, Harris believes, “to create a richer, more inclusive field of study.” 

Costume History uses actual artefacts and preserved garments to provide historical context to viewers. Historians of this discipline must catalog items and provide detailed summaries of the pieces. In doing so, future generations are able to understand the evolution of clothing in a visual setting. According to Harris, a Costume Historian’s “research is based on a study of surviving garments and/or on careful analysis of documentary sources in the form of paintings, photographs, fashion plates and contemporary literature.” Costume history and costume design are linked in today’s world by the use of motion pictures and historical documentaries. The series Bridgerton excels in its ability to portray characters from the early 19th century with time period garments. The show’s wardrobe designer draws “inspiration from historical references, art, and fashion” while being known for its “refined elegance and romanticism”. While historical clothing may be difficult to display, it is a necessary step to creating a better understanding of previous generations of fashion. Lastly, Harris adds, “clothes remain some of the most difficult objects to display – principally, because in their proper context, they need to move. Clothing ripples, flows and creases with every movement of the body.” 

Fashion theory engages the viewer with conceptual framework and abstract thinking. A fashion theorist’s work tends to look at culture as a whole while still looking for individuality within the consumers. An example of a fashion innovator is Coco Channel who believed that fashion trends started on the street and were perfected in the design studio. A famous fashion quote from Channel is, “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.” The Channel brand has continued Coco’s legacy, staying true to the classic and timeless styles that she curated. Fashion theorists examine trends and predict the directions that fashion will take in popular culture. Although fashion is a diverse and constantly changing industry, fashion theory suggests that trends cycle in and out. In this way, Costume History resurfaces as well and consumers are offered styles that were popular forty or fifty years ago. 

Harris acknowledges that while costume history and fashion theory have their differences, there is a need for the unification of the two fields. She believes that a fashion theorist’s understanding of textiles and design throughout history will help create a more cohesive understanding of fashion as a whole. 

The full article can be read using this link.


Harris, Jennifer (1995). Costume history and fashion theory: never the twain shall meet? Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 77 (1):73-80.

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