The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion
by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim
"Unlocking the personal and cultural narratives hidden in the folds of a garment is a little bit like being Sherlock Holmes. A dress detective looks for and interprets the clues..."
- Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim
I love this quote which begins the Introduction to The Dress Detective, a new book focusing on the methodology of object-based fashion research. As a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes I love that I get to don his mythical deerstalker myself and search for the small details that might reveal a person, a place, a time. Detective work is integral to fashion history research, yet very little has been written on how to go about it. Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim fill that gap in the bookshelf with The Dress Detective. This book provides an excellent guide that is sure to be extremely useful for students and professionals alike.
The Dress Detective has two main sections. The first (chapters 1 through 5) details the steps one should take to read an object. The second (chapters 6 through 12) puts this theory into practice, providing case studies of a wide assortment of different extant garments which utilize the methods laid out in previous chapters. There are also two extremely helpful appendices, providing a "Checklist for Observation" and a "Checklist for Reflection"; two blank forms the researcher can use to guide their study. Each chapter is accompanied by multiple color images to illustrate every step of the process, a must-have for a book like this. The organization of this book is fantastic, providing not only the theory of fashion research but multiple examples of how to actually do it. The case studies cover both men's and women's fashion from the early 19th century to the present, demonstrating how to approach researching a variety of garments. The "Checklist for Observation" and "Checklist for Reflection" are extremely detailed, pointing the researcher in directions they may not have considered.
I particularly appreciated chapter 1, "A Brief History of Object-based Research with Dress Artifacts". This chapter considers some of the pioneers of the field of fashion history such as Doris Langley Moore, Anne Buck, Janet Arnold, and Jules David Prown, as well as important historians working today such as Valerie Steele, Alexandra Palmer, and Lou Taylor. As a historian I, of course, appreciate the history of historians and was happy to see Mida and Kim acknowledge those who came before. On a practical level, this chapter also directs the curious reader to other sources of methodology and research (I highly recommend Jules David Prown's 1982 article, "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method", which is briefly summarized in this chapter).
There are many boring, jargon-filled texts about history methodology. The Dress Detective is not one of them. This is a concise, well organized, and extremely accessible book that deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in fashion research.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy of this book!
, by Katy Werlin