4/01/2021 Kim O'Brien

Why Are You Wearing That? Common Hour Explores the Context of Fashion

There’s more to fashion than meets the eye.

So much, argues Amelia Rauser, that garment choice reveals a surprising amount of context about the art, politics, economics and science of an era. 

Rauser, Franklin & Marshall associate dean of the faculty and professor of art history, examined the implications of fashionable dress in her March 30 virtual Common Hour lecture titled “Why Are You Wearing That?”  

“My research has always been motivated by a fascination with, and kind of desire to, dignify the aesthetic choices of ordinary people. Each one of us is participating in the aesthetic of our moment,” said Rauser, the College’s 2020 Bradley R. Dewey Award recipient.

Rauser asked the audience: What is it that you like? What bedspread did you choose? How did you decorate your room? Why are you wearing that? 

“In making choices like these, we're participating in the visual culture of our time and place, just like the painters and sculptors and architects around us are,” she said.

Common Hour - Why Are You Wearing That? Lessons from the Eighteenth Century

Rauser’s latest book, “The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s” takes an extensive look at the art and material culture of late 18th-century Europe and the Atlantic world. 

Her particular focus is on neoclassical dress worn by women in the 1790s, widely recognized as the white muslin, high-waisted styles seen in Jane Austen movies and the recent Netflix series “Bridgerton.”

“In the 1790s, elite women appeared in ballrooms, gardens and opera boxes dressed as living statues,” Rauser said. 

Textiles, while seemingly innocuous, “have often been the primary way for women to engage with the aesthetic ideas of their era,” Rauser said.

“There have been great women artists, of course, but in almost every time in place on earth, most women have been excluded from high-status aesthetic and intellectual life,” she said. 

Rauser did not shy away from fashion’s contentious history with colonialism. The form of dress that her particular research focuses on emerged both from artistic studios in Europe and sugar plantations in the West Indies, an early example of cultural appropriation when white women adopted the plaid Madras cloth and headwraps worn by women of color in the Caribbean. 

“By looking closely at fashion, we can gain insight into the values and aspirations of those who spun it, wove it, sowed it, marketed it and wore it – people whose voices are often difficult to hear,” she said. 

  • Art History students explore a different side of fashion during a class led by Amelia Rauser. Art History students explore a different side of fashion during a class led by Amelia Rauser.
  • Art History students explore a different side of fashion during a class led by Amelia Rauser. Art History students explore a different side of fashion during a class led by Amelia Rauser.
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