The great Joseph and Carolyne duo ventured out for our first field trip. One foggy San Francisco afternoon, we visited Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade at the Legion of Honor. This grand museum, perched upon a hill overlooking the chilled Bay, was the site for this amazing exhibit.
After the drive from the South Bay, we were hungry. Joseph and I make food a high priority. So, first, we lunched in the museum’s cafe. We talked about some of Joseph’s current client projects, about how much fun we are having together this summer. Not to mention, Joseph made many quotable, witty comments, setting me up for an afternoon of learning and wonder.
The tour began with our docent explaining the map of Paris and the time period. The late 19th century is when hats thrived and the Impressionists painted. Department stores became established in Paris as the best places to find fine fashions. As a result, women eagerly spent money on clothes. Travel, expansion, and industrialization provided new goods from around the world. Men and women in Europe and North America developed a thirst for exotic fashions.
Fashion has political, anthropological, and psychological purposes. But, we may not even fully process the importance of fashion. We experience it in the moment. Sometimes it takes an exhibition to lay it out for us 100 years later, perhaps in the Legion of Honor.
Here’s a question that I bet you didn’t think of when you put your pants on this morning. In 100 years, what will anthropologists study about today’s age of style? For decades, fashion has had an influence in the modern political arena. In fact, designers have long found ways to communicate their political positions. Dior’s white T-shirt, with the words “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS” emblazoned across the front, represents a recent well-known example.
Anthropologically speaking, since the beginning of time, humans have had a need for clothing. Consequently, animals and plants have provided fabrics to address this necessity. Anthropologists trace the use of wool as a clothing textile to as early as 1500 B.C.E. Anthropologists study the many ways and techniques that the human race has created clothing.
Then there’s the psychological aspect of clothing. Clothing and style has everything to do with the subconscious. A yellow summer dress communicates to me something very different from a black power-suit. Every aspect about what you’re wearing today is sending a message to the people who encounter you. There is a secret power that your clothing holds. From the moment I glance at someone, I can formulate a statement that describes this person. Never underestimate the power of color, or the power of clothing, because people are instinctively forming thoughts about you.
After my visit to the exhibit, I ran my original question through my head again. What trends are prominent today, and what do they stand for? While thinking about this, Lululemon leggings and Kim Kardashian kept coming to mind. Now, I have most of you thinking because you just thought, “Kim Kardashian? I really hope not!” Has this age of fashion failed our future anthropologists? Are we giving any of them “museum worthy” material?
Fashion is more than just clothes on your body. Fashion has a larger effect than you might think. An art exhibition captures bourgeois Parisian culture nearly 150 years after the time of the Impressionists. Artists like Degas captured the spirit of the time, including a focus on fashion and style. It’s one way we know that hats were a major cultural influence back then. In addition to the work of Parisian milliners, whose shops dotted Paris’ main shopping districts, Degas also left a legacy. The observations and stories captured in his paintings remain for generations to study.
Seeing this exhibition leaves me wondering whether painted impressions are a thing of the past. What will anthropologists have to study from our current era? Maybe our saved Snapchats? What will people study in 100 years, and will anyone find it inspirational? If Degas were alive today, would he find inspiration to paint about everyday life and society as he once did?
The next time you step out of your threshold with money in hand, be conscious of what you buy. Focus on unique and lasting clothing. For instance, imagine your closet as a museum, and you’re the curator. Is this hat timeless? Does the blouse have thoughtful and artistic elements? What are the intentions behind the materials, cuts, and embellishments? Also, will future anthropologists approve this jacket? Would museums feature any of today’s clothes and trends in lighted glass cases lined in velvet 100 years from now? Only time will tell.