The Nature of Culture: Order in Changes of Fashion and Three Centuries of Women’s Dress Fashions

(note: this essay is a response to "Three Centuries of Women's Dress Fashions: A Quantitative Analysis" by A.L. Kroeber)

In an attempt to classify, organize and explain changes in dress over a given period of time, Kroeber utilizes a very Boasian method of comparison by which he strips the object of every shade of context in order to come back at the object again, devoid of a priori baggage, to in the end posit a theory on how women’s dress fashions are affected by larger cultural and global concerns which are filtered through the artist/designer.

That Kroeber was a student of Boasian theory becomes clear when he states the methods by which he began his examination of women’s dress: “Strict comparability of data being essential, it was necessary to confine observations to clothing of a single type.” Indeed, when Boas sought an explanation for artistry in culture, he followed the same regiment, limiting his study to Alaskan needlecases.

Additionally, just as Boas examined and described each object on its own terms, as does Kroeber. He illustrates for pages on end the variation in skirt length, skirt width, waist length, etc. But to this, Kroeber adds a system of plotting, by which his study will be actuated. And this is perhaps the beginning of the divergent (or additional?) path Kroeber takes from Boas.

Whereas Boas sought to examine Alaskan needlecases as an anthropological restructuring event, the endgame occurred with a twist: not only did Boas show that it was futile to ascribe some kind of historicity upon objects based upon their formal features, he also made a strong claim for the idea of the variation in Alaskan needlecases being highly dependent upon the hand of the artist. In fact, this idea was the strongest possibility proffered for such degrees of variation in the object’s form that his study illustrated.

Kroeber sees this and admits so: “All historical phenomena are unique in some degree, in the field of nature as well as human activity.” Yet Kroeber seeks to take his study in another direction, reengaging with an element of historicity, in order to make the claim that variation in dress not only comes from the designer’s hand (as variation in needlecase comes from the Alaskan artist), but that there are larger concerns which aid in shaping dress design. “There must always be,” says Kroeber, “some interaction with other factors in the same and cognate phases of culture, and occasional interferences from more remote domains.” It is not only the hand or eye of the dress designer which dictates the form of the fashion, he says. There are larger cultural or global aspects which enter, by necessity, into the equation.

It is important to state that Kroeber, just as Boas, believes in a two-tiered state of design. When Boas states that the basic design for Alaskan needlecases is due to a “fixed conventional form,” the source of which is unknown, and that variation in design of the needlecase is due to an artistic “play of imagination” upon the standard base structure, Kroeber in essence uses that same theory to explain fashion. “The major proportions of dress change rather with a slow majesty, in periods often exceeding the duration of human life.” In other words, a conventional form – what he terms “a basic pattern” of women’s dress. The variation in design occurs much more rapidly, “driven to our attention, and soon leave a blurred but overwhelming impression of incalculably chaotic fluctuations, of reversals that are at once bewildering and meaningless, of a sort of lightning-like prestidigitation to which we bow in dumb recognition of its uncontrollability.” A hyper-play of imagination upon the conventional form, perhaps? Or a play born of extreme cultural and global events?

So that after all of the plotting, charting, studying and describing, what we have, in essence, is a Boasian system of understanding through de-contextualization, an understanding of base structures and their descriptive variants. Yet at the same time, Kroeber points us toward a window wherein we see that larger concerns are playing in the same field, that perhaps it isn’t just the mark of the artist/designer dictating these shifts in style, the variations in the object.

Specifically due to his charting of dress lengths and widths, Kroeber is able to juxtapose these figures with global events. Kroeber’s adamancy about culling as large a period of time as possible (nearly 300 years worth) makes this historical plotting plausible. His figures indicate “strain” in patterning occurring during periods of global duress: the Revolutionary, Napoleonic and World War I periods. “Sociocultural stress and unsettlement,” he states, “seem to produce fashion strain and instability.” His next remark is paramount: “However, they exert their influence upon an existing stylistic pattern, which they dislocate or invert.” Again we have the idea of a “fixed conventional form” which is acted upon by the hand of the artist/designer.

And still, Kroeber goes even further in his explanation. It is not enough to think that the artist/designer is working in isolation – his earlier statement regarding interaction made this clear – but at the same time it is not enough to say that global disruption is what makes dress designs what they are. “The explanation propounded is not that revolution, war, and sociocultural unsettlement in themselves produce skant skirts and thick and high or low waists, but that they disrupt the established dress style and tend to its overthrow or inversion.” [Emphasis added] Bringing this back to Kroeber’s introduction to essay #45, where he states: “causality is less of a one-to-one, stimulus-reaction, reflex-arc type as between specific elements, and more a matter of adjustive relations between basic patterns of different segments of culture,” we see that Kroeber has taken a Boasian methodology, applying ideas of base-object and personal, artistic variation, but has added another layer to the cake: that the artist/designer is responsible for the “play of imagination upon the fixed conventional form” is clear, but where does that play originate? In the larger cultural sphere. Kroeber has cast his net wider, bringing in not just the fish, but the plankton, crustacean and plant-life that fish feeds upon.

The only thing more flattering to the legacy of Boas than Kroeber’s use of the same structural techniques, is that Kroeber has expanded the scope of context, showing just how necessary an encompassing environment view really is.