Paper #1: The Hidden Powers of Clothing
As much as we can talk and think and write about fashion, we are limited in our capacity to really know about an item of dress until we actually inhabit it ourselves: touch it, feel it graze our skin, experience what it’s like to walk down the street wearing it. And although we can acknowledge fairly readily what intentions we bring to our wearing of a particular clothing item, we might also ask what goes on beyond our intentions. Specifically:
- What does our clothing do to us? What effects does it have on us that might exceed or even defy our rational expectations?
- To what extent does it guide us toward resisting, complicating, or supporting classed, raced, gendered aspects of the social order in which we live?
If, as a woman, I wear, a pair of stilettos, how does my experience guide me towards walking in a certain way that confirms or naturalizes differences between men and women? If I wear workers’ overalls, how does that leave me unconstrained from exertion or dirtiness or practicality, in ways that speak to classed expectations and work patterns? And is this complicated by the fact that I don’t actually need this garment to do my work as a writing teacher?
For this assignment, I want you to pick a garment that you would not ordinarily wear, and I want you to wear it — in public, without personal comment or a trace of irony — for at a whole day. You may need to buy it at the thrift shop, borrow it from a roommate, even dig it out from a box of costumes. Make sure that you do not appear to mock others in donning your clothing item, but also that you pick something that is different enough from your regular dress that you feel like you are outside of your comfort zone.
Once you have worn your garment, write a personal essay modeled roughly after the Katalin Lovasc essay that we read. In your essay, try to do the following, in whatever order you see fit:
1. Provide a clear description of whatever aspects of the item of dress you feel are relevant to your experience. You might consider, for instance, cut, color, fabric, make, and size. Try to relate these features to the effect the garment has on you as the wearer.
2. Account for the item’s intended audience: is it often worn by a particular group of people? How do you know this to be the case? Is it a historical item of dress? How does it demonstrate or resist the values of the group or era from which it comes?
3. Reflect upon the bodily experience of wearing the item of dress. What does it do to your movements? Your feelings? From where does its power derive—its material characteristics, advertising, your own experience-based sense of its common use?
4. Make an interesting and arguable claim about the ways that the item urges the wearer, simply by wearing it, to confirm, complicate, or resist existing societal norms. (You may also consider the extent to which wearers can or cannot resist this urging, although this is not necessary.) Your evidence for this claim should be derived from the garment itself and from your experience wearing it.
You can (and should) use “I” in this essay, and you will probably also draw from outside research in backing up your claims about the clothing item’s material qualities or its intended or usual wearers. Research, however, should not be the focus of your inquiry; rather, your embodied experience in this garment should provide the focus for your essay. Nonetheless, make sure that you provide necessary citations for all sources in MLA format.
In sum, the purposes of the assignment are as follows:
- to practice draft workshopping in class
- to develop primary research skills and to practice weaving personal narrative and research together in interesting and productive ways
- to document the ways that dress can act upon us even beyond our own knowledge
- to draw from material objects and embodied experiences in accounting for knowledge
Paper #2: Situating Dress Within Its Cultural Moment
For your final project, you’ll investigate a particular clothing/jewelry/hair trend or item of your choice. Drawing from the one or more of the theoretical readings we have done in this course as well as from your own primary and secondary research, you will develop an argument that responds, in some interesting way, to one or more of the following questions:
What meaning(s) did this item/trend generate, confirm, complicate, or contradict within the cultural moment in which it emerged?
How did designers, marketers, and wearers of this item generate its meanings in society?
How and by what means have the meanings attached to this items changed over time? To what end?
By ‘cultural moment,’ I am suggesting chronological time (ie, 1890s) and geographic location (northeastern United States, for example). I am also referring to specific cultural components of this time/place, including dominant attitudes relevant to issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class.
In developing your argument, you’ll need to draw from many different kinds of sources, both primary and secondary. Your primary sources will come from the cultural moment you have chosen to investigate, and may include advertisements, clothing patterns and descriptions, personal photographs, fashion columns from newspapers, television shows, or even websites, if your cultural moment is very recent. Rather than looking to these sources strictly for information, you will need to gain a critical distance from them, considering the ways that they demonstrate their intended audience’s understanding of the clothing item in question. We’ll talk extensively about how to do this in class, and we’ll look at some examples of scholars’ use of primary source material similar to what you’ll be considering.
In addition to primary sources, you’ll draw from various scholarly secondary sources—sources written about some aspect of the cultural moment in which the clothing item flourished, often in response to questions similar to the one to which you are responding. These authors will provide you with a conversation within which to situate your claims. Rather than accepting their claims as automatically valid, you should consider: how do their accounts differ from one another? How do they overlap? To what extent are their claims supported by your primary research? While you will draw ideas from these secondary sources, you will also need to distinguish your arguments from theirs in some way. Perhaps they have not addressed the clothing trend you discuss, or perhaps they have addressed it in a way that you can extend. Thinking about where your claim sits in relation to theirs may require you to forward and counter existing perspectives on the clothing item or issue at hand.
Because this project involves some fairly extensive research and thinking, there will be several assignments associated with it: not only the scholarly essay, but also a research proposal and annotated bibliography. Please find specific information below about each of these assignments:
1. Research Proposal: Once we have visited Perkins Library several times, you will need to write me a letter in which you propose your topic. You don’t need to have chosen the specific claim you want to make, but you should have identified a particular item/trend on which to focus, and you should have begun to examine the primary and secondary materials from which you plan to draw. In your 3-4 page letter, you should do the following:
- identify and describe the trend/item you plan to pursue and the cultural moment within which you will situate it
- identify in detail two or three promising primary sources you have found and at least one secondary source
- speculate on what kinds of arguments you might make about the item of clothing, or what sorts of research questions you may be answering (you are not tied to these, but they can anchor your work as you continue to do research)
- describe what you see as a research plan for yourself: what do you need to find? What do you need to do?
2. Annotated Bibliography
For this assignment, you will need to record and reflect on the material you have gathered in your research. An annotated bibliography can take many forms, but generally it serves as a list of materials that will help you (and me) take stock of what you’ve done. For our purposes, the annotated bibliography has two parts:
- a bibliographic entry for each source, written in MLA format
- a 3-5 sentence description of the source (listed below the entry). The description should include the source’s central features and arguments, an explanation of how it might be useful to your research or inadequate, and possibly a description of its similarities to or differences from other sources.
To help you with formatting specifics, I’ll show you an example of an annotated bibliography in class.
In composing your annotated bibliography, strive to:
- Conform to MLA format for each entry
- Include several primary materials (at least 10)
- Include several scholarly, secondary materials (at least 5)
- Offer a thorough account of each source, as indicated above
3. Scholarly essay: Drawing from the thinking you have already done in proposing your topic and from your subsequent research and rethinking, you will compose a scholarly essay. Your essay should be 8 – 12 pages in length, and it should conform to MLA format for internal citations with a regular (not annotated) Works Cited page at the end. In addition, you should strive to do the following:
- develop a debatable, interesting, and specific claim that situates an article of clothing within a given cultural moment
- provide adequate, but not excessive, context for your claim
- respond to (forward, counter) the work of other scholars who have previously characterized the dress item or the cultural moment about which you are writing
- support your claim by drawing convincingly from both primary and secondary materials, including at least one visual item that you integrate into your argument
Dressing Up the Screen: Digital Collage
For this final assignment, you’ll blur the lines between your traditional research paper and a medium that may be more accessible to a broader audience: the digital collage. Your task is to represent the central ideas of your research paper in a digital collage that you will post to our course website as part of an online exhibit. You’ll ask:
- How can I translate the central claims, emotions, or tensions of my paper into a nuanced and thought-provoking visual form?
- What message do I want my digital collage to convey?
- What images, words, and associations can I use to convey this message?
Although these questions may seem unfamiliar (at least, in a writing class), they are actually not so far afield from the questions you ask when you are composing a traditional, or alphabetic, text. Just as you did when you composed your research paper, for your collage you’ll need to think about what to emphasize and what to minimize, where to elaborate, how to arrange your collage, and what impression you want to leave with your reader. In doing so, you’ll be taking the critical skills you’ve developed while analyzing the way meanings circulate through objects and images and using them to create your own meaning-making visual object.
WHAT THIS PROJECT ENTAILS:
- a digital collage that:
- makes use of Photoshop to arrange images and text (from the web, from newspaper or magazine clippings, or from other sources) in a way that captures some central element of your research paper’s argument : for instance, it could be your claim, a change over time, an emotion, an attitude, or a tension or clashing of emotions.
- Is directed at a general audience outside our class (imagine your parents using the collage to understand your research paper, or putting your collage up in your dorm room as an artwork and conversation piece). Your collage should be flexible in terms of what it demands of this audience: ideally, it will appeal to viewers both as an interesting object to examine for just a few seconds in passing or as a visual argument that merits extended notice and analysis.
- attends to the principles of visual rhetoric you’ve been analyzing in the images you’ve used for your paper. You may use images only, or you may use a combination of images and carefully selected text. Depending on your own choices, you should attend to font sizes and styles, colors, arrangement and juxtaposition of images, and use of space.
- Is titled in a deliberate way that works with the collage to convey the idea you are trying to convey
2. a 200-300 word abstract that will be posted along with your collage to our class website, and that will direct your audience to a robust and comprehensible interpretation of the collage.
In composing this abstract, think of yourself as a museum curator. How do the brief words you see beside a painting or collection contribute to your experience of an exhibit? What information does an audience need to appreciate the artwork they are examining? What language will be accessible? Interesting? How can you present information visually to help create the right mood? (For example, what fonts can you use? How can you show emphasis? Where should you create spaces for the reader to stop and digest what you’ve said?)
Your abstract will be workshopped in class, and we’ll establish guidelines together to make our exhibit appear as cohesive and consistent as possible.
3. a 2-3 page reflective essay or letter, directed to me, in which you explain your choices in designing your collage. Your tone can be informal and personal, but you should be thoughtful in explaining the thinking that went into planning your collage. Please address the following questions within the paragraphs of your essay or letter:
1. What from your research paper did you try to capture in your collage? What informed your choice?
2. What principles inform your collage design decisions, including font sizes and styles, spaces, colors, arrangement, object sizes and positioning, etc.? Be clear about how these choices stem from your purpose, your audience, and the idea you are trying to convey.
3. What process did you go through in composing your abstract, and on what did you base your decisions regarding content, organization, language, and appearance?
4. What changed in your thinking about your original argument as you approached it in this medium? What stayed the same? To what extent did you rely on the same means of persuasion? (Here you might think of pathos, logos, and ethos.)
4. a Works Cited page, written in MLA format and turned in with your reflective letter, in which you cite the sources from which you drew in making your collage. There is no minimum or maximum number of sources, and you do not need to draw from a range of sources if it does not suite your project. However, a true collage brings together elements that were not previously combined.
EVALUATION: Your project is worth 10 points. It will be evaluated as follows:
1. Rhetorical effectiveness in conveying your intended idea, as demonstrated in the collage, in your abstract, and in your reflective essay (5 points)
2. Effective use of drafting and revising process/completion of all parts of project (3 points)
3. Technical effort and proficiency, as demonstrated in your collage itself (2 points)