Who Am I? Spring 2014

Dress Casual is published by UNC Press. Many thanks to their team, especially editor Mark Simpson Vos.

Dress Casual is published by UNC Press. Many thanks to their team, especially editor Mark Simpson Vos.

My book is out.

My mentor Jim Axtell asked me how I felt about it.

I replied, “It’s like that boyfriend I have been wanting to break up with for a year.”

My book is out, but I feel like its stuff is still at my house. Still articles on collegians to be published, still boxes of unprocessed department store records, still far too much argyle in my own wardrobe. I have been working on collegians for nearly eight years. I felt more than ready to move on.

And then, last week, it came in the mail. All glossy gloss with my name smack dab in the middle and the cover image I fell in love with at first sight. I held this seemingly finished product in my hands and was instantly nostalgic for the hours I spent digging through sources at Princeton’s Mudd Library and evenings exercising in Dillon pool. And those summer mornings in Pittsburgh when I trudged my pregnant belly up to campus to write elaborate chapter outlines and fight the feeling that the work would never end. But it did.

Dress Casual is a rallying call for historians to use material culture in their analyses, but I’m not talking “white gloves” material culture. I’m talking “pencils only”—archives. The written record is littered with letter writers such as Chalmers Alexander (Princeton, Class of 1932) and Nancy Murray (Radcliffe, Class of 1945), and Agnes Edwards (Cal, Class of 1922). Department store records, trade industry publications, and even the papers of the Dean of Students are brimming with answers to questions such as “How did suits become sport coats and sport coats become t-shirts?” And these sources tell us why.

Better than the best pair of faded Levis or the most beat up set of saddle shoes, written documents tell us about cultural change in remarkably direct ways.

My favorite example: In 1921, a Radcliffe woman named Kay wrote a letter to her friend of a tiff she had over a dress with her mother. It was not the $45 price tag the mother minded but the amount of skin her daughter wanted to expose: “No says mother, because it has no sleeves.” Kay told her friend, “If (mother) gets me a dress with sleeves in it, I shall simply take them out.”

Fifteen college archives, eight years, three kids and a tenure-track job later, I still love those damned collegians. Part of me always will.