More than comfort: Understanding the meaning of clothing with an object analysis approach

Objects are active meaning makers; they absorb the significance we attach to them and reflect it back to us (Prentice 993-994). As objects become embedded into our lives, they develop biographies and histories of their own. For example, our homes acquire meaning by holding the events that define us, whereas others may just see some walls holding up a roof. Beyond acquiring meaning, objects can shape our experiences. We may choose to settle down and retire in the same area as our cherished childhood home. In addition to being shaped by us, the meaning attached to objects may reflect the time period, surrounding culture, and geography in which they exist (Kopytoff 70; Prentice 993). A winter coat purchased in the mountainous regions of the southern United States may serve as a convenient article of clothing for limited days of the year; however, inhabitants of Arctic regions who spend the majority of their lives bundled may associate their coats with their warmest memories (no pun intended). From this perspective, we cannot evaluate clothing independently of our environments and ourselves, as it often becomes a medium through which we experience the world (Negrin 117). To further explore how clothing absorbs and reflects meaning, I investigated a garment that, despite being old, delicate, hardly wearable, and generally of no use today, was donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection among a series of pieces deemed significant enough for preservation. Well before being donated as a historic artefact, this 110-year-old garment was cherished and preserved by its owner(s) for many years. Why was it deemed so important and kept alive for so long? To explore this loaded question, I treated the garment as evidence and subjected it to the following three-stage analytical process: description, deduction, and speculation.


The garment in question is a women’s shirt-waist dated from approximately 1900 to 1910. Popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a shirt-waist was a tailored, button down blouse with a collar worn by women. During this time, it was adopted as informal wear and became synonymous with the working woman (La Ferla). This particular shirt-waist from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (1986.09.087) was constructed in an ivory, machine-embroidered net fabric with a plain net lining (see Images 1 & 2) and has a label from T. Eaton Co. Limited, Toronto and Winnipeg (see Image 3).

shirt-waist (front)

Image 1. Ivory shirt-waist (front), Label: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., Toronto and Winnipeg, c.1900-1910 (FRC1986.09.087)

shirt-waist (back)

Image 2. Ivory shirt-waist (back), Label: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., Toronto and Winnipeg, c.1900-1910 (FRC1986.09.087)

Ivory shirt-waist (label detail)

Image 3. Detail of ivory shirt-waist label, Label: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., Toronto and Winnipeg, c.1900-1910 (FRC1986.09.087)

While the fibre content is not identified on the garment, it seems to be a natural fabric, most likely cotton, linen, or a combination thereof. Measuring 18” from the neckline to the waist, 35” around the bust, and 32” around the waist, the centre front of the shirt-waist closes with snaps. A snap placket was created with three layers of lace trim. Upon closer investigation, I discovered that the garment was originally secured with a drawstring tie at the hem, although the tie is no longer present (see Image 4). The shirt-waist features a 3” collar constructed from the main netting fabric and finished with a lace trim. Its dolman sleeves are 18” from the neckline to the hem and 15.75” at the shoulder seam. The slightly curved sleeve hem is finished with lace trim. Lastly, the size of the garment was altered at some point, as its side seams were hand stitched to reduce the overall circumference of the bodice by approximately 1”.

Ivory shirt-waist (drawstring detail)

Image 4. Detail of ivory shirt-waist drawstring, Label: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., Toronto and Winnipeg, c.1900-1910 (FRC1986.09.087)


Spencer Sisters

Image 5. Portrait of three sisters from the Spencer family, c. 1902, David Bell (Image Source)

Venturing beyond the structural features of a garment, a more detailed understanding of the relationship between the wearer and the garment emerges (Steele 329). In addition to the shirt-waist under analysis, over 100 items were donated from the same collection and 13 of these items were from a similar era, including three dresses, three shirt-waists, three skirts, and a few nightgowns. Most of these are daywear garments, suggesting that the wearer may have been a working-class woman. During the early 20th century, shirt-waists came in a variety of fabrics, colors, and styles, and were generally worn with or without a jacket, tucked into the waistband of a skirt. With its unfettered curves, the shirt-waist was designed for mobility and its flowing style stood in stark contrast to the constraining silhouettes of just a decade earlier. Over time, the shirt-waist was adopted as informal wear and became synonymous with the working woman (La Ferla; see Image 5 for a typical outfit featuring a daywear shirt-waist and skirt). The side seams of this shirt-waist were altered, suggesting that it may have been passed down or purchased as a second hand item and altered to fit the new wearer. The wearer may have even altered it throughout her lifetime. Regardless of the exact reason for alteration, it is likely that the wearer was financially unable to purchase a brand new, perfectly tailored shirt-waist. According to the 1901 T. Eaton Co. Limited Catalogue (see Image 6), a cotton shirt-waist ranged from $0.75 to $2.50, which equates to approximately $20.50 to $68.00 today (Powell 89). The average monthly wage of a Canadian factory worker in 1901 was $35.17, in contrast to a manager, who made approximately $89.03 per month (Sager 20). If the wearer in question was indeed a working class woman, it likely would have been difficult for her to part with a month’s wage for a new, tailored shirt-waist. Overall, the description and deduction phases of my analysis shed considerable light on the potential occupation and status of this garment’s wearer at her point in history. Next, I used this knowledge to speculate about why this garment remained in existence for so long and why it was deemed significant enough for preservation in Ryerson’s collection.

Eatons Catalogue 2

Image 6. Ladies’ white shirt waists, from T. Eaton Co. 1901 Catalogue, property of Ryerson Fashion Research Collection.


 Finally, when analysing a garment, it is imperative to speculate its greater importance by formulating hypotheses beyond the garment itself (Steele 331). Why was this shirt-waist preserved for so many years before being donated to Ryerson? To understand this question, I took a utilitarian perspective and explored how the shirt-waist’s structure and function kept it alive for so long. I then adopted a deeper, psychological perspective to speculate how meaning generation played a critical role in the garment’s preservation.

From a utilitarian standpoint, this shirt-waist may still exist simply because of its quality construction and resulting care by its owner. Even as the garment fell out of fashion, the owner may not have parted with it because it still served its purpose and throwing it away would have been wasteful. Given the economic conditions and production resources of her period, she may have valued her garment considerably and cared for it accordingly. This can be contrasted with today’s growing trend towards cheap, fast fashion and frequently introduced styles at low prices, which have enabled consumers to refresh their wardrobe at a faster rate than ever before (Cline 21). Today, passing down an H&M tank top would be considered an odd heirloom of choice. Given their contrast to such disposable garments, it makes sense that garments in the early 20th century, including the shirt-waist in question, would have been considered cherished possessions, worthy of generational transmission. Nonetheless, deeper, psychological reasons for why the original wearer and her family kept this shirt-waist should be entertained, as clothing often becomes the symbol of meaningful memories and connections with others (Prentice 993).

Meaning between family members can be preserved in clothing. Given that the donor of this shirt-waist retained over 100 items, it is likely that she had a strong, positive connection with the original owner (especially when you consider that the items are no longer in fashion and lack the fit and condition they once had). The garments likely remind her of her lineage to the original wearer and offer a glimpse into a warm past. However, it is important to recognize that the donor decided to share the meaning of her garments with broader society by donating them to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. This may have been done for a variety of reasons. First, the items may have lost their nostalgia over time and the donor may have become detached from their initial meaning. For how many generations should cherished items be kept? Perhaps the donor was worried about the next generation attaching less value to the garments and feeling burdened by holding them. Donating them to a research collection may have been her way of ensuring that the memory of the wearer will live on. Finally, beyond preserving personal meaning, the donor may have realized that the shirt-waist can spark interest and dialogue about the history of fashion. From this perspective, it serves a purpose again (i.e., an educational one) after years in isolation. This last point touches on the process of commoditization (Kopytoff 64). While this shirt-waist was out of fashion, sitting in a wardrobe, in unwearable condition, it likely became what Igor Kopytoff refers to as a singularized non-commodity, meaning it was no longer sellable in the global economy. However, it is possible for singularized items to regain regard through other means (Kopytoff 74). Indeed, after gaining the identity of a prized museum artefact, this shirt-waist remains a non-commodity on the global market, but gained timeless regard.

Conclusion and Future Directions

When you ascribe meaning to garments, you become connected to them, care for them better, and keep them longer (Johnson, Lennon, & Rudd 9). Garments may have been more meaningful when we made them ourselves and routinely cared for them because of limited resources. Many of the garments we purchase today lack a meaningful background as we have little to no connection with their production and, even if we did, it would be difficult to find positive meaning in the poor working conditions and environmental degradation that characterize them. In line with the theorizing of Marx, fast fashion has alienated consumers from the workers who create their products, which allows consumers to disregard the misfortunes that such workers experience on a daily basis (Sullivan 31). As people begin to consider the amount of time and energy that sustainable garments require, they may be prompted to start paying attention to the production of other garments in their wardrobe, including the poor working conditions associated with their fast-fashion items. This kind of reflection is likely needed for consumers to build positive meaning with their clothing and stop fuelling the fast fashion industry.

Works Cited

Cline, Elizabeth. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York, NY: Portfolio, 2013. Print.

Johnson, Kim, Sharron Lennon, and Nancy Rudd. “Dress, Body and Self: Research in the Social Psychology of Dress.” Fashion and Textiles 1.20 (2012): 1-24. Web.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 65-91.

La Ferla, Ruth. “Triangle Fire: Liberating Clothing Made in Confinement.” The New York Times 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Powell, James. A History of the Canadian Dollar. Ottawa: The Bank of Canada, 2005. Web.

Prentice, Deborah. “Psychological Correspondence of Possessions, Attitudes, and Values.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53.6 (1987): 993-1003.Web.

Negrin, Llewellyn. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Corporeal Experience of Fashion,” in Thinking Through Fashion. New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2016, pp. 115-131.

Sager, Eric. “National Data on Working-Class Earnings: The 1901 Census of Canada.” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2000): 235-41. Web.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag.” Fashion Theory 2.4 (1998): 327-336.

Sullivan, Anthony. “Karl Marx: Fashion and Capitalism” in Thinking Through Fashion. New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2016, pp. 28-45.

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