Toward a Fashionable Truth: Object Analysis Method of Wearable Artifacts

by: Erin Bernard


When considering an approach to object analysis method, it is doubly important to consider both the framework standards presented within field literature and to trust the innate nature of human questioning through discovery.  This model will encompass intellectual analysis, but firstly, it demands the historian to explore in an organic sensory analysis.  Most important in this quest of cultural discovery is the ability to relinquish expectations to prevent object bias from tainting results.  Essentially, this method will use the lens of fashion objects to combine the methods of E. McLung Fleming, Charles F. Montgomery, and Jules David Prown, most closely resembling Prown’s tripartite method of Description, Deduction and Investigation.  This method is appropriate for historical inquiry because its goal is to create a hypothesis to guide further investigation in the field.  Ultimately, it will lead to an argument about the object‘s place within American culture and its relevance within history.

On Releasing Bias

The first critical step in this process toward a hypothesis is to release current object bias.  Prown explains bias by writing, “We are pervaded by the beliefs of our own social groups—nation, locality, class, religion, politics, occupation, gender, age, race, ethnicity—beliefs in the form of assumptions that we make unconsciously.”1 Still, bias to Prown is not only cultural, but also intellectual.  “…it is desirable to test one’s external knowledge to see if it can be deduced from the object itself and, if it cannot, to set that knowledge aside until the next stage.”2 Rather we need to begin by looking at the object on a basic level.   We must examine the object from its core to its outer layers, as if we are beginning in the center of an onion heading to its outside.  The historian must do this as best as possible so we deduct and speculate with insight and acuity.

Part I. The Object Itself

Once we release bias, we examine the object itself from its most basic premise.  To Prown, this was Description.  To Fleming, this was Identification.  To Montgomery, this was Over-All Appearance.  In summary, we look for “a body of distinctive facts about the artifact.”3 We start with basic questions to understand the object at hand.  Many fashion objects can be credited to serve complex purposes4, but we start with the most concrete information on the artifact—its appearance and related facts.

Sensory Analysis: What is it?

Let us start with the most intrinsic and organic of exploration—the senses.  Sight, touch, feel, smell, even the sound of the object can offer an honest impression to the human senses.  As Montgomery agreed sensory exploration to be the first step in object study and explained his own first experiences with an object, “I look at it with half-closed eyes from various angles to sense the sweep of line and massing of form.”5

Function: What does it do?

Once we understand what the object means to our senses, we next determine the object’s function.  While Montgomery purported sensory analysis as the first in object study, Prown stated, “The most promising mode of classification is by function.”6 While Prown goes on to list different classifications of function, of particular are his notes on objects of Adornment.  Specifically, we know that objects of adornment have functional qualities, especially those clothing items which keep us warm or protected from weather, but items of Adornment also have aesthetic qualities which express sense of style and self.  Beyond functional and aesthetic, there is also the suggestive quality in some adornment pieces which suggest power, some due to inherent value, especially when the item is high class.  The purpose of power, we note now out of awareness, but we will evaluate it within cultural perspective at a later time.

Measurement: How big is it?

After we know what the object does, we take measurements.  As Prown explains, “real significance may lie in general measure.7 For fashion objects, measurements can help discover size and stature of the person who wore an object.  The length of sleeves or weight of the item can offer insight to both the object’s date and how it would feel to wear the object.  These things should be dutifully noted for use later in the investigation.

Design: What ornaments are on the object?

Montgomery makes an excellent list of the different ornaments to be examined on historical artifacts.  While some of these ornaments would not generally be found on adornment items, depending on uniqueness, it is not out of the range of possibility.  Objects should be evaluated for color, figure, texture, turning, carving, engraving, enameling, painting, appliqué, and printed design.8

Further Object Questioning

From here we move forward with questions about the object itself inspired by Montgomery’s process of study.  Material: What is it made of? Craftsmanship: Who made it, and how well was it made?  Current Quality: How has this object handled time?  Origin: Where is it from? Trade practices: How was it distributed?  Attribution, Ownership, Provenance: What history is available on this specific artifact? Worth: What was the original cost and current appraisal rate? 9We ask these questions to answer, “Is [the object] actually what it purports to be in date, provenance, authorship, material, and construction?”10 In this way, we both authenticate the object and bring the picture surrounding the object into focus in an unbiased way.

Part II. The Intellectual Connotations of the Object

The second section of this method is to understand the object’s intellectual connotations.  This includes historical and cultural contexts.  We move forward from the object itself to examine this object as an active piece of culture.  Fleming states, “Cultural analysis can carry artifact study beyond description toward explanation.”11 Once we answer the questions in this section, we can speculate hypotheses for further exploration.

Intellectual Analysis

Placing analysis methods of Fleming, Prown, and Montgomery in the context of fashion created my framework for intellectual analysis.

  1. Who interacted with this object? (Who made it?  Who helped put it on? Who wore it?)
  2. What is the Inherent Value of the object? (Low v. high class? Is this an object of Power?  Now we address the object’s function in cultural context.)
  3. What is the Cultural Significance or Achievement? (Is this an advancement in Fashion?)
  4. What is the Pattern of Use over Time? (How is this object’s purpose and appearance different from other cultures in time?  How is it different or similar to its existence in current American Fashion culture?)
  5. What are the Cause & Effect of Behaviors Associated with Object? (What happened to the environment and people as they made this object and distributed it?)

Empathetic Interaction

Answering the questions above about the culture of the object affords the ability to piece scenes in the object’s life.  Prown explains, “…the analyst contemplates what it would be like to use or interact with the object, or, in the case of representational object, to be transported empathetically into the depicted world.”12 As James Deetz created vignettes at the beginning of In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, we should also strive to create such scenes for our object.13 We use all the information we have discovered on the object to imagine an interaction with it.  This is pertinent when considering the exhibition of material culture objects because the audience will interact and actively experience history, too.

Part III. Make a hypothesis.

Lastly, we take all we have learned about both the object itself and the intellectual connotations of the object to make an educated argument about the object and its culture.  This formulation will need research because the hypothesis will unavoidably reflect some bias, but as Prown writes, “…since the objective and deductive evidence is already in hand, this cultural bias has little distorting effect. Indeed, it is an asset rather than a liability; it fuels the creative work that now must take place.”14 The creation of the hypothesis fulfills the goal of using an artifact for study of history—we will have used this object as an access point to understand things we would not have otherwise noted, and because of this information gathering, we will be able to understand American culture with a more expansive perspective.  The hope of this methodology is to do just this with an object of fashion.


1Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 4

2Ibid., 9.

3Ibid., 13.

4 E. McLung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” Winterthur Portfolio 9, (1974): 156 

5Charles F. Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth (Nashville, TN: the American Association for State and Local History, 1982), 145.

6Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” 2.

7Ibid., 8.

8Charles F. Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” 146.

9Ibid., 147-152.

10E. McLung Fleming, “Artifact Study,” 156.

11Ibid., 158.

12Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,”8.

13James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: Archaeology of Early American Life, (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996), 1-4.

14Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” 10.


Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

Fleming, E. McLung. “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model” in Winterthur Portfolio 9, 1974.       

Montgomery, Charles F. “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts” in Material Culture Studies in America, edited by Thomas Schlereth. Nashville, TN: the American Association for State and Local History, 1982.

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction of Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1, Spring 1982.

Severa, Joan and Horswill, Merrill. “Costume as Material Culture,” in Dress 15, 1989.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion is More Than a Clothes-Bag,” in Fashion Theory 2, 1998: 327-336.

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