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Tangible Things
Harvard University, Educational Extension
September, 2020


What yo​


  • Understanding of museum curation approaches

  • The basics of historical analysis and interpretation

  • A sense of the work that historians, curators, and collectors perform

  • Strong critical thinking and analytical skills

  • How things that seem to belong to different disciplines actually can “talk” to one another

  • How close looking at even a single object can push beyond academic and disciplinary boundaries

  • How things that may seem unrelated to each other can show relationships between art and science, economics, and culture, and people in many different parts of the world

Course description:

In Tangible Things, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people.   Along the way, you will discover new ways of looking at, organizing, and interpreting tangible things in your environment.

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Clothes...for a Change

Final Research Paper

What we wear speaks volumes about our cultural identity. More than any other tangible thing, our clothing is always with us. Our garments are the source of international trade disputes, fashion wars, copyright lawsuits, and even ecological issues; and they involve the populations of the world, or at least, just everyone who wears clothes.


The clothing industry, along with its associated technologies and economic considerations, can influence labor movements and effect political change. Examples of this are the labor reform movements after the Triangle Waist Company fire of 1911 (History), consumer driven child labor reforms, and the regenerated interest in “home grown” goods as a result of the Made in America campaign (Industryweek). What we wear can have power. It can have status impact, emblematic value, and symbolic significance.


We can explore the American apparel industry of the early 1970’s, in part, by “close looking” and research centered around one subject garment – an ecru and orange double-knit polyester, shirtwaist maxi dress with notched collar,  ribbed waistband bodice, and orange and white polka-dot full-length skirt.


This early 1970’s maxi dress probably arrived on the runway at the cusp of the new decade. The machine assembly, serge finished edges, and zipper installation indicate that it was constructed in mass production. It would have been a fairly common article of clothing sold by department stores across the United States. By the late 1960’s, the ultra-short mini skirt was still in style, but as the 1970’s spawned a look for its own for the new decade, skirts of every length appeared, and the floor length maxi dress became hugely popular for any social occasion (Classic 70’s).


This maxi dress is made of polyester, a synthetic polymer that can be made into fibrous threads that, when woven into fabric, yield a stain resistant, durable material. Polyester had been developed by scientists at DuPont in the 1930’s and by the 1950’s had gained popularity for the manufacture of clothing (Polyester). By the mid 1970’s, when it became fairly well accepted that wearing clothes made of plastic had its drawbacks, the use of polyester for clothing declined (Contrado). 


The fabric of the polyester maxi dress is constructed of a double-knit weave, the process of which forms two rows of interlocking threads (Seamwork). By the early 1970’s double knit fabrics, which had grown in popularity through the 1960’s, were in wide usage for a variety of garments, including men’s leisure suits and women’s wear.  But by the end of the 1970’s, double knit fabrics, especially made of synthetics, became less popular (LawrenceHuntFashion).



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Although the bohemian prairie style was a popular look for maxi dresses, the style-lines of this garment are tailored and sporty. They mimic the shirtwaist day dress pattern popularized in the late 1950’s when blouse and skirt “separates” were fused into a single garment. Even though the skirt is full length, the bodice is boyishly androgynous, a look that will develop into the full mainstream androgyny of the late 1970’s (Bustle).

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A fascinating aspect of the dress is, oddly, its smallest feature: the union label. 


"Union labels began appearing on garments, shoes, and hats in the late 19th and early 20th century. The practice was encouraged by a pair of woman-led, cross-class organizations, the National Consumer’s League and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), both of which sought to improve working conditions for women in factories." (New York Historical Society)


The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), unionized in 1900, created a label for garments manufactured in the United States by union employees. The label became their calling card, and their slogan, “look for the union label,” admonished consumers to buy union goods (New York Historical Society).


The designs of the union labels themselves evolved.  The specific design of the label in this dress dates between 1963 and 1975. It was shortly thereafter that major US brands started manufacturing clothes in foreign markets due to the emergence of large textile mills and low cost labor.


"Shifts in manufacturing overseas took place during the 1970s, as huge textile mills started to emerge in developing countries in Latin America and Asia, particularly in China. These operations offered the benefits of cheap labor, plenty of raw materials and the ability to mass produce orders fast." (Goodwear, American Brand)


Inflation and the economic stagnation of the 1970’s did little to improve the garment manufacturing market in the United States, and sadly, garment worker’s jobs plummeted 40% in just seven years (New York Historical Society).


 Consumer interest does indeed drive American manufacturing, but so do lobbyists, policy makers, labor unions, chemistry, technology, and the global economy.  What we wear speaks volumes about our cultural identity.

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