Alison Matthews David is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University. She received her PhD in art history from Stanford University in 2002. Her publications include pieces on WWI camouflage and fashion, synthetic dyes and the British aesthetic movement, Victorian riding habits and the fashionable horsewoman, tailoring and the standardized male body, military uniforms and footwear, and the founding of Vogue magazine.
Dr. David’s work now focuses on the darker side of the fashion industry. Her current exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada entitled, Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century, and her recent book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present (Bloomsbury, 2015) both depict an unsettling history of clothing that can cause bodily harm to its makers and wearers.
Joyce Brown: Being a historian of textiles and dress working isn’t an obvious career path: what led you here?
Alison Matthews David: I started my undergraduate career studying classical archaeology and classics at McGill University in Montreal. Then I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I ended up in Art History at Stanford University and pursued my MA/PhD. I was interested in dress and how people fashion themselves, and I decided to work on fashion for my thesis.
Now, I’ve left the ivory tower and moved from something so specific, like classical literature, to something that everyone can relate to, which is fashion and clothing, and I like that.
Joyce: How did your exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum come about? Was it before of after you started working on your book?
Alison: The book has had a slow genesis — I’ve been researching and studying the gruesome history of fashion for more than 10 years. I’d been publishing papers on the topic, and it ramped up to the point where I was ready to approach the curator of the museum about an exhibit. I think of it as the book research in 3D.
I loved learning how to tell a story with objects and the space they are in. I’m planning another exhibit for another project. I'm kind of addicted now.
Joyce: When I contacted you about doing an interview to talk about your book, you referred to it is a project that is close to your heart. Why is it so personal to you?
Alison: As a child, I experienced the danger of making beautiful things. My father was a professional photographer, and our home was also his studio and darkroom. He worked with dancers, actors, artists, and musicians, and I loved to see the way he’d put them in poses and set the lighting. I’d then watch the beautiful images appear magically in the darkroom, which was fraught with toxic chemicals.
Many years later, my first teaching job was in the UK and every year we’d take students on field trips to Manchester to see the origins of the cotton industry. On my first trip there, we were reviewing archives in museums and there were stories about children getting caught in the machinery. There were also stories of workers who had been rendered insane or deafened from noisy working environments. The horrendous working conditions of the textile mills in the north of England are legendary. Since its beginning, the fashion industry has had such a human cost. It hit me at a gut level.
A lot of early fashion production happened in big cities like London and Paris, so the people making the fashionable goods and the people consuming them were in the same place. Doctors were treating women with skin rashes from wearing ‘arsenic green’ dresses to the ball, or from hair wreaths that were laced with arsenic. The next morning, their patients were the factory workers who were coming in with much worse conditions, like skin cancer. Even death resulted from working with these green pigments. The doctors made the connections between the hazards for wearers that could be deadly to workers because fashion was being made and worn in the same geographic location, where as now we are so distanced from it.
Joyce: Who are some of the most interesting people you’ve researched who aren’t icons of fashion design?
Alison: I have great respect for couture designs, and some of them are fantastic, especially historically. Again, I'm a historian and that is just my take on it. What puts me in awe is the beautifully stitched embroidery on a 1920s dress, or an amazing fur hat that was made in the 1600s that still survives. For me, the unsung heroes are the master embroiderers, seamstresses, and hatters.
Joyce: What would you say represents the biggest turning point in the history of women's clothing?
Alison: The period I study the most is the 19th century and early 20th century. In terms of women's dress, one of the shifts that still captures my imagination is mobility. Women achieving dress that is comfortable and allows them mobility in public has been a long struggle — even today.
Women sitting side saddle on their horses with their riding habits fascinates me. They eventually fashioned their riding outfits to be masculine, but still they couldn’t straddle a horse. Then the bicycle came along and women couldn’t ride it side saddle, so fashion changed enough so they could ride a bike. However, around 1910 when it was the women's suffrage movement, they were wearing hobble skirts which were incredibly restraining. There is this constant back and forth between mobility and immobility (or hampered mobility) in women’s fashion.
The other thing that fascinates me — which I think is a big debate for women's clothing — is the Western world view that freedom is about being undressed, or wearing less. The flappers, for example, had short skirts. In the 60s the mini skirt was freeing. But who is freed by that? In other cultures, the typical way to dress is to cover the body. There’s an ongoing assumption that they’re being oppressed by modest clothing. Why are we so concerned if someone wants to dress modestly?
Joyce: Earlier you hinted you were working on a new project. Can you elaborate?
Alison: Maybe one day I’ll work on something beautiful, but at the moment I seem to be drawn to the underbelly of fashion. I'm in the process of writing a huge grant for a project on the link between clothing and crime using a forensic approach — like how Sherlock Holmes could read everything about a person from their hat or their watch. It's like fashion CSI.
Also, historical mugshots fascinate me. People tend to think of mugshots as just little head shots, but often they're full length shots. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they wear their hair, or their choice of hat.
Joyce: What is your favorite garment that you own?
Alison: I have two cloaks with fabulous silhouettes that cater to my romantic persona. One of them I got in London as a grad student and it’s dated somewhere around 1919. It’s a black silk satin cape, like an evening cape, with a tassel on it and it’s lined with purple satin. The reason I like is because it’s like the fashionable version of an academic robe.
My other treasured item I got at a vintage shop. It’s a peacock blue 1950s silk satin cape with a cream lining that a cloak maker in Toronto made for his daughter. I love silk satin!
The 1919 cape is pretty fragile, but the one from the 1950s is still in amazing shape, so sometimes I'll bring it out for special occasions.
To learn more about Alison’s research and publications, visit her faculty page on the Ryerson University website.