The U of A fashion exhibition decodes the meaning of clothes

(De)Coded: Deciphering the Dialectics of Dress was inspired by an American eighth grader who protested after her ripped jeans violated her school district’s dress code policies

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The choice of fashion is not limited to being beautiful. It can be an identity, a protest and a form of expression.

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A new clothing exhibit at the University of Alberta examines how fashion creates meaning beyond what is simply visible to the naked eye. The curated clothing series was inspired by a American junior high school student whose dress choice on the first day of school led to a district-wide demand to revise outdated dress codes.

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(De)Coded: Deciphering the Dialectics of Dress features clothing from the university’s Anne Lambert clothing and textile collection. The Lambert Collection, named after Anne Lambert, professor and curator of the collection for 35 years, is one of the largest clothing collections in Canada and unique in that it focuses on everyday worn items, not just clothing or formal wear.

The exhibition was organized by Dr. Anne Bissonnette, professor of material culture and curatorship at the U of A, as well as some of her current and former graduate students. Bissonnette’s long training in science, fashion design and art history has led her to act as curator of the university’s Anne Lambert collection for the past 12 years.

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“Like it or not, the clothes we wear communicate something to the people around us,” says Bissonnette. “When we look at people and their environment, clothes are the first layer of our environment. It means a lot and it means different things to people, so we can talk about all kinds of issues; gender, ageism, There’s no end to how our clothes can be used to describe the world we live in.

Bissonnette was inspired by a New York Times article about Sophia Trevino, an American eighth-grader, whose protests against the dress code drew international attention.

Trevino was motivated to protest her school district’s dress policies after she was found in violation of the dress code for a pair of ripped jeans. The problem wasn’t that the jeans were ripped, it was that the location of the rips was deemed too high up the leg.

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Dress codes have long been criticized for disproportionately targeting girls and women, racial minorities and low-income people.

This led Trevino to adopt the slogan: Dress codes are sexist, racist, classist, which was seen splashed across the front of a sunny yellow t-shirt that students wore every Friday to protest the policies. A version of this shirt is included in the exhibit.

American eighth-grader Sophia Trevino was found violating her school district's dress code and protested the policy with a version of this shirt, which inspired the current U of A exhibit, (De )Coded.
American eighth-grader Sophia Trevino was found violating her school district’s dress code and protested the policy with a version of this shirt, which inspired the current U of A exhibit, (De )Coded. Photo by Dr. Anne Bissonnette /Provided

“Clothing is something that people tend to devalue in our society. Then authorities like school boards can use the clothes to escape this form of oppression, when they couldn’t get away with something like banning books for example. The banning of books always causes an outcry. But because people make fashion something stupid, they feel more comfortable controlling the bodies that wear these things.

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Also on display is a red and black ribbon dress made by Janet Delorme of the Kainai Nation in southern Alberta. The dress was created as a gender neutral design for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Next door is the most recognizable emblem of Canadian identity: the RCMP’s “Red Serge” uniform.

“We are trying to visually contrast here between a uniform that people look at and see in a very positive light. However, (the RCMP) have also been used as agents of the government to remove children from certain communities and bring them into So looking at the uniform would be traumatic for some.

Beyond the perceived or implied meanings of the dress, some clothes are designed to communicate something specific. An example of this in the exhibit is St. Lucia Tete Case Headdress. The way the typically colored piece of cloth was folded over the head signified the relationship status of the wearer.

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Another notable area of ​​the exhibit is devoted to the charity Pearly Kings and Queens, which was founded in the 1870s by working-class orphan Henry Croft who wore suits decorated with mother-of-pearl buttons to collect fund for charity. Croft’s work stemmed from the tradition of street traders called Costermongers, who often wore a row of cheap buttons on their trousers and believed it was their duty to help those in need, even if they themselves had very little to give.

“It’s a very special kind of clothing,” says Bissonnette. “It shows the sense, of place, of people who emigrated from the UK to Edmonton and who wanted to continue this tradition of fundraising.”

While the organization got its start in London, it quickly spread throughout England and overseas. Edmonton had their own branch of the club which could be seen throughout the city in their ornately patterned black suits in support of the charities they raised money for. An example from the 1970s collection is a women’s black skirt suit emblazoned with the name of cancer activist and marathon runner, Terry Fox.

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Along with a wide variety of traditional and contemporary attire, there’s a green 1950s cocktail dress paired with a glamorous feather hat and matching shoes with a bespoke 1960s men’s suit. Both items were selected to exemplify their gender normative design, however, the use of vibrant teal fabric with a conservative masculine suit design begs to question what the choice of color conveys and how does it changes over time.

Moving away from mid-century societal norms, the 1970s welcomed more androgynous styles worn by a wider variety of people. Several objects in the exhibit are used to illustrate this era, including a pair of funky yellow platform boots purchased and worn by a local man in his youth.

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Bissonnette says people often struggle to understand why she is so passionate about studying clothing and textiles.

“I remember many conversations I had where people were saying fashion wasn’t that important. And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah? Let’s go [trade] clothes.’ And you come out looking very different and tell me how you feel and how you are perceived differently.

[De]Coded: Deciphering the Dialectics of Dress runs from now until March 1 in the Human Ecology Gallery at 116th Street and 89th Avenue on the University of Alberta campus.

(De)coded: deciphering the clothing dialectic

Where U of A Human Ecology Gallery (corner of 116th Street and 89th Avenue)

When Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., until March 1

Tickets Free entry

[email protected]

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