Thursday, March 3, 2011


Women Always Fashion Conscious, SUNY Prof Finds
IF YOU HAVE your great-grandmother’s gown in your attic, let Professor Demi Eluwawalage know by e-mailing or calling SUNY Oneonta’s Department of Human Ecology at 436-2705.
Demi Eluwawalage is looking for documentation of vintage clothes.

Damayanthie Eluwawalage calls herself a professional historian, but like many women – is that sexist? – her first love was always fashion.
Demi’s vita – everyone knows her as Demi – is proof positive.
Yes, the assistant professor in SUNY Oneonta’s Department of Human Ecology received her Ph.D. in, yes, history in 2005 from Edith Cowan University in her native Western Australia, but it was interdisciplinary, wedded to fashion, clothing, costume history and costume theory.
She received two bachelors in the ‘90s from Curtin University, also in Perth, again “cross-institutional,” in social history and costume, plus illustration, painting, graphics and Greek and Roman history.
Along the way, she received a trade certificate as a tailor, an advanced certificate of clothing construction, and a certificate in clothing studies from technical schools in her native region.
Like all historians – and journalists, for that matter – Demi was always looking for connections.
In Busselton, 150 miles from Perth, she found an 1840 floor-length dress with an exceptionally full skirt, aqua, low-cut in front, bodice and shoulders narrow.
Busselton was very rural then; Western Australia had only been founded 11 years before, in 1829.
Fast forward a few years to 2005, and Demi, her Ph.D complete, was an assistant professor at Missouri State in Springfield and there it was, exactly the same dress, from exactly the same year, as she’d discovered in Busselton, 11,000 miles away.
“Women wanted to be fashionable and trendy.  That has ALWAYS been the case,” she declared the other day over a cup of coffee in the bright back room at the Latte Lounge.
The connection, Demi discovered, was a pattern maker in Germany, who issued catalogues depicting high fashion of the 19th century, which then, as now, was centered in Paris, and also Queen Victoria’s England.
Even by steamboat and sailboat, those pattern books would find their way around the world – 13,000 miles to Perth, 5,000 to Missouri – in not too many months.
“Women all over the world were dressing the same,” said Demi.
But, we digress.
The point of this interview was to discuss the “History of Costume in the State of New York, 1600-1900s,” which the scholar is now researching.  Her mentor, Dr. F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta provost, had pointed her in that direction on her arrival in the city in 2006.
In her native Australia, newspapers had been a helpful conduit in connecting the researcher with original garments from her region’s earliest days.
Her hope is that people in the Otsego County region will read this article, remember a great-grandmother’s gown in the attic, and alert Demi to its existence.  If the garment has remained with the family, the family can often provide “provenance,” pure gold for a researcher.
That provenance might be a letter wherein the gown is discussed, or a photo of the original owner wearing it.  This can help determine precisely where the garment was made, by whom, when, and information on the wearer.
The professor has had some success in this regard in the Hudson Valley and Albany areas, and is hoping for more of the same in Central New York.
She has spent time in the New York State Historical Association’s garment warehouses, and has been able to discovered a half-dozen costumes with sufficient provenance, but needs more to fill out the detailed questionnaire she has devised.
She has also been poring over old newspapers – The Freeman’s Journal, of course, goes back to 1808 – and that has led to some local revelations.
For instance, early 19th Century tailors in Otsego County didn’t generally make complete garments.  They would measure their customers and cut the cloth to fit; the item would then be sewed to completion at home.
Whether this was an economy measure or simply the local preference, Demi isn’t sure.
If research goes well, the professor hopes to have her book done in two years.
If you have any doubt that she’ll accomplish it, go back to her C-V, to her numerous publications and multiple conference papers, from “A History of Dyes and Dyed Textiles” delivered at the Textile Institute’s 85th annual conference in Sri Lanka in 2007, to “A Brief Narrative of Clothing Shopping in Great Britain,” delivered at the International Textiles and Apparel Association conference in Seattle in 2009.
And there’s a social-justice dimension as well.
“The gender aspect,” Demi calls it.  “The costume was always regarded as women’s business.  Women were always secondary.”
And so, to strike a blow for equal treatment – and, of course, fashion.

These illustrations, including ads for early sewing machines and an “old clothes man” – an early roving haberdasher, lower right – from SUNY Oneonta Assistant Professor Damayanthie Eluwawalage’s research for “History of Costume in the State of New York, 1600-1900s.”

To see more images of woman in period dresses, go to our pictures page.

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