How to be a Boss at Research – Part 4

How to be a Boss at Research Part 4: Secondary Sources – Rules of Engagement.

Hey Y’all! Here we are at Part 4 of this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) on how to be a Boss at Research. We’ve finished up with going over primary sources and now we are ready to move on to the most common type of source for the average individual – secondary sources…mostly this is going to consist of books, academic journal articles, well research newspaper articles (<— this is tricky because of the internet today, and how much “click bait” there is – think New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian etc. Not US Weekly or Daily Mail. K?), and academic websites (.edu are more credible than .com).

The Issue with Older Publications. History
books from earlier in the 20th century are problematic. Today we
utilize books that were first published in the 1960s or even earlier, and they’re considered
indispensable tomes of dress history knowledge. The problem is, is that for
every well-done book there is at least one or two that are rubbish (this goes
for new publications too, sadly.) Look at
the writing style as well…sometimes you can tell when they’re just totally full
of it. For example, I have a couple of books that were published in the early
20th century (pre-1950s) and while I love them because they’re fun
and pretty and lovely, I don’t reference them for actual research because
they’re not always factually useful…unless I’m trying to find an origin to a myth that
is driving me bananas. (*Shoots a death glare at Cunnington*) Even if the information may be correct, how are we to know when they do not always bother to tell us where they got their information from? This tendency is more a reflection on how scholarship standards have changed over the century, but it still doesn’t mean that the books should be completely trusted.

      It’s also like what I mentioned in my first post, with the change and evolution of information that is coming out all the time – this does mean that previous published works by “the greats” is going to change or be considered wrong. Does that mean you should ignore their work? Absolutely not! But it does mean that the part of the books where they have imposed their own interpretation of their research does need to be taken into consideration. For example: Janet Arnold and Norah Waugh were contemporaries, and even they did not use the same terminology. Norah Waugh uses the term “Polonaise” correctly in Cut of Women’s Clothes but Arnold misidentifies the “Polonaise” in the labeling of her patterns to be associated only the skirts being tied up in the back. We now know that Waugh was correct through Brooke Welborn and Kendra Van Cleave’s article “Very Much the Taste and Various are the Makes” published in the Costume Society of America‘s academic journal Dress (Volume 39, Number 1, 2013) which confirms the “Poloniase” gown as it’s own creation and not solely associated with rucked up skirts. 

       Does this mean that we should now ignore everything Janet Arnold says? Um. NO. It just means that when you’re reading older sources you need to take into consideration the evolution of this field of study. Because it’s changing all the time. This is a good thing, and it will change how we view historic dress in the years to come.
2.   What about new publications? Today, even though books and articles are much better about using footnotes and citations to validate and back up arguments, you will still see perpetuation of mythology in books or just blatant mistakes. (Hell, there will probably be mistakes in our book, too. We aren’t perfect!) It’s important to keep in mind 1. the purpose of the book, is it supposed to be scholarly/coffee table decor/how to? The purpose of the book changes how you should interact with it. 2. How they cite their sources. 3. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean they’re not still perpetuating old ideas. If something rings “off” to you, see if you can find out where they got their information from, and compare it to the actual source. I’ve done this a couple of times, and every time I’ve been able to walk away learning something new. It doesn’t always mean I agree with the author’s viewpoint, but it does mean that I have grown and changed as a scholar. 

out the bibliography and works cited in the back
.  If anything this will help you in your own
research. Remember people interpret things differently, and so sometimes it’s
good for you to go direct to the primary source and read it for yourself. You
might walk away with a different perspective than the author, or you might find
that you now agree with the author once you understand the context from where
that information came from.
4.   Your taste in books will and needs to evolve. When we first get into the hobby we are thirsty to get our hands on ALL THE BOOKS! This is great, and an excellent way to really start to learn about dress history. I mean, I think we can all agree that Kyoto Costume Institute’s book, Fashion is pretty much one of the best books ever (cause pretty picture’s ya’ll.), but it’s a book on a very broad subject, the information is pretty superficial, and doesn’t really delve deep into the underbelly of dress history. However, take the book Textiles in America by Florence Montgomery, and here you have another large book that covers a larger time span, but it is incredibly detailed and focused on historic textiles.This specialization is something that you will need to better understand dress history, and will make you a better researcher, too. So while books that cover dress history as a broad subject matter are great to get started with, you will want and need a library of focused dress history subject matter to assist in your research.
about the type of book and its intention
. For example, our book is
project based, and is meant to be more of a sewing guide than a research tome
that has appeal for beginners and experienced sewers. While all of our
construction techniques are based off an amalgamation of primary and secondary
sources (and a lot of original garments over the years…), we also want it to be
accessible and enjoyable. So, we tried to keep the essays light and easy to
read while keeping the information as accurate as possible, to the best of our
ability. Should you use our book in your master’s thesis? Eh…maybe…maybe not,
if you’re doing research on how a gown is constructed and our book has the same
technique that you see in the original and we just do a better job explaining
it, then yeah, it’s going to be useful for you, but this book isn’t coming from
an academic publisher, like Yale, and so the book’s purpose is different. Does
that make sense?
the author makes a statement that sounds so ridiculous you want to laugh out
loud, it’s probably not true. Beware of the Perpetuation of Mythology.
 “People had mice and rats in their hair!”
….seriously. I’ve read this, and I’ve had people try to tell me this. Just stop
and think about that statement. Really think about it. Now, think about Queen
Charlotte, refined, elegant, well mannered, well-respected Queen of ENGLAND
with a RAT in her hair. It’s ridiculous.
Would YOU want a RODENT in your hair? No…well…maybe some of you would, but
that’s your personal business. People were not stupid in the past. When you
read statements like this, or that women would catch on fire cause of their
petticoats (um….no…because of wool and hem lengths) please practice common
sense and extreme caution.
7.      Is your or the author’s viewpoint affected by modern society’s social mores or other past cultural quirks? Ankles, Elbows, and Boobs: three parts of a Georgian woman that are hotly debated. Authors, Reenactors, and Costumers will perpetuate myths surrounding these body parts without ‘seeing’ or acknowledging the visual reality. Women wouldn’t show their ankles in the 18th century? 1st Then why were shoes and stockings such a big damn fashion deal? 2nd Why do I see so much damn ankle in fashion plates, prints, and portraiture? 3rd Fabric is expensive why would they want to risk stepping on it? 4th It’s unsafe to have too long of skirts when you’re working. You need the hem to be short enough so you do not hurt yourself. It’s common sense and it is disproved when you just start looking at images! Ankles are EVERYWHERE and it’s OK! But where did this myth come from? Was it a bias that started in the late Victorian era? Was it a reflection of the social conservative mindset of the 1950s? Frankly, Who knows? I’ve been able to find some references that seem to make it appear to be a bias well after the mid 1800s, but it’s a myth, that’s for sure, and it’s a myth that started in the author’s personal social bias and is not an accurate reflection of the time period they’re writing about. Be extremely wary of this. The Georgian Era is not the Victorian Era is not the Mid-Century Modern Era is not Today. Make sense? Think about how different we are, as an overarching culture today than we were 20 years ago. This ebb and flow is a constant throughout history.

Think about it….

Well, that was hopefully pretty straightforward when it comes to secondary sources, next week is tertiary sources! 😀

Leave a Reply

Discover more from American Duchess Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading