The ‘Embodied Turn’ and Learning Through Reconstruction

Following the success of last year’s Learning Through Reconstruction study day, The Medieval Dress and Textile Society (MEDATS) will be hosting another Learning Through Reconstruction event on the 21st of September of this year (2019) In an article published last month in the international journal Fashion Theory, dress historian and curator Hilary Davidson argues that our study day and other events like it are part of a larger trend towards reconstruction, remaking and re-creation as part of research in the scholarship of dress and textiles. This is a trend which she terms the ‘embodied turn’. In the article, which forms part of a special issue addressing this larger theme, Davidson identifies the ‘embodied turn’ not just in societies like MEDATS, but in academic institutions, museums and the heritage sector, and even mass media.

What is ‘embodiment’?

Davidson defines the embodied turn as ‘the trend for scholars of history to appreciate and incorporate embodied, experiential, implicit or tacit knowledges gained through making and doing into their study of history’. (p.2) Her selection of the term ‘embodied’ reflects its many layers of meaning, encompassing ‘both the coming into being of objects and the role of bodies in their making,’ as well as ‘the innate body knowledge created through making objects’ and the ‘subjective bodily experience’ which such research produces. (p.2) In short, ‘embodiment’ expresses the physical, practical and bodily experience of making and wearing clothing as an importance part of dress and textile research.

A growing recognition for the value of ‘embodied’ research.

It will be no surprise to most MEDATS members to learn that ‘reconstruction creates new garments that tell us about the past in unique ways.’ (p.4). However, Davidson’s work shows that this understanding is developing across a broader field. ‘Academics are increasingly harnessing the power of learning through doing,’ she writes, and not just in history, but in fashion studies too. (p.4) The heritage sector also reflects the ‘embodied turn’ in many ways, but perhaps most obviously, as Davidson points out, through the appointment of professional posts such as the Museum of London’s ‘Curator of Making’, a position which is currently held by Dr. Danielle Thom. Technological advances are also finding a place in this evolving dynamic. ‘As re-enactment, social history and re-making continue to become more popular with the general public,’ writes Davidson, ‘I think museums will increasingly display and digitize the inside of clothing, responding to public demand for knowledge of process and construction.’ (p.20) Television and mass media, too, have responded to this growing public interest, which the popularity of programmes like the BBC’s A Stitch in Time can show us.

The importance of recognising an ‘embodied turn’ for future scholarship.

Davidson argues that the developing prevalence of ‘embodiment’, in the form of re-creation, re-making, and reconstruction as tools for research and engagement across dress history, textile history, fashion studies and similar fields, ‘is itself proof that the territory is large enough to be given its own distinction.’ (p.23) Such a distinction would surely be a step forward for inclusive scholarship, and also a beneficial development for all those who seek to examine and understand dress and textiles from the past. This is Davidson’s wish as well. ‘I hope that identifying these various developments as an “embodied turn” will allow those involved to advance new theories of embodied thinking,’ she concludes, (p.23) and reminds us: ‘Remaking changes the questions asked of dress history and can provide unexpected answers.’ (p.24) We look forward to more of these answers being uncovered in the future.

by Natalie Rachel Walker.

To find out more, please see:
Hilary Davidson (2019): The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice, Fashion Theory, DOI: 10.1080/1362704X.2019.1603859 https://doi.org/10.1080/1362704X.2019.1603859

*Originally published in The Medieval Dress and Textile Society Newsletter, issue 89, July 2019.*