Curious Fashions, Performative Identities

April 12, 2024 - October 11, 2024


Isabelle Arden, Alexis Billiones, Anne Bissonnette, PhD, Janna Ehrenholz, Olivia Nash, Lola Oberhagemann, and Madison Silva co-curators

Oddities Revisited


Have you witnessed the return of a fashion trend? This has happened throughout history! Floral prints, for instance, are a recurrent thing but they can usher in different ideas, such as new visions of masculinity and non-gendered attire. Utilized jointly with ruffles and lace, they may also recall a femininity from a bygone era. Consider how women used to cover their hair with elaborate caps and hats far more often than we do. Nowadays, our fixation on hair could explain why such objects may appear strange. Fashion cycles repeat, not as carbon copies, but in ways that reflect ever-evolving concepts, such as gender.

People consciously and unconsciously assess the appropriate uses of their garments in shifting contexts. Clothes that allow women to nurse in public now exist, but when did this come about? We are often so immersed in our worlds that contexts of use are seldom documented. Dress historian Lynne Zacek Bassett explains how breastfeeding was a symbol of a maternal bond and came to be viewed with great sentimentality in the Romantic Era.[1]

She describes how, by the 1840s, nursing dresses were adapted from general stylish attire. A ca. 1825-1830 fashionable gown with hidden slits over the breasts is evidence of an even earlier changing mindset. Social changes are reflected in where and when certain garments are worn. It seems obvious to us now that a satin floral suit jacket is for formal occasions and not for running errands. Yet, what is worn with it, by whom, and what it communicates may be considerably different than an 18th-century “full dress” suit of matching fabrics.

The use of overall floral motifs may be uncontroversial in women’s wear, but to see a man’s suit with such motifs remains odd for many today. On some bodies, flowers become conspicuous because of lingering social norms. A man, a woman, or a non-binary person could wear our floral suit jacket. As dress practices and boundaries are reexamined, fashions that appear curious to us today may be incorporated into tomorrow’s standard behaviours. What stands out as odd to you? What does that say about your own understanding of dress?


[1] Lynne Zacek Bassett, Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy (Hartford, C.T.: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 2016), 76.