Unravelling history through the art of dress

To study clothing is to study the very fabric of history. To that end, Arden Kirkland ’93 weaves together the passing of time, the changing of trends in order to understand something about the human condition. As the current Digital Project Manager and Co-Curator of the annual “Trying on History” exhibit, Kirkland works to make clothing come alive, teasing out the thread of human narrative among the dust.

Nearly twenty years ago she graduated from Vassar with a degree in costume design, a major she crafted for herself. She has since praised the College’s interdisciplinary approach to education. Kirkland believes that Vassar encourages students to question what lies beneath the surface and instills in them the desire to understand the world through multiple perspectives.

She maintained that Vassar’s commitment to social justice in a largely indifferent world has allowed her to think about clothing and its day-to-day impact. Kirkland pointed to her black cotton t-shirt: “It was probably made in a factory in another country.” Her education has prompted her to question the ethics and economics of material production, such as how stores set prices for certain products.

“I can look at a piece of clothing and understand the conditions and time period that it was made in,” she explained. To her, clothes are a true representation of time. “When actors assume a costume, they are transported into a different time,” she said. That time period can feel estranged from modernity. “A costume hopefully allows actors to channel a character’s motion and speech,” she said.

Kirkland began working in the Drama Department at Vassar shortly after graduation, admitting that she has been at Vassar for much of her adult life, although she has worked for the Drama departments at other liberal arts colleges, including Barnard and Bard. “I had none of the romance that people usually associate with 20th college reunions because I had spent so much time here, I had changed with Vassar,” she laughed.

Until recently, Kirkland has worked predominately in the Costume Design Department. Although lately she has been concentrating on Vassar’s online costume collection and running fashion exhibits, she was one of the driving forces behind last year’s exhibit, “For Better Or For Worse: Sixteen Decades of Wedding Wear at Vassar,” which encouraged the viewer to question how the concepts of weddings and marriage have changed throughout Vassar’s history.

Kirkland wondered, “Can we find a way to use these ‘pretty dresses’ to examine the changes in weddings and marriage over the last 159 years? Can we appreciate the beauty of these dresses, yet not let that blind us to the complications of the cultural ideals they represent?”

Kirkland is currently preparing for Vassar’s third annual French fashion show, which will be held in the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center on October 3. The show is a collaboration with Contrast magazine and the French Department and will combine historical French looks with current ones. Aside from the fashion show, Kirkland is also working on strengthening online archives, a move to improve public access to Vassar’s historical clothing collection.

When she’s not working on exhibits or Vassar’s online collections, Kirkland is either helping students create their own designs or working on obtaining her Masters in Library and Information Science, an interest that kindled during her college years. Kirkland believes that librarians must look at the world through a kaleidoscopic eye, seeking answers that people cannot find in mainstream media. To her, that is the beauty of a liberal arts education; it prompts not only intelligent and empathetic inquiry, but also the drive to continue making connections in an ever-complicated world.

Above all, costume design remains her first love. Kirkland said, “We alter existing clothing that people put on their body. Clothing design is very kinetic, it’s not just reading history in a book, you put on a custom and you are sent back in time. It gives you a different perspective on history.”

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