Kaplan winner stitched together career revealing the fabric of history
There was a time in Europe when making a fashion statement could get you in a world of trouble. Particularly if you were a woman of low social rank, wearing loud, flamboyant clothing in the early 18th century was considered a subversive gesture as it bucked rigid social boundaries, and the response would often be violent.
“Women seen wearing printed cotton clothing in London, Bristol, Norwich, Dublin and other cities were beaten and their clothes torn off, or acid was thrown at them,” says U of A fashion and textile historian Beverly Lemire. “The fact that many women continued in their choice of clothing is a rather startling revelation about the significance of fashion choices in this period.”
The incendiary politics of fashion and the role of cotton in bringing about the industrial revolution between 1600 and 1800 are just two of the topics Lemire explores in her wide-ranging, interdisciplinary research.
According to a pre-eminent historian of economic development in the early modern period, Jan de Vries of UC Berkeley, Lemire is “arguably the most innovative historian of her generation working in the field of textile and fashion history.”
Lemire now adds the U of A’s J Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research to her list of impressive accolades. Her research career, described as “meteoric” by arts dean Lesley Cormack, began with the 1991 publication of Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain. The book was groundbreaking on a number of counts, not the least of which was the way it used a single commodity to reveal sweeping social, political and economic change.
“I think my work has been really instructive in showing the ways fashion figured as a political as well as an economic phenomenon,” says Lemire. “You get the sense of the agency of ordinary women and men in their interactions with [cotton], both for personal purposes of decoration, but in ways that defy the existing political systems.” Her latest book, Cotton, was published last year in the Berg Publishers series, Textiles That Changed the World.
Recruited from the University of New Brunswick, Lemire joined the U of A in 2004 to take up the Henry Marshall Tory Chair, one of the arts faculty’s most prestigious positions, in the departments of History and Classics and Human Ecology.
“The chair offered opportunities to collaborate with people in the clothing collection in Human Ecology,” she says. “But I also thought there would be more scope for the sort of research, a lot of it collaborative, that is interdisciplinary … so it’s been terrific here.”
In recent years, Lemire has widened her focus to include the global textile trade in the 17th and 18th centuries and the links between Britain, Europe, India and the Atlantic world. One hallmark of her approach is the synthesis of a big-picture view—theorizing on the relationship between textiles, fashion and “the great transformations of human history”—with a ground-level, painstaking examination of primary documents.
“By studying archival records of petty thefts and small loans, Dr. Lemire has been able to expose a complex network of transactions among working-class women and connect these to the shift from mercantilism to capitalism,” says Cormack.
Lemire was also able to uncover a huge network of largely hidden textile workers who manufactured ready-made clothing in England, clothing whole armies, navies and slave populations. Not much documentation existed, she says, because the work was considered “banal” (i.e., done by women) and was often conducted in private homes.
“But when you tease out those pathways you find there are actually people who made fortunes as contractors and subcontractors in these sorts of commodities,” she says.
Also winning a 2012 Kaplan award is theoretical physicist Don Page, who lists among his accomplishments calculating the colour of a black hole and how fast it evaporates, finding new solutions to Einstein’s equations, co-discovering the famous Hawking-Page phase transition and leading the refutation of three major claims by famous physicist Stephen Hawking.
The importance of Page’s work is reflected in the more than 6,000 citations of papers he has written in the field’s top journals.