The “Culture Wear” Assignment

This semester I have been teaching Introduction to Anthropology using an entirely different approach from previous years—one that puts the curiosity, focus, and experience of learning through “fieldwork” at the center.

Rather than introducing the discipline through foundational terms, concepts and histories delivered through the common methods of reading, lecture, discussion and testing—my new class is built around a core of observation, note taking, interviewing and “writing-up” assignments that expect students to come to class every week having collected their own information and field data. These data are then brought back to the classroom where we discuss the results together and put the work into the disciplinary context as introduced in our class textbook and readings and lectures.

Field Notebook. Writeup. Research.

Field Notebook. Writeup. Research.

I landed on this approach through being honest about the source of my own initial interest in anthropology: I didn’t start with an interest in big disciplinary questions, I started with an insatiable curiosity about people. So it seemed natural to put the experience of the “fieldwork” at the center. (I’m currently still writing up an introduction to the course, which I will link to when it is finished.)

This past week’s assignment, “Culture Wear,” focused on clothing, culture and distinction—what people wear, how it is they come to wear what they wear and what it might mean in different contexts. For being so intimately part of our daily lives—literally draped across our naked primate bodies—we are remarkably alienated from the material relationships that provide us with what we wear. I also wanted to explicitly link together the motivations, meanings and values of consumption and display inherent in clothing with the relations of production across the vast distances linked together through global production and sourcing. The assignment, in two parts, asked members of the class to briefly interview people, collect information about clothing and find some sourcing information on the Internet.

Just hours after they handed in their field notebooks this past Tuesday, a friend and fellow anthropologist shared a link to an interesting and entertaining blog post which comments on the sartorial selections and symbolism of anthropologists at their national conference (which, not coincidentally, is going on this weekend in Chicago).

The article, “Conference Chic, or, How to Dress Like an Anthropologist”, arrived at the perfect teachable moment. I could use the tongue-in-cheek analysis as an accessible way to show how basic observations and interview data could be collected into a quick and sharable summary.

In a brief comment on his post, my friend asked me to “keep him posted” about my class results. I used his off-hand remark as the perfect excuse for an in-class exercise—attempting to summarize, distill, comment on the field results of my students in a way that would pull together themes across their observations that would be educational in the classroom and also sharable.

So in class the next day we did just that. I handed back the students’  notebooks, gave them each sheets to summarize their results in response to different questions, we filled the classroom whiteboards with some of the results and then collectively examined the results for themes. (A task hampered a bit, albeit, by my rushed, messy handwriting!) Sure the data were not collected for this purpose, the results are largely anecdotal, but the effort made for an interesting class exercise. (Here you go, Ralph!)

In roughly two-hundred brief interactions with members of our introduction to anthropology class, students recorded comments and observations about the clothing choices and the motivations and meanings their wearers ascribed to them. They then followed up with questions about the production and sourcing of the clothing and collected some information about sourcing locations. During our review and discussion of the information collected by the class we made some interesting observations that might be useful starting points for “real” detailed fieldwork. They are:

1. There are interesting tensions between individual fashion choices and the larger sociocultural context. People reported choosing their clothing to express their individuality—but often in the context of other’s perception of them. Most wanted to “look good,” “dress for themselves,” “wear something aesthetically pleasing” and wanted to “express themselves.” At the same time, however, they didn’t want their uniqueness to be too outside the “normal”—looking “presentable.” Even people who expressed that they “didn’t care” did so with an awareness of others’ expectations—and in some cases with acute awareness of the gaze of others on their bodies. In some cases, their individuality was intentionally modeled on the style of others. Despite the American cultural emphasis on individual expression and individual choice, clearly what we wear is not entirely up to us.

Subject of clothing. Subject to clothing.

Subject of clothing. Subject to clothing.

“…conform to what my friends wear”
“…wear unique things; things that nobody wears.”
“My parents hate it.”
“Inspired by Taylor Swift.”
“I wear it to show I know the fashion trends.”
“Makes my butt look good.”
“My daughter likes it.”
“No logos. I’m a person, not a billboard.”
“It expresses my self-confidence.”
“Matchy-matchy because that’s how Mom dressed me as a kid.”
“It’s just me; it’s what I wear. I’m basic.”
“Not too classy, but not a slacker look.”
“I want to look presentable out in public.”
“I want people to see me as being good looking.”
“I wear what I wear to diminish flaws and accentuate positive attributes.”
“I want to describe my personality. I am fun, outgoing and like to try new things.”
I don’t like wearing brand names because that promotes a company and not myself.”
“I want to make a good impression, especially because clothes are the first thing that people notice about you.”
“Do we have to label each other by how they dress? I don’t get it. It’s how we dress, not them.”
“I don’t really care what people think. If I wear sweat pants every day that doesn’t necessarily mean I am lazy.”

2. Not surprisingly, the comfort of clothing was reported as being one of its most important aspects—”feel” was not only the subjective experience of the wearer, but also communicated messages about the wearer to others. One might say that a clothing’s particular individual “fit” is always in dialogue with its social “fit.”

“Fabric and texture. I like to be cozy.”
“I generally have two styles: I was lazy this morning, or I’m really trying to dress up. Both are about feeling comfortable in my skin.”
“…communicate a down-to-earth, creative vibe.”
“It describes my mood. If I feel mellow, I will wear more earth tones.”
“I like to be in style and dress for comfort.”
“…they’re comfortable and cute.”
“…it’s either because they’re comfortable or I saw it and I liked it on someone else.”
“If it fits well, I’ll check it out.”
“I don’t wear what I want to wear because my size prevents me from doing so.”
“Why look ratty to save a little money?”
“I don’t want to look lazy.”
“Somewhat trendy, not superficial.”

3. The dialogue between individual and sociocultural context concerning “fashion” appears nearly completely alienated from clothing production—many comments suggest a discomfort or ambivalence as to what the conditions of manufacture might actually be. The vast majority of people that our class spoke with had no idea where their clothing was produced other than what they might learn from the simple label which indicates the name of the country of origin.  The manufacture of clothing is so mysterious that one person joked it was made by “the elves that live in the basement at Kohls.”

Alienation from Production.

Alienation from Production.

“I have no idea where they’re manufactured, probably in the United States of China.”
“Probably China or Thailand, I don’t know.”
“Kohls. I have no idea. The elves that live in the basement at Kohls.”
“Probably not. I try to get things from the USA.”
“My clothes don’t say, so I don’t know.”
“Only one of 25 things I wear is from US.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“My guess would be China. That’s where things are normally made.”
“We stop searching. It’s sold in America and that’s what we care about.”
“Some sweatshop in Thailand by 3 year old kids.”
“Rundown third world country”
“I think they’re made in China or someplace like that.”
“I really don’t know where my clothes are manufactured.”
“In a sweatshop.”

4. While we seek comfortable clothing, the topic of clothing is uncomfortable. A large number of students in class described in their field notebooks that this week’s assignment was among the most uncomfortable—if not the most uncomfortable—of the entire semester. Talking with strangers about their clothing, it seems, was difficult. One student observed in his notebook, that clothing communicates and sends public messages in its own language—overtly asking someone to talk about and translate those messages was uncomfortable. The topic of clothing can be intimate and its messages subtle and indirect. Talking about those messages directly was challenging.

This issue was, of course, even more uncomfortable because the questions about personal clothing tastes were followed up with questions about production. One of the students in class observed in her field notebook that when talking to a small group about clothing production, “…most everyone looked really confused and then said China in a sort of joking manner.”

The uncertain chuckle—what we called in class the nervous “heh. heh.”—is the moment in a conversation where the fairly easy discussion of personal tastes and social fashion moves toward its more concrete and material relations of production. The chuckle marks the alienation.

None of the two hundred people with whom students talked had any concrete idea where their clothes came from beyond what was printed on the tag. When they guessed, they guessed “sweatshops,” “child labor,” and “rundown third world countries.” When they guessed, they guessed the worst possible conditions.

What does it mean for Americans to walk around everyday with this sort of understanding of their clothes—the things that are closest to their bodies?  What does it mean to be individually subject to a fashion system that is outside of us, not of our own making and yet often compels us to wear the unknown on a daily basis? What should we make of the fact that some of the most valued attributes of clothing—comfort, casualness, style, and cuteness—exist just on this side of their uncanny doubles of discomfort, formal policing, and stark disciplined production? What does it say about what we value?

Since this is just an Introduction to Anthropology class, the assignment’s goal was to collect information about these issues and discuss them. If this exercise piqued the curiosity of someone in class, I hope he or she will go on to examine them in more depth at some point in their college career.

[**Thanks, Wendy Werdin for assisting with the final typing up of the class data!]


  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    Thanks for sharing this, David. I like blog posts that make me feel inferior 🙂 What I mean is, I really love the idea behind this whole class, and this post provides context to the larger description you’ve given me in person. I love how the students are uncomfortable, thoughtful, diligent, curious, and, most of all, engaged.

    A few questions (this is #NaBloCoMo after all) : Do the students tend to ask the same “strangers” for their assignments? How hard to they have to work to get people to engage? Do the answers to those first two questions impact what they think about the fieldwork in general? How much do the students work to refine the topic before they go out into the field (ie, do you just hand it to them or do they brainstorm in class what things to watch for)?

    Now some questions about this particular subject: Did the students tend to agree with their interviewees (for example, on the disinterest about where clothes are made)? Did you pursue the uncomfortable-ness in class? How did that go?

    Thanks again for a great post. I really hope you find a way to put this approach into even more courses. I also hope you get some good, useful feedback from them at the end of the course to help you shape things in the future.


    • Thanks for the feedback, Andy. Actually some really interesting stuff has been coming out of this class the whole semester. I’ll wait for the evals before I know what the students think—but I have been very, very pleased so far. A majority of students have been quite engaged and have created some *very impressive* field notebooks. I had initially planned to blog about each assignment, but (as you know) the administrative workload this semester has taken up most of the extra time that I might be able to spend sharing the results of the class. I do, however, have a start on a few posts that address some of your questions.

      An overriding goal of the weekly assignments has been to push students to engage, observe and think about a wide range of anthropological categories—but also face their discomfort with new situations. Nearly every week someone is uncomfortable about something—strange foods, talking to strangers, writing about themselves, doing the busy work of collecting mundane data, sitting quietly sketching—I’ve been trying to hit a range of things. We have spent quite a lot of time talking about their reactions to the different situations and I have been working to get them to reflect on these things in their write-ups.

      Because this is my first time doing this, I wrote the assignments to go along with the chapters in our textbook—but I like the idea of thinking of ways for students to tweak them. It has, however, been a very fun class to teach this semester. I’m already looking forward to next year.


  2. Pingback: NaBloCoMo results | SuperFly Physics

  3. Pingback: Michael Taussig on Field Notebooks—I Swear I Saw This | Museum Fatigue

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