Kathryn Wilson

Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities

20052006 Forum on Word and Image

Kathryn Wilson

Director of Education and Interpretation at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Consuming Culture: Exploring Word, Image, and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Fashion Culture

Between 1830 and 1880, Philadelphia's commercial culture experienced dramatic change marked by a shift from hybrid antebellum marketplaces to an increasingly rationalized and ordered postwar commercial landscape. At the same time, the economy changed from one based on reputation and interaction to one founded on spectacle, display, and image-making. These transformations were reflected in representations of women's fashion as well, which shifted from primarily textual depictions to the plate image. Plates moved beyond the mere depiction of clothing to include portrayals of postures and contexts for wearing the clothing, often accompanied by descriptive text. 

Dr. Wilson is studying modes of fashion merchandising and reporting in Philadelphia from the post-Civil War period in fashion plates, shop displays, and trade cards. What role did words and images play in addressing apparent binaries such as the local and the national, self and Other, and order and disorder? To what extent did the use of words and images in Philadelphia's fashion scene exemplify a new culture of order and spectacle, while evoking the interactive features of an older market (embodied by ethnic Others), thereby eliciting and containing desire in the world of commodities?