ARC magazine recently published Jacqueline Bishop’s “Using Objects to Convey Meaning and Break Silences: An Interview with Material Culture Expert Steeve Buckridge,” where she speaks to Dr. Buckridge about his two publications The Language of Dress, Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760 -1890 and African Lace-Bark in the Caribbean: The Construction of Race, Class and Gender. These texts investigate the roles of fabrics and styles “as critical artifacts and practices within Caribbean history, as well as their importance in contemporary society and discussions around cultural preservation.” Here is a brief excerpt of the interview:
Jacqueline Bishop: Steeve, I want to start this interview by spending some time on an earlier work of yours, ‘The Language of Dress, Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760 -1890′ which I see as a direct predecessor to your publication ‘African Lace-Bark in the Caribbean: The Construction of Race, Class and Gender’. In ‘The Language of Dress’ you maintain that “Objects are parallel to written history;” yet, you go on to show how objects, including clothing, are not treated as such. Can you explain the seeming reluctance to engage objects as historical documents, and do you believe that this reluctance might be changing?
Steeve Buckridge: First, let me thank you for this opportunity to share aspects of my research with your readers and for your interest in my work. Now to your question, I think that the reluctance to engage objects in this regard has to do with several factors.
First, many of us were trained to think that written texts are essential to understanding people’s lives. However, what about those people who had no writing? Or left no written texts? How do we begin to understand their lives? Written history is just one way of learning about individuals and societies. In fact, the material objects used by a particular culture or society can tell us a lot about the society and the people who used that particular object. This is the premise of Material Culture Studies – a new discipline in the academy – an object based branch of cultural history that is different from archaeology. Material culture enables us to explore new methods of interpretations by analyzing objects or artifacts. Moreover, the analysis of objects along with written sources helps to broaden our understanding of historical interpretations. Although this discipline has gained momentum in the US and Europe over the last two decades, it is still relatively new in some regions and areas of the academy while some scholars are still learning and exploring this new concept.
Another factor for this reluctance is that objects have been seen as merely insignificant, as too ephemeral, or too every day to warrant attention. Objects such as dress or fashion for a long time were considered a mere trivial whim rather than an important feature in our lives beyond keeping us warm and protecting us from the natural elements. Some historians have regarded objects like clothing as peripheral to historical enquiry. [. . .]
This is changing as more and more Caribbean scholars engage in Material culture studies. For example, major strides have been made in the analysis of contemporary objects, especially in popular culture. A few scholars have produced some exciting scholarship on carnival costume, religious attire, and dance hall, street style and Rasta dress within the context of cultural and literary studies. Other scholars have begun to look at furniture, pottery and even architecture among other things as a means of understanding social relationships and the people who created and used these objects. Despite this, more research is needed, especially on the material culture of enslaved people in the Caribbean. [. . .]
[Image above from http://guides.library.yale.edu/c.php?g=296376&p=1977038.]