Studying artifacts (objects that are man-made) can tell us a lot about the values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions of a society. Objects provide a tangible connection between the past and the present and can bring history to life. Like primary-source documents and photographs, material culture can provide firsthand evidence of historical events.
It is often difficult for museums to collect artifacts, particularly clothing, associated with the lives of ordinary people because these artifacts are well-used and get worn out. They are not the sort of objects that donors will typically think of offering to a museum, and rarely have acquisition budgets for this type of thing. Therefore, the relationship between museums and collectors can be very important.
Collectors are often interested in vintage clothing that is "NWT" (new, with tags), as the tags provide valuable information for dating. Much of the vintage clothing that survives is "DOS" (dead, old stock), clothing that was never sold and was kept in storage by retail stores that stayed in business for many years.
To a museum, worn clothing may be of interest because of its association with the person who wore it, or the circumstances in which it was worn. In the 1970s, "cut-offs" were very popular; once the knees wore through, pants were either patched, or were cut off to wear as shorts. Creative people enjoy "DIY" (do it yourself); sometimes they decorate their denim, or re-make a pair of jeans into a purse or quilt.
Signage, catalogues, advertisements and giveaways are also very collectible. In some cases, advertising may be considered art; some advertisements were created by well-known artists. GWG's advertising was produced for a specific purpose... to sell clothing. It's intended to evoke particular associations.
In the classroom, artifacts can be used to spark further research and discussion, to improve understanding, and to enrich the curriculum. Ask your students to take a close look at the photographs of these artifacts and answer the following questions:
- Describe the artifact.
- When was the artifact made? How is it a reflection of the time period?
- If there are examples of the artifact from different periods of time, how did their appearance change through time? For example, how did the width of the leg and height of the waistline of a pair of jeans change?
- How did their use change through time?
- Was the artifact handmade or mass-manufactured? What skills were required to make the artifact? What does it tell you about the people who made it?
- What materials and technologies were used to make this object?
- Why was this object created? What function did it serve? Did its function change over time?
- How was it sold, displayed or bought? How much did it cost when it was first made?
- By whom was it used? What might have happened when it reached the end of its usefulness?
- Why do you think the artifact survived so that it could be acquired by the museum?