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History in Action

Posted on 24 January 2012

Dressing History: A new direction in experimental scholarship?

Experimental archaeology is a term most commonly associated with the recreation of Iron Age huts or the re-enactment of stone transportation methods used for structures like Stonehenge. However, Serena Dyer, a postgraduate student at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, has used this innovative approach to explore the production and construction techniques of eighteenth-century dressmaking.

Since starting Dressing History, her company specialising in the reproduction of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century garments and accessories, Serena’s work has been featured at The Science Museum, The Ironbridge Gorge Museum and York’s own Barley Hall. Serena has been asked to appear in replica clothing by the National Trust, the Jane Austen Centre, and at the English Heritage Festival of History, and has lectured on her work at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute.

It is not only the finished garments which are important to Serena, but the process of reproduction. “When I approach a new project," she explains, "my initial ideas are not about what the finished item will look like, but how to replicate the construction techniques used to achieve that look. I don’t see the process of reproduction simply as a means to replicate or copy clothing from the past, but as a methodology which can be used to understand the working processes of dressmakers, tailors, mantua-makers and milliners.”

Serena believes that the process of reproduction can not only teach us more about the material objects themselves, but also about the working conditions and lives of the individuals who made and wore them.

As well as detailing the methods, processes and techniques required and used by eighteenth-century workers, it also enables us to feel and experience garments when existing examples are too delicate to be handled. An excellent example of this is the Calash, a collapsing hood worn as protective headwear in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century. While extant specimens are far too delicate to be unfolded and collapsed repeatedly, Serena’s reproduction enables interaction with a very alien component of the eighteenth-century wardrobe.

As an undergraduate student at York, Serena incorporated this experimental methodology into her thesis on methods of fashion dissemination. She used the reproduction process to analyse the way various methods of dissemination, such as fashion plates and fashion dolls, influenced the process of fashionable clothing production. In her current work, exploring the consumption and dissemination of fashion amongst women of the Yorkshire elite in the eighteenth century, Serena is continuing her use of this innovative methodology.

“I will use the replication process to recreate garments purchased or commissioned by a cross section of Yorkshire society in the eighteenth-century. This will visually articulate the breadth of work undertaken by the local dressmaking community, as well as indicating the range of skills required.”

Further examples of Serena’s work can be seen on her website,, her blog,, and on the Dressing History facebook page: