Textile studies

In archaeology

Textiles are “real” archaeological objects and, as such, are likely to provide several pieces of information depending on their context of discovery and should be treated like any other artifact. After their discovery in archaeological excavations/boreholes, it is necessary to have them studied by archaeologists specialised in textiles.

The study of archaeological textiles is part of a multi-disciplinary approach that can provide information on:

  • manufacturing processes (materials, dyes, stitching, decorations, etc.)
  • the history of clothing
  • the history of technics
  • the daily life of societies past
  • funerary practices
  • the history of commercial
  • industrial history

In anthropology

As a social object, the studies on textiles and clothing present a disseminated and varied bibliography. It appears that most of the research conducted lacks a total social context, to use Mr. Mauss’s concept, as well as fieldwork. In recent years, research on textiles and clothing as an object involving the whole of society and all its members has been developing in France.

The first scientific studies on costume appeared at the end of the 19th century, but these included works by archivists who treated the costume not as a system but as a set of pieces(1). In the 1980s, anthropologist Y. Delaporte regretted, as did R. Barthes before him, that the study of clothing was not a discipline in its own right in the field of human and social sciences. In 1957, R. Barthes published an article entitled History and sociology of clothing in which he criticised the lack of reflection around a dress system and the definition of a “an axiological set that constitutes it (constraints, prohibitions, tolerances, aberrations, fantasies, congruences, exclusions)(2)”.

Anthropology must study the specificity of each society without wanting to bring the facts back to universal processes. It is essential that a typology be established in order to define the pieces of clothing, to use precise terms to describe the objects. However, its use to study from a dynamic point of view a “total social” context remains difficult, which is why it is preferable, when known, to use the emic terms.

In anthropology studies, the term tradition is often associated with textiles and clothing. It is to be taken in the sense of present interpretations and definitions of practices or knowledge inherited from the past since, as has shown among others E. Hobsbawm(3), these have generally undergone significant changes and are largely reinvented. The customs, knowledge and beliefs transmitted from generation to generation carry values and meanings for a particular human group. They are constantly evolving and are often reinvented for symbolic and normative purposes: tradition is a set of present and current practices.

The study of textiles and clothing in anthropology takes a multidisciplinary approach (archaeology, history, philosophy) that can provide information on:

  • manufacturing processes (materials, patronage, tools, etc.)
  • the history of clothing
  • the history of techniques
  • the history of fashion
  • the techniques of the body
  • the political institutions
  • the daily life of past and present societies
  • funeral practices
  • rites and beliefs
  • the history of trade
  • industrial history
(1) FLÜGEL J.C., 1930, The Psychology of Clothes, Londres.
(2) BARTHES R., 1957, « Histoire et sociologie du vêtement (quelques observations méthodologiques) », Annales. ESC, 12ème année, N°3, pp.430-441,
(3) HOBSBAWM E., RANGER T. (dir.), 2006, L’invention de la tradition, Paris, Ed. Amsterdam.