Kiki Smith Explores Women’s Lives Through Their Clothing

In her beautiful new book, Real Clothes, Real Lives: 200 Years of What Women Wore, Kiki Smith asks what we can learn about women’s lives by studying their clothes. Representing almost fifty years of Smith’s research and thought, the book features gorgeous photos of two centuries of women’s clothing with accompanying essays about the social and economic conditions that shaped the women and clothes of each period.  

The book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in women’s fashion or costume design, and a fascinating read for any woman who has ever had to squeeze into an uncomfortable outfit and wondered why.

Kiki Smith, Costume Designer
& Theatre Professor

Kiki Smith is a professional costume and set designer, and also a theatre professor at Smith College, where she oversees the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection.  She started the collection in 1975, when she noticed that the college’s alumnae had donated everyday clothes to the theatre department that could not be used on stage, but fell into a category Smith calls “social uniforms.” 

As Vanessa Friedman explains in the book’s preface, these garments were “not fashion or costumes, but outfits connected to a specific gender role at a moment in time, that signaled identity and occupation.”  The collection now contains more than 4,000 items from the 1800s to the present, and it is unique for the number of items of everyday clothing.

Florida Woman 1885-1910
Photo: Alvan S. Harper

Real Clothes, Real Lives features over 300 garments and accessories from the collection, as well as photos of women wearing clothes from each time period. There are decades of waitress and nurse uniforms, white collar work dresses, house dresses, party outfits, miniskirts, suits, coats, hats, and undergarments dating back to 1860. There are also unique items, such as Sylvia Plath’s Girl Scout uniform, a 1920s suit designed for a woman who wished to present as a man, a rare World War I uniform worn by an American woman working behind enemy lines, and a 1970s go-go dancer’s costume.

Kiki Smith’s great gift is that she is able to reveal so many connections between women’s clothing and their socio-economic conditions.  When she looks at a garment that is stained or torn, every mark tells a story, and she is able to use her vast knowledge of fashion, fabrics, and clothing construction to give us new insights into women’s history and shifting social roles.  The book is a monumental contribution to the field of feminist studies, as well as a fantastic resource for costume designers. 

BUY THE BOOK:  You can order the Real Clothes. Real Lives: 200 Years of What Women Wore through its publisher, Rizzoli New York and through most major online booksellers.  Price: $60.

SEARCH THE SMITH COLLEGE HISTORIC CLOTHING COLLECTION:  There are images of approximately 457 items from the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection available in a free, searchable online database which you can access through the Jstor digital library