When I first came to the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1984, I looked for presentations relating to my particular interest: costume representations in medieval art and literature. I didn't find much. Dress, it seemed, was barely acknowledged as an area for current research; when I mentioned that I was exploring medieval fashion, one person asked, “Hasn't that all been done? What's left to find out?” The topic's only presence at the Congress was a long-running session on “Adornment and Ornament”, then being organized by musicologist Ingrid Brainard, who had taken over that role as a favor to a retiring colleague.
Thanks to a connection through one of my past professors, another session organizer learned of my sideline, and in 1987, my research partner Verna Rutz and I gave our first Kalamazoo session on medieval dress, wearing reproduction clothing of the periods we were discussing. That session led to more, and within a few years, Ingrid (with some relief) passed us the torch for representing costume at Kalamazoo, which Verna and I continued to do – sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by showcasing others.
In retrospect, that was a pivotal time for the emergence of medieval clothing and textiles as a distinct and legitimate field of study. There were, in fact, quite a few scholars examining dress-related topics, but most were scattered among many disciplines – literature, language, art history, archaeology, history, economics – and typically remained isolated within their own academic enclaves. Some, politely termed “independent scholars”, worked outside the academic mainstream. Our annual costume session at the Congress provided a rare opportunity for these people to gather, and we developed a sizable audience of regular attendees whose broad collective knowledge led to lively, collegial interchanges during our question-andanswer periods, and who typically lingered after our sessions to exchange resources, examine reproduction pieces, and settle into knots of intense conversation.
It was during this post-session buzz in 1994, after a pair of lecture-demonstrations on the medieval sideless surcoat and Renaissance Venetian dress, that Verna called to me from across the room.