Early home economists were concerned with helping women to provide clothing
for themselves and their families in efficient and economical ways. By
the early twentieth century, ambitious programs in clothing and textiles
were being established in many schools of home economics. Courses were
offered both for consumers and for students seeking careers in the textile
and clothing industries. The subjects covered included fabric composition,
clothing selection for the consumer, home sewing and mending, clothing
design and production, and business aspects of the textile and clothing
industries. Eventually, extension services also reached out to consumers,
educating them on various aspects of clothing and fabric purchasing and
home sewing, and junior and senior high schools began teaching these skills
to their students.
economists inside and outside of the academy made important contributions
on various research and policy issues. By the 1920s, the need for standardization
in labeling had become apparent, in order to give consumers information
about the content and care requirements of textile products. Home economists
worked with consumer and industry groups and with government agencies
such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Bureau of Human Nutrition
and Home Economics to develop such standards. The need for clear labeling
became even more apparent as greater numbers of synthetic fibers began
to come on the market in the 1940s.
Home economists also undertook extensive studies of use and care of fabrics
and apparel, investigating questions of durability and colorfastness and
determining optimal methods and products for washing, stain removal, and
drying. Another concern was safety; as early as the 1910s, home economists
were advocating for and testing treatments to make fabrics flame retardant.
In the early 1940s, home economists working for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture completed a major anthropometric study that helped established
standard sizes in clothing for women.
Academic researchers were interested in more than just the practicalities
of keeping people clothed. From the 1920s onward, there was a growing
interest in the social and psychological aspects of costume. Home economists
conducted historical research and empirical investigations, applying theoretical
frameworks from sociology and psychology to clothing. They investigated
questions such as: Why do people dress as they do? What messages does
clothing convey and what needs do particular styles of dress fulfill for
individuals? How does costume relate to social stratification and ethnic
identity? To gender roles? To the life cycle? Thus home economists have
had a major influence not only on how we dress and what we wear, but on
how we understand clothing as an important social practice.
– Martin Heggestad, Mann Library
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