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The story is in the clothing

A BOOK that tells the story of an era of Philippine culture through its clothing has won a major international scholarly prize.

The 550-page book, Clothing the Colony: Nineteenth Century Philippine Sartorial Culture, 1820-1896 by Stephanie Marie Coo, was awarded the IIAS-ICAS International Book Prize 2021 as the Best Book in Humanities-English Language Edition on Aug. 24.

The biennial ICAS Book Prize (IBP), which started in 2003, was established by International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) which is a biennial meeting platform by the initiative International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) based in Leiden, the Netherlands. The IIAS is part of a global academic network that organizes a discussion among individuals and institutions on Asia and Asian Studies. With 600 books and 150 dissertations submitted for its 2019 edition, the IBP is the leading Book Prize in the field of Asian Studies.

Karina A. Bolasco, director of the Ateneo de Manila University Press, described the book as “ideal packaging of an academic and scholarly book” with “an interesting and popular subject as clothing, rigorous research given in readable language, a good number of archival but beautiful pictures.”

“The ICAS call for submissions was relayed to us by one of our authors, Nina Andersen, a Danish Philippine studies specialist (author of Labor Pioneers: Economy, Labor, and Migration in Filipino-Danish Relations, 1950-2015),” she said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

The university press submitted 10 Humanities and Social Sciences titles published after 2018. Out of 247 entries worldwide, Clothing the Colony was the only book entry from Asia that was nominated. It was longlisted, shortlisted, and finally awarded the book prize — besting books from the university presses of Yale, Columbia, Chicago University, and Oxford.

Clothing the Colony is a function of the colonization of the mind and the heart,” Ms. Coo told BusinessWorld in an online interview. “Clothes are worn, and therefore, it’s about the story of the wearers who makes daily decision about how they want to show up into the world.”

Ms. Coo is a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at the Departamento de Historia del Arte at the Universidad de Granada in Spain and NOVA School of Law – Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, in Portugal. She earned her PhD in History from Universite Nice Sophia Antipolis in France where she was conferred the highest distinction in the French university system. She also holds a Master of Arts in History, and Bachelor of Science degrees from the Ateneo de Manila, where she serves as Assistant Professor. 

Prior to its publication as a book, the research for Clothing the Colony was originally done for Ms. Coo’s doctorate dissertation in France. Ms. Coo said that the original idea for the study was Philippine textiles, however she switched the focus to clothing. “The real narrative is in the clothes. I was more interested on the psychology behind clothes,” she said.

For the book, Ms. Coo gathered text and a mass of photographs from libraries and museum archives including the Museo del Traje and Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Spain, Museu Nacional do Traje in Portugal, and the National Library, Filipinas Heritage Library, and Ateneo’s Rizal Library in the Philippines.

“I was not just looking at one image. I need to verify if this image matches with the text,” Ms. Coo said.

The book focuses the evolution of clothing between 1820 and 1896. Clothing pieces, Ms. Coo stressed, each had to be looked at separately. “Each piece has to be treated separately because it has its own tempo but also, the whole ensemble has to be analyzed for its totality,” she said.

While doing her research, one of the many interesting stories Ms. Coo gathered pertained to the sleeves design in women’s clothing.

She explained that embroidery was a leisure activity among women, and they began to wear their art aside from displaying it at home. “To accommodate these new skills and designs, the sleeves became bigger,” she said. Then, the method of starching was incorporated to create more structural designs.

Ms. Coo noted that men’s clothing “delivered more exciting narratives” because men engaged in more activities in business, held positions in government, and had different attire for leisure and events such as fiestas.

“Men had more activities. Women were excluded from the usual avenues of power,” Ms. Coo said. “Women were excluded from ecclesiastical work unlike priests, unless they become a nun.”

At a time when information is very accessible, and often not very accurate, Ateneo Press’ Ms. Bolasco noted how important and urgent it is today to produce informative books.

“Academic or scholarly books are not just informative books, offering much more than what is on Google or on the worldwide web…,” Ms. Bolasco told BusinessWorld, noting that books which cover aspects of the country’s history, culture, politics, and economics are crafted from rigorous research and based on doctoral dissertations. 

“By situating our clothing practices in such a multi-ethnic, multicultural 19th century colonial society, we learn to appreciate more deeply our cultural interactions, colonial lifestyles, human relations, and social behavior,” she added.

“Quality work takes time and deep research. Whatever I produce, I make sure it’s new knowledge. So, between consumption and production of knowledge, I wanted to produce knowledge,” Ms. Coo said.

For details and book orders, visit http://ateneo.edu/ateneopress/product/clothing-colony-nineteenth-century-philippine-sartorial-culture-1820-1896-0. The book is also available at the Ateneo University Press pages at Lazada and Shopee. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman