Edward Maeder: Greenfield’s garment guru

  • A shoe from the 1700s that Edward Maeder, Greenfield resident and costume historian, is working on restoring. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Edward Maeder sews a shoe called a “mule” during the process of restoration. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • During the process of restoring a shoe from the 1700s, Edward Maeder sews the shoe to repair any threads sticking up and removes stains using a cotton swab. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Edward Maeder uses beeswax to coat his thread so it won’t tangle as he sews a historic shoe. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • In a career of more than three decades, costume historian Edward Maeder has written seven books, served on university faculties and curated numerous exhibits on fashion. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Edward Maeder, left, with shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, whose personal collection of historic shoes Maeder curated for an exhibit called “Walk This Way.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Designed by Stuart Weitzman, these “million dollar sandals” include 464 diamonds and were worn by actress Laura Harring at the 2002 Academy Awards. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EDWARD MAEDER

  • Shoes from the Stuart Weitzman collection. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EDWARD MAEDER

Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2018 1:34:48 PM

Converse lost one of its trademarks as a result of testimony by Greenfield resident Edward Maeder.

The shoe company filed a complaint to the International Trade Commission in late 2014, claiming that the rubber toecap, bumper and side stripes of its Chuck Taylor sneakers were its trademark, and that more than 30 other shoe manufacturers had infringed on it.

As it turned out, though, that toecap design could not have been Converse’s trademark, because it had been used at least as early as 1894 at Springfield College, where basketball was invented in the early 1890s. Other parts of the Chuck Taylor design were found to be the company’s property, namely the tread pattern of the outsole. The case’s findings were based on Maeder’s testimony as an expert witness.

What it means to be a costume historian

Professionally, Maeder calls himself a historian of costume. He studies fashion; specifically, “what people wear and why they wear it.” In a career of more than three decades, he has written seven books, served on university faculties and curated numerous exhibits on fashion.

Most recently, he curated shoe designer Stuart Weitzman’s personal collection of historic footwear for an exhibit by the New-York Historical Society called “Walk This Way,” which ran from April to the beginning of October, and wrote a book to go with it. The exhibit ran in New York from April to October, and will be traveling to Palm Beach, Fla., Norfolk, Va., Cincinnati, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 2019 and 2020, Maeder said.

The Weitzman collection consists of about 300 pairs of shoes that were, when they came to Maeder, mostly unlabeled and uncategorized. His job was to determine the approximate manufacturing year for each one.

A date on a piece of clothing “informs us of the world in which it lived,” Maeder said. “We can put it into the context of what’s going on around it. That’s the only way it makes sense.”

He pins down a date by drawing connections to the other aspects of life that influence and are influenced by trends in clothing design.

“You have to know why they’re changing,” he said. That requires historical knowledge of politics, artistic movements and popular culture. It helps that he is now 73 and has been studying fashion and history, to at least some extent, for his entire life.

“This isn’t something that anybody could do, that some graduate student could come along and do. You need all of this depth of information,” Maeder said. “Fashion is symbiotic to everything else in your life.”

Maeder said both his grandmothers got him involved with clothing when he was very young, with one being a tailor and the other a dressmaker. He started sewing and embroidering at age 3, and knitting at 5, receiving his first sewing machine when he was 11.

“I’ve been making clothes all my life, and I’ve been dressing up my whole life,” Maeder said, noting the Native American costume he made himself and wore for Halloween for 10 years. “I’m sure I was a tailor in a former life. I know how to do all kinds of things that I was never taught how to do.”

Since then, Maeder has molded his life around clothing and fashion, graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1971, where he studied art history, weaving, and decorative arts and textiles. He then got his master’s degree in art history from the University of London.

His longest position was as a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Department of Costumes and Textiles, from 1979 to 1994. He left to help found the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

He currently holds positions with Smith College, the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, Pa., and the Honorable Cordwainers’ Company in Williamsburg, Va., and spends a lot of time traveling for lectures, exhibits and to be an expert witness for court cases, such as the Converse case.

Despite being involved in it for so long, Maeder said his unique trade is “never, never dull.”

“I work on 13th-century or 12th-century clothes, all these different periods. I’m terminally curious,” he said. “It’s all about discovery and research. I’m constantly discovering things.”

As a graduate student, Maeder developed a bit of a superpower for his trade — he learned to date a photo or painting at least as early as 1300 to within a few years based on the clothes in it. The faster things were changing at the time, the more accurately the date can be deduced. In the 1890s, for example, he can tell to within a year when a dress was made just by the sleeves.

“The question is, who cares? Well, if we don’t know about history, we don’t know ourselves. We don’t know who we are,” Maeder said. “It’s all about self-knowledge.”

Assessing fashion’s ups and downs

Traditionally, Maeder said, fashion is top-down: it is determined by the upper social classes, whose styles are imitated by everyone else. The modern prevalence of counter-movements, like hippies in the 1960s, reverses this, somewhat.

“It was all about being different,” said Maeder, who was a college student in the late 1960s. “And then you weren’t. You were desperate to be a non-conformist, but then you were conforming to non-conformity. And then these styles all went into mainstream fashion.”

That reversal in itself is not new. Maeder pointed out that Marie Antoinette was known for her shepherdess-style clothes, designed in the image of commoners’ clothes, but made with jewels and fine silk.

“I would say that in the 20th century it’s the most extreme, where fashion has gone from the common people into the upper echelons of high fashion,” Maeder said. He attributes this to fashion changing faster in modern times than it ever has, forcing designers to search for ideas in unconventional places just to keep up.

“It’s the industry,” Maeder said. “If you didn’t change fashion, everybody would have their clothes and they wouldn’t buy new clothes. So you change it because the textile industry is the second largest industry in the world.”

To ensure that the machine keeps running, trends are almost completely predetermined years in advance by industry masterminds, Maeder said. It is not marketplace demand that phases out old styles for new ones, but individuals’ strategic decisions.

One of the most powerful groups in fashion, Maeder said, is the Color Council, a “fashion mafia” whose work it is to decide what colors will be popular when. That determines the colors that textile manufacturers will use, which in turn determines what kinds of fabrics will be available to designers.

“We’re very controlled by that,” he said.

The latest shift in fashion has been a homogenization of style and social class. As recently as the 1970s, Maeder said, it was possible to tell where someone was from by their shoes, because designs varied from country to country. Now fashion is fully international, and the only remaining major distinctions are in brand names — “if they’re wearing an expensive shirt, or if they’re wearing an ordinary shirt.”

“After I’ve given a talk, people will never think the same way about something,” Maeder said. “I tell them about things that they’ve never thought of — although they know, subconsciously they know, because they live and they observe.”

What fashion teaches us

Clothing design, Maeder said, is only one aspect of a “constant search for something new and something different” that “goes through every level of society and all the things that have to do with society.”

Furniture, for example, is necessarily designed around clothes, and vice versa.

“In the 1860s, if you think of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the chairs were very low, because if you sat in a high chair your crinoline would come up over your face and it would be pretty embarrassing,” Maeder said to provide an example.

Connections like that exist everywhere. But because fashion thoroughly conditions our perspective, it is extremely difficult to objectively perceive our own involvement in it.

“It’s only after that you can look back and say, ‘Oh my god, what were we thinking?’” Maeder said. “We’re, in a way, victims of our own time.”

Nowhere is this limitation more apparent than in historical movies. Costumes must seem historically accurate, but they also must appeal to audiences’ sensibilities, which are subject to their time.

“If it looks historically correct to us, we have stamped our time on it,” Maeder said. “The body of what we think is attractive comes through.”

The result is always a design that is historically themed, but essentially modern. Maeder points to the stark contrast between two Hollywood Cleopatras that were both, in their own times, considered historically accurate — Theda Bara in 1917 wearing a corrugated iron costume, and Elizabeth Taylor in 1963 “with cleavage and a Vidal Sassoon hairdo.”

“In 1963 we thought she was very authentic, because we saw it through our vision,” Maeder said.

The tells, for people like Maeder, are hair and makeup, where the appeal to audiences’ sensibilities ultimately matters more than historical accuracy. “Because they have to look beautiful.”

Staff reporter Max Marcus started working at the Greenfield Recorder this year. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. He can be reached at: mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.

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