Undergraduate Research

Ben Burton ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Ben Burton ’23

Ben Burton
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Ben Burton (he/they) is majoring in English and cinema studies.  He conducts research under the mentorship of Professor and Lecturer Eric Steggall. His project is titled “Text and the Garment.”

Please describe your project:

My work studies and compares four case studies of alternative clothing designers working  between 1997 and 2022 and the way they incorporate text and textuality. Using text as a base, I study the way garments change more fixed understandings of authorship, art, and symbol - I analyze textuality as a means of finding the specific ways in which clothing uniquely  communicates. My subjects represent different corners of different overlapping cultural-clothing  systems and strikingly postmodern modes of understanding and reacting to those systems. The  pieces I study are unified in their use of text, and their reverence as “archive fashion” “pieces”. I also seek to question the ways in which more unstable contexts reconfigure and reshape every  aspect of the garment and the place that academic study and meaningful effect have in keeping  these works alive.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

My research surrounds the way different fashion designers employ text in their garments. This  interplay helps us understand how clothing uniquely communicates and how clothing functions  as a medium.

Why is your research important? 

My research is important in the world of fashion in that it seeks to de-commodify work,  encourage tactility and wearing of garments, and encourage study and focus on significant and  devalued work. This expands outside the enclosed world of fashion into a more acute  questioning of what we wear, how it configures our identity, and how clothing symbology works, which can allow for a greater appreciation and understanding of a world often ridiculed or  stripped of seriousness.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

My process involved a summer of reading canonical fashion theory and more specific  subcultural and cultural studies, collecting and reading work published about the designers mentioned, and doing broader research about the fashion landscapes and artistic intertexts of  each designer. While the bulk of this work was initial, it continued throughout my writing,  brainstorming, and combining these sources into finished work which would then be analyzed by my advisor. More specifically, it involved weekly morning meetings at Slow Train, the use of a Mudd study room for intensive multi-weekly writing, and constantly browsing resale sights for  unseen variations of the garments I study. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?  

My work is a validation of the academic value and rigor that is intrinsic to fashion theory and  studies, a questioning of what designers are given space in those academic fields, and that  greater space is needed for academic and formal discourse in fashion.

In what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

I have discussed my research with many professors and written briefly about some topics  covered in self published pieces, but never formally presented my research in full.  

Pictures of clothing items pinned to a cork boardHow did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences  in college?  

I have loved fashion, specifically the alternative designers I cover, for many years. I wanted to  culminate my Oberlin experience studying English and Film with a passion project that would  synthesize all the rigor and love of academic study with something that felt intrinsic to me. Once  I realized I could write about fashion, I couldn’t stop and wanted to use the most rigorous space  available to hone my skills. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

I have seriously enjoyed interviewing and engaging with other experts in the fashion field,  whether they be collectors, archivists, or Oberlin professors. I’ve sought out the ability to find discourse about the worlds I wrote about, and through this process, I’ve found immense validation in starting it for myself!

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?  How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Working with my mentor has encouraged me to retain a sense of joy and exuberance about my  chosen topic of study, and to be able to temper that enthusiasm with a well honed purpose for why I am doing my work. He has made me a more joyful and careful researcher, and a more open thinker.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic  development?

Before my research, I could not say with certainty what I wanted to further study or where I wanted to work. Now, I can say with confidence that I am and want to continue being a fashion writer (I’ve been self-publishing work for almost a year) and that I want to work in the fashion industry.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in  your field?

Study something because you love it. If you care deeply, immediately, and intensely about that  which you want to immerse yourself in it will not feel burdensome and can yield incredibly powerful personal and physical results. Moreover, research because you want to research, not because of the research’s results.