My field-collecting assistant, Susan Nambi, and me in Philadelphia in 2013.

When I entered Brown’s Anthropology PhD program in 2003, I had no intention of interning at the Haffenreffer Museum (nor knowledge of the museum’s existence), but when the opportunity presented itself, I thrilled to it. I enjoy being around old things, exploring fashion far and wide, and holding objects in my hands while imagining their provenience. My first task at the Museum fit this bill – I worked alone in the quiet, dimly lit gallery, labeling and archiving a collection of Latin American textiles. I sewed tiny labels onto each article of clothing, taking care not to disturb the fabric’s warp and weft. Here I nurtured an affinity for material culture that I later parlayed into curatorial fellowships at Temple University’s Center for the Humanities and Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies.

One of my key informants walks along a village path wearing a typical young women’s outfit in 2006.

However, the Haffenreffer’s most significant contribution to my work occurred outside of the museum space in the wide open field. In 2004, I was awarded a Haffenreffer Field Collecting Grant that, along with a Joukowsky Research Grant, supported my Master’s research in a Ugandan village. Over the course of three months, I spent time with a cohort of girls who were the first in their village to attend secondary school, thanks to Uganda’s recently instituted Universal Primary Education policy and an American NGO that provided secondary school fees. I was interested in the intersection of gender and formal education, and I took clothing as a lens onto this relationship. Using the Haffenreffer grant, I built a collection of young women’s everyday dress that revealed girls’ limited modes of expression within their community. In school, girls wore standard uniforms. Outside of school, rural gendered norms circumscribed women’s options. Specifically, young women were expected to demonstrate modesty by wearing loose skirts that reached their ankles. Trousers and knee-length skirts would earn one the moniker of malaya, the Swahili term for prostitute.

I continued research with this group of girls throughout my doctoral studies, including two years of fieldwork in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, from 2010-2012. At that time, my interlocutors had graduated from secondary school and were attending university in the city, where they embraced newfound sartorial freedoms. Their wardrobes expanded to include such apparel as chic ankle boots, skinny jeans, short skirts, and on-trend scarfs. I continued to investigate the relationship between gender, commodity consumption, and education, and thereby identified the self-making practices that female students undertake to “prove” themselves as modern, educated women. This work led to my first book, “’If Books Fail, Try Beauty’: Educated Womanhood in the New East African Community” (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). Related concerns guide my current postdoctoral research into materiality, aesthetics, and citizenship in Southern Africa.

My Haffenreffer collection captures a moment in time in a particular village, where the effects of Uganda’s ambitious education reform (and accelerating urbanization) were just beginning to register. A collection of this nature would look very different now. Schoolgirls still wear uniforms; but in their free time, they don trousers and knee-length skirts with impunity, despite grumbling from some of the elders. The Haffenreffer Collecting Grant, and my resulting collection, allow us to reflect upon this large-scale social change through the aperture of quotidian material culture.



Brooke Bocast received her A.M. in Anthropology from Brown in 2005 and her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Temple University in 2014. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Public Health at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa (