Over the next few months, this blog will become home to my ongoing project: the documentation of the creation of an 1850s mourning ensemble as it would have been worn by a middle-class woman in New Orleans. As a historian-in-training, one of the things I try very hard to do is look for ways to make history more vivid and real, to bring out the experiential in the factual. In many ways, I find myself trying to emulate British historian Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: an Intimate History of the Home sparked my interest in things. When we understand the things used in the past — how they were used, where and when they were used, what people did with them, what they were willing to pay for them, etc — then we start to have a clearer picture of how people lived then, which connects them to how we live now. Worsley does this with aplomb and a sense of humour that brings the whole endeavour to life (and if you don’t believe me, read the book or watch the BBC series!).
To me, history is a narrative, an unfolding series of stories that intertwine and conflict, but when studied, illuminate a complex, nuanced whole. In my work, I’m claiming my corner of that narrative: middle-class women in Louisiana in the decades before the American Civil War. In some ways, this is an easy choice for me. New Orleans stole my heart in the dark days after Katrina, and as I’ve watched her grow and recover from that disaster, I’ve spent a great deal of time reading about how she has endured and recovered from others in her past. Gender as a construct and a question is something that impacts me on a daily basis, and I’ve always had an interest in how it plays out in the past, what contributed then to where we are now. And the 19th century has been my mental and emotional home for much of my life. (I blame the early and frequent watchings of both Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ The Civil War as a child for this.)
The choice of a mourning ensemble is perhaps more complicated. I, like so many children of the 90s, went through my goth phase, and developed a love of the macabre. Much like our Victorian forebears, I found death and the culture surrounding it to be fascinating. As my academic interest in it grew, I began to wonder about how people did mourning. It wasn’t just a question of what to wear and when, or what women were allowed to do and not allowed, but what it meant, what it felt like, and why it mattered. Mourning was a costly business, especially before the days of cheap, mass-produced clothing off the rack. (No running down to Macy’s to buy a black dress for a last minute funeral in 1850!) So why do it? What social, cultural, and emotional benefit was there to the elaborate mourning rituals of the mid-19th century? Why ape English trends of formality in a country that touted itself as democratic, eschewing class divisions and customs of Europe? What was the point of it all? And why did women, especially in the emergent middle-class, cling to these customs and rituals with such ferocity? What did it give them?
In order the explore the answers to these questions, as there are always more than one, I am combining traditional research methods with a more experiential kind of history. Hence the creation of a mourning ensemble alongside research into the lives, values, experiences, social roles, and world of antebellum women in Louisiana. The work is in the planning stages yet. There will be patterns to choose, fabric to buy, sewing techniques to learn. But hopefully, by the time I have finished my master’s thesis, I’ll also have a period-appropriate ensemble to show for it, and be able to speak to what clothing in the antebellum years might have meant.
So come along for the journey, and feel free to ask questions or comment on anything you see or read here. Part of my aim is to make my work accessible to a wider audience, and part of accessibility is responding to feedback constructively as well as taking suggestions into consideration. I am by far no expert seamstress. My background is in some reenacting in college and some theatrical work. I still have problems setting sleeves. But the goal here is to grow and learn, and I’m relatively certain that will happen. I think Dr Worsley would approve.