Category Archives: Uncategorized

New Academic Year, A Fresh (Re)Start

I’ve been ignoring this blog, shamefully.  A lot has happened in my life, and the idea of trying to condense it into something to share with the world felt overwhelming.  There’s too much to explain, to paraphrase the Princess Bride, so let me sum up: in the past 18 months, I got engaged, wrote and presented my second MA thesis on bodily piety in medieval fasting mystics and ballet dancers (which goes together better than one might think), watched my fiancé graduate with his MA in medieval studies, returned to ballet classes and had to leave them thanks to a dislocated hip, moved up one state, and as of tomorrow, I’m returning to my PhD Institution in Washington, DC to finish my dissertation on funerary culture in New Orleans.  Whew!  Does it sound like a lot?  Because it felt like a lot, let me tell you!

Coming back to PhD work after doing the distance/research-style degree for my MA is a major shift.  Not only is the level of work higher — and I’m going to need to acquire 2 additional research languages over this academic year — but I have to adjust to being in a different town, making the commute from Maryland into DC twice a week, and keeping up on an academic schedule that doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in it.  Did I also mention that we have a wedding planned for Nov 1?  (We picked the date before we knew I was going back to classwork!)  So I’m struggling in a way unfamiliar to me.  I’m trying to get in the rhythm of classes again, and reading on tight, weekly deadlines.  I’m trying to help support my fiancé as he transitions for the first time in his life from “student” to “working adult,” which is no easy thing with disability added to the equation.  I’m handling ageing parents as an only child, which is a new and scary thing.  And I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with my own health.  One advantage of returning to PhD land is that I’ll have health insurance again for the first time in two years, which means I’ll be able to figure out why my joints dislocate so often.  (You’ve never had an experience like learning exactly which ways to move and twist to pop your shoulder or hip or wrist or ankle or big toe back into joint, nor the crack of pain-relief-horror that comes with it.) 

PhD classes, especially at my institution, seem to run on the assumption that you have an able-bodied spouse at home to make you meals, tend to the household chores, and bring in enough income to support the hidden costs of doctoral training — books, professional association memberships and journals, travel to conferences, travel to archives, professional attire, etc.  And perhaps 40 years ago, when the school was almost all Catholic and the graduate cohorts were almost all men, this might’ve been true.  It’s less true now, and it makes doctoral training all the harder on people like myself who are balancing housework and a disabled partner with the work and extra hours.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for people with children — doubly so for women with children, considering how much of the second shift of housework and childcare seem to always fall to women, no matter how well-intentioned their partners. 

I think, deep down, this is the stuff that makes the academy the ivory tower — the ticket inside the doors as a professional is steep, the likelihood of getting a tenure-track job low, and the intangible costs of putting off starting your career for perhaps as long as a decade, losing out on all that pay and networking and chance to save for retirement, living on shoestrings, compromising on family life, etc.  It’s hard enough for me, but the glass ceiling inside the ivory tower is still present, and it’s even thicker for women who are not white, not straight, not Christian, not part of the dominant class.  It worries me, frequently.  But at the same time, I keep making the choice to do this, over and over again.  That might be the definition of insanity.  I like to think it speaks to my tenacity and my belief in my work. 

So expect more here this semester as I wade through required theology classes, learning Spanish and German to supplement my Latin and French, trying to get my health sorted out, prepare for comprehensive exams, and make ends meet.  And get married!  It’s going to be one heck of a semester.

What’re your big hurdles this semester?  What are you anticipating?  What are you dreading? 

The 1850s

In order to talk about my dress project and the choices I’m making, I have to talk about the period in which I’m settling my project and the kind of clothes it contained.  While for most of my life, I’ve had a strong interest in the American Civil War, growing up as I did in the epicentre of the conflict — a 90 minute drive to Gettysburg, 2 hours to Sharpsburg/Antietam, 10 minutes from the childhood home of John Wilkes Booth, an hour to downtown Baltimore, site of the Baltimore Massacre, etc — I’ve found my interested pulled earlier.  A great deal of this I owe (or perhaps blame) on Elizabeth Varon and her work Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859.  Setting the stage for the cataclysmic conflict, looking at a country which, ten years earlier, thought of itself in the plural: the United States, a conglomerate held together by joint, mutual destiny and beliefs, these have been essential in my thinking in the past year or so.  In order to better understand the everyday people who held these beliefs, who underwent the dual-pronged process of becoming American and making America, requires a willingness to immerse into the experience and let that with the greatest objectivity, the material culture they made and consumed, speak.

This means not only getting into the heads of men and women in 1850s America, in the world of 1850s Louisiana, perched on the edge of American identity, European aspirations, and Caribbean roots, but getting into their clothes, their physical stuff, and in as many cases as I can, their buildings, streets, and spaces.  I’ve narrowed my focus in this project down to white, middle-class women living in Louisiana in the antebellum period.  And if I’m going to get into their clothes, that means looking at where they pulled the ideas and fashions for their clothes: Godey’s Lady’s Book.

The 1850s was the culmination of the romantic early Victorian period, with its sloping, feminine lines and ever-increasing circumference of hems.  As the idea of the ideal 19th century woman solidified more and more under the doctrine of separate spheres, femininity became paramount.  (It goes without saying that this idea of the feminine only applied to white women who possessed some means, usually identified by their ability to keep domestic help in the North, or house slaves in the South.  Retaining servants of some stripe or another was the benchmark of being a lady of quality, or at least a gentlewoman, on either side of the Atlantic.)  This femininity was marked by graceful lines, low-set sleeves that restricted the range of motion of a woman’s arms, and the increasingly decreasing circumference of the waist.  Sleeves were frequently pagoda-shaped, coming from a narrow shoulder to a wide opening at the elbow, and filled in with undersleeves, which were linen and could be more frequently laundered, that went to the wrist.  In an age when laundry was labour-intensive and frequently damaged fine fabrics, laundering undersleeves, chemisettes (pieces that filled in the neck of dresses for modesty and effect), shifts, chemises, petticoats, and drawers, provided freshness when gowns themselves, which rarely touched the skin, were infrequently laundered.

Daytime coverage was essential, as no lady showed her bosom before evening, but for night, décolleté was de rigueur, and the fashionable woman’s neckline lowered by six inches at least when the sun went down.  Nighttime fabrics were also more formal, including stiff satin and airy taffetas, and velvets for older women.  Dressing according to one’s station in life was considered essential, and to dress too garishly or too young, especially for a matron, was absolutely déclassé.  Fabrics were stiffer than they are now, and satins could frequently stand up on their own.  Taffetas supported the flounces with a light, rustling quality that was considered desirable, and the expensive of those fabrics spoke to the wealth of a family who could afford to dress their women in them.

Corsets gave women the desirable hourglass shape, with a small waist emphasised by pleats, tucking, or basque points on the bodice, and the increasing width of skirts, in a bell or dome shape, drew the contrast further.  These skirts were supported by horsehair and rope crinolines and multiple layers of heavy petticoats to give the desired fullness, accentuated by multiple flounces in the early years of the decade.  In 1856, the patent of the steel hooped crinoline as we know it lightened the female load (of petticoats, at least), and skirts expanded while becoming lighter.  The invention of the hooped crinoline earned a great deal of mockery — the British magazine Punch advised husbands to have their new wives registered at the fire insurance office.

Colour also exploded in the 1850s, with the natural dyes known to man previously being supplemented with the discovery and exposition of mauvine, the first chemical dye, at the Grand Exhibition in London in 1851.  Mauvine, a vivid magenta-purple, was soon joined by other vivid hues, and the 1850s ended in a riot of colour.  Even Queen Victoria had a mauvine-dyed gown, before the death of Prince Albert and Her Majesty’s perpetual mourning thereafter.  However, lighter colours for evening were still in vogue, especially for younger women, as they reflected the candlelight of evening events, as well as showing the skill of their seamstress.  (Everyone who has ever sewn knows that white hides no flaws, and the 19th century seamstress would have had to take great care not to stain or smudge the fine fabric with which she was working, speaking to her quality as well as to her client’s.)  White was a sentimental, lovely choice for a young woman, and was increasingly associated with bridal freshness, thanks to Queen Victoria’s choice of the fabric for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840.  Married women wore brighter, more vivid colours in the evening, and many a bride turned her wedding gown into a formal dress to serve her through her first few years as a wife.

In addition to colour and wide skirts, the 1850s saw a great deal of trim and decoration. Day dresses were frequently patterned, with the trim being in a different, complimentary pattern.  Lace, flowers, embroidery, and flounces remained popular throughout the decade.  As the 1850s wound to a close, trim became more restrained, confined largely to the bodice and the very bottom hem of the skirts.  The 19th century visual ideal of delightful, overwhelming clutter (as evidenced by their parlours and other interior design choices) was well in effect here.  Women adorned their undersleeves and chemisettes, showing off how frilly and snowy white their lawn and linen pieces were.

That’s all a lovely description.  But what do the dresses look like, you ask?  Godey’s Lady’s Book has you covered.  Just as today when people pour over VogueElle, and Harper’s to see what the latest styles are from Paris, New York, and London, the women of the 1850s were little different.  Godey’s was a fashion bible, and always included a pattern to make one of the gowns shown in the colour prints included in the magazine.

Fashion print for August 1855. Notice the flounces, the colours, and the narrower profile of the skirts, as well as the abundance of trim and the sloping shoulders. The woman on the left is wearing clothes for going out calling, and the woman on the right is dressed for home.  She’s wearing the indoors cap which had become largely decorative frills of lace at this point.

Look at the subtle change in March 1857. The skirts are wider, but still flounced, and the colours are still vivid and bright. The dresses are in general arier — because they’re a good ten pounds lighter! These are all intended for the fashionable woman for daytime, probably for visiting, given the amount of bonnets and outerwear shown.

Here’s a collection of eveningwear from January 1859, and a child’s dress (shown in the mirror). Notice the colours, the hint of the fabric (the raspberry has a sheen that would indicate satin), and the necklines. The hairstyles are all smooth and festooned with lace and roses, a fashionable choice for evening.

This is another collection day and evening dresses, this time from 1859. Notice again the light colours, the flounces, and the sheer amount of trim. The woman on the far left is holding a parasol, which was essential for a lady out-of-doors. Keeping pale, delicate skin was of utmost importance for a white lady, and she would have never appeared in public without a bonnet or hat of some kind, gloves, and a parasol, the latter on sunny days especially.

Hopefully, these give some idea of the trends I’ve been talking about, as well as a way of understanding how women in the 1850s imagined themselves.  The fashion plates in Godey’s were an ideal, just like models today, and speak to the kind of femininity and beauty expected or at least idealised for the woman of the period.  As the blog progresses, I plan on talking a bit more about Godey’s Lady’s Book, as well as the idea of the 1850s lady.  And of course, mourning.  But one thing at a time, as always!