Wrestling with Scarlett O’Hara

Part and parcel of graduate work is reading. Reading takes up the bulk of my time, and I average about 3-500 pages a week when I’m not in crunch time (and can manage about 1000 a week when I’m really pressed). Suffice to say, I have devoured a lot of books and articles on American History. This semester, in my focus on the American South, and on women in the antebellum South in particular, I have come to encounter one name more consistently than any other:

Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett being laced into her 17 inch corset by Mammy in the 1939 MGM film, “Gone With the Wind.”

Scarlett has appeared in nearly every book I’ve read thus far this semester.  She came up in Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History.  She came up in Catherine Clinton’s The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.  I’ve seen her in Kristen Olsen’s Chronology of Women’s History.  She’s mentioned in Bridget Heneghan’s Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination.  I’m pretty sure I saw her come up in Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.  She’s come up so frequently that I have a tally going on my desk, ticking off how many times her name comes up — and how many times I reference her myself!  (This post is upping that count substantially.)

Pretty impressive for a fictional character written in the 1930s.

Scarlett O’Hara has become, for better or for worse, a symbol of antebellum womanhood, the prototypical Southern Belle — ironic, when one considers that Scarlett, with her temper, her manipulative streak, and her iron will, flies in the face of the 19th century ideal woman.  She embodies the moonlight and magnolias vision of the South that has been projected backwards by white imagination into history.  She is the visual symbol of cavalier culture, and she has more currency culturally, I would argue, than the image of the Southern cavaliers themselves.

(A piece of anecdotal data: When walking into the local grocery store here in Charlottesville, a sign welcomed back the University of Virginia Cavaliers.  My partner, a Virginia transplant, asked, “Wouldn’t the cavaliers be a more fitting mascot for William and Mary?  That school was at least around closer to the English Civil War.”  After a moment of gobsmacked silence, I had to explain the image of the Southern cavalier, and its socio-cultural currency in the South, which would lead UVA to have the cavalier for their mascot.  Ironically enough, my partner is a medievalist who studies Normans, and had never heard the connection of Southern cavaliers with the knightly ideal so popular in the South.)

Every Southern historian, it seems, deals with Scarlett.  They mention her, reference her, and use her as an acceptable starting point for the uninitiated into the world of Southern history and culture.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about plantation belles.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about Southern fashion and corsets, her 17 inch waist being assumed as the immediate benchmark for antebellum ladies.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about white mistresses and slaves.  Scarlett is the image of the South, and we cannot escape her.  And through our ongoing willingness to embed Scarlett into our serious history texts, we begin to give Scarlett a life of her own that Mitchell could have never foreseen.

I suspect I sound overly critical of Gone With the Wind.  I rail about its inaccuracies when I talk to people about my work.  I get frustrated when people ask after hearing about my topic, “So you must really love Scarlett O’Hara, huh?”  The truth of it is, I do love Scarlett.  Scarlett was a role model for me as a girl, and I wandered into my love of the Civil War through routine re-watchings of Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ documentary.  But as I move on, I get increasingly frustrated that the image of the Southern woman is not a real Southern woman, but rather, a fictional construct made in the 30s, seeped in the post-war racism that characterized the early twentieth century.  Where, I want to ask, are the images of real women, women with names and histories and places that we can look to and see something real?  Why is fiction the dominant standard for all Southern women, be it Gone With the WindSteel Magnolias, Jezebel, or Designing Women?  Are the real women not interesting enough, not fiery enough, not visible enough?  Is fictional racism more comfortable than real racism?  Or are we unwilling to let history get in the way of our vision of the romantic South and the spitfire Southern belle, be she Scarlett O’Hara or Julia Sugarbaker?

I’m not sure.  I suspect that fiction resonates with us and stays with us in ways that history often doesn’t in a wider cultural sense, largely because of how Americans are taught their history.  (Hint: its usually poorly.)  To watch these films and read these novels is to connect with a romanticized  plot-convenient vision of the past, and to have a narrative arc that is designed to be emotional and satisfying, giving it the staying power that history, with its inconveniences and heartbreaks and rough narratives rarely has.  We wrestle with Scarlett O’Hara, I think, because Scarlett is the gateway drug to the rest of what is waiting in the South, be it the good, the bad, or the frequently ugly.  Scarlett is a white vision of an idealized white past, and she’s more comfortable for white folks than the truth.  Culturally, white America has never dealt well with uncomfortable realities when fiction is much more convenient and lovely, after all.

Suffice to say, my Scarlett O’Hara Watch tally isn’t going anywhere.  Because, I suspect, neither is Scarlett.  Scarlett is the vision of the modern woman projected into the past, and with racial issues largely sidestepped or avoided on a larger scale.  She’s the image of one woman doing it all on her own, and getting what she wants, even if the guy issue is complicated (and in this day and age of divorce, who doesn’t sympathise with her holding onto the house and losing the husband?) and her life is a walking tragedy at times.  Her clothes are good, she’s gorgeous, and she’s got ambition to spare.  Mitchell, despite writing Scarlett in the past, was looking forward in some very prescient ways.  And so Scarlett stays with us, the epitome of the imaginary South, eclipsing the cavalier and garnering more name recognition than most of the Southerners who made the Confederacy what it was and what it ever failed to be.

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Travel!

I’ve just come back from a week in Louisiana, and it has been a fantastic trip.  I’m always completely in love with Louisiana, and with New Orleans in particular (though the heat, not so much — I think I’ve been infected with Midwestern preferences for climate), but this trip was really special.  Not only did I present at the Louisiana Studies Conference this past weekend at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA (pronounced NACK-uh-tish, honestly), I got the phenomenal opportunity to spend a morning in the Louisiana State Museum‘s textile archives in New Orleans.  The curator, Wayne Phillips, showed me their extensive collection of hair and mourning jewellery, as well as an early 1850s gown that may have been mourning.

Hair jewellery is not really my speciality, and honestly, I had forgotten about it until Wayne brought it out to show me.  The museum’s collection is extensive, largely because unlike other jewellery, hair pieces went out of fashion abruptly and were retired into people’s attics and cupboards rather than being thrown away.  (I suspect people felt rather bad about the idea of throwing out a literal piece of Great Aunt Marie!)  The museum started collecting the hair jewellery pieces from its early days in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and they vary from simple brooches without much provenance to elaborate pieces tied to important people in Louisiana history.  Some are very plain or small, and some, like a French piece worked with gold, hair, and garnets, are incredibly elaborate.  But all have the same purpose: to at once remember (if not mourn) one’s loved ones, and to carry a piece of them on your person.  While some pieces were not mourning, many were, including sometimes dates of death, or images of mourning worked in hair, most commonly urns, weeping willows, acorns, or forget-me-nots.  They were all stunning, if some of them struck me as a little creepy, most particularly a ring made of woven hair that would have been worn directly next to the skin.  That’s a level of commitment I can’t really imagine, personally.

However, the dress was a highlight.  The gown lacked a good provenance, but it was useful for me in looking at construction details and the complexity of the dress.  It’s a silk taffeta piece, very light-weight (as I suspected would be common in Louisiana), but in poor, poor condition.  It does show some period repairs, suggesting that this gown was worn and re-worn rather than being thrown away, and it hints to me that perhaps this was a more bourgeois garment than one belonging to the Louisiana social aristocracy.  The skirt is slim, suggesting early 1850s, and rather than pleating at the waist, the skirt is made of shaped panels.  The hem shows wear and re-lining, and the cuffs are hand-stitched.  But let’s face it, you want pictures, don’t you?

Here’s the dress in its entirety. Notice the subtle floral pattern woven into the taffeta. Really stunning in the light. And yes, it is as small as it looks.

The hem shows wear and repair, as can be seen here, and was obviously hand-basted. The lining is cotton, and was once dyed black, but has faded to this coffee colour, as all natural dyes on cotton are prone to do.

This shows a repair to the skirt of the dress. The colour has been lightened to show detail. The cotton thread has faded to that familiar brown colour as well.

The bodice closes up to the neck with tiny hook-and-eye closures, and shows beautiful decorative pleating. The fan shape is lovely, but very simple, and the sloping, dropped shoulders are bang-on for the early 1850s.

 

Here is the hand-turned cuff, showing more faded thread. I found it interesting that the sleeves were so fitted and so simple, another suggestion of mourning.

 

A self-fabric belt meant to go over the waist of the dress, really simple, and it shows just how small the waist was!

I can’t express how exciting it was to work with this garment and to really have the chance to examine it.  The dress isn’t in the Museum’s permanent collection — quite frankly, with its sketchy provenance and in such a terrible condition, it’s unlikely to become an acquisition.  The cost of restoring the gown would be astronomical.  However, it is one of the only antebellum gowns they have, aside from some early 1800s pieces, and it might very well be mourning, another point in its favour.  I suspect it was indeed mourning, given its simplicity and the evidence of re-wear, but it’s a theory, not a concrete fact.  Still, isn’t it a lovely old thing?

I’ll probably be talking a lot more about my trip and some of the things I saw while there — especially the 1850 House Museum and the woman who built the structure in which it resides, the Baroness de Pontalba — but I had to share the most exciting bits first.

Why the South?

I get asked this question a great deal — it’s pretty much standard in any discussion of my career, such as it is.  Why the South, people ask me, be it in admissions or advising discussions, or in more informal situations.

(People rarely ask why I study women, or why I study mourning culture.  I’m obviously feminine and my goth days still hang on with my preference for a darker colour palette, so I suppose both of those speak for themselves!)

It is a hard question.  Not because it’s particularly difficult to answer, but rather, because the answer is longer than a soundbite.  And also, because there are so many assumed bad answers hanging in the air around the question that to proceed is to tred very, very lightly, indeed.  There is a lot of racism and longing for the Old South that goes on in some corners of Southern studies, especially when undertaken by people with agendas.  I remember seeing much of it in Confederate reenactors I knew.  Most of them were lovely human beings with an appreciation for and an interest in the experience and suffering of the average soldier in a conflict much bigger than he could have ever imagined.  But there was a thread of Unreconstructed Confederates who seemed to think they could change the outcome of the war this time around, at this reenactment, rewrite history so that their guys win.  There’s a great deal of Confederate apologia out there as well, still being written, determined to show the Southern Cause as just, slave masters as kind and benevolent Christians, and Federal forces as unjustified aggressors who engaged in terrorism against their own citizens.  It’s scary stuff, and the so-called “heritage groups” that engage in it are loud and intimidating.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out the problem of “heritage groups” and neo-Confederate ideology in the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2002, an intelligence report worth reading.)

That’s the stuff floating out there — racist, ugly answers about why study the South.  And those aren’t my answers.  Those answers horrify me.  I’m not here to glorify the Old South or re-envision Gone With the Wind (there will never be another Vivien Leigh, anyway) or argue about the nobility of Southern gentlemen and ladies.  Mary Chestnut spoke truly about the underpinnings of all those white fantasies: “ours is a monstrous system.”  So how to reconcile the clear knowledge that beyond the petticoats and dashing gentlemen was genocidal violations of human rights based on pure, virulent racism, misogyny of the first water, and a host of other sins made all the more hypocritical by the profession of Southern elites to believe in the American vision of liberty and freedom?

I begin where my work captured me: with a city.

New Orleans.

I’d always been interested in the 19th century, especially in the Civil War, but after Hurricane Katrina, my interest in Louisiana became marked.  What was the city that so many pundits and talking heads on television said we should let go to rot?  What was it like?  Was it like Anne Rice made it seem, thick with elegance and mystery and gothic sensibilities?  And where did the party time reputation come from?

They weren’t elegant questions.  They weren’t even particularly intelligent ones.  But they started me down this road, some seven years ago.  They got me into my first graduate programs, and sustained me in the effort to try again when those first attempts at a PhD didn’t work.  Because, you see, those questions took me to Louisiana as an adult, and when I stepped outside in New Orleans one chilly, humid morning in December 2008, I fell utterly in love.  I fell in love with the architecture, with the people, with the food, with the intertwined Atlantic histories that wove their ways through the city.  I loved the cemeteries, the street cars, the churches.  (And the coffee is sublime.  This is a fact that cannot be undersold, here.)  I fell in love.  And, like any girl with a new crush, I had to know everything.  I had to know the history, the way people made this city, the conflicting visions of the city, the tension between American expansion and European heritage, the conflict between Anglo ideas of race and Franco-Caribbean ones, the horrors and hardships and hellholes that made a swampy patch on a beautiful curve of the Mississippi become one of the most sublime and unique cities in the entire United States, if not the world.

You see, I am utterly enchanted with this city, and in some spiritual, emotional sense, I feel as if it is my city, mine to understand and study and evangelise.  To paraphrase Mr Darcy, it has bewitched me, body and soul.  So I look at it, at the 19th century, at the years before war changed everything and the idea of New Orleans as an American city was still just that — just an idea, not realised, not embraced — and I look for someone much like me.  Middle class, educated, female, in the phase of life where marriage and children and loss are visible parts of existence.  I look for French and Spanish Creole women, because I am profoundly aware of my own roots in Europe, not that many generations removed on my father’s side.  I look for white American women, because I am profoundly aware of my own identity as an American.  I look for Catholics, because I remember Mass and incense with my mother as a child.  I look for Jews, because I light candles every Shabbat as an adult.

In short, I look for reflections of myself, in order to understand how people like me, people who were educated and sensitive and moral could allow slavery and abuse and a host of other evils not only to flourish, but to support their daily lives, intimately and directly.  Northern white women in cities allowing slavery to go on is one question.  Southern planter’s wives who had no voice and few options to buck the system allowing slavery to go on without protest is another question, one scholars like Catherine Clinton and Elizabeth Fox-Genevese have begun to answer well.  But women in New Orleans did not lack for social connections or the support networks that allowed Northern women to form an anti-slavery identity.  So why did it go on, in the forms that it did?  What did the tripartite racial caste system in New Orleans mean for the women who participated in it and were victimised by it?  What did plaçage mean for the woman whose husband kept a mixed-race mistress and whose will would pay for her child when he died?  What did those wills look like, and how did white women react to them?  What did all these social problems and ills mean for an average middle class woman?  What was her life like?  And why, at times of greatest grief and pain, did middle class women enforce the social strictures around mourning, creating isolation, emotional burdens, and ultimately, a code of conduct that was oppressive?

The South is my home.  I was born below the Mason-Dixon line, and I live in the South currently.  But New Orleans is my obsession.  Let other scholars have planters and their wives, let other scholars have plantations and the struggle over the myth of happy slaves.  I want the urban world, the world where women’s connections and mobility and social roles should be the most evident.  I want New Orleans, and her conflicting French-Spanish-Caribbean-American identity.  I want the tensions and the horrors and the delightful surprises.  I want to present to the world the fact that the South had one of the most important port cities in the world when the Confederacy formed, and challenge the idea of Northern women being the only ones with the benefit of urban life in important cities to give them social power.

Why the South?  Because I love it here, even when it is ugly and brutal and monstrous.  Because I love my city, and I know what it means to miss New Orleans.  And because I take no satisfaction in understanding people who history has vindicated.  Give me the losers and the ones history has left behind in the dust bin, consigned to a way of life that was unsustainable and oppressive and ugly.  In it, there lies the tell-tale signs of progress for the future, when we can cast off all that we hold as normal and given despite it being unsustainable and ugly.  Give me the gritty past, and I will find hope for a better future.  And there is nowhere grittier, nowhere more fraught, than the South.

Guilty confession time

I haven’t started sewing yet.

I haven’t ordered a pattern yet.

I haven’t even really settled on a pattern yet.

This is the part in every project where inertia and procrastination settle in.  Over my many years as an academic, I have noticed my work patterns go in a similar route every time something large and difficult is looming:

1. Initial enthusiasm.  Do all the things, make lots of lists, get all my resources lined up.

2. Trouble ahead.  Get distracted, read at a slower pace than expected, put things off.

3. Panic and worry.  Despite having time until the deadline, begin to feel as if nothing will ever be accomplished and I’m a terrible person for trying to do things, and hide from the project.

4. Buckle down and flagellate.  Work like a mad fiend, all the while mentally yelling at myself for not being more efficient in those early weeks.  Usually, at this stage, I manage to pull out something useful, if not brilliant.

5. Finish.  Get everything done by the deadline, turn it in on time, and have some kind of emotional breakdown thereafter usually requiring copious amounts of children’s shows to recover (this is where my obsession with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comes from).

This is not a healthy pattern.  I know it’s not.  I suffer from a lot of anxiety and depression, and it makes it hard to work continuously and efficiently, using my time and resources to their maximum benefit.  The more anxious I get about a project, the more depressed I become, and as I avoid it, I tend not to use the resources out there in the word world because I can’t motivate myself to put on pants that don’t belong in a yoga studio.  When you start avoiding libraries because you feel judged, this is perhaps a problem.

I’ve been trying to overcome this pattern.  The system my program at Goddard College uses is a distance model, with packets of work, usually around 30 pages or so, going in every 3 weeks.  Ideally, I should be writing ten pages a week to keep on track.  It never works that way, and somewhere around the middle/end of week 2, I start to panic and feel as if nothing I do will ever be good enough and I am a terrible joke of a person for even trying.

(I said I had a lot of issues.  I meant it.)

Ideally, I should have a pattern in hand by now.  I don’t.  I have an eyeball at a pattern I want to make, and am doing estimates for fabric and boning.  The Laughing Moon Silverado corset pattern looks to be about where I want to be, and corsetmaking.com has a corset kit which has boning, busk, boning casing, and grommets for the project, with the option to buy the pattern and fabric from them as well.  This is probably the way I’m going to go.  I just have to get over my feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing, that this is a waste of time and money, and shouldn’t I just stick to books, which is the really important academic work, anyway?

That’s what a lot of this boils down to.  It’s hard to believe in one’s own work.  It’s hard to really own the odd stuff one does in the academy, because clearly, the serious scholars are out there, translating obscure languages and making dazzling insights into the human condition, probably at Harvard or Oxford or somewhere else important.  And I, a silly little baby scholar, at a small school, who is also a woman and took a non-traditional track to get here, my work won’t count because I am doing something weird about women and playing with fabric.  And I know all of that isn’t true.  I know it’s the academic’s version of the jerkbrain, the part of our brains that tells us all the nasty, hateful things that we believe, despite the fact that if our worst enemy said them to us, we’d punch them in the face.  We are capable of being so much nastier to ourselves than we’d ever tolerate someone being to us.  And combine that with the sort of inferiority complex that grad school breeds like bunnies, and it’s a one-way ticket to neurotic overdrive with a guilt complex to make a Jewish mother proud.

It’s hard to believe in the work.  It’s hard to believe that the clothes middle-class women wore in urban centers in the South matters.  It’s hard to believe that antiquated ideas about gender and mourning and the social world of the Gulf South has any impact outside my own interest.  It’s harder still to believe that any self-respecting PhD program will take me on to do this stuff.  But I have to.  Because this is what I’m doing, and if I don’t believe in it, no-one will (except my partner and my mother, because they have to).

So I’m forgiving myself for not ordering the pattern yet.  I’m even giving myself a break, and telling myself it’s okay to work on the papers for the packet, and to fuss over the Louisiana Studies conference I’m headed to in two weeks.  Because I still believe this all matters.  And if it matters, then not only do I have to buckle down and do it, I have to also take care of my mental health in the process.  If the work matters, then so does the person doing it.  And that means being gentle with myself, and being careful with my expectations.  No-one expects me to be a corset-sewing, paper-writing superstar all the time.  And that’s okay.  I just have to stop expecting superstardom from myself, too.

But I’m still going to order the pattern and kit next week.

On Extant Garments

I spend a lot of time looking at extant garments.  I look at them on museum websites (the Met’s Costume Institute is a great one, as is the Museum at FIT and the Kyoto Costume Institute’s Digital Archives).  I look at them on auction websites (Augusta Auction, anyone?). I look at them on Pinterest (like on my board for this project).  Extant 19th century garments tell us a lot of useful, functional details that fashion plates and paintings cannot.  They tell us about construction, material, and how a garment hangs.  They tell us about social class, about availability of items and fashion trends, about communication between places.  They tell us what people actually wore.

But what extant garments don’t tell us, 95 times out of 100, is what average, middle-class people were wearing (never mind working class).

You’ve all been through this weird permutation of people’s bodies in the past.  You’ve gone to a museum, and looked at dresses with waists small enough to give Scarlett O’Hara’s 17 inches a run for their money.  The docent usually says that “people were smaller back then.”  This is an accepted “fact.”  Why else would all the garments we have be so tiny?

Because they weren’t passed down.  They weren’t remade into something later, once they were out of fashion.  They were put away because no-one else could wear them.  A size 0 skirt is much less likely to become a hand-me-down than a size closer to average, even today.

In his book, In Small Things Remembered, historical archeologist James Deetz cautions us from drawing too much direct meaning from museum groupings, or extant, well-preserved historical items.  He says on page 8 that “for a variety of reasons, surviving artefacts cannot be taken as necessarily representative objects of their period.  If we were to rely on museum collections, we might get an impression of a much richer level of material wealth than truly was the case.  This is because must museums save the unusual and the valuable object, and individuals now and in the past consign commonplace objects to the dump.”

So not only are we looking at smaller items that could be preserved (Deetz throws the “people were smaller then” out the window on the same page), extant garments are of a higher value than others that were not preserved.  Just as today, people of middling or lower classes wore and rewore their garments until they could no longer repair them, or they were so far out of fashion as to be ridiculous (for the middle classes).  Upper class people had the means to make a dress and preserve it.  Some gowns, usually of significance, were save — wedding dresses in particular had a sentimental value that would ensure they were tucked away, if the family could afford it.  But many a middle-class bride wore and re-wore her wedding dress for best long after the wedding.  (It is for this reason, Carol Wallace argues in her book, All Dressed In White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding, that middle-class brides often chose a colour other than white in which to marry — wearing white would immediately scream “new bride” to dinner guests post -1840 and Queen Victoria’s popularisation of the colour for weddings.)

This leaves us with the problem of extant garments.  They remain valuable for construction details, and as a visual for what the wealthier classes were wearing.  In this way, they’re as illustrative as photographs of celebrities in People — we know women were wearing these dresses, wealthy women who were frequently visible as consumers of fashion.  The gowns are likely to be on-trend for when they were made, especially in large, cosmopolitan cities like New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and others.  And they do allow us to see what a woman actually wore rather than the idealised image of a fashion plate.  But as an end-all be-all reference, especially when it comes to middle-class lifestyles, they end there.

For my purposes, as I consider a mourning gown worn by a middle-class person, the gowns preserved at the Met and at FIT are an ideal, a piece of aspirational hope.  How a middle-class lady would have wanted a fine silk ballgown made in Paris.  But her dresses would have been simpler, with less elaborate trim, with less expensive materials.  A mourning gown, even moreso — what recent widow wants to seem overly vain?  This at once proves a frustration and a relief.  On the one hand, I must rely on cartes de visite and other images of middle-class women instead of the beautiful period garments I’ve always admired in museums (and who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a gorgeous, wealthy girl with hundreds of fine dresses to choose from?).  On the other, it lowers the expectations of what I must do with the garment to be appropriate (which probably means no beading, a relief for my eyes and my needle).  And I think it points to the frustration of all people of middling means.  The aspiration for more is always there. The desire for more and more beautiful dresses, finer jewellery, grander things is always there.  But, in a very real sense, the 19th century was very concerned with being appropriate for one’s station, and not overreaching for things.  Being frugal and simple was upheld as a virtue, even if it wasn’t always acheived.  And that’s something important for me to remember as I start to price out materials and supplies.  Frugal housewives were the expectation, idealised in their own way, even if the beautiful belles in their gowns were the much sighed-after image.

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!

On regionalism

As part of my MA, I do a great deal of reading.  This should come as no surprise to anyone; academia is made up of reading, writing, thinking, more reading, and occasionally, coffee.  (Or tea, depending on your preference.  I’ve been known to utilise both.)  I plough through a great many books in the span of a month.  Some are wonderful, some are mediocre, and some are downright aggravating.  But the most frustrating are always, without fail, books that are lauded as being important, excellent scholarly works in which I, a lowly grad student, can find problems and errors right away.

My current frustration — so frustrating that it’s sitting, largely abandoned, under my desk next to my cat’s bed — is Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  Howe is an eminent scholar, a former president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and a Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford.  He is no slouch, as my mother likes to say.  Which is why I’m finding Howe’s work such a trial.  Because while Howe might have a great deal to say about American history, he seems to forget that he’s not only talking about New England.  Forty pages in, Howe asserts that nowhere in America in 1815 did people celebrate Christmas because it was “too Popeish” — a surprise, I am certain, to the Christmas-loving Virginians and other Southerners who were Anglican in outlook until the revival movements toned down their approach and stopped criticising the gentry for their immoral ways, as well as to New Orleanians and other Louisianans, who were Catholic!  He also insists that Americans had no concept of gentleman or gentry — another surprise, I am sure, to families like the Lees of Virginia, and the fine white Creole families of Louisiana, who could trace their lineage to noble houses in France and Spain a generation prior — because all white American farmers could own a horse and shake hands with other men, regardless of wealth.  Howe suffers from a lack of regionalism, and I think would have benefited immensely from a distinction between the rhetoric people spouted off about a classless, yeoman-centric world, and the realities of class and wealth on the ground, especially in the South.  (He also would have benefited from a look at Stephanie McCurry’s 1997 work, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, which directly shoots his “classless society” argument in the foot with a shotgun.)

Which all brings me to the point: regionalism.  Regional studies are booming right now in American history, and well they ought.  While Americans enjoy the myth of a national culture and a national destiny, and have since the Founding Fathers created the idea of a country from thirteen disparate colonies, until the twentieth century and the introduction of mass media culture as we know it, there simply wasn’t such a thing.  Certainly, Americans held ideas in common, ideas about the nation itself, its national character, what liberty means, what an American ought to be.  But the idea that there was a homogenous culture from Maine down to the Gulf and out west to the Mississippi in the first half of the nineteenth century borders on ridiculous.  And treating all regions as if they had the kind of low-church, Puritan work ethic, John Adams legacy of politics common to New England ignores the practical cultural realities of how social structures worked in different parts of the country.  As I sit here in Virginia, I cannot imagine the Puritan social structures of New England being applied correctly to the plantation gentry of the nineteenth century, never mind to how Virginians conceive of themselves today.  (Being within spitting distance of both Monticello and Montpelier, I think Jefferson and Madison have more to say to the character of Virginia than Adams, and that’s said with all due fondness for Mr Adams!)

Which does, in a roundabout way, lead me back to costume.  While we know there was an emergent mass culture of fashion in the nineteenth century — Godey’s Lady’s Book and other lady’s magazines speak to this — region is more important than ever in terms of fashion history.  What a woman in New England would have felt was appropriate for a summer outing, her counterpart in South Carolina wouldn’t have worn.  Certain things would have been in common — the shape of the gown, the kinds of colours considered desirable, use of trim, even shapes of bonnets and styles of gloves — but the fabric used, and the construction methods could have, and indeed must have varied widely.  To talk about costume in Louisiana, one must be aware not only of fashions in New York and London, the major influence on the Anglo-American world, but as well of fashion in Paris, the epicentre of Creole identity.  Indeed, in this way, regionalism must mesh with a sense of the Atlantic World of consumption in the nineteenth century.  With cotton flowing to the Continent and England from Southern plantations, Southern women in particular were receiving consumer goods in return, and that included fabric woven in English and French textile mills, and dresses made to order by French and English seamstresses (a phenomenon which would become more visible with the astronomical success of Worth later in the century).  What did this Atlantic exchange of fabric and fashion look like in the South?  What did it mean for the women who wanted dresses just like those worn by their French counterparts, to be as au currant as their French counterparts, not their New York ones?

As with all things, more questions than answers.  But I do know that Howe, for all his prestigious positions and eminence as a scholar of the Early Republic and Jacksonian years, will probably stay under my desk for a while longer.  While I may be a lowly graduate student, I do understand that the wide swath of American History is often a re-telling of the history of white, upper-class men, usually from New England or New York, sometimes from Washington.  And when that’s the case, one must set aside the conventional histories, and dig into the spaces on the margins to find where the women and their concerns were.