Tag Archives: methods and theories

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.

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.