Men Like War. Women Like Dancing.

I got into a conversation with a friend yesterday in which we found ourselves bemoaning the disparity in the degree of historical accuracy to which male and female reenactors are held at military living history events. [Note: I have this conversation with someone at least every two weeks. Because it’s still a problem, and I have nothing better to do.]

We were discussing how frustrating it is when the fellas spend hours sitting around talking over the finer details of what several-hundred-dollar blanket they must all own, and then turn around and let Jane McDaisyFace come to an event in poorly-fitted clothes because she’s dating Herbert, and “isn’t it nice that she wanted to come, and we should make her feel welcome”.

This is of course true. Without a doubt we should make Jane feel welcome, but let’s make her feel welcome by paying her the respect of assuming she actually cares. I find myself frustrated when I see male recruits being lent coats to wear, and instructed in military drill for hours, while women sit around eating cheddar and supermarket bread because the only activity anyone could image for them was cooking, but no one bothered to explain the process of starting a good fire.

Standing on the tourist side of the cordon at a battle reenactment many years ago, with nothing better to do than take photos.

Like I said, I rant about this approximately fortnightly.

Yesterday however I had a new thought: there are settings in which I have come across very similar situations, but with the genders reversed. At some civilian events, and several historical dances I find that the men’s material culture lags significantly behind that of the women. At events where the expectation is that everyone will dress up nice and look pretty, the gents often get a gold star just for showing up, usually in their shirtsleeves, since the only coat they own is a regimental.

Thinking about this I see a distressingly low bar set for women at military events, and one equally low for men in traditionally feminine settings. This is ridiculous: literally worthy of the ridicule I hope I am currently showering upon it. Guys, gals, we’re after a common goal here, lets help each other out. No more work or expense is involved in making sure appropriate clothing is available to male living historians interested in participating in domestic or ‘social’ events than is involved in helping female living historians have the appropriate material culture to participate fully in military reenactments.

The investment in research time is well worth the returns. Pictured here: great, well documented women’s military portrayals.

This is an example of a society that assumes men like war, and women like dancing, and that therefore the other gender is a lost cause in each scenario. We are better than this! Let’s do ourselves the favor of assuming that women who show up to a military event actually care, and want to be there, and that men attend balls for reasons more extensive than placating their spouses. And let’s all hold everyone, regardless of gender, to the same standards of authenticity in any setting.

A Style Needing No Improvement

Its time for me to make myself a new gown for 18th century living history (which is to say, for work).* My old one is developing a “well loved” look (and smell), and  besides, I think I’ve earned it, as this gown is a good four years old.

Grunge: The current state of my [past] wardrobe.
The plan is to make a Robe a l’Anglaise – the workhorse of Anglo-American fashion for the bulk of the 18th-century. This fashion derives from the loosely-pleated, turn-of-the-century Mantua, and retains that garment’s initial concept: the fit is created by pleating the material around the body; the structure comes from the undergarments – stays and petticoats – worn beneath.

Mantua, Late 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the 1770’s, the main variant on this style (which closes over a triangular panel known as a “stomacher”) is shockingly common among most classes of women. It is also surprisingly consistent – though materials vary, and gowns survive for women of disparate body types, the basic gown remains the same. The contrarian in me insists this cannot be so. To this end, I have been looking into The Details, in an attempt to understand exactly how wide the gown-gamut runs. I’m not going to tell you what I discovered, however, because the most interesting discovery was completely antithetical to my original research question.

My biggest impression from looking into this topic was that the construction of the robe a l’Anglaise remained notably uniform. Though high fashion went through innumerable changes in the long 18th-century, there is surprising consistency in this one style of gown throughout the five middle decades, from the 1720’s through the 1770’s. Take these two gowns, dated 1725 and 1770-75 respectively:


Gown, 1725
Picture 005
Gown, 1770-75

Though slight additional differences become apparent on the fronts, the backs of these gowns are alike in almost every detail.**

I find this remarkable, not because I cannot imagine the fashion enduring, but because I struggle to think of the construction not evolving. As a skilled maker myself, I am always striving to improve how something is done, or even just to change it to make my life more interesting. Gown- or Mantua-making was a trade, passed down through apprenticeship. Each mistress of the trade passed down her knowledge by way of experiential learning.  At 7 years per apprenticeship, this style endured for over 9 generations of tradeswomen, and through those many generations, few artisans saw fit to change or improve the method.

I struggle to wrap my head around this consistency, found in gowns made by diverse women over multiple generations and continents. Perhaps my modern education has taught me to place too much faith in book learning, and because of this I discredit the ability of an apprenticeship system to pass down utterly consistent instruction. Possibly I place too much value on creativity, to the detriment of tradition. Certainly I take away from this little thought experiment a new respect for the craftswomen who built these garments. I also have new respect for the enduring style they perpetuated, and the construction methods they used. It it hard to doubt something which required next-to-no improvement for half a century.

*I believe in being specific, especially when it comes to history, so: this gown will be used for low- and middle-class civilian and army wife impressions in the 1770’s (and maybe 1760’s), New England and New York.

**I’m happy to quibble about this in the comments, if you like. I certainly see differences. It is just that I am more surprised by the similarities.

Oona’s Experienced Clothing

Oona’s Experienced Clothing, Cambridge Mass. (Photo courtesy of Oona’s instagram)

On a trip to Boston with a friend this past spring, she and I happened upon a second-hand clothing store with the amusing name of “Oona’s Experienced Clothing.”

This particular perspective (that of the clothing itself experiencing the world) hadn’t occurred to me before. We poked around Oona’s for a few minutes. The shop felt a little pretentious (Hipster vintage at its finest – if not its cheapest), but its name dredged an idea up from the back of my mind.

Earlier, my friend and I had been discussing the complexities of love in the modern age. Tinder had been mentioned; we’d talked about hook-up culture, and our generation’s ideas about what it meant to be sexually experienced.

Experience: To have experience of; to meet with; to feel, suffer, undergo (definition courtesy of the OED).

We were both of the opinion that our generation is tolerant of, and even values, sexually experienced women. Historian that I am, however, I can never put thoughts of the past far from my mind. Our current acceptance of sexual liberty for women has not always existed. When I read that thrift-store sign, it clicked: the word I had been expecting to read there was used, a word my mind associates with historical accounts of “unchaste” women. The difference being that while one is used, one has experiences. To describe something as used is to discard its agency.

Anytime an object or a person has something done to them, that object or person also creates and experience from that act. I hope I can live my life remembering that every thrift shop sweater has a story to tell, and every person has their own unique and personal experience of the world. Be it second-hand clothing, sexual experiences, or any other object or aspect of life, we are not means, but rather ends in and of ourselves.



Taking Measurements: Observation v.s. Objectification

As a costumer, I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s bodies. I do it so that I can make them clothes that fit, but I worry at times about crossing the line between observation and objectification.

It is my job to make sure that my museum’s staff all have clothes to wear that fit, and I try to keep measurements on file for everyone. I have been trying to track folks down and attack them with my tape measure since I took this job in June.  As of this week, I finally have almost everyone’s measurements scribbled down in my big binder.

The “data” to be collected from any particular individual.

Since most of our costumed staff are male, and somewhere between their teens and early thirties, this information composes a nicely delineated data set. With this much information, I can deduce a lot about the relative proportions of folks [well, young men] with different body types. And with that information, I can even fill in small amounts of missing or corrupted data on another person’s measurement sheet. I find this not only hugely educational, but also completely fascinating. It is geometry, anatomy, and craft all wrapped up in one.

But I fear is it also a bit problematic. I am reducing people’s bodies to a series of numbers, thinking about those numbers, comparing them to other sets, and then drawing assumptions. I like to think I’m doing “science” but I worry that I am just objectifying people. Or maybe it is one and the same thing?

Observing the human body is my job. I revel in the diversity (and also the regularity) of the human form. I appreciate bodies. I measure them. I describe them. I clothe them. But I know that the body is just an aspect of the person. And so my job is not just to robe someone in cloth – it is also to create for them a character: a suit of clothes which they can inhabit as a person, comfortably, and uniquely. If I can do this successfully, I hope my objectifying data collection is not done in vain.


Brain Food: An Introduction of Sorts


I feel the need to make something of an introduction here. In my professional life my work spans a space between history and craft. I work at a living history museum; I am at once an artisan and an historian. And too, I like to think that I like to think — about things relating [more often than not] to history, craft, philosophy, and feminism.

I have a long commute to said museum job. It takes up nearly two hours of my day that I might otherwise devote to something else. I hope that I trade that flexibility for something equally valuable though: a twice-daily allotment of uninterrupted, unavoidable intellectual time, that I get all to myself. Two meals a day in a diet of ideas.

And so this blog is intended as a cookbook of thoughts. A place to lay down recipes of the mind.*


*In general, though, the metaphors will be slightly more on point and less florid. At least I hope so.