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.


One thought on “Taking Measurements: Observation v.s. Objectification

  1. You have made an excellent point about how we view bodies and how we sometimes forget people enhabit multiple roles and have comfort zones. As a disabled woman with physical impairments I generally find re-enactment the safest and least prejudiced space in which I move. However as a woman with spinal curvature that is minimal but noticeable to costumiers, I have sometimes felt objectified by comments such as, “You have a weird back/odd feet/ lopsided x…”. As a re-enactor a of many years standing, looking different and having it remarked upon can feel similar to being an endless beginner in ill-fitting clothes, because one’s body does not fit our modern social expectations of physical normalcy or the modern desire for perfection. Remembering that social differing experiences of the body outside the fitting room, bring to that room and highly appropriate when considering portrayal of a wide social range that then as now, any deviation from the physical norm can bring a regular experience of ridicule and suffering. Getting a job done and getting it done well includes remembering these are people inhabiting diverse bodily experiences of a social ideal.

    Many women throughout history with poor nutrition and infirmity were probably shorter than my own 150 centimetres (4″11) and archaeology and the scale as suggested by pattern books such as Garsault can give us some idea of the height of women in the period. And without a doubt there were many who struggled with the daily reality of physical deformity and ill health from accident, congenital conditions, inherited ‘abnormalities’ or childbearing alongside the other marginalisations of womanhood. As a social justice feminist/writer and Disability Studies researcher with my other hat(!) I wince on the occasions when someone, re-enactor or member of the public, makes a clumsy comment about my physical appearance. On several occasions, simply because I carry a walking stick and I am in costume, I have had my stick grabbed out of my hand on the assumption that it was only a prop with inevitable result; my falling flat on my face! I’ve also had to decide to deflect suggestions I take the role of a beggar or cripple, when in my hobby I would really rather take a break from discussing the problems of poverty and deformity that beset my everyday life and I like other reenactors and members of the public also wish to take a break from the topic which forms a large part of the writing of my working life, and yet the absence of discussion within reenactments suggests that has at least some work to do given the invisibility of disabled people in both worlds; we are still very much invisible while still at the same time showing up to represent the period and the social customs.

    A costumier is trying to fit a jacket to a customer effectively and I appreciate their expertise and that in this context my curved spine becomes a practical tailoring problem, in other contexts is it problematic for me as my health affects my ability to work in certain roles usual as a re-enactor (and elsewhere) and in both re-enactment and the modern world, in order to be seen as feminine, socially acceptable and useful, beauty matters more than we think.
    It is important to consider how much the business of ” good historical recreation” hangs on creating a certain idealised image centred upon modern notions of appearance created by idealised images of the body which actually have their beginnings in the 18th century. Insights for the absence of images of the lower classes in 18th century society can’t be explained by the fact that the poor woman is not the social ideal to be aspired to. Neither was she considered to be physically or morally something to reach for in a wider context and it was only with the unusual artist such as Hogarth that the poor become visible and not idealised and the deformed and socially unacceptable visible.


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