On Guard 3/19/1775: A Photo Essay

Exactly a month before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, 23 soldiers from the British army’s 26th Regiment of Foot – many of them old or “worn out” – and their families are stationed at a dilapidated fort 130 miles south of Montreal. Less than two months from now the fort and its valuable artillery pieces will be captured by colonials preparing to drive British forces out of Boston. For now however, the fort’s occupants are unaware of political unrest. Its crumbling walls contain stone barracks, some of which have been turned into apartment-like spaces, housing soldiers along with their wives and children. Much like at Fort Crown Point before it burned to the ground two years ago, the local inhabitants occasionally stop by to sell produce, or peddle their skills. 

Captain Delaplace, commander of the guard, no doubt employs one of his soldiers, or one of their wives to prepare meals for him and his family, to clean, and to launder. Other soldier’s wives perform the latter duties for the enlisted men, and cooking is done by one member of each mess of six or so individuals, women included. The captain owns livestock, and they too are cared for by soldiers or soldiers wives. In the spring, the old French gardens will be planted. In the mean time, the guard eats pease and pork.  

The day-to-day existence at the fort includes less military rigor than one would expect of a command that was larger, or younger, or closer to civilization. Because of their maturity, many of these men have families – wives and children, some possibly grown to adulthood and living nearby. Though a sentry is posted at the fort’s entrance, an attack is far from expected and it is easy for civilians to gain admittance. The married men share bunks with their families not, as regulations stipulate, with their fellow soldiers. The fort’s well water is not healthful, and some of the soldiers are sick. Though the fort is held by the British army, this is the least-warlike it has ever been since its construction began in 1755. 

This was the scenario we re-created this past weekend. The setting opened up an opportunity for us to focus on many elements of day-to-day life that tend to get lost in the shuffle at battle reenactment. Delighted by this, we ran with the idea. Every space we had was occupied with a different task, as we cleaned, cooked, mended, made new, and repaired. Men and women worked side-by-side accomplishing the jobs that needed to be done. Their tasks were different, but of equal importance. Our interpretation did not favor one over the other, but simply followed the routine of a busy day.

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Spaces were cluttered with the accumulated objects of a long posting: tea pots, candle sticks, ceramics; simple luxuries too inconvenient to be carried by a marching army, but which one might expect have “at home”.

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In the parade ground, soldier’s wives washed soiled linens. This task, a necessity for any army, is one we’re getting good at. Miss V. braved the chilly march weather  and spent all day at the hard work of scrubbing.

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Without any grass to lay linens out on, shirts and shifts were hung up inside the soldier’s barracks, were the mess of the noon-day meal is clearly evident, something which would likely be unacceptable in a proper Garrison.

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On this bright March day, cleaning seemed like an obvious activity. Kitty spent the morning sweeping and mopping the upstairs officer’s barracks. Three experimental mops were made for this purpose, based on the limited documentation available for such things. All were put to work, and were successful to varying degrees.

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Beds too needed to be aired out and re-made.

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“Domestic” spaces were completed with busy peg boards holding the clothing of all the fort’s inhabitants. Gowns and stays dressed the pegs, along with waistcoats and cocked hats.

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Outside in the parade ground again, soldiers did maintenance on the fort’s equipment, including re-painting a horse cart.

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In the evening the company gathered together, enjoying the warmth and light of the barracks building’s small fireplace. One of the three grenadiers in the guard brought out a fiddle.

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Even the sergeant relaxed, trading his hat and neck stock for a scotch bonnet (the 26th is, after all, a Scottish regiment) and printed cotton roller.

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At the end of the day, we were tired from a job well done. Not only were the floors clean and the the cart newly-painted, we’d found a way to delve even deeper into the history of which we are the custodians, telling a fuller, richer, grittier story than ever.

Crafting Women’s Military History

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2012 – My first season at the Fort.

Its International Woman’s Day today, and I thought this would be an appropriate moment to talk about what it means to be a woman working at a military history museum (or at least my museum). When I first started working at the Fort (several summers ago, as a seasonal interpreter) I was the only girl. This turned out (perhaps to no one’s surprise) to be a little challenging. I was literally out numbered and outgunned; at this 18th century military site, I was the only person on staff who didn’t regularly pick up a musket. While the boys shared research on military drill and musket cleaning,  I researched on my own, trying to find the information I needed to justify my role at a woman in an early modern military setting.

 

This June, just over three years after I took my first job at the Fort, I returned as a member of the full-time staff. Before accepting the position, I vowed to myself that this time I would make the time for research so that the female staff (four of us now – huzzah to that!) would have a place in the site’s interpretive narrative. Even with this firm resolve, the challenge remained. At our first major summer event – a reenactment of a major French and Indian war battle – I could not find a single scrap of evidence for women present with the armies on either side. I spent the event talking to tourists and trying to circumlocute around the fact that we couldn’t document any women being present during the events we were recreating. It was disenfranchising, and not much fun. I came out of that weekend feeling that there had to be a better way to talk about women’s roles.

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Preparing for a well-researched event: get your research together, build your impressions, and have a photo shoot. Everybody loves a photo shoot.

We had two months before our next major event, and we (myself, my female co-workers, our curator, and even some of my male co-workers) set about doing the sort of research we would need to develop strong and accurate women’s living history portrayals. With this event we had the advantage of knowing that at least one of the participating armies – part of General John Burgoyne’s 1777 supply chain between Canada and Saratoga – was supported by soldiers’ wives and tailed by loyalist refugees. We compiled information out of memoirs and orderly books, scenting out traces of the women who lived and worked as part of the British army in America. I compiled that information into a set of clothing standards, detailing who the women present for the event would have been, and what they would have worn (something which we had always posted for various groups of soldiers, but which had never previously been assembled for female reenactors). And we also used our research to develop several different roles for female interpreters. The impressions included camp laundresses, officers’ servants, and “petty  sutleresses” who roved the encampments selling fresh produce, soap, and other goods valued in a military setting. It all came together beautifully; it was a smashing success.

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I came away from the weekend glowing with satisfaction over a job well done. I’ll happily take the credit for instigating this push towards a more full representation of women’s history, but the success of the venture derived from teamwork: My boss and co-workers were wonderfully supportive, and helped to create room for female-gender-specific interpretation. Our curator send dozens of pertinent documents and articles my way, and my fellow female interprets brainstormed endlessly to find creative and engaging ways to interpret the history we were uncovering. Six months and a handful of events later, interpreting women’s roles at the fort now feels like a no-brainer, rather than a struggle.

I am proud to work at a site where my colleagues are willing to take on the challenge of researching a minimally-documented and marginalized group, such as women in early modern military contexts. I am proud of the women’s history we have  found ways t to highlight. I am proud to be a women, and to share the history of my nation, my culture, and my gender.

A scene something diverting, though of a tragic nature

This past Saturday the 13th, we held a living history event at my Fort. It was something of a last minute affair, but it came together splendidly, with help from  – among others – Lieutenant Ebenezer Elmer, of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment. Lt. Elmer, writing in 1777, left us with a description of the events of February 13th that year (“This day the whole of the forces composing the garrisons of Ticonderoga and Mt. Independence were paraded on the ice, our proper alarm posts pointed out, &c…”) as well as many other days that winter. This past weekend, we used his narrative to inform the stories we told visitors, as well as the activities we undertook. Combining action and conversation, we creating compelling interpretation about life at Ticonderoga in the winter of 1777.

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Soldiers practice artillery drill in the cold

Some of what or friend Ebenezer wrote was easy to incorporate into our storytelling: on the 20th of February the “Regiment paraded, but the inclemency of the weather prevented our going on the ice for exercises, and after some short time were dismissed.” As Saturday was definitively the coldest day yet this year, this entry felt almost as if Lt. Elmer was feeding us material.

Just two days later, though, his entry wasn’t so easy to relate to. In fact, it is only his otherwise steady accounting (and his tone of ironic incredulity) that suggests the story aught to be believed:

Saturday, February 22d, 1777… A scene something diverting, though of a tragic nature, was exhibited some time ago on this ground; the men died so fast for some time that the living grew quite wearied in digging graves for the dead in this rocky, frozen ground: when it happened one day that two of our men being dead, graves were dug for them, but whilst they were busied in preparing the corpses and bringing them to the place, the Pennsylvanians took two of their dead men and carried them to the graves our men had dug, having none prepared for their own, and were just finishing their last kind offices to them, in covering them over in our mother earth, when our men arrived with theirs, and finding the Pennsylvanians making use of their repository a wrangle between the two parties ensued; and finally, our men proving the strongest dug up the others and buried their dead in their own vaults, so the others were obliged to cover their dead in gutters with logs and stones, thinking it too hard to labor so much for those whom they might never expect any return as to cover them with frozen earth.

Elmer’s morbid sense of humor here has to be appreciated. This is a scene of men literally fighting over holes in the ground – holes with dead bodies in them. It doesn’t get much better, or rather much worse, than that. Though I am a believer in the value of historical recreation, I can hardly hope (and do not wish) to ever recreate such a scene. To me the beauty of living history lies in recreating the normal and the every-day more than the extraordinary. However, I gained an unreasonable pleasure from recounting this gory tale to tourists (don’t worry, they loved it). And in reality, retelling this farcical episode was a way to share in the every-day experience of 1777. In the telling, I shared in the macabre enjoyment Elmer experienced writing the story down to begin with.

So next week or next winter, when the weather again drops below zero, and this story of Pennsylvanians too cold and miserable to dig a grave for their companions pops into your mind, look this post back up and share the story with your friends. Your retelling is its own small reenactment of Ebenezer Elmer’s experience. Use it to look back and understand both the hardships and the senses of humor of those who came before us.

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116 Hours

It is February, and my museum is closed for the winter. We’ve been closed since early November, and we won’t open back up properly till May, but lest folks forget us, we like to open up for a day or two during the cold, dark part of the year on some pretext or other. Because of this, we’ve scheduled a Winter Family Fun Day this Saturday, replete with historical snowshoeing, tobogganing, and ice skating. My co-workers of the smithing persuasion have even made a pair or two of reproduction ice skates. We’d never done an event like this before, and we were pretty excited. The advertising was done. It was on people’s schedules.

And then our beautiful, seasonal snow and ice disappeared in an unseasonable warm patch last week.  Winter Family Fun Day was no more.

What with all that advertising though, we were not at all keen to cancel the day. And so this Monday, when the forecast indicated that the weather really would not be cooperating, we sat down and drew up a new plan. To that end, this Saturday you can visit our fort in the late winter of 1777. You will find an American garrison preparing for its coming campaign, and you will find a museum staff of half a dozen, plus a handful of hearty volunteers, preparing for their season to come.

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Group selfie from closing day, back in November. This is what a great team looks like.

That’s right folks, we are going to throw a living history event, and we’re going to do it in four days flat. Of course we picked winter, 1777, because we’re heading into an interpretive season in which we are depicting 1777 anyway, so this will be a dry run of that story. In a lot of ways, the work the staff has been doing since November (carpentry, gunsmithing, tailoring, researching military tactics, trying not to get stuck in the snow) resembles the work which occupied the fort’s garrison that winter, and so opening the fort to the public should be as easy as changing from jeans to petticoat or breeches and hiding the electric lights.

The whole team (all six of us) are voracious researchers, and so despite the fact that we weren’t planning on covering this material with the public till May, we’re pretty much set to talk at length to everyone who shows up. Our interpretive spaces need the floors swept (and in a few instances, modern tool or storage containers moved), but that’s about it.

I’m definitely bragging here, but we’re a kick-ass team of talented historians and material culture nerds. If there was ever a group to take a living history event from zero to sixty in 116 hours, it’s us.

Come visit Saturday from 10-4 and watch us pull this off with style.

Massacre the History?

The problem with bringing history to life is that – as an individual – doing it well sometimes means not doing it.

A month from today I’ll be in Boston to participate in the reenactment of the Boston Massacre. The Massacre, which occurred in the evening of March 5th, 1770, was an incident between British soldiers stationed in Boston, and a crowd of townspeople and sailors. Initiated by an insult to the soldier standing sentry, and his retaliatory blow, mobs of apprentice lads and sailors rapidly gathered. After some serious heckling, and with no direct order to do so, the soldiers fired into the crowd. A dozen men and boys were shot, several of them mortally.

boston_massacre_high-resFrom a living history standpoint, this is a phenomenal historical event to recreate. It is historically significant, dramatic, and extremely focused. The soldiers and the mob combined add up to less than 60 people, meaning that gathering the correct number of people to act it out is very doable. From the records of the soldiers’ trial, we know the names and occupations of many of the participants. The information from the trial is also supported by an engraving done of the event by Paul Revere. The events take place quickly, in a city square which still exists, in the dark of evening, which helps to mellow the surrounding modernity. On top of this it has cachet, and will therefore draw a crowd.

This sort of well-executed and well-researched reenactment is entirely up my alley. As a living historian, I want to be there. I want to contribute. I want my talented friends to come, and I want there to be meaningful roles for us to play. And this is where I find myself disappointed. Because of course, the “exciting” [i.e. shoot’m up] part of the Boston massacre took place in city streets, in the dark, between soldiers, and sailors, and apprentice boys. Though women were in the streets before the threat of imminent violence became obvious, the mob itself was not a place for women [or hardly a place for them – two were in fact in the front of the crowd]. And so [with those exceptions, making up about 5% of the total crowd] it is not a place for women.

I want to help recreate the events faithfully, but to do that, I should really leave once violence breaks out, just as the women of Boston no doubt did when they noticed armed mobs in their city streets. I should skip the denouement, go home, and reflect on the significance of men brawling over taxes. I should skip the part of the event that actually makes it into the history books.

I come up against this problem a lot, and it bothers me. A lot. There is a part of me that thinks, “to hell with it. Would it hurt to re-write things a little to depict a slightly fairer past?” and there is another part, of equal size, that thinks the idea of falsifying history for some theoretical, ideological “good” is morally reprehensible. I do not know the solution, I just know that sitting at home, wondering “how the boys are getting along at the event” feels like crap, and so does standing around at the event explaining how “as a woman, I probably would not have actually been here”.

I crave a solution where I have a sense of ownership over the parts of my history that my culture values. However, since those parts tend to be dominated by male figures, I fear I may need to get used to disappointment…

 

 

“Isn’t That Uncomfortable?”

When I tell people that I dress like it’s 1777 for work, it usually only takes them a minute or two to find their way to the question, “does that mean you wear a corset?”

The answer is yes. I mean, no, I wear stays. But really yes: I wear a structured undergarment designed to shape me into a fashionable silhouette. But I do that regardless, after all, what else is a bra?

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A lot like @AudreyPorne, I’ve got complicated feelings about structural undergarments and society. So when, after ten seconds, they come back with “isn’t that uncomfortable?” I try to answer carefully. Truly, my stays are very comfortable. More than that, they are comforting. The stays I wear are modeled on a pair from the third quarter of the eighteenth century, but they were artfully fitted for me, and the finished product feels like a hug. When I say that, I mean that my stays exert a slight, familiar pressure on my torso, like having someone’s arms wrapped around you at the end of a long day. It is a comforting sensation. However, have you ever had someone come up behind you and give you a hug when you’re in the middle of something? It has a way of impeding your freedom of movement. Hugs are great, but they’re not always convenient. So too with stays.

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In my stays I am coddled, comforted, and to some extent constrained. Some of my actions are impeded. Our Girl History from 1775 is okay with this, because her actions are limited not just physically, but socially. She will never become a soldier, and so the fact that marching all day, drilling with muskets, dropping to one knee to fire, and charging with fixed bayonets would be physically uncomfortable for her is no problem at all. Her society and her wardrobe are united in discouraging this behavior.

Our Girl History from 2016 (which is to say me, at work), on the other hand, is frustrated by this. In her world, gender ought not influence actions, and she’s happy to make that point by doing the same work as men. Just for the principle of the thing, she plans to carry just as much firewood as her colleagues in breeches do, but when she goes up the stairs with her arms full, she runs up against the brick wall of historical reality and trips on her own damn petticoats.

So when I am asked if I am comfortable in my stays, I take the time to answer as fully and truthfully as I can. It is no physical torture to wear stays. And there are few better ways to understand the lives of people hundreds of years ago than by wearing their clothes. But for me, wearing stays is emotionally uncomfortable, because it reminds me that I am telling a story about a society that permits half their population to exist with limited agency, and that one of the tools that society uses to limit agency is fashion. It reminds me that my life is limited in a similar way, if to a lesser extent. It makes me want to burn my bras. But I won’t, because that idea makes me uncomfortable…

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

 

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Gown, 1725
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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

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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.

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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.