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By Kristen Haggerty
At work this afternoon, I took a break from setting a gown sleeve for my co-worker so that I could talk to a group of visitors about my stays.
“What I am wearing right now,” I intoned, pointing to an example pinned to a line above their heads, “is not the corset you have in your head. I am not Scarlett O’Hara with a 17-inch waist, trying to have the tiniest hourglass figure at the party. In fact” -- conspiratorially -- “I actually get bigger when I put my stays on, because they support and encircle my torso instead of cinching it.”
Cue thoughtful and/or incredulous murmuring.
I go on to explain that the stays give me back and chest support, as well as good posture and the fashionable conical figure of the 18th century, and that even infants wore them in order to promote a healthy carriage.
I don’t comment on the fact that Scarlett would have been an anomaly in her time anyway, a "letter to the editor" in a fetish magazine or the subject of a moralizing article in a local paper about tight lacing. Your average member of society had a pretty similar waist size to today’s women, with examples in collections of sizes in the 20s all the way up to the 50s. Corsets didn’t reach their wasp-waisted peak until the end of the 1800s, and even then were as much about function as fashion. Imagine doing heavy farm or housework with no bra, boobs a-hanging in your gowns.
But I digress. Scarlett’s not my century: The plantations can worry about her. However, I hope that, even with that one example, even by standing in a garment so demonized by historical mythology and daring to tell guests how comfortable I am, I can illustrate to them how wrong it is to take our history at face value.
I love living history museums. I am currently interning at my third in four years, and plan to make a career out of working in them when I finish my masters degree. I’m not one for dates and battles -- I’m currently at a Revolutionary War site and honestly couldn’t tell you when that particular conflict ended -- but I love discovering the ways that people throughout history were just that: people.
I do this primarily through clothes. They speak to me in a way that other material culture items do not, and the messages to be found seem infinite. You can learn from real items, or portraits, or the absence of evidence. You can put a specific date on a garment, or several dates if its life has been long and varied. You can learn about the buying habits, social status, or nationality of its wearer. You can read about it in letters, or track the changes in fashion over years, or even weeks.
For most of recordable time, clothing has been much more than a way to keep the body warm. It has been a statement of the wearer itself, as well as a cultural signifier of the world around that wearer. And it’s usually really gorgeous!
You know why I love George Washington? Because he wore underwear. Most men didn’t, in the 18th century, but good old George insisted on them under his breeches, and had his clothes cut to accomodate them. Because of him, there is a museum out there with a pair of skivvies in their collection, something that never would have been saved had it not touched the blessed nether regions of the Founder of Our Country.
Know what else I love about him? We have detailed records of every penny he spent for years, including the fact that every woman in his household wore stays except for the field hands. These are facts that you won’t find in a textbook, but they are facts that make George, and everyone else in the "olden days" seem much more real.
Common items tell us about the small details of everyday lives, things discarded with never a thought that someday a crazed student might want to know what exactly they were wearing under all that finery, or when they did chores. Clothing can help us to form a knowledge of the past beyond just social classes and economic status. It can literally shape our understanding of the people that came before us.
Why does that matter? What is wrong with thinking everyone from the Middle Ages to the 1920s wore sunbonnets and churned butter all day while making all of their own clothes from homespun? Who gives a shit, and why am I spending thousands of dollars on a modern education to then retreat back to antiquity?
For me, its personal. When someone believes that all women spent their days imprisoned in torturous corsets that reduced them to fainting, helpless piles of ruffles and Bambi eyes, it takes away the agency of thousands of women who came before us and chose to wear that garment because it was respectable, fashionable, or even and especially, comfortable.
When we tell people that the owner of the shop I work in was never married, highly successful, and even lent money to the government, it begins to shed light on the fact that women were not shut away in their houses forbidden to do anything but sew and bear children.
When I talk about caps that were stylish in April and no longer seen in May, it’s to illustrate that yes, the people in our past may have been resilient and strong and brave, but they were also people. They spent too much on clothes. They complained if they had to wear homespun. They bought theatre tickets and fancy snuff boxes and wore giant fur hats around France just because they loved the shock value (I’m looking at you, Franklin).
And history was not one unchanging monolith either. The fact that my boobs can practically hang out of my chest in the 1770s did not mean that the same rules applied when I lived a summer in the 1830s. One "old-timey" idea about life may be right for a certain century, or decade, or year, but not for any other. As a wise co-worker said, “What was true of our great-grandmothers was not necessarily true of theirs.”
By recognizing this, we can identify with the people that came before us in this world. I think that is important. It’s easy to hold up the past as a shining ideal, where industry and patriotism shone bright in a world of hardship. But if, instead of idolizing those that came before us, we humanized them, maybe we could benefit from our past even more.
My favorite part of my internships hasn’t been the costumes, although I wish I could wear most of them every day. It’s not the sewing, which I do love. It’s the moments when I start talking to a little kid, and I see them become transfixed.
They understand -- they realize that I’m not just talking about long-ago people in silly hats, I’m talking about people like them, kids like them who dreamed and threw tantrums and probably begged their parents for that white gown in the corner that looks just like what the London princesses are wearing. And maybe someday, if they are lucky, they will get to see George Washington’s underwear.