A Tisket, A Tasket: What Basket?

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Nancy had a great question: What did middle class ladies use to carry their shopping?

But here’s the thing: they didn’t carry the shopping, because they didn’t do the shopping– not the big shopping, anyway.

La Pourvoyeuse, oil on canvas by Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1739. Louvre Museum.

La Pourvoyeuse, oil on canvas by Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1739. Louvre Museum.

La Pourvoyeuse by Chardin shows a woman returning from market in 1739. No basket. A bundle or bag with a fowl in it, head down. Unwrapped loaves of bread. But clearly a servant.

From waste books, it’s pretty clear that people are sending their “boys” and “girls” (servants or slaves) to fetch liquor. That will come home in bottles, like the ones at the feet of La Pourvoyeuse. And I think it comes home just in their hands, but perhaps- and more likely not– in a basket. A floppy basket, usually for floppy birds.

Balthazar Nebot, active 1730–1762, Spanish, active in Britain (from 1729), Fishmonger's stall, 1737, Oil on copper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Balthazar Nebot, active 1730–1762, Spanish, active in Britain (from 1729), Fishmonger’s stall, 1737, Oil on copper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Baskets have come up before. So this is part of a larger argument. Mostly, we see servants marketing. Middle class ladies certainly shop– what is the class level of this woman (above)?— but so many things can be delivered, or are peddled door-to-door, and servants are so common, that I think we don’t yet fully understand shopping in the 18th century.

After the meteoric rise of consumerism, after department stores, yes: shopping is more like what we do. But in the pre-ice box and pre-packaged era, meat cannot be bought and frozen, and milk will not last all that long. Things were brought home one at a time, or a few at a time, many times a week. And middle class ladies bought small things– ribbons, almanacks, shoes– and bring them home in their pockets, just in their hands, or, I would guess, wrapped in a bundle of paper (a pair of shoes) or in a band box (a bonnet) if the things are not delivered.

A long winded way to say, I don’t know: but I’m pretty sure middle class ladies sent their servants out frequently so the ladies didn’t carry baskets and the servants used bags, aprons, and their hands.

Frivolous Friday: The Pabodie Project

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Mrs William (Jane) Pabodie. oil on canvas, 1813. RIHS 1970.60.2

Mrs William (Jane) Pabodie. oil on canvas, 1813. RIHS 1970.60.2

Jane Jewett Pabodie, born around 1771, died 23 March 1846 is buried in Swan Point Cemetery on the Seekonk River in Providence. She was the wife of William Pabodie– which one? Well, it’s hard to tell until I really dig into the genealogy. At the moment I am so besotted with this image that all I can think about is what she’s wearing!

What she’s wearing….about that. I have some work– and some thinking– to do. The cap is slightly confounding. It’s a chance to learn a great deal more about early federal caps, which is good. I don’t understand it, which is unfortunate. The asymmetrical nature of the cap is new to me- or at least I cannot think of another example, so feel free to school me, people. But really: it is asymmetrical! With a ruffle on what is the right side of her head, and a… pinked? Van Dyked? Prairie pointed? band that runs from her left ear around to the back of her right ear? I’m confused. It would make more sense if the cap had slipped, but why would the Pabodies pay for a painting that recorded such a thing?

Honestly, I think the only way to really understand the cap is to make the cap. In muslin first, thankyouverymuch, I’m not that crazy.

Detail, Mrs William Pabodie. Oil on canvas, 1813. RIHS

Detail, Mrs William Pabodie. Oil on canvas, 1813. RIHS

The chemisette is more straightforward, being made of a sheer figured or embroidered cotton with a slightly gathered collar embellished with floral whitework embroidery. That I think can manage, at least in the basic construction (fabric, well, I’m looking).

Of course, why do I feel the need to manage all of this, with a deadline now less than eight weeks away? For a program, of course– I have only to write the copy for it. The idea (for me, anyway) is to replicate a portrait as closely as I can. Now, Mrs Pabodie and I are not exactly the same age, but I think I can pull this off…the cap, more troubling.

It’s an interesting project for me, not so much from the sewing point of view, but from a conceptual standpoint.

How close can I get? What does exactitude mean?

If I want to represent a character, what’s more important: understanding the clothing, or understanding Jane Pabodie? Constrained as I am by modern materials, unable to match these exactly, how do I navigate choices based on suppositions of what an artist meant to represent? Just my kind of conundrum.

Hell is a Hand Basket

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Gentle Reader: Remember the post on semiotics? We need to go back to that once more.

Just what are we looking at here?
copley_john-singleton-mrs-daniel-rogers-middleton-collection

John Singleton Copley.
Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Rogers (Elizabeth Gorham Rogers), 1762
50 X 40, oil on canvas.
Middleton Collection, Wake Forest University
HC1991.1.1

Hmm…. 1762. Does that dress look like 1762 to you? Or does it resemble a 17th century garment? Check out those sleeves: scallops. The shift sleeves: super full. The line of the gown at the neck: a shallow scoop. The front of the bodice: closed.

Are those the hallmarks of a typical 1762 gown in New England, England, or France? You are correct, sir: They are not.

What’s happening here? What is Copley doing, and why?

He’s making his subject look good, reflecting her wealth and status. He’s flattering her by painting her in a faux-17th century gown, a “Vandyke costume, a popular artistic convention in England related to the vogue for fancy dress and masquerade.”* 1762 seems a trifle late for this convention, but in 1757, James McArdell produces a mezzotint of Thomas Hudson’s portrait of the Duchess of Ancaster. Henry Pelham wrote to Copley in 1776 that he had purchased one of those mezzotints, suggesting their use as references for Colonial American painters. Reynolda House has a nice explication of this style of dress in the Thëus portrait they own of Mrs. Thomas Lynch, shown below.

Mrs. Thomas Lynch, oil on canvas by Jeremiah Thëus, 1755. Reynolda House, 1972.2.1

Mrs. Thomas Lynch, oil on canvas by Jeremiah Thëus, 1755. Reynolda House, 1972.2.1

There was also a convention of portraying women in “timeless draperies,” following the school of Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller, both late 17th-century English painters who produced portraits with generalized costumes.

Lady Mary Berkely, wife of Thomas Chambers. oil on canvas by Sir Godfrey Kneller, ca. 1700. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 96.30.6

Lady Mary Berkely, wife of Thomas Chambers. oil on canvas by Sir Godfrey Kneller, ca. 1700. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 96.30.6

This portrait by Kneller (born in Germany, he worked in England) explains a lot, doesn’t it? And this timeless convention persists for some time, and the stylization of the facial features and hair is copied by English and colonial American painters. John Smibert, long familiar to many of you, was a leading practitioner of this style of portrait, and his work would have been well known to Copley and his sitters.

Mrs Samuel Browne by Smibert, RIHS 1891.2.2

Mrs Samuel Browne by Smibert, RIHS 1891.2.2

Blackburn’s portrait of Mary Sylvester adopts two conventions at once, in a way: she’s in timeless-style drapery and fancy dress as a shepherdess. Let’s remember, too, that there’s symbolism in the shepherdess imagery, referencing pastoral innocence and Mary Sylvester’s unmarried, presumably virginal, status. Don’t believe me? Read the catalog entry, written (at the very least) under the supervision of actual, degree-toting art historians.

Mary Sylvester, oil on canvas by Joseph Blackburn, 1754. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 16.68.2

Mary Sylvester, oil on canvas by Joseph Blackburn, 1754. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 16.68.2

Where does that leave us with Mrs. Rogers? She’s portrayed in what is essentially fancy dress, holding her straw hat in her left hand (much as Mary Sylvester is) with a basket over her right forearm. You will note the open work of the basket, the delicate arches and the fineness of the base. What’s in it? Something gauzy, as light as the drape around her shoulders, with a square of dark blue silk and a fine white silk ribbon. Honestly I am not entirely certain — the resolution of the image is dreadful.

But what’s NOT in the basket? A redware or pewter mug, sewing, keys, bottle, food, candy, toys, or, really, anything of a very concrete or practical nature.

Is this image a justification for carrying a [nearly empty ] basket on the streets of Boston? Of course it is–as long as you justify walking the streets of Boston in imaginary or fancy dress.

*p.106, Ribeiro, Aileen. “‘The Whole Art of Dress’: Costume in the Work of John Singleton Copley.” John Singleton Copley in America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.

Mop It Up

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"Useful occupations: Women's work, sewing, spinning, washing, ironing etc," illustration from Basedow's 'Elementary Work', 1770. Etching by Daniel Chodowiecki — at LACMA

“Useful occupations: Women’s work, sewing, spinning, washing, ironing etc,” illustration from Basedow’s ‘Elementary Work’, 1770. Etching by Daniel Chodowiecki — at LACMA

Mrs. Boice is at it again, folks: you can register now for a workshop in just a few weeks where you can learn more than you thought you’d ever want to know about getting ready for winter, laundry, caps, games, and dancing. Thought honestly, I think you can never know too much about these things, which is why I keep trying!

Yes, it’s what I think about: how did women prepare houses for winter? How did they get things clean? It was a lot of hard work, and is often underrepresented in historic sites both domestic and military.

You can learn more about the weekend online or download the detailed flier.

Filthy Friday: Rolling with a Purpose

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“It looks like you rolled in dirt,” I said to the Young Giant when he dumped a gritty mess on my lap.
“I did,” he said, “but it was rolling with a purpose. We dug a fire pit, and then I had to keep the fire going. So I was on my belly in the dirt.”

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This was followed by, “Mom, you need to mend my shirt.” But first, I needed to wash that shirt.

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I’d like to wash that shirt right out of my hair, but there it is: it’s got to be attended to.

I did what mending I could before I washed it, since some areas seemed more likely to disintegrate further in the wash.

That’s clean linen verus dirty linen, the 18th century wrestling match. Patch secured, I very nearly packed this into a priority mailing container for delivery to the esteeméd Red Shoes Laundry, but I took a deep breath, and put the lobster pot back in the cupboard. (Yes, I considered boiling this on my stove top on a 95° day. Wouldn’t you?)

Instead, I trekked down to the cool of the basement and ran the water as hot as it gets and added Oxiclean (used by some of the finest weavers I know when they encounter dyes less fast than anticipated.)

The first tub achieved a kind of colloidal slurry of mud and sweat and soap. Delicious. Five rinses and an overnight soak later, dirty shirt became just a shirt again.

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I took advantage of the clear weather to dry this outside on the grass, hoping the later sunlight would aid in whitening.

Wondering about that patch? Wonder no more, compare:

It’s another one of those “is it done? it’s perfect” situations. I’d love to wash my clothes with historically correct methods, but for now, the shirt’s clean enough for final mends and wearing in October. The winter should give me time to figure out stove top washing.

Tavern on the Green

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[Not] Mrs Guernsey and Mrs Holstein

[Not] Mrs Guernsey and Mrs Holstein

The wags will quip and Mr M certainly did, to my delight, though I might more properly have been Mrs Fjäll, but that’s neither here nor there.

We offered games, beverages, and tavern food as best we could in the makeshift setting of Washington Square in Newport and served as the site of an impressment riot based on incidents involving sailors from the Maidstone in June, 1765. Custom had been brisk before the Royal Navy so rudely imposed upon our establishment, and dragged off some of our best patrons– leaving their debts unpaid, of course.

Barmaid. Bouncer. Bobby.

Barmaid. Bouncer. Bobby.

We resorted to more gaming, though even that was risky: a young, possibly motherless thief whose trousers barely contain his calves made off with our winnings, and had to be chased down. Fortunately, despite her propensity to smoke, the barmaid was able to apprehend him and, money restored and apology made to Mistress B, we allowed him at our table– I believe we are a better influence than the company he had been keeping, as our trade is honest even if modest.

Much was on offer in town on Saturday, and while Miss C had advertised Hogarth and Sandby throughout the morning, by late in the day, she still had no offers, and the pair were advertising themselves effectively. ‘Tis a pity, for with fish unsold, another day passes and Miss C’s gown remains in pawn, and her shiftless husband’s shoes as well– even the Navy did not want him, for he professes never to work and affects half-wittedness that conceals his natural wit.

Despite hiccups along the way, setting up a tavern on the green, even in this kind of makeshift way, allowed us to do something I’m always excited about: interpret the history of working women. Serendipitously, one of my favorite books delves into the history of women and business both large and mostly small, and examines Newport. The Ties that Buy, by Eleanor Hartigan-O’Connor is one of the best books on 18th century women’s history that I’ve read, making clear that women, despite their restricted legal status, conducted business, had lines of credit, sued for non-payment of debts, and participated in expanding consumer networks. This book, in addition to research into punch, alcohol, Rhode Island taverns (and I’ve got ready access to tavern ledgers) grounded the interpretation of the Sign of the Two Old Cows. The best part of the intersection of living history and research is bringing actual people from the past to life, and reshaping the way the public understands and appreciates history. For Two Old Cows and a book, I think we did pretty well.

What’re you lookin’ at?

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Pupils of Nature.hand-colored etching published by S W Fores after Maria Caroline Temple, 1798. British Museum, 1867,0713.409

Pupils of Nature.hand-colored etching published by S W Fores after Maria Caroline Temple, 1798. British Museum, 1867,0713.409

No, really: Do you know what you are looking at?

When we set out to make historic clothing and costumes, it’s important to understand our sources. Newspaper advertisements and account books are one source of information that can be difficult to decode: from Swankskin to Tammies to Shalloons, Nankeens, and Calimancos, we encounter words we do not understand. Dictionaries can help, but it is as well to remember that we need that help decoding the words.

We don’t get the same handy, universal guidebook in quite the same way when we look at extant garments. What we do often get is provenance. Knowing a garment’s history is essential to truly understanding it. It helps date the item, for one thing, and understanding the history of the wearer gives us even more information about the clothing. How old was the person when this was worn? What was their social status? Income level? And if there are mends and alterations: even better!

I came to understand the family who lived in the house where I work more clearly through their clothes. Muslin waistcoat fronts that, on examination, are not truly out of the tippy-top drawer helped me see the Big Fish/Small Pond nature of the family and their wealth. You may be a Playa in backwater Providence, but you Just Another Guy in Philly. It was a little window into the insecurities of the father, and how those played out in his reaction to his daughters’ marriages.

The Unfortunate Beau, etching, Publish'd as the Act directs 12th Sept 1772, by S.Hooper, No.25 Ludgate Hill. British Museum 1991,1214.20

The Unfortunate Beau, etching, Publish’d as the Act directs 12th Sept 1772, by S.Hooper, No.25 Ludgate Hill. British Museum 1991,1214.20

But (in the grand scheme of things) there are only so many newspaper ads and account books and few enough garments, let alone the zebras of garments with solid provenance. The groups are smaller still when you consider relevance to what you need or want to know or replicate. Small state? You’ll have a small pool.

So we turn, often, to images. Here again, provenance is helpful when we look at a portrait. Even knowing the maker is helpful: Ralph Earl or James Earl? Portraits by brother James aren’t the same level as those by Ralph, so you get a different kind of information. But that’s all quite aside from what’s contained within the image– and that’s even before you begin to consider what you are doing when you replicate the image.

Understanding the symbols and meanings of images and objects is slightly esoteric but questioning your sources (Interrogating the Object, if you will) allows you to better understand what the heckers you are doing and how it may be perceived. In the pursuit of historical clothing, living history and reenacting, that is more important than we credit. Do we really know what the sources mean? I’ve argued before that we don’t-– and that doesn’t mean DON’T it means USE WITH CAUTION. We’re long removed from the details of, say, satirical engravings that lack a literary source, so those need especial caution as sources. We lack the context.

The Bargain Struck, or Virtue conquer'd by Temptation. Mezzotint, 1773. British Museum 1935,0522.1.130

The Bargain Struck, or Virtue conquer’d by Temptation. Mezzotint, 1773. British Museum 1935,0522.1.130

Now, if your goal is straightforward: replicating costume for fun, say, you will care less about the notion of meaning within images than someone who is trying to understand the past by inhabiting the clothing with the hope of gaining insight into the worldview of the past. That second category is possibly a more tortured group of souls than the first, laboring as we do at an impossible task.

We are talking about semiotics here, and if you want a quick intro, The Signs of Our Time by Jack Solomon, PhD clocks in at 244 pages including bibliography. It’s old– 1988– and perhaps oversimplified, but we’re not in graduate seminar here, so it will do for our purposes. Solomon’s book contains a handy list he calls the Six Principles of Semiotics:

  1. Always question the “common sense” view of thing, because “common sense” is really “communal sense”: the habitual opinions and perspectives of the tribe.
  2. The “common sense” viewpoint is usually motivated by a cultural interest that manipulates our consciousness for ideological reasons.
  3. Cultures tend to conceal their ideologies behind the veil of “nature,” defining what they do as “natural” and condemning contrary cultural practices as “unnatural.”
  4. In evaluating any system of cultural practices, one must take into account the interests behind it.
  5. We do not perceive our world directly but view it through the filter of a semiotic code or mythic frame.
  6. A sign is a sort of cultural barometer, marking the dynamic movement of social history.

Now that you’ve read the list, perhaps what I obsess about will be clearer: we don’t fully understand the culture of the past. We don’t have the same semiotic or mythic filter than the people of the 18th century had, but when we recognize first that they had a filter, and second that the filter varied from culture to culture, we can better understand our sources.

If you can accept that the cultural filters of England and France and the United States were all different, perhaps it will be easier to accept that you cannot mimic a French fashion plate in portraying a middle-class New England woman without encountering some questions. But if you replicate that fashion plate for the pleasure of experiencing that fashion moment, that’s another game altogether.

Intention matters. Your goal will dictate your sources, and how you use them. As committed as I am to the everyday (because no one is documenting us or saving us, no matter how desperately we try to signal our being with Facebook and Instagram posts), I’m not suggesting that we all attempt to recreate the same past. I’m arguing that we strive to understand what we are doing (dressing up, portraying a specific character, portraying an archetype) and that when we know what we are doing, we understand better how to use the sources we have.

Fashion, Fantasy, and Intention

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Fort-based: as military as I get.

Fort-based: as military as I get.

I am not a costumer, not really. But I’m not really a re-enactor in the classical sense: I no longer roll with a military unit and my military experiences are typically fort-based domestic activities. My favorite events have me representing women’s work in the past, the quotidian experiences of ordinary people. Documentation is my thing: what happened on a particular day, in a particular place. Who was there? What were typical clothes? The foods in season? The gossip of the day?

A Lady's Summer Promenade Dress, 1800.

A Lady’s Summer Promenade Dress, 1800.

And yet. Everything I do is really a fantasy, even when it’s work. We are not [yet, always] using the actual words people spoke or wrote. We typically inhabit characters who are grounded in fact but for whom we do not have full documentation. We are representations. We are playing, more than we are being.

I could easily be persuaded to take a walk along a sea wall  or coast to collect seaweed samples for pressing. This would inch me into Austen territory, especially if my friends will join me. I’ve even gone to the lengths of acquiring an appropriate hat, and to make another gown is but nothing in the pursuit of happiness.

Mary Gunning, Countess of Coventry. Jean-Étienne Liotard,.

Woman in a Turkish interior Pastel on vellum, Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1749. Museum of Art and History, Geneva.

If I could truly be a fabulist, I might be tempted to adopt a style a la Turque, for a portrait by Copley or for my paramour. This portrait by Liotard– who was known for his Ottoman works—  is a great temptation, with her patterned overdress and belt with golden clasps, though she is thirty-three years earlier than The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart’s comedic and trendy 1782 opera.

If I made myself a Turque (and Reader, it is tempting though useless), I will confess it would be for the multiple pleasures of wearing it, knowing why it had been worn in the past, and for the pleasure of having it taken off me. Because we forget what the European fascination with exoticism and Orientalism meant: they meant sex. The Abduction itself is, in essence, a tale of sex trafficking.

And that is something we do forget about the past, that the clothing we adopt as we portray the past had meaning– sometimes a meaning we miss, when we layer costume upon clothing. Wives and mistresses alike were portrayed a la Turque, and some theorize that this style of portraiture was chosen to portray the sitter in timeless, classic dress. For Copley’s sitters, it was a way to be at the height of London fashion; for Lady Mary Montagu, Turkish dress allowed her to travel freely in the Ottoman Empire. But portraits of women in Turkish dress situated in Turkish interiors were also allusions to polygamy and to sexuality, and there is no way of escaping the fact that paintings of women were largely made for men.

So what, then, of fantasy dressing in the past? What sense can we make of historical representations of “Oriental” fashion? How do we understand what our clothing and our appearance means? Every choice we make is layered with meaning, in the present and in the past.  For women, routinely objectified by society, the meaning of our clothing is particularly important, even when, or perhaps especially, when it is not what we want to focus on.