Some regular readers know I was part of Chicago’s punk rock scene in the early 1980s: my first foray into unusual music and natty dressing.* I think that’s me and my keffiyeh at a Naked Raygun show in the Chicago episode of Sonic Highways. But more to the point, I was on the fringes of an underground, taking style tips from obscure English zines, and being told I looked like a whore by a variety of men using Chicago’s public transit system. Judge not lest ye be judged aside, I’m accustomed to occupying uncomfortable spaces by design and by accident. (I wasn’t looking to be called a whore on the Fullerton El platform when I dressed in a below-the-knee vintage skirt and lot of Bakelite jewelry combined with bullet belts and studded leather, but everybody’s a critic when it comes to women’s appearance.)
Now that I live in Providence, where indoor prostitution was legal for decades, if not centuries, my interest in gender role non-conformity extends to finding ways to document and represent sex workers in Rhode Island history. The adult section of the now-defunct Providence Phoenix, ‘zines, and diaries help record at least some aspects of this facet of our culture, but how do we represent it, and do it well? Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places is not a realistic model.
In discussing this lately, I’ve found consistent themes in representing sex workers in the 18th century: white face powder, rouge, bright clothing, visible stays, friendliness rather than reserve. There are lithographs to guide the portrayal through clothing, and visual tropes that signified a lack of virtue in the 18th century. In considering the local variations on this theme, my thought had been to expand upon the visual imagery by reading the Providence and Newport town papers, and the records of the Colony of Rhode Island, along with the contemporary newspapers.
Nothing is likely to be quite as good as the Nort’ Providence chief of police who, in the midst of Tropical Storm Irene, pursued a stripper who took clients on the side when she ran a red light in her SUV. She crashed into a parked car in Pawtucket and abandoned the car, at which point the chief of police searched the vehicle, found her open purse, and stole the cash she’d earned that morning. When questioned later, he was at pains to explain why the money was wet…** in any case, the Providence brothel riot of 1782 aside, I do not expect to find anything quite as lurid.
My sartorial choices for a prostitute would include a rather over-fancy cap with a worn silk ribbon, rouge and a velvet patch, a silk gown stained on the back, silk petticoat stained at the knees, laddered stockings, and heeled shoes tied with silk ribbons, or fastened with paste buckles. If my character worked from a brothel, the dress could be brighter and cleaner, but in either case, neck handkerchiefs would be optional or silk and askew, showing my stays and cleavage.
This is not an easy impression. It’s not just that I do not want to parody an 18th century prostitute, but that I want to honor the memory of these largely forgotten women. They had families– in all likelihood they had children, as we know from the story of Mary Bowen and Eliza Jumel– they had feelings, desires, dreams, felt love and pain. They were likely desperate.
They were human.
We owe them the respect of representing them well– of representing them at all– if we strive to recreate a more complete picture of the past.
*What else is this crazy thing we do?
**You cannot make this stuff up.