Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Sensory Overload: a Living Historian Steps back in Time

My timing was off on the way to class this evening. I entered the metro just as the wall of end of day travellers hit the top of the stairs. I stopped next to the wall and waited for them to pass, but it was too late, I was already feeling the effects. The grey was closing in. I’m getting a migraine.

It’s early morning, the day is cool so far, and really bright.  The harbour smells fresh, so the tide must have just come in. The waterfront is quiet, people walking to work, walking their dogs. I go into the locker-room and get dressed for the day. I am working in the Robertson’s Store, Ship Chandlery for the day. It will be quiet too, separated from the museum and yet an integral piece of the history of the waterfront. It actually existed, closed in the early twentieth-century, and fully donated to the museum. I am wearing the clothing of the early Great War. My corset is snug, but not constricting. It is not what is annoying about the outfit, not what is oppressive about the period. It gives my body a smooth appearance and supports my clothing, that is all. I have to take baby steps when I am dressed in this period’s clothes. My stride is restricted, I am wearing a hobbled skirt.  The hem at my ankles is very narrow, I have no kick pleat. I prepare for my day. I take the hand crank out and lower the awning on the front of the store so that it stays somewhat cool inside on this August day. I am careful not to raise my hands too far over my head, so that I’m not having to readjust my blouse when I am finished. Take my time. At the end of the day, Pierre notes that my eau du rope cologne is especially strong, that I must have been working in the store. He loves the scent of hemp rope and floor oil that permeates my skin and hair on a warm day. He is a sailor after all.

It has been a long day. It is September 11th, and all hands are in costume. We have several cruise ships in the harbour. One of the boys runs down the demi-ditch and skids to a halt just shy of my door. He runs back in, feather bonnet askew. Have you heard, he yells. The Trade centre has been bombed. And just as quickly, he disappears out my door again. I’m not usually in costume, just special events and in the off season. At the Citadel, I am in charge of looking after about a hundred other people in historical dress.  Today though, I was dressed in the half hour and on the parade square. Dressing so quickly, my stays aren’t quite sitting right, I think I missed an eyelet or something. Ugh, I’ll deal. These tourists don’t know yet, what has happened to their country. I grab the box of tissues and bring it upstairs. In Victorian dress, I am large and imposing. Much like the soldiers, we stand out in the crowd of tourists pouring through the sally port.

Again, early morning. I lay in bed listening to the fog horn in the distance. The guys have the fire started, despite the damp, and are making coffee. I am going to learn how to make lace today. We are in my favourite place on earth, Louisbourg. I get up and slowly get dressed. My stays are a bit more constricting in the eighteenth-century than they are in other time periods, they hug a bit tighter. I have full range of movement in my eighteenth-century clothing though, and I stand in ballet’s first position. I am straight, my shoulder blades are slightly pulled back, my arms rest on my side hoops, palms up. My hoops have a sprung reed though, and its point digs into my leg when I wear them. I must remember to put my extra petticoat on first, to keep that point from nagging me. I have to concentrate today.

This time of year is sometimes lonely for a living historian. We need to deal with modern life far too much. Museum work is often seasonal, living history in the summer, for the tourists, mending and research in the winter months to prepare for new programing next summer. Little things will take you back to the moments of history, Le Fumoir at the grocery store, smoking hams for the customers, stitching eyelets on your new waistcoat, thinking of Christmas presents that you really should get started on so that they are finished in time to mail out. Living history, for me, is all about the senses. The smell of wood smoke, the scuff of hobnailed shoes on gravel streets. The click, clack of the loom as it creates the cloth, the young man practicing tin whistle outside the window, the sound of the noon gun, or hourly chime of the bells at the church. The senses are an intimate part of how I understand history, the way my body moves in the different period’s clothing, how what is first expected, is not the oppressive thing about what I’m wearing. When I am stressed in my modern life, it helps to imagine those fragments of sense to get me through the day. It really is too bad that someone hasn’t actually made Eau du Rope, or Eau du Woodsmoke perfume, I bet it would be a hit amoungst living historians

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

You can’t afford to shop anywhere but Walmart. I ask if we, As a Society, can truly afford Walmart?

I am often asked why I don’t ‘go into business’ selling my clothes.  These questions arise more often just after I have finished a collection for a school project, or have completed a new historical outfit.  They are often prefaced by the compliment that my work is so good, I could make good money at it.  Then I ask what people would pay for the skirt I’m wearing, and inevitably they come up short.

So let’s break down the cost of the skirt I am wearing right this moment.  It was designed as part of my MA thesis collection and is based on research on Vivienne Westwood’s Bondage wear, an integral part of the early Punk scene in the UK. The denim fabric cost 15$/metre, and there is about a metre in the skirt, if I cut very carefully. Then there is about another 20$ worth of notions; the buckles, vintage buttons, waistband tape, zipper, hem tape, thread. The skirt itself took two days to sew. If I was to charge just 10$/hour, that’s 160$. So the skirt cost, at minimum, almost 200$.  Questions arise in my mind when I lay out the figures like this. First one is that I am worth far more than just 10$/hour. I have a Master’s degree and almost 30 years of experience. And so I ask how much money the person asking for this skirt makes in their job? How about their Dad? What should a person earn who has a Master’s degree and 30 years’ experience?

And then, what would Walmart charge for a denim skirt?

Cotton is one of the most expensive fibres to process, both financially, but also expensive for the environment. The amount of pesticides used on cotton fields would make any hipster vomit at the idea. It is often produced in Third World countries where environmental concerns are non-existent, so who cares about the environment, or the farmer? Farmers of cotton live with this every day, and they only earn pennies for the cotton crops they produce. Yes, pennies. The cotton crop is then sent to another Third World country for processing. Indigo in its natural form is too expensive, so synthetic indigo is used for dying cotton denim.  The excess dye is often dumped into the local water source to be taken ‘away’. The processors are also often only paid pennies for the cloth they have produced. That processing includes scrubbers, dyers, weavers, and finishers, before the fabric is ready to be cut into pieces to be made into clothing. The finished fabric is then sent to Bangladesh to be made into jeans and other denim clothes. The film we are currently watching, The Last Train, is an older film.  Manufacturers are now sending contracts to Bangladesh because the work can be done even cheaper, and yes, the labour and environmental laws are non-existent. The machine operators who construct our clothes are paid by the piece, usually fractions of cents per seam.  They sit at sewing machines all day and sew one seam of the garment, often for years, one. Seam. This works out to roughly 10$/month in salary. Then when the cost of their meals and housing is deducted from that wage, you get the drift. Garment workers in Bangladesh cannot afford the clothes they create, they don’t earn enough money. All the clothes they make are sent to western markets, where we buy them at Walmart, Forever 21, H&M, for rock bottom prices. And I am not even going to dig into how little sales associates are paid to work in those stores and sell you those clothes.

The clothes we buy are what is known as ‘Fast Fashion’. High turnover of styles in stores feeds an appetite for more. Our clothes are only supposed to last 10 weeks before we are expected to throw them away because they have become too worn out, or too out of fashion. Often times, North Americans will only wear an item of clothing once before it goes into the trash, or sent to the second hand market. Fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, second only to oil. Think about that for a second.

There is an internet full of articles on the subject of fast fashion, I’ll give you a quick link to a good one here http://jcooper.co.uk/fast-fashion-toxic-facts/ to start you off. There are far too many reasons to dwell on why I don’t ‘go into business’ and sell my clothes, but the main reason is that we’ve been conditioned to think we can only afford fast fashion, and so, you cannot afford me.

And then I ask again, can we really afford Walmart?