Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Shit just got real: when your OCD scares the living tar out of you at the thought of ‘pre-approval’ of your clothing

This morning I received a note from Jay Howlett at Colonial Williamsburg, the gentleman I will be undertaking an internship with this summer. He was asking for photographs of my historical clothing so that he can have it pre-approved through their wardrobe before I arrive on site. This will allow for a smooth transition when my internship begins, and I can start right away in the program. I knew that I would need approval before being allowed to wear anything I brought with me, it is what I would expect if I was running the wardrobe department. After all, my clothing will be a reflection on their department, the site itself, as well as on my shoulders.

It was my plan to ‘read all the things’ this term, getting the theory of why I do what I do under my belt before embarking on a major art project of overhauling my wardrobe. That plan was tossed out with this morning’s bathwater as I replied to the request, “sure, I can get on that this week!”

“Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is a hallmark for many Americans with a hankering to experience the past. ‘When we were down there last January,’ writes Alicia Newcomb, ‘we were able to speak to some of the actors one on one. Most of them are actually historians or certified in some other way…I’ve been going there since I was a little girl” (cited in Weeks 2016, 5).

Williamsburg is such a hallmark, that professors in my very first undergraduate program held it up as the pinacle of interpretation. Students from the Costume Studies program at Dalhousie university have been sent there on interships for decades. It is finally my turn. Why is it that I am so freaked out about the notion of my clothing being ‘pre-approved’? A lot of it stems from the fact that my own clothing needs have often taken a back burner to those who are working the front lines of interpretation at the historic sites I have worked for. My job is to be behind the scenes, not to be seen by the public. When I am, it is often because I am filling in for another interpreter. This isn’t to say that my clothes are bad, they aren’t. It’s more that you don’t get to see the underlayers of my clothes, so shortcuts have been taken over the years in order to ‘be dressed’. My outermost layer is completely acceptable in my mind’s eye. The other layers I had wanted to spend the Spring months finessing in order for them to be acceptable as well. I also wanted to make a new, more fashionable dress than my older, slightly out of fashion sacque-backed gown. This week’s readings have allowed me to really think about what I wanted to do with my clothes, and what I feel needs fixing.

Frank Trentmann’s article, Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics (Trentmann 2009), informs us “The status of things has sparked a good deal of soul-searching that oscillates between fears that life is becoming dematerialized and a celebration of objects as ‘thought companions, as life companions”, he goes on to explain that “things today are shaking our fundamental understanding of subjectivity, agency, emotions, and the relations between humans and nonhumans” (Trentmann 2009, 284). Ideas that Trentmann wanted to explore considered materiality on three dimensions, the “essence of things, choice and practice, and material politics” (Trentmann 2009, 286). If I consider thes ideas with regards to my own materiality, and the things that I will bring with me to Virginia, it is, first of all, very important that I have ‘my own things’. What does this mean? Well, for my own comfort level, wearing my own clothing, articles of dress that I have chosen for myself, created for myself, will make me feel far more confident than if I am wearing ‘stock costume number 5’. I will not have to worry about whether I get it dirty, or how it fits and how I can move in it. They will be my clothes, made for my body. Unique to me. They will no longer be a costume, in essence, but are my clothes. I have chosen the fabrics to create the garments, and I am also chosing which garments I will create for my wardrobe. My art practice is the creation of historic dress for interpreters, I should look like I might know what I am doing. Then there is the political negotiating I will have to do to justify my reasons for creating the clothes I made, but also the accessories, the other things I will bring with me to do my job this summer as an interpretation intern.

When we start a new job, we choose what clothes we will wear, sometimes buying a new outfit for the first day, to make a good impression. We pack our briefcase with the items we will need from home to get us through the day comfortably, our favourite pens, a coffee mug, lunch bag, comfortable ‘indoor’ shoes, family photos to personalize our desks. I am having to consider all those things too, but with an eye to the historical. Will my favourite coffee mug, made by a local artisan based on archeaological finds here in Quebec, be acceptable for use in the Revolutionary city? Or is it completely out of cultural context? I will need an appropriate carrying bag to bring my things to and from work, my academic’s leather briefcase is modern, and not appropriate. Should I make a market wallet, or find an appropriate basket to bring? Which of these items will make packing and crossing an international border easier? But also, which one would be appropriate for my historical economic class? I will need to clean all the modern from my sewing housewife and re-spin my threads from their modern, plastic spools on to historically appropriate thread winders. I have sent my historical glasses frames off to be fixed and new lenses installed so that I will be able to see, but I now have to get on with the project of making a new case for them, as at the moment, they are carried to events in a very modern clamshell case, I pull them out of the case under the cover of a petticoat edge. If I have to justify every item of historical kit to Williamsburg’s material culture staff, the modernity I usually get away with just won’t fly. Trentmann reminds us that “Practices thus look beyond possessions. Instead of taking either object or individual as it’s starting point, research on practices focuses on how users, things, tools, competence, and desires are coordinated. This means that value is not based in a product or its meanings but in how it is put to use” (Trentmann 2009, 297). Trentmann tells us that both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty saw the world as “woven into people’s bodies, identities, and actions. Things recruit us as much as we recruit them. And, in addition to highly visible objects, these include the hidden material networks, technologies, and relationships that shape everyday life” (Trentmann 2009, 300). I am having to really examine the minutae of my everyday life to see if I have all of the things I will need in my historical kit to just get through the day. It is far more than simply getting the outer layers of my costume correct, I have to embody the material culture of my eighteenth-century self.

In a recent online discussion over my eyeglass frames, we discussed how easy it is to fall into the living history trap that we are all expected to become ensnared in. As a progressive living historian, I cannot simply give Jas. Townsend, a walmart type merchant known for carrying all the material goods you might need, my credit card and buy the goods I need. As a progressive, my material culture needs are expected to be a higher caliber than what Townsend carries. So I am expected to make my own material culture. That idea is great in theory, but not what would have been expected of my historical counterpart any more than it is of my modern self. I bought my glasses frames. They aren’t perfect, but I am terrified to try to fix them on my own, that and my local optomitrist broke them while trying to insert new lenses. The way they will need fixing will require the skills of a jewler, a soldiering iron, and buffing tools. My mum may have been able to fix them for me, but she is not well enough, so off they were sent to an optrician in Halifax willing to do the job, as he has ‘fixed’ other historical frames for other progressive living historians. Hopefully, when they return in two months, the bridge piece will have more curve, the new lenses will be installed, and the tacky, modern ‘finish’ will be buffed off, leaving the look of the plain steel to weather through wearing. The piece of material culture that I can work on (the glasses case) to complete this important part of my kit has been researched and patterned, I just have to find the time to carry out the bargello embroidery and sew the piece together.

Shoes are another item that I cannot make myself. At Williamsburg, in a lot of the interiors, the interpretation staff wear slippers instead of their outside shoes. It helps cut down on the dust and dirt being carried inside. I completely wore out my slippers a few years ago, and have been ‘getting by’ with a pair of black canvas slip on shoes from somewhere in the Orient. They are modern, but most people don’t see them, as I only wear them in the evenings when the public is out of camp. This week I also sent home a tracing of my foot and the measurements needed to have a new pair of mules made by a shoemaker I have a great relationship with in Halifax. We have worked together making shoes for some of the historic sites over the years, and I know she will make a pair of mules that will live up to the progressive standards. In America, many progressives send away to the UK for shoes to be made by Sarah Juniper, but the American dollar is much closer to the Euro or the Pound. I just cannot justify close to $1000 for a pair of shoes, no matter how beautiful they are. That, and I’d rather give my business to someone more local to me, one of my peers in supplying historic sites with clothing and accoutrements.

These musings are to question whether I am engaging with ‘commodity fetishism’? Martha Rosler writes in Notes From the Field: Materiality, that this notion set forth by Marx “shapes our responses to much of the object world, and has its origins in the mode of production” (Rosler 2013, 11). We certainly are engaged in commodity fetishism if we are expected, as progressives, to recreate everything in our material culture baskets. It shouldn’t be expected of us as artists, or as consumers. I left that online conversation griping that I should be able to buy a historically correct pair of eyeglass frames, that require no tweaking, and that I should be able to take them to my local optomitrist to have lenses installed. Period. That I should not have to face the long noses of folks who would consider me ‘farb’ for not knowing how to do ‘all the things’ myself.

I will leave you with ideas I have also been facing with the concept of the gaze. Having also read Kate Haulman’s article Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia, I am also considering, as women in the period would have, how my clothes will speak for me as a person in society. Haulman states that, “Fashion could not only visually establish but also undermine social hierarchy in colonial cities” (Haulman 2005, 626). The article explains how different fashion choices, from clothing to hairstyles were adopted by both men and women in Revolutionary Philadelphia, and how people did not so readily give up those styles once the city was abandoned by the British to Colonial governance. Haulman suggests that fashion has far more to do with class hierarchy than with political leanings, and that fashion helped to establish hegemonic gender expressions as well as social standing and romantic entanglements. This article help reaffirm my own ideas on how we dressed in the eighteenth century had little to do with political or cultural leanings (French or British), and more to do with what people saw as ‘fashionable’, and wanting to be on top of that ‘fashionable’ game. I mentioned my ‘old brown sacque-backed gown’ above and in prior writings. I have always thought that an older fashion is more appropriate for an older woman, certainly in a more country setting, but I will be in a ‘big city’ in eighteenth-century standards, very near to Philadelphia the centre of the revolution, even by eighteenth-century standards of distance. I will not be on the ‘frontier’ of Canada, or even in ‘backwater’ Nova Scotia. I’m certain that even a woman of my age would have wanted a new, more fashionable dress if travelling to a new city, to start a new job…

So that is where my head is this week. In a blind panic thinking about all the things I need to have made, photographed, and approved. And I realize that I am running out of time.


Farb - is a derogatory term used in the hobby of historical re-enacting (living history) in reference to participants who are perceived to exhibit indifference to historical authenticity, either from a material-cultural standpoint or in action. It can also refer to the inauthentic materials used by those reenactors. (Wikipedia)


Haulman, Kate. 2005. "Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia." William and Mary Quarterly 625-662.

Rosler, Martha. 2013. "Notes From the Field: Materiality." The Art Bulletin 10-12.

Trentmann, Frank. 2009. "Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics." Journal of British Studies 283-307.

Weeks, Linton. 2016. "NPR History Dept." NPR.org. January 21. Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2016/01/21/463398647/american-history-lives-a-story-of-the-people-by-the-people-for-the-people.


  1. Don't panic! Anything you don't have can probably be provided by the CDC, or else the shop usually has a stock of stuff upstairs for borrowing (I assume you'd be allowed to borrow from the millinery even though you're working with the tailors). I wore a random pair of mules followed by AD Dunmores during my time there. I had prescription repro frames courtesy of Wm Booth and my local optometrist, but other people just had the most round glasses frames they could find commercially. It was all really smooth and easy; I brought what I could along with me, and the rest was sorted when I got there. Seriously, none of it will be a problem, I promise!

  2. Thank you for commenting Isabel, I've been reading what you've been up to lately to and am very proud of what you have accomplished!
    I'm feeling much better about things after having reading week to sew. Two new gowns to look at on the manikin! I'm also going through things and realizing that it's all coming together nicely, and fairly quickly.
    This has been a good opportunity to put myself first for a change. Now to secure funding for the summer and I'll be set! Hope your studies are going well and that you're enjoying your new school.

    1. Thanks, Kelly!

      CW is definitely a huge thing to prepare for, but I found everyone lovely and very helpful, so hopefully you'll find the same. =) And an excuse to work on UFOs and longtime projects is always satisfying!

      St Andrews is great, and I'm really enjoying diving into my research and finding new reenactment experiences here. =) Hope you're enjoying your research too, and that you have an amazing time at CW!