Living out the Past

I came across a post called ‘A Practice in Practicality, doing housework 1910s style’ from the Dreamstress, one of my favourite historical clothing blogs which I regularly check out. I always like posts related to exploring the realities of living in clothing – as someone fascinated by the intersection of everything, I love the way that understanding how a person in a different time period felt like can often impact the way we form our theories, our narratives, to make sense of the hard data available.

For example, in Medieval studies, everyone knows there are a lot of popular cliches about Medieval people being downright disgusting which is then used to explain why epidemics like the Plague ran rampant. It’s also part of a general framing of pre-modern European hygiene as something severely lacking and backward. Then you discover that actually, the Medievals did tend to bathe quite a bit and understood the importance of cleanliness. In fact, the experience of the Plague is what impacted ideas of public hygiene and cleanliness by contributing to the demise of the public bath, a social institution that is a common feature of urban life across continent and culture alike.

The detangling of perception and narrative from data frequently leads to interesting new theories and a re-examination of the data. In the case of the Plague, the most recent idea is that the disease was airborne which better fits the rapid spread when placed against our knowledge of the way people actually lived at that time.

But back to clothing!

When I was a bit younger, I was really into tight-lacing (I think at one point I had day dreams of becoming a part-time fetish/costume model). This meant wearing a corset all the time, everywhere which, though at some points uncomfortable, actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined with my head filled with the ideas of historical clothing – and corsets in particular – that I as any young woman of the 20th-21st century had been inundated with.

That’s not to say the Rational Dress Movement was completely unnecessary. Not at all! In fact, I’ve always greatly admired comfortable elegance and the revolutionary fashion of early designers such as Chanel. Although household names, almost cliches in their own right today, their aesthetic was as much a reflection of their politics and views of how women should be perceived by and allowed to interact with their society at large.

68b2e1665f4ffa7b17c5f48f8ea2e3a4However, it did help illuminate the living experience of a corset wearing woman from the previous centuries. If I who was attempting an extreme hour-glass figure could still move and eat with a degree of discomfort that never bordered into outright pain, nor led to me feeling faint (though short of breath), it made the experience of the average woman who was probably not wearing a corset for tight-lacing, but rather the way most of us wear a bra – for support – a little more understandable. It made sense of why women would wear them and even how they must have evolved.

Practical Archaeology, whether done through building using materials of a particular era, trying to recreate hairstyles, or recreate technologies of the past, is such an amazing aspect of archaeology. With the technologies we have now, there’s almost no reason not to. I wish it got a bit more attention – I think it’s a better way of teaching History in schools, for example – particularly when it comes to analysing the lived experience of marginalised/less-documented social groups.


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