Meisen Mystery

Yonemarus@Kiyomizudera with my first host family, the Yonemarus, at Kyōmizudera, Kyoto

I did not start out as a dress historian. I came to dress history in a round about way (described in my post about Indian shawls here). I started as a Japanese major, because I thought I was going to become an interpreter. So, spending the summer I was 20 in Osaka, Japan (see image above) was the culmination of a long-held dream, and words will never be able to describe the gratitude I felt towards my parents for finding a way to make it possible for me.

I’ve long thought this initial ambition has influenced the way I look at textiles and clothing: as a visual medium of cultural exchange, understanding, and occasionally, unfortunately as appropriation or a method of colonial oppression. Since language, like art and clothing, does not exist in isolation, my undergraduate career can more accurately be described as an all-out wallowing in Japanese studies of culture, art, literature, and language… at least until budget cuts in the CSU system required me to change gears if I wanted to graduate in a timely manner.

The program wasn’t cancelled per se, but it was so defunded that when I went to my advisor about my next semester’s class I was told that they didn’t know when they would be offering the courses I needed next. So I switched to Linguistics and a Japanese minor, had a number of my classes and their units dropped from my records because they weren’t accepted at my new university and was very bitter for a number of years, in that ‘logical’ way of twenty-one year-olds. I went in to academic administration instead of interpretation, was hired at an arts school where I daily handled student work and realised I really wanted to handle art — especially garments and textiles — as my career and my interest in museum studies was born. A year later, I discovered dress history as my niche and here I am.

thumbnail-2010_013_ForrestCavale (1) Furisode with a design of Mandarin ducks; 20th Century; Dye and gold on silk; © CCJAC

I do not regret my path. What I regret was that I let bitterness over circumstances beyond my control — and the fact that in my program I was scorned and belittled by my classmates for always receiving high grades, at least until they wanted help studying for midterms and finals — infuse a subject I had well and truly loved with bitterness to the point that I let it go. I was bitter for so long I would not even contemplate looking at Japanese dress and textiles. My road back to Japanese studies, and into the area of East Asian dress and textiles, began two and a half years ago with my 久しぶり post, discussing an event at a local Japanese art museum I had patronised quite a bit between the ages of 17 and 23. “久しぶり” (hisashiburi in romaji) is what you say to people you have not seen in a long while, or when describing something that you have not done in quite some time. In the nature of Japanese it means literally “it’s been a long time”, but it can hold several unspoken connotations of joy, longing, or even a poignancy. It seems fitting in this situation.

My rediscovery of the Clark Center led to the CSA, Western Region Symposium paper I discussed in a Worn Through post last year, wherein I revealed my discovery of a type of kimono called heiyō-gasuri meisen, or meisen for short, which were popular in Japan from 1915 until about 1945. I, like most, imagined kimono as either the simple, small-patterned examples we typically see today, or the beautiful furisode you see above. Nothing prepared me for meisen, which were heavily influenced by Western art movements at the time, such as art deco, cubism, and maybe even surrealism. The example below strikes me as as surrealist in its design and imagery as Schiaparelli’s famous Lobster dress.

2005_086_v Women’s kimono with Penguins and Cracked ice pattern; 1915 – 1945; silk; © CCJAC

Meisen are unique not only for their patterning, which is so unusual — the size for one thing is exponentially larger than traditional motifs — but also the construction of the fabric. You can see in the detail images below that there is a sort of bleeding effect on the design, or as though the penguins and their ice are slightly out of focus.

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2005-086 detail

This effect is achieved by stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads before they are placed on the loom; when the fabric is woven, the stencil doesn’t line up exactly — giving a simulated-ikat effect, supposedly with less work. Of all the meisen I looked at and handled at the Clark Center in preparation for my paper, this one remains my favourite. I don’t know if it’s just so outrageous (the others as you will see at Worn Through are more abstract), or because the penguins are adorable, or because I am trying to imagine what colour obi (obi are always in a contrasting colour, see the picture of me in yukata below) would be worn with it when I envision a woman walking down the street in it. It is also, in my opinion, rather flamboyant for a married woman’s kimono. Typically, brighter colours and more audacious patterns are reserved for furisode – the red one above is a perfect example. Furisode literally means ‘swinging sleeves’, and they are worn by young, marriageable-aged women. The swinging sleeves are considered flirtatious, and the bright colours and bold patterns attract attention, preferably of eligible potential-husbands. The shorter sleeves on the Penguin meisen indicate it was made for a married woman, so this pattern is contrary to the usual expectations of a woman of that station, in addition to its surrealist elements.

The reason I find meisen so mysterious is that they were popular at a time when the Japanese Military Complex was on the rise, and there was a distinctly anti-Western attitude within the society. Japan excelled at milling propaganda textiles — as seen in the multiple examples in Wearing Propaganda, edited by Jacqueline Atkins and published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name. The best example I have seen of this anti-Western stance in textiles is in the hanjuban below. Hanjuban are a short under-kimono worn by men (note the very short gap between sleeve edge and join as opposed to the far longer one for the penguin meisen). With the exception of children, kimono were not made of these propaganda textiles, instead it was very popular to make undergarments such as the hanjuban out of them so that as your kimono or yukata slid up your sleeve, a bit of this patriotic fabric would be seen.

Hanjuban-1 Hanjuban with Mickey Mouse and military motifs; c. 1930; printed cotton; © Thomas Murray

What is fascinating about this hanjuban is that you can see that it was originally made out of a (for lack of a better term) pro-Western fabric featuring words in English, Western objects such as crayons and notebooks (Japanese writing materials were very different), and even Mickey Mouse. You can see all of these elements in the detail image below.

Hanjuban-2

The sleeves, however — the part that might be seen by other people — have been covered or replaced with the typical propaganda textile at some point since the hanjuban‘s original construction. This is a strong indicator that it was socially unacceptable to express pro-Western sentiments, or to admire any aspect of Western culture.

At the same time that meisen were being produced and worn.

As I said in my initial post, I have more questions than answers. Who was wearing meisen? Where were they being worn? Were the wearers unaware of the Western influence on the designs, or was it acceptable because it was a complete absorption and re-adaptation (improvement in the eyes of the Military Industrial Complex?) of the Western art and design?

I have been told that a great deal has been written about, or that there is a revival of interest in meisen recently. This may be true, but the only information I can find are in books I will have to order through Kinokuniya from Japan the next time I’m in San Francisco. I know that LACMA has an entire exhibition planned for later this year which I will absolutely be going to. Probably multiple times.

I have bounced around various topics of interest for potential phd work for the last three years: an expansion of my master’s thesis; examining Scottish tartan from the perspective of the exotic other; and meisen. The latter I have been encouraged to pursue by more than one person of repute in my field. I have long resisted because of that slight tinge of bitterness that still remained, and because I was already invested in my European textile research. But recently, Japan and its textiles have been creeping back into my life. I have been encouraging and helping friends embarking on their Japanese studies, and remembering when I was 20, wearing yukata to matsuri in Osaka, struggling with humidity for the first time ever in my life,  not bitter in the slightest, instead laughing at the double takes by train riders to see a white girl in yukata and not falling over. I am apparently a source on kimono and Japanese dress and social history for a young woman completing her master’s degree in textile history in the UK, after conducting an interview via email. And I recently unearthed all the images you see of me in this post along with all my other souvenirs from that summer in Japan during a frantic search for something completely different.

There may be a revived interest in meisen within the dress history community, but considering the number of eighteenth-century specialists, I can’t see that my ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ will actually overcrowd it. And I am inherently curious. I want to know who the women (and possibly men?) were who wore these garments. I want to know if it was in defiance of the military, or if it was in ignorance of the designs’ origins. I want to know where they were worn, and where they were made. And I love the idea of “occidentalism” as opposed to “orientalism”. And the interpreter in me loves the conversation between East and West in a simple fabric. I think that through meisen, I have found a way to shed the bitterness I carried for so long without realising it. And that through meisen, I have found a way to marry my two academic paths, and my 20-year-old self’s passion and hopes, with my 30-something-year-old’s present knowledge, experience, and ability to pick myself up and dust myself off when circumstances beyond my control knock my feet out from under me.

久しぶり

Yukata-1 with my second host-mother, Akuta-san, on the way to a matsuri.

Thoughts on reenactment and historical costuming

Several months ago my Worn Through colleague, Serena Dyer, posted a rebuttal on her personal blog to a Guardian book review dismissing historical reenactment-based research. Serena’s rebuttal is not only well-written and excellent, it coincided with an increased interest on my part in such research. It also inspired me to interview by email two colleagues who do both reenactment and historical costuming as much for fun as for research and education, Katy Werlin and Sarah Goodman.

Since my very first dress history conference, I have greatly admired the work of those academics who could recreate and wore the clothing they discussed over those who — like me — simply spent a lot of time in the library and speculated. At that conference in 2011, the presentation I remember most vividly was the discussion of Madame Vionnet’s patterns and a recent revelation by a woman who herself had a design background that Vionnet did not cut her pattern pieces on the bias; she cut them with the grain of the cloth, then turned them, and in that masterful way created her so memorable bias-cut gowns of the 1930s. Since I could barely sew at the time, I was in awe of the ability to not only understand the patterns so intimately, but to remake them to test the theory. It revealed how Vionnet’s construction techniques themselves have made her gowns so inimitable even today.

I longed to integrate such abilities and insights into my own work, but I could not fathom how I would. Especially considering my then-rather pathetic sewing skills.

I have long experienced historical reenactment as a spectator, rather than as a participant. It will possibly surprise many people to learn that I am somewhat shy, and so I had no faith in my ability not to be so self conscious that I would be unable to maintain a character, as required in historical reenactment.

My first Renaissance Fair was at the local city college when I was nine. I was mesmerized by the Queen and her court, and most especially by the joust — especially the horses. Since then the fairs in my home town have become more of a public crafts fair where people dress up as everything from fairies to eighteenth-century pirates, rather than the slice of sixteenth-century life and material culture I originally fell in love with. About six years ago — long before I had decided to abandon reason and logical job prospects to become a material culturist and dress historian — I had the opportunity to go to the large, Northern California fair at Casa de Fruta where I encountered several “ladies” of the court who were able to not only answer all my questions about various aspects of their attire, but they did so without breaking character for even a breath. I’m still impressed.

My love of that first fair, and the Northern California fair, are born of my intense curiosity and desire to understand how people in these times actually lived. It is this same curiosity that led me to become a material culturist who focuses on dress and textiles. So a certain unspoken prejudice in the academic world against reenactors and those who do historical costuming even just for fun has always confused me. No, you cannot actually be a sixteenth-century courtesan or a medieval knight, or an eighteenth-century blacksmith, but surely spending a day or a week in their clothing, and adopting their mannerisms and activities will give you insights into their world that a library book never will?

My friend, Katy — now an assistant curator for a costume collection in Chicago — wrote about ballet and its costumes in the eighteenth century for her master’s thesis. She tells me that reenactment and historical costuming have been vital to informing her about how the clothing of the time influenced movement, a vital aspect of understanding dance and dance costuming. Katy tells me she has always loved dressing up, and that from this was born first her work with reenactment at local Renaissance Fairs, and later historical costuming just for fun. She separates the two based on historical accuracy in her costumes. For reenactment she tries to be as accurate as possible — including hand sewing and using historically accurate textiles such as linen, etc. For her ‘for fun’ costumes, she might use the sewing machine for long seams and only hand-sew the details, and she will use contemporary fibers and textiles — which are easier on the budget than all-accurate fabrics.

I met Sarah while she was out with a group of friends who all enjoy dressing in eighteenth-century costumes at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Thankfully I was with my mother, because the above-mentioned shyness would have left me admiring their beautiful sacquesrobes à l’anglaise, and other garments from afar, whereas my mother got me an introduction. Sarah also came to reenactment through her first Renaissance Fair — which she attended as a pre-teen and was absolutely convinced she would loathe. Instead, she fell in love at first sight of Puritans regaling visitors and reenactors with insults and threats of damnation. She now not only does eighteenth-century clothing with her friends (who even go on period-themed vacations together, and during one created this gem of a video which cheers me up every time I’ve had a bad day), she still does reenactments with the Society for the Creative Anachronism where she portrays a sixteenth-century courtesan. Sarah has found historical reenactment and costuming most useful in her own research in giving her insights into the attitudes and beliefs of the period that school history books often ignore in their way of simplifying things into ‘royalist bad, revolution good’. Her master’s thesis is examining the chemise à la reine (I’m very much hoping I’ll get to read it), and thus she looks a great deal at France before the revolution. Her research and her reenactment work have revealed that there are a number of ideas about race and feminism that were actually set back by the revolution.

Katy informs me that more and more people are beginning to take reenactment and costuming seriously in the academic world, though Sarah says she usually waits to get ‘the feel’ of the individual’s attitudes before she lets it be known that she does the costuming. This leads to less altercations with those who still cling to the same attitudes as those expressed in Serena’s Guardian article — that it’s really just pointless and that ‘dressing up’ can teach you nothing. Katy points out though that reenactment, etc, has become more associated with ‘experimental archaeology’ in recent years, which my brother, the military historian, can attest has turned previous attitudes about such things as armor and how swords were held and yielded on their heads. (One of his new favourite Youtube videos is of an experimental archaeologist in full plate armor doing a series of cartwheels to show how easy it was to move.) This association somehow gives reenactment more validity. I like to think that it is a prejudice of academia being discarded.

Katy also points out that people tend to dismiss reenactors on the grounds that they must agree with the sentiments of the people they are reenacting — that those portraying Confederate soldiers must approve of racism and slavery, etc. As she herself says, ‘an interest in a particular group of people at a particular time doesn’t mean you agree with them’.

Since that first conference three years ago, I have begun working with my local Shakespeare in the park theatre company as a costumer. It was a trial-by-fire way to improve my sewing skills, but they have improved! They are not where I would like them to be, but perhaps historical costuming is just the next step I need to advance.

I was going to end this post by saying I envied both Sarah and Katy their wealth of knowledge about their historical time periods due to their costuming and reenactment experience (which I do). But I think instead I will end it with a public promise to discard my shyness and join a costuming group myself. Both Sarah and Katy have reassured me that costumers do not expect everyone who joins to already be an expert seamstress (an assumption I long held and quite honestly hid behind) — they welcome newcomers with little or no sewing skills as much as they welcome those with years of experience. And who knows … I may just become the sort of academic I most admire in the process.

“Indian Shawls”

With Monica’s guest post, and subsequent discussions by Lizzie at The Vintage Traveler, I have been inspired to revisit a topic dear to my heart — Kashmir shawls, and their European imitations.

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‘I have spared no expense in [Edith's] trousseau,’ were the next words Margaret heard. ‘She has all the beautiful Indian shawls and scarfs the General gave to me, but which I shall never wear again.’

 ‘She is a lucky girl,’ replied another voice … ‘Helen had set her heart upon an Indian shawl, but really when I found what an extravagant price was asked, I was obliged to refuse her. She will be quite envious when she hears of Edith having Indian shawls. What kind are they? Delhi? with the lovely little borders?’

 – Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, p. 9

I discovered Elizabeth Gaskell, I’m embarrassed to say, not through her wonderful novels, but through the dramatized BBC miniseries for North and South. It was a period piece, the costuming was beautiful, there was a handsome leading man… That was more than enough to gain my attention.

I loved the series so much that in 2008 I bought the book. Little did I know then that the passage above would not only spark a keen interest in Indian shawls (as discussed in the preface to my friend Monica’s guest post back in January), but would set me on a new career path, and even take me to India.

My annotated edition of North and South was extremely valuable as I knew very little — still know very little — about Victorian society, and the references and explanations provided by Patricia Ingham taught me why certain events within the novel had the repercussions and reactions that they had. However, within the first ten pages I was frustrated, as I could not understand why Indian shawls were so coveted, let alone what they were. I embarked on a quest to learn. I soon found out that they were actually Kashmir shawls, made of cashmere, and woven in the Kashmir region, all of which was lumped together as “India” in Britain at the time of their discovery (seventeenth century), and throughout the time of the shawl’s popularity (late eighteenth, and well into the nineteenth century). They were handwoven of rare and expensive materials, and were difficult to import, especially with near-constant wars and rivalries with France, making them a rather exclusive status symbol, and one that was extensively copied. Thus making the originals even more valuable. Along the way, I also discovered an entire academic field that had been unknown to me, alternately called costume, fashion, or dress history.

Long story short, I ended up in Edinburgh, earning a degree in Art History, focused entirely on material culture — specifically dress and textile history. It seemed only natural when I decided to explore the influence of India on British dress and material culture in my dissertation that I would need to do an entire chapter on these “Indian Shawls”, and how they not only saved the British silk-weaving industry, but inspired major technological advancements in the pursuit of better and more intricate copies, and how a uniquely Indian pattern came to be known in English after the Scottish town of Paisley.

Cashmere (a bowdlerization of Kashmir, where the fibre was mistakenly believed to originate), comes from Himalayan goats. In order to survive the extremely cold winters, these goats have adapted their coats to be very soft, but very warm. The problem is that cashmere cannot be farmed the way wool or silk can, or at least couldn’t be back in the eighteenth century. To get the best quality cashmere, herders had to wait for the goats to shed the fur and then collect it. The outer layer was useless to the shawl weavers as it was too coarse from exposure to the elements and to foliage, rocks, etc., to be of use. The inner layers, though, close to the skin have the seemingly miraculous quality of being extremely fine, and ridiculously soft, while being very, very warm. Once collected, carded, spun, and dyed, the shawls were thin enough to be drawn through a wedding ring — and they still are. Patterns remained in families for generations, and the weavers worked by hand on floor looms, creating intricate patterns that would eventually become the modern Paisley (and which help us to date the shawls now):

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4 Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7 Figure 8

These shawls were originally worn by men in India and Persia, as can be seen in the portrait of Captain John Foote below. This portrait is one of those rare instances where we not only have the portrait, but the same museum (York), has the actual garments worn by the sitter as well. The shawls were typically gifts to favoured diplomats, or courtiers in Indian and Persian courts, given by the monarch in gratitude for services, successes, or loyalty. There are even accounts in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries of their being excellent bribes to and from the East India Company. It is not clear how they came to be worn by Western women in India, but wear them they did, and it is believed it was these women — called nabobinas by a distrustful and dismissive press and public back in Britain — who brought the first shawls back, and set a new fashion.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Captain John Foote, 1761 – 65. Oil on canvas. York Art Gallery Collection.  Image courtesy York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Captain John Foote, 1761 – 65. Oil on canvas. York Art Gallery Collection. Image courtesy York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

The earliest account of these shawls comes from the love letters of the author Laurence Sterne, who wrote Tristram Shandy, to his beloved, the unhappily married Eliza Draper, who had returned to England from Bombay on account of her health. He mentions after their parting — her husband had heard she might have fallen in love with someone else, and also to protect her own reputation she returned to India — how he cherishes the shawl she left him as all he has left of her.

The returning nabobs — another bowdlerization, this time of nawab, or ruler, and used to refer to the men sent out to India to work for the East India Company — and their accompanying wives, sisters, or mothers (called nabobinas) were seen by a suspicious public as having a dangerous influence on proper British Society. There is a farcical Letter to the Editor which appeared in the Scottish publication, The Lounger, in 1785 — though written anonymously, largely believed to have been authored by Henry MacKenzie, The Lounger‘s editor — in which a Mr Homespun laments the deplorable influence of the recently-returned Mr Mushroom, but more than that his wife, on his own household and daughters:

“… everything that used to be thought comfortable and convenient formerly, is now intolerable and disgusting. Everything we
now put on, or eat, or drink, is immediately brought into comparison with the dress, provisions, and liquors [at the Mushrooms'], home-made gowns, of which they were lately so proud, have been thrown by with contempt since they saw Mrs. Mushroom’s muslins from Bengal; our barn-door fowls we used to say were so fat and well-tasted, we now make aukward [sic] attempts, by garlic and peper [sic] to turn into the form of Curries and Peelaws.” (1)
 

Their rarity, their colours — Indian and Kashmiri textiles were far more vibrant and more colour-fast than anything the English could produce — as well as the exoticism of coming from the subcontinent and the very foreign design aesthetic made the shawls a much-desired garment. They were particularly to be worn while on promenade, whether in London or Bath, where everyone who was anyone could see you, and it. By the late 1790s, with the shift in fashion to the more grecian directoire or Empire styles most often seen in Jane Austen film adaptations, Indian shawls gained even greater desirability: thin cotton muslins will do well in India, or even southern France or Italy, but in the chilly climates of Britain, a warm shawl that manages to retain the grecian aesthetic is particularly useful. It was also a way for the elite women of France to display their wealth in a less ostentatious way than the wigs, hats, sacques and other mantua that had made them targets during the recent revolution. Or one would be better to say it made it possible for the men to demonstrate their wealth, as dressing one’s wife was as important to maintain the appearance of being a gentleman with taste as decorating one’s house. I love the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’m not blind enough to want to live in them.

Jacques-Louis David, Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy, 1790, Oil on Canvas

Jacques-Louis David, Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy, 1790, Oil on Canvas

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Kashmir, Shawl, circa early nineteenth century. Woven cashmere. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

Poor, overworked, weavers working by hand in Kashmir could not keep up with the sudden and increasing demand in Europe, and very few people could afford the shawls, anyway. A shawl in the eighteenth century cost between 70 and 100 pounds, the equivalent of $9,000 – 12,000 today. This left the market open for imitators, and many clamoured to fill it. This demand for shawls coincided nicely with a drop in the British silk-weaving industry, since Britain was at war with France, and France had been Britain’s supplier of silk. The British authorities were also worried about the fashion, as the government saw it as threatening British goods, British work, and they could not earn much money off of them besides tariffs, which many traders would avoid by smuggling the goods in via the black market. In an era before digital records, there was no way to know how shawls in a particular shop had been imported. There were even schemes to bring Cashmere goats in to Britain and create their own crop of the fibre, but on the few attempts to import the animals almost none of them survived the crossing, and those that did, did not survive the new climate.

Then, a weaver in Norwich came up with the idea of combining silk with high-quality wool to imitate cashmere, and suddenly, you could have something almost, but not quite, like the new shawls for only a fraction of the cost. Weavers in Edinburgh, France, and Paisley, Scotland quickly picked up on the combination themselves. Mechanized weaving had been established in Britain and Europe since 1785, meaning that while the quality was not as good as those coming out of Kashmir, they could produce more and faster.

And as can be seen in the images below, just as with chinoiserie or Japanned furniture, the designs were obviously a Western interpretation of an Asian aesthetic beyond their comprehension.

Norwich shawl

Norwich imitation shawl

Then, in 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard of France developed the Jacquard mechanized loom, which enabled the weavers to create intricate, all-over patterned shawls, further shifting the aesthetic back in Kashmir. Complicated patterns are still known in English today as jacquard.

Eventually, the imitation shawls flooded the market, with most of the shawls coming out of Paisley. Paisley was unscrupulous in its desire to not only survive, but to succeed — blatantly copying the designs of its rivals in Edinburgh and Norwich, and filling the milliners and drapers shops of Britain with so many Paisley shawls that the clientele soon forgot that “Paisley” indicated the place of origin, not the pattern itself. They eventually put both Edinburgh, and Norwich out of business to the point that while we can identify Norwich shawls from the nineteenth century and distinguish them from Paisley’s, there are no known examples of surviving Edinburgh shawls, despite Edinburgh’s at one point being a major weaving town. And ultimately, many of the original Kashmiri weaving towns went bankrupt and were abandoned as well.

The shawls were so popular that they altered along with the European fashions — even those coming out of Kashmir began to be almost exclusively made for the Western market. From the turn of the century through the Romantic era of the 1820s and into the 1830s, the rectangular-shaped stole with border designs was popular. However, as skirts expanded into the bell-like shape, and eventually needed crinolines to keep them so wide, that was the fashion for the 1840s and 1850s, the shawls became more square, with all-over patterns and only a blank portion in the very middle. Shawls with reversed colour patterns also became popular as then the wearer could fold the shawl in a different way to achieve an entirely new look.

The way of wearing the shawl altered as well. The directoire style was somewhat casual in the wearing of the shawl, as can be seen in the fashion plates below, but by the Victorian era, the shawl was now folded diagonally and worn about the shoulders, and often so large that the tip of the shawl would stop just above the hem of a dress, even with the crinoline.

Volare Digital Capture

1812

Volare digital capture

1813

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Paisley Shawl, 1870. India, Kashmir, maker unknown. Photo by Monica Murgia.

The Kashmir weavers continued to work, but with such reduced numbers of operating manufacturers, the originals became even more expensive and even more exclusive, such as those inherited by Margaret’s cousin, Edith, in North and South. Or, to highlight a modern indicator, as worn by Jane Eyre when she returns, rich after inheriting her uncle’s fortune, to Mr Rochester in the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Knowing about Indian shawls has made me even more insufferable to watch period films with than I was before…

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The shawl was popular for well over a hundred years, but by the late nineteenth century not even Paisley could survive the invention and popularity of the bustle.

While I was studying these shawls in Edinburgh, I had the good fortune to have a roommate from Bangalore who has since become one of my dearest and best friends. While in Bangalore myself last summer for her wedding, it was absolutely necessary when buying souvenirs to acquire my own, genuine Kashmir shawls (they have mechanized weaving in India and Kashmir now, of course, so they were affordable enough for a poor academic). One for me, and one for my mum.

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The patterns are more muted and more subtle, as suits the modern fashions — a continuing tradition, if you will. But as you can see in the image above, they are still finely woven enough to be pulled through a finger ring.

Who would have thought that a single section in a novel that I became curious about would bring me here?

I don’t believe in fate. I’m quite content to believe that there is no master plan, but instead that life is nothing but a series of both happy and unhappy, unplanned accidents. One such is the gray “Indian Shawl” above, which I wear almost every time I’m heading out and the weather is a bit unpredictable.

The most eerie of all, however, came about recently in a conversation with yet another of the wonderful friends I made in Scotland. While Skyping with her about her upcoming wedding and reminiscing about Scotland and how much we missed it, she asked me if I had ever seen the BBC miniseries, North and South. I laughed and told her that yes, I had. She then told me that she often watches it when she’s in a nostalgic mood, because so much of it was filmed in Edinburgh.

Another happy accident, that brought it all full circle.

(1) Nechtman, Tillman W. 2006. ‘Nabobinas’. Journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 18, Number 4: 8 – 30.

Further Reading Recommendations:

Beardsley, Grace & Sinopoli, Carla. 2005. Wrapped in Beauty: The Koelz Collection of Kashmiri Shawls (Ann Arbor, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan Press).

Clabburn, Pamela. 1995. The Norwich Shawl (London, HMSO).

Irwin, John. 1973. The Kashmir Shawl (London, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office).

Mackerell, Alice. 1986. Shawls, Stoles and Scarves (London, B.T. Batsford Ltd).

Nechtman, Tillman W. 2007. ‘A Jewel in the Crown? Indian Wealth in Domestic Britain in the Late Eighteenth Century’. Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 41, Number 1: 71 – 86.

Nechtman, Tillman W. 2006. ‘Nabobinas’. Journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 18, Number 4: 8 – 30.

Rock, C.H. 1966. Paisley Shawls: A Chapter of the Industrial Revolution (Paisley, Paisley Museum & Art Galleries).

Rothstein, Nathalie. 2003. ‘Silk in the Early Modern Period, c. 1500 – 1780’ The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume I, David Jenkins, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press):  528 – 561.

Rothstein, Nathalie. 2003. ‘Silk: The Industrial Revolution and After’ The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume II, David Jenkins, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 790 – 808.

Shrimpton, Jayne. 1992. ‘Dressing for a Tropical Climate: The Role of Native Fabrics in Fashionable Dress in Early Colonial India’. Textile History, Volume 23, Issue I: 55 – 70.

Smith, Simon. 1998. British Imperialism 1750 – 1970. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Stewart, A.M. 1946. The History and Romance of the Paisley Shawl (Glasgow, Paisley Museum).

For the love of Paisley

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I am happy to present Of Ravens and Writing Desks’ first ever guest post from my Worn Through colleague and one of my dearest friends, Monica D. Murgia.

Monica has an MA in Fashion & Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice from FIT. Her focus was curatorial, with an emphasis on twentieth century fashion designers. Her current research interests surround American fashions from 1935-1965, artistic collaboration with fashion designers, and current technological innovations that impact the fashion system. Monica has also taught several courses in fashion design, focusing on history of costume and the creative process. She writes about teaching fashion at Worn Through, and explores the relationship between fashion and art on her own blog. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and to like her on Facebook!

A few weeks ago she visited the Allentown Art Museum exhibit, The Paisley Pattern: Woven Shawls from Asia to Europe, and knowing about my passion for Indian and Kashmiri shawls — I did an entire chapter about them in my master’s dissertation — kindly offered to do this guest post for me.

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I recently went to see an exhibit on Franz Kline at the Allentown Art Museum.  After taking in that show, I wandered around the other galleries in the museum.  Much to my delight, there was a wonderful exhibit on textiles.  The Paisley Pattern: Woven Shawls from Asia to Europe was a small show, but expertly done.

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Paisley Shawl, 1860. Possibly France, maker unknown.
On Mannequin: Scarf, 1820. American, maker unknown.
 

The show’s focus was specifically on woven shawls.  These objects were prized possessions during much of the 19th century.  Fashion moved at a much slower rate.  Clothing was not disposable. Garments had to last years, and were passed down.  Because of this, many garments had to be made of conservative colors.  Shawls and scarves added variety and flair to a wardrobe.  Paisley shawls from Kashmir, India were the most sought after.  Kashmiri shawls were meticulously crafted with the best fibers, dyes, and weavers.  The shawls were woven in sections on small looms by several weavers.  Once the sections were complete, they were stitched together to create the final product.

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Patka, 1815 – 1825. Jammu-Kashmir, India, maker unknown.
 

These paisley shawls were worn by upper class Indian and Persian men.  However, Dutch and British colonization of India introduced Europeans to Kashmir shawls.  The exotic and beautiful patterns caused an immediate fashion craze.  Textile manufacturers throughout Europe started to replicate these patterns on jacquard looms.  Jacquard looms are mechanical looms that can create complex designs with the use of punch cards.  These punch cards controls a series of operations in the weaving process.  France and Scotland became major mass producers of paisley designs via jacquard looms.  This mass production made paisley more accessible to the middle class throughout Europe.

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Shawl, 1840. France or Scotland, maker unknown. Detail above.
 
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Paisley Slippers, 1990s. Stubbs & Wootten, North America.
Purse, late 1900s. North America, maker unknown.
 
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Paisley Shawl, late 1800s/early 1900s. Possibly Scotland, maker unknown.
 

The exhibit showed some wonderful examples of real Kashmir shawls and those that were produced abroad.  A favorite detail of mine was on a shawl from 1870.  The embroidered signature of the workshop is visible.

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Paisley Shawl, 1870. India, Kashmir, maker unknown.

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The shapes of the paisley shawls manufactured in Europe also changed.  In the 1850s, the shawls were long and rectangular.  This was to accommodate for the crinolines (hooped petticoats) and full skirts that were fashionable during this period.  As the bustle replaced the crinoline, shawls became square.  The change in silhouette meant that there was less to cover, hence smaller shawls.  Americans coped with lack of access to paisley prints by embroidering them onto shawls and scarves.  The museum had several great examples of paisley motifs embroidered onto white muslin scarves.

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Full Plaid Kirking Shawl, 1840. Probably Paisley, Scotland, maker unknown.

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Scarf, 1900s. Bharat, India, maker unknown.
 
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Scarf, 1830. American, maker unknown.
 

I was really impressed with the wall text and featured textiles.  The curator explained such a complex history in a way that was easy to understand.  The selection of objects really reinforced the main points.  The paisley on display was so dazzling.  The complexity of design, use of color, and the skill of embroidery were on my mind long after I left the exhibit.  It’s amazing how well-made items can last such a long time.  Seeing how these shawls survived 150 years (or more) makes a wonderful case for sustainability.  All of the scarves and shawls are still stylish, even now.  I would love to own something so well-made and so beautiful.  Knowing that well-made fashion and accessories can last several lifetimes says it all: Quality over quantity.

http://www.allentownartmuseum.org

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Detail, Paisley Shawl, late 1800s/early 1900s. Possibly Scotland, maker unknown.

Monsoon

You can hear the monsoon coming. The spatter of rain drops on banana and coconut leaves starts at a distance then comes toward you like an ocean wave. The sound is so faint it is hard to distinguish whether it is the wind in the millions of surrounding trees, or a deluge. You register the sound when it is perhaps three miles away. Two miles away, slightly louder. Louder still, one mile.

All of this happens in a split-second, and it is only just before it breaks overhead that your mind recognizes it and braces for what is coming. Under a tin roof, the sound is deafening. Even inside a solid, wood and concrete house with terra cotta tile roofing you can barely hear yourself think. By comparison, when you are out in it, there is almost no sound at all. One moment you are making your way through the dark, using what little moonlight is filtering through the clouds to try to perceive snakes, deceptively deep puddles, and the very vague difference between the “road” and the start of the jungle or other people’s plantations. The next, you are drenched. Having lived in Scotland, I was still unprepared for the actuality of getting caught in a torrential downpour. Five seconds before I was stomping along in a borrowed Manchester United jumper, damp TOMs that still smelled vaguely of the rotten jackfruit I’d stepped in several hours and miles earlier. Then suddenly I was more properly soaked through than I would have been had I walked for miles through Edinburgh’s heavy spring rains.

Five seconds before, I was longing for home. At that moment, I wanted time to stop so I could live that moment just a little longer.

I returned from India two months ago today. I miss the people I met. I miss the colour, the clothes, and the food. India is as far away from where I live as I can possibly get on this planet. Not everyone speaks English, so don’t believe people when they tell you that. But you’re quickly reminded that you do not have to share a language to communicate with someone, or for them to share their culture  and their world with you. India taught me that it is possible to make an exquisite garment completely by hand, of far better quality than anything at Forever 21 or the Gap, in a back alley off a major commercial street not because it will fetch a higher price or make you a household name, but purely for the joy and pride of making something beautiful. India taught me that hot water is a luxury. As is enough food, and a roof over your head. It reminded me that in an economy where I don’t have much, I have a family that loves me, and which offers me unending support while I pursue a writing career, and that that will last longer than any bank account or security.

India taught me that sometimes you have to get as far from home as possible, to reconnect with yourself.

Occupy Aesthetics

Despite the best attempts of municipal and larger governments to block coverage, it has been hard to ignore or remain ignorant of the Occupy Movement. Or ‘#Occupy’, should you prefer to use the language of Twitter in keeping with the movement’s primary method of planning, orchestration, and communication.

For those still unaware (if there is anyone), Occupy is the mostly peaceful demonstration of a large number of American citizens ranging from the young, educated, and broke to 90 year-old, retired World War II veterans, who choose to assemble in places of financial power to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the growing financial gap between rich and poor in America. The movement has spread to other countries and has been praised and demonized, supported and condemned.

What has struck me most about the movement is its aesthetics.  I am the daughter of two flower children, those 1960s teens and young adults who did not tune in, turn on, and drop out, but instead fought for political change. I was politicized early (I attended my first political rally at the ripe old age of four), and have grown up not only hearing the stories of the many marches my parents joined, but seeing photos and documentaries so that I would understand what the 1960s my parents participated in truly stood for (ie, not Woodstock alone, awesome though the music may have been). So when the first photos broke, it was hard for me not to instantly see the similarities.

Image via SFGate

Image via Travis Lin Photography

And it was not long before Occupy had its iconic moment of horror,

to join the infamous 1970 photo from Kent State.

The imagery produced by the movement itself, however — particularly its posters — borrow heavily not from the aesthetics of the last age of American protest, but from America’s ‘enemies’ during that time: the Communist regimes of the USSR, China, and North Korea.

Image by Eric Drooker

Image by Alexandra Clotfelter

Image by Dave Loewenstein

You could also argue that perhaps the protesters had seen a few too many episodes of Mad Men.

But I just don’t think that a movement organised enough to form a library for use by those residing in camps protesting corporate greed would have chosen anti-Capitalist imagery by accident.

Capitalism in and of itself is not flawed, any more than is Communism. But the belief that the Market — or the Premier, or the President — is always right most definitely is. The problem is that Capitalism and Communism are only uncorrupted so long as they stay within the hallowed white tower of Academia. This is not to say that Academia is pristine so much as to say that any theory must alter when placed in the hands of human beings, a highly unpredictable species if ever there was one. And Capitalism began to be corrupted in America in about the mid-nineteenth century, when President Lincoln gave unprecedented powers to rail and industrial corporations in order to win the war between the Union and the Confederacy. Lincoln was troubled by what the outcome of his choices would be and even wrote to the effect that he hoped things would return to what they had been before.[1] Genies are not quite so easily put back in bottles.

Capitalism was further distorted when the Fourteenth Amendment awarding the recently-emancipated slaves ‘personhood’ was used to award corporations their own ‘personhood’. The idea that a corporation could have the same rights as a person is ludicrous in the extreme. Particularly when the corporations are magically immune to the repercussions for their actions that other ‘persons’ must face. If an individual steals or murders, they must stand trial and pay the determined penalty. But when corporations do the same, you do not see groups of CEOs, their boards, or shareholders going to prison for the decisions they made as a corporation.

Whatever your personal feelings about the Occupy Movement, you must admit that it has begun a dialogue. It has drawn attention to the growing schism between rich and poor, and at long last given voice to a portion of Americans who have been silenced since the introduction of first radio, then television turned the exchange of information in the modern world from a dialogue (as could be achieved when the only medium of communication was word of mouth or print) into a one-sided dictation of what those who HAD the information decided those who did not could or should know.

But all the attention and all the dialogue will not change anything if the thousands of protesters and supporters do not begin speaking the language the politicians understand: Votes.

America is lucky in that it has direct representation. Each vote counts, as the Iowa Caucus in which Romney only won by EIGHT votes has shown.

To paraphrase Ghandi: First they ignored the movements because they were organised through Twitter and other social media (it’s not like any of those things brought thousands to Tahrir Square or anything); Then they dismissed us, and told us to take a shower and get a (non-existent) job; Then they fought us, and banned press coverage and arrested journalists so we could not see the overtly brutal tactics they used to do so; Now, we win. Whoever ‘we’ ends up being.

By voting.


[1] Gore, Al. 2007. The Assault on Reason. (New York, Penguin Press): 88.

Conspicuous Intellectualism

This is a modified version of the paper I recently presented at the Developments in Dress History conference at the University of Brighton. Where permissible I have included the images exactly as I used them in my presentation, however all of the objects and works of art are copyrighted, so internet links will be provided to those images I purchased for the conference, but which are not available for public display.

I am extremely grateful to Linda Baumgarten of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Clarissa Eseguerra of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for their assistance as well as letting me rifle their collections both in person and online for this research.

Please feel free to share your comments or questions!

♦♦♦

Conspicuous Intellectualism: Banyans and the Construction of Masculine Identity through Dress in the late Eighteenth Century (1760 – 1800)

The Savile Row tailor, Hardy Amies once said, ‘A man should look as though he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, then forgotten all about them.’[1]

The maxim itself may be ‘modern’ (Amies only died in 2003), but the attitude it expresses regarding the sartorial construction of masculinity is at least 250 years old.

When looking at the suits of middle to upper class men in Britain and France from the early to mid-eighteenth century, it is hard to believe that any man could have simply ‘forgotten’ about what he was wearing.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Suit, France, ca 1755 Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé), on satin foundation
© Los Angeles County Museum

At a time when one wore one’s wealth and status on one’s back (or displayed it on one’s wife), opulence was the norm. Fabric was more expensive than labour, thus the most elaborate velvets, silks, and wools were used in men’s attire so that anyone could see at a single glance that you were a person of money or rank, if not both.[2]

This is particularly true at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the three-piece suit – coat, waistcoat, and trousers (breeches at that time) – was still relatively new. The waistcoat and coat replaced the doublet sometime around 1666, when Charles II discarded it and hose as his own attire. The shift in sartorial preference was a propagandistic attempt by the king to prove his loyalty to England over France by rejecting what was seen as a particularly ‘French’ mode in favour of good British tailoring.[3] Cuffs for the coats were overly large, waistcoats reached nearly to the knee, and the skirts of the coats were voluminous in the amount of fabric, pleats, and buttons or other adornments employed. However, by the middle of the century, the male silhouette had begun to narrow, making such excessive uses of fabric no longer fashionable, and occasionally, even the fabrics used became simpler and less ostentatious, compensating with more expensive appliqué.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Suit, France, ca 1760 Coat and waistcoat: wool plain weave, full finish, with sequins and metallic-thread embroidered appliqués; breeches: wool plain weave, full finish, with silk and metallic-thread passementerie
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art

But, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century we can see a massive societal shift in attitudes, through the satire aimed at those  (usually older) men still clinging to the traditions and fashions for embellishments that had been the norm as recently as fifteen to twenty years before. The mezzotint engraving of The OLD BEAU in an EXTASY, depicts an older gentleman in absolute raptures with his own reflection as his valet laughs at him behind his back while preparing his bag wig. A closer look at the cartoon shows that the gentleman is dressed in a banyan – quite appropriate for the toilet – but beneath it we can see that the waistcoat he wears is embellished with the sort of opulent gold appliqué that is no longer in vogue anywhere but court. The caricature was published on 13 July 1773; caricatures and satire are employed to mock an aspect of, or group of people within society that is no longer needed, wanted, or approved of. The old beau is mocked for caring about his appearance, and indeed caring about it so much that his own reflection sends him into ‘an extasy’. This, quite literally, illustrates that society at large already expected men to put on their clothes with care, and then to forget all about them.

The phrase ‘Age of Enlightenment’ can be rather misleading, because it can suggest a uniform age of reason and philosophy happening simultaneously across Europe, when indeed it happened in different ways and at different times from Russia to Scotland. But the Enlightenment in Britain was unique in that it happened in the two metropolises – London and Edinburgh – through the medium of printed essays and treatises, lectures, and coffee house discussions rather than around or in university or court settings as had happened in France and the rest of Europe. This made the ideas as accessible to the middle class – even upper working class, such as Thomas Paine – as they were to the elite.[4] And for the first time in British history, politics and philosophy were being heavily and publicly debated through the medium of the printed pamphlet.[5]

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had deposed James II and ensured a safely Protestant monarchy, but an unforeseen side effect was the complete discrediting of the ideas of Divine Right and Hobbes’s Leviathan.[6] If God’s ‘chosen representative’ as monarch wasn’t, that placed the power of government even more firmly in the hands of Parliament than it had been during the Civil Wars or Cromwell’s Republic. In fact, it meant that the fate of Cromwell’s Republic had not been divine retribution for the sin of regicide, it had simply failed. Divine Right may have addressed the legitimacy of a king to rule, but it had a broader impact on society: implying that everyone was in the place that had been divinely chosen for them. If they were not in their current position due to divine will, then surely they could change it if they had the means and desire. And if they could remove a king without divine retribution, why, then, couldn’t they remove members of Parliament if they didn’t like them?

For the first time since the Renaissance, or perhaps since Ancient times, men began to question their place in the world, how that world worked, and even the concept of divinity and the rights and power of religion. Not content with mere contemplation, they began to perform experiments to find answers to these questions. Newtonian laws of nature replaced Divine Right. And the Hobbesian idea that in his natural state man was a feral beast, was replaced with the Rousseauian theory of the ‘nobel savage’, ie, that it was civilisation that corrupted man; ‘civilisation’ being the old regime and the courts they lived in. The obvious solution – to Rousseau – was to get ‘back to nature’, so as to reclaim our natural untainted state.[7]

Not for the first time, nor the last, what people read informed not only their attitudes toward their society, but also what they wore. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had perhaps the greatest impact on masculine attire and identity of any single novel written at the time.[8] Published in 1774, it is partially autobiographical and follows the misadventures of a young nobleman who has escaped to the country on a twofold mission: to take care of some family business and to recover from the sudden death of a dear friend. There he sits in glades reading Homer in the original Greek, communes with the yeomanry to learn and partake of their simple, ‘real’ tragedies, and falls in love with a woman already engaged to someone else. This setting serves as a contrast for the court life he runs away to to rid his mind of the beautiful Carlotta through work as an assistant to the ambassador. The court, in contrast to the idyll of the countryside, is full of gossip, intrigue, corruption, and people who care far too much about their appearance (particularly repulsive in the men). Werther triumphantly discards his ornate court attire when he is forced to resign from his post due to a petty, fabricated scandal, and is all too happy to don his plain blue frock coat again: clothing that is comfortable, well made, and easily forgotten about once it has been put on.[9]

The novel created a vogue for English country sporting attire. Elements of it were borrowed and became a part of men’s daily wear, such as the coat collar, and the frock coat and great coat being elevated from the wear of servants and the working class to permissible clothing for the gentry. All of it leading to the rise of British tailoring which still stands to this day. By the end of the century the standard uniform for male portraiture (and probably daily dress) was a navy blue frock coat, a gold- or buff-coloured waistcoat, and buff broadcloth or buckskin breeches.

©Los Angeles County Museum of Art Portrait of Richard Palmer George Romney Oil on canvas, 1787

Colours became extremely limited: black for evening dress, brown, navy, and dark green for everyday dress, with drab – as seen in the portrait of Sir Brooke Boothby by John Wright of Derby – being the most popular. [10]

During the Age of Enlightenment, middle and upper class men now had far more important things to think about than their clothes. Subtlety became the guideline.

Except in the banyan. In fact, during the forty-year transitional period under discussion, the banyan was one of the increasingly few garments where men could be flamboyant in their textile choice. The only real change in the banyan during this time period was in its increased prevalence. Throughout the eighteenth century it came in two distinct styles: kimono, or frock coat.[11] During the latter half of the century construction techniques had improved, as can be seen in the Victoria and Albert’s Coromandel Coast banyan as opposed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s.

© Victoria and Albert Museum Banyan, Coromandel Coast, 1750 – 1775 Cotton chintz, painted and dyed, lined with block-printed cotton
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s At-Home Robe (Banyan), Coromandel Coast, 1700 – 1750 Mordant-painted and resist-dyed cotton

That the banyan was one of the few ways men could use ornate fabrics is particularly evident in the Colonial Williamsburg banyan from about 1760: this banyan (with matching waistcoat) was actually constructed from fabric recycled from a woman’s sacque.[12] A remarkably similar fabric was used in the construction of a made-to-order French banyan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art collection, showing how acceptable such a textile was for this garment.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Banyan & Waistcoat, France, ca 1765 Silk, wool flannel lining

At a time of intense simplification – even constriction – on what textiles constructed an appropriately ‘masculine’ public identity, it is odd that the banyan not only survived, but thrived. The number of middle and upper class men painted in banyans for their portraits rose exponentially, and indeed the banyan was considered acceptable ‘undress’ to be worn in the mornings not only to receive visitors, but even to visit the famous coffee houses where they would discuss the latest news and philosophies with friends and acquaintances.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Banyan, China & The Netherlands, 1750 – 1760 Silk satin and silk plain weave (damassé)
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s At-Home Robe (Banyan), France, ca 1760 Silk satin, lined with striped plain weave silk

The banyan, being an object of conspicuous consumption which used a vast amount of the most expensive, exotic fabrics available, was also extremely ‘masculine’ as an object of what I like to think of as ‘conspicuous intellectualism’. The preference for either the most expensive or the most exotic foreign fabrics (Indian cottons, Chinese silks, or even Scottish tartans), made them as elaborate as the daily dress of the first part of the eighteenth century. Possibly more, since they were such a contrast to the plain coats and breeches that had become the new expected attire of the average middle to upper class man. But as Brandon Brame Fortune stated in the title of her 2002 article for Dress, ‘Studious Men are Always Painted in Gowns’.[13] Men of the Enlightenment had more important things to think about than their clothes, but what better way to advertise that you yourself are a thinker and ‘studious man’ than by donning the garment worn by Newton for many of his own portraits? And perhaps unconsciously, how better to cling to the old ways of wearing your status and wealth for all to see, without incurring the mockery afforded to old beaus, than by being conspicuously intellectual in a coffee house of a morning?

The practice of wearing the banyan or dressing gown in public became so prevalent that by the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, laws began to be passed banning them from the streets of Bath and a number of university towns, with other cities soon following suit.[14] Sartorial laws are generally passed to comply with society’s attitudes and expectations surrounding appearance; that enough irritation was aroused by the wearing of banyans in public to warrant the attention of governing bodies shows that it was no longer acceptable for men to be seen in a state of undress – and perhaps in such elaborate fabrics – outside of their own homes. The diminution of what was appropriate public attire indirectly had the same effect on what fabrics were acceptable for men in public.

© The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection Professor John Robison Sir Henry Raeburn Oil on canvas, ca 1798

The banyan could still be worn to receive visitors, and was, and men continued to be painted in them – since this was now their only public forum for displaying the garment or the fabrics they were made from. And they were painted in them whether they actually owned one or not. As can be seen banyans used prodigious amounts of fabric at a time when fabric was more expensive than labour. This meant that some men, such as Nicholas Boylston, of Boston, would simply have themselves painted wearing a fictitious banyan, thus enabling them to appear intellectual and wealthier than they actually were.[15] (There are two versions of this portrait identical in every way but one: in one, the banyan is blue-green, in the version below it is brown, despite their being the ‘same’ damask fabric, leading me to believe these garments were not painted from life.)

©Boston Museum of Fine Art Nicholas Boyston John Singleton Copley Oil on canvas, ca 1769

These portraits, though, were the banyan’s last ‘heyday’ and that of exotic fabrics for men. Shortly after it became unseemly to be seen in the street in one’s dressing gown or banyan, it ceased to be acceptable to receive visitors in the garment unless you were being attended in your sickbed. The trend for the banyan in portraiture faded as well, so that by the 1820s, it was no longer acceptable for men to be seen – even painted images of them – in anything but the most ‘forgettable’ of fabrics.

Since then, any masculine attire that did not conform to the rigid ideas held by mainstream society have been relegated to minority groups, and they (or any man seen to noticeably care about his appearance) have been mocked and pilloried for their refusal to conform ever since. From the extravagant suits of the African American men who were part of the funk music culture in the 1970s, to the Mods of 1960s London youth, to the Beatniks, the Teddy Boys, and the Punks; they all have specific names, and their ‘look’ has a place in history, because it stood out as a contradiction, and a contrast to the eighteenth-century ideal that clothes should be chosen with intelligence, put on with care, and then forgotten.

It is ironic that at a time period when Western Civilisation was progressing in thought, ideas, politics, and understanding, it so severely constrained the attire of the men making that progress. During the time period of transition they had the banyan, which served to emphasise their masculinity by showing them to be thinkers and philosophes, but by the end of the Enlightenment, they didn’t even have that.

Bibliography

Baumgarten, Linda. 2002. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. (Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).

Baumgarten, Linda. 1998. ‘Altered Historical Clothing’. Dress, Volume 25: 42 – 57.

Byrde, Penelope. 1979. The Male Image: Men’s Fahsion in Britain 1300 – 1970. (London, S. T. Batsford, Ltd.).

Chenoune, Farid. 1993. A History of Men’s Fashion. Deke Dusinberre, tr. (Paris, Flammarion).

Colley, Linda. 1992. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837. (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Fennetaux, Ariane. 2004. ‘Men in gowns: Nightgowns and the construction of masculinity in eighteenth-century England’ immediations, Volume 1: 76 – 89.

Fortune, Brandon, Brame. 2002. ‘ “Studious Men are Always Painted in Gowns” Charles Wilson Peale’s Benjamin Rush and the Question of Banyans in Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Portraiture’ Dress, Vol. 29: 27 – 40.

Hume, David. 1994. David Hume: Political Essays. Knud Haakonssen, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Lemire, Beverly. 1991. Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660 – 1800 (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

McDowell, Colin. The Man of Fashion: Peacock males and Perfect Gentlemen. (London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd.).

McGillicuddy, Louisa. 2011. ‘Economies of style in The Ides of March’ The Guardian Fashion blog, http://www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/fashion-blog/2011/oct/28/ides-of-march-style  [28 October 2011]

Paine, Thomas. 2000. Thomas Paine: Political Writings. Bruce Kuklick, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe 1715 – 1789. (New Haven & London, Yale University Press).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘The Fall from Nature’ The Western World. Dr John P. Farrell (ed.) (New York & London, Penguin Custom Editions): 9 – 17.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘Morals of Nature’ The Western World. Dr John P. Farrell (ed.) (New York & London, Penguin Custom Editions): 18 – 29.

Schama, Simon. 2002. A History of Britain: Volume III. (New York, Hyperion Books).

Taylor, Lou. 2004. Establishing dress history. (Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press).

Voltaire. 1989. Voltaire: Selections. Paul Edwards, ed. (New York & London, Scribner/Macmillan Books).


[1] McGillicuddy, Louisa. The Guardian website: [28 October 2011].

[2] Baumgarten, Linda. 1998: 44.

[3] Lemire, Beverly. 1991: 10 – 11.

[4] Paine, Thomas. 2000: viii.

[5] Schama, Simon. 2000: 12 – 141.

[6] Hume, David. 1994:xi – xiii.

[7] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010: 13 – 16; 19 – 27.

[8] Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002:212.

[9] von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. 2005: 12 – 108.

[10] Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002: 212 – 218.

[11] Fortune, Brandon Brame. 2002: 28.

[12] Baumgarten, Linda. 1998: 50 – 51.

[13] Fortune, Brandon Brame. 2002: 27 – 40.

[14] Fennetaux, Ariane. 2004: 81; Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002: 178 – 180.

[15] Fortune, Brandon Brame. 2002: 28 – 32.

 

Truly FABULOUS!

‘Dress is at one and the same time a science, an art, a custom, a feeling.’

– Honoré de Balzac, 1799 – 1850[1]

I own a number of exhibition catalogues, most of them pertaining to fashion and textile exhibits. It is a joke among my friends that I own more books and catalogues about clothes than I own actual clothes. Catalogues are tricky things; you at once must please the academics, inform the layperson, and appeal to the person who wandered in on a whim, or the insistence of a friend or colleague, and whom you have to win over.

This is not an easy balancing act to do.

To take two catalogues from my collection, FAMSF’s Pulp Fashion, and their Balenciaga and Spain: the former appealed strongly to the person on the street and (yes, I have checked) even to the layperson. It contained full-colour photographs of the pieces as presented in the exhibit, with a (very) little bit of information. The latter pleased the academics: it opened with a facsimile of a statement in appreciation of the designer from Baroness Phillipe de Rothschild, dated 1973. Most of the photos are archival, and there are several essays with very small print. The academics loved it. Most of the laypeople, however, seemed disappointed. They wanted something to remember the exhibit by, not a reference text on Balenciaga. Of course, it is possible the two exhibits had different target audiences for their catalogues. Not all exhibit catalogues are designed to appeal to everyone.

But some of them are.

I reserved my place on the upcoming Costume Society of America behind-the-scenes event for FIDM’s FABULOUS! exhibit several weeks ago. There is to be a catalogue-signing session, and I had convinced myself that I could just wait until the event to get my copy … Then Monica Murgia tweeted that she had received hers and was in raptures. Then Two Nerdy History Girls did a review. Then the FIDM Museum Blog did a recap of the opening and began to discuss pieces from the exhibit, and, well … What’s the Carrie Fisher quote? “Instant gratification isn’t fast enough”?

So, my copy of the FABULOUS! catalogue arrived two weeks ago. I have been petting it ever since.

It is truly fabulous. 370 full-colour pages featuring the fantastic images and detailed information that patrons of the museum have come to expect from the blog (meticulously run by Rachel Harris), and previous catalogues.

The FABULOUS! exhibit is a retrospective, displaying and celebrating the last ten years of acquisitions by the museum, ranging from an early nineteenth-century gentleman’s court suit, to the multi-coloured ‘hightop’ trainers of the 1990s. The catalogue is broken down into six sections based on time period, and spans 210 years of fashion history. Each section opens with a detail photo of one of the objects, and a fold-out timeline covering the major developments and events in art, fashion, politics, and science during the time period; with a one-page essay on the facing page placing the events – and the garments, accessories, and images – within the correct context. What follows are page after page of exquisite photographs by Brian E. Sanderson, with succinct, but elucidating descriptions of each object, often including its provenance and history, by curators Kevin Jones and Christina Johnson.

I cannot find a fault. And I have tried. Even the section on Scottish textiles – I did an entire (not very good) ‘virtual exhibition’ and wrote more than one paper on tartan during my post-graduate studies – was impeccable.

It is perhaps not as informative as the Balenciaga catalogue, but I do not turn to exhibition catalogues as the ultimate reference tool when I am doing research.  I look to them for images of the garments I have been reading about; for the sort of concise context FIDM is so good at providing in its catalogues; and for the reference section.

I, myself, am rather ignorant of ‘modern’ fashion history. I studied the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. With the help of the FIDM Museum blog – which is firmly ensconced in my GoogleReader feed – and now the FABULOUS! catalogue, I have embarked on an independent study course, of sorts, educating myself not only about twentieth century fashion history, but how to be objective about my own century.

This is extremely fitting since FIDM is first, and foremost, a school.

The museum was conceived in 1973, ‘when the Fashion Design Department insisted that students studying clothing design and construction examine garments firsthand in order to fully understand textile drape, pattern structure, and finishing techniques’.[2] The faculty were the first donors, raiding their own private collections to aid their students’ learning.[3]

It has grown by leaps and bounds and does not simply comply with, but sets a standard of excellence in exhibits, incorporation of modern technology … and catalogues.

19 November can’t come fast enough.

All images courtesy of FIDM Museum Blog

[1] Jones & Johnson. 2011: 13.

[2] Ibid: 6.

[3] Ibid: 6.

Research Ramblings, or Court vs Country, 21st-Century Style

If you follow me on Twitter or have checked out my Current Projects page, you’ll know that I am preparing a paper for the Developments in Dress History Conference at the University of Brighton in December. The paper is titled ‘Conspicuous Intellectualism: Banyans and the Construction of Masculine Identity through Dress in the late Eighteenth Century’ (thank you to one of my best friends, Shobha, for giving me the main title, credit where it is due!).  And it involves quite a bit of research.

I have been reading and re-reading various essays, novels, and political and philosophical tomes written by eighteenth-century scholars attempting to get as clear a picture as possible of what the intellectual culture was and how it might have shaped an eighteenth-century, middle to upper class man’s attitudes about himself and masculinity.  This is the Age of Reason.  There is a lot of intellectual debate going on.  The printing press was no longer a new invention, it was a flourishing one; innumerable circulars and pamphlets flooded not just the metropolitan areas but the countryside as well. The landed gentry needed their news and opinion pieces when out of town as much as when they were in town casting their votes, after all.  Books were becoming more plentiful for those who could afford them (though you bought the pages and paid to have it bound yourself, so that it would match the rest of your books, of course).  The authors being read and discussed were Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, Paine, Goethe … just to name a few.

It was a tense time politically.  There was the Seven Years’ War that spread across the Continent and beyond (to be called the French and Indian War in North America). That was followed by the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. In Britain, the Union between Scotland and England into Great Britain was fairly new (1707), and not universally adored. The Union had dissolved the Scottish Parliament in favour of a “new” British Parliament, but since it remained at Westminster, it was seen by those opposed to the Union as the absorption by the English parliament of the Scottish.  That’s not to say that the Scots (those few who could vote) didn’t have representatives, but in a country that still considers Scotland and England a massive distance apart (the train ride from London to Edinburgh is about four hours, a travel time I do not find impressive), in the eighteenth century it must have been extremely unnerving to have your government packed up and moved to over 500 km away when the only mode of transport was sail, horse, or your own two feet, and you might speak Gaelic rather than English.

Not everyone opposed the Union. Many, like David Hume, saw it as an opportunity for growth and progress for Scotland. Which is what it turned out to be, but it is not easy to see what the struggles during turbulent times will bring when you are living through them. Especially when your uncertainty is compounded by the removal of the Stuart king, James II, in 1688 in favour of the safely Protestant William and Mary (Mary being James II’s daughter).

This deposition rattled more than just the Scots. It completely upended the long-held ideal of the Divine Right of kings. This Divine Right was seen to have been proved when the Cromwellian Republic, established in the wake of the Civil Wars and the beheading of Charles I by his own people, failed. The Restoration of Charles II was accordingly atonement for the sin of regicide, and the prosperity of that era (or so they thought of it) was proof they had been forgiven.

But when Charles II died childless (well, legitimately childless … ), his openly Catholic brother James II was seen as a backdoor to the blood-drinking papist despots of the Continent, and not fit to rule Protestant Britain, thank you very much. We’ll just ignore that Britain had only been truly Protestant for little more than a century, shall we? Good.

Charles II and James II were the descendants of Mary Queen of Scots. Charles II was the last king to be crowned in Scotland as well as England. For those in Scotland opposed to the deposition, the Union was just a further stripping of their identity. Particularly when it was followed  by the Clearances in the late eighteenth century.

There were multiple attempts by the Jacobites to reinstate the ‘rightful’ king: First James II (attempts from 1689 – 1690); then his son, James III (‘The Old Pretender’, attempts from 1708 – 1715); then the glorious Bonnie Prince Charlie, who failed for the last time in 1745 at the Battle of Culloden, and whose face now adorns shortbread biscuit tins the world over. How the mighty have fallen…

The Jacobite cause never truly faded, though. There are still Jacobites today, albeit very small in number, who want to depose the current monarchy and put a (believed) descendant of the Stuarts back on the throne.  Which ignores that the current monarchy are descendants of the Stuarts, they are just the product of daughters married off to Hanoverians rather than the ‘direct male’ line. The crazy is everywhere.

But in the eighteenth century the Jacobite cause was seen as a true threat. There were secret toasts held by secret clubs, the toasts made in glasses with secret signs etched into their designs, secret loyalties stitched into garters and bedcovers by the Jacobite women. The secret, potential threat.

It was an uneasy time to be in Britain.  Not least because they had deposed the ‘rightful’ king, and other than the rebellions (which were easily quelled) nothing had happened to the government itself.  It carried on with the business of running the country.  Taxes were set and collected. People went about their business. Which called the ancient, established idea of ‘rightful rule’ into question, and rattled the core belief systems of an entire nation (or two nations, to be precise).  This meant the Cromwellian Republic had simply failed, rather than being a divine punishment of some sort. It also meant that they were right to stamp out the rebellions, because the Jacobites were clearly standing in the way of Progress. Progress replaced ‘divine right’ in a way. It was seen as linear, unyielding, and right. Thus anyone who stood in its way (ie, the Jacobites, or the indigenous people of colonised nations), was mowed down accordingly in its name.

Real power was now acknowledged to be in the hands of the politicians. Now all those votes the landed gentry were casting when in London really, truly meant something.  And they began to be bargained for, debated and even bought in new ways.  Or perhaps they weren’t new, they were just more publicised thanks to all those busy presses.  Either way, a war of sorts began.  Not just between political factions, but between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’.

Court in the eighteenth century meant high society, and the king’s court, not an institution where crimes are tried.  The Court began to be seen as corrupt, superficial, fake and decayed. Who knew what was under all that make up (worn by both men and women), or those ridiculous wigs?  What diseases did they hide?  If you wanted truth, you went to the Country, where real people made their own way in life.  The people of the Country didn’t make their living on gossip or outdoing each other in appearance. They grew or reared their own food, made their own clothes… and so on.  You can see the beginnings of the Victorian morality discussions about Country innocents off to the City to make their fortunes in the factories and ending in Ruin.

Interestingly enough, it was through clothing that this debate began to be waged. Simplicity became desirable, decoration detestable. This might have had something to do with the ongoing wars with France and thus an interruption in British silk supplies, but who has time to bother with facts when you’re being philosophical in the Age of Reason? When have human beings not come up with philosophical and moral justifications for conforming to necessity? The other intriguing fact is that it would take longer for women’s fashions to simplify even though they were the most constricting, to the point of doing bodily injury. It was acceptable for women to be concerned with their appearances. Everyone knew they had weak minds (unless they were Voltaire, who believed women to be just as good as any man, only nicer). But a ‘real man’ had more important things to consider. If he did take care or wear things that were considered too decorative, or put on wigs and make up, he was a dandy, or a macaroni (Yankee Doodle Dandy, anyone?).

This became most apparent to me when I was reading Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werthur, because Aileen Ribeiro cited it as being highly influential to fashion in her Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715 – 1789 (pp 212 – 216).  I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive her. But, I can see why it would have an impact. (I do not, however, recommend it to anyone looking for a good read, it is an eighteenth-century philosophical morality piece, so not for the faint hearted or the easily-annoyed.)  The main character retires to the Country to recover from the death of a friend and sort out some family affairs.  There he sits in glades and reads Homer in the original Greek and connects with the local people (the working class and yeomanry), sharing their ‘true’ sorrows, and admiring their self sufficiency.  In the highly regulated dress etiquette of the eighteenth century, and quite frankly because it was impractical, one did not wear the same clothes in the Country as one wore to Court. And Werthur’s disparaging comments on the people at Court and what they wore indicate that he has the fashionably disdainful attitude towards its artifice that should be expected of a well read, thoughtful man of his century.  It’s all very Rousseauian. There is a passage where he lifts his own plain, blue Country coat to almost reliquary status, mostly because it was what he was wearing when he first met his love interest Carlotta (who is engaged to and in love with someone else when he meets her, but he insists on falling in love with her — sorry — is helpless to fall in love with her anyway).  I told you it was all very annoying.  The other reason he holds this plain coat in such high esteem is that it is a representation of the real, uncorrupted TRUTH of the Country, etc. And Werthur is ever so happy to be rid of his Court finery when he is fired from his position in the Ambassador’s employ. I think you get the point. Not that he stops making it for another hundred pages, or so.

The thing I found most striking is that while we no longer have ‘Courts’, this attitude is still prevalent in our own society. Perhaps it is even reflected in the fact that what we call simply a pump or a high heel in American English, is referred to as a “Court shoe” in British English.  Though I’ve not done enough research there to say for certain.  It is still true, though, that to care about your clothes and appearance, or fashion in general, and especially both deems you superficial and frequently stupid. You don’t have anything better to do with your time, so you go shopping, etc. The film of The Devil Wears Prada seems to bear this out, the plain, practical but passionate young journalist gets a job at a fashion magazine so she can make rent and is corrupted by shiny, pretty clothes, finally making her way back to ‘true’ journalism at the end.

There is a sort of reverse vanity among certain people that is expressed through intentionally NOT paying too much attention to your clothes. When I was in Oregon this time last year (and admittedly, I was in Portland for less than 24 hours, so I might be doing that lovely city a disservice), I swear everyone was in hiking or all-weather gear of some sort. No doubt proving they were down-to-earth, no-nonsense sorts of people. Or maybe it was just that it is almost always raining or misting up there.  But do you have to wear Northface nylon parkas and hiking shoes? Couldn’t even just a few people wear excellently cut trenchcoats and a nice pair of Wellies or riding boots?

I knew a young woman who had a history of being actively mean to people she ‘no longer had to see everyday’ during chance meetings (if she didn’t like them), of being rather nasty to others about their clothes while being extremely sensitive about her own, and who declared that she was lucky to be so ‘low maintenance’ because it made her such a good girlfriend. Her interpretation of low maintenance being that she didn’t wear make up or spend a lot of money on clothes. There is so much wrong with that entire situation that it would make for a book, not a blogpost (all human beings are high maintenance, full stop), but the fact remained that she didn’t adjust her conduct or her attitudes, but her closet. Why did she feel the need to neglect her appearance, rather than alter the part of her that thought it was okay to bully others? How did that prove she was ‘low maintenance’? Is it that we are such a visual society? Do things like this happen in other cultures?

I have sat in coffee shops listening to friends discuss how much they have spent on their clothing, trying to outdo each other with who had the lowest price tags. Why? I am possibly prejudiced, but I assumed it was to prove that they were far to busy being deep and intellectual to bother with things like clothes. Or maybe it was just one of those senseless competitions students will enter into for no actual purpose.

I do find myself wondering as I do my research what, precisely, says that because you care about your appearance, your clothes, or just clothes in general that you must not have anything else in your head? Whether you live in the eighteenth century, or the twenty-first. Yes, there are people who go over the top when it comes to shopping and appearance. But isn’t there an equivalent at the other end of the scale? Who’s to say that the man or woman dressed to the nines in New York City doesn’t have as much of an appreciation for nature as the rugged hikers of Oregon? Who’s to say that just because a woman loves make up and clothing that she’s not a deep thinker?

The eighteenth-century Court versus Country debate, that’s who. But I think it goes deeper.

In France, if a female politician dressed in the dowdy way most American and British women in politics do (Nancy Pelosi being an exception), she wouldn’t get elected. The French attitude is that if a person doesn’t take care of themselves and make an effort to present their best self to the world, how on earth can they be trusted to take care of a country?

Is it Protestant eighteenth century, then, that gave us these attitudes? Am I being too sensitive because these are criticisms of something I love? Is it possible that those who are so dismissive of clothing are dismissive out of insecurity? They are unsure and awkward about their clothes, so they belittle those who are not like the child who derides the toy of a friend that he actually covets. Or are they genuinely unconcerned and reacting to a world that, no matter how many philosophical treaties we write or read on the subject, does still judge based on appearance? That seems to be what David Mitchell is doing in this Soapbox rant:

You can’t judge a book by its cover because appearances can be misleading. Even carefully ‘unconstructed’ ones.

Feel free to weigh in.

Fairy Tales

I haven’t written any creative fiction since 2009 or shared any of my fiction publicly since 2000, when I won an award at a local young writer’s conference.  This is my first short story since then.  All rights reserved.

~

He was standing with his hands in his pockets in the archway where the castle’s portcullis would have been had it still had one when she first saw him. His posture was relaxed and casual, full of a seeming-self assurance she often craved for herself. There were holes in his jeans. His tee shirt fit well but not closely. There were imitation converse on his feet. It was not an outfit that had had much thought put into it, but it was an appearance that had been thought about enough to give the impression of not having been thought about.

She didn’t think any of this at the time. Thoughtfulness, analysis, and attempts at description and explanation would come many, many months later. After the first kiss. After the last.

No. At the time she didn’t really think anything at all. She’d been too locked in her own self doubting, unhappy, lonely, jetlagged thoughts to have any space left in her mind for anyone else. It was not until he began explaining to some of their wider-eyed fellow international students that queuing was practically a national past time in Britain that she even realised he was on the tour.

“Have you seen the movie of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” she asked. He seemed cautious and a bit surprised as he turned to look at her through dark-rimmed spectacles. She noticed his eyebrow ring then, and another piercing in his left tragus. She noted under her rising level of uncertainty that they somehow didn’t look incongruous or particularly shocking on him. But, she was too busy feeling as though she was interrupting. That this interruption was being judged to do more than simply observe his appearance.

“I’ve read the book…” he replied warily. Before, his voice had been that of a seasoned performer. Not a professional, merely the confident tones of someone accustomed to attention and delivering comedic anecdotes to mates – or even strangers, she would learn later – down at the pub.

“Oh, so have I, it’s infinitely better,” her own voice was almost apologetic now, and she hated herself ever so slightly for it. “But there’s a scene in the movie where they’re dealing with the Vogons and Arthur steps forward and says ‘I’ll handle this! I’m British. I know how to queue!’”.

She could never remember afterwards if that was the first time she heard him laugh, or even if he did. But she had clearly passed the first test, because there was the shaking of hands, and the exchange of names, courses of study, places of origin and guarded anecdotes of why they’d come so far to do postgraduate work. A rather mundane, ordinary conversation. One that had already been gone through a few dozen times with other students. One that would be repeated many times again. But this one was different. More important and thus more cautious. At least for her.

Their tour group assembled then, the international university students mixed in with the regular tourists, foreign and British alike. Their guide had that same performer’s confidence, but with a professional’s flair, a Scottish accent, and a love of quotations. “It was a plan so cunning you could –“

“Pin a tail on it and call it a weasel,” she and her new acquaintance said in unison. There was a pause, they looked at each other and it was then that she realised how absolutely wonderful his smile was. And felt a flutter that it was directed at her. The potential in the moment was almost overwhelming. She would never know how she lost it.

The rest of the tour was fairly ordinary. But even two years later she could describe it in detail. The Stone of Scone did turn out to be rather dull and unremarkable. The tour guide quipped about how happy fathers were when their daughters announced they wanted to be married in St Margaret’s chapel, “because it’s a very small church”. She was the only one on the tour who knew Charles II had been the last king to have a Scottish coronation. The great hall was now an armour display room with a magnificent wooden ceiling. The War Memorial was poignant, and particularly arresting due to the names of the recent dead in Iraq and Afghanistan being daily updated in a simple three ring binder.

He never left her side.

They walked back to the university’s main campus together. It was a way she would come to know by heart in the next year, but that day she was oblivious to how she got back. They stopped at the University Shop to get drinks. He mentioned wanting to try Irn Bru, and explained it as the Scottish national soda, to which she replied that she knew that and had been meaning to try some, but had forgotten the name what with the jetlag and her visa issues. It sounded fake to her own ears, even though every word was the absolute truth.  He picked up a paper as well in order to do the crossword, “Later, though”.

It was a beautiful and completely un-Scottish day. The sun was out and it was quite warm… for Scotland. It was probably only about 18°C (65°F). At the end of her year she would consider it almost hot, and also be thinking in metric and Celsius as though she had done it her whole life.

But that day she was thinking that the weather was nothing like what she had expected it to be. That she was glad she had worn a dress, but wished it hadn’t been a sweaterdress – even a cotton one. They sat in George Square for hours, talking about everything and nothing. A couple – friends or lovers, it was hard to tell – sat doing a joint meditation a few feet away that ended in hugging. She kicked off her shoes to feel the grass between her toes and the grass was soft and greener than she believed possible. The air was clean and clear. There was a crispness to it that kept the chill from biting and the sun from oppressing. Their sodas were sweet, but still accustomed to American tastes, she did not yet find it too sweet.

She did not yet find hope a burden. And though she would have flatly denied it – and believed herself to be telling the absolute truth as she did – she still believed in fairy tales.

That night, at a university residences-organised pub crawl, they would learn they had the same favourite comedians. She would learn about his love for music and just how much she loved his laugh. And she would wish, and wish, and hope and wish. And she would ecstatically write all her wishes and hopes down and send them back to where she had come from. Three months later she would experience that first, priceless kiss.

Two years on, almost a year after it all ended, at the end of her more exhausting days she would look back, torn by pain, loss, loneliness, and regret and wonder where she had gone wrong. Sometimes cursing the day she ever thought of going on the castle tour. Sometimes questioning whether things could have, would have been different if only she’d had the confidence, self knowledge, the certainty she now possessed. Knowing she had only won those qualities through surviving the emotional turmoil and aftermath of The End.

She’d read Lao Tzu, Emerson, Dickenson, even Douglas Adams and JRR Tolkein, and embarrassing self help books borrowed from the library so that no one would see them on her bookshelves later. She finds the most comfort in an obscure poet, Yehuda Amichai.

And she goes to sleep, and dreams of a casually confident young man, with a bewitching smile and an enchanting laugh, standing in the stone archway of a Scottish Castle, asking her her name.

“They dismantled us

Each from the other…

A pity.  We were such a good

And loving invention.

An aeroplane made from a man and wife.

Wings and everything.

We hovered a little above the earth.

We even flew a little.[1]


[1] Excerpt from ‘A Pity. We were such a good invention.’ by Yehuda Amichai.

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