Very Cool Ephemera or Clothing Maketh the Man (and the Woman)!
When I teach, I always try to bring in bits of material culture (buttons, medals, coins, glass, jewelry, seals, icons, ritual implements, cloth and so forth – the things we use every day in various ways), because it can tell us every bit as much about a people, place, or in my case since I teach theology, a religion as the written word. We tend to privilege the text in academia and in western culture in general, but I find that when my students handle oh, a 10th century manuscript page, or a ritual drum, or a religious statue, when they see and get to *touch* some embroidery or a prayer shawl, or shaman’s coat, or liturgical vestment, some of which may be quite old, the subject I’m teaching comes alive for them. It’s the same when I immerse them in religious music of whatever tradition I happen to be discussing. So, because I use these things in my teaching, I tend to be a fairly avid antique buff.
Saturday, the local historical society was having an antique postcard and ephemera sale and of course I went. My friend and I spent about an hour and a half in a high school gymnasium, where the sale was being held, looking through lithographs, books, cards, and various types of ephemera (paper antiquities). Thanks to my friend MAG, boy did I score. I’m sharing it now just because it’s cool and it was only five dollars! This is a picture, I’m guessing mid-nineteenth century, maybe a little earlier, of an actress. What made me buy the image is the careful depiction of her hand quilted pink silk petticoat. It’s just glorious, omg. Yes, I have a side interest in textile and fashion history. Check it out:
I’m not sure I can use this for my theology class, but it’s cool nonetheless, especially since I have an actual handmade replica of a pink silk hand quilted petticoat (longer than the one pictured here) tucked away in my dresser upstairs.
Clothing really is fascinating. I often suggest that people cook for their dead or learn a little of the language of their ancestors or do genealogy research. All of these things are a powerful, powerful way of connecting with our honored ancestors and teach us useful and practical skills as well. Handling the garb that they would have worn every day, maybe even wearing it oneself on occasion (I have dressed in full 18th century garb when giving talks on the castrati, and it does tend to impact some of my ritual wear just a little) can likewise be educational. I connect more strongly to my female ancestors on my mom’s side when I’m wearing clothing similar to what some of them might have worn (even if it’s just a token handmade apron, which I do wear when I cook) than at almost any other time, save when I’m doing handwork. I completely understand why some people choose to do full, clothing-authentic reenactment as a type of ancestor veneration.
Even if you’re not interested in going that route (and I admit, I don’t for the most part, save for the occasional ritual or special lecture), handling and learning about the things our ancestors wore and how they moved in their world is helpful. The clothing we wear impacts how we engage spatially; it impacts how we are able to move in veneration of our Gods, the positions we can take, what ritual acts we’re able to comfortably do –I’ll give you an example. I have a coat that I wear as a spirit worker/shaman that is very heavy leather. It has ample charms and metallic pieces sewing all down the front and back in various patterns and a fringe of metallic charms. It is almost impossible to make a full prostration in that thing. I can do it, but it is really, really uncomfortable.
Here’s another example. I never understood why Victorian furniture was so hard and stiff; then I wore a corset for the first time (they are so very comfortable for someone with L4/L5 spinal damage. If I could stand to do it, I’d wear one daily. My back never hurt when I was in one). I sat down on my 21st century couch and nearly drowned in my cleavage. I suddenly realized that the stiffness of the furniture reflected the needs of women who were corseted all day, not just a little bit to help my back like I was. The furniture supported them in their garb. It was a eureka moment and it occurred shortly after I attended a conference on medieval textiles and fashion wherein a presenter pointed out that every single piece of cloth was valuable to our ancestors. Even high-status women and men would wear clothing that had patchwork and careful piecing because cloth was a commodity both difficult and time-consuming to make.
That conference completely changed the way that I looked at the work my female ancestors did, and it changed the way I looked at cloth in general. I began to embroider more and to be much more mindful about the clothing I bought (I can’t sew save for basic repairs, though I very much would like to learn one day). I stated mending and repairing much more frequently, and ever so slowly began trying to buy only natural fibers. This latter was partly due to my assistant who prefers natural fibers and partly due to learning that synthetic fabrics are basically plastic. I had another epiphany thanks to one of my ancestors, where I realized that we couldn’t dress the way we do today without the blessing of central heating and air conditioning.
These are, I realize, small things in the grand scheme of the world, but they were moments of understanding that helped me to deepen my connection to my ancestors, and my appreciation of all the crafts and skills that they had to do to survive in and better their world. Clothing really does tell us so much about how a person lives, how they love, and even how one honors the Gods. Here concludes my bit of rambling fun for the day.