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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. 

A Minor Ancestral Interlude

It’s a delicious zero degrees outside and I am loving it. Every morning, when I get up (after I have tea and sort myself into a grumbling consciousness), I go outside and greet the Gods and spirits. Because it was so cold today (and because I’d started the laundry, so all my warm pants were being washed), I put on (over thin leggings so I’m not breaking my taboo against dresses) a thick woolen skirt. It’s actually period clothing, made in the style of the 18th century, so in truth, it was a woolen petticoat. I only put one on (women would often layer them), and then warm woolen socks and Lobben boots (what my god-daughter once called my “troll shoes” – she’s fascinating by the slightly upturned toes lol), a flannel shirt, and a hat. I gathered my gear (incense, lighter, cup of water, and drum) and went out to work. The whole rite takes about 15 minutes, and I was perfectly warm. I could have stayed out there with no trouble for hours.

All of this got me thinking about the way we dress. My ancestors, and certain ancestral groups that I honor, often ask me to incorporate aspects of how they dressed during their lives, into my daily garb. It’s comfortable and not an issue for me for the most part, plus, it allows a means by which I can better connect to my dead. It’s like I’m wrapping myself in their attention and blessings. But I’ve learned some very practical things through this as well. 

My usual at-home gear tends to be very, very simple: black pants of a light, synthetic fabric (1), a ratty camisole top or t-shirt, and felted wool house slippers. That’s it. I’d live in it if I could. When I teach of course, I dress professionally (but I’ve started trying to replace any clothing made of synthetics with bespoke clothing of natural fabrics – it’s expensive but it lasts so much longer). One thing that I realized is that it’s only due to central heating and air that we can dress as we do (2). I don’t think it ever really hit home before that so much of how both men and women dressed was a matter of keeping the body’s core warm when, even inside, temperatures were much, much colder than what we are generally used to today. Here’s a fascinating video that shows all the parts to an upper-class Dutch woman’s dress circa 1665 (working class women would wear most of the same underwear bits and stays, but the quality of fabric and the number of layers would be less than what we see here). 

Up through the turn of the 20th century, there was no central heating. I spent a very cold and snowy January in a house without central heating a few years ago, getting up in the morning to light the huge wood stove, the only source of heating in the place. I’m going to be very blunt: it sucked (though not as much as having to trek through knee high snow to the outhouse or haul water). The way one managed was by layering one’s clothing and of course, there were chores to be done throughout the day (including cutting wood and keeping the fire going) that helped to keep one warm. It was a really good lesson in physically comprehending a tiny bit of how our ancestors lived.  These experiences build—at least for me– respect for how our ancestors lived, survived, and even thrived. I always through the way early modern women dressed – in multiple petticoats and stays– was foolish but you know what? Those petticoats keep one perfectly warm (probably warmer than the men, given that the style, at least in the 18th century, was for men’s pants to stop at the knee. Calves on a dude were viewed as sexy. Lol. So, they wore white stockings and showed that shit off) and the stays, and later corsets that women wore protect the core, adding a significant layer of warmth. What I’d dismissed as frippery and foolishness had a very practical purpose. This is also the case with head coverings. Yes, modesty for women was one of the reasons hair and head were covered, but there was also the question of warmth. Both men and women tended to keep their heads covered and both wore nightcaps. I’d always thought this absolutely ridiculous but when there’s no central heading, and the weather can drop to zero or below, covering the head makes perfect sense for keeping body heat in. 

from this site on historical menswear: http://www.historicalmenswear.com/1700s/

It reminded me yet again that our ancestors knew things. They were smart. They engaged with their world in practical and insightful ways. They understood their world and how to make the technology and crafts to which they had access work for them. In some ways, they understood better than we do today (3). They moved in their world in ways that made sense to them, and that took into account the available technology, the climate, and the work that they had to do. I think there’s a tendency to think that we are better than our ancestors, that they were somehow less sophisticated than we are now. This is a mistake, and this is where living history (in ways large and small) can teach us to reconsider how we treat our dead, how we approach them, and how beneficial it can be to approach our ancestors with a willingness to learn all the lessons they have to teach. 

Notes:

  1. I’m moving away from wearing any synthetics. Most of them are made of plastic and they are terrible for the environment, pick up body odor much faster than natural fabrics, and don’t last. They’re garbage fabrics. I have a colleague who, like many spirit-workers, has clothing taboos. In her case, she’s not permitted to wear synthetic fabrics. While that’s not one of my taboos (I have certain color taboos, and I’m also not generally permitted to wear skirts or dresses – unless it counts as ritual garb), I’ve started copying her because the fabric is just so much better. Silks, cottons, woolens, even rayon (which is made from plant fibers), linens, hemp, bamboo all allow for a broad choice of clothing. 
  2. This was further brought home to me when my assistant and I were traveling back from a funeral at which I’d officiated. I was dressed in an 18th century men’s suit (but with long pants), and she was in a sun dress and sweater, since this happened in the spring. I’m not usually sympathetic when women complain about office temperatures and such being too cold. My attitude, since I tend to run hot – my ideal house temp is 68 F—is put on a sweater. I’ve never worked in an office or classroom that I didn’t find swelteringly hot. My friend had a sweater on though but still begged me to turn down the ac in the car (I did). I was perfectly comfortable though – in three layers around my core: linen shirt, wool vest, wool jacket. It really got me thinking about male versus female garb – it’s not all bad though, as I note above in my article.  
  3. As a complete aside, I have a theory about why women’s clothing today tends to lack pockets. I don’t think it’s simple female vanity (I know some of the problem is concern over the line of more form fitting dresses, but I don’t think that’s the only thing happening here). Until the early 19th century (??) women would wear pockets as a separate part of their attire. You could have huge pockets, but you tied them around your waist, underneath your petticoats. They were accessible via openings in the sides of the petticoats. They could be as large or small as you wished. You were in charge of your pockets. In the 18th century, panniers were …. ginormous pockets. I seriously wonder if the dearth of pockets in modern female clothing isn’t some unconscious holdover from this earlier, multi-century trend. Here’s an article on decorating pockets. Here’s a site that shows traditional pockets on a mannequin. 

Advice to my Younger Self

The finest clothing made is a person’s skin, but, of course, society demands something more

than this.

—MARK TWAIN

This post has little to nothing to do with religion or theology but it is something I hope some of my readers, who might be going out into the working/professional world for the first time will find helpful.   

I was watching this channel on youtube last night and I really like these guys. They’re gracious and they know a lot of things about etiquette and style (I have a side interest in textile and fashion history.) and if you listen to their videos, it’s clear that their interest in these things has also caused them to become better men, because it has led to a focus on developing better character. I think that’s pretty cool (though I don’t agree with their every sartorial choice!). Well, in one of their videos, there is a discussion about things one of the guys wishes he could tell his twenty-year-old self. I couldn’t find the video a second time but the very last suggestion given in the video is one that would have transformed my working life in my twenties and early thirties: clothes matter.

I really wish someone had taken me aside when I retired from ballet and drilled this into my head. In ballet, the line of your body matters. Your technique matters. I suppose your ability to play company politics matters but clothing not so much. Your daily work garb is a leotard and tights. When you’re not wearing that at the studio, you’re likely in sweats. At least that’s the way it was in my day. After I retired, I temped for awhile and eventually got hired in finance. Moving into the corporate world was a huge shock. I was poor as a church mouse, my clothes were many times mended, and I tended to dress comfortably. I had no idea how important it was to dress in professional attire. I always dismissed clothing and make up as shallow vanity. It took seeing a photograph of myself in shabby clothes at a work event to drive the point home, that care for one’s professional appearance wasn’t vanity so much as sheer survival (1). Even knowing how important a professional appearance is (and how what constitutes “professional” differs from field to field), it took me a long time to figure out how to make this work for me. I can do it now, but there was an awful lot of trial and error, lots and lots of error. 

The sad reality is though, that you will be judged by your clothing and the way you look every bit as much (if not more) as by how you speak, work, and perform. Here’s something about that you can control: you can use that to position yourself well or poorly. You can control to some extent the first impression you make, and people are by and large shallow. If you *look* professional and *sound* professional, half your work is done (2). 

Here are a few basic guidelines: Dress appropriately for the situation (and maybe a touch more professionally than is strictly required), shine your shoes (3), iron your clothes, carry a stain stick to remove sudden mishaps, a small sewing kit to handle popped buttons and simple on-the-spot repairs, and make sure your hair is done appropriately. Women should wear light make up – and this I *really* hate but I’ve seen women written up for not wearing make up in a work setting. Keep the scent to a minimum. It’s ok to wear perfume but your co-workers shouldn’t smell you half a block away. Also, wear jewelry. I don’t know what it is today, but women aren’t wearing jewelry and they look really unfinished in professional or formal settings. Wear earrings and a necklace or brooch, maybe a watch. A ring is ok, especially if it’s a wedding ring. Don’t go overboard though. I forget actually the rubric I was taught. I think it was something like wear thirteen adornments and then take two off.  That includes scarves, jewelry, watches, etc. None of this has to be expensive (though I have a friend whose grandfather used to say, “we are too poor to buy cheap things.” In the end, if you buy crap, you’ll be replacing it way too soon, repeatedly and spending more money in the long run. Her grandfather argued that he was thrifty and therefore wanted to buy things that would last).  I personally favor having one or two pieces that are high quality that I wear a lot, but one could just as easily buy low cost but pretty jewelry. Do what works for you but pay some attention to aesthetics. This is part of dressing appropriately. 

Both women and men should invest in a good brief case appropriate to their field. Women should do the same with a handbag (4). Work within your budget and don’t be afraid to hit thrift stores. You’d be surprised at what you can find. If I could sew more than the basics, I’d probably end up sewing most of my own clothing. I am slowly seriously starting to consider bespoke clothing but it’s very expensive and so I’m still just at the consideration stage. It looks and feels better and lasts longer though, this I know. Women’s clothing is made poorly, not to mention no pockets. It’s made, no matter how high end it might be, to last a single season. Synthetic fabrics are poor on the skin and really devastating to the environment (5). I think it makes more sense to buy a few staples for one’s closet, classic staples in good fabrics with which one can mix and match. There’s no need to buy the latest fashions if you stick with classic looks (though the marketing and fashion fields may be the exceptions to this). 

This is a language. It’s a way to signal certain realities about yourself, to signal your competency and your belonging in a particular setting or group. Should this be necessary? No. But we live in reality not in a world of should and would. I’d like to spare anyone reading this the difficulty I had on this front. It really set me back professionally for a long time. I still like hanging out in leggings, or well-mended pants and a t-shirt when I’m home, but you won’t see me heading into work like that. Once a year, before the fall semester starts, I check through my clothing, make sure it’s all clean and in good repair, and replace anything that needs replacing. I find if I’m careful about upkeep, mending what needs mending when I first see it starting to go, it saves a lot of money in the long run (6). 

The best thing you can do is find a mentor. I have been lucky to have really good mentors in academia. That was never the case in corporate. If you don’t have a mentor, do a bit of research on what your industry standard is. There are lots of books available on dressing appropriately for every industry. Figure out what the industry base line is and then you can experiment – frugally—with finding your own style. 

I think vanity is a terrible fault in a person. It twists the soul out of true and leads to all sorts of damaging behavior. It is unbecoming a person who wishes to develop character. Care of the self, however, is not vanity. It is a necessary part of becoming a professional, and one that insures you’ll be able to put food on your table (7).

Notes: 

  1. I still mend my clothes but I’m more careful about where I wear those with visible darns. 
  2. I detested working in corporate. I have, however, found this to be true a huge percentage of the time. You still can’t be completely incompetent, but no matter how competent you actually are, if you don’t look the part, you’ll have issues. In academia, I make it a point to dress up, all the more so when I’m teaching. There have been studies on how female professors get lower ratings in student evaluations, and are, as a matter of course, expected by their students to do more emotional labor. It can also be a problem for younger female graduate student teachers to be taken as seriously as their male peers by students when they teach. Dressing for success, as I’ve seen it called, is a weapon in your arsenal that can help offset all of this, maybe not perfectly, but at least somewhat.  It sure as hell doesn’t hurt.   
  3. When I worked in HR it was the first thing I’d look at, especially in men. By the way, do not wear white socks with a suit. EVER. There is literally never any time you should do this. Save the white socks for the gym. This is one of those things that you might not be told, but it’s the unspoken sartorial language that signals whether or not you belong in a particular setting. I do love that funky socks are in vogue now for men, even with business suits (at least in academia) and also that the pocket square is coming back. It’s a good look. 
  4. I have found when I worked in HR that women are largely judged by other women on hair, nails, and handbag. Maybe shoes too in some cases. Scuffed handbags can be fixed by polishing them just like you would shoes (so long as they’re leather). Leather brief cases can be heavy, which for me with my injuries is a problem. I prefer canvas bags with leather accents. 
  5. Did you know that a huge number of synthetic fabrics are really just plastic? 
  6. If your invisible mending skills are lacking, you can take damaged clothing to a dry cleaner or tailor. They are usually more than capable of mending any issues properly. It’s also worth developing a working relationship with a tailor who does alterations.  
  7. And beauty and adornment themselves can be sacred in and of themselves.