Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can We Discuss Pockets? or, Beware Bad Revisionist History

About a week ago I saw this article floating around the interwebs: The Disturbing Reason Women's Clothing Historically Never Had Pockets.  

I admit, my first thought was "What an amusing bit of baseless, invented historical poppycock" wrote a "sigh, this is silly" Facebook post, had a nice chat and laugh with my history nerd friends, and moved on.

But I keep seeing this idea resurfacing.

People.

No.

First off, a quick lesson in "hmmmology"--when you see "always" or "never" in a historical context, say "hmmm."  Say "hmmmm" really loud and then question if it's true or not.  Minimal research will almost always debunk an absolute claim like this.  Quick lesson in hmmmology over.

But to the point, this article ignores, completely, the historical reality.  To keep this focused on what I know well and to avoid running into major overtime with this post, let's just focus on the ("long") 18th century.  And in this context, sure.  Women's *clothing* typically did not have pockets.

You know what they did instead?  Yeah, tied GIANT BAGS under their clothes.

Sometimes very prettily embroidered bags:



Or quilted:



Or colorful:



Even patchworked:

Though quite often plain:



And these separate pockets are not small.  Many of us chatting on my Facebook post originally ripping this article extolled the virtues of the pocket--how much we can fit into it, how they're often worn in pairs for EVEN MORE storage, how it's so convenient that, no matter how many outfits you have, you never have to transfer stuff out of one pocket into another, and you never have to worry over your handbag matching your outfit or occasion, because it's under your clothes.  It's harder to steal from you when your purse isn't on your arm but buried under gown and petticoat.

Some of the claims circulated about the "politicizing" of pockets and demonstrating how the lack of pockets translates to oppression of women point to Liberty in Transportable Stuff.  If a woman can't carry much, she can't be independent of a man.  Further, she can't tote around Dangerous Things like weapons or (gasp!) books, rendering her innocuous.

While you may not be able to tuck a pistol or a paperback into your itty bitty Kate Spade crossbody, you can certainly carry both in your 18th century pockets.  The hypotheses of both Liberty in Transportable Stuff and Dangerous Things fails in the face of evidence in the 18th century context.

(And we haven't even gotten into bags, baskets, market wallets, and other means of toting your flotsam, or the history of such items in eras when neither men's NOR women's clothing had built-in pockets.)

Beyond being made-up foolishness, this is bad revisionist history.  And that's a problem on a few levels.

First, and this is important, *revisionist history as a category is not a bad thing.*  Revision means, at its most basic, re-seeing, and there is plenty to re-see when we approach history.  Look, even the giants of historical research who came before a) missed stuff; b) focused on different stuff; and c) had their own prejudices about what they saw.  Contemporary historians are doing great work investigating, for example, groups of people who have been largely ignored, including women, the enslaved, and common soldiers, and are producing work that illuminates the past by seeing what wasn't looked at before. Re-see, re-evaluate, re-vise--completely valid process.  (Christina of On Living History reminded me of Through the Needle's Eye: Women's Work in the Age of Revolution, which is a great example.)

The problem as I see it is that craparticles like this are how most of the public enters the dialogue of revising history, and instead of seeing it as a worthwhile inquiry into filling in the gaps and correcting missteps that the study of history has left thus far, sees instead either a political rallying ground or a series of convenient fictions for said rallying ground. That's a shame, as it de-legitimizes in the public perception the good work done by plenty of current historians by association.

Any time that historical inquiry or argument begins not with the evidence but with an agenda, there are bound to be problems.  That's not how historical research or inquiry works.  You don't start with the mindset of "liberating," "politicizing," or generally making your audience more "woke" without prejudicing yourself against what the historical record actually provides you.  The process of writing can't begin with "how can I politicize historical clothing to further my contemporary agenda? How can I show how clothes, specifically when it comes to pockets, are tools of oppression?"  It has to begin with, instead, "What did historical people actually DO? What did they WEAR? How and in what variations?"  Then, please.  Interpret those facts to your heart's content and we can debate them--interpretation is still open to critique and debate, but it should be based, first, on the historical record itself.  In this case, that record involves the material culture and images of the past as well as text, and we have examples in droves to work with.

The short article linked above was a redux of a longer piece on Racked which does a better job actually acknowledging the history of the pocket in women's clothes.  There are disagreements aplenty to be made here (as a most basic example, the author's claim that separate pockets "disappeared" during the French Revolution when you can see examples that clearly survive the age of the guillotine by scrolling up on this post), but you can see a sharp difference between what historical argument that considers the evidence and argument that trims it out completely look like.  The focus of the piece on Racked is, in truth, much narrower--a (frankly a bit shoddy) attempt to cover earlier centuries quickly transitions into an examination of pockets and the late 19th century and 20th century women's advocacy movements--and here the author has enough historical evidence to posit an argument that women then saw pockets as tied to their personal liberty.

Does this prove a damn thing about 18th century women and pockets? Nope.  Does it provide ample reason for us to classify the early 19th century reticule as a tool of oppression? Nope (and the author should really not have tried).  Are there "always and never" statements to be made? Absolutely NOPE.  But it does provide an interesting historical context and conversation.  Exploring how women utilized and thought about the pockets in their clothing during a time of transitional thinking about women's rights? Re-seeing and re-evaluating history in a potentially productive way. (I say potentially because the piece is still short and quite incomplete, written, clearly, for a public rather than academic audience.)  Compare to "never had pockets=OPPRESSION!" as demonstrated above--huge difference.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mind the Gap

The Modern Reenactor recently posted a fantastic article on one of our most fundamental choices as reenactors--evidence or preference? Read it.  Digest it.  It's a tough question to answer for many of us, but it's a valid one to force ourselves to engage in--not just once at the outset of our time in the hobby, but many times as we progress.  Am I doing/wearing/saying/presenting this because I have *evidence* for it, or because I like it and think it's cool? Is it an interpretation of evidence, or a creative riff?

As is my wont, however, there is one area I'm forced to quibble with.  This is the strict delineation implied by "research" or "just your imagination." (And I will add, this is a delineation I do not assume The Modern Reenactor intended to make, but one I as a reader interpreted, and it worth addressing.)  The trouble with many of the impressions we research is that there is a gap between sources and what we would actually need to recreate to present a full impression (and, er, ourselves fully clothed).  Interpretation, in fact, implies this--we aren't transposing or copying but "interpreting" what may be a wide and varied body of evidence from abstract into tangible forms.

Our job as reenactors, when there are such gaps, is to work to narrow them.  The shorter the leap we have to make, the better.  In the vast majority of impressions, it's just not possible to know everything for 100% certain from the primary sources from the precise region and precise era of interpretation.  This is one of those "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know" areas--you don't realize how much there is to document and understand until you're up to your ears, and how much variance between regions, socio-economic classes, and short periods of time can truly matter (and also, when it doesn't matter).  When we work to narrow the gaps, we may not have perfect answers, but we do have evidence for the choice that we make.

There will be gaps. So, what to do about the gaps?

First and foremost, "look before you leap" is obvious.  Research FIRST, widely, completely, before making a leap at a hypothesis.  When you have a hypothesis, continue to test it with research.  Look first.  Don't dive into shallow water.  You get the idea.

1) Just don't do that impression.  Look, it's not ideal, but it also isn't said enough--if the research isn't there, you don't *have* to do that impression.  Assess how wide the gaps are--are you making flying leaps or well-researched hops?  There may be many reasons an impression appeals to you, and even many reasons that it's a worthwhile impression to do, but that doesn't mean it's required. This is a tough question, and I hope I'm not coming across as a big meanie by suggesting you ask it, but it's necessary: Is the stuff you'd have to invent outweighing the stuff you have evidence for? Is the potential value of the impression truly greater than the introduction of fictions? If you can't scrounge up enough research to close the gaps, it's allowed--encouraged, in some cases, even--to decide this just isn't a great idea at this time.  Maybe more research will emerge.  Maybe you'll have more time to archive-surf later.  Maybe something else will capture your attention and this will remain a wistful dream of an impression that wasn't.

Aside: I know that this is particularly difficult and pernicious area to critique, as many under-represented people can fall into the category of "wide gap." However, many don't.  Don't assume that just because marginalized people, such as enslaved African Americans, impoverished women, or indentured servants, did not write about their own experience that their lives are not well-documented. Runaway ads, court documents, sketches and images, and more provide a lot of illuminating information.  I'm not suggesting ignoring marginalized people--in some cases, these impressions could be *better* documented from sources than those we assume would be widely sourced, such as some military units.

But sometimes the gaps are narrow enough to justify making an impression work--and thank goodness, or else we'd be screwed when it comes to accurate portrayal of the diversity of the time periods we portray!

2) Find cognates.  In language, there are words that are just enough alike across languages that foreign speakers understand them.  So, too, in historical research.  Know your close relations.  If your intended impression is Anglo-American, branch out into other Anglo-American areas--not something someone did once in Sweden.  This is one of the biggest errors on the research learning curve in my experience. New researchers first aim for simply "It exists! I found a thing!" and fail to place A Thing in the right contexts.  Like goes with like.  Closest neighbors--not only regionally, but culturally and socially--are most likely to relay cognate information than distant relations.  If you simply cannot discover cap norms for married women in Connecticut in 1772 but have good information for Boston...well, Boston is pretty darn close.

3) Understand your background.  The emphasis on using primary sources to research and document our work sometimes has the unintended consequence of new researches--and old hats--skipping an overarching understanding of the time period in order to delve after details.  Secondary sources and "basic" history texts can actually be quite helpful here.  How did trade routes and information dissemination work in the area you're researching? Who settled that area? Over what period of time? When was That Thing invented, and how quickly did it take off? What social and cultural norms were driving people?  When you have a decent framework, relating primary research to what you want to document becomes much easier.

4) Understand what is the exception and what is the rule.  I've blathered on sufficiently about aiming for norms in this hobby, but to reiterate--this is important here.  Understanding norms helps us know what makes sense and what doesn't.  Narrowing the gap means coloring within the lines until we have a good reason to stray outside of them--and that reason isn't solely "it makes sense to me" or "What I would do if I were there is..."' but based on research.  Say I've got about a thousand images of rich, poor, and middling women in city, countryside, and even prison wearing stays.  Should I decide that, despite this, marginalized women would never wear stays because it doesn't make sense to my modern sensibilities that, say, a woman on the frontier would "burden herself" with stays? Of course not.  However, to push this further: Should I take a *single* reference to unstayed women in one frontier setting to extrapolate that NO women on the frontier wore stays and therefore craft an entire impression around it with no further primary evidence? No, I probably shouldn't. That isn't to say that it's not possible that such a woman in such a setting existed--but unless I am portraying her, precisely, I should exercise caution when it comes to outliers.

5) Take risks but be willing to be wrong. At some point, you make the leap. This is a unique element to research in reenacting that most academics don't encounter--sure, they publish an article or give a paper at a conference about their research (and making a dumb mistake might follow them around for a long time), but we have the additional privilege (and stress) of creating a tangible representation of the past (in which we actually have to wear a dumb mistake and encounter pictures of ourselves in said dumb mistake years later).  After all the research, the documentation, the hours scrounging the sources, we pull the trigger, cut out the fabric, put needle to thread, and create.  This is where risk comes in--you must be willing to admit that you were wrong if it turns out you made the wrong choice.

If there's one lesson new and old reenactors alike could learn, it's to leave your pride at the door.  That is, you do your best, you put in the work, but if it turns out you screwed up? You screwed up.  It's a learning experience, and you do better next time. The problem isn't when we close gaps with mistakes, but when we refuse to correct those mistakes and take responsibility for sharing that "yes, I tried, and I didn't get it right, and--this is important--do NOT do what I did."  Share your mistakes proudly--they're the result of research, too, and they ultimately further our goal by demonstrating what not to do. That old "100 ways not to make a lightbulb" quote from Edison comes to mind--even mistakes are valuable.

So, long and short of it--between evidence and preference lies a murky area of interpretation, and we should try to fall as close to evidence as we can, narrowing our gaps, and looking deeply and carefully before making leaps.