Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, January 24, 2016

How Studying Fashion Made Me Feel Better About My Body

Like 99.99% of adult women in this country, I sometimes feel bad about my body. So fun! Being a woman is the best.

Anyway, the other day I looked down at my stomach and saw that I was developing bit of a belly. And I felt gross, because everyone knows that women are supposed to have flat stomachs. But then I remembered some things I've learned in fashion history, and I shut down that body-shaming nonsense.

Some might think that studying fashion would make me feel worse about my body. There are all kinds of studies that show that a woman's self esteem goes down after paging through a magazine full of idealized, photoshopped images. I don't doubt that. The fashion of any particular time always revolves around an ideal body, and we are always fooled into thinking that the ideal body of this time in history and place in the world is permanent and universal. If what you see in the mirror doesn't match what you see in the pictures, something is wrong with you. But once you back up and look at images of beauty across time and geography, you realize how meaningless today's ideal actually is.

Let's start with the idea of "belly fat"

It seems like every time I dress a late 1880s dress on a mannequin, I or one of my volunteers makes the same rookie mistake. The late 1880s was a period of bustles and hourglass corsets, and when padding the body, my volunteers and I envision the hourglass as having only three sides: small waist with fullness at the back and hips. Our 21st century instincts make sure the front is flat, like we think it "should" be. But the dresses always look weird and saggy when we do it that way. Why? Because Victorians didn't give a s#*t about having a flat stomach.

Madame McCabe corset, 1887-90. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When you cinch the waist the flesh has to go somewhere, and so corsets and dresses were built to bulge back out below the waist. Once we remember this, we stuff some "belly fat" onto the form and the front of the dress suddenly drapes beautifully. Victorians may have had all kinds of restrictive beauty ideals about paleness, sloping shoulders, and tiny waists, but when it came to stomachs they were basically like DUH WOMEN HAVE BELLIES IT IS A BIOLOGICALLY NORMAL PLACE TO HAVE FAT.

But it wasn't just that women's bellies were tolerated or ignored in the past, there were also times when they were openly celebrated. Remember this painting from art history class?

Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

At first glance, many assume that the woman is pregnant. I mean, she has some serious belly fullness going on. But if you look more closely, you see that she is actually lifting up the front folds of her dress and creating the illusion of fullness. Why? Because that was considered a fashionable, elegant gesture at the time. The ideal in this part of the world and at this time included a full, swollen belly for women--not as a symbol of pregnancy, just for everyday fabulousness. Don't believe me? Here is a painting by the same artist of Adam and Eve:

Or this one from another artist:

Pol de Limbourg The Earthly Paradise from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Today we are also convinced that a "good" body should be toned and taut, but in the early 17th century the beauty ideal called for fleshy softness and skin full of rippling dimples.

Peter Paul Rubens The Three Graces, 1635

Anne Hollander covers a lot of this in her book Seeing Through Clothes. She discusses nudes and nakedness in western art and how you can always tell what the clothes of the period are like because the bodies are shaped the way the clothes are shaped. She says stuff like...

Barnardino Luini Venus, 1530
In general the female body of the High Renaissance appears to have been conceived as a long, large stomach stretching from the collarbone to the crotch, with breasts the shadowiest of swellings. (Hollander, pg. 104)

So basically today someone might feel bad about her small breasts and "thick" waist, but in another era artists would fawn over her perfect proportions. The point is not that these past eras were utopias of body acceptance, but that the ideal is constantly shifting. Fashion tricks us into having here-and-now tunnel vision, but fashion history gives us a way to step out of our own time and see the bigger picture. 

And the bigger picture is this: If you identify as a human woman, you have a woman's body. There is no "real" woman's body, there is no attribute that all women "should" have, there is no universal standard of beauty. Even if our culture in this time and place tries to tell you that nothing about you is beautiful, you are entitled to feel beautiful anyway. And if feeling beautiful isn't important to you, you are also entitled to not give a crap. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

End of Year Cleanup

One of the best gifts I got for Christmas this year was a vase of fake flowers for my desk. You see, I'm not allowed to have fresh flowers in my office. (Actually, I always feel sort of strange saying that I'm "not allowed" as if it is cruelly banned by some order on high. Us collections folks put that rule on ourselves.  We are obsessed with keeping bugs out of the collection, and so we self-impose a no food and no fresh flowers policy in our office space.) So my parents bought me a lovely vase of fake flowers.

One requirement of the gift was that I clean off my work desk to make room for them. I have a problem of allowing mountains of papers to pile up on my desk, and since last year I was sick on New Year's Eve for my usual year-end desk clean-off day, I had TWO YEARS worth of desk piles to go through this year.

But I got through it and oh man did it feel good. I love the last two weeks of the year. It is a quiet time to just wrap up a lot of loose ends and get stuff done. Besides cleaning off my desk I...

Put away about 40 hats that had been inventoried but not yet put in boxes

Finished processing all the 2015 clothing and textile accessions

Best moment for that was when I was going through some items from the 1990 Goodwill games and was using my friend EB (who was a Russian major) to help translate the text on a shirt that had been purchased from a vendor at the games. Here is paraphrased version of our text conversation:

Me: Can I get some help with some Russian translation?
EB: Yes!
Me: [Sends photo of patches on shoulders]
Me: It is a sailor-style shirt that looks very official. So maybe the word is "Navy" or "Security"?
EB: Umm....I think it says "Fish Farm"

(We eventually figured out that it was an abbreviation for the Ministry of Fisheries)

Finished a super exciting data cleanup project that a volunteer and I have been chipping away at for over a year

Wrapped up some loose ends from the shoe project

There were some random socks and spats that had been found on the shelves which needed to be moved to different places, and there were two pairs of thigh-high boots which I hadn't figured out what to do with yet.

The shafts of the boots (yes, that is what it is called) were very fabric-y so rather than stuff them like tall leather boots, I stuffed the feet and then rolled the tops of the boots into neat little bundles.

Found some interesting stuff on my messy desk

On a page of random notes from something I attended in 2015 I found the following message:

"A necessary first step to grandeur is a delusion of grandeur"

I've decided to make that my motto for 2016.