Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cast a Smaller Net

Lately, I've been very interested in diving further into the study of late medieval garments not just as what they were and how they were worn, but more specifically how they may have changed during their use and how they were employed with other garments to make appropriate outfits for the wearer. In essence, I've found myself much more sensitive to pairing dresses, gowns, hats, and accessories with each other in a manner consistent with their more specific time and place. I'm no longer interested simply in "15th Century Fashion" as a catch-all category for all the various items in use during that time. Instead, I'm finding much more interest in looking a shorter ranges and narrower geography to eliminate the things that don't fit, and to see what really goes with what.

I think this interest in getting more specific is part of the natural progression toward greater authenticity (that each of us takes at our own pace), but it stems more recently for me from something in particular. I know that our modern culture champions the idea of "mix-and-match". We like to have clothing that can be worn in several situations in different configurations. We're kinda done with one-hit wonders, so we choose versatility. This is a thoroughly modern idea, and it's really only been in the past four decades that the consumer experience centers around the concept of buying individual items to swap around with other individual items. In the past, stores offered up outfits or suits as their primary sell. And before that, women wore dresses- one and done. No need to go crazy with the mixin'.

We're modern women. We're creative in our recreations. Some medieval rules are incredibly easy to overlook or ignore when they appear to be limiting to us. We want all the things, after all. So we apply our present-day ideals of versatile fashion on a society of women that did everything by strict, often unwritten social standards to define themselves in time and place. At a time when a woman's non-conformity to the norms of her community could single her out in the worst kinds of ways, I would say that doing things according to a pattern and sticking with socially acceptable (and approved) fashion identities was a really safe bet. Women found other ways to display their unique characters by applying it to trades or skills, or things such as writing or politics. Women were considered beautiful when they conformed to the ideal (however boring or standard it may seem to us), not when they blazed a trail of wild novelty out on their own.
If we are interested in greater accuracy, we need to stop mixing. We need to quit looking at a single century's fashion as if they were a whole. We need to stop choosing things we like from one end of the timeline and wearing it with something from the other end. And before anyone gets offended, know that I say this to myself as much as anyone else. I've been doing it wrong. Lots of us are.

So today, I challenge each of us to start taking a closer look at our sources and really pay attention to them. Remove the outliers. Find the averages, the standards, the norms. Ignore the extant finds until they fall into the category of "typical". What are the contexts? Who are these women we are looking at? What does she symbolize, and is that something we want to symbolize as well? What appears more often than not? Are two things never seen together in the same outfit? Does one detail belong with another detail? Is something worn the same way, in the same context, every single time it's seen? Focus on less, hone in on specifics. Cast a smaller net for a bit, and see what you learn.

It's a rabbit hole that's worth going down.

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