Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Victorian Clothes

This is what I looked like a couple of months ago:

This is what I looked like last week (note: I hadn't had time to take off my sunglasses yet):

The reason for the transformation is that I accompanied my daughter and her boyfriend to the San Francisco Dickens Christmas Fair, held at the un-Victorian-sounding Cow Palace south of the city.  A warehouse-sized venue, it was made to resemble bustling London streets as they might have looked at
Christmas in the mid-19th century.  This involves sets designed to look like alehouses and shops, open areas set aside for readings, period dances, and puppet shows, craftspeople making candles and drawing caricatures, and a cadre of Cockney-accented actors wandering the premises in period dress enacting small dramas and interacting with those of us who had dropped in from the future.

It was a fun few hours, although I, personally, do not enjoy actors who want to interact with me when I’m window shopping and munching on candied cinnamon almonds steaming in a paper cone.  (The violation of personal space is unpleasantly reminiscent of the tactics employed by clowns.)

Wearing that dress was very odd.  Your legs disappear beneath billows of skirt and petticoat, but you are keenly aware of them as they move freely, invisibly.  You might think the sensation would be pleasant, and it is, sort of, but you also have to maneuver all that stiff fabric around crowded rooms, turning almost sideways to squeeze through crowds, tripping on your own hems if you momentarily forget to hold them off the ground.  And when you’re holding your skirts, you can’t hold anything else, which is annoying.  It’s all more complicated than it seems.

And more restrictive, bare legs notwithstanding.  I’ve been thinking about those Victorian women—encased in wire and fabric—and how difficult it must have been to get anything done as they went through life hauling all that architecture around with them.  They were prisoners of their hoop skirts, muffled by their muffs, sheathed and contained and effectively immobilized by finery.

When it comes to clothes, I’m a big fan of modesty.  Most women (and men) look sad and ridiculous when they try to flaunt their bodies the way the clothing industry leads them to believe they can.  (Note from me: you can’t.  You really can’t.)

But last weekend I experienced the significant difference between modesty and concealment.  The one is about respectability and appropriateness; the other about pretending (or being told to pretend) that one’s body doesn’t exist, or that its imperatives can be cheerfully ignored. 

Let’s face it: if wearing floor-length dresses and corsets and metal hoops made for ease of being in the world, men would have commandeered them long ago.

Making my way through the throngs of Dickensian revelers, I couldn’t help thinking about those 19th-century writers I love so much: Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans), Elizabeth Gaskell.  They wrote while wearing all that stuff.  They must have been so uncomfortable.  

But they wrote.