Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Never Say Never

Several years ago, the gospel of Civil War reenacting was revised to declare that nineteenth-century women did not--D.I.D. N.O.T.--wear darted cotton dresses.

The research was of great depth, but not great breadth. In other words, the researcher studied many extant original garments, did a statistical analysis of fabric and construction, and issued her decree. Impressive research, but seriously flawed in that a cotton dress would likely get picked apart and remade into quilts or rags or whatnot, whereas a wool or silk dress might be more likely to survive intact.

Arguments to that effect were rebuffed entirely or countered with claims that a darted cotton dress, if such a thing existed, was an oddity, a complete aberration.

The gospel became so ingrained that authenticity standards for many events now reflect the no-cotton-darted-bodice rule without explanation, context, or background. It's as if the debate never even existed.

I am ever suspicious of absolutes.

Then, I ran across this image in researching something completely different, read it, and literally began jumping up and down and yelling. It was a eureka moment, for sure.

I've scanned at a fairly high resolution, so click to embiggen.

The pattern for a plain dress body, from the February 1856 Peterson's, has the following exact wording:
  • "For a cotton dress, the ordinary skirt or bishop sleeve with a band a couple of inches wide, is a fitting accompaniment for this body."
Notice it does not say, "If for some freakish reason, you eccentric wackjob, you decide to make this perfectly lovely bodice out of cotton, in spite of the fact that is has not two, not four, but six darts, don't blame us if 150+ years from now you are denied entry to a so-called authentic event."

Never say never.


Kate said...

I believe that is a situation in which one might say...aah, what is the term?...oh yes: "BOO YAH, BITCHES!"


Stephanie Ann said...

I love this! I have heard that too but you see tons of photos that are darted and most likely cotton (nope that must be calico silk that that servant is wearing.)

I *hate* the generalizations that are made in reenacting, but understand that it is pretty much the only way humans can deal with a lot of information.

I also dislike when "scholarship" goes back and forth. One year it is decided that hoops were cheap enough for poor women, the next year they decide that they aren't and then the next year they are back to hoops again.

We really have to do in depth research before making it "reenactor law."

Anonymous said...

So what happens now? Do you submit this information to an official re-enactment board??

Rachel said...

A victory for darts!

Anonymous said...

I've seen quite a few exhibits of CW era clothing. Of those that focused on everyday clothing, rather than formal or evening wear, I'm pretty sure that all of them contained at least one example of a cotton dress made with darts. I don't think darted cotton dresses were the norm, but they really aren't all that rare, either.

The problem with any kind of research is that it has to be shared and annotated. It doesn't help when people make statements like the one I just made ("I've seen so-and-so many examples) because you have to take my statement on trust. To be truly reliable, research has to be aired out with real examples, images, references, etc. Otherwise, this is exactly what you get: general statements and pronouncements being passed from one person to the next without any real understanding.

I think most people who do CW era clothing research will admit that darted cotton dresses existed, but they say now that they weren't common.

I don't know that anyone would seriously be refused entry to an authentic event in a darted cotton dress, but the gal would probably be gossipped about!


7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

I did mention the claim that darted cotton bodices were rare. I do feel though that that claim is yet another example of reenactors continually shifting the terms of the argument rather than acknowledging the point.

To me, this 1856 example of a "plain bodice" (the P of PEC after all) is notable for what it does *not* say. To the writer and publisher, there seems to be nothing exceptional about a darted dress out of cotton. They mention the cotton only in passing, unlike the way they discuss new or more cutting-edge fashions.

For what it's worth, I do not own a darted cotton dress, but would love the opportunity to tell a gossip to "shut it." :)

Susan Armstrong said...

Love it....there is also black calico/cotton...The mavens say black is for silk or wool, black cotton crocks....then how come I read period washing directions specifically for black calico. And I just love alpacca/alpacca/lama...etc...which is called "wool" in the 19c.


Jenny & Lawrence said...

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!! Can I send you a dozen roses?!?!? Seriously, I have been beat down, spit upon, bashed with baseball bats, chewed out, etc... by some northern lady (should I use that word, Lady) who SWORE there were no cotton darted bodices and took it upon herself to tear me a new one! Thank you.......... Please know how much you mean to me right now! And to the woman who chewed me up and spit me out - eat rocks!

I have a small seamstress shop that I do sell primarily cotton dresses at a reasonable price, that woman can afford to get into the hobby. But they insisted that they all had to be silk and I was doing a horrible injustice to the hobby selling an afordable (period dress, not farby) dress and not making a silk and charging an arm and leg. And that if someone didn't have the money to buy a silk then they shouldn't be in this hobby. As my father says "sorry about your luck"! I am going to print this off and share it my shop. Again, YOU ARE MY HERO TONIGHT!

7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

Thanks for your note! It actually came at a great time because I had just this week witnessed, once again, a reenacting doyenne doing figurative gymnastics trying to avoid rock-solid documentation of darted cotton bodices. I know where you're coming from!