Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Great Petticoat Question

 Perhaps our shoes are in that tree?

In the course of researching my 18th century clothing project, again and again I came across some variety of the adage "Patterned jackets or short gowns can be worn with matching petticoats or solid-color petticoats, but solid colored jackets and short gowns were NEVER worn with patterned petticoats!" The emphasis is sort of my own... people do feel pretty strong about these things. I encountered language just short of profanity on the matter.
The source of angst can be traced to two fears, namely that one mustn't "farb" if one can help it, and Historical Accuracy, or "HA" as I call it when I am in a snarky mood. (I am always in a snarky mood.) Historical Accuracy is what we all aspire to. Even the most unapologetically farby of us has some sort of personal standard to which we hold ourselves. The "HA" comes into play when one determines that one has something entirely figured out.
I do not pretend, in the slightest to be anything short of "ignorant amateur" in the world of historical clothing reproduction. And yet, I learn wherever I can. Obviously, when one is new to a field, one must obey the sacred cows of that discipline, whatever they are. I respect the work of everyone who has come before me, regardless of the context of that work. And yet...
And yet.

The images scattered through this post pertain to the rant in progress. Each image depicts either a woman wearing a solid colored "top" with a patterned skirt, or a mix-matched combination of patterns for top and bottom.  Each image is contemporary to the mid-to-late 18th century. There are more as well, out there, somewhere, waiting to be added to the collection.
These images prove nothing; allegorical costume has been depicted in stone, paint and print nearly as long as people have dabbled in those mediums. I must say though, that these depictions do not have the feel of a morality tale or a fable. Most of them are very common people, depicted doing very common things.
It seems very logical to me, as a 20-21st century woman, that fashionable people would have set, and recorded a standard of dress that may have included a prohibition against the wearing of patterned petticoats with solid-colored jackets. It also makes sense that people who flew "below the radar" fashionably speaking, (the working poor, lower-middlin' class people, etc.) would have worn, literally, whatever they could get their hands on, whether it followed the strict dictates of fashionable society or not. This is a very slippery slope; it is easy to rationalize nearly any clothing choice within that context. I refer to it as "Harry Potter syndrome."**

**One day, when I've had enough to drink, I'll elaborate on that particular concept.

The point is, it's tempting to look at 18th century clothing options from a particular era and say, "well if it existed, it can be worn together." And the reality is, that's not necessarily true. We rely upon historical written descriptions, paintings, sculpture, print advertisements and surviving clothing items to piece together a more complete puzzle of a world that is just barely out of reach. I personally find it highly unlikely that women of all strata of society didn't mix and match their wardrobes to the fullest, but my perspective is indelibly skewed by the epoch in which I live.

 That is why I have included the pictures in this post. As I stated before, they prove nothing. It is entirely possible that there is a hidden language to these images that is expressed through the clothing that I can't possibly grasp. I fully accept that possibility. However, they DO exist, and they should add something of a wrench in the works to at least one of the fore-mentioned sacred cows of historical costuming. Several, though not all of the images are by David Allan, an 18th century painter and illustrator who focused the body of his work on rural Scottish life. Perhaps his images reflect a regional anomaly, though not all of the pictures are his. (And as for anomalies... they should be represented too.)
None of the images specifically, clearly depict a floral-print chintz patterned petticoat, and the image that looks "checked" may be a diamond-quilted petticoat (though usually the diamond-quilted petticoats look like, well diamonds. Not so much squares). That's why the stripes are so important to the argument, particularly in the paintings. Those are obviously, clearly, patterned petticoats. The stripes may be woven into the material, added as trim, printed on, painted on, or embroidered. Regardless of which, if any of these treatments is the case, the argument still stands:
The tops don't match, and furthermore, appear to be solid in color.
HA indeed.

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