My daughter’s fourth-grade class is on a field trip today to the Eight Square School House in Ithaca where they’ll be experiencing a day of old-school school, having their knuckles rapped and wearing dunce caps and that kind of thing. As soon as I received the memo about the suggested dress for the field trip – aprons and petticoats, sunbonnets and black ankle boots – I got a manic gleam in my eye. Here was my chance to let my family values blossom into a concrete school project. Here was a prime opportunity to start myself on the path to being the rabid historical-dress enthusiast I’ve always imagined I would ripen into in my old age. Someday I will go the whole nine yards (or ten or twelve) and sew a Marietta Holley address, on an adult scale, complete with stays, shift, bustle and all. But first – an 1892 child’s day dress, and not an authentic historical reproduction, but a kindly costume version from a modern pattern (Simplicity 2843) with accommodations made for ease and convenience. Like a zipper.
I entered into the project with enthusiasm, and the joy I felt throughout the process was rather unlike the cursing and mumbling many of my sewing project devolve into. I had an old tablecloth to repurpose, an eccentric floor-length table cover I had made to disguise my 90’s era (1990s, I mean) butcher-block table back in the days before we had a proper antique table in the dining room. The butcher-block is now a kitchen island, and the tablecloth, a pale aqua cotton-linen blend, was ripe for reuse.
My other raw materials came from a Victorian sewing basket I bought at an estate sale in Mecklenburg two years ago. The house it came from was a delicious time capsule of crumbling plaster and old wallpaper, with a very early brick hearth and warming ovens in the kitchen. We found it packed to rafters with junk that had been new and useful more than a century ago, with a sprinkling of fifties Christmas decorations and few World War II-era letters on top. The Chinese sewing basket was one of a matching set of three I found in an upstairs bedroom, sitting on top of an old cabinet sewing machine and across from a full bearskin rug. They were encrusted with dust.
The basket proved to be full of old dress trimmings. Some frugal lady, perhaps the mother of the person who had last occupied the house, had saved the valuable pieces of lace and ribbon from her dresses and petticoats and shifts when they wore out. She had picked them off and rolled them up and pinned them neatly with tiny pins. The lace on the shifts was too small and fussy to remove, so she just cut the yokes off the tops and saved them in a bundle for later. Later never came, and she died before she could use the laces, and they came to me, still tightly wrapped up, as yellow-brown as parchment.
I washed the front and back yokes of one of the shifts, and I sat for a length of time that seemed inordinately long, at least the way we measure time nowadays, picking off the lace with a pair of embroidery scissors. I needed my glasses, and even then the stitches holding the lace on were so small they were undetectable to the human eye. When I got the first length unpicked, I pressed it and sewed it immediately onto the yoke of Poppy’s dress. The piece of lace was exactly the right length to reach from one shoulder seam to the other without cutting or hemming. How could this not be a sign from the beyond? The soul of the frugal lady whose underwear lace I had in my hand was reaching out to bless me for using it at last.
This is a subject I plan to return to later, these stashes of fancy things passed on to me when the old ladies who saved them died before they could find a use for them. I have countless doilies and napkins from my grandmother, a prodigious button collection from my stepmom’s great aunt, and a well-stocked bamboo sewing stand that came from another estate sale. I could spend the rest of my lifetime finding good uses for all those precious bits and bobs, but I suspect I’m going to get more mileage out of writing about them instead.
The dress began to take shape. When all the tiny lace was in place, and I was nearly blind from peering closely at it, I stepped back to get a better look. Even with all that tiny trimming, the dress looked absolutely plain Jane, not like a Victorian confection but like a costume from a high-school production of The Music Man (trust me).
What was to be done? Back into the basket for more lace.
The finishing touch was a long piece of crocheted lace that had obviously been on the hem of dress at one time, so that’s where I put it. As I sat and sewed it on, I wallowed in living history lessons. This is what a new dress meant for a nineteenth-century family of my class. This is how much effort a nineteenth-century woman would expect to put in to get something worthwhile from her labors. I guzzled these thoughts like fine wine. Living history has a mixed reputation in the history world – Civil War reenactors have less intellectual clout than academic historians, say. There was a good article by Lauren Collins in the New Yorker last November about Lucy Worsley, London’s Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She has become famous for her historical reentactment shows on the BBC, during which she dresses up and tries out outmoded cooking methods and finds elements of Henry VIII’s diet in the grocery store. Some people are critical of her living-history methods, fearing that she is in danger of turning history into a theme-park experience, leaving out the misery and the complexity. I see the danger of this, and I take it to heart. Truly old things are dirty and run-down and crazily foreign, not polished up to a Disney gloss.
Still, there is great, satisfying fun to be had in reenactment. At first I thought my living-history imaginings were fuel for my historical novel-in-progress – what did a person wearing a dress like this think about, with the weight of that dress hanging on her shoulders (and the knowledge that if she blotted it with ink, she was in for another two weeks of lace picking and stitching)? How did her dress inform her sense of self, and how did she express herself with the (very elaborate) possibilities of dress?
I have a new suspicion, however, that the other way around. It’s my novel that’s serving my living history fascination.
Poppy is probably sitting on a hard bench as I write this, or maybe she’s snitching molasses cookies out of her lunch basket. I can predict what some of her insights into Victorian life will be – long dresses are hot; petticoats are uncomfortable; you can’t run in ankle boots; hats are itchy. I tried to give her as authentic an experience as I could.