The title of this post was stolen from a spammer in my comments. Which are the only kinds of comments I get. (Oh well.) I kind of like this phrase. It doesn’t mean much, but it does remind me, in a tangential way, of my latest dive down the rabbit warren: archivists who write about recipes and clothes. Speaking of: the photograph above is of my “peacock dress,” which just came back from the dry cleaners. (Eco-friendly dry cleaners. Proof of that on the paper slip on the hanger.)
I’ve had this dress since I was 14. My aunties gave it to me for Christmas, but I’d obsessed over it when it hung on an iron pipe rack in a low-lit, spartan vintage clothes store in downtown Salt Lake City. I saved for months to buy it, but then the guy who ran the shop realized that it had been designed by the couturier who made Elizabeth Taylor’s clothes, and hiked up the price accordingly. And that made it forever out of my price range as a 14-year-old. My aunties all had to pool their money to buy it for me – and these were auntie with day jobs. It’s too fragile to wear anymore, because I wore the hell out of it in high school and college, and a friend of mine with a bit more junk in the trunk borrowed it and blew out the lining in the derriere area. So now it’s an archival dress, but I keep it because it reminds me of being 14 and 15 and using it as my emotional flak jacket. When I wore this dress along with some red lipstick and black mascara, I could go into any social situation without my shyness eating me alive. Because if I happened to be in jeans and a frumpy sweater, sometimes that’s what happened. Anything that made me more self-conscious, made me embarrassed, just made my already pronounced introversion/shyness that much worse. So my peacock dress reminds me that as an adult, even though I have less time to think about clothes, that my psyche suffers when I have a lousy outer persona. When I’ve gotten lazy and defaulted to colorless-shapeless-dull-not-fitting-right, I sometimes find myself back to being that stuttering, embarrassed 15-year-old girl. Having your Joan of Arc suit is important, even if it’s a three-tiered peacock dress rather than damask steel armor.
(By the way, I have to stop for a moment to explain the several weeks of silence here – between the events in Ferguson, buying a house and moving, and an increase in my workload, blogging was just not possible. So that’s that. Moving on…)
Okay. Onto archives, clothes, food. Robyn Schiff’s glorious book, Worth, is one of my favorite poetry collections, but also one of my favorite books about fashion. Here’s a blurb that describes it:
“These strong, multilayered poems test the transformative powers of dressmakers, jewelers, actors, and Darwin’s darkest finches as they adapt to a changing world where the same train hurtles past them toward marketplace and death camp both. Throughout, many of the poems use inherited forms to tell their stories, but the inheritance here comes down damaged and threadbare—yet full of power.
In Worth Robyn Schiff inquires about making, buying, selling, and stealing in the material world, the natural landscape, and the human soul. Opening with the renowned couture house of Charles Frederick Worth, the father of high fashion— “The dress was so big, / one’s hand is useless to take glass from table; / the skirt approaches while the hand is yet distanced” —and ending with the House of De Beers and a diamond thief named Adam Worth— “You’ll know me by my approach / I’m coming on foot with a diamond in my mouth” —Schiff moves from Cartier and Tiffany to the Shedd Aquarium, from Marie Antoinette to the Civil War, from Mary Pickford to Marilyn Monroe.”
The two blogs I’ve been reading and loving to pieces lately, Cooking in the Archives and Two Nerdy History Girls, have that same sort of sparkle and inventiveness when it come to writing about fashion (and food). I’m also a huge fan of Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, in part because she wasn’t a “foodie” – I’ve never been able to stand that word, for one thing, and another thing, fetishizing food is really boring to me; I’d rather know why people cooked what they cooked, how it reflects how they lived, what they believed, etc. Same goes for clothes. I find them interesting and useful, but I’ll never be on a handbag waiting list. It’s an interesting thing to note that all these women are (or in Tannahill’s case, were) academics who also write historical fiction. They see and write about their topics through the lens of the imagination, versus dry facts.
The women behind Cooking in the Archives, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, pull recipes (or “receipts,” as they used to be known) from the archives at UPenn. They work from codices, and I love the thought of updating a receipt from a codex into a modern-day recipe on a blog. Also, at least to my eye/ear, the texts they are working with read like poems. Here’s a recent example:
To make a tarte of green pease
Take green peas & seeth them tender
then poure them out into a cullender, season
them with safron, salt & sweet butter
& sugar, then close him then bake itt
almost an houre, then draw itt forth
& ice itt, putt in a litle wergice; & shake
itt well, then scrape on sugar & serve itt.
Apparently “wergice,” is “verjuice,” an acidic grape vinegar concoction; they substituted lemon. They’ve also made fish tarts (not great, from all reports), and lemonade, prepared from another fairly lyrical receipt/recipe:
To Make Lemonade.
Boil One Quart of Spring Water, let it stand ’till it is Milk Warm. Pare five clear Lemons very thin and put the parings in the warm water. Let it stand all Night, the next Morning strain off the peel thro’ a fine Lawn Sieve, Squeeze the Juice of the five Lemons. Strain it and put it in the Water, put in Eleven Ounces of double Refin’d Sugar, One Spoonfull of Orange flower water. Mix these well together, it will be fit for use.
And apparently this one’s a winner on the taste front as well.
One of the things I love best about Two Nerdy History Girls is that they challenge what we think we know about historical dress. That corsets made women faint (wrong); that big hair in the 17th century was not hygienic (not anymore true than it is now!); and that there were only two dresses in the average 18th century woman’s closet. (I guess, because we’re in thrall to that myth of infinite progress, we have to view the generations before us as stupider, dirtier, grosser, and more miserable. Yes, their life expectancy was a bit shorter, though often the way most Americans last 5 to 10 years of their lives often isn’t much an improvement on being dead, so…)
My favorite posts are the offbeat ones, like this one about a dress sewn from seaweed-patterned calico at the RISD Museum, the multiple connotations of “The French Lady,” in 18th-century England, and “The Victorian Hair-Guard.” Bradford & Chase have even inspired me to pull out these patterns, which I bought online, gosh, only about six years ago from the Vintage Pattern Lending Library. I suspect I will have to get my sister’s help with the opera cape (Alison sewed her own wedding dress this summer – a reproduction of a 1920s drop-waist with lots of embellishment and detail) but I’ll try the fabric flowers myself. If they turn out to look like anything at all, I plan to tack them to my winter coat. Not sure I can expect them to function as full-fledged magic garment like my peacock dress, but perhaps they can be as a sort of protective talisman; or just a reminder that even if I can’t sew an opera cape, I am competent enough to sew flowers.