111. Fabric

Friday, November 1st, 2019

Welcome to Histories of the Unexpected where we demonstrate how everything has a history and how those histories link together in unexpected ways.

For this episode let us join the handkerchief of history, Professor James Daybell, and the Francis Drake of maritime history, Dr Sam Willis, as they inter-weave the warp and weft of chronicled events upon the loom of time to create the unexpected history of fabric!

From a blood stained Georgian waistcoat to duelling practices and the types of weapons used, from the memorialisation of a king’s bloodstained shirt to the recreation of a silk bullet proof vest and a turning point in history, from the male dominated Sheldon tapestry workshops of Elizabethan Warwickshire to female Flemish Huguenot refugees, from the Tarkhan Dress of ancient Egypt to the Bucentaur barges of the Doges of Venice and from lead poisoning to the nifty silks featured in the portrait of the Siege of Zara, this is one fashionably unexpected history which is definitely in vogue!

Material culture is perhaps the primary approach that historians can undertake to provide an understanding of the gendering of fabric. Basically this means taking an object and reading it as a primary source. This allows for a positioning of an object not just via its sole instrumental function but also as an object loaded with cultural and social significance which can be externalised. When one considers the fabric swatches left with babies given to the Foundling Hospital during the eighteenth-century a sense of the emotional turmoil, desperate daily struggle and continual human hope can be read. It is not just the weave and textiles which can be historicised, giving a picture of the types of ribbons, dress, and embroidery worn by people during this period, but the individual stories behind these touching tokens can also be viewed as working-class struggles, destitution, charitable practices, as well as love, hope and a yearning and a wish for better lives for those babies left behind.

Of course being able to get to the significance of a certain type of fabric to the wearer is not an easy approach, meanings placed on such objects fluctuate through time, are floating and often transitory. Today’s favourite t-shirt may not be in such favour in another ten years, however, it can indeed represent to the wearer, even briefly for that short snap shot, a meaning beyond the practical towards the aesthetic, which can be captured. Fabric then constitutes the person as much as the person constitutes the fabric, self construction is mutually bound. Deconstructing this can allow us to get a sense, even if just surface, of the understandings behind cultural categories such as gender. Such a study takes the object beyond its practical use and allows for a reading of its emotional and personal significance.

Gloves may or may not feature ….

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