I'm developing a sub-theme in my lectures on medievalism this semester: viz. "it's all about the frocks". And it's true: medievalism is often associated with dressing up. It's one of the first questions I'm often asked, when I reveal my profession as medieval scholar: do my students and I dress up in medieval garb? I guess it would be the most obvious way of invoking a pre-modern subjecthood; and the distinction between studying medieval culture, studying medievalism and performing medievalism is easy to blur. But I'm not, myself, a re-enacting kind of medievalist; and while I've had my share of velvet dresses, they've not been of the floor-sweeping variety. Such as these:
But it did occur to me the other day, mid-lecture, that the distinction between those who re-create the medieval and those who study those acts of re-creation might not be watertight. Do I fall prey to a false distinction when I carefully distinguish myself from the medievalism that is about re-creating the medieval? Most academics will naturally deny they are driven by wish-fulfilment fantasies in their work, but can we ever accurately diagnose our own interests?
Last week I was lecturing on The Mists of Avalon and talking about the interesting exchanges between Bradley's research into Wiccan practice, and the way Bradley's work is sometimes itself used as a source for such practice. A nice example of cultural work, I think.
One of my students is organise a demonstration and talk on re-enactment societies for my class in a week or two, and I'm really looking forward to this, but it's a very complex phenomenon, with different groups working with quite different agendas and practices.
And the medievalist itself can look so different, too. It can be dreamy and girly...
... but it can also be seriously pedagogical:
Anyhoo, medievalist film, in particular, is often lusciously about the gowns. I'm teaching Braveheart in a couple of weeks, which features some particularly lovely numbers in crushed velvet. And the costumes of Lucy Griffiths in Robin Hood have been fun, too: stretch knit cotton or printed tops worn under post-modern pseudo-C18 corsets.
And combat/happy pants for the forest episodes.
Annie Liebowitz certainly understands what this frock business is all about though. Here's her Scarlet Johannson as Cinderella:
I think there's a lot more to be written about medievalist frocks: as escapism, as technical mastery of medieval design, as romantic fantasy for a pre-feminist mode, as sheer sensual and textile pleasure, as well as the mythology of the perfect frock. Did anyone else see Susanne Spunner's brilliant play, Running Up a Dress: A Dialectic of Sewing in the late 80s? Hilarious mother-daughter sewing scenes, often clustered around the idea of the perfect dress that will transform us.
I went to see it with my sister and my mother, who for years made all the clothes worn by me and my two sisters. Dozens and dozens of frocks, all designed and put together with love — even amid the inevitable arguments over contested hemlines — and handed down to the next sister after a year or two.
I haven't checked with her, but I bet she made all four of these frocks...
I also found a picture of my own first best frock. I was flowergirl at a wedding, at the age of 4 or 5, and got to wear this little number...
It must have been invested with magic and mystery, as it is the only dress from my childhood that I kept. Here it is, along with its dear little shoes (and no, it pre-dates The Sound of Music).
It has a little pocket in the inside of the lining, for a handkerchief...
Apparently at the wedding feast, I was unimpressed by the chicken salad, and distinguished myself by asking for a vegemite sandwich.
I think I kept the tulle headdress for a while, too.
I may be condensing several memories, but I do recall going shopping, either for this, or some other dress material, in a shop in the Cat and Fiddle Arcade in Hobart:
And I have fond memories of the fabric sections of Myers and Buckley's, now David Jones, in the city, pouring over the sequinned brocades and shimmering silks that belonged to the unimaginably glamorous world beyond the manse, before ending up at the ginghams and cotton prints sections.
I was also thinking about the mythology of frocks last weekend, when I had such a clear image in my head of the frock I was going to wear to the party on Saturday night, and how I was going to "put myself together", so much so that even though it was actually quite cold, I persisted with my summer frock because that was how I had envisaged myself. Perfectly, knowingly delusional... But it makes me think there is in fact a kind of continuity between medievalist frocks and "normal" dressing-up, since clothes are so obviously performative.
As it turned out, I took the car to work the other day, and took the chance to wear a frock (I can sometimes manage a skirt or a dress on the bike, but pants are much easier, of course). So there I was, thinking and talking a little about medievalist frocks, wearing a soft grey peachskin silk dress I've had for over fifteen years, but a frock all the same, and a rather floaty one at that. Oh well. Sometimes you just have to wear your frock with irony.