Friday, October 31, 2014

The Custom of Costume

The OED ( Oxford English Dictionary) defines “bal masque” in short shrift : “masked ball”, and states as it’s origin : French.  The French may very well have brought the art of masquerade to a pinnacle, but costumes are loved the world over.  After all, any opera or theatre piece in effect becomes a bal masque,  as the actors are all garbed as alter egos.  And actually,  costume is something we also put on everyday, to go to work, or school.  It's the uniform we wear through school, or the shirt and tie we put on every day.  But here, we're discussing an extra-ordinary occasion, when a "costume" is a special article of clothing or  an ensemble that helps us to change visibly into someone or something else in an instant. Dressing in a costume becomes a definitive way of shedding inhibition when it’s cloaked in velvet and sequins.  An uber-costume. 
Choosing a costume  sometimes bleeds into the psychological boundaries we place on ourselves in everyday life.  Our favorite characters in literature, or popular culture are invoked all around the world once we step into satin breeches or a vampire's mantle.  History can play a part in the inspiration of costume, too, as we stream personage famous or infamous before the curious eyes of the beholders.  Halloween has become that day when the erstwhile Headless Horseman can roam suburban neighborhoods alongside the likes of Edward Scissorhands, accompanied by his own personal Bride of Dracula.  Movies are fodder for ideas, and costume pop-up shops have become as common across the land as mushrooms every Fall.  Which character are you? 
With the popularization of  readymade mass -produced boxed costumes sold at Woolworth’s, the 1950’s were underlined with Roy Rogerses, Lone Rangers, and many a cowboy hero from the then new entertainment called television.
 Contemporary horror flicks, vastly popular since Mary Shelley first penned “Frankenstein” ,  have helped create a crop of home-grown zombies, draculettes, and sundry dead and decaying creatures.  But costume is not defined by Halloween alone.  Throughout history, in royal court and private manse, the Bal Masque has stood as an outlet for this personification projection in any season.  Not limited to one day or one ghost- filled night per year, the Bal Masque lends a theme to a superlative party, to the crowded streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, or the canals of Venice, with their richesse of silks and tricornes.
Comicon is a strolling feast for the eye of the beholder, with fans of subculture, popular culture and mythology dressed to fit the bill.  Whether that bill is Dr. Who,  Jamie Fraser or The Flash is a simple personal choice of the costume- garbed .  Whom do you love?  Become that person for a day.  Favorite hero?  Salve your worries and insecurities in drag, or caped, tiara-d, or masked. Halloween spirit, extended to Silly Putty boundaries. 
In 1966, when Truman Capote invoked the spirit of long- forgotten  party demons and threw his Black and White Ball at the Plaza in New York City, the hoi polloi flocked to mingle with each other, all rich and famous , bedecked in finery .
 The Metropolitan Museum Ball every year recreates this same spirit, with celebrities walking a red carpet, in costume or simply fancy dress.  The bolder, braver souls take any costume opportunity to the limit, and use their expertise and resources to come up with the perfect evocative ensemble.
  Costume plays an important part in entertainment , with children and adults participating in  momentary delusion and just having fun with it all. 
For those of you who say “I don’t do costumes” : we say: “Why not?”.  We already know the answer.  Whether it’s your own personal fear that disallows you from wearing a hat, or your own lack of imagination, we can vouch for the fun of dressing up.  Becoming that blonde bombshell, or dead diva isn’t really a transformation.  It’s simply an extension of what you are inside.  And that, as Martha Stewart has been known to say, is a good thing.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Pocket By Any Other Name

A Pocket by Any Other Name

Photograph of the village women (Wauking Women) in Outlander as designed by Terry Drespach

Watching historically relevant drama on tv might spawn interest in minor details, as well as in the heroic brawny actor on the screen.   Take pockets, for example.  Watching Starz' sky-rocketing original series Outlander, you might notice the dangly things hanging on the front of the Highlanders' kilts.  Those thingies are called "sporrans" and served as pockets for the dashing men in Scottish 18th Century life.  Please note that women's clothing isn't always showing little dangly things.  Where was she hiding that spare key? or her whatnots? Normally, pockets were something made as  an addition to the wardrobe.  In the men's case, with kilts not having built-in compartments for carrying much of anything, a sporran acted as the catchall.  For ladies, there were pockets.  Made as a separate reality, much like the sporran, but usually worn under her skirts.  No shoulder bags, no tote bags.  Perhaps a basket for marketing, and gathering of herbs and such.  Saddlebags, to be sure, because one needed as many places to stash stuff as we do today.  But there wasn't as much stuff.  So women in the 18th Century developed their own style, as women have a tendancy to do.

See :

for an overview, academically speaking.  Watch  in Outlander as Claire puts her hands in what seem to be pockets while she's wearing 18th Century garb.  This isn't as odd as it might be, because in this case, the character is coming from another time where pockets, and pocketbooks  already exist.  So the practical Claire may well have had her garments made with the additon of a pocket or two for convenience' sake. Most women hid their pockets  under their petticoats to protect their valuables,
but we can imagine some of them might work as men wore their sporrans: on the outside of their skirts.  In the evolution of fashion, not everything is cut and dried.  Since we can only go by what we see in paintings, drawings, and literary references, and cannot time travel to see for ourselves, imagination may take flight and create alternative pockets.  This was the 18th Century, and as the 19th Century looms nearer, reticules become the norm.  They were just the same idea as the pocket, but carried as a separate item, and therefore tended to be embellished more often than not.   Accessories have always been women's fancy, and what would become a major economic status symbol began to become more important visually. Women were still not allowed to actually own anything outright, so the necessity of carrying the massive amounts of paperwork, wallets, etc.  that we haul around today simply wasn't there. As sporrans go ( , the evolution of style warrants taking note of the refined, yet traditional forms they have taken in contemporary usage.  Women's pocketbooks, on the other hand, have become quite another subject indeed.

 ref: Barbara Burman in of "Pockets of History: The Secret Life of an Everyday Object."