The urge to procrastinate

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I’m back studying 3 days a week at the moment, which means that I am feeling the urge to procrastinate. I’m not sure why the two go together – I’m enjoying the study so far – but whatever it is that I’m supposed to be doing, you can guarantee that I’m doing something else. And the something else very rarely involves work, either. You’d think by now I would have managed to play off my two main causes of procrastinating against each other. But no. So, instead of reading about cultural material conservation, like a good little masters candidate, I’m wondering how to start a museum of fashion in Australia. As far as I know, there is nothing of the kind already.

It might be that I was inspired from my travels through the UK last year during the lost months of blogging, and just how many places there are for a costume nerd to visit. Everywhere from Killerton House, in the wilds of Devon, to the V & A in London, or the civilised Museum of Costume in Bath. And that’s without moving off a single train line. After I dragged an uncomplaining friend through 2 weeks of clothing historicism – complete with dress ups, which were photographed but will never, ever be shared with anyone who wasn’t there – I was very upset at the lack of similar enjoyment opportunities at this end of my flight. That was after I got over, or at least accepted, the terrible quality of almost every photo I took on the trip. Camera shaking in excited hands, where you can’t use a flash? Leads to blur, reflection, and frustration. Guess which picture from this post was taken by me. A quick google search both before and after my trip led to disappointment on all sides. There are a couple of private collections which are occasionally open for viewing; there are touring exhibitions, like the Edward Steichen exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria – worth a trip for anyone in Melbourne, just to marvel at the beading on the exquisite 1920s evening wear if nothing else – but there is nothing more permanent. And this made me sad. Australian fashion history is neither long nor, according to some, terribly illustrious. But it is being lost. The online Australian Dress Register is probably the closest we have to a permanent display. It suggests that there are collectors out there, and that there is enough interest for people to have begun a digital record of what is held in private hands. It is a missed opportunity to let it slide.

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So, while I put off finishing a reading about the need for uncertainty in conservation, I’ve been daydreaming and finding ways to spend millions of dollars. And that was before it occurred to me to check fashion and costume auction listings… As a semi-employed student, there’s no hope of me ever realising this particular day dream. But a girl can dream. And in the mean time, she can procrastinate some more looking into funding and finding the perfect building to house it…and making lists of potential acquisitions…and drooling over photos… and, in short, anything that isn’t what she is supposed to be doing.

Unleashing the nerd within

I have been open about my nerd status for a long time now. I’m comfortable with it, and feel no shame in admitting it. I am an enormous history nerd. It’s a trait  share with a brother. We’ve been known to get sidetracked when watching films because there is a historical inaccuracy, go into a discussion of what really happened, and miss half an hour of plot as a result. I’m not just a history nerd, though – I’m also a dress nerd. So it drives me absolutely insane when there are things that are just plain wrong about costume on the screen.

The thing most likely to send me into a fit of snide comments at the moment is an ad for genealogy website, ancestry.com.au. Specifically, this moment:

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Yep, that says that the woman climbing out the window was born in 1752. Except she’s wearing a dress that looks suspiciously Georgian style to me… and the actress looks nothing like a 50 year old woman. Which means that every time Mary Abbey appears on screen, I feel compelled to mutter something along the lines of, “Not in that dress you weren’t.” And that’s before my architectural training kicks in and I notice that it’s a gothic revival building, probably built after 1850. See? Nerd.

For those who know better – or, should I say, those who agree with me and are therefore in the right – her outfit should look more like what was once thought to be Marie Antoinette in her library. I know, it’s a fancy dress, yes. But so is the one in the video when you think she’s climbing out a window and, if you watch the rest of the clip, running off with her man (in which case surely she wouldn’t have been named Abbe yet, since presumably she’s a direct ancestor? See? Problems galore…).

Madame Sophie, 1770-1774, Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux

Madame Sophie, 1770-1774, Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux

The more I learn about historical clothing, the more it happens, too. It’s becoming a problem, getting in the way of all sorts of enjoyment on the small screen. Don’t get me started on the supposedly 17th century costumes in The Musketeers. Or pretty much any scene in The Tudors where a woman simply drops her dress and is naked for Henry VIII – no stays, no chemise, nothing, just an expensive gown crumpled at her feet…and then there’s the lack of head coverings, hair down and flowing.

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It’s enough to make me give up watching it. Or to give up watching it in company, because I can never keep my complaints about the inaccuracies to myself. See? Told you I was a nerd…

 

Lost Arts

I was walking to the gym the other morning before work and saw something that made me think of some of Mum’s old tales of her early working life. Admittedly, it was quite early so I might have been mistaken. But I don’t think so.

A woman was walking down the street towards me. She was a bit older, I guess, and one of the regulars that I see in my made dash to get to the gym in time for my session. It’s a busy road, so there’s always lots of people, but some, like this lady, I see most mornings. Her and the workmen on the massive building site who are always incongruously well behaved and polite. But I digress. This particular woman was walking along, bag slung over her arm with the strap nestled in the bend of her elbow, looking quite intently at things other than the footpath. She was knitting. And I’m not talking about a scarf. This was something that required concentration to follow the pattern. Something needing skill, and tension control. Something I would struggle with if I was sitting down in the most comfortable chair in the world.

Very few people knit their own things these days – far fewer than those who sew, I think. Wool is just so expensive, and it takes so much time to either complete something, or get good enough to do it quickly. It wasn’t always the case. Knitting was once one of the essential skills of womanhood. Or, for the more upmarket, crochet to trim lace borders. It’s so much easier to just go to the shop and buy the things, knitted by people paid a pittance in other countries, or by machines. But here was this woman, so enthusiastic about her knitting – or on such a tight deadline – that even the walk to the station was used for it.

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Mum used to tell stories about her working life back in the late ’60s and early 70s when it was not uncommon for women to knit on the train on their way to work. This was obviously in a time before the peak hour rush on trains meant travellers barely had enough space to put a book in front of their face, let alone manage needles, wool and pattern book, but it still can’t have been easy. My own abortive attempts at knitting ended up with tangles, dropped stitches, and mis-matched sleeves. Hate to think what it would have turned out like if I was on a train when doing it. Also hate to think about what my fellow passengers would think if I pulled it out. But apparently it’s not so long ago that you’d keep your ball of wool in your handbag and knit away happily for the duration of your trip. It’s not that much further back in time that it was not considered strange to buy a pattern to knit not just a jumper or a cardigan, but an entire dress or coat.

What has happened to the art of knitting? There was a bit of a revival a few years back, famous people taking up needles and making themselves wonky scarves that were never worn, but it never seems to have developed into anything. As the weather cools, I’m tempted to pull out last year’s shot at a cardigan and see if it can be salvaged. Because I need another distraction in my life – something to keep my mind off the looming lack of income if threatened redundancies at work mean I am no longer seeing the knitting woman of a morning.