Sunday, May 29, 2011

Finding the Zen in "Common"

     We live in a world where individuality is the key to success. Showing how you think, how creative you can be, how unique, how different from everyone else, has almost been elevated to "Cult Status."

     Is it any wonder that a Dear Newbie searches out the unique? That she cringes in horror at the compliment, "Oh! Where ever did you get that lovely fabric? I must have some too!" That she searches valiantly for styles that the other women haven't used before?

     Granted, one can search and find documentation for just about any "Re-enacting Fashion Rule."  From the 19th century: Garibaldi blouses were always white.... nope.. red and black were popular too. Hair was always parted in the center for women... nope, plenty of side parted hairstyles are seen, both intentional and unintentional. Women always had long hair.... nope, short hair was a fad for Southern young women and there is ample documentation for other reasons a woman might have shorter hair. Adult women never wore short sleeved dresses during the day... a few paintings say otherwise. From the 18th century: women always wore a cap... nope, wigs were popular with fashionable women too. Women always wore gowns... nope, plenty of extant jackets, caracos, and short gowns show the popularity of separates. Pioneer Women couldn't afford stays, shoes, or fashionable fabrics... plenty of extant store ledgers, account listings, and estate listings show how fast such items came to the frontier areas.

So why is the Dear Newbie pushed to "be common" anyways? What's the Big Deal if she can document it?

Let's consider a few reasons...

     You're telling the story of how every day, common women became extraordinary because of circumstance… and most would go back to being common, every day women when their extraordinary experiences were done. Diaries tell us that few women thought of themselves as the extraordinary women they are to us. Most felt they were similar to every other woman with similar experiences. They felt themselves representative of women of the era. We owe it to them to try to be representative of the common women of the era and interpret how the common woman met the extraordinary experiences that capture our imagination and spark the imagination of others.

     If everyone is unique, there is no common from which to measure unique. There is a time and place for a specialty impression, but context is everything. Without a common rural woman for comparison, a flamboyant urban woman will not be noticed in a sea of likewise flamboyant women. Without a common upper-working class woman for comparison, the finery of the wealthy woman pales in a sea of likewise finely dressed women. Without a common housewife for comparison, a businesswoman doesn’t seem such a pioneer of women’s rights. We owe the unique persons of the past the common, so their uniqueness can be seen in context.

     Much as we would like to think that the people we share history with will take home the "whole package" experience, they will gravitate to the one thing with which they can indentify or seems to match their perceptions and leave the rest of our well-intentioned efforts behind. We owe it to the persons of the past to share accurately their lives, both common and extraordinary, so that the pieces of the past that are taken away from our sharing are accurate, common, and a representation of the era.

So how do we move forward?     
     Start the opposite way than we are accustomed to. Instead of finding an extraordinary woman and trying to justify her presence; find a common woman and try to find what is extraordinary about her. Instead of taking a 21st century preference and trying to hide it or justify it; try to research how women of the era met the same sorts of challenges.

     When the census taker came to call, plenty of women listed "keeping house" as an occupation. Our research into 18th and 19th century history shows how much existence keeping house occupied. My Dear Mother had a favorite saying, "Mother-work IS work." Most mothers would agree with that statement. While the wool or cotton dress with minimal trim  and sunbonnet of the 19th cent. or the linen jacket, wool petticoat, and fustian pinner of the 18th cent. doesn't satisfy our urge to make art out of an everyday item, it was the blue jeans and white tee of the era. Spend awhile getting comfy in a common outfit... and then when an event comes that you can break out the silk gown and yards of trimmings, you will feel just as elegant as the Original Cast did in theirs... and just as willing to don a comfy wrapper and soft slippers when the socializing is done.

   When the passion for a particular unique impression comes to a Dear Newbie, I advise them to go forth with that research, but also to start researching the common skill-sets and common knowledge of the era's women. I do this myself. A tailor is not commonly a woman in the 19th century, but I can also portray a seamstress of mens' and boys' clothing. A hospital matron is not so common in the 18th century, but I can also portray a housewife mentioning the most recent epidemic. A single woman of 36 years is not so common in either era, but I can also portray a widowed auntie living with family because I have researched childcare practices. In this way, I am not portraying an extraordinary woman, I am showing how a common woman might have shared my uncommon skill-set. For me, this is finding "zen" in portraying a common woman.

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