In the 1923 Handbook to the Gold Coast, editor John Maxwell advises British crown agents and merchants moving to West Africa on what fashions were appropriate in those far-flung colonies. Some of his recommendations fit seamlessly into our Lawrence of Arabia stereotype of the empire’s explorers, like his worshipful praise of khaki, styled either as “shorts or long trousers.” “There’s nothing better,” Maxwell declares, though he warns that because “clothes deteriorate quicker in the tropics…it is therefore advisable to be on the safe side and take a small surplus rather than too little.”
However, his advice to bring “a housewife with a good supply of darning wool, thread, needles, buttons, etc.,” may be jarring for the modern reader unacquainted with the “housewife” sewing kits popular in the British army in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those young colonists who did pack up their human housewives were “advised to get in touch, through the Colonial Office, with the wife of some member of the department who has been to West Africa.”
The 1928 edition of the Handbook to the Gold Coast advertises the perfect underwear & shoes for the tropics.
Travel writing is full of the familiar and the strange, both for the author and the reader trying to piece together the history of fashion through letters and journals where clothes are described either meticulously or barely at all. If only those gentlemen on their Grand Tours had given us an archive of selfies, a repository of vanity that would have saved hours scrounging through cramped handwritten letters for the smallest detail.
While no such archive exists, we are lucky to have a prodigious supply of travel writing that illustrates a remarkable amount of fashion over the past few centuries. Though lacking the cultural nuance of someone speaking for their own country, these outsider perspectives offer a physical, and often blunt, description of how the people they met presented themselves.
Horror drove many of the writers to describe the fashions they saw, like the trauma of Baron Broughton during his travels through Constantinople. “Nothing can be more dissimilar than the appearance of a Turkish lady at home and abroad,” he says. “Her envelope is thrown off within doors, and…her under are then her upper garments, which, although covered with gold and other heavy ornaments, are certainly not contrived for the concealment of her charms.” Joseph Pitton de Tournefort was similarly baffled, though perhaps less scandalized, by the women of Turkey during his voyage through the Levant. “Though the Women in Turkey do not shew themselves in publick, they are yet very magnificent in their Habits,” he describes. “They wear Breeches like Men, which reach as low as the Heel in the manner of a Pantaloon, at the end of which is a very neat Sock of Spanish Leather.”
An illustration from Baron Broughton’s “A journey through Albania, and other provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia, to Constantinople, during the years 1809-1810″.
Though much of our travel writing comes from Europeans leaving the continent, their home countries are not spared from criticism. Muslim scholar Mirza Abu Taleb Khan was appalled by the women he saw in Paris during his 18th century travels, remarking that “the waists of their gowns were so short and full-bodied, that the women appeared humpbacked; that whilst the drapery in the front was so scanty as barely to conceal half their bosom.”
Not all comments were negative, of course, like the observations of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams who marvelled at the ballroom fashions in Switzerland in 1748. “For a short time during the winter, in defiance of frost and snow, the costume of a few reigning balls was not à la Grec, but à la Sauvage. The bodice, under which no linen was worn (shifts being an article of dress long since rejected at Paris, both by the Greeks and the Savages)…was made of knitted silk, clinging exactly to the shape, which it perfectly displayed…and the feet, which were either bare, or covered with a silk stocking of flesh colour, were decorated with diamonds.”
Travel writing offers an invaluable resource for the history of fashion. To learn more, please see the IHR Library Collection Guide on Fashion History and check out our temporary exhibition located on the first and third floors of the library.
This post has kindly been written for us by Róisín Watson, a Scouloudi Fellow at the IHR.
Theological assumptions about the material nature of the divine were central to the debates of the Reformation. The accessories of late medieval Catholic piety, in the form of multiple altarpieces, relics and reliquaries, and tabernacles, to name but a few, fed reformers’ attacks on Catholic worship and its associated beliefs. They argued that the sacred could not be accessed through these material trappings. The materiality of the divine also divided Protestants. Zwingli and Luther disagreed on whether a spiritual reality could be represented physically. For Luther, there was no clear separation between the material and the spiritual. God had revealed himself through the flesh of Christ. For Zwingli, the spirit and the material were irreconcilable – ‘what you give the senses’, he wrote, ‘you take away from the spirit’.
While such debates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries framed the experiences of a theological elite, the everyday experience of the Reformation was far removed from these discussions. However, the materiality of religion is no less important for understanding how individuals interacted with the divine and defined their confessional identities. How were confessional cultures differentiated by the relationships they fostered with their material world? How did objects communicate the new theology? How can non-verbal expressions of confessional identities challenge the historical paradigms we currently use to understand this period?
As Scouloudi fellow, in early June I ran a one-day workshop at the V&A, funded by the IHR, RHS and GHS. It was designed to tackle these questions. The workshop brought together museum curators, historians, art historians, and archaeologists for an inter-disciplinary discussion on current research. It also provided the opportunity to integrate the V&A’s collections into our discussion. We were very grateful that curator Kirstin Kennedy was able to bring a smorgasbord of objects for participants to inspect up-close.
Many of the day’s papers revealed the ambiguity of objects, which stemmed from their malleability. The functions and significance of religious objects were defined by their owners or by the spaces that they inhabited. This was particularly true in the case of Allison Stielau’s study of the afterlife of the shrine for the bones of Saint Liborious in Paderborn. When the Catholic city was captured in 1622 by Protestant Christian the Younger, Duke of Braunschweig and Lüneburg, the shrine was melted down and turned into coins known as ‘Pfaffenfeindtaler’. For Protestants, the coins represented their iconoclastic triumph, as well as proof of the impotence of Catholic relics. However, Catholics used these coins too. They believed that touching them was analogous to touching the saintly relics the metal had previously protected. Stielau argued that despite the re-casting of the silver, the material retained the memory of its previous form.
The malleability of the meaning of objects has meant that they defy the neat labels placed upon them by scholars. In her paper, Suzanna Ivanič challenged the distinction historians have drawn between magic/superstition and religion in the early modern world. The inventories of citizens in Prague contain objects that resist this simple binary opposition. Catholic rosaries might contain non-traditional materials such as coconut shells, snake’s tongues and wolves’ teeth. Ivanič argued that these items demonstrate the co-existence of magical and religious beliefs, which in the mind of their owners were not discrete categories.
Lutherhaus in Wittenberg
Lutherans, too, actively engaged with their material surroundings. Distinguishing what was a ‘Lutheran’ object as opposed to a ‘Catholic’ one was not straightforward, as Mirko Gutjahr demonstrated. Gutjahr is currently curating an exhibition on what he refers to as ‘Luther’s rubbish’, that is the archaeological finds from Luther’s house in Wittenberg from the 1530s and 1540s. Gutjahr argued that there was, in fact, very little to distinguish the site as Lutheran. Catholic objects and motifs remained, indicating that a ‘Lutheran material culture’ did not exist at this early stage. Lutherans did occupy a middle ground, neither embracing the spiritual power of the object nor rejecting the utility of material religion indiscriminately. In her paper, Margit Thøfner demonstrated how Lutherans in Denmark consciously edited their catholic past by re-framing medieval altarpieces to suit the new theological standards.
Another theme that many of the speakers touched on was the agency of objects and how this could make them dangerous and subversive. This was most clear in Lloyd de Beer’s paper on the destruction of English alabasters in the Reformation, where these objects had been consciously disfigured. Irene Galandra Cooper also addressed the subversive qualities of religious materiality. In 1582 Francisco de Cordoba was brought to trial for wearing a pouch containing a variety of suspicious items, such as flesh that looked like a beating heart. Francisco insisted he was simply carrying an Agnus Dei, a wax disc blessed by the pope during the first Sunday after Easter. The object was traditionally hung within homes above the bed, but this case reveals the concerns the church had about their sanctioned sacramentals being used in ways that deviated from their stipulations. Edmund Wareham demonstrated how stone tablets decorated with text in the convent of Villingen allowed the nuns there not to be subversive, but to transcend the restrictions of enclosure. They used these tablets to aid their mental pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The women placed them around the convent to signal different locations on their pilgrimage, which established a sacred topography within the enclosed convent.
Object handling session at V&A.
The material culture of early modern religion had multiple meanings, but also multiple uses. It defined relationships between and within confessions, between local and official religions, and between different spaces. The workshop demonstrated how difficult it is to speak of a single Lutheran or Catholic identity and to characterise its relationship with the material world. Such relationships were negotiated and in constant dialogue with local customs, the availability of materials, contemporary understandings of the nature of materials, as well as the character of religious reform.
We are pleased to announce the publication of our latest volume from the Somerset VCH series. Queen Camel and the Cadburys is the 11th volume of the Victoria County History of Somerset and is edited by Mary Siraut.
The volume is a comprehensive account of the ten parishes comprising the southern half of the Catsash hundred, an area rich in its archaeology and history. To the north, the Barrows, of which Queen Camel, North Cadbury and Sparkford (home of the Haynes Motor Museum) are the largest and most populous, lying in an area rich in archaeology and history. To the south, prominent hills include Cadbury Hill, crowned by Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort dating from 600–400 BC. In South Cadbury and the surrounding parishes there is much evidence of prehistoric activity such as Bronze-Age finds. From a later period, the manor at Queen Camel is recorded in 1066, though decimated by fire in 1639 and subsequently rebuilt in local Blue Lias stone; and the sites of abandoned medieval homesteads are visible at Sparkford, Weston Bampfylde, Sutton Montis and Maperton. Later still, Compton Castle in Compton Pauncefoot was constructed in 1821 while North Cadbury’s medieval manor house still survives today.
Dr Patricia Croot with Matthew Bristow at the launch in North Cadbury.
The book was officially launched in North Cadbury on 2 June and guests included VCH Director and General Editor Richard Hoyle with Adam Chapman and Matt Bristow also representing VCH central office. A presentation on the archaeological discoveries and the early exploitation of the landscape in the area – from the Bronze Age to the Romano-British period – was given by Dr Clare Randall.
We start with Michael R. Evans’ Inventing Eleanor: the Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which Elena Woodacre thinks has much to offer both the historian and the interested public (no. 1786).
Then we turn to Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History, edited by Ava F. Kahn, Adam D. Mendelsohn. Toni Pitock believes this book will reorient our thinking about American Jewish history in particular, and Jewish history in general (no. 1785).
Next up is Huw Dylan’s Defence Intelligence and the Cold War: Britain’s Joint Intelligence Bureau 1945-1964. Rory Cormac recommends an impeccably researched and well-written work (no. 1784).
Finally we have a review article by Dave Andress covering Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution by Rebecca Spang and The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett, which includes responses from both authors (no. 1783, with response here).
The IHR library’s focus on primary sources means that often we don’t hold material ‘about’ a particular subject such as fashion history. Instead, rich material for the history of a topic can commonly be found scattered across editions of documents that were never intended to be used by historians of that subject. An inclusive, wide-ranging, and laterally-thinking approach to identifying relevant works pays off. So when looking through the collections for material on fashion history to coincide with the forthcoming Anglo-American Conference we were not too surprised to discover a wealth of material in both obvious and unexpected places.
from The New York Mercury, 1758 in The arts and crafts in New York 1726-1776, p. 344
Here’s a couple of examples. A compilation of advertisements from New York newspapers contains an unusual source for fashion history, with details of the attire worn by runaway slaves and servants. Handbooks for British businessmen and officials travelling to the Gold Coast advised on suitable clothing. Fashion appears in the many editions that we hold of letters, diaries, and travel writing. Household accounts can include lists of clothing and information about costs and acquisition. Legal and parliamentary sources detail sumptuary laws regulating people’s attire, regulations for the textile industry, and trade agreements. Parliamentary reports and petitions cover the lives of workers in the industry. Lists and advertisements in trade directories are a rich source of information about businesses.
from A journey through Albania, and other provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia, to Constantinople, facing p. 855
A lot of digging is needed as the material isn’t all found in one place. Subject and keyword searching on the catalogue helps to find some specific material, but won’t track down things buried within other sources. Online resources such as the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, newspaper databases, British History Online and the wonderful Connected Histories – which cross-searches multiple resources – are all valuable for in-depth searching and complement the serendipitous pleasures of browsing the library shelves.
See our Guide to fashion history in the IHR library for more examples from our collections. Exhibitions showing works from the IHR and Senate House Library will be held on the 1st and 3rd floors of the IHR over the next month and there is also an online exhibition with beautiful illustrations of department store catalogues from the First World War.
The Institute of Historical Research, in collaboration with Senate House Library, is delighted to announce the launch of a new online exhibition of digitised fashion catalogues from the First World War. These select catalogues of women’s clothing from 1916 and 1917 illustrate the war’s impact on materials, the roles of women and fashion itself.
The exhibition is freely available at http://www.history.ac.uk/exhibitions/fashion/index.html, and includes eight fully digitised catalogues from five different department stores (Bradleys, Dickins and Jones, Peter Robinson, John Barnes and Stewart and Macdonald), potted histories of each of these, and further articles on the provenance of the catalogues, their preservation and the process involved in scanning them.
This online exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the Institute of Historical Research’s IHR Digital Department and Senate House Library, and has been produced thanks to contributions from Angela Craft, Dr Richard Espley, Dave Jackson, Dr Jordan Landes, Danny Millum and Professor Jane Winters. Please do get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or feedback.
We start with Government Against Itself: Public Sector Union Power and Its Consequences by Daniel DiSalvo. Joseph E. Hower and the author discuss a useful book on an important subject (no. 1782, with response here).
Next up is Laurence Fenton’s Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell, and Hannah-Rose Murray recommends a well-written and researched volume (no. 1781).
Then we turn to Robert Hoyland’s In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. Youssef Choueiri reviews a lively and fresh account of the Arab conquests (no. 1780).
Finally, Cyril Pearce provides a monumental overview of the literature on war resisters over the last 100 years, in Writing about Britain’s 1914-18 War Resisters (no. 1779).
We begin this week with Laura King’s Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, 1914-1960. Helen McCarthy and the author discuss a beautifully researched, nuanced and ambitious book (no. 1778, with response here).
Next up is The Jacobean Grand Tour: Early Stuart Travellers in Europe, edited by Edward Chaney and Timothy Wilks. Simon Ditchfield has some reservations, but finds much to enjoy in erudite, generously illustrated and very reasonably priced volume (no. 1777).
Then we turn to Megan L. Bever and Scott A. Suarez’s Historian Behind the History: Conversations with Southern Historians, as Bruce Baker reviews an insightful set of interviews with historians about doing history (no. 1776).
Finally, we have The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, edited by Andrew C. Isenberg, which Peter Coates praises as an enormously valuable teaching and research resource for the practitioner of environmental history (no. 1775).
This post has kindly been written for us by Jennifer Keating, RHS Marshall Fellow, Institute of Historical Research
How is emptiness made, and what purposes does it serve? What cultural, material and natural work goes into maintaining nothingness? And why have a variety of historical actors, from colonial powers to cartographers, sought to construct, control and maintain physically and discursively ‘empty’ space? In April, three other IHR fellows (Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine and Will Pooley) and I organised a conference on the theme of ‘Empty Spaces’ that brought together speakers from a variety of historical backgrounds to tackle these very questions. The day saw an intriguing selection of inter-weaving topics, from ruins to representations of the sea and sky, and from vacant urban space to voids in history-writing. A hugely enjoyable keynote speech given by Matt Houlbrook reflected on the ways in which we all as historians have to engage with ‘emptiness’ in some form, whether as a specific aspect of our own topic of enquiry, or in the more historiographical sense of writing to fill gaps, voids or empty spaces – or conversely, embracing this emptiness – in our collective knowledge.
This theme of empty space provided me with a new angle from which to view my own work on Russian settler society in late tsarist Central Asia, the write-up of which is currently being funded by the IHR and the Royal Historical Society. In essence, the thesis investigates the ways in which the Russian settler community, presented with a territory far from the imperial centre that was commonly acknowledged as being ‘vast and alien’, sought to transform, appropriate or reject its ‘strange and Other-worldly’ terrain. Furthermore, I consider how ideas about Central Asia as a colonial space drove, and were driven by, these physical interventions in the landscape, as part of a broader perspective that considers the intersections between the actual reshaping of land and the social production of space in texts and images.
For the most part, I consider places and sites that we might think of as the opposite of empty space: work on irrigation projects, afforestation, railway building and settlement creation. Yet almost all of these activities and their representations were underpinned by pervasive Russian notions about the emptiness of rural Central Asia. Besides its settled river valleys and oases, over 75% of Turkestan’s territory comprised arid and semi-arid steppe and desert, and the perceived emptiness of these areas served a compelling ideological purpose in Russian discourse. Descriptions of the steppe commonly referenced landscape conventions of the sublime, awesome and terrifying in equal measure. These lands were held to be ‘lifeless’ and ‘deathly’, and visitors described in great detail the bewildering scale of an ‘empty’ environment that resembled ‘a circle of which the centre was everywhere, and the circumference nowhere’.
Claims that rural terrain was nothing but ‘one vast waste’, or a ‘monotonous Sahara’ were initially sustained by a lack of local geographical knowledge. With few accurate maps, Russian explorers and geographers set about ‘discovering’ the landscape, rendering it textually, cartographically and in photographs, acts which were very much part of the scientific and cultural exercise of colonial power. The documentation of this terrain generated discursively ‘empty’ space that had significant use and potential. Firstly, words and images were powerful tools that could be used to frame an empty landscape as an environment open for improvement. Engineers, irrigation specialists and state officials embarked on numerous projects to ‘fertilise this huge and hitherto unproductive space,’ casting the land as a potentially useful resource that had deteriorated into a state of dis-use. Secondly, emptiness acted as a convenient foil for exploitation. The aesthetic image of unproductive rural space provided the foundation for Russian claims to have transformed the land, resurrecting what was discursively labelled as ‘dead’, ‘empty’ and ‘barren’ into ‘fertile’ and ‘productive’ fields of irrigated land on which could be grown cereal crops, orchards and cotton, or beneath which coal, graphite, gold and other precious resources could be mined.
In the east of Russian Central Asia, where land was readily admitted to already be far more fertile than in the more arid regions of the Caspian, emptiness had rather different connotations. Here, rural land was occupied largely by Kazakh and Kirgiz nomads, yet local Russian officials confidently proclaimed that as the nomads had no fixed abode, the land was ‘obviously empty’. Such statements had the effect of discursively dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land, emptying the landscape of any inhabitants with sovereign claim to it. In turn, the Russian Resettlement Administration, a department of the imperial government that encouraged and oversaw the state-sanctioned resettlement of millions of land-hungry peasants from Central Russia to the empire’s Asiatic lands, made available large parts of rural land to incoming settlers.
Rural emptiness was clearly very much in the eye of the beholder. It could be both a hostile, threatening feature, in need of correction, and something to be embraced, under the right conditions. It legitimised colonisation, in terms of the ‘transformative’ effects on the land of Russia’s self-styled ‘civilising’ mission in Central Asia, and as a means of validating the settlement of tens of thousands of incoming Russian and Ukrainian peasants. At the same time however, the construction of empty space was far more than a tool to be wielded by the imperial state. Everyday Russian settlers also actively engaged with and referenced ideas of emptiness, very often for their own private gain. The portrayal of empty surface land, beneath which lay myriad natural resources was used in petitions to the state to grant mining and industrial concessions, while similar notions were employed to try to win railway-building contracts and to receive permission to build new homes and businesses. Thus the construction of emptiness was part of an ‘imperial language game’ in which many – consciously or unconsciously – participated.
The framing of empty rural land had numerous implications. The tsarist desire to exploit the land by means of irrigation and crop planting would reach its apogee in the Soviet period, actions that have had, and continue to have, severe environmental ramifications for the whole of the Central Asian region. Meanwhile, the sustained distribution of nomadic land to incoming settlers lead both to the incremental destruction of the nomadic way of life, and also to an escalation of inter-ethnic tensions that would contribute in no small part to the widespread violence of the 1916 uprisings. Notions of emptiness, as produced by Russian settler society, reveal not only colonial attitudes to geography, space and environment, and the desire to re-make landscape, but also some of the conflicting outcomes of such ideas.
We begin this week with The Courtly and Commercial Art of the Wycliffite Bible by Kathleen E. Kennedy. Eyal Poleg and the author discuss a book which is an important part of the ‘rehabilitation movement’ of the Wycliffite Bible (no. 1774, with author’s response here).
Then we turn to T. G. Otte’s July Crisis: The World’s Descent for War, Summer 1914, as Jeff Roquen recommends a thought-provoking study of supreme erudition (no. 1773).
Next up Gerald Power reviews The Shadow of a Year: 1641 in Irish History and Memory by John Gibney alongside TCD’s digital resource, the 1641 Depositions Online (no. 1772, with response here).
Finally we have Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. Sean Ledwith takes on a powerfully written social and political history of contemporary Britain (no. 1771).