Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Stitching a Green and Pleasant Land

This map of Britain was embroidered seventy years ago by Joan, a young woman who would one day become my mother. Her war really began when she and a friend, with the Nazi threat increasing daily, and impelled by a mixture of bravado, patriotism and the desire for some excitement in their lives, enlisted in the Women's Royal Air Force. Eventually, half way through the war and with her appetite for excitement completely sated, Joan found herself engaged in work of such importance that home leave was not an option. Instead, she spent her brief leisure hours stitching a map of the British Isles. In simplistic terms she amused herself by working a pre-printed design; but it could also be argued that she, and others, escaped from grim wartime reality by crafting an idealised image of a place which, when anchored by silk thread, could become a once-and-future land coloured by nostalgia and hope.

Measuring twenty-four by eighteen inches the map is large enough for its triple coastline to encircle more than sixty little symbols of British-ness. Regional identities are celebrated as part of a whole United Kingdom by icons such as the rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock, the English cyclist and fox, the kilted Scottish shepherd and Highland cow, the 'traditionally' dressed Welsh lady and Caernarvon Castle, and the pig and linen of Northern Ireland. This Britain is a busy and primarily bucolic place; a Cornish fisherman lands a huge lobster, a West Country farmer sows his ploughed fields, in the Eastern Lowlands another digs among potatoes and cabbages, hay is stacked in regional styles, apple trees and conifers promise a harvest of fruit and wood, cheerful little boats sail among leaping fish in the North Sea, while a whale even wallows happily in the Bristol Channel. Factory chimneys smoking in the North and the Midlands, and the coal seams and slag heaps of Tyneside and Wales  make minimal reference to  the presence of industry in an otherwise agrarian idyll.


But the barrage balloon floating over St Paul's Cathedral, the intrusion of a corner of France in threateningly close proximity to the white cliffs of Dover, and the flotilla of  ships steaming towards the Continent are all indicators of the historical context in which the map was sewn. Perhaps most significantly, the top right corner of the picture is filled by an heraldic shield, topped by a crown and supported by the lion and the unicorn, above which fly the flags of the Navy, Army and Air Force. When I look at this section I think of my grandmother, a policeman's  wife whose three offspring each served in one of the armed forces, allowing her to glow with vicarious pride at having 'done her 'bit'.
Joan Witt

Joan's map is no exquisite work of art. Embroidered mainly in simple chain stitch and satin stitch it is not even comparable in craftsmanship with the samplers worked by earlier generations of little girls. However, it is a historical testament to wartime myth-making; an evocation of a Golden Age Britain to be loved and fought for. Now, on an emotive level it has the visceral appeal of all folk art, but for me it offers a tangible link to my mother and a glimpse into the life she lived before we met.     
Dr Sue Elsley



Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Escapism through haberdashery in Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre.

In Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, the representations of confinement in the novel are captured through the use of imposing structures, towering hedges, enclosing boundary walls, shrouding darkness and the dull and restricting costumes worn by the female characters.

The barren landscape of the North, surrounding the remote dwelling of Thornfield Hall, seems to have seeped into the woman’s clothing, the colour palette of the female employees, predominately consisting of overcast grey, earth brown and the ominous deep blue grey of storm clouds. The women are further constrained by their confining corsets, tightly coiled hair or concealing caps.

On the surface these female characters seem more concerned with practically than fashion, befitting their subservient status; however upon closer inspection it would seem they are attempting to escape the drudgery of their circumstances through haberdashery.

Both Jane and Mrs Fairfax have a propensity to drape themselves with delicate floral shawls and wear lace collars and cuffs, when plain cotton would have been more serviceable, especially as there is nobody to impress with these attempts at fashionable enhancement, as both Mrs Fairfax’s and Jane’s positions within the household would make interaction with suitable gentleman practically impossible.

It is perhaps more understandable for Jane to enhance her appearance, as it would reflect a wish to appear more desirable to Mr Rochester. The fashion choices of Mrs Fairfax are perhaps more complex. Mrs Fairfax would have little expenditure, as she resides on the generosity of the estate and perhaps wishes to alleviate or escape her drudgery through fashion. With only desolate moorland, and her sex limiting her opportunities to see past the limits of the horizon (as the youthful Jane laments) makes it seem as if Mrs Fairfax is resigned to her fate of living out what remains of her life in a household which is not her own, surrounded by her meagre possessions. Her only comfort might be the luxuries she allows herself in her fashion choices.

In the picture we can see the lace fichu, which is worn for Jane’s tragic marriage ceremony; it is intricately embroidered, but what is perhaps most startling and poignant about the costume, is the apron, which is most noticeably apparent in the scene where Jane is introduced to Adele; the women are shown seated with their backs to a window, where the lead work, makes it appear as if they are encaged.

The apron is intricately and colourfully embroidered with flowers; a whimsical choice for a housekeeper, who should seem almost unapproachable to staff, in order to maintain her authority within the servant hierarchy.  Yet these flowers seem almost wistful, as they are worn by a woman who is past the bloom of youth, and it hints at a longing for perpetual flora, which would be absent for the majority of the year, and when in blossom only able to be appreciated through the pane of a window, while looking out onto the master’s garden.


Emma Westwood (Jane Austen Society Member)

Monday, 13 May 2013

White guys in suits: capitalism, costume and violence in the Wild West

In the 1990s, Western movies like Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994) self-consciously challenged the mythology of the American frontier. The ‘conquest’ of native peoples was redefined as genocide, and heroic gunfighters were exposed as shady characters. This desire for rawness and honesty was reflected in their visual style. The pristine candy colours and gingham bonnets of 1950s movies, with lawmen dressed like TV Country-and-Western singers, gave way to murky, stained, sepia-brown costumes based on authentic nineteenth-century photographs.

            Set in an Arizona mining town in 1881-82, Tombstone (1993) retold the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the so-called gunfight at the OK Corral. Tombstone did not attempt to rewrite history or expose legendary lawman Earp as a brutal killer. Instead, what really set Tombstone apart were its costumes.

Michael F. Blake’s Hollywood and the OK Corral (2007) explains how the film developed its unique look – almost by accident. In the 1980s-90s, many filmmakers were hiring costumes manufactured to depict a generic, ahistoric Wild West, not always caring about developments in fashion and technology across the nineteenth century: accuracy was less important than a vague old-timey feel and, in the 1990s, this meant ‘authentically’ grimy brown rags. However, with so many Westerns being made at once, there were not enough brown rags to go around. When designer Joseph Porro visited the Hollywood costume stores to clothe the cast of Tombstone, the cupboard was bare.

Tombstone’s costumes had to be made from scratch. Relying now on his own research, Porro discovered that sepia photographs are not entirely reliable, and that the Wild West was not actually brown. He and screenwriter Kevin Jarre embraced the fact that, in the 1880s, Americans were in love with the vibrant, clashing colours produced by new aniline dyes: purple, turquoise, magenta, crimson… In the tough mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, people had an insatiable appetite for novelty and colour, and they were willing to pay for it.

            Tombstone is surely one of the best-dressed Westerns ever made. The lawmen and gamblers dress as 1880’s men-about town, wearing silk-cravats, bowler-hats and immaculately starched collars. History may know them as ‘Wild West gunfighters’, but Porro’s designs acknowledge that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday saw themselves as modern businessmen, not thugs. Through dress, they identify themselves as the bearers of progress, urbanisation, capitalism and order.

Scene from Tombstone (1993), director: George P. Cosmatos

By contrast, the outlaw cowboys dress in garish, eccentric costumes, their rustic styles marking them as reactionary and antisocial. Sharp tailoring and personal hygiene must triumph over chaos. This is more profound than it seems, as recent research suggests the ‘gunfight at the OK Corral’ was not ‘good vs. evil’, but modern capitalism using police to conquer the frontier by force. In Tombstone, the white guys in suits always win.

How important is historical accuracy in costume? In this film, the outlaw cowboys wear red sashes to give the impression that they were a modern criminal gang. In fact, the ‘Cow-boys’ operating in Arizona were merely a loose, shifting population of cattle-rustlers, bandits, and small-time ranchers, and they did not wear ‘gang colours’. However, these historically-inaccurate sashes allow the film to engage with 1990’s anxieties about policing modern urban gangs, just as the Earp/Holliday movies of the 1940s, 50s and 70s reflected America’s anxieties about Hiroshima, the Cold War, or Vietnam respectively. These movies have always raised questions about the legitimacy – and the essential Americanness – of using violence to enforce order: the historically-inaccurate ‘gang colours’ in Tombstone draw audiences back to those historically-authentic questions.

Forced by necessity to make everything afresh, Tombstone’s costume designers subverted the expectations of 1990’s audiences by reminding them that people in the ‘Olden Days’ did not see themselves as the quaint, dowdy figures fossilised in sepia photographs. Rather, they were sophisticated, stylish, excited by new technology and fashion, and grappling self-consciously with the pressures of modernity.


‘Awful Arizona’, Denver Republican, May 22, 1882
Michael F. Blake, Hollywood and the OK Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007) [most of this textile story is drawn from Blake’s interviews with people who worked on Tombstone)
Gary Roberts, Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006)
Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp: the Life Behind the Legend (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997)


Dr Alex Tankard University of Chester