Photo courtesy Flickr
The upstairs hall was lined with a display of “whites”, the meticulously sewn and embellished lightweight cotton dresses that women wore for special occasions. Oddly enough, white fabric is the easiest to maintain, since it can be bleached. My grandmother’s high school graduation dress was a white, and once in a while a cousin gets married in it.
I’ve had ample opportunity to examine and experience wearing that dress; to drink from, wash, and occasionally break the cut crystal that set the table from which the wearer dined; and to lay, clear, wash, and iron the embroidered cloths that pulled meal together. Living in a 1910 environment is an exercise in fine motor skills.
I read recently that the late nineteenth century was the pinnacle of craft in the West. The finesse and discrimination that fine hand production fosters and demands is characteristic of the period: the better a piece, the more hand labor there was to it, the more expressive the ornament, and the better realized the designer’s vision. “Dainty” was a big deal in period advertising, but there’s more to it than that: it’s about dignity and self-respect. There’s no arguing that conspicuous consumption was a factor, but behind it lay self-determination.
Much of what we think of as Victorian is sadly compromised machine production from the big mail-order operation. This stuff has its charms, but the forms can be mean-spirited and superficial. The best of the period requires conscious attention: the dress to comportment, the crystal to careful handling, the linen to dignified table manners. Interestingly, this house and others I saw last week-end included a ballroom. I suspect that having room to dance privately is a good way to train the family in the give and take between fine and gross motor skills that is at the heart of being human.
I have also read that eye-hand management takes up about niney-seven percent of brain capacity. From that perspective, the twentieth century was a long exercise in de-skilling, ceding manual gifts to machines until labor was debased to a toddler’s exercise in sorting, be it burger to customer or pre-fabricated construction modules to a foundation.
The arts and crafts community bewailed this decline of skills, but I think they are back with a vengeance, fostered by computer games and the affordable musical instruments that have once again made live performance more the rule than the exception. Coupled with the behavioral changes necessary to survive AIDS and reinforced by on-line reputation systems, guitars and state of the art phones have restored the social matrix of the nineteenth-century, fostering the customs that are the whole point of the buildings and artifacts.
-30-More after the jump.