The Complicated Fun Of Being Into Historical Costume & Not White
October 14, 2019 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Catherine Fung for Dismantle Magazine: The Complicated Fun Of Being Into Historical Costume & Not White
posted by jedicus (14 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I guffawed at this point, "“Wow, Cat, you have some surprisingly white hobbies” ... and then nodded vigorously. What brings up deep grief (sometimes sympathetic and sometimes rooted in my own family history) might not even register as a blip on the radar for someone else.
And they are not wrong—Costume College is largely attended by white women. I am viscerally aware of my being one of the few people of color there when I see one of the white male instructors there dressed in a fake Native American costume, or when one of the white women wears a qipao to the gala. In these moments, I run through an internal monologue to figure out whether it’s worth it to strike up a conversation about cultural appropriation. This year, I confronted my uneasy feelings about the Friday night showcase event, which had the theme, “Presented by the USO.” While I share a fondness for the fashion of the 1940s, and did have fun trying to put my hair into victory rolls, I didn’t much care to perform nostalgia for a war in which 130,000 Japanese Americans—citizens who, indeed, looked like me—were put into internment camps, a war that, due to the Japanese occupation of China, directly resulted in the displacement of members of my family
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:25 PM on October 14, 2019 [10 favorites]

See also Black Girl in a Big Dress (season 2 drops tomorrow! SO EXCITE!) and Mr. Malcolm's List (which is being developed into a feature film). Did you know you wanted to see Gemma Chan star in a Regency romance? WELL YOU DEFINITELY DO.

I have a lot of super-positive feelings about the increasingly diverse world of historical costuming (a personal interest) AND the knock-on effect of some historical costume dramas daring to be race-blind in their casting. The ability to create a period character doesn't at all depend on race! And the hobby just feels more FUN as it gets more open and welcoming and diverse. We can all just nerd out about period seams and reproduction trim with wild enthusiasm and not waste energy on gatekeeping or pushing back against gatekeepers. (Which isn't to ignore the complex entry into even a welcoming historical costuming world women like Ms. Fung face!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:30 PM on October 14, 2019 [14 favorites]

PS, that Fabiola Jean-Louis work she cites to is AMAZING (and made a big splash in my historical clothing circles). Content warning for semi-hidden depictions of historical racism and slavery; I ... was going to say more, but you should just go look, they're absolutely stunning works of art.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:49 PM on October 14, 2019 [9 favorites]

"Complicated fun" is a really apt phrase and I enjoyed reading her reflections. Thanks for posting this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:52 PM on October 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would love for there to be more intellectual exchange between these kinds of people (cosplayers, costume people) and mine (cultural heritage). In the late 1970s through the 1980s there was a real attempt to get at what people were doing when they, for example, dressed up for re-enaction at Colonial Williamsburg or Old Sydney Town, and what relationship that had with the past or authenticity. Wearing bonnets and waistcoats and firing cannons, and then driving home in a car to television and cold beer in the fridge, is completely inauthentic, of course, except when you start to think about it—isn't an engagement with the past on the level of clothes and tools and weapons exactly the same, intellectually, as engagement in libraries and archives? There's a famous passage in Lowenthal's The Past Is A Foreign Country (1985):
Re-enactments are patent anachronisms. But they do not always seem anachronistic; some actors become so involved in bygone events that they feel as though they are really living them. In making a film about the Napoleonic Wars those who portrayed officers and soldiers were paid at the same rate, but after a few days 'the officers of this celluloid army began to eat at a separate table from the mere privates and NCOs', ...As a World War II Re-enactment Society 'paratrooper' put it, 'You've got to be pretty stable not to get re-enacting and real life confused...'
How much more inauthentic for heritage/history is Costume College where these Disney and serious, scholarly replication of techniques, to get at an authentic past era, can coexist in the same category of doing? There's something fundamentally strange in this sentence from the article, and I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean it in the sense that it starts to raise really fundamental questions of purpose when you think about it:
Walking around in Victorian ballgown at Dickens Fair feels not so different from pretending to be Snow White; pretending I’m in World War II feels like conjuring the ghost of my grandmother...
The really complicated question here is what relationship any of this imagined costume has to any kind of imagined past. Cranky historicists will stamp and say it's not correct for an Asian woman to dress in the clothes of the past aristocracy, but they're asking the wrong question. I mean we know that Disney's princesses are not historical figures, and want them to be more representative of our own society, just as we know that the actual past was fundamentally unlike our own present, and representing it faithfully would be awful.

What an interesting, dangerous playground.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:12 PM on October 14, 2019 [16 favorites]

Not Your Momma's History is doing really fantastic work in this arena, especially when she attends contemporary events & protests in costume.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:22 PM on October 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

There's a tabletop RPG called Good Society that's all about playing out your own Austen-style stories. The rules tackle gender because that's such a huge part of those stories (and explicitly suggest an ahistorical-who-cares "yes of course the vicar can marry a man" approach)... but then also declare "race isn't part of these stories, so it's irrelevant." And then it goes own to illustrate people of a huge swathe of racial backgrounds in Victorian attire. I had to blink rapidly a few times at first and then it all just made sense.

(See also the recent Mary, Queen of Scots, which did race-blind casting with some interesting "ahistorical" results.)
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:11 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

See also Black Girl in a Big Dress (season 2 drops tomorrow! SO EXCITE!) and Mr. Malcolm's List (which is being developed into a feature film).

Thanks for those mentions. I'm currently reading one of Alyssa Cole's historical novels and BGIABD would be very timely to watch right now.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2019

I think this is fascinating, yet I disagree with the author.

As a Korean person, I can’t help but think that “race-blind” historical cosplay of white/European is kind of erasure and historical revisionism. It’s a way to “celebrate” a history and paint a racist past as being inclusive, supportive, a “golden age” — whereas in fact it was golden for only those who appeared white. It’s a way to celebrate “diversity” on whiteness’s terms, in white narratives.

I don’t want to deny the author her experience and joy that she derived from her hobby! But to me these practices are ultimately not about acknowledging racism but about denial. They’re ultimately about fitting into and belonging within white narratives.

I think the unfortunate and true fact is: North American and European history is not a site of honor and dignity and respect for me. I live in a USA where there’s only hope going forward into the future, and is definitely bereft in the past. I often find this hard to communicate to my friends who are white. “Your history? It is not for me. People like me would not have been welcome.” But that’s the history of racism and colonialism and slavery that we have to confront. How do my white friends reckon with and grieve a bloodstained history? How do I live in a society that has been racist since (and due to) its founding? Perhaps not by imagining myself, intact and racially anachronistic, existing within white history...
posted by many more sunsets at 6:52 AM on October 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

Really interesting article, thanks for sharing.

I don’t want to deny the author her experience and joy that she derived from her hobby! But to me these practices are ultimately not about acknowledging racism but about denial. They’re ultimately about fitting into and belonging within white narratives.

Do you think she doesn't do enough to address this towards the end of the article?
Perhaps, too, it is precisely the invisibility of Asian people in the representation of these earlier historical periods that I am also combatting. Perhaps a part of me is asserting, “Yes, we were there, too.” As an adolescent, I was obsessed with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as the film adaptations of these books. Their spirited heroines were so formative in my self-development, and yet they felt so far away from my understanding of where I came from. As much as I identified with Jo March (like Jo, I became a writer and teacher), I could never imagine myself as part of her story. It wasn’t until discovering Asian American Studies in college that I started to see Asian people in early American and European history. To this day, I am fascinated by old pictures of Asian women in Western clothing because we simply don’t ever see them in film, television, and art museums. I think of the term “racial drag,” in the way that Anne Anlin Cheng uses it, to describe the “psychological euphoria” that comes with claiming for oneself a “racial body that would look good in just about anything.” Indeed, I get a certain thrill in dressing as a merveilleuse (women of the French aristocracy who used fashion to subversively comment on the Reign of Terror), in replicating John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of Madame X.” There is something victorious about being able to pull off these looks.

But, as Cheng would also remind us, there is a psychic cost to this kind of passing, and the attempt to is melancholic, can never be satisfied. I am aware of how much effort this takes, the countless hours and dollars I could spend learning heirloom sewing techniques, how to make chain maille, fitting a bodice to the right corset—all things that I love going to Costume College for. And because I live in the United States, the cost is the awareness of the fact that I’m not learning about Chinese fashion of any era, that I couldn’t tell you anything about what fabrics were used during the Tang dynasty, or how the qipao developed as a garment. I mourn this gap in my knowledge base, just as I mourn the fact that I possess a PhD in English but am illiterate in Chinese, that it seems to always take more effort for me to learn the history of my ancestors than it is for me to recite the English monarchs.
Fung goes on to cite the work of Haitian born, New York raised artist Fabiola Jean-Louis, "whose portraits of Black women dressed to mimic European nobility of the 15th to 19th centuries offer poignant statements about the violences and trauma inflicted on the bodies of Black women throughout history. [...] The images are gorgeous, and it is precisely through the graceful and incandescent aesthetic that they draw the viewer in to the horrific and painful history they reference. As Jean-Louis says, “I chose to let beauty be the vehicle that I would carry those ugly truths in.
I’d like to dare to develop an Asian American version of Jean-Louis’s portrait series, one that can allow me to make Asian women visible in narratives they’re usually rendered absent, that speak against the exoticization of Asian women’s bodies."

Or are you finding her solution to the problem of the general invisibility of non-white people in period costumes and reenactments to be lacking? I'm not challenging you on this, but looking to understand your point of view, if you don't mind.

And reading about seeing white male instructors there dressed in a fake Native American costume, I thought of reenactments of scenes or events where there were a diversity of people present, but a lack of diversity in those reenacting the scenes. I hope there's been some discussion and consideration by white costumers, but I'm guessing this is a rarity, not the norm, given the few references to white people appropriating other cultures in this article.

It makes me think of elementary school "reenactments" of "the history of Thanksgiving." In much of the United States, it's rare that there would be children of Native heritage, so it's often that white kids would play "Indians." But in mere minutes of looking online for which people were present at that "first Thanksgiving," I found Thanksgiving: A Day of Mourning from American Indian Source, that provides more history and context than I ever learned in school, or took the time to find until now.
Most school children are taught that Native Americans helped the Pilgrims and were invited to the first Thanksgiving feast. Young children's conceptions of Native Americans often develop out of media portrayals and classroom role playing of the events of the First Thanksgiving. The conception of Native Americans gained from such early exposure is both inaccurate and potentially damaging to others. Therefore, most children do not know the following facts, which explain why many American Indians today call Thanksgiving a "Day of Mourning".
This all has given me a lot to think about.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:38 AM on October 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Or are you finding her solution to the problem of the general invisibility of non-white people in period costumes and reenactments to be lacking? I'm not challenging you on this, but looking to understand your point of view, if you don't mind.

Sure! Glad to share. In general I don’t want to judge her hobby too heavily. So this isn’t “what she is doing is bad” but more like a soft pushback because the future I think we should see is in a different direction. And yes, I do find her solution lacking.

She mentions she wishes “to make Asian women visible in narratives they’re usually rendered absent”. And I think that the answer isn’t to take White narratives and adopt them with a cast of multiracial characters - It’s to amplify and portray narratives where non white people are the voice, or at the center. Why are most novels and literature taught in the US from the perspective of a white person? Why does the author find it easier to think about historical white narratives than Asian (or Asian-American ones)?

Is the answer to lack of representation to stage an Asian “Little Women”? No, the same way that the answer to movies failing the Bechdel test is not to find a hypermasculine movie and to recast it with female characters. I think these strategies ultimately bolsters these narratives as being somehow canonical and “classic”, without recognizing how other narratives are not part of the canon because it’s not from the perspective of whiteness.

Part of racial violence operates at the level of narrative. Certain stories are told but just aren’t shared, valued, or amplified. Other stories are extolled as paragons of virtue, success, and greatness. And the filtering mechanism, the conglomeration of class, academia, wealth, and pop culture ultimately uplift narratives that align with hegemonic power — in the US’s case, whiteness. Sometimes I think it’s astounding that you can watch western media and almost not notice that these nation-states were born of colonialism and slavery; other times I see this media and realize how obvious these harmful values are embedded into narratives - conquest, capture, exploration, defending against forces of “dark” evil, harmful acts committed by “good people”, etc, etc.

So, historical cosplay? I mean, sure, let’s go there. Maybe it looks like forcing white people to re-enact racism. Maybe a reenactor is a white slaveowner who rapes their slave, has children, and sells their own children into slavery. Maybe it’s a white lawmaker stirring up support for the Chinese Exclusion Act by preaching about those “yellow devils”. Maybe it’s a colonizer who wants to kill and kidnap people as slaves. Or maybe it’s just a casual enactment of a dinner table where everyone uses the N-word. How come we don’t have racism accurate historical cosplay? Why just show the nice parts? And if these examples sound violent, well, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just sharing history.

So.... in this context I’m not so sure what historical re-enactment does. More and more I’m convinced that it’s a mode of recasting the past as a haven, an ideal, the good old days. And I don’t think these narratives are clarified, only erased, through a non-white person playing the sartorial and social role of a white person.
posted by many more sunsets at 6:09 PM on October 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

More and more I’m convinced that it’s a mode of recasting the past as a haven, an ideal, the good old days.

I've had similar thoughts about this from a Jewish perspective. What would it mean to partake of a Regency re-enactment as a Jew? IIRC everyone in Pride and Prejudice is Anglican; the bestowing of benefices is part of the plot. Jews in Austen's era had been but recently readmitted to England: a Jewish character at Netherfield would have been as out of place as a Black debutante at Tara. In each case the performer would be forced to either deny their identity and go along with the racism or, join in a shared pretence that things weren't really that bad and that Blacks and Jews would have enjoyed civil treatment. I respect the art and creativity of the re-enactors but when I think too much about what is being re-enacted I feel queasy.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:36 AM on October 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just a note, there's a difference between costume recreaters -- who do it for the clothes, and often do a lot of research that surfaces information on the social and political conditions that were involved in creating the clothes: the labor, trade relationships, exploitation, origins of materials, toxicity of dyes, exploitation, slavery, etc., and that is part of what is enjoyable about the hobby, the research and learning new information about how slave-harvested cotton from the southern US informed 18th-century French fashion and exactly how that exploitation was hidden from consumers or sometimes celebrated by consumers, or how a particular politician might stand in British parliament wearing clothes made entirely from slave labor while denouncing slvaery -- and historical reenactors, who use the clothes to reenact the time period in question.

There is obviously a fair amount of overlap, but Costume College leans toward the former, and from Ms. Fung's piece, it sounds like she too leans toward the former. Costume recreaters will wear their creations for pictures or for conventions -- they're clothes, after all -- but they tend to come with extensive blog posts about the sociopolitical origins and significance of the clothing and/or lectures and panel discussions on things like 19th century cloth factory worker death rates or trade networks of the 12th century.

Clothing recreaters are the much more diverse side of the hobby; reenactors (in the US, anyway) are, uh, a lot whiter and while there are some very thoughtful reenactors (many of whom are involved in educational programs specifically about the difficult racial history of the US), a lot of them are very "it was the good old days!" There's also a reason reenactors tend towards reenacting wars and battles; it's the much more male side of the hobby and they bicker a lot over authenticity of firearms and less over things like seam construction, and they are much less interested in the complicated questions of how clothing gets made in a particular historical period and more interested in battle tactics. And like, on the one hand, historical military tactics is a totally legit thing to be interested in; but on the other hand, on the scale of the hobby of Civil War reenactors (in particular), it's a lot of men who want to talk avoid having to talk about slavery while they cosplay war.

I am HERE FOREVER for costume recreation. I have zero interest in ever reenacting, for a lot of the reasons cited above; I am just not comfortable with a lot of the whitewashing that goes along with reenacting.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:03 AM on October 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

many more sunsets, thanks for elaborating. I appreciate your thoughts on the topic(s), and I agree with your assessments on "re-casting" historically white roles with more diversity white-washes the history being portrayed.

A semi-related and complicated mix of re-enacting and recreating history, plus of bending traditions to include a changing diversity in the community: Las Marthas, in which Jordan Kisner writes for The Believer and looks at the history and present of the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball in Laredo, Texas, which was started by the white upper class of Laredo, but as the ethnic stratification and general make-up of the community has changed, the Pageant and Ball has remained, though now it's a debutante ball where Mexican American girls dress up in full period costume and pretend to be Martha Washington.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:29 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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