Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 15, 2010

Dressing up and History

Here’s a picture of my daughter and a friend dressed for a trip to Sturbridge Village, which replicates a nineteenth century New England town. Emily and Geneva were a little older than they’d been when they formed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Fan Club. They drew posters for the walls: Ma rocks! Laura rules! On another wall were pictures of the Spice Girls.

Writing about by-gone days has a lot in common with playing dress-up. We try on another’s clothes, lean into history, then step out, step in, and out again. We bring what we know from the present, while attempting to feel what someone felt long ago. Through textiles or rearranging our hair we may find a passage to another place and person. I remember putting on some of my grandmothers’ old skirts, capes, or shoes and imagining life on the frontier – though this was not either of their lives. What was wrong with the well? Why had the cow lost her appetite? What was that terrible sound in the distance? And from these plots we naturally moved into theme. Who were we? Where would we feel at home?



  1. I love that photo (even though it was taken with one of those primitive Sony Mavica floppy disk cameras). Em looks so young! Hard to believe she is now “Head of New Media” for Organically Grown.

    The “What was that terrible noise in the distance?” line immediately made me think of the “Frog Fight” legend of Willimantic, Connecticut history. I wonder if anyone has written a story about that? — PL

  2. I’ve just been thinking that I may need to spend more time sitting with photographs–sitting, looking, and playing dress-up in my mind. Letting my imagination roam.

    Wonderful picture of the girls! 🙂

  3. They are so cute.
    I have a long white pleated, possibly linen, tennis skirt from the start of the 20th century and a long light blue skirt with room for a bustle. Putting them on is a revelation about the constraints on women simply from their clothes.
    Loved this post.

  4. I love that metaphor. I remember putting on a great-grandmother’s dress when I was in third grade and the length was right for me then. That’s when I realized that the scale of things has changed and started thinking about what it would mean if you were tall at 5’4 or ‘5.

  5. Something about your description of how it feels to step in and out of another time reminds me of how it feels to step in and out of a fantasy world. Which is fascinating to contemplate–the idea that the impulse to write historical fiction and fantasy may come, in part at least, from similar places.

  6. What a great post (and photo)! And this is an especially wonderful line:

    We try on another’s clothes, lean into history, then step out, step in, and out again

    I played dress-up early and often, with costumes and cast-offs and attic finds (including some gorgeous Spanish mantillas that led a rather hard life after their discovery). I’m not sure which came first — the passion for dress-up, the love of textiles, of the drive to write about history. But they all fed, and continue to feed, each other.

  7. Playing with photographs, playing mind dress-up: I’ll be right over! Ah, one of the best parts of this life! Have fun.

  8. The tennis skirt sounds cool. Not so sure about bustles. I am much happier with clothing choices of today, though they can be beautiful. You read of period actresses who wear the old corsets and such, and find them rather horrible in ways (like breathing) but they make them stand and sit in ways true to the period.

  9. Yes, height has changed, and stages of growth, too. In this photo my daughter is so much taller than her friend, but they now stand at about the same height.

  10. I think I’d enjoy being in your mind, Janni, at least for a while, as you move in and out of creating your worlds! I agree that for both of us some of the creative impulse is about world creation, making something apart from our everyday life, and building from the vocabulary, scents, small things we create or recreate.

  11. I think we need to do a survey or essay on writers and dressing up. I love the idea of creativity getting stirred up by textiles.

    One of my daughter’s favorite gifts when she was a bit older than Sweetpea was from her aunt who collected some thrift shop finds and added some ribbons.

    And what LMA/ Jo March would have given for those Spanish mantillas! I’m not sure if those gentlemen’s boots are still on display at Orchard House…

  12. We love Sturbridge Village
    My husband is a descendant of the Wight Grist Mill in the Village, as well as the Oliver Wight House which stands at it’s entrance. There’s so much of his family’s history there . . . it’s a wonderful story. I’ll have to tell you sometime!

    He grew up in Sturbridge too, not knowing the history. He discovered it while playing manhunt one night in a cemetery; he stumbled on five gravestones all bearing his name!

  13. And maybe about a certain sort of immersion (once we know our respective worlds), too, which both sorts of fiction share?

  14. Wow, that’s a lot of history just in those two short paragraphs!

    I don’t know if my husband played manhunt, but, as he had two brothers and grew up with a cemetery in the backyard, I wouldn’t be surprised.

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