Why We Shouldn’t Laugh at Our Ancestors

I have always been a history nerd. I have a strong suspicion I was doing the Charleston or finishing a needlepoint sampler when I was born. As a child I often dreamt of being Laura Ingalls Wilder, stoically riding in the back of a covered wagon across the vast prairies. As a teenager (when I wasn’t dreaming of *Nsync asking me to join them on tour), I loved to imagine myself starring alongside Charlie Chaplin on the silver screen. Even now I have a consuming passion for all things Regency, Victorian and Edwardian. Seriously, don’t get me started on the evolution of ladies’ hats. This article would never end!

My love of all things historical led me to the completion of a history degree and to five years of employment at a living history museum as a costumed interpreter. During that time I was lucky enough to play a Victorian homesteader, an Edwardian social climber, a WWI nurse and a ‘bright young thing’ of the 1920s. All of these roles led to the development of an unending adoration for historical fashion. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I necessarily wish that we still wore them today. I love jeans as much as the next girl and my passion for my Toms borders on obsession. However, I’ve become fascinated by the fashion choices that our ancestors made. Whenever I look at historic paintings or photographs, I’m struck by one thought – how did that ever catch on?

I don’t mean that every piece of historical fashion’s popularity confuses me. A lot of it makes absolute sense. Things like Clara Bow’s sultry bob and Cupid’s Bow lips are enviable to this day. The Merry Widow hats made popular by Lily Elsie are impractical, but stunningly gorgeous. And what guy wouldn’t want to have the motorcycle bad boy styling of James Dean? Heck, I can even understand the allure of the occasional ruffled shirt (whether in or outside of a production of The Pirates of Penzance.) But then there are fashion choices that are downright bizarre. The man corset? The hobble skirt? The ‘a la guillotine’ hairstyle? Choices like these have to make you wonder what our ancestors were thinking. After all, we moderns wouldn’t wear anything that future generations would think was ridiculous. Would we?

I think it’s a fact that’s hard to admit, but is inherently true. Every generation wears something that will be mocked by coming generations. Which one of us hasn’t laughed at the disco couture of the ‘70s, or the overly feathered bangs of the early ‘90s? A flip through a family photo album reveals a cavalcade of fashion horrors from our childhoods. (I, for one, shouldn’t be judging anyone’s fashion choices due to my family’s photographic evidence of an unfortunate perm incident in the 5th grade.) I’m sure our children will laugh at our strange desire to wear shutter shades, adorn our feet in pairs of Uggs and shove our legs into pairs of skinny jeans and jeggings.

I guess fashion is just another way we can remind ourselves that we’re not that different from the people who lived before us. It’s a fantastic, albeit embarrassing, connection to the past. Fashion has always helped us to tell the world who we are and what we stand for. Would Cleopatra have been such a successful seducer of men without her elaborate make-up, Elizabeth I have made such an impact without her neck ruff, or Robert Pattinson be able to make teenage girls swoon without his iconic hairstyle? Perhaps that’s why I, the self-proclaimed history nerd, find fashion so interesting. When it comes down to it, fashion ties us all together and shows that no matter when you live, we all want to define ourselves and make an impact.

You can read more from Holly Craven on her blog.

Feature image via Shutterstock.

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