Learning from Old Clothes
November 16, 2009 Leave a comment
Learning about the history of clothing fashions is an activity I’ve done with Girl Scouts several times. It’s part of the Art to Wear Try-It and badge, Listening to the Past Try-It, and probably a few others. It’s always been fascinating. Clothing is so intimately a part of our daily lives that thinking about what people like ourselves wore decades or centuries ago is a way of getting right into what it was like to live then. It’s especially effective if you have some genuine examples of old clothing that you can handle and even try on. Here’s a summary I wrote in 2003 after spending a Saturday leading this activity, several times over, for groups of Girl Scout Brownies and Juniors attending a Try-It/badge workshop:
First we looked at old Girl Scout uniforms, borrowed from our council office. I had them hung up on the walls with signs that said e.g. “1956–47 years ago!” We talked about how and why they are different from our current uniforms; I pointed out a few things and encouraged them to talk about their observations. For example, the very first uniform was light blue, but it soon changed to brown, why? Because the original Girl Scout program was mostly about camping and doing things outdoors, and light blue showed dirt too much! It used to be that “nice” girls didn’t own clothes that could get dirty! As Girl Scouts began doing a wider range of things, and as we began wearing our uniforms only for the more formal occasions because it became normal for girls to own clothes like jeans and sweatshirts, Girl Scouts shifted to green uniforms. Another change is that badges used to be sewn onto the sleeves of the dress, but now we have badge sashes or vests, why? Because badges don’t stand up to friction and washing, so it’s handy to be able to set them aside when washing the uniform. Someone suggested that it was easier to scrub around the badges when washing by hand instead of machine. Other girls were startled to learn that there was ever a time when people did all the laundry by hand!
Then we all flipped through library books to find interesting examples of clothing and talked about them. One thing that came up was corsets–girls from one school had been told about the health problems caused by them. I said, “We don’t wear corsets anymore, but some women still wear clothes that are bad for their bodies. Can you think of some?” and we talked about high heels.
We got onto an interesting tangent because of a book on the 1970s with a section on African-American fashion: The black girls then wanted to know what black people wore in earlier decades but found that no blacks were depicted in illustrations of earlier eras, why? “White people used to act like black people were invisible,” I said, “so nobody was paying attention to what black people were wearing back then or taking a lot of photos of them.” The girls then began to tell what they knew about how African-Americans fought to be “visible”. The conversation returned to the topic of fashion when somebody found a photo of 1980s white teenagers wearing those jackets with pleated shoulders made popular by a black person–Michael Jackson.
Anyway, it’s a great activity. It doesn’t have to focus on fashion; any aspect of how everyday life was different for children in the past (mom didn’t have a VCR, grandma didn’t have color TV, great-grandma didn’t have a TV at all, great-great-grandma didn’t have electricity!) is likely to intrigue them.
It reminds me of the picture book The Sky Was Blue by Charlotte Zolotow, which I read as a child: A mother showing her daughter a photo album tells her that when she was her age, “I wore a dress like this…. I lived in a house like this….” and her daughter says, “But what was it like? How did you feel?” Her mother replies, “I felt the way you feel. The sky was blue…. Snow was white and cold…. When I went to bed at night, my mother hugged me before she turned out the light.” They go on to look at pictures of the girl’s grandmother and great-grandmother, with the same refrain, except that grandmother’s mother turned out the oil lamp and great-grandmother’s mother blew out the candle. Some things change, but what it’s like and how you feel is fundamentally timeless.
That’s what I hoped to convey to all those 21st-century urban Girl Scouts: You might think that 1912 was so long ago, Juliette Gordon Low and her upper-class white friends were so different from you, and small-town Georgia was such a different place that these old uniforms have nothing to do with you–but look, this First Aid badge looks a lot like the one on your vest. The girl who wore this dress earned badges like you, did a flag ceremony like you, held hands in a friendship circle like you. She felt the way you feel. I could see that idea click behind the eyes of the girls as they gazed with great respect on those old uniforms and felt themselves joining hands with Girl Scouts back through time.