Sharing 1780s ‘Fishy Fashion’: a 4th Year Case Study in Public History by Peryn Westerhof Nyman and Adam Hodges-LeClaire
February 27, 2017 Leave a comment
Blog written by Adam Hodges-LeClaire
While most students will simply go to archives to conduct their research, others go further in their pursuits to understand the past. Adam Hodges-LeClaire, a fourth-year History Student, used his Honours courses to delve deeper into the eighteenth century, specifically the culture of sailors and fisherfolk in 1780s Fife. After engaging in the historical re-enactment community for many years, beginning summer museum work during university, and then sailing aboard the reconstructed frigate Hermione for seven months, he returned to St Andrews to build on these experiences. Currently, he is finishing his degree with a focus towards public history, and connecting wider audiences to ‘fishy fashion’ and the maritime past of the 1780s.
This course recently culminated in the performance of, “Are You a Pirate?!” (My Adventures as an 18th Century Sailor), an on-stage dissertation performed on 2 and 3 December at the Barron Theatre as part of the HI4997 course led by Professor De Groot. Adam, together with PhD student Peryn Westerhof Nyman led the audience through a whirlwind two hour tour of the materiality of eighteenth-century sailor fashion and maritime material culture, using this focus to address larger questions in social history. To begin, scattered over the theatre seats were a range of accessories, from colourful cotton handkerchiefs to clay pipes, from London brothel guides to tarred pieces of hemp rope. All of these tidbits were cues to enter and explore the lives of sailors, as founded in Adam and Peryn’s dissertation research which combined archival, textual, visual, and material evidence. After the members of the audience had a chance to examine the various objects, the hosts then talked the audience through the many layers of their clothing as they dressed in a replica maritime wardrobe, explaining the different rationales of function and fashion behind each garment, and what they can tell us about fashion today as well as its centrality over 250 years ago.
Rather than subscribing to the idea that daily life in the past was drab, filthy, and unimportant for ‘serious’ history, Adam and Peryn clearly showed the garments’ practicality, as well as the scholarly connections of Georgian fishing attire to the present. For instance, changing linen body layers kept contemporary bodies clean without modern plumbing, and an incredible range of materials was sold and produced within a global pre-industrial marketplace. Leather breeches would protect the sailors from the hard labour of work on ships, and a woman’s stays would help her carry a heavy willow creel of fish on her back to market. But like today, clothes were not just practical: they were also evidence of an individual’s social position, their personality and the wider mores of the time.
The performance ended with a discussion on how historical empathy and expanding the range of available evidence historians use, can teach both researchers about the past and non-historians about their experience of popular history. A sailor’s life was not just about sailing, and far less about swashbuckling: it was about acting with agency, in making a living, and underpinning many of the economic, military, and political systems of the era. It was also about the remarkable communities left behind onshore, and the larger systems and forces which defined the lives of both, from the state regulation of fisheries, to the wider professional identity of an international subculture at sea. For the understanding of gender in particular, women’s centrality in this traditionally male focused area was also highlighted, particularly in relation to pre-industrial fishwives and to the controversy surrounding British naval impressment. As the title of the performance indicated, pirates may be the focus in current popular culture, but the reality is far more incredible – and historians can use new techniques and research methods to effectively share these stories with wider audiences.