I conducted a practical anthropology experiment recently: I wore an 18th century dress with a long train out to a masquerade-themed event, and then to a private party. Some of the things I learned about how unfamiliar things affect behavior were unexpected, and applicable outside the realm of retro fashion. I detail my findings below.
You get dressed every day. You’ve been doing it for years. You might give some thought in the morning to the design of how you will be presenting yourself that day, but probably almost none to the mechanics of getting dressed and moving about in your clothes.
You can do that because the clothes you own are designed for the social context AND the physical environment in which you operate. But change any of those things and you quickly find you have to adapt to all of them.
Problem Statement and Hypothesis
It is, in fact, no small undertaking to wander around enveloped in yards and yards of heavy fabric. Long before my recent outings I had already determined that I could not safely drive in this dress–too easy to get my feet tangled up in all the cloth at precisely the wrong moment. It had further occurred to me that even riding in smaller cars could be very problematic given how far the skirt spreads out when seated. For that matter, wearing it to the theater would have clear spillover effects on my seatmates. Then there are the challenges of walking even a couple of blocks in it without it getting snagged on something and/or hopelessly soiled.
The natural things to think about when you’re contemplating adopting something new are what skills you’ll need to learn, how your environment will need to be modified to fit the New Thing into it and how you’ll need to train others and get them on board. Observe, though, how very quickly this goes from something directly under your control to Ocean Boiling.
Now, in my rococo fashion scenario, I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about the bigger broader world simply by moving through it for an evening. The only consensus-building I really could do ahead of time was with the people who would assist me with dressing and driving. Otherwise, I assumed I would need to acquire new skills to work around the obstacles.
My hypothesis was only partially correct and quite incomplete.
Findings and analysis
The skills you need might not be the ones you think you need. And there may be no training available.
Given the challenges I initially outlined, you might be thinking how utterly impractical such an outfit is. You’d be right, but it wasn’t nearly as impractical in its day as it is now: people who wore such things didn’t drive at all, nor did they walk around on normal city streets, and a trip to the theater meant sitting in a balcony box in a moveable, personal chair. What is “practical” and “manageable” is situational, not absolute.
The driving problem was easy to solve: I left it to others. Lacking a pageboy (le sigh), I learned how to carry my train. On both occasions, I rode in fairly large cars whose doors and seats are wider than most 18th century carriages. I wound up sitting in cheek-by-jowl modern theater seating at the first event, but found the skirt spillover problem to be smaller than I’d feared.
But other challenges arose. Maybe if you’ve been getting in and out of narrow carriages since you were a young child, doing so gracefully while engulfed in long skirts is close to second nature. However, this turned out to be the trickiest thing to navigate in my recent adventures. Suffice to say, my solutions so far have been decidedly inelegant. I have no idea where you’d learn to do this, except by doing it. Fortunately when you’re doing something very out-of-the-norm, no one else around you knows how to do it either. So as long as you don’t outright fall on your face, they’ll mostly be impressed that you’re doing it at all. There’s a grace period for doing new things awkwardly—and if it starts going mainstream you’re ahead of the curve.
Other people don’t know how to interact with your new thing—and probably aren’t aware they need to.
People aren’t used to voluminous clothes these days, so it doesn’t occur to them to look before they step. On your skirt. As you’re walking. I soon learned to simply stop short, which turns out to also be a great way of quickly alerting someone to their faux pas without saying a word.
You also have to acknowledge that your new thing makes life more complicated for others—you’re asking them to go out of their way to accommodate something you’ve decided to do. I found an understanding smile or a joke in the second or two after stopping short helped erase embarrassed awkwardness from skirt-stomping situations and helped others enter into the fun of the thing.
Another interesting finding…fashion historians have noted with regard to Elizabethan clothing that volume was a sign of social prestige. If your clothes were big, it was because you could expect others to give way before you. The second event I went to, a party in a private home, was in a considerably more confined space than the first, but the crowd was also older, more moneyed and more managerial. I didn’t get stepped once. In the absence of a general societal understanding about how your Thing needs to be accommodated, having bigger-picture people with strong situational awareness around you evidently has benefits in all sorts of ways.
You discover unexpected upsides.
We’ve covered the challenges of modern theater seating with big skirts. In fact, these clothes weren’t really designed for a lot of sitting. When in the presence of others of higher rank, you were obligated to stand until invited otherwise. So at a formal event, you stood most of the time. It turns out that a tightly laced and heavily boned bodice provides excellent support for standing, in ways that more “comfortable” clothes don’t. It forces you to stand up straight. Really straight. With your rib cage lifted, your shoulders back, and your head at least level rather than the “turtle” pose you tend to adopt if your spine is more curved. (Just reading this is probably making you sit up a bit straighter too, am I right?) Mens’ clothes of the time, with their narrow backs, tight shoulders and ruffled collars, performed the same function.
I took particular note of this because I normally have rather off-kilter posture due to a weak knee and consequent poor balance. As a result of all unconscious contortions I do to compensate for the balance, I live with perpetual low-grade neck and shoulder pain. Yet miraculously, after 4 hours of enforced excellent posture, my underexercised lower back was a bit tired but my neck and shoulders felt much better than usual. It was striking enough that I now pause to assess and correct my posture several times a day. I’m also thinking about ways to permanently retrain myself.
The unfamiliar experience of having things function optimally, short as it was, has inspired me to take steps towards long-term, systemic change. On a day-to-day basis, I regrettably need to look for tools that are bit less dramatic than the one pictured above. But I now have a new mental model to work towards, and each time I go for the Big Deal tool, I expect I’ll find a new trick to make it work better in today’s context.
Adopting big changes is really a process of incrementalism and small, almost unnoticed accommodations.