In the last issue we looked at examples of when history is made less authentic to appear more realistic and how it can either distance us from or immerse us into the past. You can read it here. This time we’re going to throw some ideas around about that distancing and side-step into working class culture and the curious world of shabby chic.
There are some interesting thoughts on how packaging the past into a set of images can be harnessed by politicians seeking to diminish struggles of the present. Poverty is the workhouse, tuberculosis, rags, sewage. They are not images of now so therefore we do not have poverty now.
Try a quick Google image search for ‘the Blitz’. You’ll see countless images of ordinary people keeping calm and carrying on. The milkman still delivering milk, the child poking a Union flag into the rubble remains of his home, a warden helping two women push a pram containing their four infant children and their few belongings. The web pages they appear on label them as “powerful” and “inspirational”. Referring to earlier periods of poverty imagery in Lost Narratives, author Roger Bromley highlights the survivor as the dominant image. Spirit is presented as timeless and eternal, and the physical conditions are relegated to the background as period specific.
These selective recollections of the Blitz have been hijacked by political groups and the general public to condemn or justify various decisions throughout the last seven years of upheaval. It invites us to ask, who is to blame for things not being like they used to? Television? Migrants? People on benefits? Computer games? Working women? But maybe they were always like that. When the Café de Paris was bombed in 1941 rescuers had to push past looters pulling jewellery from the dead bodies. Blackouts and bombings facilitated crime, from the looting to sexual assaults and murders. Ration book forgery and theft, black market trading, prostitution and back-street abortion all flourished. 80 years before questionable PPE contracts and dodgy furlough claims, corruption was rife with contractors falsely certifying shoddily built air-raid shelters, doctors providing military exemption certificates for half a crown and false claims for bombed-out home compensation (one man claimed 19 times in just 3 months).
History is ours for the taking. We can decide whether an explorer was a brave adventurer or a barbaric invader.
Returning to images of poverty, apart from using it to political advantage, it is a sure fire way to suggest authenticity, a sort of Ed Miliband eating a bacon roll down-to-earth realness. High fashion has had several real-life versions of Zoolander’s satirical Derelicte homeless-inspired collection, the most tone-deaf being one referring to the homeless as a “‘gutter punk’ subculture” (N. Hoolywood, 2017) and the most ridiculous being £400 trainers held together with duct tape (Golden Goose, 2018). They are more extreme examples of the more accepted forms of poverty chic – ripped jeans, patches, fading etc. Aging, real or otherwise, suggests a lived experience. Telling people you’re the rebel who climbed over a locked park gate last night, beer bottle in hand, when really you were curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea watching Cruising With Jane McDonald.
The bizarre thing is that by the middle classes turning poverty into poverty chic, they exclude the working class from being part of the trend. Instead of chipped paintwork making an old coffee table a skip find freebie or charity shop bargain, it becomes accessorised with some tattered old Penguin paperbacks, photographed, filtered and placed for sale with a premium for enthusiastic Instagram followers. It leaves the working class to pop down to The Range and pick up the particle board remake. It’s the same concept as urban gentrification, something that Londoners will definitely be familiar with, where Victorian factories get turned into trendy design offices, the coffee shops move in, the kebab shops and graffiti artists move out and we end up losing what it was that was deemed exciting about it in the first place. As author Phil Hubbard puts it, “working class authenticity is cherished, but in the process, it is symbolically consumed until little trace of its ‘dirty’ working class background remains.”
The cousin of shabby chic is boho chic. Boho being a joining of bohemian and homeless. There’s a clear overlap but these days boho chic usually indicates a mixing of styles and cultures, and when we start looking at pieces from far-flung countries then we really can’t avoid the loss of context.
Pictured above is a 19th century wooden grain grinding table from Nagaland in India. It was essentially a large scale pestle and mortar. Now it is very primitive rustic coffee table – ‘an excellent conversation piece’.
Working on the grindmill (often a stone), crushing grain to flour was women’s work. As they worked they created and sang a form of poetry, known as ovee, singing of their lives and troubles. 100,000 of these songs from Maharashtra have been collected by a team, with 30,000+ recorded and translated to English.
“Which fool wrote the destiny of a woman*parental home
A daughter toils and toils in her maher* and in her in-laws’ home like a paid labour”
By coincidence, our front cover this issue includes words by one of the many Japanese women working in the silk and cotton factories during the Meiji era (the same time period we’re looking at here). “Someday I’ll tell my parents back home the bitter tale of the factory.”
The British Crown ruled India from 1858 to 1947. During this time tens of thousands of miles of railway were laid with the effect of linking villages to the port cities, with grain-yielding land for subsistence being converted to high-yield commercial crops. Cheap goods from England were shipped in and undercut traditional craftsmen, who instead had to depend on agricultural work to earn a living.
The cruel twist is that in 1866 over a million people in eastern India died during the Orissa famine. The British owned East India Company had created an economy highly dependent on agriculture and therefore at risk from drought. While the remaining two-thirds of the population dug trenches for the bodies, over 200m pounds of rice were exported to Britain.
This coffee table sure makes a fine conversation piece! Milk and sugar?
Around the same time, across the ocean in mid-west America, grain, sugar, flour and feed started to be distributed in sacks instead of barrels. Initially made from canvas (to be returned and refilled) but then inexpensive cotton, women soon realised they could utilise the sacks for quilts and clothing. Fast forward to the 1920s and the manufacturers were hiring artists to design colourful prints – the farmer’s purchasing choices now being made by his wife. A lifeline for women through the Great Depression and World War Two, they remained popular until the 1950s.
Today, deadstock feed sack fabric is sought after to make reproduction blouses and dresses. Patterned feed sack will add £30 or so to a blouse made to a 40s pattern. The patterns are quintessentially 1930s/40s and the fabric beautifully soft, but is there a something a bit strange about fabric symbolic of making ends meet being the crème de la crème of repro fashion?
Of course, does any of this really matter? If these pieces weren’t given an exciting new life they’d be nothing more than firewood. Would it actually be fair to say that if they carried any real historical significance they’d be in a museum?
The thing that arguably keeps these antiques (be they rustic or from another culture) on the right side of the acceptability line is knowledge. Sellers carry the mantle of being a historian and pass it to the buyer. The brown card price tag can pay homage to the object’s roots or it can be flippant.
This is where the Internet makes things tricky. Online marketplaces such as eBay and Etsy require simple categorisation of an item, tags to show up in search results and a straight-to-the-point title – “rustic wooden coffee table”. There isn’t really the opportunity for delicacy and subtlety, the seller can’t strike up a conversation when buyers pause for a closer look.
So next time a unique piece catches your eye, why not allow yourself to fall down the research rabbit hole and then you’ll really have a conversation starter in your home. History is yours for the taking.
Images sourced from Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons with text sourced from historical newspapers, official photo captions, advertisements and recent marketplace listings. Additional text from the Grindmill Songs of Maharashtra Project: grindmill.org