Dressing in the Past to Learn in the Present

The Mary Sue ran a piece about a young woman named Stella Ehrhart yesterday. She does historical costume for school every day. By which I mean that she dresses as different historical figures each day for school. In the article she is pictured dressing as Helen Keller, Billie Holliday, Grace Kelly – she pulls most costumes from a book called 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.

I was that child. My halloween costumes were almost always historically themed (sometimes fictional, since I had a penchant for Sherlock Holmes.) I had a medieval themed birthday when I was seven, a Sherlock Holmes Murder Mystery Dinner when I was 9 (Victorian themed costumes requested), a Foreign Dignitaries Tea when I was 11 (come as a historical foreign leader and celebrate my birthday), a Revolutionary War themed birthday party when I was 14.

I also wore Victorian clothing to school a lot, and in Middle School and High School, during Spirit Week, I attended classes in full Victorian garb on ’80s day. Because they didn’t specify which eighties.

I bent genders while I was cosplaying history a lot of the time – but I did dress as women too. I think in my own explorations the lines of gender became a problem for those surrounding me rather than issues of cultural appropriation which may be at play here.

I have always loved wearing historical costume. I have worn actual Victorian clothes as Halloween costumes, dressed as Suffragettes and flappers, political figures and Presidents. For me it was a part of my passion for history – and it still is. While we’re talking about how fabulous it is that this 8-year-old girl is dressing up as historical figures every day, adults do it too. I attend Jazz Age parties in New York City, I’ve been to the Jazz Age Lawn Party, to Wit’s End, to many other events where some people do go far to wear appropriate era clothing. I hope that someday, Stella gets to meet the adults who value wearing the clothing of different eras as much as she does.

Basically, I think this kid is awesome.

That being said, I do really hope that the adults in her life are talking to her about the differences between her and the people she portrays on as she explores history. I hope they explain to her that Helen Keller’s disability is not a disability she has, and that putting on her disability would be inappropriate. What I mean by this is, I hope she’s just dressing as these people, and not trying to act like them. If she’s writing in peoples hands, I’d feel like that was an inappropriate use of the historical figures she admires. I’m sure there will be other discussions she has with people – about race, and not appropriating others skin colors or cultures. Essentially, I hope she learns where the line is between respect, and appropriation. So long as she’s not putting on racial inflections of language, I think she’s got it all right.

I’m not saying Stella should stop – I think she’s doing something really cool and I want her to continue. But I just hope that people are having the childhood versions of these complicated discussions with her now, so that when she gets older, she has an understanding of why this might make people uncomfortable. It’s not easy, but I hope that along with admiring and becoming these historical figures, she learns to respect the differences between them, and to interact with those differences in thoughtful ways.

She’ll make one hell of a historian someday if she does.

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Filed under Disability Issues, Feminism

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