Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interview: Stephanie Trigg on medieval wardrobe malfunctions

Stephanie Trigg is a Professor of English at the University of Melbourne. This was my department when I was a postgrad, and as I walked through the corridors of the John Medley building I could sometimes peek into Stephanie's office and see her at work.

These days I sort of do the same thing in a digital fashion by following her blog, Humanities Researcher. I got really excited when I realised that her work tracing medievalist themes to the present day, and particularly her latest book Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter, resonates with the ideas I'm exploring in my own writing.

I'm delighted that Stephanie so graciously answered my decidedly non-expert questions, and I'll be including parts of this interview in my book.

The Order of the Garter is England's highest chivalric honour – an institution whose pageantry persists today. Intriguingly, it has an origin myth both as populist and as persistent as any superhero's. Here's how Stephanie describes it:

King Edward III was dancing at a ball with a girl, possibly Joan, Countess of Salisbury, possibly his mistress, when her garter falls off so her stocking crumples to the ground. All the courtiers laugh — "Ho ho ho! What an embarrassing thing!" — but the king very chivalrously bends down, picks up that garter, ties it around his own knee and says (in French, of course), "Honi soit qui mal y pense" — "Shamed be he who thinks evil of this." And he says: "I will found a chivalric order in honour of this event that will be so great, all you who now laugh will want to join it!"

Check out this very hammy painting of the scene: Ceremony of the Garter, by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1901. I love the way Joan's silhouette is much more typical of a corseted Edwardian lady.

Mel Campbell: I was struck by the vulgar 'origin story' of the Order of the Garter basically being a wardrobe malfunction. Today we shame celebrities (and ordinary people) whose clothing goes awry in public – do you see this as a continuation of older attitudes, or as a different, modern phenomenon?

Stephanie Trigg: I think this is a continuation: it’s the collapse of a carefully-controlled public presentation of self, and so this is always intriguing. These ‘malfunctions’ usually remind us of the body beneath the clothing, so they are reminders of our physical mortality, and the sheer animality of our bodies we share beneath the differences of age, beauty, class, et cetera…

It's true we shame celebrities in this way, but we also take pleasure in circulating and re-circulating those images. In that respect it's like the laughter of the crowds in the story of The Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor is duped into thinking he is wearing magnificent garments but in fact is walking naked, or in his underwear. A small child points this out and everyone laughs. Nevertheless, the Emperor keeps walking, holding his head up high, as the sheer formality of the ritual procession keeps him going, and must be maintained.

I'm so pleased you mention this, because I'm using The Emperor's New Clothes in my book! To me it seems like the origin story of the lady dropping the garter and the king picking it up is gendered, with the female as shameful and the male as the restorer of honour. Have you found in your research that shame is something more often ascribed to women?

It depends very much on the context. In courtly and chivalric literature, the knight who retreats from battle or attacks a woman is publicly shamed. He can be stripped of his knighthood and lose his courtly reputation. And the story of the Garter ostensibly makes a distinction between those men who can appreciate the king's gallantry and those who cannot, who are shamed (according to the Garter motto – honi soit qui mal y pense) if they see anything untoward in the king's behaviour.

But yes, a woman’s body is seen as more shameful than a man’s, in medieval culture. In humoral terms, it’s seen as moist and cold, as compared to the hot and dry male body, so it’s closer to the earth, more physical than spiritual. And in general terms, women are associated more with sexuality, which in Christian culture is often seen as inherently shameful. There is a very vague hint in a nineteenth-century commentary on the Garter story that the offending dropped garter wasn't so much a garter as underwear stained with menstrual blood, so that's an indication that the story was being read then as about women's shameful bodies.

I've been influenced by William Ian Miller's writing on shame and honour in medieval Icelandic epics. He argues that the Icelanders had no concept of internally motivated self-esteem; their sense of honour was entirely bestowed by the community, and so taking away your honour ('shaming' you) was the ultimate punishment. Do you reckon that in England and France, honour and shame were external states like this, or were they internal, deeply felt emotions?

This is a really fascinating question. Conventionally, yes, in heroic and chivalric culture, collective or communal reputation is pre-eminent; and I think shame is usually experienced in a social sense: one is shamed by, or in relation to others. But there is also a deep interest, especially in the later middle ages, on the individual’s relationship with God, and shame sometimes features here. By the later middle ages, I think we are starting to see indications of a more internally experienced sense of shame. Margery Kempe, for example, a fifteenth-century woman who experienced many visions of Christ, opens her narrative saying she had a sin she was too ashamed to confess. We never find out what that is.

What do you think is the difference between shame, humiliation and embarrassment?

I guess embarrassment is the most ephemeral, and the least serious of the three. Humiliation need not have an ethical component. You can be humiliated by defeat in a sporting contest or in battle, or in debate, or by a partner's infidelity, for example. This can feel devastating, but it's just as likely to lead to anger, or determination to do better next time. Shame, on other hand, brings us down very low, because it really implies social judgment not just on particular actions, but on our very personhood, in relation to our infringement of social norms.

Have you done much research into medieval clothing – and medieval underwear – more generally? And if so, what have been your impressions?

Yes, a little. The medieval period, especially the fourteenth century in England, was a time of great anxiety about social instability and economic growth. Clothes became a less reliable indicator of social status, and so sumptuary laws were passed attempting to restrict the wearing of various colours, fabrics and types of fur to particular classes. Clothing was often the subject of satirical commentary or stern critique: Chaucer's Parson in the Canterbury Tales, for example, complains about contemporary fashion for short tunics, and tight-fitting pants.

I don't think underwear was regulated by the sumptuary laws or subject to this kind of critique in this way because it's not normally visible. There would have been great degrees in the quality and fineness of the fabric used. The fourteenth century marks a big shift in clothing, generally, as they started to tailor clothes to the shape of the body, not just holding things in with belts and pins. Not very much underwear survives, and we have to guess a little bit from pictures.

Have you heard much about the so-called 'medieval bra'? Has this discovery caused much discussion among your colleagues?

Yes there was a bit of a flurry on Facebook! We really don’t have much surviving evidence of medieval underwear, so this is an astonishing find: I think it’s the first medieval bra to be found, and it’s remarkably similar in design to modern bras. I think there is also something quite moving about a garment that has been so obviously worn, that bears the traces of intimate touch with a medieval body. It's really quite uncanny to see something that is both historically alien and yet also so ordinary, so familiar to us.

I'm writing about 'retro' cultures, which many people seem to identify with the 20th century, but it could equally be about cherishing older aesthetics and values too. How do you see medievalism used in today's fashions and pop culture, as an aesthetic or as a set of values or ideals?

This can take a number of forms, from the long embroidered dresses of hippie and Indian culture, to some aspects of gothic fashion. Sometimes you see high-end fashion return to a kind of fantastic medievalism: fine metallic meshes that are reminiscent of chain mail, or metallic breastplates and bras that evoke armour plates.

Lena Headey as the villainous queen regent Cersei Lannister in the TV series Game of Thrones. She's wearing an armoured breastplate during a battle scene.

And here's Lucy Liu at this week's Emmy Awards, wearing a Versace gown influenced by armour and chain mail.

Often the medievalism of fashion is mediated by pre-Raphaelite nostalgia for long dresses, rich fabrics, on models with long wavy tresses and big dark eyes like the models of William Morris and Holman Hunt in the nineteenth century.

Medievalist film plays an important role here: think of Helen Mirren's metalllic costumes in John Boorman’s Excalibur; Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc in The Messenger; or the popularity of pre-Raphaelite paintings, e.g. John Waterhouse’s Ophelia. This is a model of femininity that tends to show women as rather passive, if not doomed to tragic deaths like the Lady of Shalott. The costumes for the heroine in Brian Helgeland’s Knight’s Tale, on the other hand, are a fantastic example of the way something can be both vaguely medieval and also very stylish and avant-garde.

Shannyn Sossamon as Jocelyn in A Knight's Tale.

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