Getting to Know a Ghost
During a recent bout of overwhelm—one of those days when I had an entire book and several articles to read, a thesis proposal to produce, meetings to set up, endless research to catch up on, and so much to do that none of it seemed doable—I decided to dig through one of my storage bins of old clothing. As any textilians out there will understand, my love of vintage garments and fabrics has left my house burdened with boxes and boxes of treasures-in-waiting: pieces that I plan to clean and mend at some point in the imaginary future when I have free time.
During my dig, I pulled out a garment that I had almost forgotten about, a piece that my mom gave to me several years ago. It’s a quilted dressing robe that once belonged to my great-great-grandmother. The robe is visually arresting: it’s made of baby-blue floral crepe kimono silk that has been quilted in vertical rows and covered in magnificent gold and candy-colored embroidery of eagles and cherry blossoms. The lining is powder-pink silk, and there are matching frog closures down the front. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the shape of this dressing gown: rather than the kimono-esque form that many American dressing gowns and bathrobes reference, this one has a fitted cut and a bustle at the back, accented with coat tails and cloth-covered buttons.
Poring over this piece of old clothing for the first time since beginning material culture studies at Winterthur, I recognized with new clarity the wealth of material information that it was offering me. This garment was likely made sometime in the late 1880s or 1890s, when my great-great-grandmother was a stylish young member of Baltimore society. The robe is made of beautiful Japanese silk, but in a style that is undoubtedly American rather than Japanese. It is materially complex—a beautifully made and highly embellished object—and it is similarly personally and socially complex.
For me, it is a relic that records the existence of a family member whom I never knew. It tells me a story about this woman’s taste, financial security, body size, material experience, and it asks me to compare my own experience to hers—to wonder how similar to and different from her I am. It reminds me of the privilege of heirlooms, a privilege that I enjoy because I come from a long line of keepers, people who love old things as much as I do and simultaneously have had the ability and resources to keep them. At the same time, the robe clearly tells a larger story of cultural exchange and stylistic appropriation.
I was inspired to do some quick research, and an exciting collage of material history quickly began to assemble before me. I discovered that a portrait of my great-great-grandmother as a young woman hangs in a gallery of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. I found two very similar dressing gowns to hers in the Met’s collection, and I discovered other, later examples in a 1919 catalog by Vantine’s, a New York-based importer of “oriental” goods.
I also discovered some exquisite late-nineteenth-century Meiji-era fashion plates by the woodblock artist Chikanobu. These vibrantly-colored prints depict fashionable Japanese women wearing western styles at around the same time that my great-great-grandmother would have worn her Japoniste quilted robe in Baltimore.
Each of these images points me down a different rabbit-hole of research questions, many of which have been explored in depth by researchers before me. But returning to this single piece of clothing, I wonder if there is a new or different story to be told, a story wherein transnational issues of gender, social class, race, taste, commerce, appropriation and self-expression are all contained within the existence of a single robe and also reconfigured and re-expressed by the individual who wore it and passed it down to me.
What does it mean to own this object today? What does it mean to have owned this object in the nineteenth century? Can an individual object tell a story that other similar objects might not tell? Whose stories are we most responsible for telling, and how do the objects in our own lives direct these stories? These are the questions swirling in my mind as I force myself to put the robe back in its box and sit down to write my WPAMC thesis proposal.
By Kate Budzyn, WPAMC Class of 2019