Monday, November 09, 2009

"A Green Gown" - Symbolism vs Real Life

At dinner in Williamsburg on Saturday, one of my friends overheard part of a conversation about a green gown being considered inappropriate "because green had such a naughty reputation in the 18th century." (There were at least two of us there who either were or had been wearing green during the course of the day, so I'm not sure who this was directed at.)

This business about nobody wearing green in the 18th century is complete and utter horse-shit.

First, it's contradicted by inventories and surviving artifacts. The Smithsonian has a lovely pair of stays covered in green wool, and Mark Hutter, the staymaker at Williamsburg, says that green is one of the most common colors for stays (possibly because it's easy on the eyes of the staymaker while sewing). I've seen several lovely green damask gowns at costume exhibits, and there are at least two (I wasn't counting) green quilted petticoats at the current Williamsburg exhibit on quilted clothing. (There's also a fragment of a red quilted petticoat, fwiw.)

Second, it's the result of confusion between allegory and real life. The origin of the idea, I think, is the poetic trope of "giving a maid a green gown" -- i.e., getting grass stains on one's clothing from making whoopee out in a grassy field. As anyone with children knows, it's possible to get grass stains on the knees of pants of many colors. So it's the grass stains that are a very tangible sign of "naughtiness", not the overall color of the gown itself.

Allegory is NOT real life. Yes, green has lots of symbolism in artwork and song. However, that did not stop perfectly respectable women from wearing green in the 18th century, any more than it stops women today from wearing a red dress, sweater, blazer, etc.

(And why is it women who get subjected to these idiocies? I guess men encounter problems when they wear the gender-prohibited colors of pink or purple. Speaking of which, the DeWitt had a picture of a man wearing a mauve waistcoat and a dark purple coat with black breeches. Lovely. But I digress.)

Speaking of red, let's think back to medieval artwork -- you can see the Virgin Mary wearing a red gown, and in a different painting the king's mistress is wearing a very similar red gown. Does that mean the artist was saying something bad about the Virgin Mary? No, it does not. It means that there is a completely different symbolic meaning for the color red in that context.

Back to real life -- context is everything. Sometimes clothing does carry symbolic meaning in real life. But sometimes, as the apocryphal saying goes, a cigar is just a cigar, not a symbol. Sometimes a green dress is just a green dress.