We humans love our boundaries. Between nations, between states, between property. So important to know where you end and I begin, not?
But in history, maybe not so useful. When I was taking history classes, there was a tendency to teach historical periods and eras, as if the Plantagenets filed out in an orderly fashion one day, the Tudors clocked in, and everything–clothes, art, technology, politics–changed right then. But history isn’t a single timeline, there are huge overlaps, some of which can take me by surprise.
For instance the dapper fellow in the photo? That’s Wyatt Earp, of the O.K. Corral: major character in the American saga of The Wild West. After Tombstone he moved to California where, among other things, he was a consultant to the film industry; he and western star Tom Mix were great friends. Earp died in 1929, well into the era of electricity, cars, flight.
Sometimes I’m asked when the Regency was. There’s a simple and accurate answer: the Regency began in 1811, when Parliament enacted the Regency Bill and the Prince of Wales became a stand-in for his father George III. It ended in 1820, when George III died and the Prince of Wales became king.
But in discussing the Regency, particularly when talking about fiction, the period is a more squishy, pliable thing. For convenience’s sake, I’d say it was roughly 1795-1825, the era of England’s involvement with Napoleon; the point when the Empire style was at its height; the Romantic movement was in full blast; and technology was beginning to make serious inroads in daily life. But from another vantage point, the Regency is just a subset of the Georgian era, a blip on the way from the Enlightenment to the Victorians. It all depends where you draw the lines. And frankly, the lines didn’t matter as much if you were at the lower end of the economic spectrum: things don’t change as fast when you’re scrabbling for dinner and all your money goes for necessities rather than a new gown.
It’s easy to forget that while some people were living what we would consider a medieval life, others were smack dab in the middle of the Renaissance. To me one of the most arresting scenes in The Return of Martin Guerre (a lovely French film from a few decades ago) is at the trial, when there are the nice medieval peasants and the clergy and lawyers, all in their robes of office–and there in the audience are people who would not look out of place in the court of James I. My initial belief in my own historical knowledge (oh, I know when this is!) was knocked askew. In the same way, I love the film versions of Austen in which women are wearing clothes from several different eras–from the older woman who is still wearing a highly structured gown from 1795 to the young woman whose gown is the latest cry: high waisted, sheer fabric, Romantic draping. It reminds me that many women didn’t toss out the old gowns–they wore them, or tore them apart and remade them–because fabric and labor were not cheap. And that no one was sitting there thinking, “well, I’d better rethink my wardrobe, because we’re transitioning into the Regency, and these old rags will simply look like they belong to another era.”
My daughter has been watching Mad Men from the beginning of the series. I mentioned that (because my father worked on Madison Avenue in the 50s and 60s) it all looked rather familiar to me. And this launched us into a discussion about eras, and how you know when you’re in one. And of course, you don’t. At the time, it just seems like today is an extension of yesterday, and tomorrow will flow right out of today. At the time, even fringed suede vests seemed like the thing to do.