Thursday, June 12, 2014

Life in Circulation, in Conservation, in Change

Pour la Victoire recently did a great post about the egregious fates of vintage clothing, the irreplaceable textile artifacts of our past which are (cringe) tie-dyed for modern hipsters and recycled in ways which destroy their historical natures.  One glaring point was how many pieces of clothing end up on eBay, and – given a certain obsession of my own, very much nursed and developed ON eBay (yes, I know they gave up that capitalization pattern some time ago – I’m a Virginian, and old, and I revel in certain privileges of obsolescence; plus, for me, the funky B is an identifier), I had to stop and think about culpability.

There are certain differences between textiles and (my vice) jewelry, which most often is made of sturdier stuff than a dress or slippers.  Indeed, I think an awful lot of people who buy vintage on eBay do so precisely out of desire to admire and preserve the artifacts of the past – Lauren at American Duchess, I know, has a collection of very old shoes indeed, redeemed from eBay and the like.  She restores some – but, I think, not all – and she probably knows a great deal about proper care:  but she’s not a museum, nor a trained conservator.  Just experienced.

But not even lovers of a style or a particular type of thing collect with conservatorship and/or preservation in mind.  Even if we did, tales of terrible conservatorship litter the art world alone – Oh! The things we’ve done to masterpieces in the name of love!  And those who don’t – well, hell.  I number among them myself, honestly.  Like the time I spent months putting together just the right vintage costume – genuine, UK union-made early artificial silk moire’ dress … velvet wide-brimmed hat … embroidered appliqued gloves, still in their original package (not any more) … just the right styling, just the right shoes, just the right lipstick.  Even a crinoline.  And I wore the whole kit out, and got drenched with rain.  I probably sweated in it.  I’ve worn that dress – that irreplaceable, seventy-year-old dress I stole from the United Kingdom – that dress that had repairs at the cuffs, and whose cuffs I tried to lovingly re-repair myself – that dress from which I removed its original shoulder pads – to work.  I’ve worn it to church.  This thing which cannot be recaptured, remade – I wear it for all the world as if it was any other Sunday-go-to-meetin’ dress up dress.  I let my body come in contact with its ageing fibers, I clean it with my own blundering hands.  And I know it.

Oh, the mistakes I have made.  That bracelet – still beautiful, mind you – which I repaired by reglueing the rhinestones with a cyanocryalate (BURN THE WITCH NOW!!!).  I actually do shudder a bit thinking of it, but it takes years for that damage to appear – and I may be dead or ugly, wizened, and old enough for pretty jewelry to be pointless by the time it does.  I also have (as you must see, by the progress of this post) an impeccable skill with rationalization …

We commit atrocities against the products of our humanity, knowing and unknowing, a thousand times a moment.  I am guilty of both, and guilty too of learning of my own sins too late – or just of being in too much of a rush to “do things right” …

Quite a number of people in this world have custody of artifacts they know nothing about.  I bought a wildly valuable Art Deco camphor glass necklace on eBay.  The seller was some Alaskan with clearly no idea the worth of the piece.  She didn’t name it correctly in her listing, she sold something which could have garnered well over $100 on the educated market … for NINE dollars.  It was in dandy condition, and someone who knows what the piece is recognized its worth from a blurry photo and some hope … and now I have a piece I should never have been able to afford in a collection increasingly filled with random items like this.  Did I feel like I cheated her?  Not really.  And to have photographed, named, and sold it properly, for the “right” price (by all those  subjective measures we so love to apply) – she might not have sold it for months, or even at all.  I’ve seen valuable pieces linger for over a year on eBay’s vintage jewelry (and clothing) sites.  It’s incredibly common.  (See also:  illiquid assets, kids.)  Still – that seller “could” have gotten ten times the price, or fifteen, if only she’d been aware.  If that had mattered, she would have been.  One way or another, she didn’t, and was ignorant.  My “win” (again, if one looks at things that way).

I’ve often told the story of The Bathroom Brooch – a piece I looked at at a convention one time, made an offer on, and was turned down ... then later got for free, because the seller wanted to clear out her inventory before the end of the event, and asked me to help her get her Steampunk outfit straight for her, when she had to go to the ladies room.  (Corset dressing – even if your textiles aren’t genuine 18th-century – is not a venture for anyone without a lady’s maid, or a temporary friend you can recompense with a brooch you got in some bulk estate clearance.)  She was far more likely to have an idea what it was she had her hands on.  Perhaps not fully, but she certainly wasn’t a neophyte frontier woman (her costume was safari, actually) letting a 90-year-old treasure slip through her fingers all unknowing.

The Bathroom Brooch, as it turns out, is a $300 turquoise-matrix Juliana, by Delizza & Elster.  D&E made spectacularly beautiful pieces for many designers in the 20th century, and whose work is now highly sought after.  Juliana and Weiss designs are especially popular, and this brooch would take time to sell perhaps, but would eventually get triple-digits without problems, from someone even geekier than I am … and who would probably take similarly good (if unprofessional) care of it.  If I wanted that particular sort of profit, and if were patient enough to wait for that person.

The Juliana brooch
(Now, as a set - even more valuable, by collectors' standards)

The question becomes … how important is professional conservatorship, when the world is filled with artifacts we don’t even *understand*?

Humanity loses and destroys with almost the same prolificity as we create – and it is difficult to imagine the proportion of our material history we’ve lost outright simply by living.  Without ever being conscious of it.

I cringe with the most persnickety of them, I won’t pretend I’m immune.  When I recently saw someone I know casually manhandling a box filled with tribal musical instruments brought from Africa in the middle of the twentieth century, and when I saw the dessicating state of the many many irreplaceable pieces (as this person joked, “These should be in a museum!”), bits of me kept passing out.  It felt like a cultural crime, and an anthropological farce.

But … those things were sold; they were relinquished.  They weren’t stolen by bad guys.  They were not viewed by their makers as sacrosanct (or they never would have left native ground), and they live on, unknown to The Powers What Be in the world of music, African studies, museums, what have you.  They would be adored and restored, I am sure, in certain hands.  But are those hands necessarily the “right” hands – any more than those hands which have held and occasionally played them for the past forty or fifty years?  The hands that received them in a perfectly ordinary series of transactions in which (I have to hope) nobody was exploited but maybe the white tourist paying big for handmade trinkets … ?

I am not the authority to judge this.  Emotionally, I like the idea of these things being appreciated.  But humanity doesn’t work like that.  We are not a species wholly given to treasuring our own handiwork.  Those of us who do find a certain almost magical and/or mystical importance in the concrete talismans of our past.  There is a logic in maintaining knowledge – even (re)building it through study of our artifacts.  This blog would not exist, if I didn’t believe that pretty fervently.

But, as I have learned to let go of some of the more illusory “rules” of our language with age (language may mean more to me than physical artifacts ever have – and regular readers know how profound a statement that is), I’ve been willing to learn to let go of some of my more shrill opinions about the care and feeding of that river of STUFF which is the detritus of human experience.  From, of all people, an archaeologist.

Mojourner told me a story once, about a community garden, and the book-learned guy who set up the rule book for the garden.  An earnest and motivated guy, Book-Guy had provided a bucket or two with sand infused with oil.  He was very concerned that garden members must be sure to dip the community tools in this oil treated sand after using them, to clean them and to protect the blades and so on from rust and deterioration.

Now, rust or no – not one of those blades is going to deteriorate within the lifetime of a member of this garden.  Nor their grandchildren.  Countless mattocks, hoes, and pickaxes attest to the staying power of even the most profoundly rusty implements – and they might get little flaky red chuckles at the idea they were endangered, they who can lie in the soil a hundred years and still be polished.

But sometimes you just use the oiled sand, you do your bit, you garden along with the *community* and the guy who learned what he knows on a printed page, not some midden dig a thousand miles and several bands of latitude away.  Books are written sometimes by people with good intentions, and even knowledge.  And the oiled sand won’t hurt the garden’s tools.  It’s funny to think its absence might.  But … rust can be seen as a destructive force, or a simply natural one with little power against us or even our handiworks.

Sometimes, it’s not all about the oiled sand.

Our attachment to our tools and our expressions is the basis for the very concept of sin.  Yet it is also the expression of pride in the pinnacle of our brains’ achievements.  Sometimes, both an achievement and a sin in one undertaking – how many of us can wrangle the ethics of so many of the discoveries we have wrought into technology?

We put too much store in “things” and “stuff” – so much that the idea of losing our obsolete objects can be literally horrifying.

We value the work of artisans in ancient or outmoded artifacts so little that the idea of selling it all on eBay, to be made into jewelry (see also – DIY ideas with watches and vintage typewriter keys) or “repurposed” doesn’t even look like destruction.


Yet DIY recycling, repurposing, destruction – these are no more new ideas than any of the other recent fads we’ve been vain enough to imagine we invented.  It is desecration, by most definitions, to see an Art Nouveau sculpture melted down, or even by some definitions, for a Mid-Century piece of furniture to be dismantled and reborn as framed art or the basis of some installation at a subversive gallery.  The alteration of an original artifact sends shivers up the spine – and I won’t pretend that the sight of shattered Edwardian silk fills me with satisfaction – yet we have always done this.

Clothing, through most of history, was mended and altered and handed down and reduced, recycled, reused – even unto the point of becoming rags.  Jewelry missing a catch or a few links, stones loosened or finishes lost – this is available in bulk by the pound, literally, and there are thousands of people eager to save these things from the flames of oblivion by cobbling together this shiny bit here with that functioning bit there, and creating something new, something that will still be seen and even give someone pleasure.  Even those things not already gone archaic or broken are rertrieved, ripped up, revamped, relaunched.  It is our nature – our contrarian way – to see well enough, and be unable to leave it alone.  We do it with ourselves, with our friends, with our bodies, with our lives.  To imagine we might restrain ourselves from “improving” on our *things* by tweaking around in ways which might look damaging or state-altering is unrealistic … and, indeed, short-sighted.  If we didn’t jiggle the handles on things sitting around being reasonably serviceable, we might not come up with newer ways for them to be serviceable – or different ways altogether.


Our past is a magical thing, and should never be forgotten nor discounted.  Yet past-worship can render results just as problematic as history-condemnation – it can ossify the mind, make people reactionary and recalcitrant, unwilling to innovate, even to risk change that, yes, might turn out badly.  Maybe that would not be a bad way to live.  We’ve got cultures dedicated to that, too, and there’s no reason to say those are “worse” than the Western culture so many imagine is the “right” way to live.  Many of us are unaware that not all human endeavor is dedicated to “progress” at all – yet, to lose that diversity, that would be as much a tragedy as any shattered silk in the world.  Our delicacy expresses itself in so many ways, material and metaphorical.

And the go-go progress way of life most people who might happen upon this post are most likely living, in one way or another, to one degree of intensity or another:  it brings with it both the reverence for those things that made us what we are … and the impetus for the destruction – or changing – or damage – or improvement upon those things.


As much as disappears – humanity’s mark on our Earth will not be obliterated any time soon.  As much as we obscure, there is a tendency of history, of our creative and innovative past, to tell on itself.

Ancient Alien proponents notwithstanding, the interest in the history of human ingenuity captivates us all from time to time – whether in people who are fascinated by mummies, or the historicity of our holy documents and myths, or those fascinated by the bones of royals or the beauty of clothing (or jewelry …) of some particular period.

The methods of our making are perhaps endlessly fascinating to me.  I can be as excited about the contents of Otzi’s belly as the composition and stitching of his garments, as I can by the remarkable process of pattern welding steel as an ancient recipe for garum, as the recreations, from art and intelligent analysis, of some of the most ancient hairstyles in the world.  I am captivated by the fact that women’s hands are literally stamped in our earliest and most treasured prehistoric marks on the world.  Humanity itself, its mind and its spirit, is almost relentlessly engaging—inquisitive, expansive, remarkable, beautiful.  And THAT is what cannot be destroyed, no matter how many of the pieces of evidence of it we mangle.

We can kill our brainchildren.  We can, with that hideous tenacity that has always lived in its devastating strain alongside our sublimity, kill each other.  We are a contumacious and transcendent and complicated and impossible to pin down – we contain multitudes, the sublime and the wretched.  None of this can be hidden.  None of it can quite be lost.

No matter how hard we try …

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