Tomorrow’s History: Weekly Roundup (Austria Moves Right-wing – Unphotogenic: The ‘Not-Kate’ Effect)

Austria’s Far-right Party Loses Election, But Wins As A Movement

While Americans continue to be entranced by the ongoing boxing match between U.S. Presidential candidates, another election has just thrown a spotlight on political conditions across the Atlantic. Austria, which for many people is associated more with Edelweiss and Von Trapps than political innovation, has just given the rest of the world a rare opportunity to see a political future in advance.

Ironically, Austria has, in many ways, been right at the heart-beat of European politics, from the Holy Roman Empire on to the time of the First World War, and most definitely during the Second World War and the short-lived Nazi supremacy, it has often shared the fate of its neighbor, Germany.

In this case, jubilation has broken out across most of the European Union after Alexander Van der Bellen, a leftist and academic took the election for the Austrian Presidency. Interestingly, he won by a miniscule (only 31,000 votes) majority following the counting of absentee votes, a unique and curious circumstance that is likely only to feed the fires of the political opposition that barely lost (Bernd Riegert, “Opinion: Black Eye for Austria as Van der Bellen Wins Presidency,” Deutsche Welle at DW.com, May 23, 2016).

The opposition candidate, Norbert Hofer, is a right-wing politician who supports a nationalist, EU-skeptic state and opposes whole-sale entry of refugees from the Middle East. And while he may not be seated in government, the real news is that a right-wing party has gained enough momentum in Europe to take and nearly win a presidential election. And where Austria goes, Germany may follow, a well acknowledged relationship governs these two language-sharing states. The centrist Social Democrats of Austria lost the election in a big way (the same party with which German leader Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat [which is a political party, not just a statement of faith], has a ruling coalition), indicating Austria may have just become a harbinger of the political winds that are about to change in Germany.

The refugee crisis has served on the one hand, to highlight the precarious nature of the European Union and it’s fragile infrastructure of allied nations. On the other hand, it has shown that when large numbers of people (in the millions) begin to shift around the globe there will be wars. This has happened from the very ancient past onward. If a million people move from one place to another, and there is not enough room where they are going, they will bump others to the side and be perceived as a threat. That threat has been perceived in Europe, and the beginnings of a militant reaction are evident, even in this latest Austrian election.

It is well to remember the purported Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” I think it’s safe to say that interesting times have arrived!

The Awkward Ones: Being Unphotogenic In The Age Of Digital Cameras

And now, let’s go lighthearted for a change.

I recently read an amusing article by British journalist Sarah Vine. She commented on the unfortunate fashion choices of the Princesses of York, Beatrice and Eugenie, that clashed with the willowy grace of the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) at a recent garden party held at Buckingham Palace. Kate, in a beautiful cream suit flowed gracefully in the direction of adoring party-goers, whilst trailing behind were the York sisters, who with less statuesque height chose frocks that were somewhat unusual in shape (read: ill-fitting), and bold in print and color. In the framed image, they follow behind the Duchess looking as though they are glaring daggers at the back of her head. Sigh, such is life for the imperfectly photogenic.

In reality, in the image, the sisters were undoubtedly looking elsewhere (and do in fact possess their own brand of beauty), but in the “click-click” nature of digital photography that one frame caught what looked like both a fashion and a deportment faux-pas. The author of the article goes on to discuss the challenges of those who don’t look good on camera, or who always look slightly goofy, while others always seem to be perfectly composed. I can relate to the former! (Sarah Vine, “I Know Exactly How Beatrice and Eugenie Feel When They’re Photographed Next To Kate: I’ve Been There Too, Says Sarah Vine,” The Daily Mail at DailyMail.co.uk, May 25, 2016.)

But it brings up an interesting historical question (one the author also posits): What must it have been like before cameras were around? Back when the best you could hope for to perpetuate your physical appearance was a painting or sculpture? It’s a thought, isn’t it.

Imagine a time when animation of features, expression, and voice were valued over the angles of cheekbones and thinness of limbs. Imagine that strength of arm, determination of mind, aptitude of intellect, ability to cultivate and grow plants and animals, keep a clean, healthy, productive home, cook nutritious, delicious meals, and raise healthy, balanced children was the stuff of which virtue was made, and didn’t take a back-seat to some rarefied, hormone-driven vision of what feminine “beauty” is. Difficult isn’t it?

Let Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fame help us, when the subject of his contemplations are demanded of him by the hovering Miss Bingley, he replies, “…My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

Fine eyes, no less! When was the last time I heard that?!

Difficult as it may be, I think we need to spend time in that past world, imagining it more often. I have nothing against the photogenic, beauty adds to our world, but we need to find a better balance! Beauty of virtue is a thing, too (for more info, please read the book of Proverbs, chapter 31 in the Bible). If we let it, history can remind us that there is more to this life than just surface value.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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Good Taste Doesn’t Have to Remain Dead: Book Review – ‘The Lost Art of Dress’

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

Title: The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

Author:  Linda Przybyszewski

AS I BEGIN, let me say “thank you” to Linda Przybyszewski, the author of The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish for this splendid, well-written, thoughtful, humorous, opinionated, and important book. Splendid because it covers a topic I have sorely missed reading about outside my own collection of fashion and dress planning books from the first half of the 20th century – that is, common sense, modesty, and good taste in dress.

As an art history student, I was excited to read about how the “Dress Doctors” – professors, designers, lecturers, and authors, mainly female, of the Home Economist movement – applied the principles (harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis) of what makes “art” beautiful to the composition of dress. The beautifully accessorized outfits of the 30’s and 40’s, the hats, the gloves, the varied and unique dress colors. One look around at what the stores offer this Summer and I bury my head right back in The Lost Art of Dress. What’s happened to the expression, creativity, individuality and chic that was possible in the fashions of half a century ago?

According to the author, the 1960’s happened along with the feminist backlash to the Home Economist movement, which they decided stereotyped women. To add to the trouble the space race drew funding away from what was considered “non-essential” – the home, nutrition, parenting, beauty decor and dress, sanitation, food preservation and consumer standards and toward nuclear weapons and war – quite a trade-off.

The 60’s ushered in a rejection of art in dress for a sort of anti-harmonious cacophony of “expression.” Clothing lost the fine dressmaker details of the previous decades and one and all, young or old was expected to aspire to the same “youth obsessed” style.

WHAT I PARTICULARLY like about this book is the author’s willingness to be frank about what she thinks. So many social history topics are ruined by an author’s attempts to please everyone at once – even polar-opposite opinions! Professor Pski…, as she is known on her website….., teaches at the University of Notre Dame and states her case with verve, good taste, and humor. Along the way, as she delineates how the art principles of design apply to dress, she also informs us of an important piece of 20th century social history – the rise and fall of the Home Economist movement and the USDA. If your taste in clothing runs to garish, grunge, or short and tight you will probably disagree with the author, but you may nonetheless enjoy the history she offers.

The Home Economist movement, USDA, and 4-H programs brought “home-making” skills to millions of women, and it also provided the skill of dressmaking to thousands of women. This practical education became a means of making a respectable living, especially during the “make-do” era of the Great Depression. My grandmother was a product of this system and I can only begin to scratch the surface of the skills she had. Women have many education opportunities now, but it’s vital not to demean the education and wisdom of women in this past era – they were able to absorb a vital core of skills that no college or university offers now. We are clueless in their presence in many ways.

Another detail I appreciate about the book is the perhaps blunt, but common sense explanations the author offers for modesty. There is a spiritual element to modesty and most who feel the subject is important approach it from this perspective, but Pski offers an undervalued, but pragmatic explanation of why mini-dresses, sheers, tight clothes and exposed flesh are not particularly tasteful, and are extremely impractical. How does one maintains one’s dignity in a mini-dress, seriously? Thank you for explaining why modesty and good taste and style are not opposites, but all elements of a harmonious whole!!

SO PLEASE READ this book for many reasons, none the least of which, is that it is an extremely well written, fascinating, well documented example of historiography. It is a form to which good historians aspire.

Read it also if you are one of the many in our generations X, Bridge (of which I am one), or Millennial who love the styles, ensembles, and outfits of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and wonder what principles of art and science made those styles so lovely. On a pragmatic note, with the concepts outlined in The Lost Art of Dress it is still possible to aspire to the good taste of those eras.

Finally, read it because the skillful and talented women who were products of the Home Economist movement (our grand and great-grand mothers) deserve a tribute to the abilities and skills they acquired and the contribution to society they made. Their resourcefulness and determination raised families, helped win wars, and achieved greatness in various professions.

Keep reading history!

– Amanda Stiver