Historical Reconstruction: A Valuable Source for the Historian

As an historian of early modern dress and material culture my research requires a wide range of documentation – wardrobe warrants, probate inventories and wills, visual sources such as engravings and paintings, popular literature like plays, didactic texts and broadside ballads, and even personal correspondence such a letters and diaries – in order to construct an accurate picture of a past material world. However, there are often still limitations to using only these traditional written and visual sources.
Wardrobe warrants and probate inventories can tell the historian the economics of clothing production – who ordered what, how many and when, as well as information about the materials used in their production, however, they don’t outline patterns or methods of construction. Other texts like popular literature and personal correspondence can tell us information about how these items functioned socially – what people thought of them and how that influenced social and cultural norms, but many of these sources express just that: thoughts, both popular and personal, leaving the historian to pursue the relationship between ideas and everyday embodiment. Then there are visual sources that are not only valuable in their own right, but can help to interpret the written record, allowing the historian to decode sometimes complex technical terminology or to match descriptions of dress with a dated image. Surviving artefacts themselves also hold the key to vast amounts of information that has been lost to the printed or archival record, or is not discernible in visual representations. For example, sweat marks and continued wear and tear in particular places on the garment can tell us much information about the effect that dress had on the body or that the body had on dress. Yet whilst the life of the garment (and that of the person who wore it) may still be visible on surviving artefacts, some questions remain unanswered, and this is where historical reconstruction can be a valuable research tool for the historian.
Historical reconstruction has, until recently, not been seen as a concern of the serious academic, believed to belong to television, re-enactors or living history museums. Yet reconstruction has been used by archaeologists, curators and conservators for many years. More recently, Ulinka Rublack from the University of Cambridge has incorporated reconstructions into her work on Renaissance fashion, leading the field in early modern material studies. Pamela H. Smith, an historian of early modern science, has established the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, which uses reconstructions of recipes from early modern texts to explore the intersections between artisan practices and scientific knowledge. Renown fashion historian and the figure to whom many of us now working in the field owe our gratitude, Janet Arnold, was also a pioneer of fact-based faithful reconstructions of historical dress, and institutes such as the School of Historical Dress run by Jenny Tiramani exist to teach both scholars and amateurs alike period-accurate construction techniques.
Two years ago I was awarded a grant by the Department of History at the University of Sydney to make, using historically accurate materials and sewing techniques, some of the items that my research examines – an Elizabethan bodie (corset) from around 1603, a mid-seventeenth century bodie and two styles of farthingale (structured underskirts) – in order to learn not only about the historical production process, but also to interpret the often polemical and sometimes outrageous sources that often describe early modern women and their dress. We may never know exactly how a sixteenth or seventeenth-century woman felt when she wore these items, nor am I suggesting that we can use reconstructions accurately to recapture bodily experiences from the past; it would be anachronistic to place these garments on a modern body unburdened by years of wearing restrictive clothing to see how “we” would feel wearing them, as historical notions of comfort and other sensory experiences vary widely. However, faithfully recreating these garments allows modern historians to not only understand historical methods of construction, but also to gain a more nuanced view of surviving historical records.
My four reconstructions took about one and a half years (of non-continuous hand sewing) to complete. All of these garments utilised period-accurate materials that were found in surviving wardrobe warrants and tailoring bills such as silk taffeta, linen, silk thread, and wool. As whalebone (‘baleen’) is, for good reason, not available anymore I decided to use a modern plastic alternative that mimics baleen’s properties such as its strength and flexibility.
The two ‘bodies’ were made to the exact size and dimensions as the original surviving examples, with the same sewing techniques employed in the originals to make the reproductions. Unlike the bodies, accessing an original or observation based pattern of either a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale was impossible as no examples of either style have survived anywhere in Europe. Instead, my reconstruction of these ephemeral garments was much more experimental and relied on archival material, visual images, as well as my own understanding of seventeenth-century construction techniques.
The process of reconstructing these garments by hand has given me invaluable knowledge about not only how to construct early modern dress, but also how to analyse surviving objects in museum collections – a skill which some scholars of historical dress still lack. Most importantly for my research, however, is the fact that placing these reconstructions on models of different sizes and instructing them to sit down, bend over and walk has allowed me to assess the visible physical limitations that these garments placed on the modern female body and then apply those observations to my historical research. This is one of the main merits of historical reconstruction: it allows us to reconstruct lost objects of the past to examine often problematic surviving historical sources, whether it is in relation to sources on production, or the everyday social embodied acts of wearing. After all these items were real, and many women (and some men) spent their whole lives wearing different styles of various sizes and shapes, and so reconstructing them not only allows the historian to become closer to the sources of the period, but also to people and their real and lived experiences of these items.
If you would like to read in more detail about the step-by-step process of making my reconstructions please visit my
own blog.

Book News

Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson’s new book, Australians in Shanghai recently featured in an ABC news story, and/or listen to the podcast on the Earshot program produced by Sophie and Tamson Pietsch.
Professor Mark McKenna’s book From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories has been reviewed in the SMH, ABR, Saturday Paper, Adelaide Advertiser, Telegraph, and the Monthly. Between October and December 2016, he did over 20 radio interviews (WA, SA, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, NSW, Northern Territory) about the book, and Radio National’s Earshot is broadcasting and podcasting a half hour documentary based on the book.
Professor Glenda Sluga’s co-edited volume has just been published entitled Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History which the Chronicle succinctly describes as a collection of essays on internationalism as an idea and institutional phenomenon espoused by groups across the political spectrum.
Dr Marco Duranti was recently interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live (Radio National) about his recently released book The Conservative Human Rights Revolution. Marco has also published a commentary in The Conversation UK on how The Conservative Human Rights Revolution informs the controversy in Britain surrounding Theresa May’s calls for the UK to exit the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The book was also reviewed in Lawfare, where legal scholar Ed Bates concluded, “Duranti’s book is highly recommended….it should influence debates on how the ECHR is seen today.” And, in an unexpected twist, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange provoked a robust discussion on the book’s argument when he tweeted about the book.
For some other reviews of new books by members of the department, see: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/2017/05/new_reviews_for_our_latest_pub.html

Historians in the News

Dr Miranda Johnson discusses indigeneity and the sacred and what it means when a river is legally declared a person on the Social Science Research Council blog called The Immanent Frame, which publishes short invited essays about secularism and politics. Her creative and innovative teaching around The Pitcairn Project was also recently featured in Sydney University news.
Dr Chin Jou contributed an essay on historical precedents for protesting Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ for The Huffington Post, and also was a featured author in the Princeton Alumni Weekly
PhD candidate Marama Whyte recently published an article in History Today on women of the American press and their fight for equality in the 1960s and 1970s.
PhD candidate Sarah Bendall published a piece on using material culture to examine notions of gender in the early modern English world on the Journal for the History of Ideas blog.
PhD candidate Billy Griffiths recently contributed a piece to The Conversation on western Arnhem Land and the important work of Indigenous Rangers in caring for country and telling it’s stories to raise awareness of environmental threats to their land.
MA candidate Chris Maxworthy featured on ABC Radio Drive talking about the early Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres, and how the strait that bears his name between Cape York and New Guinea was ‘plagiariased’ by James Cook in 1770.
Professor Dirk Moses was interviewed by the Turkish Platform for Independent Journalism, platform24.org on freedom of the press and genocide denial. He wrote about the Australian press and its treatment of European affairs for the ABC Religion and Ethicssite, and on the historical categorisation of Donald Trump in the Washington Post.
Associate Professor Michael A. McDonnell was interviewed about enlistments in the Revolutionary War for the US public radio program and podcast BackStory. He also recently featured in a podcast on “The History of History Writing” for the popular Ben Franklin’s World in the US, and served as an NEH Visiting Scholar at a Summer Institute at the Library of Congress on the topic of “On Native Grounds.”
Dr. Frances Clarke was interviewed by ABC’s Nightlife on April 9 2017 on the end of America’s Civil War, and recently wrote a blog post for the Australian Women’s History Network
Professor Glenda Sluga posted an article on the recent concern about the demise of the existing international order on E-International Relations, which was also published in German in the May edition of the German magazine Merkur, as part of her GeschichtesKolumn series. She also blogged on women in the long history of humanitarianism for the Australian Women’s History Network
Professor Mark McKenna took part in three events at the Sydney Writers Festival, appeared at the Writer’s Festival, South Coast, NSW in April, was interviewed by BBC and AAP Reuters regarding Uluru Statement on May 26, and contributed an article to the Conversation on ANZAC day and republicanism. He also published a major essay on Australian political biography in the Monthly in April, and was Interviewed on RN Late Night Live.

Renovating the Archives: The Richelieu Project in Paris

In July, I head off to do archival research at the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) in Paris. The site is currently undergoing a large-scale renovation (although, thankfully, it doesn’t look like it will interfere with my work there). Archival spaces like the BNF are second homes for historians and other researchers, so I thought it’s a good opportunity to show one of France’s great archival institutions undergoing renovation.
Built in the nineteenth century, the Richelieu Library is the ‘historical cradle’ of the BNF, before a new centre was built on the Seine banks under the Mitterand Government in the 1980s (hence, the François Mitterand Library). Today, it houses the BNF’s special collections: performing arts, maps and plans, prints and photographs, manuscripts, coins, medals and antiquities.
The Richelieu Library is pretty spectucular. It’s everything we imagine a grand library to be, from massive, book-lined walls to the banker lamps on the desks. From 2009/2010, it’s been going through an equally spectacular staged renovation that is due for completion in 2020.
In December last year, one of the key stages was complete. The Labrouste Reading Room (pictured below) and Manuscript Room were completed as part of this stage.
I believe work has started on the equally impressive Oval Room (pictured below).
Source of above photo: Photographer Guillaume Dutreix (@guillaume_dx) on Instagram.
You can watch a short video documentary (14mins) about the renovation project. It is in French, but you can get the idea.

You can discover more about the Richelieu renovation project here: http://www.bnf.fr/en/bnf/renovation_work_richelieu.html

Getting Ready for the Archives: 5 Essentials from a First-Timer

With just a few weeks until I head off to the archives in Paris, I wanted to share some of the preparation work I’ve been doing over the past several months. You can read about my PhD project here. I’m only in Paris for a few weeks, so I have to make the most of my time. I figured the more I can do in advance, the more efficient and fruitful would be my use of that time.
Added to this are two other challenges. First, it’s my first time doing archival research of this kind. Second, I discovered earlier this year that one of my archive sites is currently undergoing major renovations (until 2020!). This means materials might be inaccessible or relocated. I wanted to establish the state of play early on.
>Read my post on the Richelieu renovation project
I’ll be spending most of my time at two sites of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF; the National Library of France): the Richelieu site (where the manuscripts room is located, pictured below) and the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal.
In this post, I wanted to share some of the questions I asked myself and learnings I picked up along the way. Some of these might seem really obvious, so apologies in advance. But, it’s often the obvious things that are the easiest to miss.
Here are five are five areas I’ve been looking at in preparing for my archives visit. If you have any to of your own to pass on, add them as a comment to this post.

1. What am I going to do there? Setting my research goals

What am I actually going to do there? Will I be spending time with sources, translating/transcribing them? Sifting through lots of archival material? Or will I just be taking copies of material to bring back home?
These are questions I had to work out. For my project, I don’t have to do a huge amount of sifting. My sources are relatively obvious and easy to identify.
Over the past six months, I have been identifying documents and manuscripts I want to access using the BnF catalogue and their amazing digital platform, Gallica. I set them out in a spreadsheet, noting:

  • the key ‘metadata’ for each document (record number, document type title, publication year);
  • what I wanted to do with the document (inspect, copy, transcribe, etc);
  • comments or notes; and
  • a priority rating on a scale of one to four.

Prioritising what I want to see is important. If I run out of time, at least I’ve copied the most essential.
It might be a bit OCD, but I’ve even scheduled what documents I want to work on specific days. In all likelihood things won’t go to plan, but at least I’ll have a something to work with when I get there.

2. Research the archives

Of course, it’s important to do some preliminary research into the institution that you’ll visit. If they have restricted hours or requirements for access, you don’t want to discover that when you arrive on their doorstep. Here are some of the questions I investigated (and, again, forgive me if they are obvious).

  • What are their opening hours? Don’t assume that things are open every day 9am-5pm.
  • Are there any public holidays that might mean the archives are closed?
  • Are they undergoing renovations or any other work that might involve disruption to usual services? This is very applicable to me because the Richelieu site is undergoing renovations.
  • What documentation do they require for permission to access material? Photo ID is easy, but what if they require a reference from your supervisor? The BnF, for example, requires an ‘Attestation Form’ to be completed by the supervisor and stamped with the university’s stamp.
  • Is there an interview procedure beforehand?
  • Are there any applicable fees for accessing material? The BnF requires you to have a Reader’s Card, which attracts a fee (tiered depending on duration of access).
  • What procedures do they have for requesting material? How long do you have to wait from when you request something and when they deliver it? BnF has scheduled times for requesting material.
  • Are there rules or restrictions on what you can do in the research space, such as only being able to use pencils or restrictions on copying/photographing material? 


3. Equipment and storage

What equipment do I need to use at the archives beside a notepad and pen? I guess this really depends on what you intend to do at the archives.
Since most of my time will be spent inspecting and copying (that is, photographing) sources, I needed to think about a way of storing all this data securely so I could work on it when I return to Sydney. Storage is a really important issue and there are several solutions, whether a hard drive, USB, or cloud-based options (such as Dropbox).
The big two issues are volume (lots of photos) and security (Paris is a long way from Sydney, so I don’t want to have all this data lost or damaged). Is a USB really the best solution in terms of volume and security? If I put everything on a device such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, what happens if that is lost or damaged? Should I back up my work? Yes!
My supervisor, Nick Eckstein, recently returned from an archives visit in Italy and offered some useful advice on storing the thousands of images he had taken of manuscript folios from the 1600s. I ended up going with a combination of cloud-based and hard-drive.
Fisher Library has a Research Data Management team that can provide advice and invaluable information organised into modules on this page: https://library.sydney.edu.au/research/data-management.
Also think about how you are going to organise your material so it all makes sense when you get back home. You don’t want to deal hundreds of random image files such as ‘IMG_089’.
Finally, don’t forget about things like power chargers etc.

4. Contact the archives

As I said, there are major renovations underway at the Richelieu BnF site. Another supervisor gave me the heads-up that this might affect access to material. I needed to establish whether anything I wanted to consult was affected, so I emailed the Department of Manuscripts at Richelieu specifying the manuscripts I most wanted to access. They responded, and we’ve been working through obtaining access approval for each source.
Contacting the archives before I arrive not only meant I could sort some of this stuff out before I arrived. It now means I have a few contacts within the BnF for when I am there. One of the archivists I’ve been exchanging emails with looks after the collection of Turkish manuscripts. This is a boon because the collection itself has its genesis in the very subject of my research. It is not only someone who can help me with locating material but who can relate the history of the collection itself.
So, I think it’s really useful to start building a relationship with archivists before you go, if possible. If the archives are in a non-Anglophone location, consider using the local language for communication (if you can) and observe professional communication practices.

5. Speak to other historians and postgrads (and follow them on Twitter)

I spoke to a few historians and fellow postgraduates in Sydney who had visited the archives I’ll be visiting, seeking their experiences and advice. This was incredibly helpful.
I also found some great advice on blogs run by institutions, historians, and postgraduates, including the following.

Then there’s Twitter. You’ll be surprised how useful it is as a budding historian to follow your peers and established historians on Twitter. For example, I follow Dr Sara Barker (@DrSKBarker), who works on the French Wars of Religion and print culture at the University of Leeds. Sara was tweeting during her archival research at the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal in Paris. It was such a wonderful and invaluable insight into archival work, both the trials and tribulations. I asked her a few questions about the archives and she responded with fantastic advice, including where to get the best coffee nearby (vital advice for a researcher!) and what the air temperature is like inside (you don’t want to be freezing or sweltering during your time in the archives).
Here are some sample tweets from Dr Barker.
Tweet from @DrSKBarker
Tweet from @DrSKBarker
As another example of historians talking archival research on Twitter, here’s a great thread from Professor Marie Hicks (historian of technology): https://twitter.com/histoftech/status/868170316706701312
So, find the historians on Twitter who work in your field and follow them.
All of the above reflects some of the questions, thoughts, and practices that I considered in preparing for my archives visit in July. Let’s see what happens!
Meanwhile, if you have any tips or suggestions of your own, add them as a comment to this post.

Wesley College represents one of the University of Sydney’s prestigious and illusive magnates of the bright, well to do and country larrikins. The college presents a fascinating insight into the experiences of youth and the development of relations between university qualifications, sporting and cultural ability and youthful cheek. Wesley College celebrates it’s centenary this year. The celebrations provide a unique opportunity to explore the development of the institution and its role contributing to the progress, or lack thereof, of the University of Sydney.
Wesley bears its archives to the curious student; providing Honi Soit unprecedented access to its darkest secrets. Tractors driving through dining halls, hazing scandals and cunning master’s are just some of the hot gossip to be found in the damp dusty halls of the College. A new website shall provide the opportunity to discover the story of Wesley College’s unsung heroes, memorable characters and the evolution of an esteemed establishment. Read between the lines of the insightful commentary of yours truly to discover the enthralling tale of Wesley College’s first hundred years.

Celebrating Sub-Communities: A Spotlight on the Persian Ryde Community

We each exist within several different alternate communities, overlapping and interacting with the defined geographic community to which we belong. Every community consists of several sub-communities that each individually contribute to the overall character of society. Each of these ethnic, religious, and cultural groups lend their own unique flavors and traditions to the collective atmosphere, enhancing the connection between neighbors and friends. The Persian community within the greater Ryde community has significantly contributed to Ryde’s economic, artistic, social, and culinary domains. In 1988, the Persian Ryde School was established in order to educate the Persian-Australian children in the community and to ensure that the Persian language and traditions are passed on to future generations.
With the 30th anniversary of the Persian Ryde School approaching, we should celebrate the abundance of contributions the Persian community has made. The public history of Persians in the Ryde community is not solely of value to the Persian community, but deserves to be recognized and celebrated by the greater Sydney community, as well as by others. The group’s relatable story is encouraging and should be of relevance to us all, especially considering the increasingly worrisome exclusion and misrepresentation of minorities within communities across the globe.
As with any project, this project has encountered obstacles and has changed course a number of times. Hopefully, this piece of advice will come in handy for next year’s students: embrace flexibility. It is completely okay to end up changing course; in fact, it is more than likely, so do not succumb to stress. Understand that you will not truly realize the impact of your project on the community with which you are involved, until you have hit some walls and find yourself asking opposing questions. Again, this is natural! Follow the path your project develops with sincerity and sensitivity. Whichever way it takes you will be worth exploring.

Jurabooks, Petersham

What do you know of anarchism besides blood and bombs? What do you know of anarchism besides crime and chaos? It might surprise you but there’s more to it than that. In fact, that isn’t even anarchism, that’s anarchy! They are different as you will see…
Anarchism is the idea of an alternative way of living that you are in fact already living. Who is in between you and your friends, you and your family? Is it the State? The police? The military? It’s you, you are between you and them. Of all the things that are meaningful, it’s because you have associated yourself with it. This surely is “chaos”…
Jurabooks in Petersham is one of the only collectives running along these. Its primary goal is essentially asking what I started this piece with: “What do you know of anarchism?” Jura’s primary goal is education. As is often the case, we need to be educated about what will educate us. We already know about how schools or universities can educate us, but can a bunch of anarchists?
The answer is yes, and my project will show it through the history of Jura, whose goal has been throughout its busy 40 years to educate a society that is generally reactive against and ignorant to solutions for the future that aren’t down the sewer pipe of politicians, government, hegemony exploited labour, the “carrot on a stick” workplace, and so much more. The pipe is long and wide.

A History Time Will Not Forget: Media Pitch

I believe that knowledge of local history is important. The little chunks of history that have gone unknown for years can be unearthed and rediscovered with the potential to excite and fascinate. Who knew that before Ryde Eastwood Leagues club existed there was a small business called Cooper’s Tank Works that ran for over 80 years? Well, I did and I have known it for years and I believe that it is about time that others should discover a tiny little history swallowed up by the years gone by. My paper for the Ryde District Historical Society intends to give an easy way to access this hidden history and other just like it.
The Ryde District Historical society wants to broaden their readership by allowing written histories to be available online and have tasked me with writing one of them. I want to highlight the smaller histories that make up the city of Ryde. The site used to belong to one of the many industrial businesses that made up the area along the train line at West Ryde. Looking at the area today, it would be difficult to imagine such an array of businesses residing there. Which is why I want to show a little snippet of what life used to be like by writing this paper. I hope that a love of local history can be achieved through my paper and all the papers to come.

History and visibility: telling the stories of those we ignore

The Big Issue Magazine is Australia’s most successful social enterprise. It has put a whopping $25 million into the pockets of Australia’s homeless and disadvantaged community over the course of the last 20 years. And yet, there are still people who live or work in Sydney who have never noticed the vendors in their fluorescent yellow vests and red caps, selling magazines to passers-by. We all exist in the same space as these homeless or disadvantaged folks, but sometimes it’s as if we inhabit totally different worlds. We rush back and forth, living out our busy and comfortable lives—and never stop to look around at those who are worse off. They are (we think) irrelevant and therefore invisible to us.
Working with the Big Issue to organise their records and to construct a history of their work is about making that story of empowerment and social justice visible. And working on a dynamic timeline of The Big Issue with the vendors themselves is about nurturing their pride in the organisation that does so much for them. The colourful exhibit on their garage wall, that we create together, will stick around as a reminder of The Big Issue’s philosophy: your story is what you make of it.
To future students of HSTY3902: don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. I am very much an outsider at The Big Issue—not simply because these are new people I’ve never met, but because of my socio-economic status. This project has been both confronting and a chance for personal growth; it has taught me that history can help us begin to break down social segregation in our own worlds, even as we attempt to do so on paper. Go outside your community. If you think about it, all historians are outsiders: none of us inhabited the worlds we study and analyse. So when you choose an organisation to work with for your project, think about all the invisible barriers in your world, and set out to tear them down.