Saturday, May 11, 2013

Researching the Illinois Country

Yikes have I been absent here! The Historical Sew Fortnightly has definitely been motivating, and now there are a number of nice things in my historical wardrobe that otherwise would have never gotten finished, but I'm tired of taking pictures in my basement and will wait to post until I can persuade someone to take pictures outside.

Lately a lot of my time has been spent on in-depth research on the French in the Illinois country, as close to my hometown were situated a number of small French settlements along the Mississippi River. I'm particularly interested, of course, in women and clothing, and the notaries were obviously all male and often soldiers, so details about women are far and few between in the documents. There have been a number of fine books written about the area, particularly French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times by Carl J. Ekberg, Kaskaskia Under the French Regime by Natalia Belting, History as They Lived It: A Social History of Prairie Du Rocher, Illinois by Margaret Kimball Brown, and The Village of Chartres in colonial Illinois, 1720-1765 edited by Margaret Kimball Brown and Lawrie Cena Dean.  These are all fantastic, scholarly works that give a great deal of information about French colonial life and customs, but there's not much dedicated to women in particular. I'm going through resources like these and trying to pick out the tidbits. So far I'm finding out women's occupations were apparently limited to housewife (obviously laundry and gardening and food preparation and many other things go with that, but it's still just one occupation), although there is ONE mention of a woman being contracted out as a nursemaid to the child of a wealthy man her husband was working for, as well as doing whatever sewing was needed, which I pounced on hungrily because I'd like to portray something other than a housewife/garden-keeper at the annual fort reenactment.

As far as clothing goes, there's nothing noted in the inventory translations about the style of gown and a very few scattered mentions of's all up for conjecture in my opinion because the inventories I've seen were translated by people who, while I'm sure did their best, probably had very little interest in or knowledge of 18th century fashion. Currently, English translations all say "calico gown," "gown of striped silk," "petticoat," "chemise," "stockings of silk," "embroidered shoes" ...which are fabulous and make me really excited, but I'm extremely hopeful that the originals actually give a little more detail like "robe à la française" or "drap de Indienne" so that I can have definite details when trying to pin down if a style or fabric was even worn here as I make my own clothing. 

Hopefully next week, I can get to a library in another town that has microfilm of the original Kaskaskia documents in French, and while my French is limited, I know an inventory when I see one! It would be a big step in accurate historical historical costuming around here to be able to definitively say "yes, they wore sacque-back gowns" or "yes they wore caracos", both items of clothing prevalent in a European French closet, but as far as here in the Illinois country, not something that's been pinned down. Of course, it's possible that the notaries themselves neglected to give any specifics, but fingers crossed that's not the case!