In Praise Of Eccentricity

In one of my favorite scenes in Bull Durham, Crash Davis upbraids rookie Nuke LaLouche for having filthy shower shoes along these lines:  “When you’re in the Majors, you can have dirty shower shoes and they’ll call you ‘eccentric’.  Until that time, you’re just a slob.”

Nuke’s not alone.  The awful Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, is often called “eccentric” by the fools in the entertainment media;  but what doesn’t show in the photographs is that because she hardly ever showers or uses deodorant, she has body odor that can stop a buffalo.  Ditto Johnny Depp, who seems to confuse his Jack Sparrow character with real life.  Apparently he seldom brushes his teeth,  which means the unfortunate female co-stars who have to kiss him in a love scene should demand danger pay because of his toxic bad breath.

They’re not eccentric;  they’re just slobs.

I love eccentric people — or to be precise, I love people who do eccentric things.  The above two don’t qualify, but the other night I watched a Brit TV series called A Stitch in Time, in which a “fashion historian” gets period clothing made for her by a team of seamstresses so that she can see what is must have been like to wear them.  But the seamstresses don’t make the clothing using modern technology or material;  they make them by hand, using only the tools and materials available at the time.  So, for example, cotton thread has to be run through wax so that it doesn’t fray or come apart, and buttons and such have to be manufactured to be as historically accurate as possible.  (New Wife was astonished that I would not only watch such a show, but enjoy it utterly;  but as I explained to her, I’m a historian, and seeing how clothing was made and worn is as interesting to me as seeing how contemporaneous weapons were made and used.  It’s all history, and I’m quite promiscuous about the topics thereof.)

And they were very ambitious projects.  Here are a couple of the dresses they made:

The Amalfini Portrait

La Chemise De La Reine

What I loved about the show was not just the garments, lovely though they were.  What got to me was that this group of seamstresses has spent literally decades learning how people made clothing in every period of history, not just contenting themselves with the tailoring skills, but learning all about the materials, the dyeing processes and the constraints which faced the tailors and seamstresses of the various eras.

And it wasn’t just them.  At one point, the head seamstress pulled a book off the (very full) shelf, and I caught the title of the book next door to it, entitled something like “Dressing Customs In The Restoration”.  I asked myself:  “Who would be driven to write a book like that?” And there were lots of books on the shelves, in similar vein.

That, my friends, is true eccentricity:  doing something that’s so different, so outside the modern idiom that perhaps only a few people in the whole world have done it, let alone mastered it.

Here’s another example of eccentricity:

A Victorian-obsessed graduate has snubbed the 9-5 life to pursue her dream of living like a 19th century duchess in a country mansion.
Jacqueline Brown, 25, from St. Louis City, Missouri always thought she’d take an office job after university, but decided to pursue her passion for the Victorian era after coming across the opportunity to be the live-in caretaker of a 19th century manor house.
The graphic design graduate, who estimates she has spent over $5,000 on period clothing in the last three years, whiles away her days showing guests around the 1853-built Oakland House and tending to the property’s upkeep.
And her time staying at the house has made Jacqueline re-think her ambitions and she now hopes to move to the home of the Victorians themselves — Britain — to work in a museum devoted to her favorite period in history.

Here she is:

Jacqueline said: ‘Living in a Victorian mansion was never my original career plan, but it has allowed me the opportunity to live my dream.
“I’ve been the caretaker here for just under two years and I don’t want to leave. I’m in love with everything about the Victorian era. The clothing is my favorite thing. I love the shape of the dresses. I love that women were feminine and I love the romance of courtship. I try and dress in a historical way whatever I’m doing and I almost never wear trousers.”

Is this not wonderful, this eccentricity?  Is she not magnificent?

I have often said that if it were possible, I’d like to live as a gentleman in the Edwardian era (1900-1913) in Britain or the U.S., because I like everything about the period:  the manners, the clothing, the way of life, the conservative outlook, everything.  I might not live that life openly — I don’t wear the clothing and so on — but in every other way, I am as obsessed with the period as young Jacqueline is about the Victorians.  I’m not eccentric, at least not truly eccentric.

Compared to the people above, I’m nothing.  But at least I am never a slob.


A Stitch In Time is on Amazon Prime.  And by the way, I always believed that the merchant’s wife in the first painting was pregnant.  She isn’t.  Watch the show to see why.

13 comments

  1. Way back when I was a Civil War re-enactor. An eccentric bunch to be sure. Among that community there were levels of authenticity, some (like me) didn’t care if their blanket was a wool/acrylic blend instead of all-wool as long as it was the correct size and color (all wool was several times the price of the blend). Then there were the folks who achieved a new level of authenticity by getting head lice. Thanks but no thanks.

    A fun activity was the first-person contests, where you’d make up a persona to portray (it could have been a historical person, or could have just been Private John Duncan of the 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers). You’d make up a history for this person (if fictional) or research it (if historical), then answer questions about your persona. The most diabolical question ever? “Who did your wife vote for in 1860?” Correct response was to look at the questioner as if he was nuts, because of course women couldn’t vote in 1860, and of course you’d lose the point if you answered “Women couldn’t vote in 1860” because there’s an implied “yet” in there. (Consider how you’d respond today if someone asked you how your four-year-old child voted).

    It’s easy to romanticize the nice aspects of a bygone era, while forgetting the not-so-nice aspects. It would be nice if we could have the manners, clothing, outlook etc while still having indoor plumbing and antibiotics.

    Oh, as far as “outlook”, one of the things a woman did in the Victorian era as she prepared for childbirth was to lay out her funeral clothes, just in case.

  2. Kim,
    When you mention eccentricity, four names immediately come to mind …
    1) Helena Bonham Carter
    2) Stephen Fry
    3) Heather Renee Sweet, aka Dita von Teese
    4) Jeremy Clarkson

    RE: Dita von Teese … she lives the life of a bygone era, much like your Victorian caretaker. Wears the clothes, has the house / decor, drives the cars, etc. Other than her marriage to Marilyn Manson, which I’m sure you know was disasterous, she definitely embraces her burlesque lifestyle, at least to the public eye …

  3. Back when the wife and I were newly married (1976) she tried out her new sewing machine by making me a Revolutionary War style hunting shirt. That type of clothing was inspired by the Bicentennial. Think Last of the Mohicans for the look. She used a heavy flannel material and it was a warm and very comfortable garment. I remember getting strange looks and questions – mostly positive – about it. After many years of good cooking I finally grew out of the shirt. My hunting shirt wasn’t as elegant as the clothing of the Victorian or Edwardian era but it was different enough to be interesting.

    As I became more of a student of history I noted that the Germans picked up on the design for their reversible summer and winter camouflage jackets just to prove Solomon’s observation that “there’s nothing new under the sun”

    1. I remember the article too. The Regency period was a time of great change in men’s clothing mostly owing to a man named Beau Brummell. Before it was very ornate garments, with knee length pants and knee high stockings combined with powdered wigs. He introduced the full length pantaloons with creases and more subdued colors. Tying one’s necktie became high art.

  4. I have friends who are WW II re-enactors. He goes as a US Army Air Corps Colonel and she goes as a nurse. Both have very historically correct costumes. Unfortunately their little group lost its General Patton to retirement.
    When my mother in law flew over to Cairo for the OSS they lost her luggage for a year. She had to survive with the one dress she flew over in and what she could scrounge from the GIs.

  5. In SASS affiliated gun clubs everyone adopts an Alias and dresses the part of someone from the old west. Most, like me, just do the basics, hat/vest/boots/period shirts & trousers/etc. Some get way into it and have multiple sets of clothing – one match they might come as a post war confederate officer and the next as a saloon gambler, for example.

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