Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Time As An 1860s Widow

This looks like a man is comforting a woman in mourning. But all is not as it seems...
Out of every posting I've published on Passion for the Past (nearly 500), this will be the strangest for me. And in all honesty, I'm not sure what everyone will think of it.
Or what they'll think of me after reading it.
Will some be offended?
Will I have my "man-card" pulled?
I make these statements and ask these questions because I did something very brave recently.
Probably a lot braver than most (if not all) of my male readers:
I got dressed up in full 1860s women's wear for Hallowe'en this year.
I actually did it twice - for around six hours the first time and over 8 hours the second. 
I don't usually dress up for Hallowe'en very often, except for last year when I dressed as a sinister Victorian man. In years past, my wife and I used to dress in costume quite a bit. We dressed as leprechauns while we were still dating all those years ago. Another year I dressed as a heavy metal "bitch" and she was Paula Abdul, and the following year we were Santa and Mrs. Claus (we love Christmas so we thought we'd mix the two holidays). We dressed in Renaissance costumes in the late 1990's. Of course, we were Civil War people after we became reenactors, and one year I was even the Grim Reaper!
Anyhow, a few weeks back someone mentioned that I should dress up as an 1860s woman to see what it's like and what the reenacting women go through for this hobby of ours.  
And the time of death was...
Understand, this time of year (late October - Hallowe'en) is a good time to do something like this because *most* people don't think twice about it. I say most people because there are those who will make really stupid comments about being a crossdresser (I'm not), or being gay (again, I'm not - and gays don't usually crossdress anyhow!), or one of a myriad of other 21st century societal "syndromes."
It's just Ken being Ken, experiencing history, just like when I plowed behind horses a few weeks back or when I do my immersion events. Taking it all in.
And having fun, too.
Anyhow, it was decided that I wouldn't be dressed in just any women's wear, however: it would be 1860's widow's mourning clothing. I'm not a hundred percent sure on why that style was chosen - probably because it would be easy to hide my face with the veil from folks seeing me in women's clothing!
But the idea was intriguing.  
And actually sounded like fun! 
And perfect for Hallowe'en.
I did it all accurately and authentically, for I don't do things half way, as you probably have guessed, no matter what role I play.
Now, have I mentioned that I am part of the greatest group of Civil War civilians ever?
And one of these wonderful living historians, Kristen Mrozek (who you may recognize as portraying my daughter during our immersion events AND who just so happens to host her own awesome blog: The Victorian Needle), helped my transformation. Kristen, being an accomplished seamstress, has a nice selection of reenacting clothing, including a mourning dress and accessories, and since she is also pretty much the same size as me, as far as male/female comparison goes, she willingly loaned me her dress. 
Here is Kristen. Or is it me?'s really Kristen. But please be respectful, for she is in mourning...

I must admit, it was a bit disconcerting for me to stand in front of my friend in a corset, corded petticoat, then the dress and bonnet during the fitting. I felt very uncomfortable. Actually, kinda foolish. Kristen, however, likes to remind me that it was fun for her, especially upon realizing that she needed to tighten the corset about two more inches from the size it was for the dress to fit me properly, and she enjoyed seeing the look on my face as she cinched it tighter.
Embarrassment left as I learned to take shorter breaths.
As you can tell by my determination, I was going to do this widow thing right because chances are, once the Hallowe'en celebrations ended, I will not be experiencing being dressed in this manner again. As my wife said to me upon dressing me for my first night out, "If you're going to experience it, then you're going to experience it the right way," and proceeded to put me in layer after layer of her underpinnings: split drawers, chemise, cage, the various over and under petticoats, corset, stockings, and then finally Kristen's black mourning dress.
I had luck with shoes, too, for there happened to be a pair of women's boots that looked very period correct sitting for weeks in the lost and found box at my wife's work, and she brought them home thinking they might fit our daughter. They didn't. Not even close. But they fit me perfectly.
Then there's the bonnet with the black mourning veil attached.  
Add to that a black brooch and two dull black bracelets - one for each wrist - more stuff borrowed from Kristen. 
I was complete!
Please allow me to give a very quick overview of 1860s mourning practices to understand why widows dressed in this way:
Mourning pertaining to women was in three stages: deep mourning, second mourning, and half mourning. 
Deep mourning, which is what I portrayed, was the first stage of mourning for a woman, and it immediately followed the death of a husband or child. Mourning clothes were expected to be plain with little or no adornment. A woman while in deep mourning would wear all black clothing and jewelry, including, while out in public, gloves and a black veil over her face. Hats were not to be worn for mourning; bonnets covered in crape would replace them. She would not speak with anyone but her family or closest friends. She would not attend parties or gatherings and would basically seclude herself from the public in general. She would stay in this deep mourning for at least a year and a day, and sometimes longer, and there are instances where some women would never leave this stage. 
For a man, mourning was quite different. Men were needed to take care of the family and the business, therefore he was needed to return to his occupation as soon as the deceased was buried.
A male's mourning garb was his best (dark) suit with a weeper (made of crape) wrapped around the hatband of his hat. Although there are some differences of opinions, most agree that men also wore a black armband. A man might wear a black cockade on his lapel as well.
Once a widower's wife was buried, he may look for a new wife soon after - especially if he had young children at home or if she died giving birth to a living child. 

It took my wife nearly a half hour to get me dressed - yep, I don't think I'll be complaining as much at future reenactment when I ask her if "she's ready yet." 
There's a lot to women's period clothing that, I suppose, unless you experience first hand you don't fully realize.
This is me looking like Kristen. Yes, it really is me inside all that clothing, including Kristen's dress and veil. Can you see the resemblance from the picture above this one?
Kristen certainly could: "Oh my gosh I thought you just sent a picture of me!
I just had an existential crisis Ken! 
Also, you look very good!"
Kristen was very interested in my thoughts and in my reaction to the clothing and underpinnings I was wearing as well as my position as a widow.
She told me I should post in my blog about my experience, but I balked. I mean, what am I going to say, that I wore women's clothing for Hallowe'en?
Plus I'd hate for people to get the wrong idea about me, you know? (Remember my 'man-card'? I treasure that!)
But she responded that she felt it would be a good historical perspective: a guy as a woman of the 1860s. She said she was "totally wondering if you were going to have issues with the corset, or if the skirts would drive you crazy. Not that I would *wish* those issues on you, but it's nice to hear a male appreciate all of the hard work that goes into the female impression."
So, here we are:
Once I was dressed, the first thing that hit me as I waited for my daughter to finish putting on her belly-dancer costume was that I really couldn't do much while I was dressed in the way I was. 

One of the comments I received after posting this photo: "I love this picture. Elegant and a little creepy at the same time."
First of all, I could not maneuver very well. Okay, I will state here and now that, yes, I made fun of my wife about not being able to move about so easily because of her big skirts. I don't know if I'll do that anymore. 
But then again, now that I've been in her um...corset, maybe I will - I suppose I'm allowed to since I experienced it first-hand, right?
I also felt...constricted---is that the word I'm looking for? For instance, aside from not being able to move about easily in wide skirts, Patty had to show me how to sit while wearing a cage. And then, due to wearing the corset, I was forced to sit up straight, which I'm not used to. I usually just plop down.
Uh uh, plopping dressed like this!
Plus having a bonnet upon my head with its ribbons tied under my neck was, shall we say, very bothersome and not at all to my liking.
Going to the bathroom was an entirely different ball of wax, but the split drawers worked perfectly! Much better than unbuttoning all of those buttons on my period men's drawers, that's for sure. But just what am I supposed to do with all of those skirts?
Now, this may sound really ridiculous, but...well, I didn't "go" in a public bathroom. Seriously. I could not bring myself to enter a men's room dressed like that. I'm sure the men would have felt a bit disconcerting with me in there in that manner, and I certainly wouldn't feel like I should be in there, as crazy as that sounds.
And I am certainly not allowed inside the lady's room no matter what I'm wearing.
No...I felt it best to just "hold it" until I could use a private rest room.
Whew! That's tough! Too bad I didn't have a bourdaloue. That actually could have worked!
Then there's driving. Thank God for my wife's experience! She showed me how to get into our van and get out while wearing a cage. I'm so glad it was night time!
My first time out dressed in this manner was at the Hallowe'en event at Greenfield Village, where we met up with friends Carrie and Ian, a young couple (recently married!) who are also part of the 21st Michigan. Carrie, like Kristen, plays a role in our immersion events, but instead of being my daughter she becomes our domestic servant.  
That's me barely seen wearing widow's weeds
One of the funniest moments occurred right from the get-go when Carrie walked up and saw me with my veil down hiding my face - she started to laugh and said I looked like Kristen!
I suppose this should be taken as a compliment - it means I passed the test! Ha! Carrie also commented that I now had a waist - corsets will do that to you, you know. 
We decided a couple days previous that we would make this experience a fun one and play it up a bit, so this night at Greenfield Village Carrie became my dead husband come to life. Yes, she wore her own husband's Union blue military uniform.
I was now the Widow Graber.
Have you ever walked around in the dark with a veil covering your face? No? Well, until this night, neither had I. I literally had to hold onto Carrie's arm as we strolled through the village because I could only see faint glowing light and a few shadows here and there. I couldn't leave the veil up - I tried but the weight of it kept pulling the bonnet off the back of my head (I don't have much hair for the bobbi pins to grab onto).
The Widow Graber and her deceased husband pose in a very disturbing area at the covered bridge
We had great fun, though it was very respectable in nature, for I did not want to offend anyone past or present, and I made sure I treated the clothing I was wearing with the respect it deserved. We did pose for photographs in different locations throughout the Village, and there were numerous patrons who asked to pose with me as well. They had no idea I was a guy so, rather than ruin the effect, I didn't speak but only nodded my head.
Ian captured one of the people having their picture taken with me.
But that night at Greenfield Village wasn't the only time I was transformed into this feminine nature.
The following Friday - Hallowe'en night - I, once again, donned the same widows weeds, and a group of us traveled to Romeo to enjoy the wonderfully horror-filled decorations on Tillson Street.
The weather outside was frightful, but, unfortunately, not frightful in a Hallowe'en way: we had rain, sleet, and then snow, along with 30mph winds.
But we're all real troopers and did Tillson Street no matter the weather.
Then it was off to eat!
I was hoping to get some really good shots here, but, it was just too doggone cold and wet to take pictures as we moved among the crowded Hallowe'en streets of Romeo. Wouldn't you know, the only picture taken was by another 21st Michigan member, Larissa, and it was of me:
Wearing my wife's paletot over Kristen's dress
We were at the local Big Boy restaurant here. I'm wearing my wife's paletot because it was so bitter cold outside. Yes, it kept me very warm!
That's the veil on top of my bonnet-clad head.
Which leads me to the next subject: eating in a corset.
I learned a hard lesson about corsets: you don't get to eat as much while wearing one.
I don't go out to eat very much anymore, so when I do I enjoy it as much as I can and eat my favorite meals. So I ordered up a Big Boy hamburger combo meal with fries and a drink. I can easily put one away and still be hungry enough to eat the extra fries off of my wife's plate.
Not this night.
I could barely finish three quarters of my burger and only half my fries and drink. I mean I forced myself to eat as much as I did because I knew how much I could actually eat, plus I love Big Boy burgers. Another 21st Michigan member, Beckie, giggled at me and warned me that I had better stop, that corsets restrict food intake. 
Yep, I felt so "bloated" that if I ate another bite it would not have been a pretty sight. I asked if she could maybe loosen the strings of the corset. She gave me such a look and said, "No! You can't do that! The dress won't fit you then! Suck it up, Buttercup!"
So being forced to eat less while in a corset is not a myth...believe me, I was frustrated!
Well...after hearing of this another comment made from one who saw my photos welcomed me into the "corset clan."
I'm honored...I think!
Oh! And I almost found out the hard way about the importance of lifting your skirts while going up or down anything such as stairs, a small hill, or...
Wearing 1860s women's clothing can really be trying!

Here I am, at the cemetery Greenfield Village put together for their Hallowe'en event. They did a really good job here.
I would, at this point, like to present a little something Kristen wrote for me to include in this week's posting:
Having known Ken for almost 5 years, I was surprised when he inquired as to the use of my mourning attire. Occasionally I wear my widow’s weeds to events with the complete veil and gloves. What purpose could my weepy black clothing serve?
For those of you who read Ken’s blog, you know the intense interest he has in the 18th and 19th centuries. With a specific focus on civilian life, Ken’s dedication to history curls its tendrils into everything, from farming equipment to Christmas celebrations. He spends hours meticulously researching his blog posts with the joy that they will educate others too. Such a passion has not gone unnoticed, as his work has been featured in numerous reenactor magazines. He is a well-respected member of the reenacting community.
That is why I understood Ken’s use of my clothing - to recognize the 19th century in yet another context. I think to the many women who don (military) uniforms at events, and how the act adds a dimension to their experience of reenacting. I recall all of the times that I complained to my male reenactor friends that they could not fully comprehend the depth of nine layers. Most would laugh and agree that the corset was a bit more than they could handle, even considering their wool in the summer.
I appreciated Ken’s foray into the lady’s perspective, and could not hold back my questions when we discussed it afterwards. My first: “Did the corset hurt?” to which he replied “No.” He had fun playing the weeping widow, with our friend Carrie dressed as a soldier to complete the switch. His face hidden, he was considered a woman by all who saw him and thus treated differently in ways that he could not have guessed in advance.
Gender and its implications are a large part of understanding the 19th century. It dictates everything, from clothing to life’s purpose. As reenactors we should attempt to understand as much as possible for our own education. Sometimes it takes walking in another person’s corset to gain that point of view.

I mentioned to Kristen that one of my concerns was people thinking I was making light of such a serious part of history. Kristen wrote, "I love it Ken. I don't think you were making fun of mourning in the least. In fact, it does bring up the differences of the gender mourning, and how men were not able to mourn as deeply as their female counterparts. A bit of crepe around the arm and in the hat degrades their feelings a bit, methinks."  
With a little trickery, I added a ghostly Carrie, portraying my deceased husband, "comforting" me as I mourn at the cemetery where "he" is buried.
 First, I am honored for her 'review' of Passion for the Past. That means so much to me personally to hear such compliments from a great living historian and a wonderful blogster.
And she's right, you know, about men not having the opportunity to mourn as they should have been allowed. Of course, there were reasons for this as stated earlier (also click HERE for my more extensive post on 19th century mourning practices), but it still was not right for the man to be expected to "get over it" so quickly as if only a woman could feel love and the pain of loss.
Yes, as Kristen so eloquently stated, it truly did "degrade (men's) feelings a bit." 
Reverse sexism, I suppose.
So, I suppose in that respect, I learned something even more than I expected, didn't I?

One of the best things about this experience is that I've had some very positive comments from my living history friends, especially this one from Jenna: 
"I think you did marvelous!!! What a change!
She got you in the corset too??? Cause now you know what we all go thru!
I love it! You have a new appreciation for what we all go thru! That's awesome!!!! And from the pictures, you did great!
It's an adventure to be in the 1860's women's garments, that's for sure. Always a challenge and one that well, I always look forward to. You did a VERY respectful job, as I would not have known it was you had you not said something. So you did it right, and you did it justice! Keep up the good work. It's also the main reason that I NEVER dress as a man, as I would not be able to do the female soldier bit with justice at all. I'm too 'woman' do get away with it. 
I was telling my husband about what you did here and the time and energy you put into it, and he said NO ONE can take away your "man card" for doing something so well researched. You're good! LOL!!!
Enjoy your time in 'our shoes'! I believe you deserve a round of applause for this!"
So here are my thoughts on this interesting take history? Reenacting? Hallowe'en fun? 
Probably a little of all three.
I have to say it was a true learning experience for me. As Larissa wrote: “I think this will add to your living history experiences. You can relate to what the women went through!” 
Most of my female friends have stated this as well. I guess that, yes, in a small way, I suppose I can relate. To be honest, I found it impossible to make any attempt at all to be "masculine" dressed that way.
And it was very interesting, I must say, especially in the kind and respectful way I was treated by others who were blissfully unaware it was a man behind the fabric.
I know there will be guys (and some women) out there who will, for some reason, think less of me for doing this.
There may be some who will take offense to what I did.
If it does, then, I suppose an apology should be in order but, no offense, I don't feel I should have to; I got the approval from very close women living historian friends who have a passion for history and this hobby as much as I do. And Kristen's statement pretty much says it all. As I stated above, it was done in a respectful manner, just as the female who dresses in military garb does.
And this was probably a one, two shot deal. 
I highly doubt I'll do this again.
But never say never and never say always.
See you next time.

I must say, this has been a very popular post. I can't believe the accolades and cries of braveries and hurrah's from so many who have read this posting. Actually, it was all women who gave me the enthusiastic pats on the back - - I'm sure men don't quite know what to say (LOL).
And because of all the wonderful comments (mostly on Facebook), my fears in posting this have been waylaid.
Thank you.



  1. Wow Ken, dressed in mourning you did look just like the photo of Kristen. I admire your passion for the past and respect the fact that you would want and need to see what it was like to be a widow in mourning so you can talk about it to others. Halloween was a good time to decide to do so too.
    Thanks for sharing your experience with us and Happy November.

  2. I wrote the following status update on my Facebook page on Hallowe’en night:
    “So...for Halloween this year I did something braver than most men I know -
    I dressed up as an 1860s widow.
    Unless I told you, you didn't know that was me in all the pictures I've been posting, did you?

    Emily: That was YOU????!!? WOW! I thought it was Carrie Graber!

    Carrie Graber Kushnir: Apparently, Ian and I wear the same size pants... The pictures look great! I was pretty stoked to be a soldier, if only for one night.

    April - Love the picture. Love the story better!

    Karen B. - This is Awesome Ken , you look great !!

    Denise - Very authentic "widow" and welcome to the corset clan (at least for a little while)!

    Karen A. - While not a fan of Halloween it did give you this opportunity to experience something that not even all that many lady reeanactors do that of deep mourning, and to do it well and respectfully. It was fun to actually read and see the pictures after having Jenna tell us about it last night. Keep up the good work you're an inspiration to us all.

    ~Thanks for the great comments everyone. I do appreciate it!~

  3. I love this! I always say there is plenty of commentary on the women who want to dress as soldiers. I always wonder why no one minds the men who dress as women. :D

  4. Here's another very nice comment, this time from Chelle -
    I finally got a chance to sit down and actually read this- rather than skim it. I have a couple of observations:
    - I love your voice. It carries very well and I love that you infuse humor into your experience.
    - What a neat concept- role reversal. That made me think as I was reading over your experience.
    - Least importantly, the photos of your home...I love your floors. They are just beautiful.
    - This quote: Kristen wrote, "I love it Ken. I don't think you were making fun of mourning in the least. In fact, it does bring up the differences of the gender mourning, and how men were not able to mourn as deeply as their female counterparts. A bit of crepe around the arm and in the hat degrades their feelings a bit, methinks." I feel this is actually the best representative of how we marginalize men's emotions so much in history. The 'embrace the suck' mentality. I am just thankful you presented this because, in modern day society, I do believe this type of thinking is being thrust into the mainstream for both genders.

    So, from a mourning mama and a human being in general- well done.

  5. Here's another wonderful comment from Chelle, of which I am honored to present here:

    "I think that what you did is more important than you may realize. I have struggled being an undergrad Lit major in some of my classes because I actually feel that men- throughout history- aren't given enough credit for the struggles they had...I remember specifically having a professor talk me down when I explained that I didn't think that it was fair to ignore men's emotional plights in a 19th Century Brit Lit courses. She told me that men had it pretty good and if they had a little hardship here and there, they deserved it. I thought that was a pretty...callous and counterproductive stance, honestly. But it wasn't the last time that happened. So. Yes, women were repressed. A lot. But men were as well- from a gender, economic, and societal perspective to be sure. So why not expose that gender inhibited emotional freedoms? I think that's important and I've already shared your writing with several of my professor friends who teach....19th Century British and American Literature and would call themselves feminists. I'm curious to hear their reactions. They are very complex thinkers, so I think this may be a good door to open this discussion further in academia."

    Wow---again, I am honored. Thank you.