This week I was speaking at the Social History Society conference in Lancaster. Kathleen, Laura and myself had organised a panel for the ‘Inner Lives’ project, entitled ‘Selfhood and the Supernatural’, and while Kathleen spoke about rabies in the medieval world and Laura gave a paper on Lutheran witch-trials, I was talking about concealed garments as apotropaic devices and ‘distributed personhood’. A summary of the whole panel should appear on the Inner Lives blog shortly, but for now I’ll give a brief overview of my paper.
I started my paper with a quiz, showing images of characters from TV and films, with their faces cropped out so leaving only their clothes. I asked the audience to identify them; they got 7 out of 7 right.
I used this to demonstrate how items of clothing often become synonymous with their wearers. Garments come to represent people, to the extent that we automatically know who is being depicted when we see a tweed deerstalker hat or a pair of ruby-red slippers. The garment and the wearer become intertwined, and this phenomenon was described by anthropologist Alfred Gell as ‘the objectification of personhood’.
However, as I argue in my paper, this connection between wearer and garment has been used by more than TV, film, etc. – it was also, I believe, used in rituals of protection.
Concealed garments, which range from hats bricked into walls, trousers concealed in roof voids, and shoes hidden up chimneybreasts, are a widespread phenomenon in Britain. Dinah Eastop has been cataloguing them for some years now on her Deliberately Concealed Garments Project website. Such garments are often found secreted away in the most vulnerable areas of a house: the areas that are most likely to admit malevolent supernatural forces, from witches to fairies.
Why did people in the 18th and 19th centuries stopper these access-points with items of clothing? Timothy Easton proposed that the garments are meant to act as supernatural ‘lightning conductors’, luring the evil forces away. The evil force sees the concealed garment and thinks that it’s a member of the household, attacking the item of clothing instead. In the case of the concealed shoe, it could become trapped inside it.
Another theory is that items of clothing are imbued with the essence, the power, of their past wearers, and so have the strength to repel evil forces. Take this example from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s 19th-century work The Science of Fairy Tales:
“It appears to be enough to lay over the infant, or on the bed beside the mother, a portion of the father’s clothes. A shepherd’s wife living near Selkirk was lying in bed one day with her new-born boy at her side, when she heard a sound of talking and laughter in the room. Suspecting what turned out to be the case, she seized in great alarm her husband’s waistcoat, which was lying at the foot of the bed, and flung it over herself and the child. The fairies, for it was they who were the cause of the noise, set up a loud scream…The suggestion seems to be that the sight of the father’s clothes leads “the good people” [i.e. the fairies] to think that he himself is present watching over his offspring.” (1891: 98).
This is an example of what Gell terms ‘distributed personhood’. When garment and wearer are intertwined, the separation of the two leads the garment to become a detached part – a ‘spin off’ – of the person. So when somebody conceals an item of their clothing, they are in fact concealing a part of themselves, filling those vulnerable voids and stoppering those access points with parts of their own protective power.