Using and Moving In, By, Around… Material Culture & Space – GVGK Tang

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“Waiters from Call Her Savage, 1932” GIPHY. Accessed February 17, 2019.

As discussed in last week’s post, I’m interested in the gendering and sexing of material culture. However, beyond twentieth- and twenty-first-century marketing and commodification, how has this process worked? How can the shape, movement and utility embodied by an object itself suggest gender and sexuality?

As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich illustrates in “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts” in American Furniture (edited by Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley) – “to a twentieth-century eye, the graceful curves of a cabriole chair leg might appear ‘feminine,’ a massive chest with stubby bracket feet, ‘masculine.’ In the colonial world, the gender attributions were probably reversed. In both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a well-formed leg was one of the defining attributes of an upper-class male” (47). In other words, because constructs of gender and sexuality are fluid, subject to change, and vary throughout time and place, material culture (much like other primary sources) cannot be read through a presentist lens – or a Eurocentric one, for that matter. The elements of a single item – its materials, composition, production and consumption – can be and have been gendered and sexed in a variety of contexts.

For example, Ulrich quotes Claudia Kidwell in “Gender Symbols or Fashionable Details?” (126), her description of a green- and yellow-clad individual with “sloping shoulders, a padded chest, and a narrow, cinched waist … flared over the hips into a full skirt” – that of a woman’s dress or a man’s coat. In turn, Ulrichs argues that “an ‘hourglass’ figure, then, is not an eternally feminine symbol, nor do ruffles, flowered fabrics, or satins belong exclusively to women” (42). If shapes, textures, colors or patterns (through sight and touch) can be arbitrarily assigned gender and sexuality in a vacuum, how are they experienced in a given space? Particularly, how are they lived or embodied – through taste, sound or movement?
Ulrich claims that “gender codes are best conveyed in action” (51). Posture, gesture, stride, rest and reaction are the means through which sexuality and gender expression/presentation can be conveyed through movement – or, are motions to which sexuality and gender can be ascribed. Therefore, how does material culture like furniture suggest motion – what is expected of users, what uses the object contains, how users’ motions are influenced by its presence in a space, etc.? Indeed, material culture is relational. What items are present in the same space, nearest each other, or used in tandem?As Kenneth Ames outlines in Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, how food and its consumption was conceived of by middle- and upper-class Victorian families is evinced in nineteenth-century dining room furniture (44). Everything from sensuality and pleasure derived from eating, to the elaborate etiquette and violent customs associated with meal preparation are illustrated in the crafting of statuary and carvings (68). The contrast between “masculine” sideboards – depicting the trappings of manhood through hunting elements and wild animals (73-74) – and “feminine” conceptions of mealtime – a women-led ritual of service, intimacy and abundance (88) – cast the dining room as a site of gendered power dynamics and sexual tension.Given the construction of material culture, its arrangement in a given space –  how are people associated with it, how do their bodies navigate or use it, and how is it a reflection of their lives and contexts? For example, as Dayna M. Pilgrim observes in “Masters of a Craft: Philadelphia’s Black Public Waiters, 1820-50,” foodways scholars neglect the connection between eating culture and service work, women’s history scholars focus domestic labor among immigrant and native-born whites, and material culture scholars emphasize bourgeoisie experience and aesthetics in a static setting. Instead, Pilgrim’s interdisciplinary research examines the experiences of Black male public waiters in dining spaces (271). Rules of behavior extended to all five senses and “shaped the performance that both diners and service staff enacted” in a space ridden with bourgeoisie material culture (277). The aesthetics of a waiter’s costume, the quiet movement of his shoes, the calm confidence of his mannerisms and handling of utensils, near soundlessness and avoidance of touch each symbolized race, class and gender dynamics. The social and cultural expectations of the context were demonstrated through the uses of material culture, as well as its embodiment.

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