Sunday, February 5, 2012

Tom Fool Fashion, c 1829

Sunday, February 5, 2012
Susan reporting:

There's an interesting discussion among people who study and preserve clothing from the past: should it be called "costume"? Costume has a certain masquerade feel to it, and to modern American ears, an "early 19th c sailor's costume" is always going to sound more like something from Halloween Adventure than Nelson's navy. On the other hand, who's going to argue with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's esteemed Costume Institute?

But there's absolutely no question that the clothing, left, is A Costume. (Click on the image to enlarge it for details.) The accompanying caption explains its purpose:

"In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British mummers dressed in fantastic modes to perform plays and dances at annual festivals, especially around Christmas. The antic revelry and gentle mischief-making of the clowns, or Toms, encouraged donations from amused spectators and gave working-class men the chance to act out. This mummer's costume is covered with playful appliques including devils carrying pitchforks and, on the back of the hat, the date and initials TF – probably signifying Tom Fool."

This costume takes minimally tailored clothing and embellishes it into something special.  I love the graphic impact of the colors and the detailed appliques (representing skillful hand stitching) as well as the seaming details and fringes.  For a garment that's meant to be humorous with a touch of menace, it's really quite stylish.

Above: Mummers Costume, 1829. Natural linen plain weave with appliques in fulled wool plain weave; wool fringe, cotton fringe, metallic lace, wool braid and tassel. Possibly made in Yorkshire, England. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.


Historical Ken said...

Interesting, ahem, *costume*
I am a fervent believer that what I wear at a living history event or at a reenactment is not a costume but period clothing. No velcro, snaps, or ties. When we see photos of what our ancestors, we don't say "Look at the costumes they used to wear!" We, instead, say, "Look at the clothing they wore."
Anyhow, that's my two cents, for what it's worth. you've given me an idea for a posting on my own blog (
Great blog, by the way...

Anonymous said...

So this is where "Tom Foolery" comes from. Now I need to google Tom Fool and I'm all set. At least I know what he wore!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Fascinating, as usual. But, "British mummers dressed in fantastic modes to perform plays and dances at annual festivals, especially around Christmas"? In some places in England, this still happens. It certainly does in the town where I live. Such performances are, it is true, conscious revivals, but they still involve local people (not professional actors) dressing up in traditional costumes performing plays and fooling around.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Historical Ken, I'm in complete agreement. Clothes of the past should be regarded as clothes, not costumes!

Anonymous, I just hope all Tom Fools were this stylishly dressed.

Philip, I agree - the mummer tradition is still alive and well, and appears to be a great deal of fun. Here in Philadelphia, mummers have taken the tradition in a whole different direction. Some of the elements are the same - most of the participants are working class, largely creating their own costumes, and the biggest public performance is the New Years Day parade - but the gaudy exuberance gets pretty over-the-top. Take a look at these pictures from this year's parade:

Philip Wilkinson said...

Susan: Thanks so much for the link. Wonderful to see how these matters are ordered in Philadelphia. Here everything is on a very much smaller scale - but then we're talking about towns with maybe a couple of thousand people, so having, say, 6 or 8 mummers doesn't seem so bad! In our town the participants are quite middle class (one was a professor of my acquaintance) although in other places, where the revival has gone on longer, the classes seem to come together in a rather refreshing way.

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