I started to learn Japanese a couple months ago. It has always been something I wanted to do, but I had never really had the motivation until now. I have always wanted to travel to Japan and that is one of my main goals in studying the language (it is also something to look forward too once the COVID pandemic has died down). I believe it is really important to learn at least some parts of the language and culture of the place you want to travel to. It will enrich the overall experience.
One important part of studying Japanese is familiarizing oneself with the writing system. A combination of three different systems are used: hiragana, katakana and kanji. I wanted to know more about why three systems were used, so I began to research. To my surprise, I actually discovered a very interesting piece of women’s history.
To give a brief overview of the three types of writing systems (note: I am not an expert as I am still learning myself). Kanji developed first and is adapted from Chinese characters. These symbols are used to represent entire words. Hiragana and Katakana use characters to represent the 46 sounds used to make up Japanese words. Each character is a syllable.
As stated above, Kanji was the first writing form to be developed. In medieval Japan, only elite male members of the imperial court could use this form of writing. All official documents were written in Kanji and (like most places in the world at the time) politics was the domain of men. Women were not allowed an education in writing as they did not belong in the public sphere. Based on the standards of the era, women would never have a place in the government of their country. Without the ability to write, there was no way for women of medieval Japan to express themselves. Yet, the women of the Japanese court were innovators.
The women developed onnade (“Women’s Writing”) which was an early form of the modern kana (hiragana, katakana). The origin of this name was obvious as it was very popular for women to use this writing system. They used onnade to express themselves through poetry, letters/personal correspondence, and literature. There were many female novelists who came from this era. The most famous was Lady Murasaki Shikibu. She wrote The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century (which has been considered the world’s first novel). Lady Murasaki was an imperial lady-in-waiting and a noblewoman who used the onnade to compose this work. The Tale of Genji centers around a charismatic fallen prince and recounts his adventures ( and lovers). Besides Lady Murasaki, there were many talented women in the court around the same time such as Sei Shonagon, Izumi Shikibu, and Akazome Emon. All of the women during this period took something (writing, in this case) that had been taken away from them and made it their own. They created art and spread ideas around the court.
Naturally, this writing system was looked down upon by the male members of the court. Those who were part of the education system and those of society’s elite felt that the only the Kanji they used on official documents meant anything. Yet, eventually, the kana became more popular as it was easier and filled in the gaps of the language that Kanji left out. This was especially important for male novelists as the centuries went on. Japanese women of the medieval period took action to form their own ways of communication. They filled in any gaps that their lack of education produced. .
It was not only in Japan that women helped to influence the development of language/writing. Women in the west also had a hand in developing their local vernaculars. In medieval Europe, Latin was the language of the church and other official documents. As the fad of courtly romance rose, many noble women began to commission books written in the “common” tongue (not Latin) as it was easier for them and a wider range of the population to understand. This even included a famous women’s health text that was translated into many “common” tongues (English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, etc) , so more women could better educate themselves about their body and reproductive health. This was titled “The Trotula”.
As I learned more about how the Japanese writing systems were developed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that women actually developed many of the writing systems that are used today. In 1900, an official writing system was established in Japan using hiragana, katakana and kanji. This is what is seen today. Based on my research, it seems that the original hiragana had many more symbols, but the amount was reduced to help create a more streamlined system. These stories fascinate me as it shows that even though women were denied the education they deserved, and were blocked from exchanging ideas through the written word, they became innovators and developed their own way of communication. They did not need to follow the “status quo” had already been set out for them.
While doing research for my series on the suffragist movement in the United States, I came across a very interesting trend that was briefly popular during the mid-19th century. Elizabeth Smith Miller debuted the “Bloomer” costume in 1851 . Miller was working in her garden and became irritated when her long and heavy skirts got in the way of her work. As she was now thoroughly fed up, she decided to take a pair of scissors and cut the skirt to a shorter version. Underneath the skirt, she would wear a wide pair of trousers which allowed her more comfort and freedom to complete her tasks. This outfit soon became a hit among the early feminists in the budding suffragist/women’s right movement. This new fashion trend pushed the boundaries of the feminine norms of society (despite being short lived) and it is easy to see why it became popular with suffragists. The Bloomer walked so future fashion trends of the 20th century could run. I really have never looked deeply into fashion history before, but it is fascinating how through this mode of art/expression women were able to convey what they wanted and resisted against societal norms.
Elizabeth Smith Miller wore her new outfit when she went to the Seneca Falls Convention and met up with her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton loved the look and others at the convention soon began to take notice as well. Most importantly, Amelia Bloomer (where the fashion trend took its name from) , who was the editor and writer of The Lily. The newspaper was dedicated to the women’s rights and temperance movements and was run completely by women. After meeting Miller, Bloomer began to write about how impressed she was by the invention and how she had adopted the style. She printed descriptions and instructions on how others could make the Bloomer. Eventually, the media was calling the style the “Bloomer Dress”, which shows how much influence she had on the trend.
There was an article written in The Lily (by an anonymous writer) that was titled, “Do Women Ever Do Any Hard Work? (1854):
“Go into the towns, and you will see them serving customers in all kinds of stores- attending to, working at, and carrying on all kinds of trades, sorting and packing up all sorts of goods in factories and warehouses; they do all kinds of weaving, dyeing, knitting, spinning, and sewing of all kinds of articles in use; they work at the shoe trade, and not a hat made but they have a hand at it; some you will find, keep Post offices, teach school, and preach the gospel; others employ their time in doctoring, nursing, and attending on the sick; some you will find in Bake-houses, making bread and various other things made in such places; and in butcher’s shops I have seen them cut up carcasses equal to men, and for Barbers they can’t be beat. Others go out washing clothes, and brewing beer all day long, and which are very different operations to anything you see done here; besides a great many of them have to attend to their own house affairs as well; so that woman’s work is said to be never done; and now tell me. if you don’t work hard, who does?”
I quoted this article because most women during the 19th century did not sit around doing nothing all day. They did work and, if not in a workplace, it was at home. They had to raise children, run a household, do chores, etc. The clothing of the era was modest, heavy, and restrictive. The aim of women’s dress during this era was to accent their curves, but, as a result, comfort was forgotten. Women wore many layers of clothing. The first layer a bloomer, then a chemise, followed by the tight corset, a camisole to cover the corset, a petticoat, a large and awkward hoop skirt, the over petticoat and then, lastly, the blouse/bodice and skirt. As you can see, it would take very long to get dressed in the mid-1800s and, not to mention, difficult to move. After so many layers, a tight corset, and a hoop skirt it would be difficult to complete any task. Imagine attempting to sit down or bend over in a hoop skirt or walk up stairs with layers of skirts at your ankles. It made any physical activities difficult such as bike riding, gardening, and hiking. Not only was the clothing restrictive physically, but also restricted what activities women could participate in.
The Bloomer, naturally, was an attractive option. The allowed more comfort, the ability to move more freely and participate in more activities. It also was a healthier option as the heavy use of corsets was not the best for the body. Part of the advertisement of the day was that it was good for women’s health.
The trend also was a statement. Women in trousers was unheard of and challenged the feminine norms of the time. It proved that women wanted more opportunities. Society had women trapped under the constricting social norms, no room for advancement outside of the house, and even trapped them in the acceptable clothing of the time.
In the end, the Bloomer phase was very popular with young bicyclists (especially in Europe) and early feminists, but the majority of women were not ready to take these steps. The media and public opinion made this difficult. The women who participated in the fashion statement were ridiculed and harassed. They were considered unfeminine and were viewed as resisting their own gender roles. They received so much backlash that within a few years many of the pioneers (Bloomer, Stanton, etc.) actually went back to the original style of long dresses. They did this, not because they had given up, but knew it was a distraction affecting the larger cause (votes for women, women’s rights to education and employment, etc.). Yet, Bloomers still made an important impact as fashion continued to be used to reflect a new type of woman throughout the 20th century.
In 1926, Coco Chanel came out with the original “little black dress”. Prior to the 20s, the color black was for mourning, so typically your everyday clothing would not contain this. Not only was the color different, but the style. It was very simplistic, it was short, yet elegant. It was also made for a majority of women to afford. It directly contrasted with the tight, restrictive, and over the top clothing from the prior century. The bobbed haircut was also paired with the new, liberating clothing style. It was another way to send a rebellious message. Women were ready to move past what society expected of them and take on their own destiny. At the time, despite its popularity, the bobbed hair was controversial. It was banned at certain establishments, like some schools, and highlighted as masculine in the media. It was paired with the image of an immoral woman.
In the 1920s/1930s, Chanel also designed the iconic tweed suit. She took inspiration from menswear and sportswear and then added a feminine twist. It was comfortable, but also gave a powerful look to the women who wore it. The style is still popular today. Women were beginning to take on new roles in the workforce and that was especially evident during World War II.
During the 1940s, rationing was extremely important in order to contribute to the war effort. Every resource was needed for the soldiers overseas. This included fabric, which actually led to shorter hemlines on dresses and skirts. The clothing was similar and more utilitarian. Pants and jumpsuits became more popular as women now had to work in the factories, labs , government jobs, and even in the military to fill in for the men who were now overseas. This was an accepted “sacrifice” for the war effort, but proved that women were capable of much more than society previously allowed. The change in fashion responded to the change in the expectations, yet continued to hang on to the modern day. Women made a huge impact during this period and continued to fight for more opportunities in the future.
The 1960s brought about the miniskirt which corresponded to the rebellion of the youth during this period. The miniskirt was a direct contrast to their parents fashion and their parents expectations. With changes, such as the development of the birth control pill, women were sexually empowered for the first time. The invention of the birth control pill relieved women of another restriction in their lives. This restriction included the pressures to marry quickly and settle down, to be submissive, and to remain pure. Just like men, they could finally be liberated and make their own choices. The 1960s and the miniskirt, was an era of new freedom and pushback against the social norms of the 1950s for young women.
In the 1980s, the power suit became a very popular look. You can see the influence the Bloomer and the Chanel suit had on this look. Iconic features are the padded shoulders and oversized look of the outfit. The focus now was not on the fact that the wearer was a woman, but what she could achieve and bring to the workforce. The suit represented respect and power. Women wanted to break that glass ceiling and they wanted to be successful themselves. They wanted to compete in the workforce and climb the ladder in their careers. Yet, there were barriers (that women still face today) in the corporate world that put women down due to their gender. They may find challenges getting paid what they deserve, getting that promotion that they worked hard for, or even finding opportunities in general. The suit gave the confidence needed and they felt they were dressed for the part they wanted. The power suit represents the ambition that women had to really show what they could achieve.
I do not claim to be an expert on fashion history, but, prior to this research, I never really thought about how the way we dress often coincides and aides in the social movements of the period. Women used fashion as an outlet to express what they wanted and what was missing in their lives. Without the Bloomer, could the power suit have existed?
“The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall and bereft of a champion to take up arms in order to protect it…”
–The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, 1405
Feminism in the 15th century? This is considered a rare concept during the medieval period. This was an era of serfs/lords, arranged marriages, and a time when women were viewed as little more than property. This period lacked champions to stand up to the patriarchy that dominated society. Well, such a champion did exist, though many may not have been familiar with her. She is considered France’s (even Europe’s) first profession female writer and was popular internationally. Her name was Christine de Pizan.
Christine is considered one of the first feminist figures as, through her work, she directly addresses many of the injustices her sex had been subjected to. She calls out the injustice of their treatment in a very progressive manner. This is evident in two of her most famous books, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues. Christine’s version of feminism in the 15th century is still not like it is today (as she was still a woman of her time), but it was extremely radical for the period she lived through. I first learned about this amazing woman in an art history course in college and she has been a figure that I have wanted to highlight for a long time now. Continue reading “The Creation of a City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan and her Legacy”→
In the 20th century, 11,000 wooden crates were brought across the Atlantic in order to rebuild one of the most beautiful (and oldest) buildings. I visited Miami this weekend and was able to tour this amazing place. I was astounded at the beauty and overall peaceful feeling while in this ancient Spanish Monastery. It is most likely the oldest building in America and I felt I needed to share its history (and my pictures!).
Currently this church is known as the St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church, but it was originally created in 1133 in Sacramenia, Spain. The construction was completed in 1141 and the Monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was built in the Cistercian Romanesque style and was located in a mainly Muslim area of Spain during this period. It would have originally contained some defensive structures (as the Christians and Muslims where at war during this period). This monastery also contains two of the only three known telescopic windows from the medieval period that exist today (pictured below). These are placed above the altar Continue reading “Places to See: Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, FL”→
Take a moment to imagine that by selling a single tulip bulb that you would be able to pay off your entire house. You could even use that profit to buy a better and grander house. You could get that nice car you always dreamed about just by selling a single bulb! Not even the flower itself! This may sound crazy or just wishful thinking, but during the 1630s in the Dutch Republic a Tulip Mania occurred!
I don’t have the proper conversion between 17th century guilders to today’s American currency, but from my research I have found comparisons. Mike Dash, author of Tulipomania, describes that in 1633 one bulb of Semper Augustus was worth 5,000 guilders which quickly rose to 10,000 guilders by 1637. He states “It was enough to feed, clothe and house a whole Dutch family for half a lifetime, or sufficient to purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80ft garden…” To me this is just incredible, but you have to remember that tulips were much rarer during this period and many of the most expensive bulbs were unique strains of the flower. Continue reading “A Mania for Tulips! The Economic Craze that Rocked the Dutch Republic”→
Lord Horatio Nelson is still viewed as one of the greats in British history and, as a result, his portraits throughout time reflect an almost divine man. It is natural that he would be depicted as the hero that the public wanted to see. He is tall with perfect skin and is decked out in his prim and proper military uniform. Though many of the portraits do portray his missing arm, Nelson actually physical showed his battle experiences and was even blind in one eye. But why would this be portrayed in a portrait? It does not follow the narrative that is meant to be presented.
When you think of Civil War art the first thing that comes to mind is the photography, right? It was groundbreaking as it was a fairly new invention and was able to capture an exact representation of a moment in time. The photograph is so common today that it may actually surprise you that most contemporaries during the Civil War never saw any of these battlefield photographs as the technology did not exist to print and publish them on a wide scale. What the majority of contemporaries did see were beautiful sketches that documented the battles and happenings of the war in illustrated newspapers, such as: Harper’s Weekly, Frank Lesile’s Illustrated News, and the Illustrated London News. They were hired men who were known as the “Specials”; they were on-site pictorial war correspondents who traveled and actually lived amongst the troops (on both sides!). They faced all the same hardships as the traveling troops and were there in the heat of battle in order to do their work. Using pencils and paper they documented the war and the soldier’s life through their sketches in order for the people at home to have a chance to see what was going on. These sketches are some of the most valuable items from the Civil War. Photography was limited as it could not capture movement or the drama of the war, but the sketches could. As the artists sketched what they saw these could be some of the most accurate depictions (with maybe just a hint of embellishing at parts) and created scenes of human interest for the audience back home.
I had to put this as a seperate post, but I find the journey of this particular medieval gift to be very interesting. This gift illustrates many of the different occasions to give gifts (which I discussed in my previous post) and how these gifts get re-circulated.
This piece is commonly known as the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase. It was crafted in a pear shaped and was made of rock crystal with a mount made of silver. The gems and gold adornments seen in the featured image were added later by the abbot Suger.
Now that Thanksgiving has finished it is time to begin the crazy ritual of shopping for that perfect gift. Rushing out early on Black Friday and grabbing that last Xbox on sale! It can be crazy, but you can bet I was out there and, as a result, came back with my gift list completely finished. These are some of our gift giving customs of today, but during the medieval era there was a lot more that went into it.
The ritual of gift giving has always been a part of society and many of these gifts have become pieces of artwork that we know today. During the middle ages, among the upper classes, there was a strict ritual surrounding gift giving. “To give, to receive, to reciprocate,” to quote from Buettner’s article, was the formula. Continue reading “Tis the Season for Gift Giving! (Part 1)”→
As a kid I dreamed (and lets be real still wishes) of being an archaeologist. You get to travel the world and discover the lost secrets of history. You get to be the first to touch something that no living person has touched in hundreds of years. I imagine it would feel like you would have some connection to those who came before you and, honestly, I want to feel like I am experiencing what others before me did. It would almost be like you were time traveling. Unfortunately, I grew up and the realities of life set in such as student debt, a good salary, and finding stability. A girl can still dream though!
I bring this up because I have been following an amazing archaeological find of our current day. Found in the Thames River in London, a great ship from the 17th century was found impeccably preserved. Talk about traveling back in time! Much of The London, which was the name the ship was known as, was preserved under a deep layer of mud and silt. Continue reading “Preserved in Time: The London Shipwreck”→