“Never in all her life had she imagined that this idolized millinery could look, to those who paid for it, like the decorations of an insane monkey.”
―Charlotte Perkins Gilman, If I Were a Man
On Saturday, I walked into our local French bakery. I usually just pop in, order a café au lait and a waist-killing pastry, then pop back out. Once a month for eight years. I guess in all of these years I had never turned around. On Saturday, I did. And that’s when I saw her. Simply put: “Yikes.”
I am by no means an artist or a judge of things artistic, but my lack of coffee combined with the unexpected surprise sent a small jolt through me. I quickly took her picture assuming that I would just use her for a “creepsmyassout” hashtag on Instagram. However, as I went on my way, the “German Milkmaid Meets Flying Nun” was on my mind. What was with that costume, and why was she wearing a windmill on her head? With a bit of research I realized that if I had looked into my own family history a little more, then I would have already known.
This slightly pissed off woman is reminiscent of the traditional Alsatian girl of the 1800s. I am quite embarrassed, since I frequently remind people that my “muttified” lineage claims family from the Alsace region. And if I were true to said heritage, I should have worn this costume on July 14th when I was touting “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la Mort.” But then again, to my credit, I had at least spotted the Germanic background. After all, as Europe’s borders were being defined, that region switched between Germany and France several times (1697-France; 1871-Germany; 1919-France; 1940-Germany; 1944-France).
The traditional costume included a false front shirt adorned with ribbons, colored glasses or sequins–real masterpieces. And I am so glad that I read about those shirts. The decorative piece was a spot to hide treasures: love letters, poems, a lace handkerchief, or rosemary sprigs (used for alertness throughout the day). I like to imagine a girl holding a love poem from her admirer close to her heart.
But what about the monstrosity on her head? The black bow appeared in 1800 and grew with the years to hit the gargantuan size of three feet in 1900 when it was no longer tied but folded into shape and held by a ribbon in the center. The ribbons were black for girls, brides and protestant widows (red or multicolored for the Catholic girls).
While the piece in the bakery made me think of an old Emerson desk fan, when I came across a painting of a girl from the Hanau/Strasbourg region, I changed my mind. Her sweet face and the pleated folds of her ribbon wove a much more romantic image than that of the bakery nightmare. And now I know what to wear on the next Bastille Day.