Interviews

Learning Mindfulness From the Art of Victorian Dressmaking

YouTube dress historian Bernadette Banner talks to Hyperallergic about slowing down and putting oneself in the mindset of the past.

From “Making a 15th Century Princess Gown”

On a crisp overcast day in early December, Bernadette Banner is sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library. You’d think that in 2019, she would stick out in her Lady Sherlock Holmes outfit. After all, this floor-length inverness coat was on-trend two centuries ago. But Banner’s olive checked cape complements the library’s Beaux-art architecture. She cloaks the marble steps, waiting for me like a woman in a James Tissot painting come to life. Spotting her, I’m reminded that this library, which opened in 1895, is about as old as the methods Banner used to construct her coat. And it is clear that everyone trudging past her, dressed in our lulu leggings and puffer coats, doesn’t quite get the majesty of the world we live in the way that she does. Her coat concretizes an abstract notion of time passed. She leaves for England in two days, and I’m grateful to have a minute to chat with her now.

At 25 years old, Banner is a self-described dress historian with 480,000 YouTube subscribers and over 100,000 Instagram followers. She is regarded an expert in her field. In September 2018, Glamour had Banner fact-check Mary Poppins’s wardrobe. BBC Reel has asked her to speak about the perils of fast fashion. She tells me she doesn’t give interviews often, but she’s agreed to mine because I have a thesis. As a fan, I think her historical dress research projects can teach us how to be mindful, even if we never hand-sew a damn thing ourselves.

Banner works in “Original Practice,” the art of constructing historical garments using, as much as possible, the exact methods of the time. It draws on a combination of evidence and guesswork — and, of course, slowing down. Banner tells me that “by putting yourself in the position and having the same experience potentially, you can get a lot more of a sensory idea of what things would have been like” in that period. In her videos, I’ve watched her cut endless yards of red wool fabric on the floor of her apartment while explaining why a medieval seamstress may have taken the approach she’s replicating. Her discussions are rooted in a combination of extant garment research (the firsthand study of historical clothing) and secondary sources stitched together with educated guesses. Banner calls many of her videos vlogs, but to me they read like gorgeously crafted lectures backed by thoughtful research, evidence selection, and time.

Researching historical sewing methods has led Banner to dispel myths about clothing like the corset, an oft-criticized garment for restricting a woman’s body. She vlogged herself gathering written evidence in the Rose Maine Reading Room, then recorded her findings in a separate video essay “featuring actual research” on the corset. Both the vlog and essay support her corset construction series, which showcases her handiwork. Watching the videos in succession, I came away realizing that mindfulness isn’t just about connecting to the present, but also about engaging with the past. It is folding time in on itself to appreciate the labor that went into your possessions, which is a lesson that goes beyond Banner’s obsession with historical dress. Her channel is a protest against fashion for pure aesthetic.

In addition to producing educational content, Banner works within more common YouTube genres. She’s Konmarie’d her sewing stash. She’s offered a noob’s guide to Costume College, a conference for costume makers. She’s even filmed “an educational roast” of a fast-fashion knockoff of her medieval gown. Banner, like her viewers, lives in this century. Like us, she must work to be mindful in an age of overconsumption and unoriginality. On the library steps, she points out that Original Practice “goes beyond just reconstructing history.” Yes, I’ve coveted the currant-colored velvet ribbon she’s woven into the cotton lace of her frilly Victorian underwear, but instead of searching for a dupe on Amazon after watching her video, I think long and hard about who stitched the decorative bow onto the underwear already in my drawer. This is the Bernadette Banner effect: Watch her channel, question your life.

In a time when eco-conscious YouTube influencers have reached peak thrift hauls and capsule wardrobe tutorials, Banner’s approach to sustainability is a welcome alternative to the more common documentations of consumption on the platform. Time travel, it would seem, is our contemporary longing for the kind of circumstances that some of Banner’s beloved seamstresses reckoned with. It is the experience of time that Rebecca Solnit described in her essay on Eadweard Muybridge and the invention of motion picture and the railroad: time homogenized by 19th-century innovation. But when I ask her to comment, Banner is quick to point out that this may be where my thesis falls short. Victorians got a lot of things wrong, she tells me, and we are perhaps further behind in our own understanding of the world because of some Victorian ideas.

Banner maintains that her fascination is strictly with the Victorian aesthetic, for which enough documentation exists to make the historically accurate clothes that she wears every day. She also tells me that as a former Broadway costume assistant, discovering dress history helped her realize she doesn’t have to “take a beautiful Janet Arnold sewing pattern, quick rig it, and adapt it for costume changes in tap dancing.” Still, to an outsider, Original Practice suggests an intense desire to access a comparatively “simpler time” upended in our century partly by the social platform she’s on. YouTube, after all, can be a total time suck. While one could argue Banner is just on YouTube to fund her dream job, I actually do come away from watching her vlogs asking myself, What the hell am I doing with my own time? Historical dress isn’t for me, but I do unplug after my binge.

I actually thank the trees for making the light shimmer through their leaves when I go outside to look at the leaves. Banner guides me in a mindful meditation on my own mortality just by sewing a pair of medieval stockings. I think she’s on the internet to remind us that without the internet — or hell, the electric sewing machine — you had to think more slowly. You worked against your own mortality. That is the beauty of watching her at work.

A few days after our interview, Banner released a new video in which she wraps holiday presents in “cabbage” (a historical term for scrap fabric). She notes that she’s leaving for England in two days, and my heart races a little. I imagine her descending the library steps, the woman Tissot painted no longer waiting to speak a truth about our time. As she stitches scrap wool around her present, she discusses the risks of cutting and breathing fake fur.

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