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Depressing: My Contribution to the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

Update: Today (9-13-2010) I received my author copy of the book version of this project. I am happy to report that the two images that I provided showing contemporary dress (including that worn by women) are included in it. As discussed below, they do not appear in the online/database version.

Last night I saw one of two published versions of my contribution to the monumental (10 volume) Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (New York: Berg, 2010). It is the chapter titled “The Southeast” and it is one of a series of long, regionally focused essays on the dress and body adornment practices characteristic (past and present) of Native North American Indian societies. (My contribution is about 9000 words.)

As often happens with encyclopedias and other works of this type, I did not get a chance to review page proofs or the final copy edited manuscript. This has resulted is some less that ideal outcomes. I may eventually have the patience to write a full erratum to the piece, but here are some items that I want to apologize for.

I have only seen the version appearing in the Berg Fashion Library database. The print version may be different in some ways of which I am as yet unaware. The following comments are based on the Berg Fashion Library version.

The publisher was provided with a number of images illustrating contemporary Native American people wearing the kinds of clothing discussed in the essay. None of these were put to use and (if those that I had provided were not suitable) I was not engaged to find alternatives. Only two historic paintings by non-native artists and one object image of museum artifacts are used. This omission unfortunately fosters the general misconception that Native American lifeways are a thing of the past and that they are only preserved (via ethnographic documentation) by and for non-natives. I hope that my text (as published) sufficiently counters this widespread tendency. I have no idea why it had to be this way.

The publisher provided a caption to one of the images that was used that is misleading. From among the images that I suggested, they chose to publish the image of a native man from (what would be) Virginia associated with the artist John White.

Because in the chapter I discuss tasseled yarn belts and sashes, this image was captioned: “A North American Indian wearing a tasseled sash, ca. 1590, from a painting by John White.” I would certainly not have captioned this particular image in this particular way. The apron worn in this image is relatively anomalous for the dress of the region and for Native North America in general. It appears to be tied in the back and what we see hanging in the back (between the man’s legs) seems to be the apron ties (of animal hide?) presented in a unusual but decorative way. The closest thing to this in the documentary record or present-day practice, are the animal tails worn by some men when playing “match game” (stickball), as among the Oklahoma Muscogee (Creek) and Oklahoma Seminole today (and the Choctaw historically). In the Mississippian engraved shell images, the historic-period paintings, and today, yarn sashes with tassels are worn so that the tassels fall from one or both hips (or are tied at one hip). This can be seen in the painting of a Seminole man by Charles Bird King that was also published in the article and in the shell images and contemporary photographs that I suggested but that were not used. I did suggest the use of this early Virginia image, but only because I had devoted considerable space to discussing the total Virginia corpus as a source of information on dress and adornment in the contact era. I had asked that it be paired with an image of a woman from the same time and place so as to insure gender balance across all of the images. As published online, there are no women’s objects shown or images of women wearing native dress. I apologize for this unanticipated and regrettable outcome.

The copy editing introduced various infelicities that didn’t need to be there and that degraded the work. Here are a couple to illustrate:

My sentence: “The Yuchi have a different colonial-era history and continue, into the twenty-first century, to speak their own unique language—a language isolate unrelated to other known tongues.” in which I used the technical term “language isolate” but then preceded to explain the meaning of this terminology became: “…unique language—a language isolated and unrelated to other known tongues.” This just does not mean anything sensible and it is the typical kind of “improvement” that a copy editor wanting to enhance the accessibility of an work would make in the absence of any specialist knowledge. I do not mind this as one step in the process, but it never works in an context in which the scholarly author lacks the ability to catch problems introduced by the process.

Similarly, describing Mississippian period body adornment, I mention “gorgets.” The copy editor sought to help general readers make sense of this perhaps unfamiliar term and introduced “(neck coverings)” after the word. This is a particularly interesting problem (if sad) for a work on the history of dress and body adornment in general, from a worldwide perspective. Historical period gorgets in the Southeast were mainly trade objects. Look up “Gorget” in Wikipedia (as of today) and you can see a painting of Colonel George Washington (later to become the first U.S. President) wearing exactly the same kind of silver gorget that the Seminole John Hicks is wearing in the King portrait included with my article. This crescent-shaped metal plate worn as a necklace is derived historically from European armor, as the wikepedian’s kindly tell us:

A gorget originally was a steel or leather collar designed to protect the throat. It was a feature of older types of armour and intended to protect against swords  and other non-projectile weapons. Later, particularly from the 18th century onwards, the gorget became primarily ornamental, serving only as a symbolic accessory on military uniforms.

Because, in the historic period, this elaborate necklace-strung item of adornment–a large curved object worn suspended on the upper chest–was known in English as a gorget, scholars of the region like me (perhaps too sloppily) have extended the terminology back to refer to large shell decorations worn similarly. Those obviously do not derive from European armor and they two kinds of adornment provide an illustration of the kind of convergence of European forms and Native styles that I was trying to discuss in the essay. In any event, the copy editor was seeking to help readers by introducing a definition of gorget, but the definition is anachronistic in that Southeastern people did not wear armor-like neck coverings. I would have been very happy to have helped fix this mistake if I could have.

The published version includes a list of references but the citations that had been provided in the manuscript linking particular statements to particular works were removed in conformity with the style of the volume. I am sorry about this. Thankfully the reference list itself was preserved. If a work appears there, it was used with direct citation in the original manuscript.

I wish that I had a way to share the original manuscript but this was a project that I was recruited to participate in before I had given up engaging with commercial publishers all together. Maybe someday I will have a chance to try to address the topic again in a different and more open venue.

Although I am disappointed with this sort of outcome, I do not want to sound overly bitter. I appreciate the work that the publishers and editors have created and nothing about this experience is particularly out of the ordinary for the commercial encyclopedia publishing space.  For those who can get access to it, some good information, I hope, can still be found in my contribution. The kinds of frustrations that accompany, or are generated in, projects like this motivate my enthusiasm for doing scholarly publishing in new, better, and more open ways that are less impacted by the ramifications of hard business decisions made in a dysfunctional marketplace.

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