Sewing History

Interview: Lígia Gonçalves
Photo: Tomás Monteiro

In order to stitch together the fabric of History, no thread can be left unsewn. It’s a question of considering all those who ever picked up a needle. A question of looking beyond the kings and queens to the working classes, the poor, and the silenced masses, and seeing these people with their own stories to tell. A question of also looking beyond the great moments in History, and being aware it is also forged in the mundane, and reflecting on what it is composed of, and what it wears. A question of tirelessly questioning till every thread is threaded. This is the tangled web Luís Gonçalves Ferreira has woven. A web that in 2020 led to him becoming the winner of the Lusitania História award, bestowed by the Portuguese Academy of History, thanks to his master’s thesis, which by that point had already been published as a book, Vestidos de Caridade. Assistência, pobreza e indumentária na Idade Moderna. (Dressed by Kindness. Aid, poverty, and apparel in the Modern Age). O Caso da Misericórdia de Braga (published by Húmus) introduced us to a talented present-day historian.

Q: Before History, Law was your calling. Is telling stories of the poor also a way to correct forgotten historical injustices?

A: I think blame plays no part in history. The first concern I have in my work is to be rigorous and methodologically sound. And what do I mean by that? To not elaborate on what my source told me, to obviously know the answer to technical questions, and treat my sources with the utmost rigour and respect. But of course, there is a political dimension to the work a historian does, which cannot be denied. Historians have too serious a vocation to be frivolous about its importance. What is meant by this? It means their work is about the past. And this work of theirs has an impact on the memory of our people.

Q: It’s a prism. For those it represents.

A: Exactly. The construction of citizenship is a historical reality. Belonging to a State is a historical reality. Our sense of understanding. Why is it we speak the same language? Why do we all have the same Citizen’s ID card? These are historical realities. It’s obvious that in my research I cannot ignore, and I never do, the fact I am LGBT. For example, issues of gender are essential for this very reason. I would not interpret my sources the way I do, if I weren’t for my history, my own life story. And I think whoever reads me, or hears me speak, who’s heard of me as a historian, should be aware of my life story. And he [the historian] must adapt to that reality. But history per se is not activist.

Q: It is a portrait.

A: It is a portrait and an interpretation. As with all human production, it is subject to interpretation.

Q: When you decide to tell the story of the poor, and based on this premise, the fact that our clothes tell a story, you would say you have a preoccupation with representativeness?

A: Absolutely. It’s not required for a historian to be an activist, but he or she has to be an active participant in society and aware of the challenges of the moment in which he or she lives. Putting this into context, historiography, from the 1940s and 50s onwards, in line with French theory developed by the so-called Annales School, began to show exceptional interest in the poor, in the small fry, in those who had been silenced by history, and to become aware that History did not just belong to great men. I would have mentioned great women too, if women had not also been erased from History, this political and economic History of ours. But when I chose to follow this same path, in doing so, I am swimming against the tide, because if we observe what the historiographical trends of my generation tell us, they have once again swung back to [document] the elites. There is a female historian from Galicia, who I like very much, professor Ofelia Rey Castelao, who understands this as being a problem of empathy. In other words, the younger generation studies our kings, queens and lords because it feels like one of them. We live in a society of abundance and luxury, of grandiose references. An evident case in point is the sway luxury brands today hold over us. Which is what a luxury brand means today to this generation in its quest for status symbols, even if it is a tiny little handbag.

Q: Clothing and the day-to-day are intertwined?

A: Yes, indeed they are. Besides, an architect [Andrea Saltzman], who I mentioned in my thesis, says what we wear is where our bodies first make their home. And it’s true, the first home to envelop the body, before the house/building, is one made of fabric. And it protects us, just like houses do, but also leaves us exposed, hides what needs to be hidden, shows what needs to be shown, often giving out subliminal messages it’s not supposed to, often saying exactly what it is meant to say. And if we talk about everyday lives, the home, the public space, in these societies, in this day and age, symbols are of utmost importance. This importance for social relations and what lies behind the mirror reveals exactly this. The mirror allows us to see what others see in us. It’s like walking into Louis XIV’s Royal Court, with its gallery of mirrors, a society in constant competition through image; through the height of one’s heel, proximity to the king, the richness of fabric. All these trimmings keeping that society afloat and those societies that perpetuate themselves through it. The mirror reveals the image for what it is, and also allows us to control that very image.

Q: If we transpose this to the present day, what can the History of the poor and their apparel teach us in the present day?

A: History echoes across time. To a certain extent, it is related to globalisation. How do we make this global world more equal? A world full of discrimination, inequalities, where the dictates of the rich continue to be given precedence over those of the poor, where the poor continue without a voice, or memory.

Q: We could say, then, that this symbolic system of dressing the rich and the poor has ultimately changed very little?

A: I’d say it’s changed very little indeed. What has changed is its scale and our perception of it. As it is global, what we need are people who are vocal, observant, critical. To help us understand the impacts and weight of the choices we make. I believe that a study of the kind I am currently undertaking on clothing will likely show how important it is to reinvest in the closeness of our relationships. I believe any model for sustainable development has to be built on that, for an environmental ecology. Which is also an ecology of human relations.

Q: Is there talent not given its due, out there in the real world?

A: Oh yes. There is much invisible talent, yet to be given value. Although, at the moment in which we live, there is a pernicious tendency for this granting of value to be taken advantage of for speculative motives, even as trades are getting their due recognition. In other words, the luxury factor, the sumptuous factor accounting for time spent. A time being capitalised.

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