How To Be is a series of exercises that revisit and reimagine early 19th century primers for “young ladies.”
I stumbled upon these manuals while researching 19th century etiquette books. Most include etiquette but only as part of a more comprehensive course of education. They were intended for upper-class girls and women who had few opportunities for formal schooling. Instead, girls took their lessons from these books, serials and pamphlets and from their mothers or older sisters at home. The manuals include subjects ranging from etiquette and fashion to archery and riding, from botany, entomology and mineralogy to painting, dancing and embroidery. Each was meant to help a young woman navigate society and to keep her occupied, to battle the boredom that could lead to rebellion or other transgressions.
How To Be uses these young ladies’ manuals to address themes of gender, class, and the dialogue between personal and political histories, identity and space. I methodically select and execute lessons from the primers, consider them in their historical context, then reconsider and reconceive them in the context of my own history. The first three exercises in the series are currently on exhibition at O’Born Contemporary. Lesson I: Ablutions, Lesson II: Moral Deportment, and Lesson III: The Cabinet Council, introduce central themes of the project.
Lesson I: Ablutions (9 works)
Ablutions takes as its starting point early 19th century instructions for developing a sense of “style.” I have paired self-portrait photographs with illustrations of period hair arrangements and headdresses taken from one of the young ladies’ manuals.
Lesson III: The Cabinet Council (9 works)
The cabinet is “a secret receptacle, a repository… a small private chamber or room… a room devoted to the display of works of art; a gallery” or “the council-chamber in which the inner circle of government meet.” A bedroom can be all of these things, a microcosm of the home and a safe, autonomous space.
In this exercise I have captured images of girls’ bedrooms from television shows that I watched as an adolescent; shows that purported to guide their audience toward specific ways of being. I have removed the figures from each of the stills and inserted images of objects that form my own private spaces.
more of Caitlin’s work here