August 15, 2017

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The Way We Wore: Clothing and hairstyles throughout history make for excellent booktalks | Nonfiction Booktalker

It’s all Louis XIII’s fault. When the 23-year-old French king started going bald in 1624, he hid it under a long, curly wig. Wealthy men in England and France sought to imitate royalty and began wearing huge hairpieces—even if they had hair—which is why so-called rich and influential folk are still called big wigs, according to Kathleen Krull’s Big Wig: a Little History of Hair (Scholastic, 2011).

Aristotle had his own cure for baldness: rubbing goat urine on his scalp. Ludwig van Beethoven broke ground outside the concert hall with his long, wild locks, and admiring musicians copied his hairstyle. Classical music is still sometimes called “longhaired.”

The clothes and hairstyles of adults and children throughout history are winning booktalk topics that combine history, humor, and countless hooks for discussion. Kids know clothing says something about status, as well as culture, and they’re no strangers to the lure of fashion. They “get” why only royalty in ancient times could wear certain colors, like purple or scarlet, that laws restricted the fabrics people could use, and that slaves were like branded cattle, often tattooed, sometimes on their foreheads, to show to whom they belonged.

Janice Weaver’s From Head to Toe: Bound Feet, Bathing Suits, and Other Bizarre and Beautiful Things (Tundra, 2003) is full of wonderful aha! facts that will remain in a young listener’s brain for years. For example, in the Middle Ages, men wore hoods to reveal their occupation, while imposters wore false hoods. Liars nowadays tell “falsehoods” instead of wearing them. And a modern crook might “hoodwink” his victims, referring to medieval thugs who pulled down their victims’ hoods to cover their eyes so they wouldn’t see who was robbing them.

We’re all familiar with Levi Strauss’s hugely popular jeans. He dyed them blue so the dirt wouldn’t show. Industrial and manual workers often wore light or navy blue work shirts. Blue-collar workers with physical or labor-intensive jobs were, and are, treated differently from white-collar office workers and professionals. Kids will understand when Weaver explains that even prisons often treat these types differently.

Kids can barely hear the word “underwear” without cracking up. So delight them with Kathy Shaskan’s How Underwear Got Under There (Dutton, 2007) and Ruth Freeman Swain’s Underwear (Holiday House, 2008). Both tell us that the first undergarment was a loincloth—like the one Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian wore— fashioned to protect a sensitive body part. Genghis Khan’s Mongolian warriors used specially woven silk in their undies. After a battle they could twist the silk to help pull out arrows that had pierced their bodies. Bulletproof vests were invented as technology advanced. Underwear was always a good protection against the cold. Centuries later, astronauts wore special suits with tubes to keep them cool. Long johns were named after John L. Sullivan, a champion boxer who liked to wear long underwear.

Tell your listeners how the Chinese figured out a bizarre method for making women’s feet smaller. Show them pictures of women who wore skirts so wide they had to walk through doors sideways—and kneel instead of sit because they didn’t fit in chairs. Read why workers in the 1800s felt hat industry were called “mad hatters.”

Every day young readers decide what to wear, how to arrange their hair, how to appear to the world at large. Learning how their ancestors dealt with the same issues can stimulate their curiosity, and develop their sense of history, as well as their fashion sense. Big wigs, hoodwinking, and blue-collar workers: these story-laden words still make headlines today.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.

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