Friday, October 12, 2012

The Measure of a Man (or Woman)

by Sheila Connolly

This past week I was at Bouchercon (along with Sandy and Jeri), where as a treat for all of us not from Cleveland the opening ceremonies were held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The organizers were kind enough to allow us time to wander around and explore the exhibits (there might have been a riot if they hadn't).  One person later commented that people from our group tended to go around alone, as if to revisit their own musical memories in private.

Why is it that we are fascinated by the clothes of public figures?  I realized as I walked through the exhibits that quite often we tend to make iconic people larger than they really are, and since we are unlikely ever to encounter them in person, it's easy to do.  That's why it can be a shock when you're confronted by evidence of the real thing, er, person.  Here are some things I learned, based on clothing alone:

--Elvis was much smaller than I thought

--John Lennon was larger than I thought

--Johnny Cash had really big feet

--Somebody there loves Stevie Nicks, because they had no fewer than five of her outfits on display (I already knew she was small—and she's been wearing platform boots forever)

But then I recalled that this is not the first time I came face to face with the clothing of the greats.  More than a decade ago, to lift my mother out of a funk after her mother's death, I took her and my young daughter to France.  My mother was a lifelong reader of historical fiction, usually involving royalty, so of course we visited as many chateaux as we could fit in, with a few medieval sites for me.

One of our stops was at Malmaison, a small chateau that once belonged to Joséphine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoléon Bonaparte (she apparently bought it without consulting him while he was off fighting somewhere), west of Paris.  It's a somewhat obscure museum—most of the local people we asked had no idea where to find it.  In any case, we succeeded.


In the museum they have a uniform worn by Napoléon—and it's tiny.  He was both short and slender, and it's hard to imagine such a diminutive person leading armies and building an empire.  It says much for his strength of will and personal magnetism.

On the same trip, we happened to wander into the cathedral of Sens, where Thomas Becket spent much of his time in exile, starting in 1164—and there on display are some of his very ordinary clothes.  (Can you imagine keeping clothing intact for nine hundred years? BTW--I made a small contribution toward the upkeep of the cathedral's collections!)  And he was not tiny, although not large (except perhaps by the standards of his day). They even had a pair of his shoes.

When you grow up steeped in the mythologies of history-altering public figures like Napoléon or Becket, you don't always realize that they were ordinary physical people.  It is intensely moving the be able to hold up your own hand next to such displays and to find a sense of human scale across the centuries.

Rock stars are our current royalty, and yet, the exhibits at the Hall of Fame prove that they aren't larger than life. I'm still not sure whether I'm happy or sad to know that, but I'll admit I feel just a little closer to them. Thank you, Bouchercon committee!



Diane said...

I am surprised that Elvis wasn't big (I'm assuming you mean tall), but not about Stevie Nicks' size. I lived in Phoenix, where she's from, for 13 years. Same for other singers and actors. Alice Cooper is from there and currently lives there. He's just a dad. Though all of that face paint he wore didn't do his complexion a lot of good.

Maybe it's a good thing people can see clothing worn by well known figures, be it musicians/singers of this era or that worn by leaders of a much earlier time. It shows that what one accomplishes has nothing to with size but with strength of will and/or talent. Something good to remember.

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