Thursday, January 28, 2010

So you want to role play a "working girl."

So you are interested in roleplaying a 19th century parlor girl, courtesan, working girl, painted lady, soiled dove, whore -- a prostitute, in a Second life Victorian/Old West role play sim.

Where do most people start? With clothing. Typically, it's the most frilly, flamboyant outfit available on XStreet -- silk stockings, rhinestone bustier, the whole nine yards. It's a fabulous costume, certain to turn the heads of the gents (ahem).

You land at a Western sim's welcome HUB and rush past the signs urging you to read about life in the 19th century American West, thinking you already know everything you need to in order to make your RP debut, thank you very much.

Here you are sauntering down the street, ready to make your big RP splash, when suddenly someone IMs you. "Uh, hello and welcome, you appear to be new -- are you aware that costume isn't really appropriate to wear on the street?"

"Of course it's appropriate," you reply, "isn't that why they're called streetwalkers?"

I can't tell you how many times I've had this IM conversation with new characters in Deadwood, the Western sim I RP in. Many, many female avatars wander in with a head full of ideas about prostitution in the Old West that they got from watching Hollywood movies.

There are as many myths about the prostitutes of the Old West as there were "soiled doves" (a common term for prostitute at that time).

Probably the biggest myth that new roleplayers buy into when creating a working girl character is that they had glamorous lives and clothing. Certainly the upper class courtesans and parlor girls were dressed sumptuously for their upper class clients. They weren't necessarily well educated, but they could carry on a conversation and knew which fork to use for the salad.

Most of the high class parlor houses, however, existed in larger cities, and only came later to the boom towns of the West as the wealth of the land began to pay off.

How does this relate to fashion? well, in a few weeks, the Second Life sim of Deadwood will be resetting the clock to 1876. Currently, it's 1879. The town has grown into a bustling little burg with theaters, hotels, tea rooms, a hospital. It's all very... civilized.

I should qualify that and say that, despite what some uninformed people have been saying, it has as much excitement as it's always had -- bank robberies, hangings, lost dogs -- but it's a full fledged town now, with a mayor, city council, a town charter. It's still the Wild West, but as in RL, time moves forward in SL as well, and progress -- telephones, railroads, electric lights -- are just over the horizon.

SL's Deadwood has always strived for historical authenticity, and with the reset, there's an opportunity to explore the seedier side of frontier life.

In the early days of Deadwood's gold rush, in mid-1876, it was estimated that approximately 90% of women of the camp were “painted ladies.” Women amounted to between 100 to 150 for the entire Black Hills area, perhaps constituting between 1 percent and 2 percent of the population, according to Watson Parker, author of Deadwood: The Golden Years. That's at the rough estimate of about 10,000 residents at the peak of the gold rush.

When the Deadwood sim reopens, it will be a chaotic, lawless camp, made up of an assortment of tents, wagons and crude lean-tos to house its rapidly expanding populace, which will consist mostly of men who've come to the area to strike it rich in the gold fields of the Black Hills. With that influx of prospectors will come folks with entrepreneurial interests, who will set up shop on the first flat, vacant parcel of land they can find, to provide food, clothing, liquor, tools -- and sex.

The women providing that last commodity in these early days of Deadwood will not be dressed in silk stockings and rhinestone bustiers. They will be women who may or may not have come to Deadwood of their own volition. Some will have been lured there under false pretenses, thinking they would be filling jobs as cooks or laundresses.

Many of them will be escaping already desperate lives, thinking that life in a mining camp couldn't be much worse than what they'd already endured. Some will come to the grim realization that they have unwittingly sold themselves into sex work.

Most of these women will probably have traveled to Deadwood with little more than the clothes on their backs. Already poor, the dresses they wear are threadbare at the elbows, where the sleeve rubs against the washboard. The skin on their hands will be red and calloused from scrubbing with harsh lye soap and carrying buckets of water from the creek to the washtub.

Some will not be able to speak a word of English. Others may be addicted to alcohol or opium. Suicide or murder will be the tragic end for some.

But the lot of the "painted ladies" of Deadwood was not entirely bleak. For some, it was an opportunity to flee the restraints of Victorian society and become a woman of independent means. Historically, there were a number of real life women who came to Deadwood and made their fortunes as madams.

Don't take my word for it -- there are several very good resources about prostitution in the Old West. Get started with "The Painted Ladies of Deadwood," a feature on the "Legends of America" website. Shooting Star Enterprises, a company that specializes in historical reenactment education and supplies, has a informative page devoted to "Entertainers, Hurdy Girls, Soiled Doves and other Ladies of the Evening." A book I highly recommend on the subject is Anne Seagraves' "Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West."

Lastly, I should explain why the typical "saloon girl" costume is not appropriate for streetwear in an Old West sim. "Costume" is the key word here. "Saloon girl" is a loose term for women who worked in saloons as barmaids, dancers, and prostitutes. Depending on the saloon, a woman could serve as all three, or only one or two.

A "saloon girl" dress is essentially a uniform -- a costume worn when a woman is working in the saloon, entertaining. The shiny fabrics and feathers, the short skirt, the low cut bodice and bare arms, are part of the entertainment factor.

This stands in sharp contrast to the "proper" fashion of the day -- long sleeves, high necklines, ankle length skirts.

Here we get to one of the double standards of Victorian fashion -- while modest clothing was expected of respectable ladies conducting their daily business in public, at formal evening events it was perfectly acceptable for decolletage and porcelain shoulders and arms to be put prominently on display (pale skin was a sign of a woman of better means who did not have to do manual labor outside in the elements).

Meanwhile, a prostitute might be seen in public doing her day to day errands with a low neckline on her dress -- this suggestive attire being a not-so-subtle advertisement of her profession.

As the Deadwood reset draws closer, I am currently working on some "working girl" dresses that will hopefully fit into the rough and tumble world of 1876 in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

BlackJack Landar said...

Asto, As always a well reasoned and well written post. It was very informative.