It can be little surprise that in the United Kingdom census last year, more people identified as pagan or wiccan than ever before, with a 1,200% increase in “shamanism” in the box marked Religion. Ritual, pageantry, and a connection to something separate from formal worship or corporate appropriation is more appealing than ever, as demonstrated in a new exhibition: Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain, at Compton Verney (near Stratford-upon-Avon). Spring is the best time to see paganism in action; unlike summer, spring’s progress is long and guaranteed, with its improved light, striking birdsong, and quite a few flowers starting from now.
Making Mischief was named by curator Mellany Robinson in reference to the unquantifiable attraction of misrule and a natural defiance of authority, in which health and safety have no place. Her co-curator and director of the Museum of British Folklore is the fashion set designer Simon Costin, who was closely involved with Alexander McQueen’s (literally) explosive shows, and the third curator is Amy de la Haye, professor of Dress History and Curatorship at the London College of Fashion.
Photography courtesy of Henry Bourne.
The portraits shown here (which form part of the show), were collected in Henry Bourne’s book, Arcadia Britannica. They have been confused sometimes for fashion pictures but Bourne, a renowned portrait and design photographer doesn’t “do” fashion pictures; the portable studio that he took to folk gatherings was a way of simply documenting his subjects: “The focus is on the people.”
Walking trees and folk covered from head to toe in textile leaves—with real foliage in between, evoke the age-old, pre-Christian image of the Green Man, a mythical figure that pops up on anything from pub signs to church pillars. May Day celebrations take place when leaves are in their glowing prime, everything sprouting, fecundity all around. At the Jack-In-The-Green festival on England’s south coast, the pageant is full of green people, with Jack at its center. He bursts into the throng, an oversized shrub on two legs, wearing a crown.
“The Green Man and the Jack-in-the-Green have nothing to do with each other but are often confused,” explains Simon Costin. “It was out-of-work chimney sweeps and milk maids who first started the Jack-in-the-Green May Day event.” When their seasonal work was over, chimney sweeps made ever-larger garlands for parading through the streets with milk maids and their decorated pails (with the hope of getting money). Their green adornments eventually engulfed the whole body: “Beneath the leaves is a wicker-work frame to support everything.” This ritual began in the 17th century but died out in the early 20th century. It was revived in the early 1980s by Morris Men (Mad Jack’s Morris) and it has become more popular every year.
“The Jack represents the spirit of summer and at the climax of the day he is stripped of leaves,” observes Simon, who is a regular participant at Jack-In-The-Green. “The leaves are thrown to the surrounding crowd to be kept for good luck during the year—and then burnt on the eve of May Day, before the next Jack is born.”
“The people who participate in the UK’s seasonal customs and events tend to put a lot of time and energy into them,” says Simon, noting that there are over 700 events throughout the year, every one different.
May Day is roughly halfway between the spring equinox (March 21) and the summer solstice (June 21). After the feast and famine of Mardi Gras and Lent, followed by the gluttony of Easter, May Day is more simply a primal observance of the seasons, marking the open highway toward early, mid, high, late—and the dog days of summer.
Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain has just opened; it is showing at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 11 June.
For folk beliefs around British native plants, see: