Recently, one of my favorite costuming bloggers, American Duchess, began plans for participating in a Revolutionary War event in Williamsburg. One issue that came up as she planned were the authenticity standards of historical reenactors.
Her fear, confirmed by individuals such as the illustrious Hallie Larkin, was that reenactors would be likely to criticize any inaccuracy in her clothing.
The response from many comments was "WOW! And this is why I don't want to get involved with reenactors."
I'll tell you what, it made me cringe.
I'm a reenactor. I'm a member of an organization that has relatively strict authenticity standards. We undergo inspections to make sure our stuff is right and that we're documenting everything.
But are we stitch-counting authenticity police?
No, most of us are not.
I felt the need to respond to the conversation in more detail because I feel that a few individuals create a false reputation for our hobby as a mean, hostile place filled with jerks who like nothing better than pointing out perceived problems with your outfit. Now, to be fair--there are a few jerks out there. But there jerks everywhere--have you ever been involved in any hobby for any length of time and not encountered at least one blowhard who thought s/he knew all there was to know and found great joy in correcting others? Me either. (Let me tell you, swing dance is way worse than reenacting for know-it-alls.)
To be fair, as well, there is a difference between creating reenacting clothing and historical costuming in many cases. Many costumers take inspiration from the past without feeling the need to create a dedicated reproduction of it. Reenactors document everything they make or buy (or ought to). An example--a costumer and a reenactor may want to create, say, a ladies' jacket. The costumer broswes images and extants and designs a garment. Perhaps she wants it to button as a closure, but can't find documenation for buttoned jackets like hers--she may go ahead with her plan as it still captures the spirit of the period she's stitching. A reenactor, on the other hand, is much less creatively minded about the process, and will find particular garment/s to copy. She won't use those buttons if she can't find documentation for their use.
So are the streets of a reenactment filled with people waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting newb? Definitely not. In all my time in the Midwest and somewhat more limited time on the East Coast, I've never been corrected in such a fashion. And my costuming has not always been perfect. I've heard comments made perhaps a few times, which given I've been doing this for over 20 years is not very often. A couple of them were rude and uncalled for, and I *may* have responded under my breath to one individual's "They didn't have that kind of blanket then" with "They didn't have slag-faced loudmouth b!tches, either." If it happens, sure, it raises your hackles. But it's very unusual and most reenactors consider it very, very rude to barge up to someone and correct them.
Perhaps even more important, overwhelmingly, new people are welcomed and encouraged. If you're trying the hobby out, and find yourself with a group of people who are not encouraging or are rude, you're in the wrong group of people. I have to take serious issue with Hallie's assertion that "reenactors, especially in groups, can be critical, cruel and downright unkind." I don't doubt that she's speaking from experience, but: The vast majority of reenactors I know are the nicest people I've ever met. They want to help new people. They want to spread knowledge and understanding of the time period. They want to do it kindly. I kid you not--some of the best-put-together reenactors I know and I have had conversations about how to most kindly touch base with new people (and not-so-new people) in our group about serious inaccuracies because the clothing experts were worried sick about hurting feelings. These were problems that needed to be addressed in that "Hi, Sue--you have spinach in your teeth" kind of way. Because we don't want to hurt any feelings or drive anyone away. Again, if the group you encounter is cruel--they're bad apples. Period. Get away from them and find nice people.
I'll add as well that not every reenactor is a clothing expert. We all know enough about *our* clothing to get by, but many people have other interests--perhaps military drill, perhaps carpentry, perhaps authentic cookery, perhaps medicine. So don't feel that you have to be a clothing expert if your interest is elsewhere. Know enough to get by and seek the assistance of those who are into clothes.
The one thing that will sink you, in my experience, with reenactors? Being a know-it-all yourself. There are newbies, there are experienced reenactors, there are experts in particular fields, but nobody knows everything. This is why it's such a terrible idea to correct someone else--for all you know, his persona is a recently arrived Italian immigrant and you have absolutely no idea if his clothing is right because *you* know nothing about Italian clothing! Talk to people. Learn from them. Know that not everyone is right about what they say, but keep an open mind.
In the end, reenacting is a community. I happen to love being a part of it. And I want to welcome anyone who wants to try it out.