Friday, January 6, 2012

"Are Reenactors Really *That* Mean?"

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.


Caroline said...

A wonderful rebuttal, Rowenna.

When I was in Civil War re-enacting, the women were extremely competitive. In fact, there was a split in one group and the result was a lot of sniping behind each other's backs. It really came down to "we're better because we don't camp." Which I find amusing now that I look back on it.

I will admit that we were stuck up about "farbs" too but never did we approach one to criticize. That would have been in poor taste.

But if a person is so insecure about their costume that they feel the need to carry documentation, I think they may be in the wrong hobby. Personally, I don't think I would want to be a "freelance" re-enactor anyway. I think being with a group lends a person a bit more credibility than just showing up in a costume. But that's just me, and I don't care to feel like I'm out of place.

I've read a lot of these costume blogs and it seems that most of them know each other and have their happy little playdates. There's nothing wrong with that and I drool over some of the costumes these ladies turn out. But from what I read in the original posts and comments, it seems they are more interested in beating up on re-enactors than discovering the truth about the hobby.

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Caroline--you made a point that I failed to, which is that the hobby is a much more comfortable one, IMO, when one is affiliated with a group. You have e better handle on expectations. Moreover, some events and some groups require membership for participation--and it's not just to be exclusive. Insurance and liability measures often only protect members. So I know some people who have felt slighted have felt that way because they didn't understand the very legitimate rules of an organization!

I do want to say that I respect both Lauren and Hallie, whom I referenced--I just wanted to speak for the "quiet masses" who aren't making a bad name for the hobby!

Caroline said...

I respect both Lauren and Hallie too. I follow or at least check in on both of their blogs/websites. One of these days, I will get a pair of Devonshires and Hallie makes some gorgeous hats. :-)

I just think it's rather irresponsible to make a sweeping judgment on a community that probably numbers into the hundreds of thousands. There are bad apples in every bunch, but most are welcoming. My main concern was that some people were being swayed by a few bad experiences posted by some of the other commenters. I think what should have been said is, "I don't participate in reenactments because I had a bad experience", etc. instead of all re-enactors are cruel.

Although I would think that any event held at Williamsburg is going to attract those re-enactors that are most rigorous in their portrayals! Nevertheless, the group I'm looking into goes to "Prelude to Victory" every year and I'm looking forward to it. I expect there will be re-enactors dressed to the nines and there's no way I can compete. Disparaging glances or no, I'm going to have fun!

American Duchess said...

Rowenna, I think you make excellent points in your rebuttal. Having both sides of the story is important, and it's good to hear from somebody who has had good experience with and as a re-enactor.

I want to make sure you and Caroline both know that I have NO experience with East Coast historical groups, except what has happened online with various people saying various things. Online is entirely different than in-person. I have been picked on out here in California, on occasion, by exactly the type of rare person you illustrate in your article - someone who thinks they know it all and likes to tell you everything wrong with what you're wearing, except they often are full of inaccuracies themselves. We all know the type, an it's important to note that these kinds of people exist in all communities, so beware.

Hallie's comments really did make me afraid. I know that the level of dedication, study, and accuracy east of my corner of the world is far FAR above the kind of just-for-fun costuming we do out here. I don't want to stick out like a sore thumb, and it is my duty to try as best I can to "get it right" when visiting Williamsburg, because I don't want anybody to associate me or my brand with ill-researched crapiness.

I don't think having documentation for your costume means you're insecure about what you've made, Caroline. With all the sources and items we look at and read while researching a costume, it's easy to forget exactly the museum plate or snippet you read that helped you decide to use a certain color or a certain kind of buttons, etc. Whether it's with someone trying to find fault with what you're wearing, or someone wonderful who just wants to talk, being able to discuss those references is a good thing.

I think it's important to know that no sweeping generalizations have been made on my part. I can't speak for anybody who comments on my posts, but I am sure Hallie did not mean to paint re-enactors in a bad light, especially since she is one, and I certainly had no intention of that.

Anyway, I welcome the discussion! It's great to get people talking, and it's items like these that make people think the most :-)

Rowenna said...

Thanks for your reply, Lauren--for what it's worth, I think you'll be more than fine :) You know your stuff! I think my reaction was more to the thought that someone could be thinking about reenacting but scared by what they saw--at least, many of the comments reaffirmed that. So I wanted to show another side--not even really meaning for it to be a rebuttal as much as another perspective. I guess I'm just a nerd who loves her hobby and hopes other people might try it and love it, too.

As for documentation--though I said I've never felt pressured to have it on me, it is expected that all your clothing and accessories *be* documented. I'm partial to the idea of a pop-up book, myself, were I to carry my documentation with me.

Have fun at CW! It's been years since I was there for a program...and it was a great time. But hot. It was in June. :P

Cynthia Griffith said...

Hi there! I just found your blog and saw this entry. I thought it was a good read and very helpful :) I definitely know there are negative types in all interests and fields, and it's a shame they scare away or discourage some people. It's very nice to read posts like yours to help round out reality.

I consider myself to be a costumer at the moment who does strive to eventually be as accurate as she can. Sadly, where I live, I don't really have the re-enactments and eras I'm more interested in. I am also still learning how to sew, much less learning how to do it period (and I may never be 100% accurate anyway).

I did decide to put up a little note on my blog about my goals, for a few reasons. I posted it in the hopes of explaining what my goals are, so someone doesn't assume I'm a re-enactor. I also want those who are trying to research or learn about historical clothing to know that what I'm doing isn't based off of historical accuracy (my blog isn't a dress diary, but more of a way to share what I'm up to with family and friends).

That said, I do have absolute respect for those who take tons of time and effort to study in detail and re-enact! I am thankful for the sharing of information as well -- I may need it to learn how to sew something whether it's from books, the Internet, or figuring out how to make something work for the time being! :)

Best wishes!

ColeV said...

With as many Colonial Williamsburg events as I've been to, I've never had anyone outright correct me on clothing (and believe me, I haven't always been correct). I've seen some amazingly accurate costumes, and some far to the other side. I will admit to noting inaccuracies to my friends- it's a way to learn. But I'd never approach the person. If they want to learn, it's not hard to find someone to ask "Is this right?". Otherwise, they're there to have fun and feel a part of the period, and aren't concerned over details. We've all learned what is or is not right on our own through research because we wanted to.
I think the only time I feel annoyed by inaccuracies is when the person is intentional informing others that something they're wearing is "correct" when it's not (ex. a woman informing another re-enactor that "women didn't wear silk ribbons on their caps unless they were rich", which a quick perusal of images will prove otherwise).

Isis said...

Very interesting!

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Cynthia, Cole and Isis!

Cynthia--I think we can all learn from one another. I know I learn from costumers all the time, as well as fellow reenactors and others interested in the time period. I am most certainly still learning, too--I tend to think most of us are :)

Cole--that's a great attitude to have--that if someone *wants* to know, they'll make the effort to find out. I've found from friendly conversations, too, that many people *know* that what they're wearing isn't 100% right--but it's a loaner or something outdated, and they don't have the time or money to fix it straightaway. And by the by, the "only the rich would have" is one my hugest pet peeves. So many incorrect assumptions in that arena!

Isis--thanks, and thank you for the link!

V.R. Christensen said...

"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)."

I do costuming, but I wouldn't call myself a reenactor at all. I'm trying to catch the 'spirit' and translate it, but I've kind of run into this problem, too. A few years ago, my mother in law decided to spend a couple of years in Nauvoo, Illinois. She asked me to make her costumes. I did, and having sewn for weddings and whatnot, and knowing something about costuming, I felt pretty confident. Turns out, when she got there, she had to rip out all the seams and basically start over, because the shoulder seam was 1/4" too low, etc. It really intimidated me. I'm sure they were very nice to her about it, but I felt like an idiot. So, I still do my costumes, but I won't try to convince you they're perfectly authentic. Still, it is kind of fun to walk around in a corset and twenty yards of petticoat.

I would like to watch a costumer, though. I think it would be fun to sew something by hand, but...tedious, too.

But yes, there are pedants in every occupation. Historical anything is filled with them.

Cassidy said...

It was really nice to read this entry - lately I feel like I see a lot of "reenactors are cranky pedants, costumers are the ones who have fun!" sentiment around. For me, trying to be as accurate as possible and doing all hand-sewing *is* fun! I might look at someone and get judgey inside my own head (and I'm pretty sure everyone does that), but I'd never tell them they were wrong - unless they were making incorrect pronouncements about historical clothing.

Anonymous said...

I am both a reenactor and beginning costumer. I've seen ALOT of myths and truths about both. Most of the costumers I follow take more pains to exactly recreate a garment than most reenactors I know. And yes, from personal experience, reenactors can be snarky about clothing. I have recently experienced this. I am using an unusual, but documented, pattern for a 18thC gown and was told not to use it. It was even suggested that it belonged in a later period(I KNOW it definitely doesn't having done that period for the past decade). What most often happens is people get tunnel vision. They are reasearching one class/strata/fabric/style/persona and that is all they can think of. It is very easy to do, I've been guilty of it myself. But this tends to exclude a whole range of period correctness and leads to everyone looking the same. Lets face it, just like today, everyone had their own personal style. My rules: ONLY comment in a private setting and in the nicest possible way and ONLY on the most glaringly innaccurate of items, offering to help the indvidual find their way(something i wish someone had done for me). In fact I will often loan items to newbies for an event. Have a sense of humor, and above all, remember: This is a HOBBY. Stepping of the soap box now :)