Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Talking Dirty : Should Your Impression be Unkempt?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see on how to better your impression for living history is "More dirt."  This is particularly true of military reenactment, where most women are assumed to be portraying campfollowers and most men are common soldiers.  "Put some deliberate tears in your clothes, or don't mend the ones that happen naturally."  "Get some dirt on your clothes and don't wash it off."  "Make sure your face is a little dirty." The logic goes that, without daily showers and our modern, comparatively inexhaustible wardrobes, we ought to look a bit bedraggled.

I question how bedraggled.

It's completely true that people in the 18th century (or earlier, or 19th...or, in fact, 20th up to a point) bathed less often than we did.  It's true as well that they had much smaller wardrobes on average.  And it's true as well that, in a military camp or on campaign, dirt and grime was unavoidable.

It's also, however, true that clothing was expensive.  Those smaller wardrobes had to last--and nothing is going to degrade clothing more quickly than not mending it.  I seriously doubt that, excepting extreme duress when mending would be impossible, that individuals in the 18th century didn't take the time to patch up holes and stitch down rips.  Perhaps a better way to add the realism of wear and tear on clothing is to spend time in camp mending something you own.

Even dirt can, over time, wear the fibers of clothing.  Remember that military camps employed laundresses--so laundry must have been done in some fashion.  As regularly as we do?  Certainly not.  As little as to have shirts that stand up on their own and clothing so black as to be unrecognizable?  Probably not that, either.  Laundering clothing isn't just a nicety--it's a way of protecting your fabric investment.  Of course, some items were made to get dirty--like aprons or fatigue shirts.  I say, use it properly and you won't need to "fake" the dirt!  Half a day of hauling cast iron and cooking and washing up, and my apron begins to show some extra color.  (Plus, it's also my napkin, and I want to save a few clean spots...)

Finally, soldiers were expected to look at least relatively clean and presentable while in garrison.  On campaign things may have gone south a little, but a soldier on the parade ground was not supposed to be unkempt.   So one must ask where one is intended to be located when deciding how dirty one should be.  In the midst of a forced march?  Perhaps a bit dirtier than at a relatively comfortable garrison.

But let's leave the speculations behind and take a look at what images from the time might have to say instead.  Apologies that these are so small!  However, both illustrate the range of "camp women" one could expect to find (both from English camps). 

This image shows a prostitute being drummed from camp.  The prostitute herself looks relatively bedraggled--I imagine she hasn't had the easiest last few hours of it.  However, the other women on he scene are not unkempt.  To the right, a camp follower seems to add her vocal displeasure to the scene, but does not appear to be very unclean or unmended.  Finally, the two women to the right are very well-dressed in high fashion.  What are *they* doing in camp?  Well, remember that not every woman in a military camp lived in a military camp.  Women would often pay visits to relatives or husbands while encamped--meaning that a lady wearing silks is not necessarily "wrong" in camp.

Here, a woman tidies up her children at the far right.  Neither she nor the kiddos look ragged--and note that she's taking time to get them ready and presentable in this morning scene.  Another woman looks to be washing up in the back left.  Her hair is neatly pulled back under a cap, and no dirt or tears to be seen.

(More great images online at Najecki Reproductions )

I do, by the way, assume that these images are not greatly idealized.  They seem to portray lifelike scenes in camp in a sketch format--not pastoral or imagined scenes that are typically idealized to some degree.

So, should we get dirty to accurately portray the past?  Maybe...and maybe not as dirty as we think we should.  Taking our recreated circumstances into consideration is key--whether *you* should be dirty may be a different story than whether *I* should be dirty, per our intended personas.


Isis said...

I find the notion of wearing torn garments silly. People have always, in every age, want to look neat and clean. As you say, the 18th century notions on cleanliness are not ours, doesn't mean that they went around and never, ever washed either. The poorer you were, the less means to wash and wear nice clothes, but that didn't mean that they didn't care. And as you aslo point out- clothes were expensive. You took care of your clothes and often, even if you were poor, made wills that listed items of clothing. Of course a garment will ger worn and torn, but it would also be carefully mended to be made to last as long as possible. However, go back to the 16th century and you can see a lot of torn garments- on the rich. Those who could flash their money with artfully slashing expensive fabric.

So yes, people in camp were more dirty than we are. The landresses were probably mostly cleaning linens, outer garments may not even be possible to launder, so dusty and grimy clothes would certainly show up. And worn and mended ones. But I don't think any person with self respect showed up in torn rags, even if they were poor.

Connie Keller said...

I think we tend to overestimated dirtiness too. Just because someone didn't "bathe" doesn't mean they didn't wash. You can get pretty clean with a basin of water and soap. When my mom was growing up in Europe, they rarely "bathed" except when the weather was warm--it took so long to heat the water. The rest of the time they used a basin of water and soap.

Rowenna said...

Isis--yes, great points. There is the fact that people did take pride in their appearance, however humble!

Connie--so true! I've always made good use of a washbasin at reenactment events--even sometimes washing hair! said...

Bathing vs washing is key: immersion bathing is not common, but I do think people even in camp washed as much as they could--or were ordered to do!

Appearance was important, so I think clothes were cleaned and mended, certainly small clothes in cities but also in camps. Orders concerning hygiene were issued, so there was clearly a range of compliance.

Mending is easier when clothes are clean, at least the muddy overalls I've repaired. So I think washing and mending happened whenever possible.

I think there are images of laundresses in British camps in the Lewis Walpole Collection, but I'll have to track them down again. The women are tidy, though the image are post-RevWar.