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.