Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Myth of "For Beginners"

Note: Throughout this post, I am speaking about and to those whose goal is historical accuracy.  If that's not you, no guilt, no judgment.  Not your goal, not your problem!

There's a weird myth I've noticed floating out there recently.

It's that historical authenticity isn't for beginners.

Nope, beginners, apparently, are supposed to stick to mainstream/commercial patterns, make "costumes" before they try historical clothing, and should avoid any fabric or fiber save cotton broadcloth at all costs.

I recently encountered this when I suggested, on a clothing forum, that instead of attempting to use a Big Three pattern, that someone looking for HA clothing use the Larkin and Smith gown pattern to achieve the garment she wanted to make.  (In context, I had assumed she wanted historical accuracy in the final product.)

"But I'm a beginner!" came the reply.  "Those patterns are only for experienced seamstresses.  This is better for beginners."

What? Historically accurate methods and patterns are only for people who have already slogged through making incorrect stuff?

Where did this myth come from?

Now, I empathize completely with newcomers to the hobby of historical reenacting or historically accurate costuming of any kind.  For one, it's all new.  The learning curve in terms of knowledge is steep,and to complicate matters, there's plenty of bad information out there.  Further, there are new skill sets to be acquired.  Is this why accuracy is considered for-advanced-seamstresses-only?

Further, plenty of people come to historically accurate (I'm going to use the annoying abbreviation HA from here on out for brevity) clothing construction via less accurate avenues--many first dip a sartorial toe into the waters of cosplay, RenFair, rendezvous, or costume parties.  So many newcomers to HA clothing have, in fact, had "beginner" experiences making non-HA clothing.  Is this where the idea that you *have* to go through the inaccurate before you can start making HA garments comes from?

In either case, it doesn't have to be this way.

First, yes.  Making HA clothing involves having access to the correct information--but you don't have to do all the legwork yourself!  It cannot be emphasized enough that, when starting out, getting yourself with a group that is not only HA but helpful is necessary.  Information is not to be hoarded, but shared!  Online groups exist, but caveat emptor--not all are giving HA advice.  Regardless, the information is there--you do not have to write a dissertation on colonial American bedgowns or shifts because, guaranteed, someone has already done that for you.

Beyond this, though, the idea that HA methods or patterns are harder boggles my mind.  Here's the deal: Accurate methods are not more difficult, they are simply different.  You are hand-sewing instead of machine sewing.  You are constructing garments differently than in modern stitchery.  You are using different fabrics than is typical in modern sewing.  However, none of these is inherently harder.

Take hand-sewing.  Hand-sewing is not, I repeat, truly, NOT more difficult than machine sewing.  In fact, I know many people who prefer hand-sewing.  Is it more time-consuming? Sure.  But the learning curve is just as steep.  I have a friend who recently taught a historical clothing sewing workshop, and allowed the use of sewing machines to keep the process moving more quickly (100% HA was not a goal here--that's ok!).  She ended up teaching everyone how to use their sewing machine.  And had she insisted on hand-sewing, she would have ended up teaching that, no doubt.  Regardless--a machine doesn't help a complete beginner, but it does teach a modern methodology instead of an HA one.

So, if you have to learn a new skill set in order to create clothing, and you want to  ultimately have an HA wardrobe--why learn the inaccurate skill set?  Why spend time wrestling with a machine instead of fighting with a hand-sewing needle?  This is the most obvious difference, probably, but the methods of clothing construction differ, too.  Why learn to sew a lined gown using an inaccurate "bag lining" method when it's no harder to use an HA method?  And ultimately--why make a throwaway garment that you won't be able to wear to the living history events you want to when you could invest your time and money in a piece that will serve both your goals of learning and using? (NB: I am not talking about muslins there, but about completed garments.)

Thing is, if we learn skills in an incorrect way first, we have to unlearn them later.  You can use a Big Three pattern to make a first gown--but when you later make an HA gown, many of the skills you picked up in your first gown will not be used in the new project.  You will still be learning new skills when you make your HA gown, no matter how many costume pieces you make before it.  And if my own experience is any indication, you will trip yourself up *thinking* you know how it's done when, in fact, you do not.

When I unpack from vacation (or an event!) I keep the motto "handle it once." It comes out of the suitcase and right into the closet or hamper or dresser.  If you apply the same outlook here, you notice how you save a lot of time with skill building.  Handle it once.  Learn it once.  If you're not trying to learn modern method but historical ones, then, instead of learning it the wrong way first, why not built a repertoire of HA skills?

Now, not every project is the best first project for a newcomer to sewing at all, let alone HA garments.  Maybe a gown isn't best (and it's definitely not--in no small part because you absolutely positively need stays first). But a bedgown? Oh, yeah.  You can learn handsewing technique, 18th century construction norms, get used to the hand of linen or wool...In fact, you can built a full "first wardrobe" with a few basic stitches, a pattern or two, and some cutting diagrams (and a bazillion yards of linen, give or take a couple yards).  I watched a group of mostly newbie sewists craft completely handsewn shifts in a weekend recently--some went from zero skills to almost complete garment.  If they can do it--and now have nearly all the skills they need to make an HA wardrobe--anyone can.

So let's put this one to rest.  Beginners can learn HA technique.  Beginners do not have to stick to machine sewing, modern technique, or incorrect patterns.  Beginners can make HA garments.

Rock on, beginners.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Bibs, or Weird Plain Stomacher Things

I started noticing a weird clothing item while collecting images of women working.

It's kinda like a stomacher.

Except it's not one of the gorgeous, embroidered, gilt, bow-bedecked stomachers we usually see displayed in museum collections and photographed for books.

It's plain.  Zilch on it.  In fact, it doesn't even match the gown it's being worn with.

What the heck, I thought, *is* this thing?

A few examples:

Henry Robert Morland (London circa 1719-1797) The Butter Churner 

Henry Robert Morland, The Laundry Maid, Engraving by Philip Dawe, 1774

1765 Henry Robert Morland (British artist, 1716-1797) A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen

Henry Robert Morland, Domestic Employment: Ironing National Museums Liverpool

Miss White Clear Starcher to the Queen, Unknown British artist

So, what can we say about this curious garment? First, in each case, the wearer is a maid doing manual work--laundry-related manual work.  The gown she is wearing is nice-ish--nothing over the top fancy, but, from the look of the fabric in each image, either a cotton print, a painted silk, a plain silk, or some other "upmarket" fabric--not workaday linen or wool.  The gowns (aside from the last, which is unclear) are all of the robing-and-stomacher front closure style, and most are clearly open, with robings unpinned.

Then, how it's worn:

In each case, the piece appears undyed, either bleached or unbleached, and of a fabric that, from sheen and texture, I would guess to be linen.  In an interesting twist, most appear to be tucked into the top of the stays rather than pinned into place.  The remainder of the cut is similar to a "normal" stomacher, as the edges are visible.

As you might have guessed, I found this interesting.

I found this *particularly* interesting as the vast majority of English aprons and images of English women wearing aprons depict an apron that only covers the skirts--not the "pinner," "pinafore" or "bib" apron that we see more commonly in French and Dutch images.  I had wondered--WHY not wear something that protects the front of one's clothing from stains, too?

Well, looks like they did.

And then I got to wondering about a term I'd seen floating around some textual sources--Bib:

Elizabeth Banks , was indicted, for that she, in a certain field, or open place, near the King's highway, on Frances Mercer , spinster, did make an assault, putting her in corporal fear, &c. one stay, value 1 s. one pair of stockings, one linen bib and apron, the goods of the said Frances, did steal, take and carry away .

Arthur Hambleton was indicted for stealing one worked linen handkerchief, called Dresden, three linen gowns, one-linen bib, one linen apron, two other gowns,

And others...and I wondered. Bib? What's a bib? Though some of the references specifically speak to children, most did not, so my modern understanding of the term "bib" as "drool catcher and mealtime poncho" was certainly incorrect here.

I had heard it suggested that "bib" might mean kerchief, but as the thefts often list bibs AND kerchiefs as stolen items, this didn't seem plausible, either.  

Then there's the fact that a pinned-front apron is termed a "bibbed" apron--and the piece that pins on the front, is, apparently, a "bib":

[I] saw the prisoner at the bar putting my handkerchief as fast as he could between the bib of his apron and his waistcoat.

Well, hmmm.  Is the weird stomacher thing called a bib?  That's my best guess at the moment

For fun, I decided to make one of my own as a bit of "experimental archaeology" and use it while performing kitchen duties this spring.

I tucked it into the front of my stays, as the images seem to do--but found that the top was a bit wide and I had extra fabric that bunched at the sides.  Good to know--make the top a bit narrower than my "normal" stomacher.  I also pinned my robings back down as I was wearing this for a while, like the "Maid Soaping Linen" seems to have done.  

And it worked quite well! I saved my normal stomacher from the blood from a stab wound to my finger, so I can say the piece is useful.  It was easy to swap the "bib" in for my normal, matching stomacher, so I can safely say that a maid--or housewife--who wanted protection for her gown but wanted to switch  back quickly could certainly do so.  A good addition to my working wardrobe, I think--and I'm going to keep looking into bibs!

Monday, June 6, 2016

One Gown, Two Ways

I hadn't really intended to make a new gown this spring.

But then I got some sort of Congested Sinus Yak that lasted forever and a half, and the only thing I wanted to to do was sit on the couch and sew.  So I sewed.  And sewed and sewed and made a gown and two stomachers and a petticoat.

I had been wanting to try the Larkin and Smith pattern--I'll write a full post later about using the pattern and the sewing techniques used and how it's REALLY FUN I PROMISE, because I definitely want to make another one of these.  For now, I'm struck by how awesome this gown is at playing high-low.

I used a cotton print, which is a nicer fabric for 18th century, but if you spend some time playing in 18th century images and runaway ads (and if you want to, Don Hagist's excellent Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls is now available), you find that cotton prints do show up among poorer people, too.  Second hand clothing plays a part in this, as does the fact that people were not either magnificently wealthy or rolling in mud in the period--people with lesser means could still afford some niceties.

Still, seeing the striking difference that a different set of accessories makes--it's pretty nifty.

Dressed down, the gown with a plain linen petticoat, a checked apron, a very battered straw hat, and with the tails rucked up out of the way (retrousse, as it were, dans les poches).   No jewelry, no extras. (Adorable tiny human not included in ensemble, sold separately.)

And, for a full 180, with matching petticoat, silk-covered hat, paste jewelry, and an organdy kerchief. (Dashing officer not included in ensemble, sold separately.)  For what it's worth, the cap is the same in both images.

I wasn't sure if it would work, honestly, to pull it off both ways, but I really enjoyed how I was able to play quick-swap and have not only two different outfits, but really, two different personas for the weekend.  

As a just for fun, I also made a plain stomacher, which takes the look even more firmly into the "I'm here to work" category.  (More on that plain stomacher another time!)

Long story short--this has been a great addition to my 18th century wardrobe on many levels.  Happy squeaks. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Big Girl Room--This Old House Tries for Young-Ish

E moved on up from her crib to a "big girl bed" a while ago, and I made some room decor upgrades to match.  


Modern DIY projects ahead.


The first was super-simple--I decided to order one of those wall-decal self-sticky things.  

We repurposed a cradle as a stuffed-animal repository.

Now, I know, Disney princesses aren't the most original. But in this case, E loves the song "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," and asks me to sing it every night for bedtime.  So it made sense to include it in her bedroom!

Not too tricky to use, and I love that it's a) very temporary and b) takes up a whole wall.

She has this awesome little oh-so-late-1800s alcove in her room, which I decided to make into a reading/craft/coloring nook with the little table and chairs and a paper lantern "chandelier." 

Fun and super-simple project--I used paper lanterns of various sizes in blues and greens that coordinated with her room, varied the length of the hanging strips (I used fairly thick, torn strips of semi-sheer cotton voile), and attached them to a hook in the ceiling.

(The table and chairs are from IKEA, and I covered the tabletop with chevron ConTact paper.  This is not just for show--when she marks it up sufficiently with crayons and craft glue, it can be easily peeled off and replaced.)

E's view of the old-fashioned white church across the street.

Easy-peasy project!  Screwing the hook into the ceiling was the hardest part.

Sometimes it can be hard to keep This Old House feeling kid-friendly and fun, but I liked how these additions made her room feel more "hers" and less fussy!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Your Requisite Kerchief: HSM #3: Protection

What do you think of you when you think of protection and historical clothing?

I'll admit, when I think about the clothes we 18th century folks wear on a regular basis, I tend to think of protecting my *clothes* more than protecting myself.  A big apron to keep spatters and smudges off  my nice clothes.  Shifts, shirts, what we might call "body linen"--what protects my clothes from my own sweat. Caps--protecting my hair from dirt and debris. Maybe I consider a short cloak, or perhaps quilted garments or mitts, for protection from the cold.  

But we should all consider protecting ourselves, too.

That's right--this is a lecture-y post.

This?  This is top-notch protection right here:

From what?

The sun.

Maybe I'm being a little overdramatic here.  But a few years ago, I had a basal cell carcinoma removed from the curve between my right shoulder and my neck.  The spot had not-quite-healed and reopened multiple time, and was constantly a little scabby, and so I had it checked out.  My brush with cancer was a pretty minor one--the nurse practitioner I saw was as suspicious as I was, had it biopsied, and a couple weeks later, using just local anaesthesia, it was removed.  I'll always have a dime-size scar of shiny, whitish skin, but so far I haven't had any other spots crop up.  For this I'm thankful--but I know having had skin cancer already means I'm at more risk in the future, and that I have to be vigilant and careful about sun protection.

What does this have to do with historical clothing? I'm convinced that I earned that skin cancer by skipping wearing a neck kerchief for years in my younger, stupider, less-authentic reenacting days.  I'm careful about sunscreen, I tend to avoid the sun anyway, and I'm usually pretty covered up.  But eight to twelve weekends a year, for many years, my shoulders--and pretty much only my shoulders--baked and burned as the only thing exposed in my 18th century clothes.  I have had very, very few sunburns or even, um, color, over the rest of my pale self, but those shoulders? Abused.

I'm smarter now.  And more worried about authenticity as well as sun safety--you don't see many women, upper or lower class, in their regular daytime clothing without a kerchief tucked, tied, or pinned on their gowns, jackets, even just their bare stays.  (You see *some* of course--but this relates back to my focus on representing norms.  Kerchief? Norm.)

What the item is: A kerchief
The Challenge: #3 Protection
Fabric/Materials: Some Italian cotton "book muslin" (cotton organdy) acquired from Wm Booth Draper. That's it--easy peasy.  But oh, this stuff is lovely to work with!
Pattern: None, really.  I wanted to try a shaped kerchief after experiencing quite a bit of "bunching" using folded squares, so I used this diagram from the 18th Century Embroidery book:

Year: 1770-1780
Notions: Linen thread.  That's it.

Techniques: I added a section here called "Techniques" because I often find myself wanting to talk about the sewing, fitting, or other methods I used for a project--and this time I couldn't resist.

You guys, rolled hems are magic.

No, seriously.  The only technique used on this piece is rolled hems.  And I swear, after a total of something like two yards of rolled hems on this thing, I didn't get tired of watching that awkward zig-zagging stitch roll up tight into a neat little hem.

I used to be really daunted by rolled hems--they looked so neat and perfect, and I figured it must be really far beyond me--but it's not.  It's one of the easiest techniques I've ever learned.  This explanation is pretty good--and you can make your hems *even narrower!* <--magic .="" p="">
How historically accurate is it? I'll give myself a 95%--the materials, techniques, and shaping are all correct, but I have not, I confess, documented this particular shaping method to the colonies.  However, after experimenting with the stiffer fabric--it just makes sense.  For the kerchief to lie properly, it needs the slit.  Otherwise, it bunches around the neck like an unflattering and uncomfortable balloon.  I'm going to make a shaky pronouncement and say--we know they had kerchiefs of cotton organdy, so they were probably making them using a shaped method.

And we do have an interesting reference from The Old Bailey--a woman caught stealing a "half handkerchief" of book muslin in 1784.  I don't have any proof for this, but it does seem reasonably possible to call a triangle-shaped kerchief a "half."
Hours to complete: Evenings in front of the TV last week.  Maybe three hours total? I really stink at estimating time because it's always stolen in bits and pieces from other parts of my day.
First worn: Not yet!
Total cost:  The book muslin goes for $16, so it's not cheap, but given that a yard easily yields enough for a kerchief like this or a cap, it's a worthwhile investment.   I used maybe half a yard, so $8 total.

This stuff really is delicious to work with--highly recommended!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Riding Habits: In Prints, In Action, In Satire

My latest costuming adventure? Making a riding habit.

I chose this project for three reasons.
  1. Pretty!
  2. For (one of) my reenacting persona(s), an officer's wife and woman of upper-middling to upper-class, who is not "following" per se but rather visiting a semi-permanent encampment, the use of a riding habit as a traveling suit makes a lot of sense.
  3. Pretty! But also somewhat under-represented, at least in my corner of the reenacting world.
Riding habits were worn by upper-class women not only for riding, but for traveling and sporting.  Based on men's suits, with a waistcoat and jacket tailored to be worn over stays and a petticoat in place of breeches, they were a status symbol (clothes for specialized purposes!) but also pragmatic (hard-wearing wool and minimal froofy decoration).

You see riding habits cropping up in military camps--presumably women visiting the camp wearing a riding or traveling ensemble.

Of these four images, the first two depict fictional scenes, the third could potentially be a realistic rendering of a real event, but we (at least, I) don't know what, and only the last provides a corollary for real-world situation.  Following the 1780 Gordon riots in London, troops were encamped in and around the city.  Artist Paul Sandby seems to have made hay out of this development, and many of our images of British camps from the period come from sketches he made of these encampments in St. James Park and elsewhere. We can add this image to the list of nifty London-area camp images--whether these ladies are out for a sporting drive or deliberately aiming to visit someone in the camps, it's kind of neato-keen to see the habit in action at a particular historical junction (even fictionalized in the print itself).

But habits aren't just for visiting military camps, of course.  This oddly diminutive riding-habit wearing woman seems to be playing unsuccessful gooseberry to this lover's tryst (dog also not included in riding habit ensemble):

Women driving is another motif that highlights habit-wearing:

Nice images of habits, both, and are they possibly satirical commentary on gender-bending misses? Jabs at gender norms--and the breaking of them--show up in plenty of prints.  Could the habit be a visual symbol adding to the joke?

Of course, use as a symbol doesn't mean the garment didn't exist, or even that it wasn't worn in the contexts it is shown in.

Here, a sporting pair at their favorite hobbies.  Miss Trigger wears what appears to be a habit (that looks like a habit shirt from her neckline).

Finally, a satirical print aiming at a different joke entirely:

So, what do we see? It's often hard to parse out the reality from the symbolism in satirical prints, but since we know from other sources that it was normal for women to wear habits for these activities (portraits, etc), they are likely a good source for the garments themselves.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Dress-Up Play: DIY Dress-Up Station

The proverbial apple doesn't fall far from the tree, so it should be no surprise that my three-year-old likes playing dress-up as much as her mom does.

Of course, she has her "camping" clothes, which, believe it or not, are her favorites:

Cheesy grin indicative of loving "red camp dress."

At home, she took to wrapping blankets and towels around herself to simulate the "dressing up" experience, so we decided to make a dress-up station for her for Christmas.

The husband crafted a wooden clothing rod, including decorative brackets as "feet," and I painted it white to coordinate with her room:

The addition of her dresses:

Then we added a basket for accessories (a girl needs accessories, right?), including tutus, animal masks, a pirate hat, and fairy wings.

E loves that she can pick her own "outfit" from the rack--now to work on putting the clothes away between costume changes!

PS--Where to find inexpensive dress-up options? After Halloween sales at discount places like Marshall's or TJ Maxx.  I cleaned up!  I'd love to sew her more dress-up clothes, but it's hard to find time!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

HSM # 2: Tucks & Pleating Petticoat

I knew just what I wanted to do for the Tucks and Pleating challenge.  I love pleating and tucks as decorative elements of a garment, but I love them even more when they form the basis for construction.  For example, the back of an 18th century gown:
Not only are the pleats gorgeous, but they allow a seamstress fit of the back of the gown, create the back bodice shape, AND create that lovely full skirt. It's like magic! I love pleats!
I did not have time to make a gown.

But I did have time to make a petticoat, and petticoats are maybe even cooler than gowns in the "pleats made it happen" department, because you know what a petticoat is without pleats?

Yeah, it's just a big rectangle of fabric.

What the item is: A basic wool petticoat.  Also the first piece in my planned riding habit.  (Ta-da! New project! Whee!) 
The Challenge: #2 Tucks & Pleating
Fabric/Materials: About three yards of wool. I happened to have an extremely large stash of this color of wool in my possession because it's the basis of our Continental Marine unit's regimental coat.  However, for some reason we have about three different kinds of it, so I chose the lightest weight, best-handed one--and it happened to be one that has just about the right amount to make the petticoat and jacket.  
I'll be honest--it's heaver wool than I would have liked.  In my ideal world, I'd be buying a lighter-weight melton than this, which is closer to a broadcloth-y feel.  However, free is free.  (The waistcoat will be leftover Hainsworth wool from my husband's officer's kit and nomnomnom it's delicious stuff.)  And that said, in looking at a bazillion images, there are habits that seem to be made of heavier and lighter wool.  (I'll probably post an embarrassing amount about habits in the next few months...)
Pattern: None.  It's two pleated rectangles and two little waistband rectangles.  Done.

Year: 1770-1780
Notions: Silk thread and tape ties.
How historically accurate is it? Pretty good--all handsewn, correct fabric (100% wool, I even burn tested, and that's a fun smell, isn't it?), correct thread, correct methods as far as I can ascertain.  The waistband is thicker than most (not all) extants, but I wanted to be sure the thicker wool would still lie flat under the waistcoat.  I'll give it 90% for my usual "I know I missed something."
Hours to complete: A weekend of off-and-on sewing.  Maybe four hours? I'm terrible at this.

Pleat details:

First worn: Not yet!
Total cost:  $0! This was a 100% stash-sourced project.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Always, Never, Usually, Rarely--Costuming, Reenacting, and Norms

Earlier this week, American Duchess posted a great piece on the trouble with the very common practice of using the terms "always" and "never" when describing historical clothing practices.  Her basic point, which I agree with, is that as soon as you go down the road of absolutes, there are examples to prove you wrong.  The piece and subsequent discussion are good, and I'm not going to spend too much time on the same points she and many commenters did, so go check it out!

It did, however, get me thinking about norms.  And our purpose in creating clothing for reenactment purposes.  In creating clothing for my 18th century portrayal, I am interested in attempting to re-create, to the best of my ability, representative clothing of the period for the impression I am portraying.  That means that, though I am not attempting to define "always" or "never," I am attempting to determine "usually" and "rarely."  This is different from, for instance, when I create early 20th century clothing for myself--in that case, I'm pretty much just interested in creating attractive, wearable pieces with little interest if they're representative or completely accurate. This may be a point of unique difference between reenactment and costuming, but that's a huge topic I don't have time to dig into here.

Suffice to say, reenactors are often interested in representing accurate clothing *norms*, not in re-creating *specific* costume pieces.

This gets into much stickier territory than simply finding an example of a singular time that something was done.  I want to review a wide range of sources to try to pin down what the norms and outliers were.  Simply finding one example of one item isn't good enough.  I want to know what's normal, not just what existed one time (or even a few times).  In fact, simply finding one *kind* of source isn't necessarily good enough.  I want to know how it was worn, and what it was called, and how common it was.

This means I usually want to find:

  1. Extant pieces, so that I understand construction.
  2. Images of women wearing the clothes, so that I understand how the piece should be worn.  For instance, a neck kerchief could theoretically be worn any number of ways.  How were women in the 18th century wearing theirs? What's the most common way for a woman of my station and age?  
  3. Textual examples in fashion plates (for high-end clothes) or runaway ads (for low-end clothes) so that I better understand terminology.  
  4. The numbers game--a combination of all of these so that I understand how common pieces of clothing were, what materials were commonly used, what colors were get the (very anal-retentive) picture. It gets tricky--what is most common in images may be less common in runaway ads.  Focusing on one only will yield an incomplete picture!

In fact, our common advice to "copy an extant" to create a correct period piece is in itself a little misleading--some extants are just plain weird.  First, they might be weird for the period--a piece that is just plain off-the wall and kooky and not at all representative of "normal."  An example that comes to mind here is the singular pastoral-figure-print toile gown that I've seen.  Yes, it counters the assertion that "they never made clothes out of pastoral-figure toile fabric, that was just for furnishings," but the singular example hardly makes it normal.  (I sometimes wonder if this was the original Scarlett O'Hara Curtain Dress....)

If you want to create a costume that simply could be from the period, neat.  This works. (Well, "works" might be an overstatement...when I say this example proves the rule, I mean I think that it's so flipping hideous that it shows us why no one else did it...) But if you want to represent a norm, you're no closer than you were before you found The Curtain Dress.

The question of "correct for my persona" doesn't end with oddball outliers.  A piece I find in a museum collection, portrait, or image might be from a culture that I'm not attempting to recreate--perhaps a folk costume or a court costume particular to a certain region.

The Sewing Workshop by Antoine Raspal

We luck out here--we know this artist, we know he lived and worked in Arles, France, and we can use some quick comparison and logic to determine that this is regional Arlesian costume.  But we're not always so lucky to have historical info like this for extant pieces.  Though museum professionals and book editors are usually on point, mistakes have been made in categorizing pieces.  Which gets even more complicated when you throw in that a piece could have been modified--is the trim on that 18th century gown original, or an addition for a 19th century costume ball?

Let's say for the point of argument, though, that the piece you're looking at is an unmodified, documented 18th century piece.  There is still that question of norms--you've proven that the item counters any "nevers" that might be thrown at it.  But it is a "usually?" Or a "rarely" that fits your persona well?

Coming back to the problem with "always" and "never," the mindset actually gets in the way of good historical research into clothing norms.  When we set the bar at "never," we invite people to find an outlier and use it to "prove" that what they are doing is correct to the period.  Unfortunately, "always" and "never" are much easier to enforce than "a wide range of possibilities that exist on a spectrum from rare to extremely common."  And given the extreme of research I'm suggesting above for determining norms,'s understandable if not everyone wants to invest that kind of time.  (Truly. We all like different things about living history--some of us love digging into research, and that's not a "better than" like.)  When we create clothing guidelines for organizations or events, we often have to set limits. (Here's a lovely, complete set of guidelines for a progressive Brit unit.) I've done it in my own unit--our guidelines include "please don't" for instances I know may be documentable--but I don't feel they're documentable *norms* for our purposes.  However, I make sure that this is transparent--I am not claiming that women never wore this garment, but that this garment does not accurately represent a norm for us.

So--always and never? Problematic on a few levels. Determining norms?  A much more complete historical picture, even if it's a pain in the rear.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Woman's Place

Gender and reenacting.

Well, that's done.

I recently read a trio of well-written pieces on this issue.  Discussing the upcoming Boston Massacre event, Our Girl History unpacked some of the problems of accurate portrayal of women (and lack of appropriate roles).  Kitty Calash posted a response, and pointed out our inherent bias in gravitating toward male-dominated historical events to begin with and the need for more focus on people in the margins.  Fife4Life posted an articulate response from a male perspective asking how we balance modern expectations with historical realities.

And still the questions remain....When recreating male-dominated events, should women be present at all? In strictly document-able numbers?  In what ways? Much of the history we work within is heavily male-oriented: battles, riots, signings of important documents.  What place does a woman have?

And when she doesn't have a place in the immediate vicinity of the event itself, should she be there at all?

The anal historical part of me aims toward the nitpicky.  Not right for the period, right out.  But the educator in me starts to ask some other questions, questions about the value of all the stuff that focusing on single events and momentous days leaves *out.* Let's be honest--the draw for a re-created military engagement is greater than the draw for Random Tuesday Afternoon in 1778 when it comes to events (which I am focusing on--not sites and museums, but specific recreated events).  We have limited opportunities to engage and educate, and part of me says "if people are going to show up to watch the Gun Show, then that's where we have to hit them with the other elements, as well."  We don't want to revise history, but what about editing it?

Because we're working with edited history, no matter what we do.

Hold on, don't get crabby.

First, we're working with edited timelines and edited spaces.  The spaces and timeframes available to us are seldom in precise alignment with the spaces and timelines historically.  For most events, we're compressing something that took much longer into a shorter timeframe--the battle lasted X hours, but the machinations of getting everyone there and the retreats and the mopping up and the skirmishes on the sidelines--we pick what to focus on, and that's editing.  The space--most events have camps and have fields of battle (and have restroom facilities over the hill and a parking lot for the tourists...).  These spaces are often compressed by necessity.  Two hundred years ago, there was nothing here, but the Gundersons five miles down the road didn't want anyone pitching a tent in their begonia patch and neither did the rest of their neighbors, so the camp is going to be a lot closer to the field than historically correct.  Even when we pick a precise moment in a precise place, like the Boston Massacre event.  Even if we time the elements of the event to correspond with the best research.  We won't be showing the treating of the wounded extending into the next week, will we? Or people venturing out to discuss with their neighbors the next morning?  Also editing.

Editing isn't a bad thing by nature--editing is just clipping and cropping for necessity's sake and for impact's sake.  I'm sure any bright reader would notice quickly that of course showing Timmy Smith succumbing to his infected wounds a week post-Monmouth isn't really in keeping with the concept of highlighting an "event" in history--even though Timmy's sad demise is certainly a part of the historical event known as The Battle of Monmouth.

Thing is, if we can acknowledge that we're editing regardless of our good intentions, we can acknowledge that what we choose to present to the public is often editing out women's contributions and stories.  (See, I brought it back to gender.)  No, there were no women on the field of battle (or, rather, very few), but there were women in military camps and in adjacent towns.  When we edit the scope to "The Battle of" we edit out women's stories that were happening simultaneously.  I tend to think that there is value in these stories.  So how to focus the lens to avoid editing them out--or revising history by introducing a cast of characters in roles they should play?

So often this comes back to tired arguments--should women be allowed to dress as men? What about women on the field in other ways? I'm not talking about those right now--they've been discussed quite a bit and suffice to say, I'm not trying to suggest here that inserting women into roles they didn't play is the sole solution to this editing issue.  (And even though I'm focusing on women here, you could probably come up with a laundry list of marginalized people who are usually edited out--civilians, especially the poor, plus enslaved men and women...this conversation might start around gender but it quickly balloons.)

Maybe that space and time constraint "problem" can come back to help us.  If we have to have the camp a quarter mile from the field anyway, then the women in those camps can certainly be telling their stories and we can embrace this element of engagement as a valid mode of education.  (Yes, I am accommodating mainstream reenacting preference for a "camp" camp and not focusing solely on a more progressive mode--but even if I were, space is still an element we deal with, right?)  Historically, there was a town over there with people trying to live their lives.  No, they didn't come to watch the battle...but neither did a crowd of modern spectators.  Can they be introduced into the space in a way that permits broadening the understanding of the event and the period?  I'm a huge fan of letting living historians in marginalized roles serve as tour guides and "answer people," thereby allowing them to share their own voices.  It shows the public that you don't need a musket to be a participant in history (while acknowledging that the public wants to see things go boom.  I get it--I like seeing things go boom sometimes, too).

And as for timelines, if we have to accelerate (or, more rarely, slow down) a single event for educational consumption (sorry, Timmy), we may create opportunities for precursor and reactionary events that happened earlier or later.  Perhaps I, as a lady of some quality, should quit the area before the riot breaks out.  That doesn't mean I can't be talking about it with spectators five minutes later down the road (even if I wouldn't be in that space and time historically--to be honest, neither would they).  Part of our work with the public is discussing and digesting, not just presenting.  There is room here for introducing elements that have traditionally been edited out.

Sometimes the time crunches and space constraints that seem at first glace to be obnoxious anachronisms are in fact opportunities.  As long as everyone is on the same page and clear with the public about changes made to accommodate a re-creation (which will *always* be made to some degree, however accurate we wish to be), we can broaden, in a sense, by accepting and working with the narrowing.  Even when it's imperfect, I do believe that the presence of women in many historical events is important for telling a story that *did* exist, even if it existed a mile or so over thataway.  We just have to be intelligent and honest about it, and consider how to do so respectfully.  

My view? Don't revise history, but work within the constraints to provide education and voices that would otherwise be edited out by space and time constraints.