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.

No comments: