The Modern Reenactor recently posted a fantastic article on one of our most fundamental choices as reenactors--evidence or preference? Read it. Digest it. It's a tough question to answer for many of us, but it's a valid one to force ourselves to engage in--not just once at the outset of our time in the hobby, but many times as we progress. Am I doing/wearing/saying/presenting this because I have *evidence* for it, or because I like it and think it's cool? Is it an interpretation of evidence, or a creative riff?
As is my wont, however, there is one area I'm forced to quibble with. This is the strict delineation implied by "research" or "just your imagination." (And I will add, this is a delineation I do not assume The Modern Reenactor intended to make, but one I as a reader interpreted, and it worth addressing.) The trouble with many of the impressions we research is that there is a gap between sources and what we would actually need to recreate to present a full impression (and, er, ourselves fully clothed). Interpretation, in fact, implies this--we aren't transposing or copying but "interpreting" what may be a wide and varied body of evidence from abstract into tangible forms.
Our job as reenactors, when there are such gaps, is to work to narrow them. The shorter the leap we have to make, the better. In the vast majority of impressions, it's just not possible to know everything for 100% certain from the primary sources from the precise region and precise era of interpretation. This is one of those "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know" areas--you don't realize how much there is to document and understand until you're up to your ears, and how much variance between regions, socio-economic classes, and short periods of time can truly matter (and also, when it doesn't matter). When we work to narrow the gaps, we may not have perfect answers, but we do have evidence for the choice that we make.
There will be gaps. So, what to do about the gaps?
First and foremost, "look before you leap" is obvious. Research FIRST, widely, completely, before making a leap at a hypothesis. When you have a hypothesis, continue to test it with research. Look first. Don't dive into shallow water. You get the idea.
1) Just don't do that impression. Look, it's not ideal, but it also isn't said enough--if the research isn't there, you don't *have* to do that impression. Assess how wide the gaps are--are you making flying leaps or well-researched hops? There may be many reasons an impression appeals to you, and even many reasons that it's a worthwhile impression to do, but that doesn't mean it's required. This is a tough question, and I hope I'm not coming across as a big meanie by suggesting you ask it, but it's necessary: Is the stuff you'd have to invent outweighing the stuff you have evidence for? Is the potential value of the impression truly greater than the introduction of fictions? If you can't scrounge up enough research to close the gaps, it's allowed--encouraged, in some cases, even--to decide this just isn't a great idea at this time. Maybe more research will emerge. Maybe you'll have more time to archive-surf later. Maybe something else will capture your attention and this will remain a wistful dream of an impression that wasn't.
Aside: I know that this is particularly difficult and pernicious area to critique, as many under-represented people can fall into the category of "wide gap." However, many don't. Don't assume that just because marginalized people, such as enslaved African Americans, impoverished women, or indentured servants, did not write about their own experience that their lives are not well-documented. Runaway ads, court documents, sketches and images, and more provide a lot of illuminating information. I'm not suggesting ignoring marginalized people--in some cases, these impressions could be *better* documented from sources than those we assume would be widely sourced, such as some military units.
But sometimes the gaps are narrow enough to justify making an impression work--and thank goodness, or else we'd be screwed when it comes to accurate portrayal of the diversity of the time periods we portray!
2) Find cognates. In language, there are words that are just enough alike across languages that foreign speakers understand them. So, too, in historical research. Know your close relations. If your intended impression is Anglo-American, branch out into other Anglo-American areas--not something someone did once in Sweden. This is one of the biggest errors on the research learning curve in my experience. New researchers first aim for simply "It exists! I found a thing!" and fail to place A Thing in the right contexts. Like goes with like. Closest neighbors--not only regionally, but culturally and socially--are most likely to relay cognate information than distant relations. If you simply cannot discover cap norms for married women in Connecticut in 1772 but have good information for Boston...well, Boston is pretty darn close.
3) Understand your background. The emphasis on using primary sources to research and document our work sometimes has the unintended consequence of new researches--and old hats--skipping an overarching understanding of the time period in order to delve after details. Secondary sources and "basic" history texts can actually be quite helpful here. How did trade routes and information dissemination work in the area you're researching? Who settled that area? Over what period of time? When was That Thing invented, and how quickly did it take off? What social and cultural norms were driving people? When you have a decent framework, relating primary research to what you want to document becomes much easier.
4) Understand what is the exception and what is the rule. I've blathered on sufficiently about aiming for norms in this hobby, but to reiterate--this is important here. Understanding norms helps us know what makes sense and what doesn't. Narrowing the gap means coloring within the lines until we have a good reason to stray outside of them--and that reason isn't solely "it makes sense to me" or "What I would do if I were there is..."' but based on research. Say I've got about a thousand images of rich, poor, and middling women in city, countryside, and even prison wearing stays. Should I decide that, despite this, marginalized women would never wear stays because it doesn't make sense to my modern sensibilities that, say, a woman on the frontier would "burden herself" with stays? Of course not. However, to push this further: Should I take a *single* reference to unstayed women in one frontier setting to extrapolate that NO women on the frontier wore stays and therefore craft an entire impression around it with no further primary evidence? No, I probably shouldn't. That isn't to say that it's not possible that such a woman in such a setting existed--but unless I am portraying her, precisely, I should exercise caution when it comes to outliers.
5) Take risks but be willing to be wrong. At some point, you make the leap. This is a unique element to research in reenacting that most academics don't encounter--sure, they publish an article or give a paper at a conference about their research (and making a dumb mistake might follow them around for a long time), but we have the additional privilege (and stress) of creating a tangible representation of the past (in which we actually have to wear a dumb mistake and encounter pictures of ourselves in said dumb mistake years later). After all the research, the documentation, the hours scrounging the sources, we pull the trigger, cut out the fabric, put needle to thread, and create. This is where risk comes in--you must be willing to admit that you were wrong if it turns out you made the wrong choice.
If there's one lesson new and old reenactors alike could learn, it's to leave your pride at the door. That is, you do your best, you put in the work, but if it turns out you screwed up? You screwed up. It's a learning experience, and you do better next time. The problem isn't when we close gaps with mistakes, but when we refuse to correct those mistakes and take responsibility for sharing that "yes, I tried, and I didn't get it right, and--this is important--do NOT do what I did." Share your mistakes proudly--they're the result of research, too, and they ultimately further our goal by demonstrating what not to do. That old "100 ways not to make a lightbulb" quote from Edison comes to mind--even mistakes are valuable.
So, long and short of it--between evidence and preference lies a murky area of interpretation, and we should try to fall as close to evidence as we can, narrowing our gaps, and looking deeply and carefully before making leaps.