One of the most frustrating aspects of working with historic costume is when we encounter garments, hats, or other costume items whose creators adamantly insist that they are historically correct when clearly that is not the case. In these situations, one’s social skills are put to the test and while we want to scream “you are clearly wrong!”, our polite response is “That’s nice,” “Wow, that really shows some effort,” or “You look really pretty today.” Kindness wins.
While we naturally applaud those who go to the time and effort to create fantastical designs such as those found in Steampunk, we also take an exception to those who create “historical” fashions but have clearly done little or no research on their own. We could go on for days finding numerous examples on the internet and then ravaging them for their lapses in historical accuracy but ultimately it’s cruel and counterproductive.
Counterproductive? But shouldn’t one constantly be on guard against the historically inaccurate? Yes and no. For us, the bigger issue is: “are we on the clock?” For example, if we are working on a film where we are being paid to provide historically accurate wardrobe (or as historically accurate as the production designer, director and budget will allow), of course we will act in a swift and sure manner to preserve the integrity of the production.
Being “on the clock” also applies to our historical designs. If there are deviations from what is historically accurate, we are up-front about them. In some instances, we have had to make concessions to modernity due to availability of materials, client preferences, etc. Unfortunately, modern realities are part of recreating historical fashion and in some instances they can not be avoided. In the end, we are not paid to be the “costume police” and it’s a role we would prefer not having and we are not in the business of publicly calling people out. If you ask us privately what we think about a costume, we will be honest and supportive.
With that said, let’s look at some of the more common reasons why costumes fall short of the mark for historical accuracy. First, there are “reenactorisms”. Loosely defined, reenactorisms are those practices (for our purposes, as applied to costume) which have their basis in what reenactors or self-styled “living historians” do rather than what was historically done. Perhaps it the particular practice began as someone’s imperfect interpretation of something historical or simply someone making something up because they either didn’t know any better or were too lazy to properly research it. Some examples of reenactorisms often seen at late 19th historical events are ball gowns and evening dresses worn during the day, “saloon girls”, and men wearing far too many weapons.
Next, closely related to reenactorisms are those practices that can arise from various sources and are now preserved by “groupthink”. Roughly defined, Groupthink is:
…a psychological that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without consideration of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences or groups
While this phenomena is similar to reenactorisms, its scope is more limited to specific groups who, simply stated, “do things a certain way because that’s just the way it’s done” with no regard to whether or not the practice is historically justified. Any attempt to introduce new information that might compel change is extremely unwelcome.
One example of this that we have witnessed when a small women’s group decided that the only way to portray historically correct hairstyles of the 1870s and 1880s was for everyone to wear wigs. Not only were the wig hair styles historically questionable, but the wigs themselves did not look like any known hairpieces of the era. Unfortunately for the larger organization, this small group’s unfortunate fashion choice then became the de facto standard for a much larger group in which they belonged to. At no point were the use of wigs questioned; people in the larger group simply uncritically adopted the style thinking that it somehow “must be right”. Finally, yes we were asked at several points what our opinion of this practice was and we answered honestly and provided historical documentation but it was largely disregarded. C’est la vie.
Another phenomenon is what I call the “cool factor.” Essentially is a matter of people superimposing their modern sensibilities onto historic portrayals (“Look, I’m a walking arsenal just like in the movie xxx!”). One example of this is when it comes to firearms and especially for those recreating the Old West. Often times, men (and some women) will arm themselves to the teeth (literally in some cases) with multiple pistols, knives, and maybe a shotgun or rifle. Hey, I get it, it’s fun and you get to look larger than life. I too have been guilty of this: when I first started coming to Tombstone, I used to strap on my pistols and a knife or two and walk up and down Allen Street like something out of the movie Tombstone. However, in reality even the most dangerous gunfighter/desperado types rarely carried as much weaponry as modern reenactors even when they were expecting a fight.
Other reasons for costumes lacking historical accuracy can range from lack of research to attempting to take shortcuts in materials and/or construction. While taking shortcuts can be somewhat forgivable, lack of research is not. Now granted, the word “research” sounds somewhat intimidating but it really isn’t- it simply means reading up on the subject (aka “doing your homework”). While information resources were more limited before the advent of the internet, this is no longer the case today and there is a wealth of resources, both online and hardcopy, on 19th Century clothing that are readily accessible. Understanding 19th Century clothing is not difficult but it does require some thought to translate it into recreating garments of the period.
As for shortcuts, it’s understandable that people would want to take shortcuts wherever possible and we do it ourselves. However, the thing to remember is that the garment still has to have the correct period lines and details (i.e., the look) and this requires an attention to detail. In terms of materials, this can be more tricky but bear in mind that 19th Century fabrics had very specific uses and that it’s not always possible to get good results with fabrics made from manufactured or synthetic fibers, with a few exceptions, of course ( Blog post for another day!).
We have identified some of the sources behind why historic costume can miss the mark in terms of accuracy and while by no means is this survey exhaustive, it does offer a cautionary tale for anyone with a sincere desire to recreate historic fashions of the 19th Century (or any other period for that matter). Essentially, to have the right look, one must not only inform themselves about the subject, but they must also be willing to alter their beliefs as to what is correct in light of new information. We can never achieve total accuracy for the simple reason that we are not living in the all-encompassing world of the late 19th Century; a world that is impossible to completely recreate for a variety of reasons. To one degree or another, how we approach historical costume is affected by our modern beliefs and the best that we can do is to work around them. In short, we’re all a work in progress.