Authenticity, Reenactorisms, And Fantasy- A Reconsideration

The subject of historical authenticity is a hot-button issue in recreating historical fashions and it seems that hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a question on this issue. It’s been awhile since we first wrote this post and during that time we’ve constantly re-assessed our position. Furthermore, during this time of enforced isolation, we’ve had a lot of time to consider this issue and in the end, our position hasn’t changed much except perhaps we’ve tried to be open to new ideas and be receptive to change. So without further ado, let’s proceed… 🙂


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.

Trying to get things right- studying original garments is part of the game…

While we naturally applaud those who go to the time and effort to create some amazing designs, 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.

Is it wrong? Is it right? Choices have to be made and sometimes without the benefit of perfect information.

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.

Trying to beat the clock… 3 am at the atelier…

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.

During my gunfighter days…yes, I’m guilty!

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.

Period hairstyles? Go to the source… 🙂

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, we 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.

Sometimes one has to study original garments to get those details just right…

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!).

Sourcing the right fabric- sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much…

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.

Adam1

We always aim to be on target… 🙂

In the end, we believe that it’s essential to be true to oneself and understand and accept that one must constantly be learning, open to new ideas and to admit be ready to adapt and new information is discovered that changes how we view things. We looking forward to what the future brings.

And Something New From Maison Worth…

The output of Maison Worth seems to be a never-ending cornucopia of fashion delights and today is no exception with this Afternoon dress that was created by the Maison in the early 1890s:

Above is a view of the dress on display as part of a show commemorating the donation of a number of garments to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Unfortunately, the dress is no longer display and is in storage.

Worth, Afternoon Dress, c. 1890; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2015.688.a-b) Purchased with funds donated by Mrs Krystyna Campbell-Pretty in memory of Mr Harold Campbell-Pretty, 2015
This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of possibAGL Shaw AO Bequest

This dress is constructed from a combination of dark orange silk satin and dark orange patterned velvet ( possibly burnt out but it’s hard to tell). The inner skirt is constructed of the velvet fabric, trimmed with floral appliques while the outer skirt is the silk satin. The bodice is constructed to mimic an open vest and under-bodice, the under-bodice constructed of the same dark orange silk satin and the “vest” constructed of the dark orange patterned velvet. The sleeves are also made from the same velvet and the bodice front and cuffs is decorated in the same floral appliques as is the skirt. Overall, it’s a well thought out package and it hits all the right notes of elegance with a pleasing color scheme- this definitely reads “fall colors” although Victorians tended to not adhere to the seasons when it came to color.

For the silhouette, it’s hard to get a good read on it since we only have frontal photos to go on but it’s probably that this dates from the early 1890s, possibly 1889 or so and it appears that the dress has some fullness that’s been trained to the rear. We hope you’ve enjoyed this interesting example of Maison Worth’s craft- they didn’t just make elegant evening and ball gowns. 🙂

Fashion Publicity & Reaching The Mass Market…The Beginning

Today we take a look at fashion industry/haute couture in France began to transform itself from an obscure, closed world into a form that more closely resembles today’s fashion industry. “Fashion” as we know it today began to take form during the late 19th Century. Moreover, fashion was something that was entering the public consciousness on a scale broader than anything ever seen before. The industrial revolution played a major role in the development of fashion in a rising standard of living combined with the development of new methods of manufacturing textile goods made clothing more affordable for more people. Along with this was the rise of the middle class who now had the money and the leisure time to be able follow fashion more closely.

Jean BĂ©raud, Boulevard des Capucines,

Where fashion was once limited to a monarch and his court, fashion was now becoming far more defuse with a much wider audience following it. Just as important, fashion and clothing manufacturing were developing into large business enterprises and as a result, business concerns often drove fashion trends in a way similar today only on a more limited scale with a smaller clientele.

Pose de garnitures dans l’atelier de Worth, grand couturier parisien. Paris, 1907.

Along with the commercialization of fashion by Couturiers such as Charles Worth, Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret, and a host of others, was the need to more effectively market their fashions.1Interestingly enough, Worth was very adverse to the press and he limited his interviews with them and never allowed journalists into areas of his atelier where they might see new dresses. This was more out the fear of fashion piracy more than anything else. Where word-or-mouth was sufficient, more direct methods of getting fashion styles (i.e., product) before the public were needed and thus developed advertising, fashion journals, fashion plates, and later, fashion photography.

With the development of the fashion industry and marketing, those who followed fashion wanted to see these fashions “live”. The concept of the runway show as a public spectacle was still years off but other ways to show off the latest styles were employed.

If it's seen at Longchamps, then you're OK... :-)

If it’s seen at Longchamps, then you’re OK… As is the case today, being seen in a public place with the just the right outfit could make all the difference. 🙂

Once such method was dressing up models with the latest styles and sending them to various public social gathering, most notably the horse races at Longchamps and in particular, the Grand Prix de Paris which was held every year in July. More than just a horse race, it was a day-long affair that provided a venue for people to see and been seen and that of course meant what they were wearing. Naturally, the press covered these events and end was result was free publicity.

Races at Longchamps, Manet, 1867

Below are just a few of the examples of the styles worn at Longchamps during the period from 1900 to 1914.

Les Modes, 1904

Les Modes, July 1904

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Longchamps2

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The women in the above pictures are wearing versions of the lingerie dress and one can see the influence of the s-bend corset although the silhouette is somewhat muted by the fluffy layers of fabric on the dresses. These definitely fall in the 1900 –  1905 date range.

And sometimes, fashion at Longchamps could cause a sensation…below is a picture from 1908 of three models wearing designs by Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix (known simply as Margaine-Lacroix) and dubbed by the press “Les Nouvelles Merveilleuses”:

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c. 1908, “Les Nouvelles Merveilleuses” as dubbed by the press- these three models caused a furor at Longchamps when they arrived- these dresses, designed by Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix were considered scandalous at the time.

The above three dresses definitely got public attention, in part because they completely did away with the conventional corset while at the same time creating a skin-tight silhouette by utilizing stretch fabrics in the dresses themselves to create the form-fitting silhouette.2We would definitely like to know more about the underpinnings of these models because there’s no way this look could have worked without some corset-substitute. We’re thinking an early version of Spanx.

Here’s how Susie Ralph, a fashion historian, described it in an introduction that opened an exhibit on Margaine-Lacroix in 2013:

In 1908 Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix sent three mannequins to the Longchamp race-course clad in her form-revealing robes-tanagrĂ©ennes. These corsetless dresses caused a sensation among Paris’ fashionable crowd – a riot according to some newspaper reports. Worn without corsets and slit to the knee on one side over the most transparent of underskirts, their impact on the fashion world was instantaneous and resulted in major press coverage not only in Paris but around the world. In today’s parlance the style immediately “went viral”….It was Margaine-Lacroix’s daring vision that brought to an end the ideal of the rigidly corseted hour-glass figure, and ushered in the new, slim twentieth century silhouette.

Margaine-Lacroix is an interesting designer in her own right although she is relatively unknown today. Hopefully we’ll be writing more about her in the future.

Here, is where the above picture originally was featured:

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Controversy is no stranger to the world of fashion then or now and the debate over what exactly is too “revealing” still rages on. Later, from 1910 to 1914, we see the public event-as-fashion show hit new highs, helped along by better cameras and film as with these:

1912-at-the-races

1912, Watching the races standing on chairs. The lines on these two dresses reflect the moved towards a more sleek, upright silhouette. Goodbye s-bend!

1914

1914, Here is an interesting design incorporating a waistcoat and cutaway coat.

Longchamps provided a venue for people to see “fashion in action” and for us it’s a fascinating archive of living fashion history. We can see just how garments were worn, how they fit, and even gain some insight into the people who wore them. We’ve only touched the surface here and in future posts we hope to gain further insight. Stay tuned!