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.

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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.

Coming Back To LA…

It’s been a long day flying back to LA from Virginia (actually Washington/Dulles)- The flight for Denver was scheduled for 5 am which meant that I had to be at the airport sometime between 3 and 4 am (which in turn meant that I had to actually wake up around 2 am). Dulles Airport is huge, now imagine it with almost zero people. Weird. After enduring the usual TSA protocols and waiting, I was finally aboard and headed west to Denver. Since the plane was mercifully empty, I was actually able to get comfortable and catch up on some sleep during the 3 1/2 hour flight.

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Denver was COLD and rainy- fortunately, I didn’t have to go outside but I could feel the cold plenty as I exited the plane. It’s been awhile, to say the least- I’ve been dealing with temperatures in the 90s and 100s for so long that I forgot what anything else is like. 🙂

Heading southwest out of the Denver towards Burbank, the weather improved a bit and the sun came out…

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And then for a short hop over the Rockies…

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And finally landing at Hollywood-Burbank (aka Bob Hope) Airport where I’d started from some four days before…

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And what was the fashion of the day, you might ask? Jeans, T-shirt, and overshirt. Yeah, nothing fancy and meant solely for practicality. Unfortunately, the nature of modern day air travel doesn’t really allow for anything else…certainly not this…

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And as for meals, it’s not this…

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But this… 🙂

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But we make things work as elegantly as possible and that’s our motto here at Lily Absinthe! 🙂

 

 

Off To Virginia…

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Lately it seems that my weekends have been a blur of activity and this coming weekend is no exception. Today, I’m catching a plane for Dulles/Washington DC to participate in a WWII Era event at the Americans in Wartime Museum (aka “The Tank Farm”) in Nokesville, Virginia. I’ll be falling in with a living history group portraying the 26th US Cavalry, Philippine Scouts who will be portraying late 1941/early 1942. Previously, I’d worked with a number of the group’s members at a previous living history event in Columbus, New Mexico in March 2016 and had a good time with them, so I thought that I’d return them the favor. I’ll be on my own for this one and from a fashion perspective, the order of the day is the US summer uniform for officers. 🙂

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It won’t the typical sort of WWII event in that we’ll be portraying some of the last days of mounted cavalry. I’ve already shipped the bulk of my equipment so there’s not a whole lot of baggage to deal with so that’s a plus. Unfortunately, there’s no direct flight (change planes in Denver) so it’s going to be a long day travelling. Fortunately, I’ll have some time to recover before actually starting the event itself Friday afternoon.

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The Old And The New…

This sort of an event is a bit out of my normal zone when it comes to living history but I’m open to doing something different (2017 has been a year of changes and new things, to be sure). However, the idea of getting back on a horse and doing cavalry is just too powerful so there it is. 🙂 I’ll post some pictures when I have more so stay tuned!

Back From Pennsylvania…

I completely admit that this post is bit tardy, considering that I attended this event back in April, so I apologize for the lateness of this post…enjoy!


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Recently I took a break from the usual round of activities to travel back east to Newville, Pennsylvania to attend the Great War Association’s (GWA) Spring 2017 battle event. For those of you who may not know, the GWA is an umbrella organization for First World War reenacting that draws reenactors from all over the nation (and even Canada) and they sponsor two events yearly at their site in Newville, one in the Spring and one in the Fall. Events typically draw anywhere from 300 to over 600 reenactors (Fall is typically the better attended event). The site itself is a small-scale recreation of a First World War battlefield complete with shell craters, trenches, bunkers, and even burnt-out buildings- it’s truly a “reenactor’s reenactment”.

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Here I am looking all heroic and all…

I’ve been involved in the First World War reenacting for over 20 years and I have always meant to participate in a GWA event but, as usual, life usually got in the way until this Spring when I decided that I needed a small break from the usual so off I went. The logistics of getting there was interesting to work out, especially since I’d never been there before, but in the end it all worked out. I found that flying into Baltimore was the most practical- there are cheap non-stop flights available on Southwest Airlines and rental cars are easy to arrange at affordable prices (of course, it’s even cheaper if you’re traveling with others). Finally, I was able to get a couple of good motel rates for before and after the event itself- it pays to book early. 🙂

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We three Bavarians…

Weather-wise, Pennsylvania presented a bit of a contrast to what I am used to in Southern California- it was warm and humid  during the day (and really warm when the sun would come out) combined with the occasional shower. At night, the temperature would drop almost 20 to 30 degrees and on the last night of the event, it was freezing. In many ways, this mirrored the actual Western Front experience although we only had to “endure” for two days.

So, what’s the clothing tie-in? I thought  you’d never ask…well, in contrast to what I normally deal in, the order of the day is wool…lots of wool in shades of feldgrau and steingrau. Below is feldgrau as defined by the RAL color standard (RAL is the German color standard that was initially developed in 1927 and is the equivalent of the American Federal Color Standard System). Below is the RAL standard for feldgrau:

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And for steingrau:

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Of course, color standards are only an approximation and especially since it was developed after the First World War. Here’s an approximation of what feldgrau often looked like:

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Needless to say, the subject of color is very subjective so the above is just to give a general idea.

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Me coming out of the rain. Lack of sleep caught up with me…and yes, the wool does repel water (to a point)

As to the uniform itself, I am wearing the 1915 (1916 pattern for Bavarians) pattern coat, or bluse, which was a wartime simplification of the basic tunic. For trousers, I am wearing the prewar 1907 pattern. As for comfort, well things can get itchy sometimes and definitely hot in warmer weather but in cold weather, it serves its purpose very well.

Overall, it was a fun and exciting trip and I am looking forward to returning in the Fall. 🙂

Winding Down 2016…

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Well, 2016 is winding down and I can finally take a small break. 2016 has been a very busy year for Karin and I here at Lily Absinthe. Between traveling to No. 11 in Tombstone, conventions, and designing and creating our line of bridal fashions, it’s been a full plate and for 2017 it looks like more of the same. For me personally, it’s been a year of personal growth as I have worked to expand my technical knowledge of design and fashion history. While the road has been bumpy at times and required a major investment of time and energy, the rewards have been personally satisfying and has given me a sense of personal accomplishment.

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Making some final adjustments…

For 2017, I plan on moving further and exploring the various facets of 19th and early 20th Century fashion and while there will, no doubt, be many challenges, I look forward to them because in the end, it can only have a positive outcome. 🙂

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Fashion doesn’t always happen in the Atelier… 

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It all starts here…