When it comes to recreating the fashions of a past era, it’s all too easy to fixate on a particular style element and make assumptions that are not necessarily supported by the evidence. One such style element is are pockets that were found on some dresses in the 1875 – 1876 time frame. These pockets have been the subject of some debate over the years and it has been theorized that they were meant to hold a fan, gloves, a handkerchief, or more improbably, a small parasol.
A good friend of ours who blogs on the Broke Costumer has written a blog post discussing the issue of pockets on dresses and it provides a good overview of the subject. Citing various period sources, the author builds a compelling case that ultimately concludes while there was some functional use for handkerchiefs or gloves, ultimately these pockets were meant as a decorative element and as such was a fad.
I strongly urge people to be critical and do their own research. Just as importantly, I urge people to consider how a style element was used: was it meant to be functional? Decorative or somewhere in between? Moreover, was that element in common, everyday use? Unless one is deliberately attempting to portray the exception, it’s best to keep to what was common. Finally, in doing one’s research, one much survey a variety of sources to build a general picture. Simply relying on one or two photographs or illustrations to establish a general idea on how prevalent a style element was or, just as important, how it was used.
One classic, if not extreme, example of this can be found with this Civil War picture of Captain Samuel J. Richardson, commander of Co. F, 2nd Texas Cavalry:
Yes, those are Jaguar skin trousers! 🙂 If one did not know anything further, one would conclude that this was a common uniform item for Confederate officers. However, even with a little cursory research, one will quickly see that this was not the case. Now this may be an extreme example but it does illustrate the potential pitfall if one fails to do their research and simply rely on one picture for one’s research. While it may not be necessary to re-invent the wheel in doing one’s research, it pays to be familiar with primary sources along with relevant commentary by knowledgeable authorities.
Finally, it must be noted that reenactorisms often get their start through flawed research, especially when that research validates one’s preexisting ideas, especially when it creates a “look” that agrees with our modern-day sensibilities. It’s an easy trap to fall into and yes, even I have been guilty of this.
While naturally one is free to recreate whatever fashions they want, be aware that they may not necessarily be historically accurate (and be prepared to be possibly called out on it). However, if one is attempting to work with the styles of a particular period to create something that is true to that period, it is incumbent upon them to perform their due diligence and know what is accurate and what is not.