Monday, June 25, 2012

Costume or Period Clothing?

There was a bit of a discussion on Facebook recently with a reenactor friend. She posted on her profile page the following question:

Why is it offensive when people (visitors) call our clothing "costumes"??? 

My response was:
Costume: non-accurate pretend clothing to give an impression, whether it be of another era in time or a clown or Santa Claus, etc. Many will use velcro (or zippers) instead of accurate closures (buttons, hooks & eyes).
Period clothing: Accurate styles of another era in history replicating as accurately as one can (including underpinnings and undergarments) the clothing of whichever era one is attempting to emulate. These will be made by using the same materials and patterns as original garments.

And then I also added:
By the way, I don't get offended when a visitor calls it a costume. I will kindly let them know that what we wear are accurate period clothing, and then will explain to the visitor the difference between the two. 
I do get offended, however, when another reenactor - one who should know better - calls what I wear a costume.

The original poster then added the following:
Here's why I asked this question...being a former Library Assistant whenever something like this comes up I like to refer to a good source of information. Like all of you, I started to get offended by my clothing being called a "costume". BUT here's what the "Illustrated Oxford Dictionary" gives as definitions. 1. a style of dress, especially that of a particular time, place or class. 2. a set of clothes. 3. clothing for a particular activity. 4. an actor's clothes for a part. 5. a woman's matching jacket and skirt.

Furthermore....the Columbia Encyclopedia 5th ed. gives an almost full page description of the topic of costumes, mainly calling it "distinctive forms of clothing" It goes into clothing of various centuries and countries focusing on the different articles that compose a particular time and place costume. Example: an American lady of the mid-19th century would goes into all the articles of clothing (including underpinnings and what materials the clothing (costume) used to be made of. Your thoughts on this now.... Maybe we should say yes it's a costume, but unlike an actor's or Halloween....our costumes are based on authentic, period correct examples.

I responded with:
I stand by what I wrote. We can discuss this in person if you'd like. You wear your costume and I'll wear my period clothing. But give all reenactors and living historians the respect they deserve and call it period clothing, for that's what we prefer.
Furthermore, "farby" is not in the dictionary but we all certainly know what that word means.

Now that's where my part of the discussion ended on this thread (ha! get it? thread? such a witty guy!).
But you know me better than that, don't you? I can't just let it go...

We don't call our modern day clothing a costume, do we?
We don't call a young lady's prom dress or a young man's tux a costume, do we?
And can you imagine the horror of a reenactor dressed in mourning clothing hearing someone call what they have on a mourning costume?
"Yes, dear, she wears that black costume because she's pretending that someone she loves died."
I'm shuddering just thinking about it!
Believe me when I say that what this woman in mourning is wearing is not a costume

The Amish and Mennonites: their clothing, especially in the Amish community, is quite different from our modern styles, correct? Kind of old-fashioned in comparison but not quite "period." And yet we would (hopefully) not call what they wear a costume.
Nor would we call the vestment or robe of a priest or what an old-style nun wears a costume - whether you are Catholic or not - if only out of respect for their beliefs (although I see priest and nun costumes in a costume shop - kind of offensive when you think about it. It is disrespectful in my opinion. But who am I...). 
To me, calling the authentic clothing from another era in time a 'costume' when one knows better is a slap in the face not only to the wearer, but to the one who spent the time researching and sewing the garments and, more importantly, to those who wore the clothing when it was originally in style.
I have seen my wife, as well as other women & men, spend hours upon hours making clothing and accessories (accurate style bonnets, belts, collars), attempting (and succeeding) to emulate the styles of the past to a "T" - I dare you to call what they made a "costume."
However, when a non-reenacting visitor comes up and says something like, "I like your costume," I don't get offended. I simply will say "thank you" and proceed to educate them in the world of historical clothing.
It's the same with my carpet bag: I get many people - reenactors included - calling me a 'carpet-bagger,' which then leads me to discuss and teach them the history of the carpet bag and why it is inappropriate to call me such a derogatory name before the Civil War's end.
And since I very rarely will time-travel past early 1865, there will be little chance for anyone to use such a disparaging term on me.
Again, I would expect to hear such terms as 'costume' and maybe even 'carpet-bagger' from the general public, but hopefully not from other living historians.
Costumes? I think not...!
I suppose it's that we, as living historians, take our 'hobby' very seriously. Yes, it's pretending. And yet, it isn't. I mean, in many cases, when we are at a reenactment, we really are living the life of one from the 1860's, aren't we? It's not just imagination. We've taken that childhood make-believe and brought it to such a level that we almost feel as if we've actually been transported. And when we are able to make the visitor feel as if they have traveled through time with us through our clothing, actions, speech, and surroundings, then you know it's not's a history lesson like one has never experienced before...
And that just cannot happen in a costume.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you get offended at such terminology?

~ (Just so everyone knows, there was no malice or bad intent of the woman who posted the query in the first place. She only wanted to get a discussion going and hear others opinions) ~

By the way, here are a few links that pertain to the subject at hand:
The Cost and Satisfaction of Civil War Living History (With Notes on Men's Clothing)
More on Time Travel and How To Accomplish It
Researching History - Expand Your Knowledge
Reenactors in Tintypes
More Reenactors In Tintypes


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Small-Town USA: The Dexter, Michigan Civil War Event

We did a living history event recently in Dexter, Michigan. Dexter is a rural community in the Ann Arbor vicinity and still has many of its original buildings from 100+ years ago. But we were not in town; instead we were on the property of Historic Gordon Hall, a Greek antebellum structure built in the 1840's located on 50 acres of open farmland.  This set the stage for a fine day in the past.
The reenactors who attended were not your laid-back mainstream living historians but, rather, those who prefer to take it that extra step to raise the living history bar.
What was nice about this event was its rural atmosphere. All around was nothing but farmland and, of course, Gordon hall. It wasn't overwhelming by any means, and that gave us a chance to sit back and enjoy each others company. And when the public showed up, we were also able to present ourselves in a more authentic manner because we weren't swarmed over with 50 visitors at a time. Not that I mind the public visiting us - I actually love it - but every-so-often it's nice to have an event that gives us living historians a chance to sit back a bit and visit with one another 'out in the field,' and also the chance to take more time with the public.
I love it that Patty brought her spinning wheel which, of course, drew the wondering and curious public into her 'realm' while the rest of us took the opportunity to speak with the visitors about the different aspects of our 1860's lives, including clothing; there are always a ton of clothing questions.

My favorite part of this event was the greeting of President & Mrs. Lincoln upon their arrival in a white horse-drawn carriage. The two who portray our 16th President and 1st Lady, Fred and Bonnie Priebe, take their roles very seriously, and that makes it much easier for the rest of us to get into our roles as 1860's citizens. In fact, I've seen others do Lincoln and think of them as imposters next to the Priebe's. I even had one Lincoln call me a carpet-bagger! I walked up to him and said, "Now, Mr. Preseident, how would you know about that term?"
He looked at me questioningly.
"Sir, you wouldn't know about the evils of the carpet-baggers," I reminded him. "You were dead during reconstruction!"
Anyhow, here are some portals into the past for you to look at.
I hope you enjoy them.

As my wife spins, our domestic servant takes care of the growth tuck in my daughter's dress
My son takes a well-deserved break from the rigors of army life. They had to sound the bugle twice to wake him!
Another of my sons minds the cooking fire

The military prepares for President Lincoln's arrival

The Presidential carriage arrives

President & Mrs. Lincoln prepare to greet the public
But first they pay honor to the fighting Union army, hoping to keep the United States united
Mr. Matthew Brady should be so lucky to have been as close to the President as I
The President gave a rousing oration, giving those of us in the audience the faith that we will whip the rebels
Some of the enthralled audience. Yes, even though the women cannot vote, many do pay close attention to our government officials
The women do adore listening to a good orator as much as any man. And President Lincoln is certainly a fine orator!
Michigan's own Senator Jacob Howard meets with the President
And your local postmaster and photographer was also lucky enough to meet and greet our President
The President and 1st Lady were very happy to allow me to take an image of them during this historic occasion
Many of the townsfolk gathered around the Great Hall to enjoy a summer day. And it certainly was a fine day at that!


Friday, June 8, 2012

Are We Traveling Through Time and Space...or is it Mind-Travel?

Okay, so here you are at a Civil War reenactment dressed in your period finest. This event just happens to take place at an open-air museum, so - lucky for you - you are surrounded by historic structures. It's a slow moment during this particular event and you happen to enter one of these old houses, looking around at the Victorian furniture and eying the way the pieces are arranged, imagining this home being your house.
And then it hits - - - -
This strange, other-worldly feeling...a feeling that is nearly indescribable:
Your senses, only for a split-moment - or maybe for a few seconds - gives you an impression that you are there, in the past...that you crossed over the realm of time...

Was I really there...or not...?

And just as fast - snap! - you return.
You think for a moment..."What just happened here? Was I really there? Did I just experience a journey through time?"
You then shake your head as if to say "This is crazy!" and carry on per normal.
But the queer feeling of this experience remains with you.
Has that ever happened to you?
I ask this question because it has happened to me.
More than once.
In fact, over the past dozen years or so I would say it has happened - really happened -3 or 4 times.
Now, I've had friends who have told me this happens to them "all the time."
I'm sorry but I don't believe 'em.
I don't believe this very ethereal feeling I experienced "happens all the time."
Not this particular feeling.
And for those who have experienced it, well, you know what I mean.
The folks I have spoken to about it and have admitted to experiencing it for themselves do not respond so casually or nonchalantly. They get this understanding look in their eye and their body language tells me that this is not an occurrence that is taken lightly.
Maybe those who think they experience this "all the time" have more of a 'Hollywood memory moment,' where their surroundings may remind them of a particular scene from a Hollywood historical movie or television show, and the memory is so strong that it mentally replays in their head and gives them a similar feeling, almost as if they are in the scene. This has happened to me as well and I have found it's easy to initially get the two confused. The following is something I wrote three years ago and may be one of those 'Hollywood memory moments':
(It) happened on this particular weekend while inside of Wolcott Mill where the church service was being held. The preacher waited patiently while the congregation was being seated in the old gristmill. It was a very cold morning and the temperature got down to 29, frosting the ground and tents up. Just before the service was about to begin I turned to look behind me and saw a young woman with her two children walk in to hopefully find a couple open seats. She was dressed as warmly as she could and, although I do not believe the intent was there, she did come off as a rather poor farm woman. Just at the moment she found seats for herself and her children, my peripheral vision faded and all that I could see was what I might have seen were it truly 1862. It was a 'moment.' No, not time-travel per se' - - just a moment. The neat thing is that my wife, for her first time, felt it as well.

The reason I feel this might have been more of a 'Hollywood moment' rather than an actual you-are-there experience is because of my wife experiencing the same time/same scene as I.
Then again, maybe I did actually experience it and she had the Hollywood moment.
Or...hmmm...wouldn't it be cool if we both truly did experience it at the same time and were really there together? One never knows...

I remember the first experience I ever had of this sort of thing. It was up in the very Victorian Village of Holly, Michigan while I was taking part in the Dickens Festival. Please understand, the Dickens Festival is a fun, very non-historically accurate festival, where costumes and make-shift "Victorian" clothing reigns supreme. But at this time I didn't know very much about period clothing (this took place in 2000 - before my venture into living history) and I thought I was the epitome of an English Victorian gentleman in my long wool coat, silk vest & tie, and top hat.
So here I was, on a break from the festivities enjoying my time roaming in a very large, dark, antique store with multiple rooms throughout. Since this particular store was a bit off the beaten path there were only one or two other customers in the shop. As I moved freely throughout I suddenly got this dizzying feeling where, as described above, my peripheral vision faded and all that I could see was what was directly in front of old desk with candles in holders setting upon it. That aberrant feeling of "am I really here? " swept over me.
And I couldn't control it.
Even sounds became fuzzy.
Then, as suddenly as the sensation came upon me, it disappeared. I freaked a bit, for I had never experienced anything like that previously and I was a bit discombobulated and even a little frightened.
I had to get out.
Just as I turned to head out of that room  a woman - a customer - nearly jumped out of her skin at the sight of me and said, "Oh my! You scared me! You looked like you just came out of the walls!"
This is a verbatim quote (I keep a daily journal and this is what I wrote on that day back in 2000).
Pretty wild, huh?
Since that time I have experienced this strange sensation two or three more times. I have never had it happen while wearing modern clothing or in a modern setting while in period clothing.
It's only happened while in period clothing and in a period setting of some sort.
I am not quite sure what to make of it. I do know that I have come to look forward to experiencing that feeling again, though it's been since 2009 since it's happened.
I know that the majority of my readers are reenactors/living historians. I wonder, have you ever experienced this before?
What do you think?


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Questions I'd Love To See Answered

The following is a list of questions for you. If you'd like, answer one, two, ten, or all of them...but I'd love to hear from you.
How long have you into history?
What got you into it?
What was it that clicked inside your head that all of a sudden made you realize you had an obsession with the past?
Do you only study a certain era in history or all eras?
Do you only study American history or do you study world history?
Are you partial to daily life, politics, or wars of the past?
Whichever subject you chose (daily life, politics, or war), what interests you most about the chosen subject?
How do you do your research? Do you look up information on the internet or stick with history books?
If you research on the 'net, do you double or triple check the sources?
If by book, do you read multiple books on the same subject?
To what extent do you research?
If you reenact, why?
What makes you want to put on period clothing and subject yourself to ridicule by family and friends and strangers?
Is dressing in period clothing a want or a need? 
How do you feel while wearing accurate period clothing?
How long have you been doing living history?
To what extent do you portray one from the past: mainstream, progressive, or hardcore?
Do you believe in time-travel?
Actual time-travel or mind-travel?
Have you ever experienced "seeing the elephant" while reenacting, whether soldier or civilian?
In other words, have you ever felt you were "there"?
How do you feel upon entering a period home?
Does the feeling change when entering said home while in period clothing?

I would really love to see you who are reading this answer any or all of the above questions in my comments section. Seriously. I think it would be interesting to note the similarities as well as the differences between all of us history buffs, living historians, or both.
Call it my own anti-scientific experiment.
Anyhow, thank you ahead of time...