Monday, May 1, 2017

Evidence Versus Preference

When Historical Evidence Isn't Good Enough

This has been on my mind recently--it's one of those things that also just keeps resurfacing with no gains in either direction. What I mean to say is that reenactors have two choices when it comes to assembling their kit (i.e. clothing and equipment): basing the items on historical evidence or basing them on what they think looks cool (or "authentic"). So which one should we abide by?

Well there seems to be a pretty obvious answer: actual history, as in that type of history that really happened and is documented. That being said, many refute this answer for a variety of reasons, or at the very least fall into some "gray area" between relying on evidence and preference. And before you start thinking though that I want to separate the "good apples" from the "bad" (and thus toss people in categories and perpetuate cliques), I know that every one of the accuracy-minded reenactors started off at least in the "gray area" between an evidence-based kit and a preference-based one, if not entirely in the "this looks badass" (and I am by no means an exception!). I'm not pointing fingers and dividing people into categories, but what I am doing is offering a place to start from. I offer a new starting point in an argument between two polar-opposites so that we don't have to keep hashing out the same argument all over again from scratch (i.e. when someone posts a Facebook picture of their kit asking for advice, which then turns into an argument about beards). I also may not have all the answers and I don't consider myself by any means perfect, but I do hope this article may inspire at least some change. So let's look at the arguments I've seen over the years and try to untangle them:

1. "We just don't know what they actually had back then."


Do you really not have any evidence, or do you just not like the evidence that you found? I'm sorry if this question comes across as scathing, but it's honest and cuts to the chase. That's the first question you should ask yourself when you're researching for a new kit. I've seen Civil War guys arguing that their "odd man out" kit is accurate because they know that uniforms weren't issued to 100% of the soldiers. As a result, they then justify their imagination-based kit on the grounds that, since they don't have evidence for what the non-uniformed soldiers looked like in that unit, they can make almost anything they want--a "get out of research free card."


If your goal is living history, then you need to do your research. If your intention is Renaissance Faire, then go crazy (I'm not hating on Ren Faires, they simply don't have a strict accuracy-policy as that's really not their point). Primary sources (or sources produced in the period you're studying) are really the only ones you should rely on. That being said, there is value in balancing the primary sources with secondary ones as primary sources have limitations that might not be immediately apparent to you (i.e. "russet" could mean either a color or a fabric type for 17th century clothing, so reading a secondary source that analyzes the use of "russet" based on context would be valuable). Primary sources can be found by looking through "America's Historical Newspapers," searching paintings/watercolors/sketches/engravings from your period on Google search, reading diaries/journals/courts-martial/memoirs/autobiographies/letters, and looking through the footnotes/endnotes of a secondary source (sometimes books will even have a "For Further Reading"section around the bibliography). If you honestly can't find the sources, ask some experts--contact a museum, email a published historian whom you think might have some sources, or post a question on Facebook even and ask for historical sources and not opinions (maybe even email some of the artisans listed at the end of this article, asking for their advice).
Just don't make something up.

2. "People on the frontier were not at all like anyone else."


Snapshot from the Netflix series "Frontier"

This one should technically fall under the previous topic, but I wanted to address it on its own since I've seen this one so often. This is therefore a "I don't have enough information, so I'm going to do what looks cool and seems to work." My first thought on this is: don't impose a modern social philosophy on people you've never met. Just because someone in the 1750s is living on the frontier doesn't mean they've given up their European identity and culture. Until you find a source (and I can't stress this enough: a source for your persona, not a source from the Georgia frontier but you're a New York frontiersman) that explains how frontiersmen abandoned their culture (by say not shaving when their European culture was to shave), don't assume that they have abandoned it. Again, just because you personally in the 21st century would find shaving a pointless activity when you're hacking an existence from the wilderness doesn't mean that was how it was like during the period. Some social norms at the time were different than today and, being a norm, weren't written about. So in the absence of evidence for not shaving on the frontier in the 1750s, we have to assume based on the mountains of evidence for non-frontiersmen that shaving was just a social norm. Now this can get a little confusing especially as I just wrote previously that we need evidence to back up a claim: we have TONS evidence that men shaved in the 1750s and one or two pretty fuzzy ones (pun intended) that claim to the contrary. However, as 99% of male faces were shaved in the 1750s in North America, it's just safer to assume that frontiersmen were no exception rather than to argue with the 1% evidence that they may have been slightly bearded (percentages approximated).

Of course though, shaving is not the only thing, but it is a legitimate example for the "frontier-justification" that happens in reenacting. Just because it's hard to find concrete sources doesn't mean you have a free ticket to make up a kit. Use what you know to be true and have evidence to support. Create a kit with a strong foundation in historical evidence with as few guesses as possible. Such a kit will surprise you with just how cool it looks. 

3. "I'm a white frontiersman captured by Mohawk warriors, escaped, turned-ranger, who is now half-Mohawk, half-European."


Hawkeye from the movie "Last of the Mohicans"


How improbable is this? Also, how improbable is it to have like ten of them at the same event? What's wrong with showing the public at a living history event what was common and giving them a normal experience? This applies not only to the Hawkeyes out there, but also to the overabundance of non-regular troops. Yes, it's fun being unique and looking cool out there on the field, but it also paints a false image of your time period to the public who views the reenactment as a source of education. If half of the British force at the Battle of the Monongahela reenactment are rangers, what is the public going to take away from that event? When considering a new portrayal--especially if you're just starting out--I'd encourage you to start off with something you have lots of evidence for. Like playing a musical instrument (you start off playing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and eventually get to play the Beatles), you should start off easily with a kit that you can readily document. As you get to know the databases and which sources to trust more, then developing a harder-to-document kit will be easier and better based in history.
Don't be so quick to make things up.

4. "I can't afford the perfect, 100% accurate kit, so this is the best I can do."


Image may contain: one or more people
Photo credit: Wilson Freeman
Driftingfocus Photography
At first glance, I can definitely sympathize with this statement. The last thing I want is for reenacting to turn into some elitist hobby. That being said, you should go into reenacting as you would any hobby knowing that you will have to spend something. If you commission someone to make you a 100% hand-stitched kit using K&P fabric, yes it will be very expensive. If you're not loaded and this is your first kit, don't go that route. In fact, I recommend you start by making your own stuff.

To make your own kit, you really only need to know three types of stitching techniques: the running stitch, the whip stitch, and the (most common) back stitch. Many historical stitches are basically variants on these three. You can learn all three in under ten minutes from Youtube videos. Practice on a piece of dirt-cheap muslin (obtained from a local craft store). Then, assemble your first shirt. Three yards of a light-weight, bleached 100% linen should easily get you what you need and for $30 or less from fabrics-store.com. Three yards of heavier linen could make a waistcoat and breeches (plus some linen for lining). An additional three yards (plus lining) could make a frock coat. Obviously you can use different fabrics (wool and natural-fiber blends, for example) but, importantly, whatever you choose should be backed up with historical evidence. Toss in some buttons and thread and you have a complete kit. Yes this may mean spending upwards of $200 for the clothing. That being said, there is a certain amount of money you need to spend to get a basic kit and get started in reenacting. Although, you could temporarily spread out your spending if you join a unit that can lend you gear as you make/acquire your own kit.

As with any hobby, you can't just show up with $5 and a "winning attitude." This is where I draw the line and say "you do need to spend some money to participate." No I'm not suggesting you ante up a few thousand dollars right off the bat, but you will have to spend something. You can't join a motorcycle club without a motorcycle. You can't start doing archery without a bow and arrows. You can't start a knitting society without needles and yarn. In this case, you really can't expect to start reenacting without a kit.

Okay, so you need a kit, but how does that happen and how much should you spend? As almost every unit will tell you, don't just buy whatever you want from the sutlers. I encourage you to make your own stuff. If you really can't sew or you just don't have the time, then yes, this will be even more expensive for you. That's just a reality if you can't compromise and make your own stuff. There are people out there who can make historical clothing for an affordable price, where they machine-stitch the inside-seams and hand-sew the visible seams--it's not a perfect 100% hand-sewn kit, but it's pretty close and will at least look the part. It'll definitely cut down on the cost of the finished outfit. Another way to save is to find good fabric for a bargain price and give your period-tailor that fabric. You might be able to find a sale on fabric (especially if you found a quality local source) that your tailor doesn't know about.

My biggest point here though is that you start off with a kit you won't be ashamed of in a few years. If you're low on the funds, don't waste it buying off-the-shelf stuff that not only doesn't fit you but just doesn't look accurate. The excuse "I can't afford a good kit" is just not good enough. Buying really inaccurate clothing is almost as bad as showing up with modern jeans and a tee-shirt. By showing the public loose-fitting poorly-researched clothing, it can be almost as inaccurate as just wearing modern clothes. Plus, buying off-the-shelf breeches is really not all that much less than buying partially-handsewn breeches by a local period-tailor. Spending a little extra up front can make a huge difference and honestly, you'll feel prouder about having a more accurate kit.

What it all finally comes down to is historical accuracy.


If you're only going to Ren Faires or a rendezvous, then maybe pure accuracy isn't the goal. However, if you are reenacting for spectators, what you look like will impact their understanding of history. If there are twenty Hawkeyes out of 50 British soldiers at a Battle of the Monongahela event, that's teaching the visitors an incorrect history of the French and Indian War--a rewritten history that you helped to author all because you thought the kit made you look good. If you're walking around your American camp at Saratoga looking like a pirate, it's going to tell visitors that's how American troops looked like during the American Revolution (or in some cases, make all reenactors look bad and discredit all of us). And if you've been reenacting at least a couple years, you already know that we don't need any more "hey look! It's a pirate!"  comments from the spectators. Yes, having hand-sewn visible seams is important when visitors are looking at you up close (though in my opinion, far away, too). Hand-sewn period flat-felled or to-stitched seams look different than machine-sewn seams to the discerning eye. It's such details that can make the difference between "it looks about right" and "you look like the paintings!" As this has happened to me while standing next to other guys in machine-sewn outfits, I can attest that the public notice these things.

If your argument is "this is the best I can do" because of lack of research, sources, or personal funding, you're just saying "I'm willing to give false historical information to the public, but I feel okay doing that because of [insert excuse here]." It's never okay to provide false information to someone (see Harald the Smith's article about this). As I have yet to see someone with an inaccurate kit apologize to the public for not being accurate and explain what they really should look like, the public will just assume that what you're wearing is what's accurate (and you should not have to explain the inaccuracies of your kit anyway). Get your stuff in order first, then--and only when you're ready with an accurate kit--jump in to public events. If you wouldn't join a motorcycle club with a one-wheeled bike claiming that's all you could afford, then don't start reenacting until you're sure that your kit is sufficiently backed by historical evidence. This is not a hobby you can do half-way, significantly because if you're demonstrating to a "modern" audience, you are a teacher.

So to sum up, here are the main points:

  1. When choosing a kit, do your research. Exhaust the internet and then contact museums and other reenactors who may have some documents or insight unavailable to you.
  2. Start off with kits you can easily document. Over time, as you get to know the sources and where to find them, develop "harder" kits that you might have had a difficult time to document from the start.
  3. Come to grips with knowing that this hobby will require you to spend money. If you can make your own, it will cost much less. If you commission someone to make your clothes and you don't have lots of money to spend, have them machine-sew the non-visible seams, and hand-stitch the visible ones (most tailors will charge less for this service than to hand-sew the entire garment). It even helps to find inexpensive fabric yourself, and send it to your tailor.
  4. Don't make excuses. If you find yourself trying to justify something you saw at a reenactment or on TV, it's probably not worth it. Start off with the research and develop a kit/persona from the sources; don't start from your imagination and back it up with sources.
To further assist new and veteran reenactors in assembling an accurate kit, I created a table of artisans--some of whom operate a full business while others accept commissions in their spare time. Each of them though are dedicated living historians who would love to make your next kit or even just a part of it. Click here to see the list!


Thanks for reading! I hope this article inspires some positive change or at least gets people thinking about the implications of their kit on spectators' education.

20 comments:

  1. Very nicely written and I fully agree!
    Enjoyed reading - thank you :-)
    Martin

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    1. Thanks, Martin! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. "Sketchbook '76" is a great start if you want to make patterns from the pen outlines. It's been sourced; no worries. Machine stitching is acceptable for me if the seams are hidden or otherwise obscured. (Often I use a stained, torn shirt under my garrison coat and reserve my hand-sewn linen shirts for camp. My reason is that my fine shirt would get ruined by sweat, so why not change into a fresh one?) Anything synthetic (polyester blends, plastic buttons, enameled souvenir hat pins, etc.,) should go into the fire. Ask advice from one of your mates before committing yourself to a certain 'look.' Any regiment worth its spit will have guidelines; the same for civilian portrayals. And please, no wrist watches!

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    1. That's good advice, Wayne. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Talking about research, there is plenty of primary documentation on people not shaving in the early to mid 18th century. As far as not being the norm, & flooding reenactment events with over representation of Indian influenced woodsmen & the like, I think everyone has the right to be what ever they want to be. If there is documentation that a certain persona existed, then that is good enough. We only read about a small percentage of woodsmen & woods-women that existed, there must have been many more that simply did not survive or made it into the history books.
    Regards, Keith.
    http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com.au/
    http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com.au/search?q=beards

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    1. This isn't about defending ones position to justify what they want, but rather what was historically a social norm. If your research says that beards were worn by everyday citizens that weren't members of religious sects, the indigent, beggars, pirates, or the mentally impaired, then by all means do it. However, be objective enough to entertain the vast majority of primary source documents that suggest a contrary conclusion. Same goes for everything else that's been discussed ad nauseam. This isn't about what WE want, but rather about what THEY actually had or did. As for the Indian influenced woodsman, I find them unimaginative and pedestrian and wish they would stop....not because they are an eye sore, but rather their narrative and general knowledge is just as incongruous as their appearance.

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    2. Thanks for commenting Keith! While I agree that there were more instances of facial hair earlier in the 18th century (a holdover from 17th century fashion), by the 1750s, facial hair was very uncommon. In the few examples I've seen, the hair growth might only be a week at most. In the examples on your blog, they appear to be early 18th century (again, a remnant of earlier fashion), old people in the early 18th century (older 17th century fashion), and beggars or convicts. Jews, too, would be bearded in this period. The fact that a couple of the paintings were named "A Bearded Man" is some slight evidence to the scarcity of beards by the middle of the 18th century. Context really does make a difference. If you're an old guy in the 1730s, a Jew, a convict, or a beggar, it does make a little sense to maybe have a beard.

      As for your second point, it really comes down to historical evidence versus preference. You really should consider your portrayal based on that of the others at an event. In many cases, the event organizer should also handle this by not accepting units that either weren't at the historical battle or would over-represent one portrayal. If I was a British ranger and I knew that the Battle of the Monongahela event was over populated by rangers, I would either portray a regular or simply not attend. Over-representing a portrayal at an event is a form of lying to the public. No excuse is acceptable for lying to someone, not even because you really like being a frontiersman. If an event historically didn't have them or only had a few, don't flood that event with them. There are other events you can do. If you want to go to that event though, make another portrayal that was more common. Similarly, if you really love George Washington, you know that you can't just show up to an event as him.

      When it comes down to teaching, it's really not about you; it's about the students and the subject. Don't misinform your students or present false history. The real history is pretty cool--teach that stuff! Go be a frontiersman on the frontier or at a frontier event. It's even cool if you show up to the Battle of the Monongahela as a waggoner, just make sure you're being a responsible reenactor and educator. Choose your battles (pun intended) and know when it's appropriate to pull each of your personas out.
      Again, thanks for commenting! And I enjoy reading your blog articles; you have some great sources on there that I've found very helpful over the years.

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  4. Well said - -
    I cannot stress researching enough, and not only researching your persona, but the environment in which your persona lived.

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    1. Thank you Ken! And absolutely--everything you do should be based on evidence.

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  5. This: "As I have yet to see someone with an inaccurate kit apologize to the public for not being accurate and explain what they really should look like, the public will just assume that what you're wearing is what's accurate (and you should not have to explain the inaccuracies of your kit anyway)."
    Yes, it's been done. There are two issues with doing this. One is that visitors will tend to remember what they saw more than what they heard. The other is that I actually heard a justification that it gives the opportunity to discuss accuracy. I think it's just are easy to discuss with accurate items than inaccurate.

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    1. Hi Carol; you're absolutely right. You should not have to explain your inaccuracies. As you wrote, people will tend to remember what they see, rather than what they hear.
      Thanks for commenting!

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  6. My frustration comes from my regiment adopting civilian guidelines that were done for a different geographical location. Research shows there to be some regional differences in dress yet those are being ignored. Also frustrating is when one chooses a specific person from the area to portray, studies them in depth then finds that person's attire may not fall within those regimental guidelines.

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    1. Hi there! I sympathize with you completely. It is enormously frustrating when a unit ignores some key features of the evidence or just says "good enough." I hope you can keep up a good fight and find some evidence to share with your unit. Even asking around (check out the table of artisans I linked to at the bottom of my article--any one of them might be able to help you) could yield some useful sources.
      I wish you the best in your searches! I hope that maybe the artisans can provide something for you.

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    2. This is exceptionally frustrating because it also sends a message of "second class citizens" to civilian reenactors--that "we don't care about perfecting your impression because you're *just* portraying a civilian/woman/etc." And that is an icky problem that crops up in even very well-researched units.

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  7. Clayton, i wish you would not give a pass to those of us at the renaissance faires. There are many groups that do push for as much historical accuracy as possible. Yes they are a contrivance and commercial enterprises, but what people see is still seen as a history lesson. We are still teaching, even if directors and half the actors dont want to acknowledge it, and having low or no standards ensures low performance.

    Even at the renaissance faire you should do your research, not make excuses, play who you can afford, and strive to be as accurate as possible, even if the environment doesnt always lend itself to that. I wish that in my early years of reenacting someone would hsve had those standards, so i could have avoided the dreadful costuming choices.

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    1. Hi Silas; I'm sorry if I threw Ren Faires under the proverbial bus, but I have been told by Ren Faire workers and organizers that their intention is not in fact historical accuracy (they describe Ren Faires as "historically-inspired"). I genuinely admire and do recognize that some groups dedicate themselves to historical accuracy (I actually hope to make an early-Elizabethan kit, myself), but that's not the overall intention. By accepting merchants who are not dedicated to historical accuracy and not making mission statements/guidelines, Ren Faire organizers are not doing anything to quell inaccuracies. So I do apologize to those groups and societies who do a phenomenal job of maintaining accuracy standards at Ren Faires and teaching the public, but the actual culture of Ren Faires, as I have been told, is not strict accuracy.
      While in my opinion they would make great sources of education on the Renaissance, they do have an interesting social and cultural role apart from strict history: that of providing a release for creatively-minded individuals. If you want to educate the public on the Renaissance, maybe Ren Faires are not the best place to do that since they have taken on a different direction. Maybe it's time to start a different type of event for the historically-accurate minded living historians. In my opinion, it's harder to change something that has become pretty firmly embedded in the culture than it is to start something new and with clearly-published guidelines.
      Thanks for commenting!

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  8. I'm an historical crafter. Let me just say that all of this applies to the crafts you do at events too. It's fairly easy to do a quick history check on your craft of choice. If it didn't exist in the time period you're portraying, please don't do it.

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    1. I absolutely agree with you--crafts are no exception. I only used frontiersmen and white/Native/rangers in my examples in the article, but the original message applies to all portrayals. Do the research, know what's accurate and what's not, and don't make stuff up.
      Thanks for commenting!

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  9. Excellent post. I continued to think about this and word-blarfed a bit of my own in continuation of these thoughts: http://hyalineprosaic.blogspot.com/2017/05/mind-gap.html

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    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your own thoughts on it. I enjoyed your article, as well. Your explanation in your five main points merits far more praise than to be referred to as "word-blarfed." I found them commendable!

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