kass_rants (kass_rants) wrote,

Historical Accuracy and Bad Interpretation

Many of you know that I'm a stickler for historical accuracy. I first got into studying historical clothing when I enquired what the Irish wore in the past and was told: "The same thing as the English, but green." ?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Anyway, you see why I do this. I have a fastidious brain. It wants to put things in little convenient boxes and write succinctly descriptive names on their neat little labels and put them on a shelf where everyone can get them whenever they like.

("Hey! Put the leine research back in its own box! You're getting the drawstrings disproof all over the Shinrone Gown quills info! Naughty!")

Well, you know where I'm coming from. I believe in "doing as they did". And I'm a real stickler about that. To me, it's important to get things right. That's not to imply that we will ever know everything about clothing from any historical period. Most likely, we never will. But to my black-and-white mind, making something that is not based on strict historical documentation and calling it "historically accurate" (as opposeed to "historically inspired") is a blatant and outrageous lie. And that kind of misrepresenation makes my blood boil.

Recently a couple of related things have happened that made my head explode, and I want to share them with you. My Patron Saint of Inspiration has been throwing the same theme into my notice for about three weeks now, and it's time I listened and had a good ol' rant about it.


A couple weeks ago, I was at RF4 in Chicago. I see a lot of people there who I only see once a year. One is this guy who shall not be named who tends to bend my ear about historical clothing until you really want to chew off your leg. Now you know me, friends. I can talk a Buddhist monk into a raging murder spree if I get on my subject and don't care about who I bore. But damn! Does this guy really think that going on and on about historical shirts is what people want to do at the Saturday Night Ball?

Bob calls him "That Tool" so let's go with that, shall we?

Last time we talked, That Tool and I were discussing 18thc shirt patterns. He pointedly asked me, "How is your shirt pattern going to be any different from the other shirt patterns out there?" (Note that I resisted saying, "It'll be better. It'll be from RH!" Isn't my modesty shocking?)

I thought about this and told him that I was planning on incorporating the information I'd learned about sailors' slop contract shirts and the shirts of common men described in inventories.  There is a lot there that shows a wider range of colours that white and natural, and that is something necessary to good historical interpretation of the time period.  I'm very proud that I'm adding this research to the body of work about 18th century shirts and I couldn't wait to tell someone about it.

Like the optimistic idiot that I am, as soon as I see That Tool at RF4, I tell him, "We've printed our shirt pattern! I can't wait to see what you think!"

"Yeah. I saw. The cuffs are too big."


I know he hasn't seen more than the cover art from afar because I've just unpacked the patterns for the very first time. So what is he on about.

"Colonial Williamsburg says the Rule of Thumb is that your shirt cuffs should be no wider than your thumb," he says.

(Um. No. The Tailors' Rule of Thumb is that twice the circumference of a person's thumb is the circumference of their wrist, twice the circumference of the wrist is the circumference of the neck, and twice around the neck is the person's waist. It has nothing to do with the width of cuffs whatsoever.)

For your edification, here's the pattern cover:

See that sketch on the cover? The shirt? Guess what that sketch is based on. You guessed it! An 18th century shirt in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg!

I, of course, cited three shirts from three different American and European sources that have cuffs the size of my pattern. Matter of fact, I find myself hard pressed to find an 18th century shirt that has cuffs as narrow as he describes. And the whole incident now makes me wonder if he wasn't referencing a 19th century shirt in their collection.

He, of course, shrugged and said nothing further.


Anyway, this story is to illustrate a point -- no matter how much we would like to say, "Cuffs were this wide from 1723 until 1752 and this wide from 1753 until 1778," there is no such standardized system.

This morning, I found out about a new thesis on the construction of Viking dresses. I am not in any way validating this interpretation of Viking female dress. However it makes clear that the apron dresses are based on very shakey information. To quote Russel Scott:
"Agnes Geijer was the first academic to take an interest in the Birka textiles. By the time that she excavated them from the museum store, all hope of accurately reconstructing the clothing had long since vanished. However, textile layers had tenaciously clung to the back of the tortoise and other brooches, so she new how many layers of clothing were worn, but not what the individual garment looked like!" (Please read the rest of this article at your leisure.)

The point I'm trying to make is that you can't take one little archeological find, invent something that incorporates that find, and pronounce "This is what Viking women wore!"

Just like you can't say, "All 18th century shirts have a narrow cuff."

When discussing historical clothing, you can only talk about what we have, what we can see, what we can hold in our hands. The front of Moy gown from the ribs down does not exist. It can be assumed that it rotted in the grave, but that cannot be proved definitively. I interpret it as buttoning to the pelvic bone and then continuing closed to the bottom. But it could be as easily argued that the buttons continued to the hem. It could also be argued that the front skirts were worn open. There are supporting reasons why I made my interpretation, but with this essential piece of the garment missing, we simple cannot say for sure.

When you study historical clothing, you get used to these words: WE CANNOT KNOW FOR SURE.

So why are there people out there who say, "This is what Viking women/the Irish/18th century men wore"!??!?!

Inventors. Costume-creators*. Bad documentors. 

You cannot do this.  You cannot say, "This is the way it was!" because there is no way of knowing that.  And frankly, you can't even say, "And this is what people wore," if you only have one garment.  How do we know the Shinrone Gown wasn't just a one-off and none of the Irish wore anything like it?  (Well, there are those pictures by De Heere and descriptions by Gernon, but I digress.)

You see, the study of historical clothing is extremely difficult when it comes to interpretation.  The best source begins with a number of similar extant examples that are supported by contemporary pictorial (or sculptural) evidence and the written record.  If we don't have those three elements dovetailing together, it makes interpretation very difficult.  For example, we don't even know the time period of the Moy gown.  We say 14th-15th century because of the cut of the garment, but it could be 18th century for all we know about it.  The excavation site was destroyed, there exists no pictorial evidence of the dress in Ireland and no written record of similarly-described garments.  So what exactly can we say about it?

We can say it's a gown found on a body in Moy, County Clare in Ireland.  We can say what it looks like, how it was constructed, and of what materials it was constructed.  But that's all we can say.

Anything else is making it up.  And we shouldn't make it up.

* This is not to say that I don't have a great amount of appreciation for theatrical costumers and fantasy costumers. Matter of fact, I have a ton of respect for these people because they are given a theme and create their artistic vision in fabric and notions. But as every theatrical costumer knows, their motivations are different than those of the historic clothing researcher. The historical clothing researcher doesn't have to make an outfit the actress can change into and out of in the 0.2 seconds between scenes. The historical clothing researcher doesn't have to think about the mood the director wants to convey in a specific scene. The historical clothing researcher is not confined to a budget that limits her ability to purchase historically-correct fabrics and notions.
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