Thursday, 21 May 2015


Recently, a friend of mine posted on facebook her wonderings of when in the week it would be a good time to wash her very long hair.  You see, Eliza was going to be attending an event at her local Fort that weekend, and wanted sufficient dirt in her hair to be able to style it properly, but also to give the right, not modern clean.
This is something that not many of us consider when we are getting ready for an event.  We get up in the morning of our travel day, have a shower, shave, go through our usual routines for getting ready for our modern lives.  This may include washing hair, putting on aftershave, using our regular, modern, scented soaps and lotions.
Then there's our clothing.  Yesterday, my local Fort hosted WWI commemorations.  Their interpreters were featured on the news.  They were all turned out in WWI uniforms, and even had a nursing sister along.  What I first noticed, before anything was said, was that none of them were "Well" turned out...they all had closet wrinkles, the nursing sister's apron had been obviously living on a metal hanger for some time and featured the tell tale signs of not being pressed before she got dressed.  The boys all could have used an iron as well.  They were clean, polished, but that one little thing jarred my eye.  They could have used an iron.  The same goes for our clothing in the 18thC.  Have your own clothes been hanging out in the closet for the season?  Do they have the same tell tale signs of metal coat hangers?  This is an issue when you consider that clothing would have been stored neatly in a trunk or a press.

Ok, so dirt...

Early on in my life I developed a bit of a skin condition that prevents me from using commercially scented soaps and such.  I will also develop a migraine faster than fast if I am around perfume of most sorts.  With that in mind, I will notice your axe body spray.  I will notice when you use the exact same, obscure aftershave that my brother uses (a very light, but distinctive scent), I notice when you are wearing my favourite perfume, another obscure scent that not many people even know about, let alone wear.  Another thing I also noticed early on, when people wore scents in the field, they were often chased by mosquitoes, horse flies, and wasps...seems bugs like perfume too.

Having worn my hair long for much of my life, I know that it is much easier to dress hair with about two days 'dirt'.  The grease levels in your hair will even out if you start to wash your hair more infrequently, it will start to shine more, frizz less, and your skin will start to appreciate not being stripped every day of all its moisture.  Another friend, who is also a re-enactor, started using an 18thC method of 'cleaning' her hair one year at Louisbourg.
There are new pomades and powders being developed by the likes of
who are spending a lot of time also teaching how to use these products.
Evelyn had great success keeping her hair clean at Louisbourg for over a week using this method. Not clean as we would think modernly, but clean none the less.  Dressing it every day and putting on her linen cap helped a great deal.

I personally only wash my own hair 2-3 times a week, that third time dependent on how much I am sweating.  When it's short, I rinse it in the morning under the shower, mostly to get rid of the very bad bed head I develop.  When it's long, I can often get away with just a good brushing out.


I'm one of those horrible water wasters on the planet, as I normally have a shower in the morning, and another one in the evening before bed.  In the modern world, yes, this wastes water, as the human body doesn't need to be that clean.  I use the water as a calming mechanism so that I can sleep at night.  Now, for intimate details here, I don't use soap every shower.  That can really dry your skin out, and you don't really need it.  My soap is also old school, hand made, no perfumes, no modern chemicals, you could probably eat it if it weren't for the lye.
When I'm in the field, I can't shower every day, hell, some spots don't even have showers, so it's an entire length of stay that I can't be in water.  I have a routine though.  It involves a wash basin and a face cloth.  Yes, the bird bath.  If it's cold, as it often can be here in Nova Scotia, I will even forgo the bird bath and just change my shift for a clean and dry one.
You see, when you are in the field, it's usually just a change of undergarments and socks that are all you really need.  Maybe a wash of the face and a brush of the teeth to make you feel human again.  Then a brush out of the hair, getting that back up again, and putting on my linen cap and I feel "clean enough".  Where's the coffee?


I once got into a heated discussion with a fellow re-enactor over laundering our clothes.  She would go home every night, wash everything, including her silk gowns, and shower every day and put on clean clothes from the skin out.  You could tell.  Her gowns lost the lustre that silk has, because all of the oils and natural stiffeners has been washed out.  You could smell her coming, with all the perfume she was wearing, layered from her soaps to her creams and hair spray.
People are often shocked when I tell them that the only things in my historical clothes that I wash are shifts, drawers and socks.  That's it.  And they are all hung to dry.  I only own two gowns from any period I re-enact, not a weeks worth, two.  Every morning I will put on new body linens and socks and wear the exact same gown I had on yesterday.  At night, the gown gets hung on the hook at the side of my bed, or I'll drape it over my side of the bed for extra warmth.
At the end of the event, if it's nice, I will hang all of our clothes out on the line for a day to dry and freshen up, I only wash the body linens and socks.  Then it all is stored back in the trunks for the next event.  I carefully fold and store the garments so that the aprons are folded nicely and will develop those nice linen press folds.  Gowns and jackets and such are all folded as carefully as possible so to limit the wrinkling.

When we're suffering from being house bound in the winter, we'll often open the trunks and take a good sniff, yes, our clothes will still smell of wood smoke.

In all my years of re-enacting, I have not ever laundered any of my existing gowns.  They don't smell.  This is due in large part because I use natural fibres in everything, but also because I wear my body linens and wash those.  You see, it's the polyester in modern clothing that makes us stink.  The poly fibres hold on to the sweat we accumulate and keep it, while it rots.  Linen and wool both wick body moisture away from the body and then allow it to evaporate into the air, not holding on to anything.  As long as both are dry, you will stay dry and clean.

but what about mud?

The last couple of years at Louisbourg, we've had pretty bad rain.  I will try to keep my skirts out of the wet, but mud happens.  What do I do then?  Well, when I can get my gowns dry again, I give them a good wacking with a broom handle.  It really does work.  They are not pristine, but then I don't want them to be.  They are "clean enough" though, really clean fact they usually end up just looking slightly dingy, and one of my gowns is quite a few years old now.
I sent one gown to be dry cleaned once.  Someone had spilled fish sauce on me and I felt I had no choice.  Well, that will never happen again, as the gown came back so shrunken that I couldn't wear it again...I ended up having to rip it apart and reusing the fabric for something else.  I was so disappointed.  The lesson I learned there was to really look at the 'hand washing' cycles on my next washing machine, and washing things at home, if needed.

So what am I getting at here?  We are just too clean in the modern world.  Really think about that before you get ready for the next event.  What do your clothes really look like, do they have closet and metal hanger wrinkles?  How do you smell?  Sometimes it's the minutiae that will push your impression over the top and allow you to really be in the period.

And leave the AXE body spray at home, please...

from the Material Culture Centre

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