Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Images of the new gowns

 My 'old brown sacque', still looking fabulous after several years of use.

 The new pink gown that was in pieces and managed to stay together through the move to Montreal.

 Side view of the new pink gown, under construction at this point.

 Finished new pink gown.

 The back of the brand new grey striped gown.

 Full view of the grey striped gown, still under construction.

 A beautiful floral print, that I may someday be able to afford for a gown, sunday best.

Your ‘reading’ week was my ‘stitching’ week

Many students look at reading week as a week to get caught up on sleep, go on vacation with friends or family, or, if they are smart, get caught up on their reading for the term, maybe start the paper that’s due at the end of term. My reading week was spent making art. An important part of my academic process, for sure, but also a required part of my future plans. As I mentioned in my last post, I had planned on reading the theory this term, and then spending my spring creating the garments that I will need for my summer internship program. The ‘pre-approval’ requirement of each and every item I plan on taking to use and wear at Williamsburg put the kibosh to that plan. I cannot send photographs of folded yardage of cloth and tell them what I plan to do with the piece. I need to send them images of the garments, even if they are still under construction, firstly so they know that I am serious, but also, so they know that I know what I am doing.

Keeping this in mind, I began what will become the research binder on the first weekend of reading week. At the same time, I also cleaned up my studio, unpacking and repacking the boxes to go into storage. My studio is now finally a spare room, all my equipment is in storage. Anything that I will be making in the near future will be entirely hand sewn, so I don’t need a space for machines, and, we need the spare bedroom more. I managed to find all the bits that are part of my existing wardrobe, and all the pieces of a new gown that I started two years ago, but with the move to Montreal, didn’t finish. This is a feat, as the packers who moved our belongings to Montreal made a real mess of things, using my fabric as packing material. I thought that gown was a pipedream. Fortunately, I had folded all the bits together into a bundle, and they were all still together.

I began by sorting my clothing into piles. First, the pile of items that are good to wear as-is, those items went into one of my two camp baskets. In a second basket, I put the items that required mending or alteration to make them wearable. In this second basket, I also packed the bits of my newly found gown, under construction, a yardage of cotton, extra bits of linen lining, and a new yardage I picked up at the fabric store the weekend before. My plan was to finish all the mending and alterations, finish the half completed gown and possibly get the last gown started. My goal is to have three gowns and all the required underthings and accessories required to live week by week in Virginia with only having to do laundry once a week. A friend would be joining me for much of reading week, as she too needed a new gown. Lynn has sewn modern clothing for herself, but was intimidated by the process of sewing a historical gown by herself. Sewing together was good for both of us, as I had to keep us on track every day so that we would get the most amount of work accomplished, but also because I had to articulate to her, how to do each step of the process. We have different brain processes, so I was forced to show as well as explain to her what I was doing. I also needed to allow her to do the majority of the work on her own gown so that she would feel accomplished and understand what she was doing for the next time. By having Lynn work with me, we were able to work regular business hours, and managed to get most of the three gowns finished before she had to head back to work in Ottawa. My half-finished gown is now completely finished, my new gown is one full day’s work away from completion, and Lynn’s is about two days away from competition (at her work pace). Monday 27th February, I went back to my reading.

My plan now is to continue reading, finish the last bits of work I need to finish for my wardrobe on the weekends, and then have a copy of the research binder for both Williamsburg and to turn in to my fibres and materiality professor for a final term project. Questions that the Costume Approval Committee ask range from giving a brief description of the item and its intended use, primary source documentation, adaptations I have made from the original extant garments and why, and listing the textiles, notions, colours and construction techniques used (Foundation 2003). It will be a substantial piece of work when I am finished.

There are things that I have had to consider before and alongside simply creating clothing to wear. The main thought/question I have is how do I know what I know about the period I am recreating? In a recent facebook group discussion on clothing re-creation, I warned against copying fellow living historians (Gordon 2017). I told the new person that sometimes folks who have been doing this a while will make ‘something pretty’ because they want something pretty to wear. It is not based on primary source documentation, more that what they are doing comes from a more emotional side of things. It may, to the untrained eye, look like a perfect recreation of the period, but those who are in the know, will know, that the item is not ‘from the period’, but more a modern ‘fashion’ of the current era, inspired by the period. Confusing, right? So how do I know what I know, and how do I know if what I am doing is historically correct? This project is good for me, in that it will force me to document each and every decision I have made. There will be no ‘reverse documenting’, hoping that I can find sources for the decisions.  I will have to do the research and back up every choice before I begin the construction process.

My ‘old brown sacque’ is the first gown that I made entirely by hand for the 18th century. I used a brown linen twill that has a remarkable resemblance to a fine summer weight wool. A burn test was how I determined that it was not actually wool. I made the gown using a draped pattern of my body wearing stays, based on an extant sacque backed gown. I also looked at numerous paintings to see if a sacque would be worn by a common woman, or if it was a fashion reserved for those women who wear silk all day long. I took an educated guess to say yes, and went ahead and made the gown. I have been exceptionally pleased with how it turned out, and how it is wearing. For the past several years, it is the only gown I have worn, wearing it for days at a time at events, changing just my body linens daily. It is aired out on the line following the event and then hung back up until the next time it is needed. No, I have yet to wash the gown, and don’t plan to. As it is entirely constructed from natural fibres, it really doesn’t smell. When I began the ‘half finished’ gown, I wanted something a bit more ‘fashionable’ than a sacque, and so chose to construct an English backed gown, also known as en fourreau. The progression of the back of gowns transitions from the sacque, with the pleats hanging from the shoulders, to the en fourreau where those pleats are stitched down to just below the waistline, and spring out from the hips in a continuous piece from shoulder to hem. In my eye, being an older woman, this seemed to be a natural progression to something more fashionable. In the third quarter of the 18th century, younger women are wearing this more fitted back with a full front, pinned at centre front, and with a fully circular skirt, called a round gown. The transitional gown is fitted in the back, but open in the front and worn over a stomacher and matching or contrasting petticoat. The stomacher is a triangular stiffened piece that is pinned to the bodice front, over which the gown is pinned. This style of gown offers more flexibility in fit if your weight fluctuates, as mine does. The round gown is as it fits, so if you lose weight, you have overlap, which is not pretty, or the fronts don’t meet if you’ve gained weight, which is also not pretty. I am quite happy being a little old fashioned if it means the lines of my gown look nice. For me it is all about the cut, never about the decoration. And so, my second gown is cut en fourreau, more fashionable than the sacque, but still a bit old fashioned for 1780. I chose to make the gown from a striped pink and grey, cotton/linen blend. It will be a nice, serviceable gown. I will wear it with a matching stomacher, over a contrasting, solid grey linen petticoat.

The third gown, still under construction, is even more of a transition piece. It is based on an extant round gown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accession number 1959-113-1. I have made some considered changes to my own inspired gown in both fabric and in a slight style difference. The original gown is in a grey striped cotton. My gown is in a grey striped, 100% linen fabric, the stripes being slightly smaller in scale. The original is a round gown, in that the centre fronts meet edge to edge, but the original gown also has the robings found on older, open, stomacher front gowns. The original’s construction makes it look like a stomacher gown with the full skirt of a round gown. As I mentioned above, my weight fluctuates, and will, living in Virginia summer heat, and so I have made my gown as a stomacher front, round gown.

I have chosen linen or linen blends for all of my gowns as linen is the most comfortable fibre to wear in the heat. Also, as all of these gowns are meant to be working gowns, I need something that will be hard wearing and simple. I could have chosen a floral cotton print as one of my gown materials, but I still feel that florals are more for special occasions, suited for my social class, but more in keeping for the Sunday best dress. I am also trying to keep my wardrobe within a tight budget. Linens and cotton/linen blends can be found at my local fabric store for under $20/metre, buying a cotton floral in an appropriate print could run upwards of $40/yard before duty and shipping to Canada. I can afford a $100 dress, not a $300 dress, and certainly will feel more comfortable if ‘heritage’ happens and I spill something on them or tear them through wearing.

My wardrobe will be rounded out with enough white linen shifts (the body linen layer) to do me a week, twill linen, half boned stays, a striped linen petticoat, a mustard linen petticoat, a brown stuff (to match my sacque) petticoat, a grey linen twill petticoat with a frill at the hem, edged in goose-turd green cotton tape, stomachers to match each gown, dainty linen caps, a straw flat bonnet, a black silk bonnet, stockings, pockets, neck handkerchiefs, sewing huswife, spectacles, and a bargello worked wallet. Also black leather shoes, and if there is enough time, a linen bedgown to wear as a ‘coat’ over my gowns if it rains, or as an upper body garment, worn with petticoats if I am going to be doing dirty work and want to keep my gowns clean. I will also have with me a couple of market wallets, one to fit my clothing in, and another to carry my accessories. I am also trying to decide whether to bring my very French coffee mug made of red clay dipped in green glaze, or buy a Virginian white clay mug while I’m there and try to blend in a bit more with the people around me. Trying to blend in with society was a big thing in this period.

My current reading list:

Cox, Abby. 2016. "Musings from the Millinery: Revealing the Truth About 18th-Century Women's Necklines." Colonial Williamsburg Historic Trades Blog - Making History Now. January 29. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://makinghistorynow.com/2016/01/musings-from-the-millinery-revealing-the-truth-about-18th-century-womens-necklines/.

Eacott, Jonathan P. 2012. "Making an Imperial Compromise: The Calico Acts, the Atlantic Colonies, and the Structure of the British Empire." The William and Mary Quarterly 731-762.

Foundation, Colonial Williamsburg. 2003. Costume Approval Form. proceedural and approval forms, Williamsburg Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Gordon, Tracy. 2017. "18th c sewing." Facebook. February 23. Accessed February 23, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/groups/618389418346204/permalink/618611394990673/.

Hagist, Don. N. 2016. Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls: Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers 1770-1780. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing.

Styles, John. 2007. The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Shit just got real: when your OCD scares the living tar out of you at the thought of ‘pre-approval’ of your clothing

This morning I received a note from Jay Howlett at Colonial Williamsburg, the gentleman I will be undertaking an internship with this summer. He was asking for photographs of my historical clothing so that he can have it pre-approved through their wardrobe before I arrive on site. This will allow for a smooth transition when my internship begins, and I can start right away in the program. I knew that I would need approval before being allowed to wear anything I brought with me, it is what I would expect if I was running the wardrobe department. After all, my clothing will be a reflection on their department, the site itself, as well as on my shoulders.

It was my plan to ‘read all the things’ this term, getting the theory of why I do what I do under my belt before embarking on a major art project of overhauling my wardrobe. That plan was tossed out with this morning’s bathwater as I replied to the request, “sure, I can get on that this week!”

“Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is a hallmark for many Americans with a hankering to experience the past. ‘When we were down there last January,’ writes Alicia Newcomb, ‘we were able to speak to some of the actors one on one. Most of them are actually historians or certified in some other way…I’ve been going there since I was a little girl” (cited in Weeks 2016, 5).

Williamsburg is such a hallmark, that professors in my very first undergraduate program held it up as the pinacle of interpretation. Students from the Costume Studies program at Dalhousie university have been sent there on interships for decades. It is finally my turn. Why is it that I am so freaked out about the notion of my clothing being ‘pre-approved’? A lot of it stems from the fact that my own clothing needs have often taken a back burner to those who are working the front lines of interpretation at the historic sites I have worked for. My job is to be behind the scenes, not to be seen by the public. When I am, it is often because I am filling in for another interpreter. This isn’t to say that my clothes are bad, they aren’t. It’s more that you don’t get to see the underlayers of my clothes, so shortcuts have been taken over the years in order to ‘be dressed’. My outermost layer is completely acceptable in my mind’s eye. The other layers I had wanted to spend the Spring months finessing in order for them to be acceptable as well. I also wanted to make a new, more fashionable dress than my older, slightly out of fashion sacque-backed gown. This week’s readings have allowed me to really think about what I wanted to do with my clothes, and what I feel needs fixing.

Frank Trentmann’s article, Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics (Trentmann 2009), informs us “The status of things has sparked a good deal of soul-searching that oscillates between fears that life is becoming dematerialized and a celebration of objects as ‘thought companions, as life companions”, he goes on to explain that “things today are shaking our fundamental understanding of subjectivity, agency, emotions, and the relations between humans and nonhumans” (Trentmann 2009, 284). Ideas that Trentmann wanted to explore considered materiality on three dimensions, the “essence of things, choice and practice, and material politics” (Trentmann 2009, 286). If I consider thes ideas with regards to my own materiality, and the things that I will bring with me to Virginia, it is, first of all, very important that I have ‘my own things’. What does this mean? Well, for my own comfort level, wearing my own clothing, articles of dress that I have chosen for myself, created for myself, will make me feel far more confident than if I am wearing ‘stock costume number 5’. I will not have to worry about whether I get it dirty, or how it fits and how I can move in it. They will be my clothes, made for my body. Unique to me. They will no longer be a costume, in essence, but are my clothes. I have chosen the fabrics to create the garments, and I am also chosing which garments I will create for my wardrobe. My art practice is the creation of historic dress for interpreters, I should look like I might know what I am doing. Then there is the political negotiating I will have to do to justify my reasons for creating the clothes I made, but also the accessories, the other things I will bring with me to do my job this summer as an interpretation intern.

When we start a new job, we choose what clothes we will wear, sometimes buying a new outfit for the first day, to make a good impression. We pack our briefcase with the items we will need from home to get us through the day comfortably, our favourite pens, a coffee mug, lunch bag, comfortable ‘indoor’ shoes, family photos to personalize our desks. I am having to consider all those things too, but with an eye to the historical. Will my favourite coffee mug, made by a local artisan based on archeaological finds here in Quebec, be acceptable for use in the Revolutionary city? Or is it completely out of cultural context? I will need an appropriate carrying bag to bring my things to and from work, my academic’s leather briefcase is modern, and not appropriate. Should I make a market wallet, or find an appropriate basket to bring? Which of these items will make packing and crossing an international border easier? But also, which one would be appropriate for my historical economic class? I will need to clean all the modern from my sewing housewife and re-spin my threads from their modern, plastic spools on to historically appropriate thread winders. I have sent my historical glasses frames off to be fixed and new lenses installed so that I will be able to see, but I now have to get on with the project of making a new case for them, as at the moment, they are carried to events in a very modern clamshell case, I pull them out of the case under the cover of a petticoat edge. If I have to justify every item of historical kit to Williamsburg’s material culture staff, the modernity I usually get away with just won’t fly. Trentmann reminds us that “Practices thus look beyond possessions. Instead of taking either object or individual as it’s starting point, research on practices focuses on how users, things, tools, competence, and desires are coordinated. This means that value is not based in a product or its meanings but in how it is put to use” (Trentmann 2009, 297). Trentmann tells us that both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty saw the world as “woven into people’s bodies, identities, and actions. Things recruit us as much as we recruit them. And, in addition to highly visible objects, these include the hidden material networks, technologies, and relationships that shape everyday life” (Trentmann 2009, 300). I am having to really examine the minutae of my everyday life to see if I have all of the things I will need in my historical kit to just get through the day. It is far more than simply getting the outer layers of my costume correct, I have to embody the material culture of my eighteenth-century self.

In a recent online discussion over my eyeglass frames, we discussed how easy it is to fall into the living history trap that we are all expected to become ensnared in. As a progressive living historian, I cannot simply give Jas. Townsend, a walmart type merchant known for carrying all the material goods you might need, my credit card and buy the goods I need. As a progressive, my material culture needs are expected to be a higher caliber than what Townsend carries. So I am expected to make my own material culture. That idea is great in theory, but not what would have been expected of my historical counterpart any more than it is of my modern self. I bought my glasses frames. They aren’t perfect, but I am terrified to try to fix them on my own, that and my local optomitrist broke them while trying to insert new lenses. The way they will need fixing will require the skills of a jewler, a soldiering iron, and buffing tools. My mum may have been able to fix them for me, but she is not well enough, so off they were sent to an optrician in Halifax willing to do the job, as he has ‘fixed’ other historical frames for other progressive living historians. Hopefully, when they return in two months, the bridge piece will have more curve, the new lenses will be installed, and the tacky, modern ‘finish’ will be buffed off, leaving the look of the plain steel to weather through wearing. The piece of material culture that I can work on (the glasses case) to complete this important part of my kit has been researched and patterned, I just have to find the time to carry out the bargello embroidery and sew the piece together.

Shoes are another item that I cannot make myself. At Williamsburg, in a lot of the interiors, the interpretation staff wear slippers instead of their outside shoes. It helps cut down on the dust and dirt being carried inside. I completely wore out my slippers a few years ago, and have been ‘getting by’ with a pair of black canvas slip on shoes from somewhere in the Orient. They are modern, but most people don’t see them, as I only wear them in the evenings when the public is out of camp. This week I also sent home a tracing of my foot and the measurements needed to have a new pair of mules made by a shoemaker I have a great relationship with in Halifax. We have worked together making shoes for some of the historic sites over the years, and I know she will make a pair of mules that will live up to the progressive standards. In America, many progressives send away to the UK for shoes to be made by Sarah Juniper, but the American dollar is much closer to the Euro or the Pound. I just cannot justify close to $1000 for a pair of shoes, no matter how beautiful they are. That, and I’d rather give my business to someone more local to me, one of my peers in supplying historic sites with clothing and accoutrements.

These musings are to question whether I am engaging with ‘commodity fetishism’? Martha Rosler writes in Notes From the Field: Materiality, that this notion set forth by Marx “shapes our responses to much of the object world, and has its origins in the mode of production” (Rosler 2013, 11). We certainly are engaged in commodity fetishism if we are expected, as progressives, to recreate everything in our material culture baskets. It shouldn’t be expected of us as artists, or as consumers. I left that online conversation griping that I should be able to buy a historically correct pair of eyeglass frames, that require no tweaking, and that I should be able to take them to my local optomitrist to have lenses installed. Period. That I should not have to face the long noses of folks who would consider me ‘farb’ for not knowing how to do ‘all the things’ myself.

I will leave you with ideas I have also been facing with the concept of the gaze. Having also read Kate Haulman’s article Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia, I am also considering, as women in the period would have, how my clothes will speak for me as a person in society. Haulman states that, “Fashion could not only visually establish but also undermine social hierarchy in colonial cities” (Haulman 2005, 626). The article explains how different fashion choices, from clothing to hairstyles were adopted by both men and women in Revolutionary Philadelphia, and how people did not so readily give up those styles once the city was abandoned by the British to Colonial governance. Haulman suggests that fashion has far more to do with class hierarchy than with political leanings, and that fashion helped to establish hegemonic gender expressions as well as social standing and romantic entanglements. This article help reaffirm my own ideas on how we dressed in the eighteenth century had little to do with political or cultural leanings (French or British), and more to do with what people saw as ‘fashionable’, and wanting to be on top of that ‘fashionable’ game. I mentioned my ‘old brown sacque-backed gown’ above and in prior writings. I have always thought that an older fashion is more appropriate for an older woman, certainly in a more country setting, but I will be in a ‘big city’ in eighteenth-century standards, very near to Philadelphia the centre of the revolution, even by eighteenth-century standards of distance. I will not be on the ‘frontier’ of Canada, or even in ‘backwater’ Nova Scotia. I’m certain that even a woman of my age would have wanted a new, more fashionable dress if travelling to a new city, to start a new job…

So that is where my head is this week. In a blind panic thinking about all the things I need to have made, photographed, and approved. And I realize that I am running out of time.


Farb - is a derogatory term used in the hobby of historical re-enacting (living history) in reference to participants who are perceived to exhibit indifference to historical authenticity, either from a material-cultural standpoint or in action. It can also refer to the inauthentic materials used by those reenactors. (Wikipedia)


Haulman, Kate. 2005. "Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia." William and Mary Quarterly 625-662.

Rosler, Martha. 2013. "Notes From the Field: Materiality." The Art Bulletin 10-12.

Trentmann, Frank. 2009. "Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics." Journal of British Studies 283-307.

Weeks, Linton. 2016. "NPR History Dept." NPR.org. January 21. Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2016/01/21/463398647/american-history-lives-a-story-of-the-people-by-the-people-for-the-people.


Lifting off from Prown’s statement, “Cultural expression is not limited to things. But the techniques of material culture should be part of the tool kit of the well-equipped cultural scholar” (Prown 1982, 5), I am exploring what it means to undertake a research-creation project. I will admit to a sense of disconnect I am feeling with my current situation, both in the way I undertake research in the realm of academia, but also within academia itself. This term may see a lot of self reflection as I struggle to figure out my place within the university, and as I question how research is undertaken.

My meander through the readings I set out for myself started out fairly focused, but then things changed and I was able to take two directed studies (one in Material Culture, the other in Research-Creation and Materiality) instead of the singular one on material culture in the 18thC. This may prove to be both difficult and dynamic, as I bounce ideas from one reading list into the other. At the beginning, I read the introduction to Joanne Entwistle’s book, The Fashioned Body,  and about how we should be writing about fashion. Then I moved into material culture studies itself with The article by Michael Yonan, Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies, which lead me to Prown’s seminal work on the theory and methodology of the field, Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method. That’s where the above statement caught my attention. It has stuck with me for a week now. After Prown’s article, I went back to my reading list and pulled up a more recent exploration on material culture study, Richard Grassby’s Material Culture and Cultural History. In it, Grassby explores what it means to be a material cultural historian today. What struck me from that article was Grassby’s mentioning that,

“Many cultural historians ignore the physical environment in which culture is embedded. They elevate abstract ideas above things, symbolic meaning above utility, and imagination above imperial facts. They generalize from images and texts as though they were material commodities, focusing on how the world was represented and perceived, not on how it functioned or how it was physically or emotionally experienced. In the giddy world of symbolic interpretation, goods have no practical use and the consumption function has no basis in reality.

Social reality has to be structured to be perceived and understood. Whether is communicates through words or visual representation, the cultural system relies on metaphor and symbolism” (Grassby 2005, 591).

My notes in the margins at this point ask why the ‘material’ part of culture is not important to the cultural historian. Materiality is very important to the living historian, so why not the cultural historians, are we not similar beings? Grassby then goes on to inform us,

“Objects give material form to the rules and belief patterns of those who trade, purchase, or use them. Unlike cultural anthropologists, material culturists may not be directly concerned with systems of belief and practical activity, but they are certainly interested in goods as symbols and tools of culture, and in structural patterns by which artifacts are organized into meaningful relationships.

This approach engages the senses as well as the mind. Choses vecues, the physical conditions of everyday life and the options for action of different groups” (Grassby 2005, 592-3).

The senses are very important to the living historian, they help cement historical moments in our minds, what it may have felt like to live the life of those whose stories we portray at museums and historic sites. History is so much more than big battles, and Kings, it is the everyday, what Grassby states when he discusses “how people met the basic needs of food, shelter, and warmth and whether levels of comfort, privacy, personal security, and taste improved” (Grassby 2005, 592-3). So for me, as a living historian, the material culture is important, and equally important is knowing the techniques of how those things of material culture were made.

So, over the years I’ve come to the point of understanding that my brain works in a different manner than the average, mainstream academic. Often I think more coherently in images and things than I do in words. This was expressed by my MA advisor Dr. Randi Warne at Mount Saint Vincent University, when she encouraged me to create a fashion collection to help support my thesis, and it apparently has been noticed by my team here at Concordia, as they have placed me in a Fine Arts stream of the Humanities program, allowing me to undertake a research-creation project to support my dissertation.

But what exactly is research-creation, and how can I apply it to my PhD program? The next article I read leans more towards my ‘Materiality’ course in that the authors discuss research-creation techniques within the Canadian university setting. In this course, I am exploring the materiality of my own art practice (research-creation), and this article was written by researchers from my own university. I had hopes that they might guide me in understanding what it is that I do, and how I would go about obtaining funding for the rest of my time here.

Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk’s article, Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and “Family Resemblances”, abstract states,

“Research-creation’ is an emergent category within the social sciences and humanities that speaks to contemporary media experiences and modes of knowing. The focus of this article if how this practice contributes to the research agenda of the digital humanities and social sciences. How the term has been articulated in academic policy discourses and examine prominent academic analysis that describe the practice of research-creation. Using Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblances’ before moving to a discussion of four modes of research-creation: ‘Research-for-creation’, ‘research-from-creation’, ‘creative presentations of research’, ‘creation-as-research” (Sawchuk 2012, 5).

My first question was, is it really ‘emergent’, or does academia want to think it is so they can be thought of as ‘cutting edge’? Turns out that no, the concepts are not really new, but they can be considered ‘emergent’, especially within Canadian academic circles, and definitely within the research funding organizations “Fonds Quebecios de la Recherche sur la Societe et la Culture (FQRSC), and Federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The third funding body the authors mentioned, the Canada Council for the Arts has a long standing tradition of funding artists, though I’m not sure I would find a great fit within that funding body as the project requires “production of a new work that will have some sort of public exhibition” (Sawchuk 2012, 9). Where I would be exhibiting my own work tends to fall outside acceptable academic venues for art exhibition, more likely put up as an exhibit in a museum or embodied upon(?) a living historian. It would, however, fit into the FQRSC standards of having the potential to “enrich ‘national and international cultural heritage’ SSHRC, 2011a)” (Sawchuk 2012, 9).

My thoughts then drifted a bit as I read the introductory chapter of Dr. John Potvin’s book, The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007. In this chapter, Dr. Potvin argues that,

“encounters with fashion happen within a space at a given place and do not simply function as backdrops but are pivotal to the meaning and vitality that the experiences of fashion trace. More often than not, these environments mitigate, control, inform, and enhance how fashion is experienced, performed, consumed, seen, exhibited, purchased, appreciated, desired, and, of course displayed. Conversely, fashion enhances the identity, worth, pleasure, and currency of certain places and spaces…” (Potvin 2009)

Then, if fashion ‘makes’ the space come alive, and the space helps to embody fashion, it would seem that the study of the history of fashion is both important to the historical narrative, but also, it is important to study the accuracy of that fashion. In future weeks, I will be undertaking a critical examination of the clothing that makes up the ‘toolkit’ my husband and I bring with us into the field of living history. I will question the materiality of the individual items of dress, how they can be improved upon in cut and construction to give a better ‘look’ to the embodied fashion. I will also examine the practices of our living history experiences to understand how and why items of dress work, while others do not. Then I will consider my own art practice in creating historical fashion, how that has changed over the years, and why I feel this change is for the better.


Grassby, Richard. 2005. "Material Culture and Cultural History." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 591-603.

Potvin, John. 2009. "Introduction." In The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007, by John Potvin, 1-18. New York: Routledge.

Prown, Jules David. 1982. "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method." Winterthur Portfolio 1-19.

Sawchuk, Owen Chapman and Kim. 2012. "Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and "Family Resemblances"." Canadian Journal of Communication 5-26.

“how do we know it’s authentic?”

As Dr. Stephen Snow sat with his co-worker on a hot august afternoon, prior to writing his PhD dissertation on Performing the Pilgrim, this very question was asked in response to another tourist stating, “This is a great way to learn history!” (Snow 1986, 34). Snow reminds us that “the important question is not ‘how do we know it’s authentic?’(which we never can know in any absolute sense), but how and why did this performance of impostership come about in the first place” (Snow 1986, 35)? As I set up this discussion, I want to quote Dr. Snow further, “the performance of living history at Plimoth Plantation has been spawned by the postmodern blurring of genres in the social sciences and the arts. History has been taken down from the museum wall, out of the glass exhibit case and off the printed page, and become history performed” (Snow 1986, 35-6). Snow cites leading living history theorist Jay Anderson, when he described “the efficacy of this blurring – performing history like actors in a play – as an educational tool for ‘interpreting the realities of life in the past more effectively” (Anderson 1984, 6, cited in Snow 1986, 36). I can understand this train of thought, as I have found that I understand the clothing of the period far better when I wear the clothing in the manner my fore-mothers would have worn it. Dr. Snow mentions that early interpreters, or ‘informants’ of the 1960s, bore a remarkable resemblance to ‘hippies’ of the period, “the cultural styles of a period impress[ing] themselves on the historical interpretation given in that period” (Snow 1986, 38). You can certainly see that in much of the costume ‘history’ being written up until the 1990s, but after the mid 1980s we start to see a dramatic shift in both the amount of research being done on clothing history, but also the quality of that research. With that new generation of researcher, it was not at all acceptable for extant garments to be worn by modern bodies, and modern undergarments, for the purpose of photographing the garments. Research was being undertaken to understand how the garment was worn, over what undergarments, and then the pieces were mounted on to properly fitted, to the garment and period, manikins for display and photography.Authors such as Janet Arnold (Arnold 1985) were taking detailed measurements of extant pieces and making drawings as well as using photography to then create detailed patterns of the garments for the study of re-creating those garments for the modern body, either in a theatre setting, or within the living history context. Arnold published three books in this series, with another published posthumously by her apprentices, along with other books on how to create and wear historic costumes.

In his chapter Signs Ar Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things in the book Materiality, Webb Keane writes, “the best known social analysis of materiality focus on production. Since production is, in a brute sense, a cause of the product, these analyses often work with some version of indexicality” (Keane 2005, 186). He examines Marx’s distinction between nonalienated and alienated labour when he understands that “the weaver can see herself in the cloth she weaves because it bears the evident stamp of her work” and that “Man’s productive activity leaves its mark…on [and thus is indexed by] all he touches” (Keane 2005, 187). Keane explains that we see things that are familiar to us, that, “the viewer tends to look only at those that are ‘right-side up.’ Determining what features count towards resemblance commonly involves larger questions of social value and authority” (Keane 2005, 190). Keane further informs us that, “this recognition is mediated by what you assume about the world” (Keane 2005, 191). It seems to me, that through her work, Janet Arnold began the process of teaching costume historians to see more clearly the artifacts they were studying. We are constantly questioning our assumptions of the world and historic dress. Just recently in a blog post, Lauren Stowell, writing for American Duchess, asked us as researchers to ‘turn our pre-conceived ideas upside down’. In this entry, Stowell wrote about ‘conformational bias’, in that we see what we want to see when we look at artwork. She told us that we should go back and really look hard at images we’ve looked at many times before, and note down ‘everything’ we see, and ask ourselves if we are seeing new things in the painting, in the costume, in the hair, and the accessories being worn by the sitter (Stowell 2017). Keane concludes his article by stating,

“To take clothes in particular, and objects more generally, as expressions of meanings that really lie elsewhere is to depend on certain assumptions not just about objects, but also about signs. Clothing seems most superficial to those who take signs to be about the clothing of immaterial meanings. Like clothing, in this view, the sign both reveals and conceals, and it serves to mediate relations between the self and others” (Keane 2005, 200).

As I prepare myself for my upcoming internship to Colonial Williamsburg, I am thinking long and hard about my wardrobe. I am uncomfortable with the idea of someone dressing me for the role I will play as interpreter at the living history site. I am used to a high degree of quality in my clothing, but especially in my living history clothing. Like the mentor I will be working under, I hand stitch my own clothing, following methods and patterns that would have been used in the period to create the garments. It is my intention to spend the Spring term, overhauling my personal living history wardrobe so that it is as authentic as I can make it to be, replacing garments that I now know to be incorrect, and creating a more ‘fashionable’ gown, as my ‘old stand-by’ sacque-backed gown will be seen as being old fashioned by those who live and work in the Revolutionary City. The sacqued back gown is an older style of garment than the more fitted bodiced dresses worn by interpreters in the modern recreation of Williamsburg. It is my hope that in bringing a high standard of quality garments with me, I will be able to wear my own clothes while working there. The purpose is multi-faceted, first, and most importantly, to wear my own clothes instead of ‘interpreter’s costume #1’, second, to study the effects of wearing more accurate clothing daily in my working life, how they will break down through wear, how they will work with my body? Third, to bring actual ‘heritage’ to my garments through wearing, instead of breaking them down theatrically to achieve the look of a Loyalist settler when I return to living history programming in Nova Scotia museum sites. It is not just the recreation of historical garments via historical methods that inspires me, but the breaking down and life span of those garments through wearing. This will be an interesting, and a once in a life-time experience for me as a researcher, as I will be wearing the clothing every day instead of just occasionally, as Arjun Appadurai notes “the body calls for disciplines that are repetitious, or at least periodic” (Appadurai 1996, 67). I wish to give this body that opportunity.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. "Consumption, Duration, and History." In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, by Arjun Appadurai, 66-85. Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press.

Arnold, Janet. 1985. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women C. 1560-1620. London: Drama Publishers.

Keane, Webb. 2005. "Signs Are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things." In Materiality, by Daniel Miller, 183-205. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Schneider, Annette B. Weiner and Jane. 1991. "Introduction." In Cloth and Human Experience, by Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, 1-27. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Snow, Stephen. 1986. "Plimoth Plantation: Living History as Blurred Genre." Kentucky Folklore Record 34-41.

Stowell, Lauren. 2017. "American Duchess Shoes." American Duchess Historical Costuming Blog. February 7. Accessed February 8, 2017. http://americanduchess.blogspot.ca/2017/02/research-we-see-what-we-want-to-see-we.html.

Whatever shall I wear?

“The relationship between art gallery and fashion, to cite but one example, provocatively proves how, on the one hand, fashion can transform places and spaces, adding, deferring, or altering the identity of that environment, while, on the other hand, it can increase the cachet and cultural currency of a (living) designer” (Potvin 2009, 3).

Can exhibits also then cause fashion trends within the living history community? When we see a new garment on display in an exhibit, do we all then not want a copy of that garment, or the fabric it was made from, for our own selves, whether or not it is historically appropriate for our persona? What do our clothes say to the museum or historic site visitor? Do they even know when things are ‘right’, do they understand what they are seeing? These are questions I have been grappling with this past week.

When I look at a photo from a living history event and say, “dear God, what the hell is that?” I kick myself for being a clothing snob. Many would see that gown as being beautiful, not understanding that everything I see is wrong, modern, not historically accurate at all. I see things like this pop up in many living history events, of all ilk and have the same visceral reaction. When people suggest that I work in movies, the same feeling of dread occurs. I know I’m not alone, through the many ‘snark’ pages on social media, I know there are people out there who see things as I do, but what exactly are we seeing that others don’t? How do I go about explaining the difference?

I have been reading deCerteau’s Practices of Everyday Life, he too mentions how “our research has concentrated above all on the uses of space, on the ways of frequenting or dwelling in a place” (de Certeau 1984, xxii). DeCerteau complains that we have placed “an increasing distance between actual everyday practices and the ‘scenarios’ that punctuate  with utopian images the hum of operations in every laboratory” (Michel de Certeau 1984, xxiii). If we take the space in which we inhabit the world most intimately, our clothing, and apply this distance as the construction of clothing, vs. the scenario we see in the laboratory of history, that utopia of history the public views the most often is in video, movies, TV shows and the like. The clothing for those pieces, for theatre in general, tend to be very modern adaptations, constructed quickly for the ease of the actor, to make the items more comfortable, to make the actor look sexy or handsome to our modern eye. The problem is, that the everyday practice of making and wearing clothing in any historical era was to upholster the body, if you will. Comfort was the least expectation. There are also far different method of construction between sitting down at a machine and ‘banging out’ an outfit in twelve hours, and constructing by hand over a few days. It’s not just the machine involved, though that plays a large role. I can sew long seams by machine, but there are places where you just cannot fit the work into the machine to be able to sew smoothly. There are also little, nuanced bits of the construction that serve multiple purposes, and that can only be done by hand. To an untrained eye, top-stitching is just top-stitching, can be done by machine, through all the layers. To a person who has studied and understood how that ‘top’-stitching works, machine stitching is entirely wrong. What may appear to be top-side stitching, in most periods, is carried out from the underside, the lining side of the garment. It is a finesse that holds the fashion layers in place, but also all the inter layers, the canvases of the garment, that the wearer will never see. You see, it is not just the space we inhibit, but how that space is constructed that makes the difference. It is just as important to get the stitching of the garment correct for the period, as it is for the wall colour of the room where we put on our programming. That ‘everyday practice’ of clothing construction that has been lost to many of us.

Currently, I am constructing a pair of breeches for a friend. I am taking photos and putting up a tutorial of how to construct the garment online for others to see. There are challenges with this garment, and it’s construction. First of all, how many people today know what breeches are? How should they fit? What are the differences in fashion throughout the period this garment would have been worn? When, exactly were they worn? Issues of modern notions of gender also arise. These questions arise within the living history community, they certainly did when I was in discussion with my client, my friend.

My friend wanted an ‘historically accurate’ garment, he voiced this desire when he came to me, knowing that I would make him as historically accurate a garment as I could. I say ‘as I could’, because at that very first meeting, there were compromises I knew I would need to make with regards to ‘historical accuracy.’ My friend is a potter, a tradesman, he needs to wash the garment often, or it will not longer be a garment, and will become a sculpture, with the amount of clay that will be absorbed by the fibres. Now tradesmen of this kind would have worn natural coloured or white breeches and waistcoat, as they are easier to keep clean, and remain looking somewhat clean-ish as they are working. His current waistcoat is wool, he wanted wool breeches as well, as that is what he was used to wearing when he was a soldier. I was faced with so many problems within that first half hour. First, I knew that his idea of washing clothing was to throw everything in the washing machine at the same time, and then into the dryer. He would not be prepared to do anything otherwise, as that is not how his everyday practice of life works. Wool requires special washing treatment, and should never go into a dryer. The second compromise, once I talked him out of wool, and told him that linen would be just as hard wearing, and possibly more comfortable, was that he wanted colour, as his existing waistcoat was of coloured cloth, and he did not like the idea of wearing all white. Ok. I have heavy, coloured linen, one that will go nicely with his waistcoat. I would have to wash the fabric in hot water first though, and dry it in the dryer, or else after the very first wearing, he would return the garments to me because they no longer fit, and I would have to replace them, for free.

So I have already compromised on accuracy by making a garment with cloth that would not be appropriate either in colour nor in washability. But it is not just the cloth that needs to be laundered with modern methods, my stitching needs to undergo that same process without falling apart. There are also parts of the construction of breeches that need to be done by hand, there is just no way they can be undertaken by machine. In the end, I also had to explain my choices to the ‘progressive’ living history community I belong to, as we usually hand sew everything, and follow period practices of cleaning and laundry. I felt it was important to have that discussion though, as there are times when dealing with either individual customers, or larger historic sites where the progressive approach just doesn’t work. In the end, I am using a mixture of machine and hand techniques to construct these breeches. They will ‘look’ right on the outside as far as construction goes, but will be almost entirely machine finished on the inside so they do not fall apart in the very first wash. They will also be fitted to the client, so that he is wearing a garment that appears fashionable for the era. If possible, I will work on his modern aversions to wearing white, and will eventually, perhaps, create a more historically accurate wardrobe for him in the future. He may be perfectly happy with his version of historically accurate, and I have to be ok with that. I know that by making the choices that I have, I will not be disappointed to put my name to the finished garments.

De Certeau mentions Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notions on how the scientist must engage with the activity of common language (cited in Michel de Certeau 1984, 9) in order to not be seen as an ‘expert’ who then loses the respect of his community through the use of technical discourse. A ‘progressive’ living historian could be seen as falling into this intellectual trap, as they are now doing living history more for the benefit of each other, and not for the viewing public at large, though for the most part, the public is still in attendance at events. The everyday practice of creating the material culture for what we do use techniques and language that are no longer common in society. We have to stop from time to time and examine how we can better explain ourselves to the viewing public, which may also include other living historians, and potentially even museum staff. This entry has hoped to provide an overview of what I do that sets garment construction apart from modern clothing construction. In the future posts, I hope to dig deeper into each method to help better explain how they differ from modern techniques.


Breeches - menswear, short pants that end just below the knee. They are outerwear, but also are considered ‘undress’ attire in the eighteenth century. Would never be worn alone, tradesmen could wear them with just a shirt, stockings and shoes, if working, but in public company would also wear a waistcoat and coat. Wearing just breeches, would be the modern equivalent of wearing a pair of cut-off jeans that have seen better days to mow the lawn.

Laundry - clothing in period would not have been laundered as often as we do today. Outer layers, even if worn every day would be spot cleaned and aired out at best. Laundry was saved for the body linens, worn next to the skin. Shirts, shifts, under-drawers, stockings, are all items that would be laundered. Also, modern techniques of machine washing are horrible on historic garments. I have bought a top loading washing machine with a delicates cycle that more closely resembles hand washing in a tub for this very purpose. Almost everything we own is hun to dry, saving our modern underpants, socks and T shirts. I rarely use our dryer. In period, these breeches would be beaten daily to knock out the clay after they have dried. A potter’s breeches would have been a disposable garment, usually replaced every six months.

Wool vs. Linen, Soldier vs. Tradesman – In the eighteenth century, many French troops wore wool uniforms, even in summer. They were issued one uniform that would be expected to last for several years. The only laundry the soldiers would have done is their shirts, under-drawers and socks. Tradesmen on the other hand, are a class above the common soldier. They would be able to afford to buy their own clothing, and would have work wear and day wear that would be separate from each other. They would have owned more clothing than a soldier in general. The wearing of white canvas waistcoat and breeches, or ‘smallclothes’ as they are called, is very much the same as wearing coveralls or Carhartts by tradesmen today. Easily laundered, cheaper to replace than fancier woolen garments, and were expected to take a beating. Later in the eighteenth century the wearing of leather breeches in the colonies replaced the wearing of canvas breeches for many men. Leather is longer wearing, more adaptable to the moving body, and easier to keep ‘clean’.

Clean – is a relative term, far different from today’s idea of clean. Natural fibres in fabrics allow for garments to just be aired out from time to time. The finishes of fabrics not washed out by commercial machines also helped to repel dirt. A simple brushing is often all a garment needs. Also, for the most part, people did not smell as bad as we imagine. Polyester fibres hold on to moisture created by the body and trap it within the garment to rot and create the smell we think of as ‘bad’. Natural fibres breath better, getting rid of the moisture to allow the garment to stay cleaner longer. The wearing and laundry of body linens helps to shield the clothing from the body, but also to protect the body from excess build-up of oils and skin cells that when rotting, cause us to smell.

Progressive - a relatively new form of living historian who could be seen as being fanatical about the material culture, and the history of the eighteenth century. These are the people who will undertake a route march in the middle of the night in January to better understand the mindset of their forefathers who had to march into battle in winter months. Drifting Focus photography page has images of this year’s event here, http://www.driftingfocus.com/portfolio_page/the-occupation-of-the-jersies-peales-march-to-princeton/. They are also the type who will weave their own cloth, spin their own thread, tan their own leather, just to get things ‘right’. Sound familiar? While I am considered to be a progressive, I, like many of my peers, realize that there is still so much to learn. There will be no resting back ‘doing things like we have always done things’ with this group. The learning is the key focus of this group.


Michel de Certeau, translated by Steven F. Rendall. 1984. The Practices of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Potvin, John. 2009. "Introduction: Inserting Fashion Into Space." In The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007, by John Potvin, 1-18. New York: Routledge.