Tuesday, 28 February 2017

“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.

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