Tuesday, 28 February 2017

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.

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