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Author Topic: Countering arguments for looking too well dressed for a portrayal  (Read 10372 times)
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Elaine Kessinger
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« on: June 01, 2015, 06:59:14 AM »

I have long been an advocate of choosing garments that are "in the middle" class-wise so they may work for a number of portrayals with perhaps a little temporary change.
However, there have been of late a number of folks who claim that re-enactors/living historians as a whole present only the middle and upper classes in their dress.
I see the overwhelming number of photographs attributed to small towns, rural towns, frontier towns... that show the tidy dresses, modest trimmings, and bonnets that most women choose for re-enactment/living history use.
I also see the majority of events depict a social activity or Occasion that would, to a person of the 19th century, call for the best dress they could manage and the pretty accessories that dress up an otherwise blah ensemble.

So... are we just not showing "working" occasions, are we dressing too nice for "working", or are we really showing only the middle and upper classes in our dress? Do these folks have a skewed vision of working attire in the 19th century? Do we who show working attire worn in working situations need to add more descriptive context when sharing our photographs on social media?
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E L Watkins-Morris
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« Reply #1 on: June 01, 2015, 10:17:37 AM »

Triple like this topic, Elaine!

I have not had other reenactors say anything to me but I get lots of questions/responses from the public.

MHO: The public definitely has a skewed view of modern and period clothing; we've dumbed clothes down so far that even casual Friday looks dressy when it's not.

I look forward to days when I can wear my work clothes-my hair can get all messy and sweaty and I can put it back any old way, my boots can get dirty and I don't panic when I drag my hems in the mud. Wait. Maybe I'm confusing modern life with reenacting....

Liz W.


Read only if you're interested:

When I do my work clothing talk, I use 4 outfits to illustrate (not define) and then compare those clothes to the things we wear for similar chores today. Then folks get it:

  1. Down and dirty, grubbing in the garden (slat bonnet, faded cotton print dress with a kerchief, work petti, older pair of boots, heavy worn apron, old gloves = hand me down T-shirt, old shorts, garden clogs or old tennis shoes, sun hat, garden gloves)
  2. Light household chores inside (wrapper or older day dress, old collar or kerchief, light work apron = old T-shirt, yoga pants)
  3. "Shop" Girl (neat day dress, collar cuffs, nice clean apron = professional attire)
  4. Lady directing household but not participating (day dress or nice wrapper, collar cuffs, etc. = This has actually gone the way of the dodo in modern times)

When we do living history scenarios, my group tries to have an array of "positions" and it usually matches the list above except for 3 and we try to explain the differences in what each of us is wearing (this is a great seque to get people to go check out other scenarios, too.)

I repeatedly get, "but that is too nice to work in!" to the very faded ugly dress.

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BetsyConnolly
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« Reply #2 on: June 01, 2015, 01:12:29 PM »

When I give fashion talks, like Liz W. (oh, so many Eliz/sabeths and their derivations!), I try to talk about how every dress is a "work" dress, and that the kind of "work" you're doing or the "job" you're fulfilling dictates your dress. Some of these are antiquated - we don't do that kind of work anymore, or it no longer applies universally. Examples of "work" that we may not consider "work" or :

  • Making social calls to further a husband/father/other male relative's social, political or business connections
  • Maintaining a household and receiving callers for the same purpose
  • Being ornamental to display your family's wealth and connections and further their social interests(at parties, teas, dinners, etc)
  • Doing ornamental charity work (I'm talking visiting the poor families in the neighborhood, rather than nursing the ill or feeding the hungry)
  • Supervising your children's nursery lessons - simple letter and number recognition, learning songs, etc.
  • Enjoying leisure activities with family and friends - picnics, boating outings, outdoor games, and so forth.
All of these activities call for dresses that are fashionable (either modestly or flamboyantly, depending on taste), with up-to-date accessories. They may not look like what we consider "work", but they are a woman's job in the 1860s. And she needn't be particularly wealthy - any lady who can aspire to middle class can call some of these tasks "her job". People seem to want things in black and white, in terms that their modern brains can process, but the original cast lived their lives on their own terms and it's our job to translate.

(Next up, on Betsy's Rants: Why I'm not too old to wear a corselet Cheesy )
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Betsy Connolly
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« Reply #3 on: June 01, 2015, 01:19:56 PM »

I like this, too! I saw somebody throw out that statement on the Civilian Closet on Facebook last week. I have NO idea where it's coming from, but no one challenged it.

I wonder if it's people assuming that lower class = stains and patches. "Lower class" (defined however one chooses to define it) should obviously be the majority (also defined however one chooses) at every event.  Few people go about in patches and stains. Conclusion: "middle" and upper class are over-represented.
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BetsyConnolly
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« Reply #4 on: June 01, 2015, 05:14:10 PM »

"Lower class" (defined however one chooses to define it) should obviously be the majority (also defined however one chooses) at every event. 
'

I'm not pickin' for a fight, but I disagree with this. The majority at each event should be representative of the community which one is interpreting, and the activity one is interpreting. If you're at a formal ball, in a ballroom, with silk dresses for ladies and tailcoats for gents, then lower class definitely should not be the majority.

If you're portraying a rural farming community, or a working site (like Bushong or Hopewell Furnace), then yes, the majority probably should be working class, but it's up to the historical record.

That really only applies for history heavy events though. When it comes to your standard battle-centric events, that's slightly different, but the same can apply - what was really happening here? How can I best replicate it. But at an event without standard-keepers, it's hard to organize that kind of cohesive impression across all attendees, where attention is paid to the ratios of socioeconomic classes.
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Betsy Connolly
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« Reply #5 on: June 01, 2015, 06:06:01 PM »


I wonder if it's people assuming that lower class = stains and patches.

I suspect a lot of people have watched too much Dickens, which itself is a costumer's interpretation of the era indeed using stains and patches to indicate poverty.

The social consciousness and striving of the earlier eras is seems to be extremely difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around. Not to mention that skill in mending and cleaning would be a part of that social judgement and a woman in any circumstance but the most dire would do her very best to show her skill, usually resulting in nothing visible.

Anne Foster
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« Reply #6 on: June 01, 2015, 06:55:51 PM »

"Lower class" (defined however one chooses to define it) should obviously be the majority (also defined however one chooses) at every event.  
'

I'm not pickin' for a fight, but I disagree with this. The majority at each event should be representative of the community which one is interpreting, and the activity one is interpreting. If you're at a formal ball, in a ballroom, with silk dresses for ladies and tailcoats for gents, then lower class definitely should not be the majority.

If you're portraying a rural farming community, or a working site (like Bushong or Hopewell Furnace), then yes, the majority probably should be working class, but it's up to the historical record.

That really only applies for history heavy events though. When it comes to your standard battle-centric events, that's slightly different, but the same can apply - what was really happening here? How can I best replicate it. But at an event without standard-keepers, it's hard to organize that kind of cohesive impression across all attendees, where attention is paid to the ratios of socioeconomic classes.

Whoops, Betsy, you cherry-picked a quote from the paragraph that speculates on the logic of the naysayer. That sentence is between where I guess that they think lower class is patches and stains, and the conclusion that reenactors are overdressed.
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BetsyConnolly
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« Reply #7 on: June 01, 2015, 09:47:48 PM »


Whoops, Betsy, you cherry-picked a quote from the paragraph that speculates on the logic of the naysayer. That sentence is between where I guess that they think lower class is patches and stains, and the conclusion that reenactors are overdressed.

Sorry! It wasn't cherry-picking, just not following the train of thought through and recognizing that you were pointing out someone else's viewpoint, rather than making the argument for yourself. That's what I get for reading right after work.  Mea culpa!

I suspect a lot of people have watched too much Dickens, which itself is a costumer's interpretation of the era indeed using stains and patches to indicate poverty.

The social consciousness and striving of the earlier eras is seems to be extremely difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around. Not to mention that skill in mending and cleaning would be a part of that social judgement and a woman in any circumstance but the most dire would do her very best to show her skill, usually resulting in nothing visible.

Anne Foster

There is the well-known myth of "everyone was dirtier back then". Perhaps this falls into that?
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Betsy Connolly
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Elizabeth
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« Reply #8 on: June 01, 2015, 09:57:07 PM »

I REALLY REALLY like Betsy's concept of Situational Representation. Lots.

It's over-simplification to say, "We all look too good" or "People should be dirtier" without asking, "Why?" We need context to decide what the appropriate ranges of situational representation will be, in order to give a good snapshot on the past.

So I'm going to swipe that and reference it forever as the Connolly Corollary of Situational Representation: If we know who we are supposed to be, we can avoid mis-representing them. Cheesy
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Elizabeth
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« Reply #9 on: June 01, 2015, 10:00:58 PM »

So I'm going to swipe that and reference it forever as the Connolly Corollary of Situational Representation: If we know who we are supposed to be, we can avoid mis-representing them. Cheesy

Just when I thought my life couldn't get more magical, I get a corollary named after me.  Cheesy
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Betsy Connolly
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« Reply #10 on: June 01, 2015, 11:22:53 PM »

Now to say "Connolly Corollary" five times fast. Smiley
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E L Watkins-Morris
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« Reply #11 on: June 02, 2015, 12:12:57 PM »

Exactly, Betsy.

You filled in the gaps of what I wasn't sure I should bring into the conversation in the bottom part of my post and then filled in some of the gaps in my thinking:

-I don't have kids or do charity work per se so I never thought to use those as examples of work that spectators may relate to

-We rarely have an opportunity to "play" at public events so I forgot about leisure activities, too.

BHOD. But then this is why I'm here!

Liz W. (or Elizabeth #12)

Wear the corselet!
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« Reply #12 on: June 24, 2015, 05:25:17 PM »

One of the past New Market events asked that civilians to dress as they would for a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, i.e., work dresses for ladies and clothing appropriate to farm work for men.  There were still a lot of day dresses in evidence so I think some participants wanted the chance to show off  their fancier clothes, regardless of the scenario.

As far as "we aren't dirty enough or in patches", such a statement assumes that lower class people had no pride of appearance.  I know this is post-war but my mother's family were what we could consider lower class.  But they would have been ashamed to appear in dirty clothes.  If there were patches, I'd expect it was done to be as subtle as possible.  You didn't wear poverty on your sleeve.  So to portray a lower class person, work clothing instead of day dresses with abundant trim or fine black suits and you probably will accurately portray that person.

Michael Mescher
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MaryDee
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« Reply #13 on: June 24, 2015, 07:50:04 PM »

I agree with Michael.  As a youngster (in the 1940s) I lived in a poor rural community where the blessings of rural electrification had not yet arrived.  Except for the use of cars (all pre-World War II) and tractors, their way of life was little different than in the 19th century.  Unless she was really down-and-out and was so depressed that she didn't care any more and didn't mind being ostracized by the community, any woman living in poverty would have her pride and would keep her clothes clean and mended!  And she wouldn't wear the grubby dress she wore for mucking out the chicken coop to go to church or shopping or to visit a neighbor!  If she had no other dress, at least she'd sponge off the stains and air it out first!   Mending would be done as invisibly as possible (Carolann Schmitt taught us how at the recent Oregon City workshop).
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« Reply #14 on: June 25, 2015, 10:56:23 AM »

Building on MaryDee's comment about mending one's clothes as neatly as possible: there's an original wrapper 19th century in the Ft. Nisqually collection which has a good half-dozen invisible patches on the back skirt (tons of tiny holes--like the wearer backed into some sparks or something).  It's not a fancy dress by any means, just a simple looks-like-cotton print wrapper, and it was so carefully mended that you couldn't tell there were any patches or repairs until it was turned inside out. 

Reading period fiction, the virtuous poor characters always seem to appear in carefully mended and clean garments; dirty or damaged clothing frequently signals "lazy and/or wicked".
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« Reply #15 on: June 29, 2015, 09:04:43 AM »

Just as a followup, I checked with my Mom about attitudes on appearance when she was growing up.  She confirmed that cleanliness was expected and any mending was done with skill so as to be barely, if at all, noticeable.  She said that the community was all lower class (eastern European immigrants who worked in the coal mines) but no one "wore their poverty on their sleeve" with a grubby or tattered appearance.  They were all in the same boat economically but trying to do the best they could with what they had.

So the response to someone who says we aren't dirty or tattered enough, we could definitely appear insulted and ask them who they thought we were (as in, do they expect us to be one of the very small minority who didn't care what we looked like).  That would give an opening to explain that people, even poor ones, put their best foot forward and kept clean and kept their clothing in good condition.

Michael Mescher
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« Reply #16 on: June 29, 2015, 10:08:19 AM »

So the response to someone who says we aren't dirty or tattered enough, we could definitely appear insulted and ask them who they thought we were (as in, do they expect us to be one of the very small minority who didn't care what we looked like).  That would give an opening to explain that people, even poor ones, put their best foot forward and kept clean and kept their clothing in good condition.

Michael Mescher

I really like that approach.
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Chip
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« Reply #17 on: July 01, 2015, 10:05:52 AM »


However, there have been of late a number of folks who claim that re-enactors/living historians as a whole present only the middle and upper classes in their dress.
I see the overwhelming number of photographs attributed to small towns, rural towns, frontier towns... that show the tidy dresses, modest trimmings, and bonnets that most women choose for re-enactment/living history use.
I also see the majority of events depict a social activity or Occasion that would, to a person of the 19th century, call for the best dress they could manage and the pretty accessories that dress up an otherwise blah ensemble.

So... are we just not showing "working" occasions, are we dressing too nice for "working", or are we really showing only the middle and upper classes in our dress? Do these folks have a skewed vision of working attire in the 19th century? Do we who show working attire worn in working situations need to add more descriptive context when sharing our photographs on social media?

From my perspective of being a collector of period photography, I would like to point out that prior to the introduction of CDVs, going to a photographic studio was usually a well planned event.

That being said, what you wore to the studio was usually part of that planning as well. If someone were to pick out and pay a fair amount of money for a pretty frame and velvet lined case, they were more than likely going to wear some of their best or newest clothing.

Once CDVs and tintypes began to be fairly inexpensive, in the mid 1860's, more impulsive visits became more common.
But even then, who would want photos of themselves in unflattering clothing?

And CDVs also began to be used as a medium to correspond with friends and family in other parts of the country. One could insert a CDV into a stamped envelope along with a letter and a relative several states away could see first hand what a new dress looked like.

My point is, that there just aren't as many photos of working class dress as we would like to examine.

Likewise, there just aren't as many photographs of ball gowns because they were worn during a part of the day when there simply wasn't enough light available to be photographed very well.
The photos of ball gowns that we do have were more often the result of a dedicated visit to a photographic studio during the day.

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Elaine Kessinger
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« Reply #18 on: July 01, 2015, 01:08:59 PM »

To be very specific...
a certain clique (period word, I've recently found out) of re-enactors have claimed that people portraying "working class" in my area are dressed like middle class people. Too fashionably and not dressed for "real" work.
They are also ones who make snide comments on "getting out their fancy duds" when they travel to an event away from their home area or advise women who want to attend an event outside of their home area.

These snide comments are getting tiresome and I am sometimes loosing the battle to keep civil in civilian.

I just wanna share history!  Angry  Cry

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« Reply #19 on: July 02, 2015, 01:42:32 PM »

It just goes back, over and over, to Who we are, When we are, Why we are, etc... we need to study as much as we can about how the Original Cast handled their wardrobes, their lives, and the rest so we can see how WE need to represent it.

The clique folks may have a point--some of the people may be over-dressed, or not dressed in a well-considered way for the type of work they're really doing. Over-spreading that, though, into snide comments about the needs of those in other roles or locations, is a bit of a stretch, and may or may not be accurate.

Some will not be amenable to any suggestion, and while it's frustrating, if they're devoted to the party line they've decided for themselves, they're not going to change--they're in a different idea of "fun" and you can only do your own stuff. Cheesy
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