Over the years I have been asked about a variety of problems within historical costuming – and how to avoid them. I have already written a few posts on different aspects such as the look, fabrics, etc – but here all of them will be linked in one place, providing a good reference base. :-)
Please note, this post is targeted at folks who want to aim for the elusive ‘authenticity pinnacle’, (and ‘aim’ is usually all we can do – 100% authenticity is, of course, not achievable; Still, that shouldn’t mean that we cannot try…), and who need information to ‘up their game’ a little – either for personal satisfaction, for work, ( re-enactors, interpreters etc), or for both.
Many thanks to my FB followers on Prior Attire who also contributed their ideas for this post !
1. Poor fabric/embellishment choice.
A pretty obvious one – but it happens again and again, often because people are not aware of the fact that the fabric they bought as ‘silk’, is actually a polyester/rayon mix… Sadly, often such fabrics are wrongly advertised as silk. Also, it is not obvious to everybody that there are many kinds of velvets, satins and damasks – we can have cotton velvet, rayon, silk, silk/cotton blend, silk/rayon blend; many sellers say just ‘damask’, and we all jump with glee at seeing the price of £9.99 a metre… Well, guess what? Proper silk damask starts from about £40 per metre, if you are lucky – and goes on to £200 per metre, or more.
The same is true for wool, linen, etc – some linens which are sold as ‘pure’ are in fact cotton/linen blends; some wools are blends too. Always make sure; and if it looks dodgy and too good to be true, it probably is:-(
If you are after correct fabrics beware of these – nice patterns, but not only plastic, also dangerous near fire!
Flocked damask on ebay
…and this – very popular; I see it on lots of medieval and Tudor gowns – ebay link here
Don’t get me wrong, they can be useful; I made a gown from one from of these when it happened to land on my table – but be aware that this is not silk. They do make nice clothes that can look good from a distance, can be washed frequently and are cheap – but they will not pass muster if you plan to be portraying high-quality living history roles. I would recommend them for folks doing horsey displays – nobody fingers those gowns to check the fibre content; and it is rarely re-enactors, who do so, to be fair, rather it is public members do that frequently – invited or not! :-(
These fabrics are easy to clean, so may be suitable for this specific purpose.
For living history, however, a proper fabric choice is a ‘must’ – and buying a poly-cotton mix instead of linen doesn’t really make much sense. It is marginally cheaper, but for a few quids-worth of savings you get a far lower quality of cloth that will not last that long. Polyester taffetas may be cheaper than proper silk- but they not only look plastic, they feel like wearing a plastic tent too – or a mobile sauna, as poly fabrics do not breathe – making them a nightmare in the summer!
Nobody expects you to spend a fortune on fabric – if you cannot afford brocades, get plain silks; if you cannot stretch to silk – get nice wool or linen. Also – a silk chenille doublet will be both more expensive and less accurate than a wool or linen one – so the high cost does not always mean the fabric is suitable!
A short note on wool – nowadays we associate it with winter coats, etc, and think that it is just too hot to wear at other times; But there are lots of kinds of wool with different weights and textures. There are some lovely soft lightweight woolen cloths that make fantastic summer kirtles, gowns, doublets, etc. As a natural fabric, wool breathes well, is non-sweaty and nice to touch – and since it is worn over a chemise, it need not be itchy, or unpleasant in any way. So choose the type of fabric suitable for the season, (or the country you live in…)
a gown for a lady doing a medieval horse display
Choosing the right fabric can be a real maze – so when you are starting your costuming adventure it can be intimidating. The best way forward? Simply ask reliable people – it is much better to seek advice before mistakenly splashing gazillions of pounds on silk velvet for a 9th century gown; or an expensive chenille cloth for a medieval robe… More on which fabrics to use for which century, and a list of providers, can be found in this post: Historical fabrics
Very tricky, this one! Obviously there were several different variations of many garments, and claiming that there is just one ‘proper’ pattern for a doublet, codpiece, bliaut or sack gown is a bit silly – especially for periods when publicly accessible information about patterns was non-existent. Still, folks tried to achieve the fashionable look in whatever way they could – and so can we. I base my patterns on existing examples, paintings, etc, showing the seams, and then experimenting to achieve the right look and shape. There are also some historical patterns, (or books with patterns), that can start you on the right path.
The most common mistake though? Not enough fabric used to make an item. This happens a lot – and believe me, folks, If you are going for a posh garment, then that requires volume; sometimes splashing out for one more meter can make all the difference…
I have used, and can recommend, the Tudor Tailor Patterns, Truly Victorian, and some Reconstructing History ones. Still, be prepared to do a mock up and to fiddle with the item a lot before it fits!
Books with patterns – just a few favourites:
Series of Victorian fashions by Francis Grimble
The must have – Janet Arnold series, Patterns of fashion
The Victorian Tailor
The Tudor Tailor
Corsets and Crinolines
17th century women’s dress patterns – 2 volumes
The cut of women’s clothes – Men’s in separate book
The Medieval Tailor Assistant
friends rocking their lower status gear
As for sewing per se, you can go authentic and sew everything by hand, (at least until the sewing machine arrives in the 19th century) – and I do like making my own clothes this way. But sometimes there is just not enough time – and for many people time is money. I offer my clients different levels of finish – from modern, ( still minimal machine stitching used, but may be visible at a very close distance), to the ‘golden mean’, (inside seams machined, all finishing by hand, etc), to completely authentic for the period (Hand stitched throughout). If you are participating in battle re-enactment, you may not want to spend lots of time or money on hand-stitched garments, and the public will not be able to tell from a distance. But if you are ‘up close and personal’, with people talking to you about what you wear, it is nice to show at least some hand finishing (e.g. hand woven braids instead of cheap sari trims on medieval garments, hand-stitched eyelets or buttonholes), at least on the outside.
handmade eyelets on a medieval arming doublet
Oh and zips? – Just don’t… A post on what fastenings were used throughout the ages – Fastenings
A huge issue here – everybody tends to want to be the queen/king/lady/knight. Well, thatt is all fine, but in the past, social status was evident – and it cost to show it. Today it is not much different – if you want to portray a posh persona, be prepared to dig into your pocket. Really deep.
In this case, the dress and the fabric is just a small part of the whole – you will also need shoes, accoutrements, jewellery/bling, headgear, a retinue, weaponry, even a horse – a wealthy knight without a horse and a squire? At least get a squire -cheaper than a horse! ;-) It all costs…
But generally, if portraying wealth, the fabric, the cut, the layers, the jewelry, everything needs to be there to form the right impression. There is nothing sadder than a queen walking alone in a skimpy polyester dress and sneakers.
Most people say the cost is too high – they want to be royalty but cannot afford the fur, silk, bling. There are short cuts (more on that in the article below), but to be honest, there is no shame in not being able to afford such royal kit – we all have modern lives, and modern priorities, and have to live and pay the bills too – people will understand if you say, “sorry, cannot do a queen/king, but can do a lady in waiting/a peasant woman/ a sailor”. And, more to the point, portraying a less affluent persona is fun, too. Usually even more so, especially if you are demonstrating a craft. Middle class is both more practical, comfortable and affordable – and can be very pretty – and there is a lot of scope to show off your sewing skills as well. You cannot afford 10 metres of purple silk velvet? Settle for 7m of good quality cloth and nice linen, with a touch of poshness, ( 1 or 2 rings instead of 8, a small brooch, a tasteful pendant); Or go even lower – a lot of research and work is still needed to create a great-looking lower class person, and it is just as much fun! My all time favourite is a portrayal of a middle class lace maker – I get to demonstrate a rare skill, and people are far less intimidated (full-on royalty can be a bit too much for some!), and they are interested in what I am making, so great discussions usually follow. I will take a ‘craft demonstration’ over a ‘swan around in a posh frock’ job anytime!
For Victorian I love these guys, showing the less glamorous side of the era – The Ragged Victorians
I wrote a detailed post on the costing giving examples, so I won’t repeat myself much – simply head here for more details – A queen on a budget
a late 12th century/ early13th court, nicely decorated room, the queen with her ladies in attendance, all busy – what a joy to behold! Photo courtesy of the Feudals
4. Silhouette – Lack of foundation garments.
Simple – if a corset, stays, etc are needed, then a modern bra just will not do. Bustle cages, panniers, starched petticoats, shoulder supports, chemises, etc are a MUST… A detailed post on what supports and underwear goes in which century here – Looking the part1
the same dress worn without supports -corset, petticoat and bustle cage – and with….
5. Modern make up and hairstyle
Again, a very common mistake, and one that is very easy to spot… Fortunately it doesn’t take a lot to rectify it – there are ways to use makeup suitable for the portrayed century, ditto with hair – and it is not very pricey :-). Again, a whole post with examples and a run through from Medieval to Edwardian fashions – Looking the part2
6. No accessories/Or modern ones!
Accessories do complete the look, but they also serve a purpose: that Regency shawl may look pretty, but it will give some extra warmth on a windy evening; a reticule may look silly, but it can contain your necessary bits-and-pieces (you know, mobile phone, car keys etc :-) ); a hat pin is not only an ornament but prevents your hat from sailing away on a stronger gust of wind… Medieval glasses may not be the most fetching items, but if you need glasses and contacts are not an option, they are a way to go.
In short – Do accessorize! Again, styles and examples here – Looking the part3
5. Age/maritial status
It doesn’t really matter if you are married or not, you can choose the suitable fashions for either – but if you are portraying a married woman, a widow, a young maiden, make sure you wear styles, hair, accessories, etc which are suitable to that status and age. Wear a cap or a bonnet, in short cover your hair in most periods, especially if you are married, (over 20 or so).
Also, this maybe a bit harsh, but act your age… if you can pass for 25 when 35 – fantastic, good for you! – but if your character is significantly older/younger, it might be just a poor choice? A 20-year-old ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’ collecting a ransom for Richard is a bit of a joke… We are lucky, as it may be argued that in the past people matured/grew up/got older earlier – nowadays with advances in medical care, with better lifestyle, nutrition, and beauty care, a 50 year old may well pass for 40 – but it is wise not to stretch the boundary too much… ;-) Yes, it is fascinating to be portraying a 20 year old princess, and as I get older I feel sad that some interesting characters are forever beyond my grasp – but then again I have discovered a plethora of intriguing characters closer to my real age, giving me an excuse for more research (and more frocks to make!!)
Believe it or not, children are authentic! :-) But if you take your little ones to work/events, you may want to consider making it fun for them too. I do understand that sometimes this is not possible, but if it is, there is little cuter than lads in tunics and hose, playing with wooden swords, or a little girl dressed in a lovely frock learning her first stitches. At a living history display it is often possible to hide away any modern conveniences in part of a tent, away from the public – so when the little darlings get bored with the swords and bows and wants to play a video game, get him/her inside – they will be happy, the public won’t see it, and you will remain sane:-)
lovely picture of Julia and her daughter at an event
7. Modern items.
If you are working/demonstrating etc – just switch off that mobile, take off the watch, (unless period correct), or modern jewelery, and resist the temptation to get that burger/ice cream.
Yes, we all need to eat – if you have modern food, cover it with a piece of linen, and eat it discretely, away from the public. Anachronistic photos are fun to take – after hours, when the work is done. During an event, eating a big Magnum ice cream or chatting on a phone sticking out from under your gable hood is a no-no.
You can snack on period-correct or similar looking items, and if you are going for a lunch break and eating in a cafe/restaurant, make it clear that you are on a lunch break to the public too – ask them not to take photos. People understand that you are not really a 14th century physician, but a modern bloke who is working and needs sustenance – and will come back later to chat once you are back at work.
nothing wrong with cream tea for Edwardians… :-)
A tricky one, this, but the least we can do is to try to behave in a way that our character reasonably would. A noble lady would not be running around with her skirts hitched up, showing her knees, chasing a lowly page boy, for example; a Victorian lady would not be riding in trousers, astride, a peasant would not be amicably chatting with the king, etc – you get the idea :-)
Our behaviour towards the public counts too – even if you are not working, and if re-enacting is your hobby, if you are interacting with the public simply be polite – it is difficult at times, but one sarcastic word or inappropriate remark can taint the experience and give the whole community a bad name. If you prefer sitting in the corner and quietly polishing your sword, tending the pot, etc, that is all fine, you don’t have to be the main public entertainer all the time, (unless you were hired to do exactly that). For some people it takes time to overcome their shyness, and talk to strangers without problems (it is in a way a ‘public speaking’ engagement, and many folks dread it).
Also – speech. Nobody expects you to speak Old English (mostly because nobody would understand it; trust me, I studied it at Uni, and it sounds like a funky mixture of German and Scandinavian spiced with a few vaguely recognizable words…), or Middle English (more understandable, though pronunciation still very different). Just stick to normal speech, avoiding obviously modern phrasing and words – better still, learn a few period swearwords :-). Authentic is fine, (and many people do take the time and effort to research and replicate speech patterns, syntax and phonetics of their period – fascinating stuff!), but your public will be more grateful if they can understand what you are saying….
reading Chaucer… I love middle English, and it’s fun for people to compare with modern English :-)
9. Lack of knowledge
This is utterly unforgivable, if you are paid to do the job – but in my books it is just as bad if you are just swanning around some country house in a posh frock ‘being Anne Boleyn’, or Jane Austen, and ‘looking good’ (though regrettably most often not – somehow the lack of knowledge goes together with all those rayon brocades…) and being unable to interact with the public. In the majority of cases historical interpretation is there not simply to entertain, but also to educate. So if you are at an event and dressed up, people assume that you know what you are talking about. So – do your research for the character and for generic period – and by research I do not mean just Philippa Gregory’s or other historical fiction books. Entertaining as they may be, and they do have a place in sparking an interest, do follow up with proper research before the event. If you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer – well, simply admit that you don’t – it is not a crime, nobody knows everything after all. Whatever you do, do not invent the answer just to ‘save face’. I have met members of the public repeating some incredible nonsense they were told by re-enactors – mostly untruths or sensationalized facts (such as – ‘Victorians in the corsets couldn’t walk or breathe’) – an article on the corset myths here .
One of the most ridiculous things I have heard when demonstrating some lace making at Aston Hall was by one visitor who claimed I was too old to do any sewing, etc. According to a re-enactor they had met last year, only children and very young girls were doing such fine work, and because they were working at night, they were blind by the time they were 13 – so they stopped sewing then and were married off… The image of 17th century England with every woman over 13 staggering blindly into matrimony was perhaps entertaining, but I was amazed that someone could tell something like that, (and also, that it was believed…)
And so, research, study and learn – that’s the part I love about my job, you never stop learning! :-)
Well, that is all at the moment; I will no doubt add more bits if I can think of them – feel free to suggest more points here too!
And if you would like to know about me and my work, please check out my fb page or my website :-)