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Theatre Costuming vs Re-enactment Costuming: Part 2

In my last post we explored the experience and requirements of theatre costuming, today we'll look at the counterpart; reenactment costuming.

Let me start by saying that I am not exactly currently part of a reenactment group. Enthusiasts and authenticity-conscious reenactors may be horrified to know that I was, at one point, part of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Let's be clear. If you like history, want to wear costumes from a bygone era, and would like to be part of a very welcoming group that has very simple (almost non-existant) standards for historical accuracy from a beginner, then the SCA is a great group to which one can belong. I was personally attracted to the words "Creative," (I'm a costumer by trade, and even in college creative was my default adjective for myself) and "Anachronism" (from another time). It's how I met my husband and I made many great friends. If you want to be really authentic, you can; if you want to just have fun, you can do that to. It's purpose is not to exactly replicate the Middle Ages.

If total accuracy is your thing, or an era other than the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, then there are lots of other groups around the world that are much more focused on creating perfect replications of a certain time and place and experience. I have a great deal of respect for the work that goes into this, for the knowledge that the people who do them have, and I am on several listservs with reenactors so that I can learn from them. I am a fringe member of a lovely European group called Lumieres, but living in America means that I can never make it to their events (which are often shared with other groups). I do not want to reenact as an American Colonial, or devote myself entirely to one era. I love history from many time periods and many cultures.

So now that I've put the soap box away; how is reenactment costuming different? Well, for one thing, the focus is on history, education, and accuracy. If your persona would not have had access to the new color "mauve" because she's from a small mining town then you cannot buy it, dye it, or use it in your clothes or accoutrements. If you decide to go ahead and do so then you are knowingly misrepresenting the time period and have basically fallen from clothing into costume. The idea is to lose yourself (and potentially any audience you wish to educate) in the realism of the experience you are re-enacting. A lack of proof that something didn't exist is not a good reason to do it either. You can't prove a negative.

Just how accurate you have to be can be up to a range of people. Just as in theatre the director and producer are the final voice in how the costumes look, so too do some re-enactors have to pass inspection (usually for military units), or just run the gauntlet of gossip. Some people will be harshly critical, and some wouldn't dream of it. In some groups it is entirely a personal choice, but wearing Mary-Janes with your empire dress will probably get you at least a few raised eyebrows, and some polite suggestions as to where you can get better footwear.

Just how far does this accuracy extend? As far as you can imagine. I know of one woman who raised her own sheep so she could spin the wool, weave the cloth, dye it with plants from her garden, cut it with reproduction shears, handsew it with reproduction thread etc, and trimmed it with hand-woven decoration. That's dedication! From time to time I think about trying to do something similar, since I know how to spin wool into thread, but the reality is that I'm both busy and lazy, and that would take a really long time. Most re-enactors try to use fibers and colors that would have been available in their time and place to their persona, and cut their costume according to extant examples, handsewing at the least where the seam will show, and using portraits to determine the kind of reproduction accessories that should go with it. It's like a master's dissertation (and I should know), where you should be prepared to offer a reason for every decision you make. This makes the costume as accurate as possible, and in a roomful of re-enactors it is possible to feel like you've stepped back in time.

Unlike in big-budget movies, re-enacting can be a bit pricey since all of those reproduction items don't come cheap, and no studio exec is paying for them. This can lead to shortcuts. Often newcomers are offered loaner gear by the group they join, with the expectation that in good time they will create their own kit, and the loaner gear can be passed on. Some items like eyeglasses you might not really notice, but others like shoes and hairstyles you will.

The last facet of re-enactment costuming I want to talk about is travel. In film or theater the costumes are either made on site or transported en masse to the location (or very nearby) for the actors to use. In the re-enactment community a social gathering can involve traveling many miles, or even flying. Packing a hoopskirt and a rifle is a lot harder than jeans and a t-shirt.
Unfortunately it's hard to drag a trunk onto a plane.
Fortunately there are ways to lessen the bulk of what you're packing.
For things like hats; you can pack them crown-down on a thin layer of clothes, and stuff the inside with smaller things like stockings, caps, jewelry bags, and gloves. Hoop skirts or panniers can have the boning removed, you'll just have to reinsert it when you arrive. Corsets roll down tightly. Mostly it's about planning how to get the most out of the fewest outfits by mixing and matching strategically. I do this when I pack for long trips in the modern world too. Solids colors that compliment each other and a few key pieces will go a long way, and limit yourself to two kinds of shoes if not one.

Are you a re-enactor? Want to add something? Have a question? Leave a comment!


  1. re enactment doesn't have to mean spinning your own wool to make the frock, as there has always been considerable specialisation in the wool industry.

  2. Your post is very good. There are those of us who are reenactors who strive to be as authentic as possible, but who also realize that this is a 'hobby' we don't get paid for, that in every era there surely must have been those who crafted or created a clothing item with elements of their own style and taste, and that a little bit of 21stc. 'accommodating' is not out of order. While not a 'farbie', I refuse to be one of those hyper-critical, snooty, reenactors-with-an-attitude, finding fault with everyone else out there who is not counting every stitch or using only a fabric that 'THEY' deem suitable. I do strive for authenticity, and I pride myself that most of my things are as correct as financially and realistically possible, but I also will not balk at incorporating a little of my own creativity into my kit.
    An example is that back in the day, a woman wearing a gown with robing and stomacher would pin or sew herself into it in front. I have NEVER been able to get any pin whatsoever to stay securely in place or hold gown fronts closed to my satisfaction. I have to move a LOT... teaching hearth cooking, working, dancing , etc., and on the advice of another reenactor and maker of 18thc. garments, I was advised to judiciously apply long strips of velcro to the edges of the stomachers and corresponding inside gown edges. I have done this to all my applicable garments with huge success. You cannot see it, and everything stays put, no matter what!
    I am sure there are plenty of reenactors 'tsk-ing', eye-rolling, and criticizing now, but well, I just don't care. The judgemental 'stitch nazis' don't bother me one whit.

  3. opusanglicanum- I didn't mean to imply that reenacting had to involve spinning your own wool. I was using it as an example of just how far back in the process some people can choose to go.

    Historical Lady- Thank you for yet another good example. It just shows that not every reenactor is a scary stitch-counting harpy, as they can sometime be characterized as being. I've certainly met both kinds before.

  4. Ha ha, I would totally start from the sheep if I had the money and time!

    I'm reminded of the quote I saw once that was something to the effect of "farbs: anyone less accurate than ourselves; authentic: what we do; damned stitch-counters: anyone who tries harder for accuracy than ourselves," part of the joke being that just because someone is trying harder for authenticity (to go off An Historical Lady's example, someone else might not use velcro to hold her gown to her stomacher, deciding that a) she hasn't figured out the way people in period pinned their gowns yet and needs to experiment or b) people in period didn't always look as pristine as they do in portraits), they aren't necessarily looking down on those who don't want to be hardcore/progressive. And I'm sure that everyone has one area where they judge everyone else by their standards - color, fabric, hair, makeup, stance, accent, etc. - and where judging something as "less accurate" means "I'd never do that" rather than "what a terrible person." One could also quip that "my short-cuts are necessary and hidden; your short-cuts are lazy and obvious."

    It's like a master's dissertation (and I should know), where you should be prepared to offer a reason for every decision you make.

    So true! And in reverse, I attacked my master's thesis by thinking of how I would go about defending my choices to a roomful of picky reenactors.

  5. Cassidy- I think that's probably a pretty good way to go about prepping a Master's Thesis. Whatever you don't prepare for they will ask about. The thing you obsess over, they will never question.


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