Tuesday 10 December 2013

Why Historically Correct?

I’m pondering a future blog post (EDIT: now published) for my medieval blog and my 19th century blog (both in Swedish), aimed at beginner living historians/historic costumiers, or those who haven’t even started out yet. While I know there are many reasons for choosing to make historical or historically inspired clothing, for me personally historic accuracy (or as close as we can reasonably get) is important for several reasons:

- Almost everyone who sees you in “period” clothing will assume it’s correct. That may well spread old misconceptions further, or create new ones, unless you’ve done your research and made good interpretations of what would have been worn. Also, as clothing usually reflects a country’s economy, political and religious views, traditions, current events and how they view people (men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, natives and foreigners, etc.) at any given time in history, wearing the wrong things will also add to fabricating history. As we see enough of that in most “historic” films and TV-series, we don’t really need any more….

EDIT 2015-05-12
- Historically accurate vs. historically inspired - this is really a spectrum in which all of us are located. If you for some reason don't have the inclination, opportunity or skill to make tolerably historically accurate clothing, it would perhaps be more fitting to call your outfit historically/period-of-choice inspired, as opposed to the plain historical/period-of-choice. If you have deviated from what was done in period, it's no longer historical. That's a fact. Be honest about what you've made, and most people will be fine with it. It's when you try to pass something inspired of as accurate that even the kindest and most generous of those who try to be accurate begin to be miffed, as it, no matter how beautiful your item is, does lessen the value of all the research and hard work they've done in the eyes of the largely undiscerning public, who usually give most attention and appreciation to the thing most appealing to the modern eye, not necessarily the most correct one. See the above point.

- You will never really experience what a historic fashion feels like unless you actually wear it: that you use the right materials, the right cut, and combine the garments (all layers) in the proper way is crucial. That experience will advance your understanding of how it felt to live during a certain time: how people moved, sat, what posture was desired etc. It will also deepen your knowledge of why all those layers where used.

Jørgen Roed, "Haven med den gamle døbefont" 
("The garden with the old babtismal font"), 1850.

- Doing it wrong may not only be unsightly, it can also be uncomfortable or even dangerous; a wool/polyester blend coat getting too close to an open flame and melting into your skin; heavy petticoats without stays or corset to take the weight of your waist and hips; man made fabrics getting too hot in summer or too cold in winter; the wrong hairstyle throwing of the delicate balance of a fashionable look; a bosom unsuported by stays or corset making the prettiest dress look frumpy.

- You’ll save both time and money doing it right, as many beginners want to upgrade after a year or two anyway. Invest time in researching now, and save time and money redoing everything later. Mind, research is never completed, and you’ll always find something or other in your wardrobe that needs changing….

- The resale value on good, period accurate items are reasonably high, if you decide you don’t like the hobby, the period or just want to have a new something.

- It’s fun! It’s an interactive way to learn history, it's creative and will teach you new skills, and perfect the ones you already have. While spending time browsing blogs, forums and homepages you’ll get new friends all over the world, as interested in this as you are. The knowledge in the collective hive-mind of living historians and historical costumiers in the world is vast and ever increasing. Not taking part is missing out on a lot of knowledge and well needed help.

EDIT 2015-05-12
Those of us who have gained some little – or a lot of - knowledge of a certain period will do well to remember that we were once new too. We’ve made mistakes. We still have lots of things to learn, and that is a humbling thought. Our will to help others improve should never lead us to be unkind, snarky or condescending. Openness, gentleness and a willingness to hear what the other comes from will be a lot more effective in showing them what there is to gain from historical accuracy, as well as lifting both them and ourselves up.

EDIT 2015-08-07
Those of you that are new to historical costuming: don't be afraid, you can do this! I have seen quite a few people who, with the help, advice and cheering from others, achieved really good outfits on their first tries. (I wasn't one of them, having no one to ask for advice, and mostly outdated library books for reference.) It's all about willingness and determination, and being humble enough to ask for, and accept, help. Yes, there is the odd person that is unpleasant. I'm sorry if you encountered (or will encounter) one of them. Try to brush of whatever acid comment they dropped on you, and move on. Don't let them get you down. I believe in you. Getting dressed up at all is more than most people do for an event, so one point to you for even getting started! 

I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why period correctness matter and I want to find as many as possible. Please share your thoughts on the subject, be they continuations of mine or something completely different!


  1. This is a great post. I wish more people could understand that it actually costs less to do things correctly from the beginning. Plus it does look better and give a better experience for both spectator and historian. This is a great list of reasons to do it right!

  2. Very good points! I think a lot of people would like to think they can cut corners with historical accuracy, but investing in a few key pieces and fabrics and patterns can really help educate everyone we meet about the reality of the past. Kudos!

  3. A great post. Thanks for putting it together, Sarah!
    Once the decision has been made to do historical clothing, it opens a window into the lives of our ancestors - we learn about their skills, their crafts, their knowledge and their pace. It was a time when quality was valued higher than quantity and things simply took their time.
    In the best case it opens our eyes to their aestethics and we gain a deeper insight on all aspects of life.
    Fashion was and always will be a way to express oneself, an invitation to learn more about a person (or a certain period).
    And it doesn't matter if one dress takes more time to sew than three dresses sewn with modern methods or dozens being factory made, as through this (admittedly sometimes tedious and time consuming) process the garment gets more and more value and suddenly we realize why a piece of clothing was taken such good care of.
    And to all those who think their skills aren't perfect: practice makes perfect and everything done handcrafted is (compared to factory/machine made items)unique and one of a kind, hence it's perfect in itself!


  4. Bravo: could not agree more. Just the process of making up the garment can teach so much about the makers' thought processes. Using different seams on different parts of a garment to obtain different effects, efficiencies, or for durability or easy renovation, for example. Only by doing do we start to get hints at the meanings behind what we see in extant garments.

    Very best,


  5. I couldn't agree more.

    One other thing: doing it the correct way makes you appreciate the lives of people of that era more (particularly the women). Once you realise how much TIME everything takes and how DIFFICULT it actually is to do those tiny stitches precisely right and make the clothes fit well and be attractive but also practical ... then you stop thinking of your ancestors as idiots who lacked all this awesome modern stuff and start appreciating their skills and knowledge.

    As a corollary, it is a very good way to get an insight into the hidden, primarily unrecorded world of women's history. Just because women had certain roles and jobs/chores ascribed to them (and this is far less the case historically than most people think ... but that is a rant for another day...) doesn't mean that these skills are worthless. That is just misogyny with another face.

  6. I think I have a different take as a relative Nooby. I have been making costumes for a long time, but I'm just now taking things to a historically correct level. Because I knew that so many people take it so seriously, I was intimidated to do any kind of event. I've never even been to ren faire. But, what I have found once I stopped being so scared, is that the community is very open and meeting with them and seeing their skill is what inspired me to be more historically correct in the first place. I guess what I'm saying, is set a good example but be patient with people who are just learning.

  7. Thank you all for your nice comments! There are some good points there that I will certainly use :)

    Tracey: we've all been neewbies at one point, and I suppose many of us could tell really amusing stories about our first costuming projects.... And I think many of us still discover now and agian that something we thought was period was not, and information we relied upon has been updated. Yes, a good example, accessible information and a helping, allowing attitude towards beginners are key to helping people dare start in historic costuming.

  8. All of your reasons are excellent! The only thing I could add, as a sort of branch off of Tracey's comment, is that more people being accurate/authentic will help to dispel the perception that personal standards of accuracy go hand-in-hand with criticizing others.


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