Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Is It Really Important?

How important is historical accuracy in an interpretive plan?

Pardon me a moment while I hop up on this handy stump and share a few thoughts…

Patrons to any historic site (and extrapolating, to any history-focused event) have the very reasonable expectation that the site is “doing it right”–in other words, that the site is presenting them with historically-consistent information all the way through, from plants in the flower beds, to items in the gift shops, to household furnishings, to the details of material culture in clothing and accessories, and definitely including the information presented through entertainment.

Therefore, it is vital that any on-site entertainment be continually looking for ways to upgrade the historical content, becoming “edu-tainment”–something that patrons can enjoy, and also walk away having learned things that accurately reflect the historic record. The good news is, small changes can be free (or very nearly so), and change can happen over time.

Historic clothing plays a tremendous role in all of this. It’s a primary visual component of any historic interpretation, and deserves weighty consideration. The Original Cast did every single activity we might interpret while wearing a full complement of accurate clothing; there is no reason we should endeavor to do less. More after the jump…

The visual difference and overall “time travel” effect for patrons viewing accurate activities with well-costumed interpreters versus poorly-costumed or un-costumed interpreters is significant.

If you’ve ever watched the “behind the scenes” bits in a historic costume drama movie, you can immediately feel it: the “practice” shots with actors in modern clothing are far less interesting and engaging than the final film cuts with actors living in period clothing.

Now, add the excitement of live performance! You just cannot beat well-done historic entertainment combined with good historic clothing. The sense of time and place are enhanced dramatically, and the overall feeling is one of being immersed in the past, with even the simplest scenarios.

Imagine that you are a patron, strolling through a historic village.

The sun is out, there’s a gentle breeze, and the shade under the trees is delicious. It’s quiet–even the distant traffic seems muted, and the whole afternoon feels bathed in a honeyed light.

On the breeze, you hear something–is it a song? A quietly-hummed melody seems to pull you toward the small house across the street.

At the corner of the porch, you see a young woman, barefoot, sitting in the shade with a large basket or basin in her lap. She’s humming to herself, snapping runner beans. Now and then, she sings snatches of the lyrics. She is largely unaware of your presence; you find you want to stand and enjoy the scene as long as you can.She looks just as you imagined the past: slightly dusty feet, the soft bulk of petticoats and skirts swishing about her ankles, long braids pinned up to keep them tidy in the breeze. Her clothes have the lived-in feel of your own most comfortable jeans, though the styles could be taken directly from a museum or painting. She is history, brought to life!

Historic clothing is only one facet of this little vignette, but it’s a vital one: imagine she’s singing snatches of a Metallica song, and has on flip-flops and a big squishy hair scrunchy, plus a gelled-up bump at the back of her head. She’s spraddle-legged, and you can see her grey cotton-lycra bike shorts where her limp polyester skirt is rucked up to her thigh.

Magic moment? Gone.

Consider historic dancing: it looks impressive when done in jeans, but that impressive factor is exponential when men are dressed in class-appropriate finery, and women have the skirt supports to give the good period lines. A swirling reel or chipper polka have an entirely different feel when petticoats and ankles are involved!

Such presentations need not involve orchestras, silk dancing gowns, and white gloves: a community “hop” (yes, that’s a period term) for working-class people is just as engaging, though the women are in cotton prints and the men in their dusted-off everyday clothing, accompanied by an accordion, fiddle, parlor piano, or other single instrument.

Consider performance singing: to see the abdomen of a powerful vocalist flex inside period clothes detracts from the aura of mystery and vocal oomph of the same singer, singing in a period-appropriate dress with structured support (corset)… as a singer myself, I can attest that well-fitted and properly worn corsets do not restrict the ability of a singer to breathe or project, provided the singer will use good breathing techniques and practice with the corset and dress in place.

The ways to bring the realism of the past into present interpretation and site offerings go on: if “historic” clothing items, patterns, crafts, or other merchandise are sold in a gift shop, do those items conform to a high level of historical consistency? Do on-site food vendors offer at least a small menu of historically consistent foods? Is the interpretive program relying on the bedrock of good research and excellent application, or have “re-enactorisms” and “olden-tymey” practices crept in over the years? Has myth-tory overtaken history?

Diluting our historic push makes very little sense, when there are so many valid, historically-accurate options to meet the real-life needs of a site’s staff/volunteers, while staying within the “norms” of history.

I’ll be posting additional ideas on this topic through the summer. My friend, Anna Worden-Bauersmith, has some great articles at her blog, if you’d like some fantastic immediate inspiration. Her recent post about the Bass Pro Shop inspired me to finish up the draft of this post that was languishing in Draft State since last fall!

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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