Avoiding the Pit of Presentism
Pardon a brief anthropology-nerd post, but feel free to share it far and wide!
Lo, these many years ago, I was a student in anthropology with a minor in historic archaeology. I… ummm… kinda really like the study of Olden Days and Olden Days People. A lot.
A few of the concepts we used in anthropology are very useful in living history and living history research, and one in particular can help us improve our recreated, interpreted past tremendously.
That is this: avoiding the pit of “presentism.”
What’s “Presentism,” you so cleverly ask?
It is the interpretation of history with a bias toward present attitudes.
It is the mistaken assumption that everything we currently understand, believe, and hold as aesthetically lovely is the pinnacle of the entire human experience, and anything other than our current understanding is clearly inferior.
Can you see how that would cause problems in living history? In clothing those who “do” living history? Let’s take a quick look:
We display presentism when we describe a member of the Original Cast in a historic photograph as “ugly.” Perhaps that person’s personal beauty is not our favorite style. Perhaps that person has some physical structures that don’t please our modern or personal aesthetics. Perhaps they are subject to the vicissitudes of period photography technology. Perhaps they’re not particularly photogenic.
None of that is actually important when we’re looking at photos to gain an appreciation or understanding of normative expressions of fashion in the period.
We display presentism when we ascribe highly-biased and subjective words like “tacky” or “hideous” or “weird” to images of original garments, fashion engravings, and other primary sources. Not only do those kinds of words exhibit a self-centric and narrow understanding of the era, they are spectacularly unhelpful in exploring it.
Take a look at the lady here: I, sadly, found her by doing a search for “Ugly Civil War Woman.”
The only thing ugly is the presentism used to judge and diminish this useful period image.
Let’s see what this lady can tell us, without the veil of presentism obscuring our view.
She seems to be quite tall and slender, so she gives us a good look at how tall and slender people accomplished the period aesthetic balance in everyday clothing. (Indeed, if we measure her by her own skull length, she actually fits the ratios of modern fashion illustrating; she is just over 8 “heads” tall, versus the average 7 “heads” tall–and similarly contracted proportions–of modern women!)
Her garments are well-fitted to her figure, and sewn by someone with an eye that appreciates symmetry, based on the placement of the garment pieces with regards to the textile pattern.
She wears a pretty conservative mix of current styles: a pleated skirt, darted-to-fit double-point bodice, minimal trim on the dress, and a little frilled collar. Her sleeves are a neat open “coat” sleeve worn with an undersleeve. Her dress is long–it does not hover off the floor–yet another example of the lengths we should be wearing ourselves.
Her hair is smooth, tidy, and worn in a conservatively current fashion, arranged in way that adds a bit of visual width to her slender oval face, which helps her fit the dominant fashionable aesthetic of the era just a bit more.
It’s far more useful to examine her image based on what she can tell us about the clothing choices of a very average young woman in the early 1860s, than to dismiss her worth by terming her “ugly.” If we dismiss her simply for not conforming to our preferred modern style of beauty, we miss all the wonderful information she has to share with us!
To be clear: the blogger at In The Swan’s Shadow entirely avoided presentism when sharing the image. They shared only the facts known about the image, and its source (it’s in the VMI archives). They did it right. Someone further down the line ascribed the presentist opinion that judged her “beauty.”
And what if her dress had features some trim or ornament that we found personally odd? It is far more useful to be able to say, “I’ve looked at 400 examples of this style of garment, and they seem to share these common features…” than to say, “Oh, that’s just ugly. Why did they think that was nice-looking? I don’t like that at all.”
(The question “Why did they think that was nice-looking?” is actually a *good* question, and can be our ladder right out of the depths of the pit of presentism! Being willing to try to find context and meaning, or barring that, just accept that this was something they found attractive, is a great way to remove some presentism from our attitudes.)
We’re not obligated to like every single fashion option in our era. If there’s one we don’t like, we can–and should–choose another for our own personal wardrobes.
Extending this concept briefly, presentism is problematic in understanding the social context of the period as well. We are not obligated to pronounce judgement on the attitudes of the past! We can simply present those attitudes as closely as possible to the documented record of those who actually held the attitudes, and allow space for ourselves and for our visitors to make up their own minds about complex topics.
Being aware of presentism, we can work to root it out in our own observations of historical items and ideas. Communicating our observation process with as little presentism as possible also helps train others to look at the past with eyes as free from modern-is-the-best-ever-pinnacle-of-everything bias. And that better attitude helps shape and inform upgraded interpretive learning for everyone, participants and visitors alike!