in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
What a strange power there is in clothing. ~Isaac Bashevis Singer
The month of September was a blur. Here in the north-central part of Maryland, we were consumed by Civil War Sesquicentennial events. There were all manner of activities and commemorations relating to the actions 150 years ago leading up to and resulting from the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. In Frederick, the people felt it very keenly since most of the public buildings, some of the private ones and many of the churches were turned into hospitals and would remain so for months. 150 years later the churches in the city joined together to create a program for the public talking about this fact and sharing their history with people who might not otherwise darken their doors.
These days you simply cannot have a Civil War event it seems, without seeing people in funny clothes. [I’m borrowing the term “funny clothes” from a friend who used it many years ago to describe all manner of historically-themed garments.] I think we can agree that there are good “funny clothes” and bad “funny clothes.” Under the rubric of good “funny clothes” are the best of the best, those garments which have been created based on careful study of the clothes worn in the particular era. I equate these reproductions to scholarly research articles. They use a mix of primary sources (original garments, artifacts, diaries, illustrations, works published at the time, etc.) and secondary sources (books and articles written by respected scholars) to create either a facsimile garment or an item that would have been worn at a particular time and place by a particular person in society. The resulting garment or ensemble is analogous to the conclusions stated in the above mentioned research article.
Under the heading bad “funny clothes” I place pretty much all of the costumes that fill shops of historical tourist areas or one sees in sutler’s tents at reenactments and rendezvous or in costume rental stores. If you’re lucky you might find something that is close to an accurate representation of an historical garment but mostly they are a figment of someone’s imagination. If you ask for historical documentation you usually get either a vague answer or a defensive retort. I’m speaking in general terms and I’m not just talking about Civil War-era clothing, there are bad examples in all time periods and cultural interpretations.
So my question as a public historian who has organized events using living history practitioners and has participated in living history programs, what do we do about the “funny clothes?” I’ve heard some in the field say, “it is more important what comes out of an interpreter’s mouth than what is on her or his back,” while others argue that “clothing speaks volumes before the public can even get into earshot of an interpreter.” I’ve also heard the comment that “most people wouldn’t know the difference between good and bad clothes so don’t worry about it.” That brings me back to my scholarly article analogy, which as a public history professional would you want presented at your site an article (of clothing) that has solid documentation or one that is based on an idea of historicity?