What do you see and remember at events? At every event I go to, I see a range of impressions, or historic expressions.
There are Good things: a chintz bedgown that’s actually becoming; a checked suit I wish the kid would wear; the Ugly Dog Coat Mr S wants, the umbrella I want to make just for its lines.
The Bad and the Ugly are present, too.
Drawstring shift necks, makeup, infernal bodices, Birkenstocks, sofa-size prints… “light” troops with dining flies, tables, and tin roasters. Stores tents packed with plastic packaging. White “trews” baggy as painters pants, breeches reaching below the knee, haversacks as man-purses, tube socks, sneakers, peacock feathers on women’s hats, girls with undressed hair and no caps.
What is the meaning of these bodices and tube socks: are they the disease, or a symptom? I think they’re a symptom, telling us about a deeper problem.
If “authenticity” is a journey and not a destination, everyone starts this journey at a different point, and some people are more sophisticated consumers of knowledge than others. Hard as it is to fathom, some people—even with decades of time in this— don’t know any better. I’ve encountered half-correctly dressed wives of men who’ve been to Battle Road who didn’t even know workshops are available to help them with stays and gowns. The ignorance is not always willful, even if it seems that way.
Why are some women such a mish-mash of reasonably accurate jacket with acceptable petticoat worn without stays, a drawstring shift, an OK cap, modern glasses, and a purse?
Do they not see the return on investment for stays and a gown and shoes and a cap and glasses and no makeup? Perhaps they don’t feel pretty when they venture out of their normal realm, and they’re only visiting, anyway. Is this the reason for the half-baked costume approach?
Or could it be that the unit commanders have set no standards for the women? That they don’t consider the women to really be unit members? Or that the women don’t consider themselves members? That they don’t matter the way the muskets do?
Could some women’s lack of authenticity—and by “authenticity” here I mean “period appropriate clothing”—be rooted in the phallocentric/musket-centric culture of the hobby? In some units, men and women seem to engage in parallel play, like toddlers, where the men field in the foreground, and the women cook in the background (women on the field is an issue I will not take up here). The men are in charge, making the decisions: the women, and what they wear, appear not to matter, and are nearly invisible. I think this is rooted in basic misogyny and the riptide of the hobby’s boys-club attitude.
If misogyny is part of why women perpetuate inauthentic impressions, then having women invested in their units and roles, with more research and more care, might be threatening to men who want weekends for themselves and their ‘war games.’ But I believe that without a significant investment by women, and by units in women’s roles, this hobby won’t survive, and it’ll be a lot less fun and educational for everyone.
That means, of course, that I think units will have to allow women a voice, and develop standards for women as well as men. Those units with the farthest to “travel,” authenticity-wise, will need to build up stores of wearable, authentic women’s clothing to loan, or include women’s workshops in their schedules. If they don’t want women and/or families participating, then that has to be clear, too, and women who do want to participate will have create their own civilian units. (I don’t have solutions for all of these issues.)
When the men around them don’t value or encourage their participation, and when units do not have men and women as equal members with clear standards for both, I think you end up with poor impressions—particularly women—and camps full of crap. These are symptoms of a larger problem of misogyny and silence.
In recent years there have been calls for greater attention to standards for women by unit commanders. But I think that we should go further, and call for greater participation of women in real leadership roles in the hobby. That’s when you will see real change, not just in clothing, but in presentations.
And that is where I think the future of this hobby lies: in recognizing that living history events are mobile museums, not just mobile monuments.
To get more complete, inclusive and, I think, authentic, experiences will take more inclusive leadership structures, from unit memberships to the boards of umbrella organizations. That would be one small step towards bringing leadership and management into line with the modern world and current best practices in management for cultural and historic organizations. Because that is what the umbrella organizations have become. The boys’ historic shooting clubs have grown up, and it’s time to let the girls play for real, and to value women’s roles past and present.