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Pupils of Nature.hand-colored etching published by S W Fores after Maria Caroline Temple, 1798. British Museum, 1867,0713.409

Pupils of Nature.hand-colored etching published by S W Fores after Maria Caroline Temple, 1798. British Museum, 1867,0713.409

No, really: Do you know what you are looking at?

When we set out to make historic clothing and costumes, it’s important to understand our sources. Newspaper advertisements and account books are one source of information that can be difficult to decode: from Swankskin to Tammies to Shalloons, Nankeens, and Calimancos, we encounter words we do not understand. Dictionaries can help, but it is as well to remember that we need that help decoding the words.

We don’t get the same handy, universal guidebook in quite the same way when we look at extant garments. What we do often get is provenance. Knowing a garment’s history is essential to truly understanding it. It helps date the item, for one thing, and understanding the history of the wearer gives us even more information about the clothing. How old was the person when this was worn? What was their social status? Income level? And if there are mends and alterations: even better!

I came to understand the family who lived in the house where I work more clearly through their clothes. Muslin waistcoat fronts that, on examination, are not truly out of the tippy-top drawer helped me see the Big Fish/Small Pond nature of the family and their wealth. You may be a Playa in backwater Providence, but you Just Another Guy in Philly. It was a little window into the insecurities of the father, and how those played out in his reaction to his daughters’ marriages.

The Unfortunate Beau, etching, Publish'd as the Act directs 12th Sept 1772, by S.Hooper, No.25 Ludgate Hill. British Museum 1991,1214.20

The Unfortunate Beau, etching, Publish’d as the Act directs 12th Sept 1772, by S.Hooper, No.25 Ludgate Hill. British Museum 1991,1214.20

But (in the grand scheme of things) there are only so many newspaper ads and account books and few enough garments, let alone the zebras of garments with solid provenance. The groups are smaller still when you consider relevance to what you need or want to know or replicate. Small state? You’ll have a small pool.

So we turn, often, to images. Here again, provenance is helpful when we look at a portrait. Even knowing the maker is helpful: Ralph Earl or James Earl? Portraits by brother James aren’t the same level as those by Ralph, so you get a different kind of information. But that’s all quite aside from what’s contained within the image– and that’s even before you begin to consider what you are doing when you replicate the image.

Understanding the symbols and meanings of images and objects is slightly esoteric but questioning your sources (Interrogating the Object, if you will) allows you to better understand what the heckers you are doing and how it may be perceived. In the pursuit of historical clothing, living history and reenacting, that is more important than we credit. Do we really know what the sources mean? I’ve argued before that we don’t-– and that doesn’t mean DON’T it means USE WITH CAUTION. We’re long removed from the details of, say, satirical engravings that lack a literary source, so those need especial caution as sources. We lack the context.

The Bargain Struck, or Virtue conquer'd by Temptation. Mezzotint, 1773. British Museum 1935,0522.1.130

The Bargain Struck, or Virtue conquer’d by Temptation. Mezzotint, 1773. British Museum 1935,0522.1.130

Now, if your goal is straightforward: replicating costume for fun, say, you will care less about the notion of meaning within images than someone who is trying to understand the past by inhabiting the clothing with the hope of gaining insight into the worldview of the past. That second category is possibly a more tortured group of souls than the first, laboring as we do at an impossible task.

We are talking about semiotics here, and if you want a quick intro, The Signs of Our Time by Jack Solomon, PhD clocks in at 244 pages including bibliography. It’s old– 1988– and perhaps oversimplified, but we’re not in graduate seminar here, so it will do for our purposes. Solomon’s book contains a handy list he calls the Six Principles of Semiotics:

  1. Always question the “common sense” view of thing, because “common sense” is really “communal sense”: the habitual opinions and perspectives of the tribe.
  2. The “common sense” viewpoint is usually motivated by a cultural interest that manipulates our consciousness for ideological reasons.
  3. Cultures tend to conceal their ideologies behind the veil of “nature,” defining what they do as “natural” and condemning contrary cultural practices as “unnatural.”
  4. In evaluating any system of cultural practices, one must take into account the interests behind it.
  5. We do not perceive our world directly but view it through the filter of a semiotic code or mythic frame.
  6. A sign is a sort of cultural barometer, marking the dynamic movement of social history.

Now that you’ve read the list, perhaps what I obsess about will be clearer: we don’t fully understand the culture of the past. We don’t have the same semiotic or mythic filter than the people of the 18th century had, but when we recognize first that they had a filter, and second that the filter varied from culture to culture, we can better understand our sources.

If you can accept that the cultural filters of England and France and the United States were all different, perhaps it will be easier to accept that you cannot mimic a French fashion plate in portraying a middle-class New England woman without encountering some questions. But if you replicate that fashion plate for the pleasure of experiencing that fashion moment, that’s another game altogether.

Intention matters. Your goal will dictate your sources, and how you use them. As committed as I am to the everyday (because no one is documenting us or saving us, no matter how desperately we try to signal our being with Facebook and Instagram posts), I’m not suggesting that we all attempt to recreate the same past. I’m arguing that we strive to understand what we are doing (dressing up, portraying a specific character, portraying an archetype) and that when we know what we are doing, we understand better how to use the sources we have.