Molly’s journey into living history began inauspiciously enough, with a parade. Those of you who have followed this blog will no doubt have seen the first post about my interest in history as a child, and how I got started in the hobby. If not, here it is. ‘Zat a REAL fire? or…What is this strange hobby anyway and why do I do it? I did my first parade in an outrageous costume from the school department. I knew it was incorrect, but I was chaperoning children and did what I had to do.
Once I knew I wanted to become involved in living history, I needed a mentor. Unfortunately, the groups in my immediate area tended to be parade-oriented, and as a result, there really wasn’t anyone who could advise me on clothing or material culture, as there were very few women in those groups. I went online, and talked to a few people (some of whom are now deceased), purchased patterns and outfitted myself, knowing just enough to be dangerous. Here are some of the mistakes I made in the first few years.
Above are a couple of first attempts. The blue gown was made by a seamstress using the JP Ryan pattern. It isn’t bad, but the fabric I chose isn’t quite right for the Rev War time period. If the printed design had been white on blue instead of light blue on blue, and spaced further apart, it might have been ok. It’s also center front closing which is a later, 1780s style. I got rid of this gown, which I sometimes regret, but for a first attempt, it isn’t THAT bad. The fabric is probably more appropriate to the first quarter of the 19th-century. The garment on the right is what is often referred to as a “shortgown”, a jacket most often worn in the mid-Atlantic states. I’m in Colonial Williamsburg in the photo, so it’s acceptable for the location, but the fabric is a heavy cotton more appropriate to upholstery.
The next mistake was made in pink linen, with an even brighter pink petticoat. Still a center front closing gown in a high fashion style, worn after 1780. High fashion means silk, or printed cotton, and not likely to be made in linen in the 1770s. The bright pink would have been achievable on wool or silk but probably not linen. Also, any references to plain color linen that have been found indicate that they are most often blue or brown, and once in a while a light yellow. Light pink? Maybe, but less likely.
Starting to get a little better, is a wool jacket and 2 wool petticoats. I purchased the green worsted petticoat second-hand at a Hive meeting in Concord and it has become my absolute favorite. The jacket is in a style more common to the 1740s and 50s, based on a garment in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion but technically I’m of an age where I might still be wearing the larger cuffs even though they are out of fashion by the 1770s. The jacket will close all the way in the center front if I have my stays tight enough, so when I do wear this, I no longer use the stomacher. Jackets though are less common in New England, where most women wore gowns. The second pic is another “shortgown” but in a plain linen. This is fine for mid-Atlantic, and the green wool petticoat and printed handkerchief are good for New England. Green linen apron, though? Sorry, nope. For a while, I was in the habit of wearing my handkerchief tucked down on the sides rather than crossed in front. Was cleavage a big deal in the 18th-century? Not really. But for warmth and sun protection, women typically covered it during the day, so I caught on and began to do that. I also noticed fewer men seeming to forget where my eyes are, so there’s that.
Here again is some improvement, but still some problems. The pic on the left is a “caraco” jacket and matching petticoat. The fabric reminded me of the caraco in the V&A museum, so I had this made with the JP Ryan pattern, but the construction is not the same as the original. I got rid of the caraco and replaced it with a gown of the same material, which I was fortunate enough to find. In the second pic, the gown is center front closing, but I’ve hidden that with the handkerchief. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the gown is bright red linen, and the apron again is green linen. So no good. There’s also something odd about the shape of the crown of my straw hat. I was really sad to let this gown go because it was really quite flattering. But wrong is wrong is wrong so…goodbye to the red linen gown (update: I DID find one the exact same color in wool, open front style, that a friend was selling, yay!). I hope my friend the officer doesn’t mind being in the photo. I didn’t have the heart to crop out his resplendence. All of the above clothing was acquired before I really understood how to do good research. I made some of my own clothing but often used modern construction techniques like bag linings or…gasp…the sewing machine on parts I thought wouldn’t show. Oh, the horror. To my credit, I usually tried to get it right by copying something I’d seen but I didn’t always understand context. For example, I didn’t see that copying something in a museum that was worn in continental Europe but maybe not in the colonies didn’t make sense and I hadn’t really yet developed an eye for appropriate fabric. One thing that really helped me make the transition was Hallie Larkin’s Swatches, a Guide for Choosing 21st Century Fabrics for 18th Century Clothing. This may still be available At the Sign of the Golden Scissors website.
Above- fabric and extant jacket from Duran Textiles in Sweden. I couldn’t resist the fabric but…continental European textile and a garment style worn in the mid-Atlantic region rather than New England But by this time a couple of years ago I understood appropriate context. I’m in Williamsburg, VA wearing an imported “Dutch” textile, and it’s hand sewn using the lapped seam technique in Linda Baumgartner’s Costume Close Up.
In the early days, I showed up at events I’d heard about because either a friend asked me along, or I assumed it was open to anyone “in costume”. In some cases, it was a closed event and I unknowingly didn’t meet the standard, which as one can imagine, led to hurt feelings. Please understand, I really wanted to do it right, and my bad behavior was well-intentioned. I was the only woman in the group to which I belonged at the time who was willing to wear stays, so give me credit for that. I just didn’t “get it” yet. My friends laughed, told me I was crazy and looked uncomfortable, asking why in the Sam-hell would I want to “wear corsets”? So I was caught in the middle of two extremes. I could see at the outset which things were blatantly incorrect; old-timey costumes if you will, but I didn’t have a clue about the subtleties of 18th-century clothing, nor did I yet understand the idea of context. This means that yes, I was indeed in danger of being a “Farby Barbie” wearing a frilly gown to a military encampment that would have best been worn at either the English court to meet His Majesty, or to a fancy party in London (or yeah, maybe a ball in Newport). At least by that time my fancy gowns were correct in style and material, and there always seemed to be a fashion show, thus my excuse.
I also didn’t know who could best advise me, and as a result, every well-meaning person tried to. I was confused by information overload and didn’t know to whom I should listen when presented with conflicting information. And y’all know, I was presented with LOTS of conflicting information. So as a result, I sometimes I got it very right, and sometimes got it very wrong for any given event. As most of you are aware, there are costume enthusiasts, museum docents/interpreters, mainstream re-enactors, entertainers/actors, progressive living historians, and frankly, people who are simply out for a lark in an old-timey costume pieced together from their attic. There are others who are simply following their significant other into the hobby and outfit themselves with the most inexpensive thing they can find in order to participate. Ok, my husband. But now I MAKE him get things that are appropriately accurate. Let me please be clear- there is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, and I am not disrespecting or criticizing anyone for what they choose to do, as it all has its place. People are free to be themselves and wear whatever they wish. Just not always at the same events. I consider myself to be halfway in between a costumer and a living history interpreter. For living history events, I try to be as progressive as possible. But sometimes I copy a garment in a museum or in a painting, just because I want to. Occasionally, I’m not sure I’ll have anywhere to wear it, or will decide to attend a more mainstream or costume oriented event and will wear something I would never choose to wear to a more progressive living history event.
Sometimes, ya just gotta have fun and be a pirate! These were specific pirate-related entertainment events or parades. On the right, I’m wearing my husband’s 1760s coat along with a petticoat I made for myself with leftover material from his (quite accurate) ditto suit. Doesn’t he look handsome though? Yeah baby, yeah! On the left, I’m wearing a velvet jacket with pewter buttons for which I have no documentation whatsoever. *Update: I lied. There is in fact documentation for this style and material. This is French, from the first quarter of the 18th century. Ok for fantasy pirate playing, but not for American colonies during the Revolutionary War.
More improvement. We’re still using a cast iron set up in the photo on the left, but we soon realized that if we were either following an army, or refugees on the run, we’d not be burdened with all the heavy cast iron. Now we use tin, and only bring what we can carry, unless it is an event at a house museum where we’re asked to bring a whole setup for a demo. For anyone interested in 18th-century material culture, check out the 18th-Century Material Culture website and slideshows here. Can you spot Beaker? He’s done a lot of the research for us, and I can’t recommend this site highly enough! Also, as you can see, my gowns and accessories have improved in style, and material (wool, open front with stomacher). At this point, I’ve started to “up my game” on research and documentation because I saw friends beginning to travel to the dark side, and I longed to be there with them. Around 2009, as I recall, I put away the sewing machine and started learning how to make my own things using 18th-century construction techniques.
Here with Kitty at Battle Road. All my clothing is wool in appropriate colors and I have the ubiquitous black silk bonnet. At the time, the broadcloth mitts were thought to be correct. There has since arisen evidence that “worsted mitts” may have been knitted rather than cut from cloth. For now, I still wear them so I don’t freeze, but that may change in future. In the pic on the right, I have a brownish-green striped linen gown, a green silk bonnet and a blue and white checked linen apron. Mr. H. had lost 50 lbs at the time this photo was taken, so his suit is wearing him, sorry.
So in the hope that I may be able to help someone else, I’ve totally put myself out there. I’ve shared my journey in pictures with commentary on what is “wrong” or what I have learned. Feel free to either laugh or sympathize, but kindly do not take advantage and copy my old photos to one of those “Rev War Farbs” sites. The key to improving for juried or progressive events, which started for me after I’d been flitting around mainstream events for 4 or 5 years, is research and using primary sources (extant garments and contemporary-to-the-time documents). Using these sources to provide context was absolutely key for me to improve my impression and be able to begin attending progressive events. Make no mistake, I was intimidated at first, and continue to be to a certain extent. No one wants to be laughed at, made the butt of jokes, or excluded. I firmly believe that other people don’t intend to be mean or to bully anyone, but can get caught up in it when they don’t like what they see. I say, let us all be kind to one another, and keep on researching, and documenting your impressions. Stay hungry, my friends.