Thursday, September 13, 2018

It's All On The Line Together

A Dear Newbie has stumbled into a common misconception today and we should clear it up.
The flawed logic goes something like the following:
If Dear Newbie is a man, ...
...he knows about men's clothes...
...he is not a woman...
...he does not dress as a woman...
...he, therefore, would not know anything about clothing for persons of the female gender.

Whoa, whoa... Hold up there, Pard... that dog is maybe not gonna hunt.

Sure, Dear Newbie is a man and will research men's clothes...because he wears men's clothes. He'd also know some basics of women's and girls' clothes because he knows women (and probably girls too.)
Dear Newbie has a Mother and likely sisters too. They wear women's clothes. So, growing up, his drawers and Sister's drawers were beside each other on the clothesline and Mother's chemise was mended right along side Father's shirts. The conversations may have been whispered and not spoken of openly... but he may have heard about a "lady's time" too.
Dear Newbie, unless he is particularly naive, has likely assisted a woman out of her clothing at some point.  So, he has a basic idea of how women's clothing functions. He may fumble it and need her help, but it's not completely foreign.
If Dear Newbie is a common kind of man, he's likely married and he'd be passing familiar with his wife's clothing, though he doesn't speak of it and will call out anyone else who does.
 Perhaps Dear Newbie and his lady have been blessed with children. There's a chance some of those children will be girls. Girls who will wear female clothing. Who's clothing will go on the line next to Sonny's drawers and in the mending box next to his shirts.

The same can be applied to the Dear Newbie who is a woman. Men's clothing would not be as familiar as her own, but it would not be as foreign and scandalous as we often make it out to be.

So, we do a disservice to the people of the mid 19th century when a man cutely says, "I don't know 'nuthin' 'bout women's clothes."
They knew about clothing of the "opposite gender," they just didn't openly talk about it. Just like We don't openly talk about what goes on in the bedrooms of other people, and really prefer not to think about it too much (despite our love of celebrity scandals), Persons of the mid 19th century knew about clothing and just accepted it was there.
If we are to portray a person of the mid 19th century with a full range of knowledge, it's time we learn the basics of clothing the "opposite" gender.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Can I have your pattern for that? ...another rant.

If the Dear Readers will indulge me in one more rant, I promise to put up something... less angry... in the near future.

A tailor makes clothing patterns by drafting. It's a competitive profession. We compete with not only fellow professional tailors but also with every home crafter who has heard from her/his mentor that she/he can save money in re-enacting by sewing him/herself.
 "Making a frock coat couldn't be that hard. After all, Saint Grandma made ALL their clothes when they were small," quoth Crafter. So, they ask what pattern they should use to make a period correct frock coat or over-coat or trousers or waistcoat. Well, there are a few folks out there who put out patterns commercially. The pioneers in commercial patterns for the re-enactor market did their best to fill a niche. Others joined in with more detailed research and more solid patterning skills. They're still around.
There is still an unfilled niche in the commercial pattern pantheon, and I hope to fill it some day.

In the professional world, it is bad form to say negative things about a competitor. Even Saint Grandma agreed with a chipper, "If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all." My Grandmother and Mother instilled in me a sense of fair play too. Everyone deserves a chance, don't kill their chance with a careless word.
So in the competitive world of tailoring for re-enactors, I may keep an eye on the commercial patterns available, but I haven't used them in years. So I haven't tried out every commercial pattern for menswear there is. If I haven't tried it, I'm not recommending it.

Drafting the pattern is just the first step in making a garment. A tailor is in charge of everyone who does work for him, so he needs to be proficient in each phase of garment construction. He knows how to draft patterns. He knows how to fit bodies. He knows how fabric will behave. He knows the right stitches to put in what places to achieve the desired effect. He knows what is fashionable and when that's appropriate. He knows what is classic and how to maintain it. He knows what is out-dated and how to talk a customer out of it. These are not easily acquired proficiencies. These are not skills conveyed in a commercial pattern, even ones with stellar instructions.

I recently heard an excellent comparison. Asking a tailor to recommend a pattern is like going to a gourmet restaurant and asking the Chef for the recipe to his signature dish. At best, he'll recommend you buy the book in which he placed that recipe. At worst, you're mucking about casually with his livelihood. If you can make the signature dish at home, you won't come to the restaurant to buy it from him. If you don't go to the restaurant, he'll have to close it. He'll then be out of work and searching for a new job.
If you can make a tailored garment at home, you will stop patronizing tailors. We'll be out of a job and looking for new work. Not to mention we have to look at all the cut corners and lack of innards in your work at the events we attend. "Where'd I leave the acid-reducer?"

I'm not gonna let that happen to me nor any of my fellow tailors. So darn tootin', you ask for a pattern and I'm gonna recommend a tailor or shirt-maker.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Will This Work? ...a rant

The Old Hats are frustrated today and not feeling their usual generous selves. On a usual day, we are happy and relived to be asked 'Will this work" before a purchase is made, because it gives us a chance to spare Dear Newbie the expensive and soul crushing mistakes we have made. But lately though, it seems the questions are asked without forethought and the complex answers given are over-generalized or ignored outright in favor of convenience or romanticism.
Since no one likes to see a beloved mentor in mental distress, I thought I'd give a few thoughts on why the query "Will it work" is being received less generously.

Our objective is to tell a story. It doesn't matter if it's at a battle re-enactment, a living history show-n-tell, a museum, or gallery exhibit... we have a story to tell.
We are telling the story of a person or people in the past. We share who they were, what they might have felt, how they lived, how The War impacted them (or didn't), what they thought and why that might have made sense to them, where they've been, where they are, and where they hope to go.

Each of the things we choose helps us tell that story. The wardrobe helps us tell the story. The housewares help us tell the story. The environment helps us tell the story.
Because each of the Things helps us tell the story, we must make each choice with care. Not just any old Thing will do. It must be a specific Thing that reflects the choices that might have been made by the people of the story we are telling.
It is easy to say "this Thing was available, therefore, I choose it." That Thing was likely not the only Thing available and we want to make sure the version you choose supports the specific story you are telling.

So, just like you go through your list of questions when choosing your wardrobe, apply your questions to your housewares and environment too.
Could I spoon-feed you an answer of "buy this"? Yep, sure I could. But you would not understand why I recommended that Thing among all the Things available.

 If I lead you through a thought process on how your Thing will support or confuse your story, you will decide for yourself what is the right choice of Thing and more easily defend your choice to others with independently verifiable sources.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Accumulated Knowledge and Interpreting Foodways History

Dear Newbie is excited to have been given a great gift, a reprint of an historic cookbook. She questions if it could be taken to an event for reference, since copying out the recipes is tedious.

Let's consider this question.
Cooking knowledge is a sticky situation due to the nature of how foodways are learned "in real life." Everyone must eat, so from the start everyone has someone in their lives cooking. Recipes are introduced, become trends, become classics, and pass from fashion... or morph into something new as technology changes the way we cook, acquire ingredients, and experiment with substitutions.

Assume an interpretive focus of 1859-1865. In theory, any recipe published or traced to before 1865 should work; but does that accurately reflect the foodways of your portrayal? In many cases, it does not because your portrayal did not gain the sum total of your foodways knowledge in a single dose from a single source.

I'll give an example from my modern life:
A holiday tradition in my family is the breaded fresh ham sandwich. A basic recipe is thin-sliced pork, dipped by turns in cracker crumbs and egg-milk mix, and fried. I learned this dish from my grandmother who used "fresh ham" and saltines crackers, fried in vegetable oil in an electric skillet. When she had news that she and grandpa should reduce salt and canola oil became the new healthy alternative to straight vegetable oil, she switched to no salt saltines and canola oil. My mother thought butter crackers would give a richer flavor, so she used those instead of saltines. I am often unable to find "fresh ham" and must substitute a pork loin. I accommodate a friend with Celiac disease by using gluten free herb crackers akin to butter crackers. I dislike frying because the oil spatters, so I oven fry my breaded "fresh ham." Were I to trace this family recipe back even further than my grandmother, would I find ship's biscuit or bread crumbs for batter, frying in oil or lard or butter?
Were I, my late mother, and my late grandmother to publish cookbooks, we'd each have a very different recipe for this one "classic" dish.

In the mid 19th century, cooking knowledge was similarly acquired. You were taught basics as you grew up that reflect your family and their traditions. Situations such as health or availability caused substitutions that may have changed how your descendants would learn the recipes they watched you make.

So how does that help us judge recipe books for interpretive purposes?
Consider your event goals, not just over-all interpretive strategy that governs how you approach the hobby, but the interpretive goals of each event you attend.
If your goal is a survey of era appropriate recipes for your own edification, then learning several recipes from a book in which the instructions seem clear is an excellent introduction to historic cooking.
If your interpretive goal for the event is to showcase foodways of 186x generally speaking, then you can include a survey of books published in several dates prior to 1865. Showing 1820s & 1830s recipes that have become "classics, 1840s & 1850s recipes that are "family staples," and a few from 1860s that show the "newest trends" and "innovative technology" provides a solid context for the accumulated foodways knowledge of an average person of 186x. In short, bring the book if published 1830-1865.
If your interpretive goal for the event is to "Live as people of 186x for a weekend," then your specific circumstances need to be considered. Take your age and pinpoint the year your portrayal was born if the event date 186x was "today." Pinpoint the years for ages 10, 20, and the years you would have married or begun your own household. Pinpoint the years for major changes in circumstance, such as a big promotion for your husband that requires more fashionable entertaining to maintain "Place" or a season or two after imported goods become scarce. These years will be your targets for which your foodways knowledge would shift. Again, you're separating into three categories: "classics," "family staples," and "fashions, innovations, & substitutions."
I am 42 years old and let's take 1862 as a target date. I would plan my menus to use memorized recipes published 1800-1845 to reflect those I would have learned from watching my female relatives growing up, I might reference a "well loved" reproduced recipe book published circa 1845 for a complex recipe to reflect those that have become family staples I would make every-day, and if entertainment is involved I might include a clearly trending recipe from a reproduction of a barely used 1861 book or 1861 clipping from a magazine.
In short, choose the book carefully based on who you portray.

With a wealth of period cookbooks available online in digital collections and being reproduced by specialty publishers, we're able to think beyond convenience to add depth of knowledge to our portrayals, if we remember that foodways are an accumulation of knowledge and practice rather than created full formed in a single go from a single source.

Online Chronologically Organized Cookbook Collections:
The Feeding America Project
Historic Cookbooks Collection 1800-Civil War
Manuscript Cookbooks Survey

Friday, October 28, 2016

My Menfolk need clothes and I don't have a clue where to begin! Please help!

As a tailor I get this same desperate plea every few weeks on FaceBook. These questions and pleas have inspired blog postings that I expanded into a presentation. Today, I will list the blog posts in an order for making a plan for a Wardrobe Toolbox. Dear Newbie, I assure you, your menfolk need more than just clothes for sharing history; but don't panic, we have a plan for that.

Where do I begin?
You start by assessing the events you plan to do. Remember that military portrayals and civilian portrayals need to look at their events and therefore wardrobes differently.
    Assessing Your Events, and what that can tell you
    A Citizen Considers His Wardrobe

Then proceed with a Starter Pack to get you through the first events. Borrow garments, if you can, while you save up for quality garments. Follow the Starter Pack with an Expansion Pack for the Primary Core. (By this time, I'm using "insider jargon" and you need clarification. Read on.)
    Advice on a Wardrobe Core
    Man's Wardrobe Toolbox

Remember not to stop with clothes. He'll need "stuff" and a means to carry it, and those items can say a lot about his portrayal.
    Shlep Like a Mule
    Portable First Person; Or, The Right Mind, Part 2

But Wolfie, isn't there an easy checklist?
No, not really. Non-military men have so many variables to choose that a checklist is really difficult. The closest I can come is The Best Bet Wardrobe For Men and Older Boys. 

For those in middle age portraying professional class or middle class men, here's special advice for sorting out what is correct attire for which activities.  Stallion Dressed As Colt

And finally, some advice on why "fitting in" is so important to 19th century dressing, and thus, should be likewise in recreating 19th century dressing. The Zen Of Common

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Connection in an isolating age

Effective re-enactors understand that we must form a connection with those with whom we share history. We also lament that fewer people are understanding history, especially the less pleasant aspects. This leads to a more tenuous connection with those who need the connection most.

I interpret history near Washington, D.C. The requested interpreters are young, white men who portray Civil War soldiers. I am not young, male, nor portraying a soldier. Most of the people with whom I am sharing history are not in that demographic either. Are we really making the connections that lead to understanding history?

While I can talk about the Civil War soldier and the battles of the area, they can't "see" the battle from the soldier's perspective from my telling. They can't relate to a young, white, male soldier. They can't "see" themselves 155 years ago. 
To effectively share history, I need to show a different perspective.

When I share about a battle, I share the perspective of a middle aged white woman, a businesswoman, a professional care-giver. The middle aged white women can relate to my perspective. They can "see" what that battle may have been like for them.

A friend is a white man of middle years, a professional man who has worked hard for his settled position and establishing a secure home for his family. The middle aged white men can relate. They can see the choices they may have made through the choices depicted by my friend.

The demographics of the DC area are changing rapidly.
It's one thing for me to include the stories of black Americans in the hospital systems as I speak of women in the hospital systems, that makes a connection with the black citizens of modern DC, albeit tenuous. The connection is that much more strong when my friends who are black Americans tell the stories of the USCT, or the free teacher on her first day, or the enslaved cook who "ain't nobody's mammy!" Suddenly history is not just the story of some white man in a boring book, it's a living, breathing person like them.

With a wealth of immigrants coming to the DC area, I've been working on portrayals of several immigrants. When one of my portrayal shares her fears of leaving all she has known for an uncertain welcome, or wading the paperwork river to citizenship, or trying to make a life amid anti-immigrant hostilities; they can see they are the newest in a long tradition of making America home.

When we share these different perspectives of a battle or of The War in general,  those we share history with can connect. They can "see" themselves 155 years ago; the choices they might have made, the challenges they may have faced, the opinions they may have held because of their experiences. They know where to begin to ask questions and explore experiences, because the interpreter shares mutual challenges. History is more tangible. History makes a connection. History is a Person. One can connect with a Person.


And if you are so inclined, please sign this petition to have a visitors' center and park rangers assigned to the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington D.C. With a Visitors' Center and rangers, this national monument can further the interpretation and connect with DC's and Visitors' experiences of History. Petition.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I am, I am SuperWoman... or not.

SuperWoman Syndrome

The romantic ideal that women of the past did all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, child-rearing, gardening, entertaining... for their families without resorting to Professionals. Did it perfectly. Did it from scratch. Did it without mistakes. All while passing on the homey values to the next generations.

Were there women who were SuperWoman in the 19th century?
Yes there were. We have Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, Oprah. 
They had Eliza Leslie, Elizabeth Acton, Miss Beeton, the local woman every woman loves to hate.
Most women, though, were not SuperWoman. They may have made the best pie in the county, but had to hire out their sewing. They may have put the local tailor to shame, but everyone was scared to visit her house until The Girl came by to "help" with cleaning.

Newbies, you do not need to be SuperWoman either.
As a matter of fact, it would be more accurate if you were not.

Almost all women could do the "basics" of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and child-care. They had their focuses too. 

  • If you do not sew, keep the professionals employed. (Most will work long distance and attend lots of events, the better to reach their customers in person.)
  • If you do not cook, make arrangements with someone who does.
  • If you need help at an event with your children, chances are good other mothers will too, so get a co-op play date together.

...and what you tell the Public does not need to be the arrangements you as a re-enactor make for the event.

In many cases, it over-represents SuperWoman for you to tell the Public that you have made as much of your family's clothing as you have. We don't have the same ready access to professionals, ready made shops, and second hand markets, so we have fewer choices. 

I am a tailor. I spend the majority of my time clothing menfolk. Did I make my dress? Yep, sure did. But I look the Public in the eye and say that I employed the local dress-maker... who got a nice frock for her husband in exchange and the transaction was happy on both sides. Does this "hide my light" on my dress-making skills? Yep, and sometimes that is needful to present history as it was instead of stroking the modern pride. Besides, tailoring and dress-making utilize different sewing and patterning skills and knowing one does not mean one knows the other.

We have examples of 19th century women who made the clothing for their family, including tailored garments. In many cases, it was the necessity during the war years that caused women to think "yes, I think I *can* do that." So in post-war years we see many more home-crafters daring to make their own clothing, using professionals less, and professionals using machine work. It's part of the innovations the war years caused on garment manufacture (like standardized sizes in menswear.) Look carefully at those sources and how often the author mentions extended family and neighbors doing household/farm work for her. She's not really SuperWoman either.

In short, though, Dearest Newbies You do NOT need to be SuperWoman to be a re-enactor.