Friday, April 8, 2011

Improve Your Impression: An Accuracy Manifesto

I've been discussing with people what to do with this blog. It started out as a place to show people what I have been making, and what events I've been to. However, the whole "Look what I've sewn! Look where I've been!" format has gotten a bit dull. I need a bit of a challenge, if you will.

It's springtime, and for those of you who reenact, you know it's the start of The Reenacting Season. This summer will be especially busy, as it is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (more on that later). With the start of a new season, and inspired by other blogs I've read who are touching on this topic, I'd like to start a short series with my thoughts on accuracy and how to create and accurate impression. This week, I'll be explaining to you what accuracy means to me, the choices I have made regarding it, and my overall personal guidelines on what it means to be accurate.

Accuracy is a very touchy issue among living historians. It carries with it an inherent value judgment; we are reenacting the past, and the more accurate you are at doing it, the better of a reenactor you are. It's a topic that splits up groups, ruins friendships, and causes feuds the likes of which will probably be reenacted in one hundred and fifty years ("The Battle of Which-Colorway-Is-Right").

I wish accuracy did not come with such animosity as it often does. It is understandable - how do you convey to someone information that may disprove a "reenactorism" or commonly held myth that they are perpetuating? Part of the sting is that your impression is who you are - so any criticism towards your impression is inherently a criticism of yourself.

I believe that accuracy should be the ultimate goal. For me, there is no other option. I want to experience life in the past, and live as they live, and create the things they created, in order to better understand them. The term "experiential archaeology" has been used for living historians - by doing things just as they were done, wearing the right clothes, eating the right food, you come to understand why they did things the way they did. You can't get that experience if you make too many compromises.

However, we live in the modern world, and unfortunately, there is no magic time machine that will take us back to that period, and even if there was we'd still find out we had gotten some details wrong. This manifesto is less about why one needs to be accurate, as much as it is about how to be accurate, and what constitutes accuracy for me.

You'll note that I talk in personal terms here - accuracy is about MY journey. It is not about what the person next to me is wearing, it is about what I am wearing. It is difficult not to play the game of "I look better than her!", but a better game to play is "I just look darn good!". It's more satisfying in the end. My personal guidelines are to never criticize someone else's impression. I will only offer advice if it is asked for. Period.

Now then, what are my own personal guidelines? I'm going to organize this in a list.
  1. Who Would See? There was an article on a website from a group out west that apparently no longer exists now, but I read it when I first started reenacting and had no clue what to do about anything. The author's point was that it is a great disservice to ourselves and the public to keep anachronistic itemsaround and justify it with "Who would know?" We're smarter than that, and the public is smarter than that, and someone WILL notice those plastic plates. He pointed out that the better thought is "Who will see?" Will someone notice that plastic cooler if it's in a wooden trunk? Will anyone realize I have a cell phone on me if it is in my pocket, turned off, and stays there? Of course, this only goes so far - the ultimate high is to have a totally period environment, without a single modern thing in it. Sometimes, that's not always feasible. If no one can see it, it will probably be ignored, and it will not compromise on your personal accuracy.
  2. Good (For Now). My goal with each dress I make, each item I acquire, is that it will move me further on my goal to accuracy. As a progressive reenactor, I believe that accuracy is not a destination, it is a journey. Historians will always learn new things and find new objects to tell them more about life in the past; what we knew 20 years ago is obsolete. We can never hope to know everything, especially for the amateur living historian, but we can keep learning, and remain undaunted. I own a dress that I made three years ago; there are things at are wrong with it, that need to be fixed (although I 'd rather just make a new dress than fix an old one!) or removed altogether. I know more now than I did three years ago. That's what accuracy is to me - a constant movement forward in knowledge.
  3. Know Your Limits. There are those of us who can afford the highest end reproduction fabrics. Some living historians have wardrobes that rival my modern wardrobe (trust me, that's not a difficult task). For the vast majority of us who have bills to pay, total accuracy - at least, going out and purchasing total accuracy in one fell swoop - is not economically feasible. For my part, I personally know which compromises I can make to save a bit of money. This goes along a bit with "Who Would See" - I use whatever thread is on sale. No one except for me is going to know what kind of thread I used to sew my dress, and considering the amount of thread I use, saving a dollar or two with each spool makes sense. I line my dresses with plain old muslin rather than polished cotton - again, it saves me a few dollars, and no one is the wiser. In this same vein, however, I always take care to match my accuracy goals with my budget. I only have one silk dress - it's all I need and it's all I can afford, and I get way more use from my nice calico dress and wool dress than I do my silk. I don't have a parasol, I have two fashion bonnets (and a straw hat that was, okay, a splurge for fun). My budget is tight, and trying to stretch it out to accurately portray someone with an unlimited budget (the Mary Todd Lincolns of the world) wouldn't be very successful. To this end, I portray someone who is aspiring to the upper classes, but is solidly set in the middle class, which fits my reenacting budget quite nicely.
  4. Compromise On Little. Having said all that, I give myself little leeway. As I stated, accuracy is my goal (and though I am a bit biased, I think it should be the goal of everyone). One of the best things about reenacting is that it's like one big post-rummage sale deal brag - you can't attend an event with my group without hearing how little someone spent on the silk for their dress, or where someone scored the perfect brooch, and so forth. The fabric for one of my favorite dresses (a reproduction cotton) cost $1.49 a yard - I wear that dress proudly, beaming in the knowledge that the entire thing cost me less than $25 (notions and trim included). Accuracy is an investment, and like most things, it takes time - it has taken me close to ten years to get to a point where I feel reasonably confident that I can attend any event with a great deal of accuracy. And I won't lie, over the years I have made some shoddy acquisitions. I wish I would have saved that money and waited out the more accurate deal - because when you know what to look for, it's surprising how little you have to spend for it.
As I stated above, accuracy is an ultimate goal, and the journey towards it is the most important part. My standards may change, my goals may be different, and my line towards accuracy might shift in the future. This is where I stand, for now, with sights set on always improving.

For you fellow reenactors - what is your accuracy manifesto? What is your "bottom line"? And for all you fine readers - any brilliant ideas for topics you want me to touch on?

Coming Soon: Part Two - Top Ways to Improve Your Impression.


Rachel B. said...

Beautifully written!!

One More Stitch said...

Excellent post - I agree and try to practice all that you stated which can be difficult on so many levels (knowledge, accessibility, materials, expense.) It takes a lot of effort. I spent all of Sunday tearing out something I had spent two weeks making for all of the reasons in your manifesto. If we spend so much time in research, preparation, acquisition of materials, it (dress, object, accessory, etc.) deserves to be the very best and accurate we can make it. The satisfaction of creating something something that reflects our very best work at our own current level of research and skill is important, too. Of course, many people are satisfied with very little or just don't care. I have met a few who also will belligerently use/wear items that are howlingly incorrect but were made by them and they want to wear/use it anyway. I am in a constant state of learning and revising, and I think that is the secret of success in this field. There is always something more to learn.

Betsy said...

Isn't it frustrating?! I can appreciate that others have different goals and views from me, and their "good enough" is different than mine, but I really cannot understand it. Again, I'm not the one who's going to tell them they're doing it wrong, but it is a puzzler.