Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Mourning Impressions

This past weekend I went to the Memorial Day service at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. This year’s ceremony had a decidedly Civil War slant, and a good friend of mine was the keynote speaker. The First Minnesota Infantry was in attendance, and I went along in mourning attire.

I created my mourning ensemble last fall (as long-time readers will recall) for a presentation I gave on mourning and death rituals. For me, it was a no-brainer - Memorial Day is about soldiers who have passed away, it began as a day of decorating the graves of veterans, ergo mourning.

When I got there, however, the weight of what was happening felt very heavy. There were hundreds of people there - many of them veterans, many of them the families of those who had served. I realized what I was - a representing everyone who had lost a loved one to war, and everyone who had been left behind. It was an awesome responsibility, but it was very heavy, and for a while I felt incredibly awkward. My life has been remarkably free of grief, and I felt like an imposter.

Thankfully, I was able to pull it together, and many people told me afterwards how much my impression meant to them. I even got a few emotional hugs. It was overall a really positive experience, and it caused me to do some heavy duty thinking about what a mourning impression really means.

It seems to be timely. This week there has been a lot of discussions in groups of reenactors on Facebook about when and how a mourning impression is appropriate, and sharing their experiences with displaying mourning impressions. Some shared their experiences of wearing mourning while grieving the real-life loss of a loved one. A lot of the stories shared were disheartening - women who had been jeered at, who had been interrogated or otherwise accosted with invasive questions. Perhaps even more disheartening were various posts I saw around blogs and social media of women portraying armies of widows, frolicking and mooning for the camera while swathed in black, and presenting the “myth-tory” of mourning instead of the hard facts.

This has brought me to a few conclusions about mourning in reenacting, specifically about how to present mourning when one is not actually grieving a loss, which I would like to share with you:

Grief Is Real. To those experiencing it, whether living historians or those among the visitors and guests to an event, grief is overwhelming and tangible. You may know who these people are based on their attire, the context of the event, or your own prior knowledge of the participants; however, there may be no way of telling who is grieving, and how, and for whom. Therefore…

Treat Mourning As Real. If you see someone at an event in mourning attire, treat them with the same respect you would afford anyone who had suffered a loss. Their use of mourning attire will, hopefully, clue you in to what kind of loss they have experienced. Leave your sarcastic comments or snickering for later; ascertain politely about the nature of the person’s loss.

If You Are Doing a Mourning Impression, You Are A Mourner. If you are actually grieving for a personal loss, this is unfortunately a seamless impression for you. If you are, rather, honoring the hundreds of thousands of those left behind by casualties of the Civil War, then it is your honor and duty to present them in a somber, serious, and respectful impression. Do not go into histrionics, and forget the “merry widow” trope, both of which cheapen the reality of those who grieved then and those who grieved now. The weight of presenting real grief is heavy, and it is now your personal responsibility to carry that load, and to act like a real mourner.

So Do It Right. Before you even consider putting on black, do real research. Use primary sources to find out exactly what they did - avoid going to secondary sources, which have (to be frank) bastardized and muddied this niche topic. Seek out letters, diaries, and etiquette manuals to determine what was actually done. While there are certain elements we cannot reproduce, purchase accurate fabric based on what they wore, and utilize the appropriate accessories. Mourn according to your relationship with the deceased - leave widows’ weeds to the actual widows. Follow the actions prescribed for and followed by those who mourned - this will give proper context and understanding to mourning.

If You Cannot Do This, And You Are Not Really Grieving, Do Not Present a Mourning Impression. Those who have to scramble to put on mourning after a sudden death already have a difficult enough time. If you are not grieving, and want to present a mourning impression, you owe it to those who have suffered losses today, and the many women and men who grieved their sons, brothers, fathers, relatives, and friends who died in the Civil War to do it the right way. There isn’t anything cute or funny about it; it’s not another pretty dress.

Here's why I feel strongly about this: Ann-Elizabeth Shapera, a street performer at a Renaissance Festival, has written an excellent book about improvisational theater for street performers, called Easy Street. It’s an fabulous book for anyone who does modified first person/my-time-your-time impressions or deals with the public in any capacity. The point she makes which stuck out to me the most is that, whether we like it or not, we invite those with whom we interact to understand history by acting as a mirror for them. Our emotions, our actions, our motivation invite the visitor to feel emotions with us, and to remember how they have felt those emotions, and connect their experiences to history and the greater human experience. Think about that - when you present a mourning impression, you’re connecting with every visitor who has experienced grief and loss in their lives, and inviting them to connect with the experiences of the women who lost loved ones in the Civil War, and through that, connecting them with every single person who has experienced grief and loss.


It’s a pretty big and bold statement, but I felt it on Memorial Day and it was a big and bold and important feeling. It’s the kind of statement that cuts through the noise of pretty dresses and niche impressions, and it reminds us of what’s really important and that the way we present ourselves matters, to us and to others.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Sewing Academy in St. Paul: AAR

As I mentioned in my last post, in late April I attended a Sewing Academy workshop series, and it changed my life.

Starring your usual cast of characters: Betsy, Ashley, Sarah, Kit, et al

Well, "attended" is putting it mildly. My reenacting group, the Living History Society of Minnesota, put it on. I had a big hand in planning it, but the minute it was suggested that we bring Elizabeth Stewart Clark out here this spring, I was sold and knew that I would do whatever it took to make it happen.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you're not familiar with Elizabeth Stewart Clark and the Sewing Academy, and you're a mid-19th century living historian, you are not trying hard enough. The Sewing Academy is a one-stop shop for everything and anything related to the mid 19th century. Everyone there researches and documents. EVERYONE. And they are nice about it. If you've ever been burned by mavens and bossy betties, go over to the Sewing Academy and see what a real expert looks like. There are people there who have been researching the 19th century for decades, and people who are just starting, and they're all learning together and sharing their knowledge. And Elizabeth Stewart Clark rules over them all benevolently, distributing free patterns and articles and generally being amazing.

I have to say, if you want to bring Liz Clark to your locale for a Sewing Academy series, it could not be easier. She takes care of everything, and is wonderful at coming up with workshops and seminars to fit exactly what you need. The planning process was great. Getting to meet her was magical - she's been my hero for a decade, we've had a casual conversational online acquaintance for a couple years, and she was so sweet and kind and wonderful in person.

These are our excited faces. I think we looked like this 85% of the time.

The workshops themselves were fantastic. We had some workshops on basic skills, like creating bodices and skirts in miniature. We had some advanced workshops like whitework embroidery and bodice draping. There were seminars on deconstructing CDVs to figure out the construction of women's clothing, fabric choices and suggestions, and best-bet wardrobe options. My favorite workshop was on pattern play - we got tiny adorable bodice patterns, and learned how to slash and spread, swing darts, add and remove features, and more. We learned all sorts of ways to make interesting sleeves. It was truly mind-blowing!

Pattern play at tea - pretty much the best Saturday afternoon ever

My favorite seminar was Living Citizen History. There was too much to sum up in a couple sentences, but it was basically a reiteration of all the things I feel strongly about: that living history is a transformative experience based on senses, and that when all the right sensory information (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) comes together, life-changing experiences happen for the public and for participants. Accuracy matters, because it just does, and we owe it to ourselves and others to strive for accuracy and expect it of each other.

If that sounds rather heavy, let me assure you that the weekend was full of a LOT of laughter, and a more-than-small bit of geeking out. And I was once again turned into a meme, with Liz, which may be the pinnacle of my existence on this planet.

Have I mentioned the massive bag of goodies I came home with? The company was excellent, and it was just an amazing time. Everyone went away asking when we can do it again - and I hope the answer is "very very soon"!

(In related news, I need to find an acronym to make "mid 19th century" easier to type out, because it's getting really, really old.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

An Exciting Announcement!

There have been lots of plans in the works, friends, and many exciting things to come! Two weeks ago, Elizabeth Stewart Clark of the Sewing Academy came out for a workshop series with the Living History Society. I will write more about that in a separate post, but as a teaser: her butt has been in the front seat of my car. (Insert fangirl screaming here)

Prior to that, however, Melissa of The Deviant Dressmaker (aka my protege) and I launched an exciting new blog project: The Historical Food Fortnightly!

I approached Melissa with this idea some months ago, and still don't remember how it popped into my head - a year's worth of challenges, every two weeks, asking participants to research, document and reproduce historical food dishes and recipes. She thought it was a cool idea too, so we've been plotting and scheming over the winter and have now launched the project!

The idea is shamelessly inspired by other fortnightly challenges from around the interwebz (in particular Leimomi of The Dreamstress, who has given us her blessing). Every two weeks (or fortnight - get it?), a new themed challenge begins. Each participant creates a dish inspired by that theme. They then post their results on their blog, along with their documentation and research. We'll share our own results, and highlight some participants as well.

We announced the project two weeks ago, and the response has been overwhelming. We're already close to 200 participants on the Facebook group, plus blog followers. We have people participating from all over the world, and from all different eras. There are professional living historians who cook historic foods every day at their sites, hobbyists with a variety of experiences and skill sets, historians who like food, and foodies who like history. There are people cooking foods from the 1950s all the way down to 10th century Vikings and Ancient Greece (like, I can't even wrap my mind around that, they must be made of magic).

I hope you will consider joining us, gentle reader - the only rule is "research and document", the rest is up to you!