I See You Use The Same Tailor as Me and All of My Friends...
One of the things that regularly drives me up the wall is the tendency of costumers to define historical clothing in only one way – “they only wore petticoat bodies”, or “they only used running stitch for hems”, or even the ubiquitous “pink/orange/yellow/black isn’t period”.
Due to costuming (especially the further back you go) being so hard to definitively codify, we tend, as a group, to work with what we know. This is a good thing, up to a point - disseminating the patterns for clothes currently agreed on as period in style helps newer people to avoid some of the mistakes we made when there wasn't as much information around. Unfortunately, this also leads to what my friend Heather Bryden calls the "J. Crew Elizabethan" effect - everyone kind of looks like they bought their clothes from the same catalogue ("Elizabeth's Secret", perhaps). The colours may change, but the basic style and decoration tends to fall within a very narrow spectrum.
Actually, even the colours tend to be a bit similar, but I blame the modern fabric industry for that - not everyone has the time and/or resources to dye their cloth to period colours. Still, I'd like to see more madder variations - they were awfully popular in England. More indigo and woad, too.
But even the limitations imposed on us by modern fabrics and the limited amount of extant clothing don’t explain the severe parochialism I run into – sometimes, even when presented with evidence that a different style existed, people are resistant to the idea. I think this mostly stems from a fear of getting something wrong – rightly so, in some cases, because there are people who seem to make it their life’s mission to point out everyone else’s flaws. Who wants to be subjected to that? So everyone copies the person who seems to know what they’re doing.
(This is how “re-enactorisms” – the perpetuation of an incorrect idea within a re-creation group – become so ubiquitous.) It is a good thing to want to get your kit looking right, but it’s bad when everyone looks the same – when trim layouts are all identical, or sleeve treatments, or trousers – or any other garment/accessory that I’ve seen make the rounds. As I write this article, the late 16th century jacket is becoming popular amongst late period SCA people, and that’s mostly my fault. Because I have a web site and blog, and I frequently post pictures of my costume work, I do get copied, and I don’t mind (in fact sometimes, I intend for you to copy my work – like in the Dozen Doublet Designs article). But - it’s always better when people don’t copy me exactly. Put some of yourself into your clothing.
I think part of the problem is that as modern people, we are more used to visually interpreting photographs than paintings or woodcuts. While a period artwork may be admired, it is often someone’s recreation of that artwork that is copied, since most people find it easier to conceptualize from a photograph. There’s nothing really wrong with this – it’s a function of the age we live in – but learning to work directly from the period sources opens up more design possibilities, and makes it more likely that your work will really look unique.
It's important to think of tailoring in the 16th century as a cottage industry (as Tom Rettie puts it), even though it was controlled partly by guilds. Every tailor had his own style, and every woman making shifts and shirts had their own way of finishing. That means there are as many variations of outfits as there are people making them. Everyone did not go around in puffy pants that stopped exactly at knee level, nor did the doublets all have the same trim lines. Skirts had all sorts of decoration, aprons came in multiple colours, and clothes didn't neccessarily match. Everyone didn't wear latchet shoes. Hats all looked different (and didn't all have ostrich feathers in them).
Variation is good, despite the pedantry of certain people who contend that if they haven’t seen it, it isn't period. Yes, certain common styles were fashionable, but a short survey of random woodcuts in my library shows at least twenty different bodies/square doublet variations, a bunch of hats, crazy variations in trimming styles, and loads of designs I just don't see in the SCA costuming community.
An examination of extant garments, woodcuts, and paintings shows so many variations it would make your head spin trying to keep them all straight – and this is just English clothing. You have to keep in mind that each tailoring shop is vying with the others for the custom of people who each want something unique and special. Those working at the top end of the clothing market have customers demanding unique, eye-catching, and expensive garments that they frequently will only wear one or two times. This creates an industry of incredibly talented fabric artists all competing with each other to entice customers with the next big thing. Conformity is a result of the Industrial Revolution (1800s) and the introduction of factory-produced clothing.
The modern clothing industry is interested in volume profit. By producing hundreds of thousands of identical t-shirts at a cheap price, they make money without having to keep hundreds of individual designers and tailors on staff. Think of Elizabethan clothing as more like bespoke tailoring – the cost of the individual outfit is more, but you get a completely unique outfit tailored just for you.
Kass McGann of Reconstructing History says: “… the more extant jackets you examine […], the more you realize that they're all different. Some of them have five gores, some have nine, some have none, some have collars, some not, some have hooks, some have ribbons, et cetera, et cetera.
"The most frustrating thing about being a pattern maker is that I can only include a limited amount of options in my patterns. This means I have to leave out a lot of the options that existed according to the pictorial, verbal, and even extant record. I try to enumerate the variations in the historical notes, however, so people understand just exactly how varied clothing was.”
Obviously, we need a basic understanding of the style and fabrics of the period, but the basic styles are just the starting point – from the basic building blocks of an outfit, you can create something really unique. Look for alternative designs, unusual colour combinations, and unique sleeve/collar/cuff treatments. Keep your mantra (“every outfit is unique”) in your mind.
If you have a negative experience with someone who simply won’t listen to your research, please, please don’t let it discourage you; pioneers have always had to deal with the people who stubbornly shove their heels in the ground and refuse to accept new things. Keep your documentation on hand (one person I know printed up little business cards as documentation for people who felt the inexplicable need to tell her that her period outfit was “wrong”), and don’t let the stick-in-the-muds prevent you from climbing to greater heights.
There will always be people who are prone to the “only one way is correct”; I've been told that my necklines were too wide for the period, that my hems weren't sewn with the correct stitch because the stitch I used “wasn't in Janet Arnold”, and that mis-matching my colours was “tacky”. I've had a friend be told that black linen wasn't available in her period (1590). There is never only one way of doing something, despite what other people may try to tell you.
This idea may sound like it flies in the face of "don't make it until you're sure it's documented!", but it doesn't. I've been told that jackets/waistcoats weren't made in plain colours, but I have the documentation to prove they did, so I made some. I was mixing-and-mismatching clothes years ago, long before a lot of people accepted that it was okay (some could say that's because of my crappy taste, and they could be right, but if I had bad taste, so did the Elizabethans). Be careful of going too far and falling into wishful thinking, however - branching out is good, but making wild leaps of illogic ("polka dots are good because I think I saw an outfit with spots in one of my books") is not. Always be prepared to deal with being wrong – new research turns up all the time, and there’s no shame in working with the knowledge you had available at the time. Simply absorb the new research and adjust your designs accordingly.
Don't be afraid to experiment with the period stuff, is what I'm saying. Look at more than Janet Arnold. Keep the cookie-cutter for the modern mass-produced clothing industry. And stand out from the crowd.
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.