Monday, June 25, 2012

Costume or Period Clothing?

There was a bit of a discussion on Facebook recently with a reenactor friend. She posted on her profile page the following question:

Why is it offensive when people (visitors) call our clothing "costumes"??? 

My response was:
Costume: non-accurate pretend clothing to give an impression, whether it be of another era in time or a clown or Santa Claus, etc. Many will use velcro (or zippers) instead of accurate closures (buttons, hooks & eyes).
Period clothing: Accurate styles of another era in history replicating as accurately as one can (including underpinnings and undergarments) the clothing of whichever era one is attempting to emulate. These will be made by using the same materials and patterns as original garments.

And then I also added:
By the way, I don't get offended when a visitor calls it a costume. I will kindly let them know that what we wear are accurate period clothing, and then will explain to the visitor the difference between the two. 
I do get offended, however, when another reenactor - one who should know better - calls what I wear a costume.

The original poster then added the following:
Here's why I asked this question...being a former Library Assistant whenever something like this comes up I like to refer to a good source of information. Like all of you, I started to get offended by my clothing being called a "costume". BUT here's what the "Illustrated Oxford Dictionary" gives as definitions. 1. a style of dress, especially that of a particular time, place or class. 2. a set of clothes. 3. clothing for a particular activity. 4. an actor's clothes for a part. 5. a woman's matching jacket and skirt.

Furthermore....the Columbia Encyclopedia 5th ed. gives an almost full page description of the topic of costumes, mainly calling it "distinctive forms of clothing" It goes into clothing of various centuries and countries focusing on the different articles that compose a particular time and place costume. Example: an American lady of the mid-19th century would goes into all the articles of clothing (including underpinnings and what materials the clothing (costume) used to be made of. Your thoughts on this now.... Maybe we should say yes it's a costume, but unlike an actor's or Halloween....our costumes are based on authentic, period correct examples.

I responded with:
I stand by what I wrote. We can discuss this in person if you'd like. You wear your costume and I'll wear my period clothing. But give all reenactors and living historians the respect they deserve and call it period clothing, for that's what we prefer.
Furthermore, "farby" is not in the dictionary but we all certainly know what that word means.

Now that's where my part of the discussion ended on this thread (ha! get it? thread? such a witty guy!).
But you know me better than that, don't you? I can't just let it go...

We don't call our modern day clothing a costume, do we?
We don't call a young lady's prom dress or a young man's tux a costume, do we?
And can you imagine the horror of a reenactor dressed in mourning clothing hearing someone call what they have on a mourning costume?
"Yes, dear, she wears that black costume because she's pretending that someone she loves died."
I'm shuddering just thinking about it!
Believe me when I say that what this woman in mourning is wearing is not a costume

The Amish and Mennonites: their clothing, especially in the Amish community, is quite different from our modern styles, correct? Kind of old-fashioned in comparison but not quite "period." And yet we would (hopefully) not call what they wear a costume.
Nor would we call the vestment or robe of a priest or what an old-style nun wears a costume - whether you are Catholic or not - if only out of respect for their beliefs (although I see priest and nun costumes in a costume shop - kind of offensive when you think about it. It is disrespectful in my opinion. But who am I...). 
To me, calling the authentic clothing from another era in time a 'costume' when one knows better is a slap in the face not only to the wearer, but to the one who spent the time researching and sewing the garments and, more importantly, to those who wore the clothing when it was originally in style.
I have seen my wife, as well as other women & men, spend hours upon hours making clothing and accessories (accurate style bonnets, belts, collars), attempting (and succeeding) to emulate the styles of the past to a "T" - I dare you to call what they made a "costume."
However, when a non-reenacting visitor comes up and says something like, "I like your costume," I don't get offended. I simply will say "thank you" and proceed to educate them in the world of historical clothing.
It's the same with my carpet bag: I get many people - reenactors included - calling me a 'carpet-bagger,' which then leads me to discuss and teach them the history of the carpet bag and why it is inappropriate to call me such a derogatory name before the Civil War's end.
And since I very rarely will time-travel past early 1865, there will be little chance for anyone to use such a disparaging term on me.
Again, I would expect to hear such terms as 'costume' and maybe even 'carpet-bagger' from the general public, but hopefully not from other living historians.
Costumes? I think not...!
I suppose it's that we, as living historians, take our 'hobby' very seriously. Yes, it's pretending. And yet, it isn't. I mean, in many cases, when we are at a reenactment, we really are living the life of one from the 1860's, aren't we? It's not just imagination. We've taken that childhood make-believe and brought it to such a level that we almost feel as if we've actually been transported. And when we are able to make the visitor feel as if they have traveled through time with us through our clothing, actions, speech, and surroundings, then you know it's not's a history lesson like one has never experienced before...
And that just cannot happen in a costume.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you get offended at such terminology?

~ (Just so everyone knows, there was no malice or bad intent of the woman who posted the query in the first place. She only wanted to get a discussion going and hear others opinions) ~

By the way, here are a few links that pertain to the subject at hand:
The Cost and Satisfaction of Civil War Living History (With Notes on Men's Clothing)
More on Time Travel and How To Accomplish It
Researching History - Expand Your Knowledge
Reenactors in Tintypes
More Reenactors In Tintypes



Robin's Egg Bleu said...

I agree with you 100%. What we are wearing is clothing...of a very specific period in time. It wasn't a costume then, and it's not a costume now.

It is worn for an educational purpose.

A costume is worn for a theatrical purpose, is made with the intention of quick removal for changes and does not possess accurate closures and details, because it is not meant to be seen up close. When you distance yourself from the audience you can get away with abandoning period details.

Reenactors/Living Historians are up close and personal with their 'audience' and are educating them on something very time specific. Yes, the general public finds this entertaining, and perhaps this is why they may view what we do as theatrical as opposed to educational, and our clothing a costume as opposed to a real, functioning garment.

Elaine said...

While the definition of "costume" is techincally correct (ie. bathing costume) in our modern society we interpret "costume" as something less than real. Even my 9 year old son has gently corrected spectators and explained the difference.

PvtSam75 said...

I don't necessarily get offended, but I will make a point of correcting people, especially when I'm in uniform. My group portrays a regiment that still exists in the British Army, and we are representing the Regiment as it would have looked in 1775. So in that case, it's a uniform, not a costume. But when I'm dressed as a lady, I usually just like to explain the diference and talk about some of the things I'm wearing. Most people are particularly interested in shoes and stays, and everyone asks "aren't you hot in all that?"
We may be a form of entertainment, but we're also educating, and I certainly couldn't teach in a colonial "costume" you can buy at a store or online. Wearing period clothing is my way of representing those who are no longer around to tell their own stories, and "costume" just isn't a fitting term.

Historical Ken said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. It seems we're all on the same page when it comes to period clothing. And each of you have brought up very valid points.
Again, thanks!