Monday, September 24, 2012

Midnight Musings: When "Costumes" Become "Clothing"

One thing that I know will annoy Mike is if anyone refers to historical clothing as "costumes." I admit, I have been known to use the terms interchangeably when I'm feeling particularly lazy ("Can we go in costume?"). But there really is a difference, at least for those of us who use historical clothing as a very important (and visible) part of interpreting history. In the simplest explanation, costumes become clothing when you choose to make and wear garments based on your physical need for them, in the same way that you buy and wear clothes today. And I don't mean need as in "OMG THAT DRESS IS SO PRETTY I NEED TO MAKE IT!!!!!!". But need as in "Hmm, it's going to be 50 degrees at this event, so I want to have this, this, and this to be warm." It's picking styles and materials that would have been appropriate to the type of person you are portraying. And it's building upon existing pieces in your wardrobe, in the same way you do with your wardrobe today. It's saying "I want to wear this ribbon/petticoat/brooch/bonnet today" to change up the look of an outfit, or simply throwing on a hat and coat because you're going outside, and that's what you do.

I got a serious lesson in treating costume as clothing this summer when I worked in Colonial Williamsburg. I had essentially three outfits that comprised my wardrobe (which is barely over the minimum number of outfits most destitute poor and slaves were given, but that's an essay for another time...) so it was a fun exercise each day figuring out how to put things together differently, or add a new ribbon, or wear a different cap and kerchief combination. And it felt the same as getting dressed in 21st century clothing, when I stand in front of my closet for 20 minutes trying to figure out what to wear...

This weekend, Katie and I went to a small, local Civil War event. Neither of us wore anything new. And it actually felt great. Of course new clothes are always fun. But there was something really rewarding to go into my closet of historical clothes and pick things out as a woman of the 1860s would, thinking "It's cold today; I need my flannel petticoat and my paletot," and "This is one of my better dresses; I want to wear it to look particularly fashionable today!" And then throwing on my trusty bonnet and gloves. I felt complete, and like a real person in real clothes, not a person in a funny costume. If you treat your historical clothing as a wardrobe, the way a person of the past would have approached their wardrobe, you come away with an invisible mindset about yourself that translates into something visible for the pubic.

Pictures from the weekend, by Katie Jacobs.


Emily Kate said...

I love this whole post! I couldn't agree more. It's really a rewarding moment when I'm standing in front of my assortment of Civil War clothes deciding what to wear with what, depending on the weekend's activities. After a while, they really do feel just like regular clothes!

Sarah W said...

True! When I do 14th century, I don't feel decent, and properly dressed, untill I have put on my wimple and veil. Likewise, wearing two dresses at the same time feels more appropriate than wearing only one.

Historical Ken said...

Excellent post, Samantha!
I wrote on this subject earlier this year. I think you might enjoy it:
By the way, I'd love to hear stories of your Colonial Williamsburg days.

Cassidy said...

I tend to go back and forth with terminology - I know that there's a growing trend of making a distinction between costumes and clothing, but "costume" is also a valid term to describe the clothing/accessories/hairstyles/etc. of a specific region, group, or period. I try to avoid saying "costume" about modern-made historical clothing, but sometimes when I'm being pompous and academic it slips in.

I cannot wait to get to the point where I have enough wearable options (each thing I make tending to seem unwearable once I make a new one) that I can think of them as just clothing options!

Love your paletot!

Mackin-Art said...

I agree that the word "costume" has a certain conatation when used in the modern sense that is not desirable for those of us that create historic fashions.

However, depending on the period being portrayed, it is accurate terminology, ie "Marie, I'll be wearing the green walking costume today" and proper language usage can be yet another tiny detail that adds to an overall impression.

Lauren said...

Love these thoughts! Costume vs. Clothing is such an interesting topic to me. And Fashion vs. Clothing as well. I read the book "Understanding Fashion History" quite a while ago, and while I thought it would be sort of a beginner book when I picked it up it was actually really fascinating from a academic standpoint about how the study of fashion history began, and I believe they touched on that subject in the book as well.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that when you begin to think of your historic wardrobe in the way you consider your modern wardrobe (in terms of picking outfits, building upon what you have, and switching things out) that you have moved into the realm of historic clothing vs. costume; however, the term costume is used in an academic way to discuss the clothing people of all types and eras have worn, including our modern selves, so I disagree with the idea that the word should never be used.

So maybe we should consider a difference between "costume" (especially as in historic costume) meaning dress, the articles and clothing humans wear for functional purposes vs. "costume" meaning I will wear this to play dress up, I am going to a party for Halloween, or I am an actor in a play or movie. The difference between "costume" and "costume" is a hard distinction that I have yet to find really awesome terminology for without a long explanation.


Samantha said...

I really hope no one misunderstands the point of this post. I do realize the word costume is totally appropriate in the right context, and I did NOT say we should never use the word. I try to not speak in absolutes, whether it's saying "always" or "never."

Cassidy said...

Since I was the person to start the connotation discussion, I'd like to say I didn't think you were unaware of it! I just meant that in general I see people talk about never using the term, so even though I think it's valid to talk about "sewing 19th century costume in the present day" I try not to say it, because I don't want to give the impression to anyone that I mean "19th century costumes" and unintentionally give someone a bad impression of myself.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Samantha, I hope I did not sound like I misunderstood your post. I was just expounding on my own thoughts about word choice when it comes to historic clothing.

I think you have a good point about avoiding the use of absolute words. Perhaps I should have considered that word choice in my first choice.


Samantha said...

oh no, it's okay ladies! i'm sorry, i've just been feeling rather self-conscious about the post because i didn't want anyone to think i was being close-minded in my word choice, or naive.

Sarah Rachelle said...

I read your post after this one on "continuing the conversation" in my google reader, but it looks like it was removed so I couldn't make a comment. I totally understood your intent of the post about costume vs. clothing and how it's a personal mind set that elevates how you feel while interpreting history. I couldn't agree more!

I used to work as an historical interpreter at Conner Prairie in Indiana and was a Civil War reenactor for 9 years. I came to a point where the "costumes" were clothing to me and I wouldn't have dreamed of going out without my stays on or an under and over petticoat, let alone a head covering or gloves. It's so ingrained in me by now that my historical clothes are pretty much considered my "other" wardrobe.

Coming to that point, I feel, is so important as a historical interpreter, to feel normal and comfortable in our second skin, so to speak.

An interesting discussion!

Also - is that house where you are modeling your dresses the house where you live? It's beautiful! (from what I can see of the porch) :-) What a lovely backdrop for posing in historical clothing!