Monday, May 3, 2010

The Tribulations of Being a Trendsetter

The reenacting guild that I’m in, we’re a new guild. We had our first meeting in May of last year, and our first event in September. That is not to say that I’m new to living history, far from it, but most of what I’ve been doing recently has been a mish-mash of different periods with varying levels of historical accuracy. I first started making my own historical clothing back in 1999, and made my first Landsknecht outfit in 2003. I started belt weaving in 2001 using 1970s craft books and loom from my mother. I started collecting cookware for historical cooking demonstrations (of an indeterminate time period) in 2005. In 2008 Stephen purchased historical tents that could pass for both the middle ages and the 18th century.

When setting up the guild last year we put a big emphasis on historical accuracy, in timeperiod and in place, but we only have so much time and money to put into building an entire encampment, so Stephen and I told each other and the guild that we would not achieve perfect (or even exemplary) historical accuracy the first year. For the first year we’d go for passable and getting the overall look down, while we spent the next few years making steady improvements. We do not have anyone officially in charge of historical accuracy, and we don’t have hard and fast rules. Since everyone was making new clothing we did set very specific clothing guidelines, both written and verbal, and asked that all clothing designs and materials be OKed by Stephen or me before anyone got too far into their outfit, but for furniture, cookware, accessories and much else, we all made do for our first event.

Other than “clothing OKer” I don’t have an official role in the guild structure. But I am Stephen’s partner, and I have been doing this history stuff for a very long time. I like to think that my vision has shaped the formation of the guild since a good number of the initial camp accessories were mine, and I came up with a cooking demonstration as one of our initial focus points. As someone in charge of clothing decisions I made my outfit up ahead of the first guild meeting (well the bits and pieces were done, I had not quite finished the whole thing) so new folks would have something to look at. And look at it they did! This spring one person went so far as to copy my dress practically in its entirety in her initial sketch, we convinced her to change it up a little in the design, I have not seen the finished product yet.

So now I find myself in a conundrum that I should have seen coming, but did not grasp fully until fairly recently. It is assumed by most folks that not only do I OK dress designs, but that what I do and what I have must be kosher within the group.

For the initial cooking demonstration I pulled out a bunch of my 19th century cast iron cooking pots, a grill I bought off a colonial suttler, my renfaire eating knife, and some modern wooden bowls and plates. While I yearned for copper cookware and pottery pipkins, I bought pottery from Old Sturbridge Village, which does Early American redware. Halfway through last fall it became apparent that some more cookware would be helpful, and before I knew it other guild members had bought more colonial and early American stuff to supplement what we already had. I knew the stuff they were buying was wrong for our time, but I’m not sure I had made it clear to the other guild members exactly how wrong it was! I felt horribly guilty that other people were spending their money (none of us are rich here) on items that they will not be able to use in the encampment in a couple of years. At this point we are acquiring better items, and I think there are no hard feelings about the items we’ve already got, but I know I will not feel safe until we have an actual written-out set of guidelines (or images) about accuracy in foodways presentations.

A few weeks ago a member of the guild asked me to weave her a belt like the belts that I wear. At first I was absolutely delighted, I have not woven a new belt in a while and am looking forward to it as a fun, yet productive, diversion. I also don’t mind making a little money (or barter credit) on historical stuff. But now that I’m sitting down to weave the darn thing I am questioning its historical accuracy. The woodcuts we have definitely show women wearing belts, but I have not done any research (or come across anything specific) to tell me what those belts are made of. I know the technology to make the sorts of belts that I do is in use, but as far as I know the narrow fabric bands that I produce are more likely to be used as reinforcement in a waistband or skirt bottom, or thin ones as lacing, or short ones as garters to hold up stockings, or as trim on hats. If someone asked me to prove that wearing colorful woven bands as belts was done, I could not do it.

I think I’ve got to go back to my prospective client and fellow guild member and let her know I have no historical documentation for my choice of belt, and offer to withdraw the commission if she is so inclined. But my trouble is this: should I continue to wear my own belt knowing that the women did wear belts, but of unknown (to me) material; or do I skip the belt altogether until I can figure out exactly what belt would have been worn? Especially given my role as unofficial trendsetter?

Photo from Drifting Focus


  1. This is an interesting dilemma. I think the honest thing to do would be to, as you say, offer to withdraw the commission, but in regard to your own belt, I have to say, is there much better evidence for any other beltwear specifically in women in 16th century Germany? That's starting to cut things pretty finely! A quick glance through my handy set of Jost Amman playing cards (a little later than you, at 1588), shows sashes (7 of printers pads, 10 of cups) often worn quite loosely in a way which seems likely to end up around the ankles, a possibly cloth belt with a posterior sling which holds a bag (4 of cups), and what _looks_ like either a woven belt or possibly a chain belt, itself suspending a chain carrying a pomander (10 of books).

    A quick look at 'Before the Mast' makes mention of leather belts, but not of cloth ones. However, closer reading suggests that the majority of the belts are possibly hangers for swords etc, rather than waist belts for purse or eating knife, so doesn't get us much forader.

    I think I'd say, 'it's a reasonable thing to use', and keep using it, until there's stronger evidence one way or t'other

    (PS: I loved your 'how to make a hat' instructions! I shall be making use of them, if I may)

  2. 10 of books can be seen here

  3. Thanks Hobbitomm for all your great primary source suggestions, feel free to use the hat instructions.