I have always wondered things about history.
One of the things I have wondered recently is just how reflective the fashions in museum exhibits are of the common dress of the period.
Historical costumers tend to rely on extant garments, as well as paintings and fashion plates of an era, in order to replicate fashions in a particular time period. There is a fascination and preoccupation in historical costuming circles with sewing garments with historical accuracy. This can include using patterns drafted from extant examples, using materials and fabrics consistent with the era, and even limiting oneself to using particular sewing techniques, such as completely hand-sewing a garment.
Firstly, I must say that I find it awe-inspiring that someone could have so much patience and attention to detail to accomplish some – let alone all – of these sewing feats. It truly amazes me!
However, I do wonder whether all this – sometimes extreme – effort to replicate extant garments is necessary. Are we, as historical costumers, wasting our time if these articles of clothing are not reflective of those actually worn?
Now, on the surface of it, this statement seems silly. Of course museum garments have been worn. They show signs of being worn: sweat stains, dirt stains, and places worn thin with wear. They show signs of being re-used by successive generations, with sizing alterations and some being completely redesigned for use in a later era.
However, my wonderings have led me down a different path. Down today’s path really. The thing that I wonder is: In 100 years which of my clothes will end up in a museum? And will these garments be reflective of me and my time?
Will my tracksuit pants make the cut? Or my favourite pair of jeans? What about my stained and stretched T-shirt that I can’t bear to throw away. These are the clothes that I wear most often. These are the clothes I feel most comfortable in. These are the clothes that represent who I am. (Hopefully that admission hasn’t altered your opinion about me!)
Or will my wedding dress or my debutant dress be displayed instead? Will it be my formal clothes that I rarely wear (because who really dresses up anymore anyway, except for a wedding here and there)?
Or will it be the clothes in my wardrobe that are in pristine condition that are exhibited? Because pristine clothes are more valuable to a museum, aren’t they? Like my white pair of jeans that are too tight around my waist and too hard to keep clean. Or a shirt I bought on sale that has never fitted right. Will it be clothes that have hardly been worn, usually because I don’t like them and so I don’t wear them?
What about my shoes? Or – God forbid – my underwear! Will it be my favourite sneakers or will it be the high heels that I can’t stand because they make my feet hurt? Will it be my pretty lingerie, the ones that have a matching bra and G-string undies (which I only wear on especially special occasions because they are too darned uncomfortable)? Or will it be those pairs of cotton undies that are $10 for a packet of 5 in Coles Supermarket?
How will the people of the future be able to tell what we have worn? Because surely most of the stuff that I wear all the time will have been thrown out, deemed unattractive, undesirable and uninteresting. And that could leave the more unrepresentative fashions in the museums of the future.
How will the people of the future be able to accurately represent our fashions for their own historical costuming festivals? Will they examine the fashions in the magazines of Vogue or Elle (which, quite frankly, are dreadfully expensive and only look good on that 2% of the population that are model-like skinny)? Or will people be using “vintage” patterns published by McCalls and Simplicity in 2013 to construct accurate clothing, despite the fact that a very small percentage of people today sew their everyday clothes? It does seem very unlikely that they would want to draft a pattern from my old, daggy, Kmart-branded tracky-dacks, that are equally unlikely to have made it to the National Museum fashion exhibit!
It is an interesting question. And it is interesting mainly because I wonder if it is the same with us. Do we look back into history and attempt to replicate clothes that are not representative of what was actually worn? Do we presume that the clothes that have made it to the celebrated status of museum exhibits were frequently worn and loved by the people of that time? Do we just accept that pictures of the period are accurate in their portrayal of the fashions of everyday people?
To be fair, in my not-so-extensive online research of extant garments, there is quite a variety of surviving clothing ranging from the upper to the lower classes of people. There is also some surviving literature about dressmaking and tailoring in particular eras of history. And there are a variety of pictures depicting fashion, from upper class portraits to fashion plates to exaggerated caricatures.
But I guess that makes me wonder anew what conclusions those people in the future will draw from the clothing, literature, and pictures that survive from this era. And will they form the wrong conclusions? And could it be possible that we, as studiers of history, form the wrong conclusions about those people gone before us?
A point to ponder… maybe over a cup of tea!
See Costumes for links to more of my costuming posts
Sources and Relevant Links
Historical Accuracy meets my costuming philosophy - by Wanda B. Victorian (So how far should you go for historical accuracy?)
Historical Accuracy in movies – by Hello Tailor (Can fashion depictions in period movies ever be historically accurate?)
Why you can’t be 100% Historically Accurate – by Historical Sewing.com (Is historically accurate fashion just about the clothes? Or is it also about the people?)