Wednesday, December 9, 2015


  Across the globe, the concept of historical reenactment of times, and cultures past, is accepted, and understood.  Its a huge boon to education, and gives both the reenactors, and the attendees, the opportunity to experience a slice of what another time was like.  We can find ourselves in the ancient world, the Dark ages, the Renaissance, the Victorian Era, the Roaring 20s, and on forward into the 1950s.  I suspect the time will come when there will be societies that will reenact the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It just hasn't happened yet, because we are still to close to them in time.  There has not been enough distance for a certain romantacization to grow.  Because few, if any, would really want to experience life as it was hundreds of years back.  It was little like the sanitized and safe versions we can experience today with groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, or the Renaissance Faire.
    That said, we do love getting ourselves togged out in the apparel of other times, in order to feel a tiny bit of what that world was like.  We want a slice of the romance we have created in our own heads about that time and that place.  The really sad thing is that the axiom is true, that you cannot go back.  Technology, and society change massively, and continually.
    We can want to immerse ourselves in another time, and we can try mightily to get there, but we can only accomplish, almost, never all the way there.  So what ends up happening is a lot of what I will call slippage, for lack of a more adroit term.  Since not everyone wanting to take part has the time, the knowledge, or the finances to fully realize their dream, things slip through that are anachronistic.  So, any reenactment event will have a broad range of effort, from glancing, to obsessive. And the ultimate result is a dumbing down of the entire experience.
    So, when someone says that such and such a costume for a reenactment is accurate to the time, they can be right, but only up to a point.  Was the fabric hand loomed, hand dyed?  Was it cut and sewn entirely by hand?  Are the trimmings, if any, made in the same way they were during the chosen period? Are the shoes hand made, and have soles that would have existed?  There are endless small things that cannot be reproduced without heroic, time consuming, and costly effort.  And even when things are made by hand, the way leather is processed, for example, has changed over time, so it won't really be precisely right.    The biggest problem is with machine manufactured textiles, and machine sewn garments; unless your chosen era is post industrial revolution.   There is a subtle but detectable difference in how clothing hangs, moves, and fits when it is sewn by hand entirely.  Mostly this is due to the perfectly regular tension that sewing machines give to each stitch, where hand sewing, no matter how skilled, shows minor variation of stitch length, and thread tension.

    What that means culturally, and psychologically in the end is this.  We slip further and further away from the truth of the time.  We lose, bit by bit, our understanding of the truth of a culture we admire.  We romanticize, and idealize that culture, it's mores and aspects, and most importantly, its reality, to a point where it has little relation to the actuality.  We choose to re-imagine it devoid of whatever unpleasant, dirty, and complicated parts that were intrinsic to it in real time.     I am, like many people, quite fond of historical drama on film and TV.  But I am acutely cognizant of it being a skewed view of the past.  Some terrific dramatization of Jane Austen is not the 1800s in reality, it is a fantasy aspect of it.  And the important thing is that, over time, we accept it as truth.  So our understanding of the past is warped by our perceptions given to us by these reenactments both in theater and otherwise.    

    So, again, we can only get part of the way there, not entirely.  We can only, and ever see the past through a veil of loveliness we ourselves create.

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