Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The controversy of costume!! ::dun dun dunnnnnn:::

Shiny Pink Disco-Ball of Death
There has been a lot of rhetoric flying around lately about costume-authenticity. The Regency Society of America has been buzzing with it amid several of its Chapters including the Oregon Regency Society. Mostly, it’s folks who do full-on reenactment talking about people who do not, but who think they are. I stand firmly on the sidelines on this discussion. I am not a reenactor by any means. Nor do I ever claim to be one. I just like feeling like a girl when I spend most of my time in Jeans and Merrells or riding Jods and paddock boots. Can I claim the most authentic costume? No.

In my dealings with the ORS, and the RSA from the beginning, I have been utterly unable to even pursue the idea of accuracy even if I wanted to; because I just never had the time to put in the hand-sewing and dogged research and dedication required to be a truly authentic ‘reenactor’, let alone develop a character or persona with enough depth and believability to carry them through any extended period. It’s as simple as that. I was too busy with the events and the groups.

People like Katherine here
not only meet the standard,
she kind of creates a standard.
Her work is always exquisite.
Usually, the ORS events worked like this: Spend all the time setting them up, helping other people get ready for them, which often included throwing together at least one or two costumes for them before the event, try to squeeze in enough sewing time to make something for myself (usually the night before, sewing feverishly on my machine at 2AM); then spending the day of the event preparing, and then hurriedly, in whatever space is available on site, throw my costume on, lamenting how frizzy my hair has managed to get during prep time, putting on some foundation makeup to hide my stress-induced rosacea, pat down ruffled feathers and calm the drama-queens, and then spend the duration of the event running around, taking money, welcoming new members, doing interviews with media if they were present, and putting out fires. Then I would suddenly find myself standing there stunned at the end of the night feeling like I’ve been shot through a wormhole. I do sometimes find time to dance here and there, but rarely have I ever had the luxury to take the time to properly prepare myself for an event, make myself costumes that aren’t thrown-together last-minute (and therefore dooming myself to costume malfunctions) or even make myself fully presentable. Other ORS leaders have put their own enjoyment before the membership’s, and have been known to leave early during preparation time, and arrive late to the events having perfectly buffed and coiled side-curls, and pearls in their hair. But that was never my lot. I’ve always been hurried and disheveled. It was just the way things were until recently, when I managed to find people to organize things and maintain the vision without trying to turn the group into their own little fiefdom. People who care more about the mission and the membership than they do about credit-mongering and 100% enjoyment for themselves.

So if *I* can’t even uphold a strict standard of accuracy, as the founder of the Oregon Regency Society and the Regency Society of America, who the hell am I to impose that standard on anyone else? Besides, the ORS and the RSA are and always have been umbrella groups that include all manner of Regency enthusiasts, which include reenactors. The ORS is not in any place to impose a standard besides “try your very best” on its members and the RSA member groups.

The Shining
Caped Crusader
of Wall Treatments.
That’s why it’s okay if you show up to most of our events in a prom-gown if you want; as long as you keep trying. And I’ve noticed, over these past five years, that the pattern is this: Someone arrives in a questionable costume, and they meet us, and we are accepting and kind and open, and they see some of those who *are* beautifully appointed in really gorgeous Regency costumes, and that person asks what patterns were used, and asks what fabrics were used, and they ask how the amazing hair was achieved. They find sources, learn special tips, research things, maybe conferring and soliciting the services of one of our many in-group costumers. A few events go by and they show up in something incredible. It’s organic, some people migrate into it much more quickly than others, but it is inevitable, and as long as nobody treats them badly and drives them away with a condescending attitude, they inevitably come around.

Most importantly, you don't have to be either perfect by re-enactor standard, nor do you have to be the disco-ball of death. There is a perfectly acceptable in-between that is achievable by anyone, with only a bit of care taken in your choice of patterns and your choice of fabrics.  It will deflect the criticism, and it will create a precedent that disco-balls can follow.  The ORS applauds the in-betweeners.  *I* have been an in-betweener. I've covered overly shiny fabric with black voile, I've worn my modern glasses with all my gowns, I've spray-painted shoes... Hell, I've even made a gown from two packages of window sheers from Fred Meyer! And that's okay.  I've made a concerted effort to at least *try* to look the part using my best resources available for my quick-and-easy approach these past five years.  Now that I have found good leadership, I am now somewhat free to delve a little deeper into the authenticity, by trying to hand-sew and drape more, embracing more natural fabrics, and taking my time to research the gowns I want to make. Will I ever acheive reenactor standards? Probably not. But since I am ORS and not a reenactor, that's totally fine.

That has been my policy with both the RSA and the ORS. We embrace anyone who really makes tremendous effort, and we are accepting of those who are new to it and who want to learn. There are also inevitably the people who just don’t care. They show up in shining synthetic fabrics made with really bad Halloween-style patterns, and they have no desire to change or improve, and that’s okay too. If they’re there to feel princessy, dance, and feel dainty, we’re okay with that—and the group’s attitude should be ‘live and let live’, and we should be welcoming and kind, and keep our snickers to ourselves. Being mean and catty, it’s just not my style and I hope that tolerance and kindness are employed by all.

I confess I do snicker sometimes in secret with my closest friends in the group, I *do* giggle at really bad costumes, I would be lying if I claimed that I did not. But I do it in private. I try to be classy enough not do it overtly or mockingly at the person in question; hurting their feelings. I will even often compliment them on their efforts—because even if it is Halloween quality, it’s still an effort nonetheless, and a start. They might feel more compelled to try harder if you are kinder to them and you don’t ‘educate’ them in a patronizing and condescending way.

HOWEVER, in order to at least temper the abusiveness of the established folks in your desired Regency group (if you are about to join one, or have joined and have been ridiculed), I am offering the following recommendations for those of you who don’t really know where to begin, and what patterns and fabrics to use, here are my recommendations:

Here are some COMMERCIAL patterns I do NOT recommend:

Butterick 6630

This pattern is terrible, I am very sorry to say. The gowns are like tubes, the bodice is simply not workable for anyone over a B cup. There is no ‘waistline’ to speak of. The bodice seam just transitions to the skirt with little distinction and there are no gathers or pleats or textures that gowns of the period typically had. The pattern can be altered to work, but the sleeves are also way too puffy and large. If you want a nice regency gown for a costuming group or reenactment, this gown will NOT do.

Butterick B4890

The over-gown/robe is at least gathered at the back, but the sleeves again are too poofy; but compared to the 6630, it’s a slightly better pattern; but frankly, still too Halloween.

Butterick 6631

This pattern is out of print (probably thankfully). But it can still be found on Amazon and eBay for the dogged person who likes over-froofy skirts and weird looking spencers. Not recommended

Simplicity 9221

No entirely hideous, but also not entirely correct. The spencer is not at all correct. It’s still better than the Butterick Patterns. Out of print but available on Amazon & eBay. The sleeves on that blue gown are scary, bu tthe little one in the inset looks very nice. No idea what the backside looks like on either gown.

Simplicity 9225

Reports are that the skirt is very narrow. The gown (sans all the extra floof) should be 1790ish, but requires some modification to make it more accurate to the period. Out of print but findable on Amazon & eBay. I have no idea about this gown, but I don't recommend it if you're a beginner, because modification would be required.

Burda 2493

Modern closures in back, not the correct cut, but not the most hideous of beginner’s patterns. Still, there are LOTS of better patterns to, more accurate BY FAR choose from.

COMMERCIAL Patterns I would recommend to newcomers:

Simplicity 4055

Most recommended dress for beginners. It is a conservative cut, even with the wider ‘ballgown’ neckline, but it’s still a lovely silhouette. BUT as with ALL these gowns, you *should* be wearing regency underpinnings and stays.

Simplicity 8399 (VIEW B ONLY)

Although advertised as the Edwardian gown, it works beautifully as a Regency Ballgown. The silhouette is beautiful.

There’s a great place to start if you want to throw together something for an ORS event. If you are looking for accuracy, then we can start talking about the non-commercial, historic patterns that are readily available online. Feel free to bug me if you want more information on the specialty patterns that many of the serious reenactors use.


STAY AWAY FROM SYNTHETICS! Period! There are a few ‘faux’ silks and taffetas that are workable, but please, please, please, don’t grab at the nearest shiny, froofy stuff and think, whoa, this would be so Cinderella! Synthetics are TERRIBLE in flash photography. People with respectable-looking gowns end up looking like disco-balls in too-shiny fabrics. I’d show you samples from some of our events, but I risk hurting people’s feelings. Stay away from lining material, slippy, slinky fabrics or anything with a tremendous shine to it.

There are some synthetics that may work, but choose the kind with matte finishes and that are delicate and not so modern-looking if you must choose synthetic materials.

Keep it light and natural! Linens and cottons for daygowns. Silks for ballgowns. Cotton nets, voile, lawn, organdy... you can get away with sheers for ballgowns anytime. Delicate cotton prints (no huge Victorian patterns please!) pastels, jewel tones, white... Delicate laces (again, no huge flowery Victorian laces), simple and beautiful.

If you start with natural fabrics, using a somewhat respectable commercial pattern, you're less likely to be raked across the coals by the meanies.  But you can rest assured, that no matter what you show up in at our events (the ORS) that you are always welcome.  And don't take it personally if we start suggesting patterns or fabrics in a kind way. We're not being evil, just trying to be helpful. ;)


Summer said...

Isn't costuming supposed to be fun? I don't understand why reenactors would hold everyone to their standard. For that matter, I don't understand reenactors! lol

I totally agree that welcoming a newcomer to any group and offering friendly gentle guidance is the way to grow the group. Trashing someone isn't. It's just mean and exclusionary.

Lauren said...

Great post, Steph! That's why ORS is such a great group. It's awesome for those that want to have a great time and look pretty as well as those, like myself, who prefer to be as accurate as possible. If it weren't for ORS, I would not be where I am today with costuming for sure :D

Little Gray Cottage said...

Thank you so much for posting this, and for stating your stance on this issue. I think it is important. and It is one that has been personal for me, and one of the reasons I decided not to pursue an active membership with the ORS. Perhaps I am strange, and definitely I am socially challenged, but as a newcomer, I never quite felt like one of the costuming "elite." I will not be offended if you decide to erase this, but it feels great to get it off my chest. Hope you are doing well. I absolutely love reading your blog - your sense of humor always brings a smile to my face.

Little Gray Cottage said...

Also, I did use the Butterick B4890 Over-robe, which was worn to the Pittock Picnic a couple years ago :-( Even though it was sadly "inaccurate" I am still proud of that project, as it was one of my first

Anonymous said...

This is so true. The word "costumer" covers quite an array of people, all with quite an array of objectives to their costuming!

I vary immensely between making a "costume" that is a functional fancy dress, to making a historical garment that is period accurate in its details. I have not yet handsewn a garment though!

Hopefully it is about enjoyment... whatever style of "costumer" or "reenactor" you are!

Lady D said...

My first 'regency dress' was made from the burda pattern with a few modifications. I made it in a nice floral cotton and over a petticoat it looked fine from a distance. ;)

ista said...

I'm completely with you, snarking to new people is a selfish approach (bottom line,it's about making yourself feel superior); but with genuine encouragement and appreciation of effort those who are going to want to improve are so much more likely to hang around and do that.


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