Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Dilemma of Interpreters' Costuming

Hello to everyone from Williamsburg!  My father, stepmother-to-be, and stepsister-to-be are visiting for the first part of this week, before we go on to Washington.  Yesterday afternoon I went to Margaret Hunter's millinery shop and met Samantha of Couture Courtesan, who is as lovely and nice in person as she seems online, and I am a huge, crazy fangirl.


One of the first things I noticed when I got here was that the interpreters portraying a character, speaking lines in demonstrations or walking around decoratively - the actor-interpreters - tend to have fantastic clothes.  As I visited more and more sites, though, I noticed that the interpreters who are hired/volunteer to perform an informational or service function - the worker-interpreters - are pretty much always, if not always-always, dressed in bedgowns(/shortgowns, but I'm using bedgowns for convenience) and aprons, without stays, when they're women.  Not only was the difference noticeable to me, the inaccuracy bothered me a bit: gowns were far more prevalent than bedgowns in most public situations, and when women were exerting themselves in physical tasks, they were more likely to go without the outer covering than the stays (according to genre prints and paintings, anyway).




So there are two obvious potential general models for this kind of thing, one in which worker-interpreters  aren't issued stays as a matter of course, and one in which they wear them as a rule in most cases.

The former has benefits, the first being that the costume shop seamstresses don't have to fit stays to all of the women who are working as waitstaff, gatekeepers, ticket booth attendants, and tour guides, because they're numerous.  It also can help to work against the heat, which is a big problem in a lot of sites in the summer.  I read an article once about the history of Williamsburg's interpretive program, and the author wrote that older women who had once worn girdles were much less into wearing stays than younger women; I would say that on average the worker-interpreters are older, so the personal preference of the majority might play a part.  The downsides are the inaccuracy and the generally "messy" look that loose bedgowns have.

The other model has an obvious disadvantage, namely that restricting most worker-interpreter jobs to women who are willing and able to wear stays can diminish the pool of potential employees.  There's an argument there that it's unfair to those who can't, but I tend to see it like the "must be able to lift 40 lbs" requirements on some jobs.  There ought to be some places for women in bedgowns, but for the most part, portraying eighteenth century women means wearing stays.  That is the upside: the entire place looks more accurate, which is a great thing.  When it comes to the heat issue, I'm honestly not sure which is better, as both seem to have possibilities there.  A baggy, long-sleeved, lined cotton bedgown can hold heat in; a more fitted gown or jacket would have shorter sleeves and not create a lot of space for hot air to stay close to the body, and just being in stays and a petticoat would be cooler than either option, I think.  The biggest issue, though, apart from the increased work for the costumers, is that you're putting an extra requirement on women that doesn't apply to men.  There's no solution to this.  On the one hand, women have to wear stays and men don't; on the other, the men look much, much more put together on average than the women when women aren't in stays, which is also not great.

So, what do you think?  What seems like the more preferable situation for an historic site to go with?

25 comments:

  1. I work in Old Town San Diego, and while my area is located just outside the 'boundary' of the state park, it's a major part of the tourist trade in fact, likely bringing a lot of the business to the state park. Our interpreters (while not perfect) are dressed much more accurately than those of the state park, where it seems to be a case of 'anything goes'.

    While their attire makes us look much more professional by comparison, and believe me, we get comments all the time about it, I still am embarrassed by the lackadaisical attitude down the street.

    The women wear inappropriate footwear (sandals, flip flops etc) with their period clothing, jeans easily visible under the skirts, skirts on backwards, corsets not only over their clothing but backwards AND upside down...I could go on and on.

    Supposedly, there are regulations of dress for the state park which are obviously unenforced. It looks ridiculous, sloppy, and I think reduces interest in returning business.

    In comparison, Disneyland/world, for example, has STRICT guidelines for it's 'characters' and any uniform/costume deviation on the part of the employee is not permitted. There are consequences. While it's not historically accurate, everything is indeed professional, polished and of uniform appearance. And visitors have come to expect that.

    Sadly, in real historic locales, strict period correct dress is not enforced, and I think it does affect the experience of the visitor.

    Nope, not fair that if done correctly, women are not as comfortable as men. But I believe that if you WANT to do this particular type of educational work, you sign up for the whole shebang, warts and all.

    Disney's employees know full well what they're getting into as 'characters' and they deal with it for the privilege of working there, and I believe historic interpreters should show the same dedication to their jobs and appearance as the Disney employees.

    If a volunteer or employee finds the dress code unacceptable, then leave. But don't sully the effort of those who work hard and suffer through the discomfort by 'mailing in' an historic interpretation.

    I understand that volunteers generally absorb the cost which can be prohibitive, but still. If one can't afford a stay, make an effort to find a temporary solution and aspire to eventually bring one's interpretation to the highest level possible.

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    1. Jeans under skirts? That sounds incredibly hot!

      The Disney comparison is very apt. While there are a lot of problems with the way Disney does things in general, it is an example of an organization with a strict dress code for its employees and employees who understand that that's what's necessary to create a certain impression.

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  2. maybe it has something to do with the "american modesty" that women at williamsburg wear bedgowns with lots of fabric instead of just stays and petticoat over a shift....
    just an european sight.
    btw - much european folkweardresses still just shift/petticoat/stays.

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    1. Very possibly! Though it would have to be more of an impression of immodesty that was causing the problem, as I think nearly all of the summer guests dress in way more revealing clothes.

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  3. I was also thinking of the Modesty issue to explain the lack of women tooling around in petticoats and shift with stays on top. Just seems like something that Disney Corp. or Williamsburg might not deem suitable for a "family" park.
    More photos, please!

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    1. Well, I'm only thinking that the women who are doing more serious work do it - most women in the second scenario would be wearing gowns or jackets over their stays. I think that would still be cooler, probably.

      I'm going to have to take pictures off Dad and Melissa's cameras, as Melissa's camera charger didn't work with my battery. I don't have very many!

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  4. Except that in the 28th century, there wasn't this idea of "modesty." Modesty was a Victorian idea, that we as contemporary Americans still adhere to. So, it is still inaccurate for Williamsburg.

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    1. Um, that should be *18th* century, not 28th!

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    2. True. To a certain extent, catering to modern notions of modesty is understandable, but it's better to moderate it with attempts at accuracy.

      To be honest, I'm spoiled with all the great people I follow on Blogger and LJ and I think I was just a bit shocked at the difference between them and Williamsburg!

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  5. This definitely isn't just a Colonial Williamsburg issue. I've noticed it in several interpretive contexts in North and South Carolina (Historic Sites, Museums, etc.). Women who have been involved in historic interpretation for more than 15 years seem to have a "way" of presenting the 18th century that is absolutely mired in reenactor tradition rather than historical accuracy. The perception around here is that stays were/are uncomfortable and therefore weren't worn by "back-country" women at all. Things do seem to be changing for the better, though. After all, it was only about 15-20 years ago that the "dreaded bodice" was banished from Colonial Williamsburg.

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    1. I did think it might be a widespread thing; it's hard for me to tell because where I live, it's much more common for local reenacting groups to fill in this kind of atmospheric role, and while they might depend on some reenactorisms they don't tend to revert to bedgowns, AFAIK.

      The perception around here is that stays were/are uncomfortable and therefore weren't worn by "back-country" women at all.

      I've seen that a lot, too. There's an idea that stays were for fancy people and that anybody doing real work would have done without ... but there are plenty of genre images of female servants or farm workers in stays. These were probably not often done from life, but still, I'm not going to toss them out in favor of "common sense" when plenty of reenactors do seem able to do physical tasks in stays.

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    2. Guh, the "frontier" mentality--I would love to see some substantial documentation for this idea, rather than the assumption that women wouldn't wear them. For all the research I've done (and admittedly, I've mostly researched French settlements, but still...the hypothesis should hold...) it's not true at all--women on the frontier were wearing stays. Pray tell, what would they wear instead? I can't imagine going stayless given that the option would be going totally unsupported!

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  6. This is a tough issue for historic sites to deal with. We simply can't afford to provide costumes for all of our docents, and many of my docents already have costumes that they have worn in other contexts and expect to be able to wear here. I can, and have, given them presentations about accurate 18th century clothing, but I can't require them to spend the money it would cost to replace everything they have. The battle over comfort is a tough one too; it's just impossible to convince someone that hasn't worn stays that they're really not that bad...I'm currently putting together a costume so that I can set a good example and hope that others follow suit.

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    1. Time and expense are probably the biggest parts of the problem! Any place that wanted to shift to stays would have to transition over a long period of time, especially someplace as big as Williamsburg. (Though the benefit that Williamsburg has is that it seems to have a decent amount of employees who don't seem to be providing their own clothing.)

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    2. no, the employees at CW don't have to supply their own clothing, there is a large workshop producing the clothes.
      As someone who has worked in historic sites my whole career, most of the time, it comes down to what the interpreter will wear without too much complaint. Bedgowns over their own underclothes is much easier for the modern person to deal with, though they will still complain of the heat.

      My problem with CW wasn't so much the bedgowns, as that several of the interpreters I spoke to didn't know the names of the pieces of clothing they were wearing, only that it was "costume #2", and that several had modern running shoes on with their historical dress. The ladies in the millenery shop and the men in the cabinet making shop and kitchen were different, they looked good in their accurate clothes and knew what they were talking about!

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  7. I imagine for Williamsburg and many other sites, turnover of employees makes a difference, too. I imagine most of the service employees aren't making a long-term commitment (though I could be wrong!) so the expense of keeping up with keeping them in stays could be problematic, as stays are less "one size fits many" than shortgowns and bedgowns. (I'm going on the assumption that Williamsburg and other sites are providing costuming for service employees and volunteers...and of course, if they don't, asking a seasonal or short-term employee to make a deep financial commitment may or may not be plausible.) Different scenario, but often when my reenacting unit hosts guests or prospective members we're forced to resort to a bedgown rather than stays and a fitted garment because the sizing is just too specific. Places outfitting volunteers might have the same issue--beyond mere expense, it's not an expense you can consider an investment if turnover is too high.

    Still, it does drive me a little nuts to see the inaccuracy in otherwise historically idyllic locations! It would be expensive and difficult, but it could be done. And often, even if stays aren't used, the costuming could be better--falling out ahead of the "wear stays, please!" pet peeve for me is the "deflated petticoat" look that happens when someone wears a poorly constructed, single petticoat instead of a couple correctly constructed ones. And that would be an easy fix--as would many other facepalm inauthentcities I've seen here and there, like improper caps, wearing modern makeup or hairstyles, and even Ye Tavern Wench bodices that still pop up from time to time.

    As for the heat--yes, stays are hot. But at some point, these clothes are hot no matter what you're wearing!

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    1. I don't know about the commitment - W'burg is open all year round, and I think most living history museums are (or at least the three I've looked into in detail), although I don't know about service staff at them, so anyway, back to Williamsburg! It seems like it's very possible for non-actors to work there year-round. I think they do provide the clothing, or if the workers have to buy it, they're buying it from them, because you can see a lot of people in the same fabric.

      The petticoat thing - I agree with you. Also, what's started getting to me is really full shifts with drawstring necklines that are gathered up close to the neck. Under bedgowns.

      Do you know of anyone who's bought ready-made stays? I know they can't be quite as flattering as making them bespoke, but I assume Silly Sisters, Hallie Larkin, etc. wouldn't put them up for sale if they didn't occasionally sell some. It couldn't be feasible for a costume shop to suddenly sit down and crank out a few dozen sets of stays, but as a slow process some could gradually be made available. I think what it comes down to is that even places that are costuming on a budget can come closer to being authentic if there's someone in charge, somewhere, who's thinking about how to get better* while keeping with the budget. Making a set or two of standard-sized stays a month. Altering shifts to have non-drawstring necklines. Running up cheap underpetticoats. Compare with the seminar/lecture/thing I went to a month or so ago, where the people in charge of the costuming at a local site were challenged about the "caraco" and were pleased that they'd managed to scrape together a tiny bit of proof that a short gown existed, rather than starting over, questioning themselves, and trying to see how prevalent the garment was and whether it was worn in the colonies.

      * This makes it sounds like they overall need to improve, but I just want to add as I think it gets lost in the shuffle that the actors and pretty much all of the men are costumed superbly. If only I could surrender to the urge to gawk and take pictures of other people openly, I'd have so many good ones to share.

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    2. Honestly, the few ready-mades (off the rack, basic "small medium large" sizing) I've seen didn't look too great...but they also weren't the caliber of work of Hallie Larkin or Silly Sisters, either. I honestly think you're no better off with poor quality, poorly fitted stays than with just a bedgown :( More commonly, I've seen stays made (often by small companies) to rough measurements, and this worked out much better--a sort of middle ground between off the rack and truly bespoke/individually tailored.

      I think you're right--an honest, budget-conscious effort to think about improvements and implement them slowly might take time, but could really show results over the years. Plus then you'd get a reasonably-sized "stash" of fitted garments--and even if you have a high turnover rate, there would probably be something to fit new people coming in.

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  8. I think there is also an issue about requiring women to wear stays--as in CW can't, legally. This question of the stays, and of who provides the clothing for CW workers/volunteers came up on either the current 18th century life yahoo list, or the old 18th century woman list (my search this AM didn't turn up what I remembered reading). Labor laws and regulations trump everything, but that is not the only reason, or even the primary reason, for what is worn at many sites.

    I'm still thinking about how to approach it in my area...there's a lot of work to do, in every area of historic site/museum/collections management and interpretation. It is conceivable that small sites will choose to spend money repairing roofs before they spend money making new clothing for interpreters.

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    1. I believe I remember the discussion you're talking about vaguely ... it might have been on 18cWoman, if you couldn't turn it up in a search, since it's been deleted. It doesn't surprise me that it'd be (I assume) considered sexual discrimination, because, well, it is. I suppose the happy place for me would be for people to make their own choices and want to wear stays! The actor-interpreters must be making the choice, since I think all except one of them that I saw were wearing them.

      When it comes to smaller sites, I'm generally a lot more lax in judgment (and most of the ones I've seen around here do incorporate stays, anyway, if only because they're often staffed by hobby reenactors) because you're right, money is tighter. Really, the best answer there is for people to volunteer sewing skills, although they might still run into the barrier of the "stays are terrible" idea.

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  9. I am an interpreter at a small 1890s living history farm in northern Illinois and one of my many jobs is to manage the outfitting of our staff of nearly a hundred interpreters, most of whom are volunteers. Historical authenticity is one of my top three priorities, but I confess to having to prioritize it behind cost effectiveness and interpreter comfort. I make a lot of compromises, as the clothing I build has to be able to work for a lot of different bodies. The summer employees we pay get the best most accurate stuff because we can require they wear it as part of their uniform but even they skip corsets. I don't build anything that I can't document but I know it's much harder to build a well fitted Basque and skirt with proper foundation garments than to whip up a quick wrapper and tuck up the hem to fit a new interpreter who might only stay with us for a few months.

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    1. Wow, nearly a hundred? Kudos to you! And for 1890s - the latter half of the 19th century has always struck me as a difficult time for that kind of costuming, since the clothing is so fitted. (On the other hand, since the rounded hourglass figure is relatively close to a normal modern one, at least a lack of corsets doesn't look too obvious?)

      Can you tell me why they choose not to wear corsets? Have they tried them and found them uncomfortable, do they not like the idea, is it too hot, do they have to do too much physical work?

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    2. I think it has more to do with convience and comfort than anything else. I am a reenactor and I do wear stays....but never a victorian corset. I can't physically wear one. I have a health condition that makes a victorian corset incredibly painful to wear, so I no longer reenact mid-late victorian. I can't even wear stays after about 6-7pm. I find stays fairly comfortable, but then I make my own. I will happily admit to wearing more comfortable (ie styles I can pull off without stays)clothing when I just can't get into stays on a particular day. That being said, my natural shape is very similar to a period profile so I can sometimes squeak by where it may be more obvious on others. The modesty issue doesn't bother me one bit, but it does apparently bother the public. I think it is the idea of stays being "underwear" and the breasts being rather prominently featured that messes with our modern sensibilities......which never ceases to confuse me since the offended party is often baring waaaayyy more skin than stays and a petticoat do!

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    3. I'm always besotted with a gorgeous well tailored gilded era reproduction and if you don't have the right foundation there's not much point to that. I've never heard a visitor question whether we wear all the right foundations. Even other staff members aren't that tuned in to the right silhouette for the era. They can tell the difference between blue ribbon and market sheep though and i can't do that.

      I think the resistance to corsets has a lot of roots. many volunteers are older ladies uninterested in that much work for fashion. they sometimes tell stories of wearing girdles and hating them, so i think the resistance to corsets is well earned. The site is a working farm so a few folks assume that the physical demands can't be met in a corset and aren't interested in being proven wrong. Most of the paid staff are men and i think they are hesitant to encourage (let alone require) a practice long decried as backward, unhealthy, and misogynistic. They are a few younger folks who want to at least try wearing the right stuff so my challenge now is to support them with well fitting pieces.

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    4. I'm always besotted with a gorgeous well tailored gilded era reproduction and if you don't have the right foundation there's not much point to that. I've never heard a visitor question whether we wear all the right foundations. Even other staff members aren't that tuned in to the right silhouette for the era. They can tell the difference between blue ribbon and market sheep though and i can't do that.

      I think the resistance to corsets has a lot of roots. many volunteers are older ladies uninterested in that much work for fashion. they sometimes tell stories of wearing girdles and hating them, so i think the resistance to corsets is well earned. The site is a working farm so a few folks assume that the physical demands can't be met in a corset and aren't interested in being proven wrong. Most of the paid staff are men and i think they are hesitant to encourage (let alone require) a practice long decried as backward, unhealthy, and misogynistic. They are a few younger folks who want to at least try wearing the right stuff so my challenge now is to support them with well fitting pieces.

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