Thursday, April 28, 2011

We Are Always Learning

The day we stop learning is the day we stop breathing & turn into cold clay.

As people interested in history (whatever aspect of history we are fascinated with), we know there is always more to learn... there is never an end to what we can find out, explore, analyze, reanalyze, interpret, interpret correctly, put in context, experiment with, etc.

Some comments on FaceBook & various forums over the past few weeks have made me realize that some people don't understand that any field of study is a continual learning process... this is why it's called "a field of study" even the experts continue to learn. I certainly don't know everything there is to know about fashion history from the day God trussed Adam & Eve up in animal skins! (post-fig leaf fad, of course - the change being spurred on by an intellectual & spiritual revolution prior to the migration from the Garden of Eden)...

While I have a fairly good grasp on the evolution of fashion in Western Europe & North America from about 1300 through the present day; my field of study is middle-of-the-road time frame & rather sporadic-- it's what catches my attention from day-to-day. I've concentrated on the late 1600's through 1839, mostly English & French influences in America, though I've gained an interest in Dutch fashions as well... wait, now that I've learned a bit about the 1780's Irish that looks pretty cool... and the Elizabethan era is just so nifty...
You get the idea.

Some people (like my friend Missy Clark of Barkertown Sutlers) pick an area of study & stick with it. She knows just about everything there is to know about 1740 to 1780 clothing of the working class on the Eastern Seaboard (Middle Colonies)... everything from spinning to weaving to dying to making the clothes (yes, she uses a machine - we all have to eat), she knows the cut of the uniform in this year & how the lapels changed color here & here, and why and how much it cost to reissue those jackets... she has a portrayal of a peddler woman with a cart where she actually sleeps under her cart (super cool BTW, if you ever get the chance to go to one of her talks, do it).
I can say with absolute certainty that she's come an awful long way since 1988, puking in the bushes when she first met my mother -- who was shoulder deep in a cow's uterus at the time... "Mom, Hannah's mom is here to meet you! I'm sorry Missy, she's a little busy right now." Ha!

Other people, like myself, ping around like crazy because there is just so much to love.

In the reenacting & living history community, not everyone picks a character & sticks with it. Some people do & that's great; others float around in the various years of an event, each day perfect unto itself. Not all husband/wife teams match... he might be a longhunter from the mid-18th century, she might be wearing an empire dress from 1813. It all depends on what you love & how you choose your portrayal.
Historic costumers might make a dress out of polyester & never give it a second thought; the fabric is perfect in appearance... or use metal grommets to lace a pair of stays - and that's just fine! Dare I say the word "Steampunk"? Is it "farby" or "fun"? It all depends on the event.

Thanks to and for the 2 images!

Some people don't mind machine finished clothing, others wouldn't touch it... that's fine too. Some hard-core Thread Counters (and I use that term with affection), wouldn't be caught dead in a garment that isn't 100% hand spun/woven/sewn - from flax they grew themselves or their own heirloom sheep.
Some people are so enthralled with the past that they build their houses and fashion their lives in a way that reflects a slice of history... others just go have fun at an event or 2 when they can get the vacation time & like watching costume flicks.

When someone in a field of study (here fashion history) asks a question in a public forum, it is not because we are totally ignorant & "can't claim to be an expert - how dare they!"... remember that even the "experts" don't know everything... it's because we want to learn more. It's that desire for knowledge that leads us down new & interesting paths. If we never ask questions, never explore new things, how can we grow as historians? If we sequester ourselves, isolate our learning, how can we say that we are open to new information?
If you closet yourself & do not share knowledge, how does this help us grow? It doesn't. If you never open yourself to criticism & the possibility of being wrong, how can you correct your mistakes?
On the flip side, going public with an admitted lack of knowledge (some would say ignorance in a snooty tone), that does, indeed, open us up to criticism.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. I am 100% willing to be wrong in my quest for good, accurate, right information. And I have the integrity to admit when I am wrong... (please, no one read that Livingston County News article from February - that wasn't my fault! it was so far off, I sent in corrections & it got slightly better, but OMG was that a disaster! Misinformation coming from "me" when it was the reporter who completely misunderstood & took things out of context & jumbled stuff up to make it sound "good." I should scan the article just to make official corrections).

I don't claim to be a leading expert in my field - I have made a career that manages to pay the bills through intensive study & really hard work, that doesn't just border on obsessive, it hops over the line & skips away into the land of "she never shuts up about old dresses!"
I have to refresh my memory on occasion: what understructure was worn with that gown & what was never worn with it? (bum roll, dome hoop, "serving platter" hoop, kidney hoop, oval hoop, pocket paniers, hip pads, etc)... it makes a difference to me, and honestly, I can't remember all of that off the top of my head all the time! What shape stays were worn at this time? What's the proper terminology for that technique & who used it, who made it, how common was it? This thing is super-cool, but was it isolated in Italy, or did it spread through the continent & into the Americas? Was the gown a la Turk worn in America? (because I want to make one, but don't know if I can sell it at an event)... Can I make this garment this way because it works better, or does that destroy the historic integrity of it?

I am beginning to explore the early 1800's a bit more...

The discussion on early 1800's chemises was fabulous... I corrected a mistake (in my brain) on the difference between a Regency Petticoat & the minor changes from shift to chemise, with the help of some people who have experience in that time frame... much more than me! Thank you.

A few weeks ago, I was making a doll dress in my (ha) spare time... after the 2nd try, I realized that the dress was a bib front, not a wrap dress... after all this time of reading pattern plates & sewing, I still made that mistake. Yes, I wasted several hours of my weekend & about 1/4 yd of fabric... OK, 8" of fabric... but still.
Even after years of sewing, study, reading the "experts" books, talking to people, giving talks - I still made that mistake. So sue me, I'm human. Humans are allowed "oops" moments... especially when dealing in doll clothes that have no impact on your life what-so-ever. But nice to learn of my mistake on poor Farby Phoebe vs. on someone's $20/yd material! Now, because of that hours-long mistake, I can make that bib-front dress in real-sizes, correctly. Yay! I learned something! Amazing.

See how that works?


Keith said...

A good post. I am often refered to as an expert, & I always tell them that I do not consider myself an expert because there is so much more to be learnt.
In regard to authenticity in living history, in many groups & events no modern materials are accepted. We allow modern materials for health reasons, but that is all.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

Most of the time it depends on the event, how accurate it must be. If it's a "show & tell" you have a combination of accurate / semi-accurate demonstrations & speakers with a public or beginner audience/guests. If it's a festival, anything can happen. If it's a reenactment, everyone who is participating should be in period dress & camp (audience in street clothes usually). Costume Conventions will depend on the individual event (this is where sunglasses can be just dandy with that 1720 dress).

Rules vary from event-to-event. Many say "modern items must be covered" others say "no modern items" (except medical devices, obviously). I try to keep my camp as period correct as possible for the years that event covers. I cannot count how many plastic totes I've seen stashed under metal folding tables that are covered with lovely fabric... but it's within the rules of the encampment.

Some shows are juried & machine stitching is right out, other events are still OK with painter's pants!

It's all in what you do. To quote a friend, "when it stops being fun, stop doing it."
I also think "when you stop learning about it, it's time to move on."