Thursday, March 14, 2019

Interview with Historical Blogger/Costumer/Singer/Musician Eliza Vincz

 photo by Lindsey Loves History

Hey everyone! I am really looking forward to presenting this next interview. I very randomly came across Eliza Vincz on Instagram. If memory serves me correctly, I believe we saw and liked a couple of each other's posts and then started following the other from there. This is also how I came across her blog, Silk and Sass 1776 (and if you haven't checked it out yet, it's definitely worth a read). Aside from her blog being quite an enjoyable read, many things about it really resonated with me, particularly her approach to researching and interpreting history (which we get into later in the interview). She also talks of her days cross-dressing as a redcoat (her words!), performing with her fiance, and how the Victorians just might have ruined everything when it comes to how we view human history. So read on and enjoy!

 TA: First, tell us a little about yourself and how you got into the craziness of making period clothes, performing early music, and being involved with the living history and reenactment world.

EV: Thanks so much for this wonderful opportunity! I love following your youtube channel! My name is Eliza Vincz and I’m a hot mess who’s simply trying to learn and pass on what I already know to help other hot messes. I’m a freelance historical interpreter for hire alongside my fiancé Erik and together we travel all over to various museums, historic sites, schools, and libraries to perform. I run a blog documenting my research, projects, and performances in the hopes to make history both fun and approachable. That’s my goal in doing all of this, to make history accessible. There’s this horrible notion that history is dusty and dry or simply disgusting and through my blog and performances, I hope to bring history to life and help people realize that we really haven’t changed at all as a whole.

I used to be a revolutionary war reenactor and fight in the ranks as a sassy crossdressing redcoat. I did this for a while-- maybe four years or so-- and it was fun, but it was limited. The more I started doing my own independent research, the more I wanted to do different impressions; I was getting bored with the same scenarios year after year, doing the same powder burning events, and wearing the same uniform. When I first looked into doing more civilian things, I couldn’t find anything in my size at the sutlers and anything that was my size was not the most flattering look in the world. I was looking at beautiful portraits and fun prints, but nothing reenactors were wearing looked like the fun things that I saw. I used to look at youtube tutorials on how to do Marie Antoinette hair in hopes I could find something that went beyond hairspray. I dressed wigs in period fashions and used those until I not only found the research I needed to do proper 18th century hair but plucked up the courage to try it on my own hair. I began sewing my own clothing trying to take inspiration from Galerie des Modes fashion prints even though I had no idea what I was doing-- and BOY did it show!!! When I started looking into the fancier impressions, there really wasn’t much research being done-- there still isn’t, really-- and didn’t know where to start. I knew a LOT about American loyalist regiments, but not much on fashion. I could tell people about women in  the ranks in 18th century British and American military, but I was ready to learn something new.

                                                     photo is by Denise Santalis

When I met Erik, he pointed me in the right directions to where I needed to go. Before I met him I had a vague idea of what I was doing, but he helped me get to where I needed to go. He had been in reenacting and living history for about twenty years and had done a lot of research on 18th century fashions, too, since it all relates to the culture and music of the era. We created the gold gown I wear a lot, I named it The Classic, when we first started dating and we learned a lot from it together. Before we met, he had a small historical music business and when we started dating, we began performing together. Since then, we’ve been getting a ton of shows, expanding into different eras, and playing with different historical demos. 

                                                Eliza with Erik by Andrea MacScott

TA: How did you and your fiance come to start performing together (you guys are adorable, by the way!)?

EV: Aww thanks!!! Erik is my best friend and I can’t imagine performing with anyone else! It’s funny, when I was in my late teens and had been introduced to living history, I had always wanted a guy to play music while I sang and danced. I used to be a Ceilidh dancer and when I eventually stopped, I used to bother the fife and drum musicians at events to play me a reel. I met Erik this way, actually! It was really brief, but I asked him to play me a reel and we performed for a minute or so before he was called away and that was that for a few years until we met up again. He remembered that because he wanted to recruit me into the business but we didn’t wind up seeing each other again for a few years. For years, we were in the background of each other’s lives briefly meeting here and there until the stars finally aligned. 

It was when we started dating that we brought up the business. Originally, he and another woman were performing together and they only maybe had a few solid performances per year. This didn’t make much sense to me because Erik was incredibly talented and knowledgeable-- who wouldn’t want to hire him!? The trick was advertising and shamelessly charming people, something which in itself is a performance. A year or so into the business, I took over advertising and sent press packages to every site I could find online in the hopes we would get more shows. It was slow at first, but eventually both the advertising and word of mouth brought us the exposure we needed.

The business itself is constantly changing and evolving to keep things fresh and exciting. Erik and I are nearly always research and collecting in order to provide unique and fun living history demonstrations and music. When I do my toilette demos-- which are the most popular demo I do-- nearly everything I have on display is original which turns it into a pop-up museum where history is right there to touch (if you ask nicely). Erik performs music from original books and after our concerts, we allow people to come up and see them. Because of the business, though, I’ve developed a crippling addiction to making new dresses that has consumed my life. 

 photo of Erik taken at Dey Mansion

It’s great performing with Erik, he’s the Ricky to my Lucy and we make a lively duo. We bounce ideas off each other perfectly and we both bring different things to the table. He’s able to play so many instruments; drum, fife, harpsichord, flute, natural horn, bugle, banjo, and pretty much anything else if he puts his mind to it. I honestly just bring terrible dad jokes and nice outfits… Probably more the dad jokes, tbh.

TA: Your blog is one that really resonated with me, and one of the reasons being is that you also love a good myth busting. Why do you think that, despite much evidence to the contrary, so many history myths continue to abound and spread?

EV: Ooh, gurl I love me some historical myth busting!! That’s my JAM!! Okay, so I have a theory and I covered it in a recent blog post: The Victorians ruined everything. So--like-- I was doing some reading in 19th century history books on 18th century fashion and they just straight up lie about the hygiene of their ancestors. Like, it’s hella brutal. And I personally think it’s because of the Victorian sentiments of makeup. So in the Victorian era, the natural look was popular-- in fact, if you went anything but au naturale you were slut shamed. The goal of 19th century makeup was to not look like you were a wilting flower possibly dying from Tuberculosis (romantic, right?) I’m not really that much of an expert on 19th century makeup, so I could be totally full of it, but that’s what I’m noticing. The 18th century was ALL about the makeup and the hair and the dresses, it was more of a materialistic era, so perhaps their descendents look back on it and cringe? Like I said, I’m not an expert on 19th century fashions yet, I still have a lot to learn.

So in a lot of these history books, there is so much 18th century bashing going on. Everything from the hair to the hygiene to the clothing is criticised as ugly and disgusting. The book “England and the English in the Eighteenth Century: Chapters in the Social History of the Times, Volume 1” describes 18th century hair as a “truly frightful phantasy.” Like excuse me??! They literally just made stuff up so people can say “ewwwwwwww!” at the past. There’s one account from the book “The Eighteenth Century; Or, the Manners and Customs of our Grandfathers” that claims,

We forbear entering into the disgusting details of the opening of one of these heads (which was necessary every nine months), and the spectacle of filth that then came to light.

In this same book, the men’s fashions are preferred over the women’s (probably because of the cosmetic sentiments, but Idk) and are described with horrible lies,

The costume of the ladies was either conceived in such false taste, or carried to such ridiculous extremes, that the symmetry of the figure was lost, and every movement made to appear awkward, constrained, or painful.

I call BS! It’s these history books that other history books write from, each one adding more disgusting “fact” after another until I have to argue with strangers on the internet who are convinced they know everything because their uncle is a high school history teacher and read it in a book once. As someone who wears these styles pretty regularly and has kept these styles in my hair for days on occasion, I can assure you they’re completely wrong. I keep it wrapped in Saran wrap and pretend I’m an alien.

Another thing is the makeup. Going back to the criticizing of 18th century women for their open makeup use, the Victorians laid the lies on thick, too. Going from the book “England and the English in the Eighteenth Century vol 1”, the lies were incredible!

Some ladies, in order to enhance their appearance, even laid on superfine stucco, or better still, plaster of Paris, which had the reputation of lasting four weeks. Considering that paint concealed time's ravage, it is not surprising that it had been so universally adopted.

I’ll probably cover this in an upcoming blog post, so look out for that! Anyway, that’s where all the myths of the gross 18th century came from!

TA: Ha! I just might cover a little of that in a segment of my forthcoming Cosmetics Through History lecture!
I also love, love, LOVE how you also tackle topics that so many seem to not want to touch. For instance, the subject of cartomancy (or card reading for those unfamiliar with that term), pirates, many parts of women’s history (which includes you calling out some feminists for getting a few things wrong, particularly when it comes to 18th century stays/corsets and womens clothing in general), plunging necklines in women's attire, cosmetics, colored hair, etc. One way that I can relate to this is how one of my own pet subjects and areas of study is on the witch hunts and trials. There is so much misinformation out there on this subject being passed around as fact (to this day I refuse to watch American Horror Story: Coven, as I know it will just end with me wanting to hurl my television out the window) and I've been wanting to do a presentation on the fact vs. myth when it comes to the witch hunts and trials. But it's the one subject I always get pushback from when I present it as an idea to a lot of history sites I'm affiliated with. Meanwhile it's a very fascinating topic and I feel that the stories of these men and women are getting muddled and tossed aside. And it's frustrating because to me, part of our job is to challenge public perception on history (provided, of course, that our challenge is based in fact and can be backed up with reliable sources) and perhaps make them think a little. A lot of the time it seems that many are unwilling to touch anything that might go beyond what's considered 'safe' and expected. I know that you've mentioned how you've gotten pushback for some of the things you discuss on your own blog, so I'm wondering what your thoughts are on why so many seem resistant to tackling such topics and bringing them to the public.

EV: You mean the FUN topics?! Okay, FIRST of all, the stories of the Salem Witch Trial victims need to be heard and understood. There’s so much over-hyping about the idea of them being witches that we forget they were innocent women and men victimized by society. (I actually really liked Coven, there wasn’t too many references to the Salem “witches” so you’re good) There’s such a pushback because people want to be smart and they want to be smart without feeling dumb first-- if that makes sense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been farbsplained about the gross 18th century fashions online and in person and it’s all because they want to feel satisfied and intelligent without learning anything new. It’s a lazy behavior that needs to be addressed. I’ve had men laugh at how long it takes me to do my hair in demos and get a little offended when I tell them I don’t care, that’s how it is. So many people try to tell me “facts” about 18th century hair in order to impress me or teach me or whatever and they’re wrong and I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but it’s usually middle aged or older adults telling me. The younger crowd is more receptive.

I get the most pushback from reenactors, even though I’m not really a reenactor. A lot of reenactors tend to have this mindset (which I’m pretty sure came from the 1970s)that every single American ever wore dull browns and blues and looked like they woke up in a dumpster. A lot of reenactors have a narrative in their minds that doesn’t allow for different impressions outside of what they can comprehend, but-- just like today-- there’s a variety of people from different walks of life. I can honestly go on about the close mindedness of some reenactors, but I don’t want to be a bore with it.

The best advice I can give you is to ignore the pushback and just push harder. You have an important story to tell and it needs to be heard, so just keep doing you. You have the research, you have the documentation, keep going. <3

TA: Good to know about Coven. I may check it out after all. 
While the 18th century seems to be your main area of interest, you've also touched on other eras. Which era, next to the 18th century, would you say you favor and why?

EV: I ADORE the late Edwardian period (1914-1920), I collect vintage clothing from that era as well as clothing from the 1920s for my Theda Bara impersonation.  It’s such an elegant time with such an effortless look-- well, effortless compared to what I usually do! The clothing is so elegant but so comfortable and it makes me feel like a star! I keep being drawn to blacks, since Theda is seen wearing a lot of blacks, but I want to break more into colors. There’s actually a few of her dresses I want to make but I’ll need to learn how to use a sewing machine first. 

TA: You are quite candid about your attire faux pas as a noob in the reenacting and living history world. What advice would you have for those that are just starting out and what are some good sources for them to check out?

EV: Hey, we all start from somewhere! Lord knows I was far from perfect when I got started, and I know that for experienced seamstresses it’s easy to forget that not everyone started out looking the way we did. Back when I started showing interest in the fashionable aspect of the late 18th century in 2012, there wasn’t a lot for me to go on. The American Duchess blog gave me some wonderful tutorials and it’s there I began to learn more about 18th century hair and how it was styled. It was a gradual process of trial and error and I had limited sources, plus I didn’t know how to research it. I could find you primary sources on life for New Jersey loyalists in the blink of an eye, but anything beyond the military was a mystery to me-- and boy did it show!!
Today, there is so much more research and primary sources available online! A simple search on Pinterest lands you extant garments, portraits, and prints. Amazon has a lot of free domain primary sources in both print and ebook form. You can even find many of these titles available online for free either through the Gutenberg project or through Google books. These primary sources, such as Peter Gilchrist’s treatise on hair, give you a good insight into not only hairstyles but also how people spoke and thought then. His book gives you hair tutorials along with what you need to understand in order to accomplish these styles. Physiognomy is mentioned as being important as well as understanding the type of hair, the person’s age, and the person’s physical features.  I would also look at any journals and letters people wrote; my favorite letter I’ve come across has to be Becky Franks’ letter to Nancy Paca in 1778. She writes about the amusements she’s had, the hairstyles wore, who she danced with, etc and it’s so delightfully materialistic. 

For secondary sources, I actually recommend looking at 19th and early 20th century books for secondary sources-- but avoid the “history” books of the 1840s-60s! For my research on the Hearts of Oak, most of the research I’m using is from the early 20th century and it’s incredibly detailed. If it’s a book on local history or a family’s history, chances are it’s more free from fashion bias. My absolute favorite book to go to as a semi-primary source is the Annals of Philadelphia by John Fanning Watson because he actually gathered his information from people who lived in Philadelphia and it includes what people wore, how they wore it, and why they wore it.

For modern secondary sources, you’ll want to look at the most up to date books you can find. Kate Haulman’s book The Politics of Fashion in 18th century America is my go-to secondary source for all things fashion in America. With these secondary sources, you’ll want to take a look at the sources they used and look for any good primary sources.

With all of this in mind, the real challenge is pulling all of these sources together and being able to understand them and the aesthetic they create. You have to look at the portraits and the extant garments to form the dress, read the primary sources for how the dress is worn, understand where it was worn and why, understand your own physical features to style yourself accordingly, make or buy the right cosmetics, find either antique or correct reproduction accessories, and make sure everything fits you right. To achieve this, the best advice I can give is to carefully study everything you read and to make sure everything fits right. The right fit can turn a boring outfit into an elegant statement piece; if your stays are too loose-- or if you’re not wearing stays-- it can completely wreck your look and make you feel frumpy or unattractive. The right fabrics can also make or break your look; you can have the most elegant gown hand sewn and wear the right accessories, but if it’s made from polyester it’ll look cheap. Living history is an investment when done right, so you have to spend money to make money sometimes. There are ways to save money, too. There are BEAUTIFUL Indian cotton prints that are hand blocked and look near exactly like what you see in some illustrations and they’re SUPER inexpensive, but be careful with them since not every print is accurate. Make sure you do research on your print before you buy it! The yellow printed gown I made last summer is made from Indian block print fabric and it was about forty bucks for six yards-- such a steal! Indian vendors also have some 18th century looking trims and laces being sold wholesale for decent prices. Personally, I would avoid using silk dupioni due to its slubbiness, but if you can find high quality dupioni, go for it. There are ways of dressing nice on a budget, so don’t think a fancy impression is out of reach!

Another piece of advice I give the newbies is to stick to your guns, but be open minded. There’s a lot of people who claim that Americans didn’t wear nice things or never wore high hair ever or whatever and they’re just wrong. If you read your sources and understand them, you’ll be able to know the truth. The hive mind is a vicious thing and people are so ready to tear you down for wanting to try something fun and new, so you have to be confident in your research. That being said, it’s okay to be wrong-- I’ve been wrong with things several times and have had to correct myself in a few blog posts. We’re all learning, nobody is an expert and if they say they are, it’s a lie. Some people are genuinely trying to help, but might come across as mean since they don’t know any better-- which is still an issue-- just be open to listening to someone trying to help. If something on your outfit is wrong, it’s not the end of the world, you can always fix it. I also advise you to take a moment and laugh at yourself. We’re all taking ourselves so seriously nowadays. People want to be seen as scholars and experts and anyone who questions them is absolutely wrong; it doesn’t do anyone well to take themselves seriously, it doesn’t allow room for growth and growth is what you want. Life itself is about having fun and learning; to learn, you have to laugh at yourself but keep going.

Another word of advice: surround yourself who love you for your authentic self and not your authenticity!

If any of you guys have questions or are feeling lost, please message me! I’ll be more than happy to point you to the right direction! <3

TA: And finally what's next for you (music, cartomancy, getting married, etc)? Plug away!

EV: Oh boy!! Well, Erik and I are always doing research to breathe fresh air into our programs. Our next big thing is mid 19th century music which means I will be rocking a crinoline. Erik has learned the minstrel banjo, which I am slowly learning, and we plan on starting that music offering up in the fall. With the mid 19th century spiritualist movement, I’ll be doing more research into phony seances to recreate them as a living history demo. The mid 19th century will also be fun to do more research in cartomancy and tazomancy-- which will be a blast!! I also have a new character portrayal in the works and am doing research on her now; I’ll be portraying Rebecca Franks to give a Jewish loyalist woman’s perspective on the American Revolution-- plus she was hilarious so it’ll allow me to really mess with people! I’m in the process of recreating a gown she could have worn at the Meschianza and I’m currently hand sewing each and every single gosh-darn metallic spangle onto the trim and I hate myself for thinking this was a good idea but I’m gonna commit to it! 

Erik and I will be getting married on October 13th and it’ll be an entirely modern wedding because this girl does NOT feel like sewing her own wedding dress! It’ll be fun for us to have a modern wedding since we do so many historical events. I’m just too excited to get married, it’s gonna be a blast! I feel like once we live together, we’ll be able to get even more done and have more fun doing it. 

                                      photo of Erik and Eliza performing by Gary Aidekman

TA: Thank you so much, Eliza! I look forward to making an appearance on the Silk and Sass blog. :) And if you're ever in the Pittsburgh area, or if I'm anywhere around you, we should definitely to coffee (or tea!).

Silk and Sass links:

Silk and Sass 1776