Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Living History: The Clothing, the Historic Sites...and the Spectators (guest post by Eliza Vincz)

Well hey there! I am very happy to have this lovely lady back, this time doing a blogpost! In this one, Eliza goes into what all of us living historians tend to have gone through at at least one time or another. The thing is, for every awesome, respectful, and attentive spectator, there always has to be that one that is not. Hey, just recently I had some woman trying to argue with me about my stays (or corset as it is more well-known as), claiming that I really WAS crushing my ribs and extremely uncomfortable. Apparently she knew my clothing better than me. I very quickly put her in her place with actual facts and debunking myths surrounding stays and corsets. And it was apparent that she did not know what she was talking about. Only the hype that she had heard surrounding the myths. 
But that is just one example and now without further ado, I will turn the floor to Eliza and allow her to discuss her experiences. :)

 Yo waddup, my peasants? It’s ur gurl guest starring on your favorite blog! 

So ya gurl Tiffany and I did a blog switcharoo which means you’re stuck with me for the time being-- I know! You’re welcome! I had no idea what to write, with the whole move and the wedding thing I got going on, I’ve been kinda in a writing slump… Until now! I recently went to a few different events at the New York Historical Society and the Litchfield 300th celebration and I encountered a few of the same situations: rude spectators. If you’ve ever been in living history or been to a reenactment, you’ve run into rude spectators. They ask you stupid questions, touch you, or try to outsmart you to humiliate you in front of other spectators to make themselves feel better because they obviously have self esteem issues. You know the type; they’re usually a wiseguy who’s committing some sort of fashion sin be it socks and sandals or a faded t shirt that has some vacation spot on it or they’re a middle aged woman who’s low key envious of you because you’re doing something fun and looking good while doing it. You’ve encountered one of these people at some point or another and they won’t leave you alone. I’ve had a plethora of nonsense to deal with while dressed in high 18th century fashion and I can’t even imagine what the average camp follower has to deal with, so I’m putting together a guide on how to deal with these types.

In my various travels, concerts, and shenanigans, I’ve had to deal with various spectators who try to act cute with me and I’m kinda over it so I’ve begun to employ a few tactics to turn the situation on their heads while still remaining respectful. It’s a fine line you have to walk, but hopefully I can help you with a few tips I’ve managed to learn through experience so that you can still hold your own while being respectful. The last thing you want to do is upset someone and then not get hired back after a complaint yet, at the same time, these people suck and are making you uncomfortable so you need to stand up for yourself. The goal with these tactics is to allow you to interpret history on your terms with your consent. Don’t worry guys, Auntie Sass has you covered! 

 So the first type you’ll probably deal with is the handsy type. The handsy type will touch your dress, feel you up, or straight up grope you in the name of “curiosity.” They’re usually middle aged women who are curious about how your dress works and thinks you’re nothing more than a living mannequin they can just touch and move. For some ungodly reason, spectators tend to think the fact you’re in costume means that you’re automatically consenting to being reduced to nothing more than a talking dress. During a concert last year, I was in mid talk after a song, there was this woman sitting in the back of the audience who--unannounced-- came up to me and grabbed my boob. Now, yes, I’m a historical thot. Lefty and Righty are usually up at attention thanks to properly laced stays and framed by a charmingly low cut dress, but this time, I was in my chemise a la reine! It’s one of my more modest dresses, so I was not hoeing it up this time! She began to feel me up right in front of the audience-- which had a few children-- much to my shock. All I could say is “why, yes, that’s my breast!” to break the awkward silence. Her friend then explained that she was a fashion designer and wanted to know how the dress worked, which was no excuse to just grab my chest without permission. A few years ago, I was at Federal Hall talking historical fashion with two women and one just straight up reached up and under my neckerchief to feel by breast without my consent. She gave me no other explanation other than she just wanted to know if they were real. I WAS WEARING TWO NECKERCHIEFS LAYERED ATOP EACH OTHER. I’m not the bustiest individual out there but, for some reason, wearing stays means women can just come up and touch, I guess. Men tend to not really touch you, at least not at the breast.

 How do you combat this? How do you tactfully tell someone to get their hands off your body without making a scene? The answer is simple, just say “don’t touch me. I didn’t give you permission to touch me.” then politely follow up with a “would you like to know about what I’m wearing? Please feel free to ask anything” and take a step or two back. The step back is to not only give the spectator a view of what you’re wearing but also give you some distance between you and the spectator. Being in character does help, too, particularly if you’re portraying someone who doesn’t tolerate much nonsense. When I was at the New York Historical Society, I was chatting in character as Rebecca Franks to a group of spectators while a father took it upon himself to show his young daughter my skirts by touching them and patting my pocket hoops. I stopped mid sentence and said, “Excuse me, but who do you think you are touching me? I’m a lady, you don’t just touch me in such fashion.” he innocently replied that he just wanted to show his daughter my dress and I replied that he simply could have asked. I then stood up and showed everyone in the group the layers of dress I was wearing then allowed the young girl to poke my sides to feel my stays. If you are to be touched, make it on your terms, don’t let spectators just do what they want with you. 

The next type of unruly spectator is the idiot wiseguy who thinks he’s funny but isn’t. I know for a fact you’ve run into this wiseguy at some point or another. He thinks he’s funny when he asks you if you’re hot in that when it’s eighty degrees out, tells the milkmaid she’s got nice jugs, asks why don’t you just use a Casio keyboard instead of the harpsichord you and your fiance are carrying into the building while not holding the door for you when you need it, asks you who are you supposed to be in a condescending voice, He’s usually older and is trying to impress his friends or family with his rapier wit but you’ve heard the same joke from hundreds of other men just like him. You usually roll your eyes and try to be polite but curt and he just laughs. I swear to God if I had a nickel for every time  I had some guy ask me if I’m Martha Washington because that’s the only historical woman they know, I’d have enough to pay off my student loans. Because I dress up for events as a performer or character portrayal, I get the “who are you supposed to be” question from these types all the time and, to be honest, it’s kinda rude. Like you’re a guest to the historic house or event or whatever and you’re going to treat the entertainers with condescension for the sake of humor? Even when you reply with who you’re portraying or why you’re there, you get the “never heard of her” and then you’re stuck trying to explain who you are to someone who made it clear they don’t care and encourage this behavior. 

Dealing with the wiseguy is absolutely cathartic when done right! The first thing you need to do is master the single eyebrow raise; it’s the one way to silently shut these people down. Body language is important, too, a turned back speaks more than a snappy comment because it prevents further dialogue and allows you to move on. Erik’s just learned to tune the comments out with busywork but I’ve figured out how to turn these jokes on their heads and help them learn. For the “who are you supposed to be?” remark, I reply with, “Well that’s not a nice way to introduce yourself, now is it?” I learned this at the New York Historical Society as Rebecca Franks when some wiseguys were calling me over assuming I was Martha Washington. Insulted, I said I was the exact opposite, so they replied with the classic “who are you supposed to be, then?” so I gave the “That’s not the proper way to introduce yourself, have your parents not taught you better?” and I managed to get them to introduce themselves then introduced myself as Rebecca Franks. This tactic takes the power away from the wiseguy and gives you the opportunity to teach with respect, and some think it’s funny. It’s an immersion tactic that allows people to interact with you on your terms and keep the focus on your interpretation. 

 The final example I’m going to help you out with is the hooker question. There’s this stupid generalization in historical circles that claims camp followers are prostitutes. Some of my friends who portray working class women at events get people asking them what they’re “really doing there” with a wink and a nudge. I’ve had a few older women ask me if I’m a hooker, including one woman who wouldn’t leave me alone about it even though I told her I wasn’t. Like, it’s called fashion, sweetie, look it up. I did a whole blog post about historical makeup not equating to whores and how our concept of modesty is incredibly different from history’s modesty. With this woman, I turned it on her head and asked her if she was one, which she didn’t like. She then kept harping on me before I turned around and told her she wasn’t funny. You can explain fashion all you want, but it’s not going to convince some people, usually older women, so all you can really do is spin it on them. When someone asks you if you’re a whore, reply with a “no, are you?” and watch things get awkward fast. When she says “no, do I look like one?” reply with “as much as I do.” then before she has time to reply, go in with the facts! It’s not being bitchy so much as putting the spectator in their place when they’re being rude, which sometimes does need to happen in order to keep going with your performance or demonstration. 

There you have it, my peasants, a little friendly advice from the wine aunt of living history! I hope these help you out in the future to keep your interpretation on track and not be derailed by wiseguys or rude spectators. Consent is the most important thing in anything be it day to day life or historical interpretation and to not have that is to not have control of the situation. When something like this happens, be polite but be firm and sprinkle in a bit of humor to throw them off and allow for yourself to take over. I’d like to thank Tiffany again for allowing me to be a guest blogger and can’t wait to work with her again! Anyway, I’m out, my peasants, love you!

Thank you Eliza!
If you would like to check out my post at her blog, follow the link below:

Fashions Revisited: A Look at Period Clothing (and Food!) with April C. Thomas

I first met April Thomas 3 years ago when I started attending the Fort Frederick Market Faire in Maryland. I instantly fell in love with her work and it has now become a little tradition of mine to always make her sutler tent my first stop when at Fort Frederick. I and many others are out there sporting her designs at historic events, and her work has also been seen in films and tv productions on PBS, BBC, History Channel, and Discovery Channel. And as a side note, I love the Keep Calm and Wear Your Stays bumper sticker that she has available in her store (because don't you dare try to tell me that my stays - or corset as they are more known as - are making me suffer as they crush my ribs into nothing...because I'm not and they're not...sorry, I had to get that out :P ). But without further ado, check out my interview with April and learn of her experiences in the world of period clothing (and food!).

TA: First, thank you for being here! How about introducing yourself and telling a little of what it is that you do?

AT: Thank you for having me! So, my Name is April C Thomas, i'm the owner designer & proprietress of FASHIONS REVISITED which is a small business providing historic reproduction clothing and sewing patterns for Living History, Reenactors, Theater, Film & Tv. I graduated in 2003 with a Degree in Fashion Design, and decided to basically keep out of the mainstream fashion industry and prusue my passion for historic dress and costume. I make all of the clothing I sell, and I draft the patterns based on all the researh ive done over the years here in the USA and in parts of Europe.

TA: What were some of your earliest influences when it comes to costume making?

AT: My earliest influences were simple. Gone with the Wind, my Maternal Grandmother, and my great Aunt Zuzu. I was obsessed with the idea of wearing ANYTHING other than modern clothing, my great aunt encouraged me to dress however I wanted, and my Granmother first taught me to sew. Over the years those two women, who both lived through the great depression and WW2, were amazing examples of independence and style...as well as some mad life skills!
TA: What sort of research do you do for the garments you make?

AT: Over the years, I have spend al lot of time in museums and private collections to examine and learn about historic dress, mainly the 18th century. I have spent a lot of time at the V&A, Museum of Costume in Bath, and all over the US viewing originals in museums. My favorite collection is my own. I have collected antique costume for over 20 years, and have been very lucky to have found some rare & amazing pieces. Sometimes, early in my marriage,  I chose to buy an antique dress instead of the weekly groceries...much to the forgiveness of my dear hubby! besides studying originals, I plow constantly through a mountain or costume research books on an almost daily basis. The other place most of my money goes...books. I have many, many costume books.

TA: Do you have a preferred era, decade or century?

AT: MY preferred era is the 18th century. I LOVE french and English fashions of that century. My second favorite is early 19th century, 1812 era. I just love anything with a high empire period waistline.
TA: With your experience, what would you say is most misunderstood about historical clothing?

AT: In my experience, the most misunderstood thing about historical fashions is....people think that just because clothing is old, that its not well designed or not well thought through. Just because people lived 200 years ago does not mean they had inferior intellegence. Believe me, if an 18th century tailor or mantua Maker saw our waste of fabric, and "throw away" nature of clothing...they would be shocked. They were masters at their art, wasted virtually nothing and had skills that would make most of us professionals today look overpaid. I am forever learning that they have skills we have simply lost.
TA: Now in addition to making historical clothing, you also the Director of the Historical Foodways Program for the Northern York County Historical and Preservation Society and Historic Dill's Tavern. Can you tell a little of what you do there?

AT: My job as Director of Foodways for Nychaps and the Dill's Tavern is really fun, and i'm honored to be doing it! I manage our two listed kitchens, train staff in both modern & hearth cooking skills, develop & plan food events like Tea's & special dinners, and run food concessions when we hold festivals. Basically, I get to come up with ideas, based on the site & historic events and create fun & authentic events. It's amazing fun, hard work, and I'm very blessed to be there. Just this past July, we were able to fim an episode of "A Taste of History" with Walter Staib! It was an amazing experience, I had contacted Walter several years ago when I first joined the Dill's Crew, and after seeing the amazing team I am with and the site, Walter was really excited to do an episode with us. It will air on season 11, spring 2020 on PBS and Amazon video!

TA: If you had to choose between clothing in food, would you be able to?

AT: No. I don't think I could choose between food or clothing. Both are absolutely necessary for life. But I guess if I'm pushed...it's clothing. Nothing better that seeing a garment I made on someone and seeing their smiling face.
TA: What do you enjoy most about doing living history and reenactment events?

AT: What I love most about living history, is the way it helps you connect with the past. I love books, but they can't really take you places other than in your mind. If you make food, sew clothing and walk in the footsteps of the past....you actually connect with it. It's very transformative.

TA: And finally, are there any future projects or events that you have coming up? Plug away!

AT: well....future projects are adding a new line of patterns to my pattern line Fashions Revisited TM. I have been dressing Vintage a lot recently, and have a real love for the 1940's and 50's...so I have decided to branch out into vintage! I sell vintage pieces in my ETSY page that I purchase and sort of "rehab" as well as reproductions that I design. My love for this period come from the Great Aunt I mentioned. She had a clothing & hat shop from the late 1930's until she passed away in the 1990's. I was able to learn so much from her, including some millinery tricks. I will be attending vintage shows in 2020 and branching out into the mid-century-modern lifestyle crowd! I am planning to continue to make as many reproductions as possible.

Thank you for being here, April!

If you would like to check out her work, visit and follow her at her website and social media:
Fashions Revisited Website
Fashions Revisited Facebook
Fashions Revisited Instagram
Shop Fashions Revisited
Historic Dill's Tavern