Tuesday, November 11, 2014

She said WHAT?!? The Power of a Name in the Reenacting Community

I would say that, as of late, people have been reading my blog. Over the past two years we have had 75,000 views, 178 posts, and dozens of comments. I've gone to reenactments where people don't know me, but they know The Victorian Needle. Two engagements, one bouncing baby girl, and at least a dozen Civil War events have graced this blog. Not bad for two rough and tumble Michigan girls!
Emphasis on the "tumble"
Photo by Ken Giorlando

During this time I've posted my thesis and other research. I've received many compliments, suggestions, and even a few critics. My posts have been used by others to support their documentation, and I have contributed to my own reenacting unit in so many ways. Our blog title and personal names have become known. I am both excited and terrified.

Being known for something has its perks. The compliments are glorious, and I get to discuss awesome things with awesome people. Even the occasional negativity can be ignored with the overwhelming support of family and friends. The downside is that I am known, my name is out there and (proudly) connected to the things that I do. People look to me for guidance, and others look for mistakes. That is so much pressure!
There it is! I see it! Everyone come look!
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Recently, I thought about how people make their name known in the reenacting community, and the consequences of such action. I've had it explained to me as a sort of "reigning hierarchy," with those who are considered experts by the reenacting community at the top. I personally know one of those experts, and my relationship with her has made it easier for me to examine this group of people. The purpose of this post is to examine how people interact with one another within the reenacting community, specifically those we hold to a different standard. How does this affect everyone?

To further support my thoughts, I've included quotes from The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto by Susan Lyons Hughes, as found on The Sewing Academy. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing when you get a chance!

How does one become an authority?
This is tricky to answer, because there is not one answer. I know people who are very knowledgable about certain aspects of the 19th century, but completely lacking in others. My fiance and I have argued over me learning more about the war itself-I'm hopeless when it comes to naming statistics for battles. I would never consider myself an expert on much of anything, rather a curious individual with a computer and research skills. Speaking of research...

#1 Lots and Lots and Lots of Research
The art of research has certainly evolved in the last 20 years, even to my own eyes. When I was a kid, we had dial-up internet, and I spent a bit of time at the library. Now I order my books off Amazon, with many on Kindle. So many books/magazines have been digitized! This makes information more available to the average citizen, rather than collectors of originals or reproductions. Knowledge is power, and it has certainly spread to a larger group of people.
Look at that scary woman with all that power! 

The actual process of research looks different for every person. For me, I find a topic I like and then find textual, photographic, and physical documentation to tie it all together. Sometimes I find more of one or another, though if I can't find a bit of everything, I generally look for something else to research. Nearly all of my sources can be found on the internet-surprise! Digitized books!
Wait, this isn't my Kindle!

Academic research looks a little different. Whilst preparing for my thesis, I had to meet with my advisor to discuss the right topic. I wrote one, two, three, four, five...drafts of every section. I used 30 different sources. I had at least 3 editors look through the document. And yet I knew mistakes would be made-as as writer I've come to terms with the fact that nothing will ever be perfect! We need to keep that in mind when researching too; you will sometimes hit a brick wall, with seemingly no way around the block. Really knowing about a topic means pushing past this point. This process can take years, as one develops that "eye" for all that is 19th century.
The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto

#2 Who Can Help?
This can be the easiest part of the process. I will admit that I know *nothing* about 19th century quilts. That topic has never interested me, though I respect people who have that knowledge. Someday if the mood strikes me, I will try to find someone who really knows about them. I will ask them, and it will become a part of my brain library. 
I swear I know nothing about dishes
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Certain people within the reenacting community are better known for their particular areas of interest. Within my own unit, I could ask my friend Liz for her opinion on glass beads, while in the next moment turning to Sue to ask about nurses uniforms. I respect the time they took to look up that stuff that I didn't have time for!

#3 Challenging the Status Quo
Going against a long-held belief within the reenacting community is difficult. When someone spends 10 years doing something one way, even suggesting a different possibility can garner a strong reaction. From what I understand, the best-known reenactors have successfully challenged an opinion with strong documentation (this is when the research comes in). Speaking up when someone doesn't agree with you can be terrifying, especially if that other person has more experience. This is a moment when someone's name can overpower another person's research, even if it is incorrect.
I make funny faces when speaking up about things
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Yet I find this step absolutely necessary to improvement. If we all get *too* comfortable in our current research, what happens when a contradiction comes along? Do we toss it aside because it makes us look bad? Or take it as a lesson and keep going? One of my favorite debates that I've seen online is the day cap discussion. Ladies go back and forth about the who/what/when/where/how/why of the day cap, using evidence as a guide. A few even show large emotional attachment to their particular beliefs. Is that wrong? No. Is it wrong to be rude to someone with a different opinion based on evidence? Probably. 
The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto

So now you're an authority...
I've met a few of these ladies and gentlemen throughout the years. Many of them share certain characteristics, besides those previously mentioned. These reenactors become well-known for their research, and I've found that *most* will fall into the following pattern:

# 1 Share Knowledge
Elizabeth Stewart Clark, Anna Warden Baursmith, Juanita Leisch, and Donna. J Abraham***. What do these ladies have in common? They are all published! So many reenactors share their research with others, which is how we know they are an authority in the first place! My first encounter with all of these ladies was opening the cover of each of their books.

Many of these ladies have blogs too. They share their knowledge in different ways, from full presentations to quick responses on Facebook groups. What I love the most is how giving they are of information. Their research isn't about personal gain; these reenactors generally want to improve the Civil War reenacting community as a whole. And I applaud their hard work and dedication.

***If your book or article is not mentioned, please mentally insert your name here.

#2 Mentor others
The art of mentoring can be very tricky. As a teacher, I feel it is a superb way to share knowledge. As a human being, I know not everyone has the personality for it, teacher or student. So while I consider this a necessary part of being an authority, I understand if not everyone does it directly. If an authority is sharing published research, that may be a sort of mentoring figure, even without the author's knowing.

With that said, I love the reenactors that mentor others. This happens in most groups; more experienced members help along newbies. They teach them to avoid the polyester snoods, and point in the direction of quality research. They are obvious at events, like mother geese sheltering the flock. I have been a goose at several reenactments.
Just where did the flock go?
Photo by Ken Giorlando

My own personal mentors are wonderful. Ken Giorlando has been with me every step of the reenacting way, ever since the day I unloaded my original stash on his dining room table. Glenna Jo Christen's advice helps with the research aspect of my impressions, always guiding me to another source. Countless discussions with other reenactors have made me want to be better. So thank you awesome reenactors, for your mentoring skillz.

#3 Letting Go
Ah. When one becomes an authority, people look to her for advice, guidance. Inevitably, someone will ask a question that is so simple, yet so outside of her knowledge. I would call this a defining moment, one that really determines whether or not she truly sticks to her guns. She says...
This is the face I make.
Photo by Ken Giorlando

...I don't know. The decision to forgo pride rather than spread bad information is totally unselfish. It leaves a person open to the risk of appearing to lack knowledge. I know a few reenactors who could not make this choice, who would rattle off a list of books they've supposedly read (to remind everyone that they are an authority) while still not understanding the answer to the question. Saying you don't know when you genuinely lack the information is a sign that you care more about the reenacting community as a whole, rather than the elevated status of an authority. I greatly respect "I don't know." I think reenactors deserve honesty, rather than pride.

At the same time, admitting to a lack of information can make a person look bad. This is the political side of reenacting according to Glenna Jo, one fraught with disagreements about which authority figure's information to trust. One lady says this about gloves, while another says that. Both are well-known and respected. Who do you believe? I don't have an answer, but I do know that such discussions have led to snitty comments, glaring stares, and outright rude behavior. I've heard of ladies not speaking to each other for years because of a contradictory statement. These feuds are mentioned delicately behind closed doors, with most reenactors unaware. While I know the reenacting community is made of many different people who can't always get along, this pettiness needs to stop.

There are a few things to be careful of when mentioning the authority figures. As it is I've spoken of another topic that does not appear often, though many speak of it. Silly me, putting my name to something like this.

The Designer Label
Sometimes we give names too much power. Just because someone said/created/looked at thing, does not mean it exists correctly. I have seen a few items out there with absolutely no research to support them (zilch, nada) and yet because it is sold by a "big name" reenactor, it is taken as truth. Please do your own research, and demand that from the businesses your frequent. Don't take everything a person says as "gospel." Saying something is "appropriate" without any documentation should be a red flag. Ask for it.
What do you mean my outfit isn't appropriate?
Photo by Ken Giorlando

One of my favorite stories from Glenna is of a reenactor proudly displaying a dress, bragging that it  was a ________ creation. Later the reenactor would discover that dress needed many alterations to make it suitable. I can only imagine the misinformation spread to others because of that one dress. Take care ladies and gentlemen!

Rude Behavior
There it is. Just because someone is really good at reenacting, does not mean they are really good at people-ing. Reenactors come from so many different backgrounds! To expect every one to fully grasp the complexity of human interactions...impossible. I respect that we're all different.
I still don't understand babies

Being correct is no excuse for rude behavior, internet or otherwise. Everyone could always benefit from this reminder. Here are a few ways to frame polite disagreements:

I understand your point, though I believe...
I beg to differ...
On the other hand...
I respectfully disagree...
From my perspective... 

Personally attacking a person in the middle of a disagreement shuts down a conversation. Belittling a person (even if you're right) shuts down a conversation. Relying on your name to make another person look bad shuts down a conversation. If there is even the remote possibility that someone could be insulted, take them aside out of the public view or send a personal message. Blaming someone for being too *sensitive* discourages others from asking questions/posting research. Practicing polite conversation is a 19th century etiquette skill as well!
The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto

We are all very personally attached to reenacting. We must take that into consideration, even if someone is completely inaccurate. If a reenactor doesn't respond to polite suggestions...then it's not your battle to fight. We can't *make* a person do something. I learned that lesson the hard way in front of a classroom. 

In Conclusion...
I am still proud to be a reenactor, even with its little hiccups. My hope is that people will read this post and want to improve themselves. My special shout-out here is for the younger reenactors, the next generation. You will be the leaders one day, planning events or writing books, and I want you to do it better. If I mentor someone and they surpass me in skill and research, then I did something right!

A few of my favorite blogs include younger ladies who share their own personal experiences with history. Veronica from A Country Victorian posts lovely pictures of her reenacting adventures, as well as research/dressmaking. Brooke from Stitches of the Past focuses on historical clothing, and I just love her tone of writing! Amber from Lady of the Wilderness does just about everything, seriously read her blog. The Couture Courtesan and Katie Lovely must be mentioned.

There are others too. I would love to see more in the future, as the perspective of a 20 year old on history differs from that of another age. We must support the next generation of reenactors if we would like to see reenacting continue. Give them plenty of time to grow into their role in the reenacting community, mistakes and all. I'd like to see my own (not yet existing) children tear into history just as their dear mother did so many years ago. After all...

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...



  1. What a very thoughtful--and thought-provoking--post! And thank you for your very kind mention of my blog!

  2. One of the best you've written my dear!

  3. This is a fabulous read for anyone at any point in the hobby. You guys are great! Thanks for liking/mentioning my blog, too. Brought a tear to my eye :)



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