Costuming

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The SCA is a participation organization (not a spectator one), therefore everyone is required to wear an "attempt" at pre-1600 costume to participate at an event. Naturally this makes costuming one of the most participated in of the Arts and sciences.

Some members of the society take offense at the term "Costume" as it implies something that is not normal wear or just for show and therefore prefer the term garb for medieval clothing, however the makers of garb still generally hold to the title of Costumer.

There are several events dedicated to Costuming including the Known World Costume Symposium and in our Kingdom in particular the Quest for the Golden Seamstress Competition has gained a lot of renown.

Contents

SCA and other Living History Groups

Unlike most Living History organizations, the SCA has no strict guidelines for authenticity in costume. The bylaws of the organization literally state that one must make "an attempt" at pre-1600 attire. Obviously, this "best effort" varies wildly from person to person based on their skills, connections and/or ability to purchase garb.

This lax requirement to the most basic element of a person at an event (their outward appearance) has been both a boon and bane to the Society. It has been positive in that the "entry requirements" for new people are very low... most can cobble together a simple T-tunic or borrow one. In a pinch simple sweatpants and a blousy shirt belted at the waist will suffice for a man or woman. This has allowed the membership of the Society to increase at levels unheard of in other living history groups with much more stringent appearance regulations.

However, it is this very appearance standard that annoys many established SCA members, and has earned disdain from other "serious" living groups that look at the SCA as "adults playing at dress-up." Much of the study and research done by SCA members is dismissed out of hand in academic circles.

Cultural Implications

It can be argued that the SCA's lackadaisical approach to attire permeates every aspect of our organization. If two tea-towels pinned together are acceptable for a woman's "Viking apron" garb, how seriously can we possibility take the rest of what we do?

While it is indisputable that the SCA was founded more with "entertainment" than "historical research" in mind, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the current level of research and reenactment done by Society members. In the 30+ years that the SCA has existed, our "anti-authority" party roots have grown and evolved to include serous academic research that has been far-reaching and outstanding in execution. The collective understanding of the medieval world has been greatly enhanced by SCA members -- each one, it should be noted -- hobbyists working in their spare time.

The reality is that nearly every aspect of SCA culture exists on a continuum from "wholly modern" to "completely period in materials, techniques and affect" -- with most things falling somewhere in the middle.

Costuming exists as possibly the best example of this continuum in action. Many things that would horrify other living history groups (such as machine stitching, modern fabrics and colors) are commonly accepted by most SCA members. However, the SCA provides countless opportunities for members to go above and beyond what is commonly accepted... efforts at hand sewing (at least on elements that show, such as hems), period materials and dyes are rewarded in praise, if not other awards.

Due to the growth of the SCA, selling fairly authentic historic clothing is a commercially viable enterprise for those catering to reinactors in the United States; making accurate clothing easy to obtain for the authentically minded amongst our society and other living history or reinactment groups.

Getting Started

There are numerous resources available for those interested in costuming in the Middle Kingdom for all levels of interest, skill and authenticity.

Research

Serious costumers as a rule avoid costuming books which feature re-drawings of period examples rather than photographs; the artists interpretation can change a garment drastically.

Research on-Line

When researching on-line look for web pages that include a bibliography or links to sources; it is a common mistake to assume that on-line publishers have taken the same precautions to back up their statements as those published in books and magazines. Always know the source!

It is also a good idea to find more than one source rather than relying on a single person's reasearch.

Research using Illuminated Manuscripts

When looking at period examples in illuminated manuscripts beware of some common pitfalls:


1. The Ideal of Beauty

The fashions of the time will distort the figure on ideal beauties, this can be an aid to the costume researcher (knowing what body features to emphasize for a properly fashionable silhouette for the time) but also can become a pitfall. One costuming book published in the 1970s claimed that noblewomen of the 15th century wore padding over their stomachs to make them look larger and rounder. There is no evidence of this ever happening, and likely came about from a costumer in the age of Twiggy unable to wrap her mind around the fact that a large, protruding stomach was ever considered ‘sexy’.


2. Symbolic Dress

There are a number of costumes or accessories which became symbolic in medieval art and were visual clues to the viewer about whom was pictured. This is especially true of depictions of Saints, Saint Catherine is usually depicted in a sideless surcoat. The sideless surcoat in particular was depicted far after it was worn as an actual garment as symbolic of a Queen or one of royal birth. Another misleading saint is Mary Magdalene for hair styles; she is always depicted with her hair flowing and free despite what the fashions of the time might dictate.

Another symbolic dress element is conical hats which mark the wearers as Jewish; I do not believe such hats were ever actually worn.


3. “Foreign” or “Historic” Dress

Another visual clue to the audience would be fantastical costume on the figures which indicate that the scene depicted is happening in a far distant land. This technique was very common in historical depictions throughout the medieval period as well as in biblical depictions.

One common ‘Foreign’ element is the turban. The irony of the troubles of a western European artist depicting a turban is that the actual layered and wrapped veils and hoods of Europe were very similar to the exotic turbans they were struggling to invent. Parts of these historic scenes are still very useful for costume researchers, especially if a donor or patron is depicted.


4. Artistic Styles

At different time periods (especially the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages) artists drew the human figure, and the clothing draped on it, in less realistic and more stylized ways. For example the 12th century use of contoured lines to show dimension rather than shading.


5. Fading Paint

Finally, while most of the pigments used in medieval manuscripts are remarkably color fast, there are some that change color, fade or become transparent over time. Notably there are several whites which become transparent (sometimes allowing the under painting to become visible underneath, this is why many medieval paintings appear to have greenish faces.) and others that change color. A costumer should always take note that the pigments available to the painter and the dyes available to contemporary dyers are separate pallets of color.

Note also that some transparency can be on purpose but misleading such as the depictions of transparent silk veils in the late 15th century. The double-thickness of veiling falling off the back of the high steeple headdresses of the late 15th century are often mistaken as being a veil issuing from the top of the hat instead of draped over the entire surface.


Conclusions

  • Always find out the date for a manuscript before you rely on its images. Later manuscripts might depict people in ‘old fashioned’ dress, which invariably the artist has not personally witnessed.
  • Find out who/what is being depicted; is this a history of something that happened long ago? Know your saints! Some medieval saints were from Europe and are more likely to be depicted in European dress; others were known to be foreign and are more likely to be in fantastical dress. Allegorical figures (figures representing virtues, Charity, Chastity, Love, etc.) rarely dress like normal human beings.
  • Use multiple sources. One single image might be abnormal; might be an artists interpretation. The more images (and types of images) you look at from the time and place you are researching the more likely you are going to be able to sort out what is typical and therefore more likely to be accurate.
  • If the gown looks impossible to make out of real fabric; it may indeed be impossible to make.
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