Monday, October 8, 2012

The Reenacting Community – Expecting at Least Minimum Standards

The Reenacting Community – Expecting at Least Minimum Standards

After the 150th  Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam reenactment I wrote about  my belief that we have a duty as living historians and reenactors to strive for authenticity even as newbies. That post generated a significant amount of feedback and was unfortunately, duty to technical difficulties (aka “user error”), accidently deleted.

Since I’ve just returned from the 150th Anniversary of the  Battle of Perryville at the state park outside of Perryville, Kentucky, I’ve more observations to share.

The people involved in organizing the Perryville event did an excellent job in putting together the event. The coordinators established minimum guidelines for military and civilian participant. I’ve copied a few of the guidelines for civilians from the website:

·      The impressions presented by reenactment participants at this nationally significant historic park must be ones appropriate to helping visitors understand the 1862 Kentucky Campaign and its impact upon the states and its residents

·      Period correct ladies headgear including slat or quilted bonnets, and knitted hoods are encouraged. High fashion bonnets should be avoided. 

·      Children should not be dressed in military uniforms. Military influences can be reflected in children clothing, but miniaturized uniforms are prohibited.

·      Absolutely no skirts with white blouses and/or jackets are allowed. 

·      Hairstyles for women should have a center part without bangs. Modern hairstyles must be disguised with appropriate head covering. No “snoods.

The organizers of the event attempted to set guidelines or standards so those visiting the living history village, sutlers, and viewing the battles would be able to visualize civilians and military personnel as they would have looked in rural Kentucky in 1862. Despite the intentions of the park service, significant numbers of reenactors flagrantly ignored adhering to even the minimum standards. In my view this is dishonoring those  civilians  caught in a vortex of violence and depravation and those soldiers who fought for what they thought was right on either side. 

Because of our role as Civil War era photographers, my husband and I have ample opportunities to talk with and photograph people from the newest reenactor at his or her first event to veterans who took part in the centennial anniversaries 50 years ago. Naturally, as mercenaries, we will photograph anybody seeking to memorialize their impression in collodion.

What I most respect are newbies that make a concerted effort for even a first event to achieve authenticity by reading, talking to others and trying to comply with minimum standards. And I emphasize again – MINIMUM STANDARDS. Most disturbing are those who have been in the hobby for several years, even decades, without any improvement or any inclination to develop a more authentic impression. One federal soldier was lamenting that other women made his wife cry because they tried to advise her on an appropriate impression when she first started out and that such actions caused many women to shun the hobby. However, when he introduced us later, it was clear that rather than attempt to improve her impression and avoid future tears, she went about her merry way refusing to wear a corset, wearing her bangs instead of trying to create a period hairdo, and parading about in modern footwear. While it is understandable that many people cannot afford an entire 19th Century wardrobe overnight, it is possible and encouraged to borrow from others in your unit.

Despite the guidelines there were any number of children dressed in military uniforms carrying fake rifles, enough colorful snoods to truss up the turkeys from 3 farms, bangs, modern glasses, fishnet mitts, colorful little hats with long trailing nets, fashion bonnets, women without corsets, and hoops large enough to circle the globe. 

Why do I care?  I care because I’ve seen too many visitors taking photographs of reenactors that make glaringly inappropriate, often flamboyant  impressions believing what they see is authentic. This distorts history and encourages newbies to create a similarly inauthentic impression. It dishonors our collective history. And it is completely unnecessary. We do not have to guess at what people of the 1860’s wore. There is ample photographic evidence showing clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, outerwear, footwear, facial hair, and accessories for military and civilian citizens. Many museum collections of originals are readily available to anybody with access to the Internet. And those individuals who have done the research will readily share what they know.

I care because my husband and I both have ancestors who fought in this war. My father’s ancestors had brothers who fought on opposite sides. My husband’s great great grandfather fought at Perryville and was captured at the battle of Atlanta nearly 2 years later; his brother died during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. I’ve read the diaries of young men who wrote about what was served for Christmas dinner in 1862, who memorialized their thoughts, fears, and dreams until the entries abruptly end.

A perfect impression is beyond the reach of a modern human. We don’t have the same life experiences. But as with life itself, developing an authentic impression is a journey. Nobody expects somebody to be spot on out of the box.  But it is not wrong to expect an effort to meet at least minimum standards.


  1. You make really good points. It's not like the minimum requirements are a surprise - they're usually listed online for months prior to an event. I will say that there is a difference between teaching vs criticizing, and it's usually all in how one packages the message. But the onus is ultimately on each participant to learn whether by mentors or primary/secondary research. After all, when I started participating in this hobby, primary research was very difficult. However, thanks to sites like online museum exhibits and Pinterst, it's very easy to find original images for references.

    Great article!

  2. Bravo! Minimum standards are just that, the bare minimum. When reenactors are issued the "rules" and minimum standards and do not adhere to any of them, why do the event coordinators not ask them to adjust (pin back the bangs, re-dress the kids, put on different footwear, etc) themselves or to have a nice day watching the event in modern clothing as spectators? At the very least, keep a list of those folks that flaunted their farby and disrespected the event organizer's rules, and for the next year, let them know that they will be examined and if they do not conform to the bare minimum standards, they will not be accepted.

    No one is perfect, as you said. But if someone is asked to do something specifically by the event organizers, then that is one small thing that they can do to help the spectators have a more authentic experience. If a new reenactor is briefed that an element of their attire is not appropriate and given the chance to improve and does not do so, then why don't they just go camping with friends at the local state park? Leave the reenacting to those that want to put forth as accurate an impression as they can. I grow weary of new reenactors buying/wearing things they saw others selling/wearing, thinking they are correct because people are using them, and then getting an attitude when someone tries to help them by pointing out their error. It's no fun for those of us that care and take the time to research and dress properly to be around the "skirt and white blouse with snood" crowd.

  3. I have nothing to add, but: I think I love you! Well said!