This weekend, I spent a good while struggling with pleating a petticoat. (The skirt part of an early 1800s working outfit. See side picture.) It got me thinking about the role clothing plays in living history. It helps create the scene, inform visitors and volunteers/staff alike. (There is a stiff learning curve when you first wear a historically accurate outfit.) It is important the the clothing is perceived as historically accurate. This can be a challenge meeting modern expectations with historic realities. When conducting research on clothing there are a number of sources we can use including surviving examples, art work or printed material, and reproductions.
Around the world there are some amazing collections of clothing such as the Kyoto Costume Institute or more recently the garments put on display from a 1600s shipwreck. (See side picture.)Examples of clothing generally survive either because they were important (owned by a famous person or a treasured family member) or just by luck. The latter is particular true with archaeological examples such as the dress preserved on the shipwreck or items preserved in bogs. Their owners did not expect that they would be preserved for future study. Many times ordinary clothes got remade several times over. Great sources to inform fabric selections are actually quilts because often times they contain parts of old clothes.
Items that are saved for “propriety” are often saved because they reflect the lives of famous or important people. Often these people were wealthier members of societies such as kings and queens, or now a days, famous musicians or movie stars. These examples are often the easiest ones to find. But while we all dream of having the fancy dress, the high fashion of the land, generally doesn’t reflect the simple life of someone living on a farm.
While a fair amount of artwork are generally portraits of rich people, enough artists also painted ordinary folk. (Unless Strum and Drang is a popular technique, which tend to feature great scenery elements and teeny tiny people.) One really good example for the late 1700s to the early 1800s is the paintings of John Lewis Krimmel. Based out of Philadelphia, he tended to paint people from all walks of life. Another great resource are fashion plates. Fashion plates were usually produced to advertise clothing, kind of like a catalog today. But again, these often show off high fashion but can lend themselves well for inspiration. Sometimes diaries and journals can offer insight into clothing. Sophie DuPont: A young lady in America: Sketches, Diaries, and Letters offers great insight into the early 1800s. While from a wealthier family, she sketches a lot of everyday things.
Reproductions are a good source of inspiration for recreating historic outfits as well. But you must be careful with your sources. It really helps to look at other museums and see what they have been up to. (But, this can also lead to continuations of historic myths). There are some really amazing reenactors and groups that make historic costumes. A big part of making a historically accurate outfit is the material. Reproductions are really good guiding fabric selection and how easy/difficult it is to work.
It is generally a good idea to draw inspiration from all of the sources, historical examples, artwork, and reproductions. I like to keep in mind also what the clothing needs to do. (I need to be able to run while wearing this to chase sheep, cows, children, run from snakes, etc., bend and lift while wearing this bodice, climb a fence and not show off non-time period underpinnings. etc.)