The Wild Goose Chase That is “100%” Historical Accuracy

What is 100% historical accuracy? To me, it’s a hypothetical state of being in which no re-enactor, historian, or hobbyist is able to dispute your persona or prove you wrong on something. It’s my firm belief that 100% historical accuracy can never be achieved. Here’s a few of my reasons why.

a)    There’s always something else to discover. Tomorrow we could find out that what we believed as fact yesterday is inaccurate. Our perception of accuracy is always changing.

b)   What’s generally understood as correct for March 1782, England, might not be accurate for March 1782, Virginia. We might find out what is, but we also might not. Accuracy is always our best educated guess.

c)    As far as clothing is concerned, there’s a suggestion that 18th century human bodies were shaped a little differently – whether due to the clothing they wore, or the way they deported themselves. While I believe not everybody would have been shaped differently, there’s a chance that some were. So according to this idea, even if I strolled into a museum collection and put on the 18th century clothing there (not a good idea – it’s something I would never do!) it wouldn’t fit. By that logic, no matter what we do – whether it’s using 18th century patterns, techniques, and materials, we’ll never look the same as they did.

To further complicate things, how many people have you seen wearing clothes that went out of style ten, twenty years ago? Any point in time is, and was, occupied by variations in style. Here’s an example. Perhaps in one town in colonial America, there was a family from Germany and a family from Ireland, and a family from England. Maybe the English family is up-to-date with fashion. Maybe the German family is wearing regional costume that looks very different from the English clothes. Maybe the patriarch of the German family is wearing clothes that are 20+ years old, as well as being regional. Maybe the Irish family hasn’t been able to afford new clothes for years, and is wearing patched rags and second-hand pieces that don’t fit well. If a re-enactor is interpreting this town, the up-to-the-minute French-dictated fashion that many people follow isn’t going to be very accurate.

As re-enactors, we can wear these clothes that are not the French-dictated ‘standard’ – sure, dress as a 1765 German-American patriarch that stopped updating his wardrobe in 1732. Just tell people that. Make that your persona. Give your audience a reason for your sartorial choices. By giving a reason for dressing in a certain way, you fill out your character and you’ll have more to talk to people about. Think of it as a teaching moment!

In the end, we’ll never know what’s 100% accurate – and by that logic, we’ll never know if we are perfectly accurate or not. There’s a chance we are ‘doing it’ exactly as ‘they’ did. As I’ve heard history authors say, at some point you’re just going to have to go with what you know and publish. You could put off making your new reenacting shoes, hat, pack or tent until you knew exactly how it ‘should’ be made – but that might take you years.

Keep reading, talking with others, and looking at museum collections. Research and our understanding of history is a constantly evolving phenomenon, and I believe that all we can do is stay up to date with current research. Evolve with the field, give your persona reasons and a story behind your gear, and you’ll be as close to accurate as anybody can be.

About Amanda Goebel

I'm an Anthropology / Fashion History and Material Culture graduate from The University of Delaware, currently working on a Master's in Museum Studies. I'm a living historian interested in costume and culture from years before. I love researching the mundane and the everyday that has changed or disappeared since. I re-enact the 18th century, and I recreate clothing from that time. This blog is where I'll write about my research and projects. View all posts by Amanda Goebel

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