So I’m sick, and have been mostly couch-bound since Saturday, and as a result I’ve been spending a lot of time on Pinterest. I am currently making a 14th C dress out of the herringbone wool I got in Scotland, and as I haven’t felt up to doing more than the occasional eyelet or self-fabric button, I’ve been researching. Slash obsessing.
And the desire to look like I stepped out of a manuscript illumination has lead me to the blogs and instagrams of several 14th C Living History groups, mostly in Europe, where they go hard core. Hard-er core than in the US, as far as I can tell. And something is niggling at me.
I’ve never seen a 14th C garment in the flesh (as far as I know there are… two or three of them? That still exist?) not to mention a 16th C garment or even an 18th C garment. I have, however, seen a lot of 19th C garments, mostly post-industrial revolution. And let me tell you… they are not all made the same way. Seam finishes are different, the exact placement of seams are different, what kind of bones, how many bones, how high the collar, how low the collar, how many darts and where they are placed. How many panels in the skirt? How many ruffles ON the skirt? They are not all made exactly the same way by the same people, and some are clearly made at home by someone who went “I saw this in a shop/on someone/in a fashion plate and I’m gonna try and make it!”
But the further back you go the more emphasis you see on documentation and authenticity and “historical accuracy” and the less information we have about how things are already made. And the one that is really getting my goat at the moment is the Herjolfsnes finds.
Because I am willing to bet that people wore other styles of garments. Even in that village, at that time period. And by the time you get to 14th C Britain you can’t exactly go around assuming that everyone is wearing that one dress with the three narrow panels on the side. Someone might be! But it’s not going to be exactly the same, especially because they were not made by the same people, in the same climate, at the same time period, and the styles are likely a result of convergent evolution. Some ideas make a lot of sense, and people will eventually end up there. Like wheels. Wheels are a good idea. Writing? Also very helpful. And when you consider exactly how isolated and subsistence that community was you cannot take it as an example of what professional tailors were making for lords and ladies in Vienna or London.
I’m not saying anyone making a Herjolfsnes replica is wrong, because they’re not! It’s a fantastic source of information and an incredible find. But it is not the be-all end-all. And to be honest, I think someone looking at a manuscript illumination and going “Ok… with the materials they would have had available, how do I think makes the most sense to make this?” is a lot more true to how things would have been made than say, for example, “This sleeve is not the same as that of the pourpoint of Charles de Blois, so it’s wrong.” I assure you that some woman had to make a pourpoint for her husband in the mid 14th C and came across the same problem of arm mobility and solved it in a completely different way. We just don’t have that piece, so we can’t point to it as evidence.
In some ways we are trapped by our own ideas of authenticity. We try to be more and more correct but we end up boxing ourselves in because there is so little information available to us. There is no good solution for this except to accept our limitations and say “Do I have concrete proof that this was done this way? No. But based on X, Y, Z, this is why I think it is a logical way to solve this problem.”
For perfectionists like me this is frustrating. I so wish there were 50 14th C kirtles that I could look at and go “ok, 20 of them have buttonholes done this way, and 10 this way. These 45 have linings but these 5 do not…. I wonder why?” But I guaran-stinking-tee you that even if we did have 50 kirtles to examine there would be 50 more that were made completely differently. It’s one of the beautiful and frustrating things about objects made by hand, by different people, who are limited in their communication with one another. And I hate this feeling that we are limiting what the people in the past knew or did. They were smart! They came up with creative and ingenious solutions to the problems they encountered! They did not all have overdresses with a double pointed gore at the front, although I will admit that design is really stinking pretty