This weekend, my amazing apprentice, lisettelaroux , held an inter-group sewing day that she organized, paid for, and advertised all herself, and I am 100 ways proud of her. It was a smashing success, and she did a fabulous job not only of organizing it, but helping people throughout the day with questions and stuff. Her vision was a day where people could get sewing done for Pennsic, in an atmosphere of friendly purposefulness, and have people assist each other in cases where four (or more) hands were needed (pinning hems, and such). I thought her vision came through with remarkable clarity, and I'm very, very proud.
My apprentice. *sniffle* So good.
But, in conversation afterwards, she told me about someone who has been in the SCA less than a year, who cannot seem to attend an event without someone walking up to them and telling them their outfit is wrong/not period/needs to be changed. Unsolicited. And I've seen this person's clothes, and they're fine, especially for a newcomer.
This sort of thing makes me bitey. Attack Laurel does not like.
There is never any reason to walk up to someone and offer them unsolicited criticism on their clothes. No, not ever. If they ask, yes (but check how in-depth they want you to go). If it's in an A&S competition, yes. If they're trying to get ahead in their chosen art, and you have particular knowledge in that area, then you may gently broach the subject with "I have heard you are interested in this thing. I am somewhat versed in this thing. Would you like to discuss thingness with me?", but never launch into criticism unasked.
It's rude. It's uncool. It's mean. It's not classy. And, most importantly, it is all pain and absolutely no gain for the person on whom you inflict your opinion. They will not be at all grateful that you appeared, as if from nowhere, just to tell them their outfit sucks. They will be hurt, confused, and think poorly of you, and by extension, the SCA.
Don’t do it. Just don't.
There seem to be several different motivations behind this act; some are reasonably benign in intent (though not in effect, and one does well to remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions), while others are definitely malicious. The main four:
1. "I just want to help! I know about clothes, and surely no-one wants to go around with incorrect clothes!"
I know you mean well, but don't. Please don't. You have no idea if this is that person's first event. Maybe they slaved over that outfit, trying to make it perfect. Maybe they tried their best, but being new, lacked the resources and help to make it more authentic. Maybe they just want to hang out in a pretty outfit, with other people in pretty outfits, and they aren't looking to become the next authority on anything. They don't need to be learning anything at that time. What you should learn, however, is that they probably were having a great time, feeling happy, and probably thinking they were looking pretty good, until you came along and ruined their nice day. You want people to learn how to improve their clothes? Teach a class. You want to make people cry? Keep on sailing up to people and telling them they're not good enough.
2. "I need to show important people that I know lots about clothing, so they will take me seriously, and like me, and maybe recognize me for an award!"
This reasoning is entirely self-serving. And you know what? We Laurels fucking hate (with a deep and abiding passion) people that go around torpedoing people's outfits. What happens is that the Laurels end up taking the blame, even though 9 out of 10 times that I've learned about this happening, it's been someone with a mid-level award trying to prove they're oh-so-knowledgeable and should be totes elevated to super-duper peerage (the remaining 1 is usually a Laurel that got their award umpteen years ago, and can't handle the fact that they're no longer relevant). If you want to impress us, write an article. Display your own work. Don't ruin someone else's good time. Personally, when I learn that an aspiring Laurel is pulling this kind of shenanigans, I take them off my list of possible candidates. It's poor form, it's not courteous, and it certainly doesn't advance the art.
(The subset of this is "I want the little people to be impressed with me so they will admire me and be awed by my skill!". Spoiler: This does not work.)
3. "I feel infinitely superior to that tacky person over there, and I'm going to lord it over them to make myself feel even more powerful!"
Few people will admit to this motivation, but it's behind a large number of really cruel instances of criticism. It is frequently performed in a group, with the ringleader loudly critiquing the poor person's clothes, often not directly to them, but within clear earshot, making sure that the person hears them. The rest of the group will then snicker and cast disdainful looks at the person, who at this point is either wishing they had never come to the event, or wants to punch someone. It's passive-aggressive fuckery at its finest.
(The subset of this one is "I am jealous that this person is more popular/liked than me, so I must tear them down any way I can". I got mixed up in this one in a roundabout way, when a heavily researched period outfit I made for someone else was trashed because they thought the person wearing it had made it. Schadenfraude-ilicious hilarity ensued.)
Joking aside, I have seen the hurt that results from this. I've had perfectly nice people who were actually doing their best to make good outfits come to me and tell me that they've been on the receiving end of snark from assholes. Often, their outfit is fine, and the person snarking just doesn't know their stuff as well as they think they do, but it sucks when people who are making the effort get hurt by bullies who think they can pick on someone who won't fight back.
4. "My skill in costuming has not yet been recognized, but I know I'm the best out there, so I feel it is my duty to correct everyone I think is doing something wrong, and everyone will see how brilliant and clever I am!"
This happens a lot, too – and oh, the irony when they have seriously overestimated their poor to middling costuming skills/knowledge. I think there's a certain amount of insecurity that goes along with this attitude – if they're not pointing out everyone else's mistakes, then (important) people won't take them seriously. If they're anxious for an award, it's even worse, as they mix up #1 and #4 in a horrible stew of officiousness and incorrect information. It can also be a dominance move - "I will establish my control by telling other people what's what".
There are other reasons, such as jealousy that the new person is getting attention (seen it), disliking someone, so finding fault with everything they do (seen it), or simple tactless enthusiasm (did it when I was younger, but learned my fucking lesson, dammit). It doesn't really matter what the motivation is, it's the effect on the person you target. We should strive to avoid hurting innocent people, and one of the ways to avoid that hurt is to keep your mouth shut unless asked your opinion.
People who do not know me think I'm really demanding about authenticity in everyone around me, but I'm not. The only person I can hold to any standard is myself. Yes, I may sometimes wince internally when I see something really tacky, and I'm as human as the next person, so when I'm among friends, I might giggle at a really outrageous interpretation (but usually only when an experienced person who really should know better does it). Giggle I may, but you can be sure it will only be in private. Honestly, as long as people make an attempt, I'm good. I'm far more uncomfortable with long-term SCA members being lazy about drinking from plastic bottles or cans, or not covering their modern items.
(And I hate nylon chairs with a passion, as you all know.)
I really don't even have a problem with sunglasses – except when people are sitting up in court (Baronage, Royalty, etc. - it looks tacky, especially when the retainers do it), or trying to be taken seriously as a costumer. I've worn sunglasses when I'm marshalling, because it's better to be able to see what I'm marshalling than to look perfectly period. It's only when someone is being held up as an example of authenticity that I balk at stuff like that. I honestly don't care otherwise.
I also don't care if people want to wear blue eyeshadow, or wear panne velvet leggings under a puffy Renaissance shirt, or load their hat up with fifty ostrich feathers, or mix time periods. Honestly. I care about what I wear, and I'm going to push my apprentices to care, and I'm going to teach classes for people who want to learn how to be more period, but I'm not going around handing out grades to random people. The Attack Laurel is a fiction (one based on an absurd extreme of some laurels, to be sure, but still a fiction).
(btw, the Attack Laurel Academy Dean says you all get an F.)
I've been on the receiving end of that kind of unsolicited criticism, and it hurts. It can ruin someone's whole day, and believe me, they remember it years later. Heck, Bob got it at his very first SCA event, and he still remembers it clearly. Fortunately, he was confident enough to go "WTF?" and not be put off by it, but most people are pretty nervous about fitting in at their first event, and experiencing drive-by negatve critique can make them never want to come back.
It does everyone a disservice. It makes you, and the SCA by extension, look bad. It's tactless and unkind at best, cruel and mean-spirited at worst. It flies in the face of everything we in the SCA are supposed to uphold. Authenticity is something that should be encouraged in those who want to pursue it, but not something that should be forced on everyone – we're not that group. Individuals have done amazing things, and they are an inspiration to everyone who comes after them, but the most inspiring people make you want to be like them because they're awesome, not because they told you your clothes sucked.
Things will naturally progress if we all look to our own authenticity, as other people will see us, and see what we do, and will want to do it too, since it looks so great (Elizabethan jackets, amirite?). If it is forced on someone at their very first event, assuming they don't quit then and there, they are very likely to reject the whole concept of authenticity, as their initial exposure has been so negative.
Don't harsh someone's squee. It doesn't make you look superior, it makes you look petty. It doesn't impress the Laurels, it shows us that you have a remarkable lack of peer-like qualities. It doesn't teach your target something useful, it teaches them that you're an asshole.
You want people to dress better? Teach by example. And keep quiet about the newbie with flowers in their hair, unless you want to walk up to me when I am wearing flowers in my hair and tell me I'm doing it wrong, too.
Because you might just find yourself on the receiving end of some unsolicited criticism.
I'm just sayin'.