One of the biggest problems that all of us who research historic clothing encounter is the hollywood-influenced "eye" of the casual observer. Poor kass_rantsgot tagged by this just recently (not that she doesn't get this on a regular basis - kilts?! We don't need no stinkin' kilts!, but this was a biggie. Let's just say that NatGeo wouldn't know a "Real Pirate" if one walked up and shoved a cutlass where their sun do not shine), and it's this attitude that is responsible for all the "Irish" dresses, The Tudors, and Gwyneth Paltrow's Victorian riding habit (the green velvet one with the dumb-ass little hat kill kill*kill*kill*kill*kill*kill*kill*kill) (kill) in Shakespeare in Love.
Y'all know what I mean about the "eye", right? The ability to look at something historic without layering multiple 21st century filters over a picture or an artifact. Being able to really see it, and, in the case of clothing, see what it is, not what you want it to be, even if it blows a pet theory out of the water. Not everyone likes this idea, and I've even been berated by a Laurel, who told me that the "eye" was "complete nonsense". But I'm guessing all my readers are down with this concept.
(It's a nascent "eye" that makes you go "I know something is wrong with that outfit, but I couldn't exactly say why". More training, and you'll be able to say exactly why.)
Yes, pirates and gypsies and courtesans and bog-dwellers who become king of their own personal dung-heap are romantic. Countless persona stories in the SCA witness to this. As other people have said, they appeal to the sense of the "outsider" in all of us. But our romantic ideas of what life was like back then are so heavily overlaid with our 21st century filters that we have completely erased the missing teeth, the open skin sores, the lice, the smallpox scars, the lack of paved roads, and, in the case of female "pirates", the systematic rape and sexual abuse of lower class women.
(Suck it, Elizabeth Swann.)
Outsider status may be romantic when you're dreaming of freedom and fortune tellers and dancing by the firelight, but believe me, you want to stay here in the 21st century and go home at the end of the evening with all your rights, money, and teeth intact. The realities of Outsiders can be summed up by the systematic persecution of homosexuals throughout history. Substitute any disapproved ethnicity/orientation, and the results are the same. And forget about rights for women - in 17th century Amsterdam, a woman who got pregnant as a result of rape could not get a conviction, because it was believed that a woman had to orgasm to conceive, and if she orgasmed, she clearly enjoyed it, ergo, not rape.
Even our view of "outsider status" is informed and altered by our 21st century privilege; the Outsider is more authentic, more real, more noble. This is as condescending and untrue as the idea of the "noble savage" in the 19th century - by making the Outsider "superior", it absolves the privileged classes of any responsiblity in their persecution, and in the end, even Outsider status is appropriated by people who enjoy all the benefits and protections granted by their mainstream position (see: People who appropriate Native American symbolism for suspect religious "ceremonies", Maori tribal tattoos, and white surburban teenage "ganstas").
But we were talking about costume, weren't we?
People like to think of the past as if they were dropped into it with all the knowledge and privilege they have now. They see everything through a 21st century filter, especially the clothes. In most cases, this means screw accuracy, the heroines should be Amazons with long flowing hair and lacy dresses, the heroes should have their musular, tanned chests shown off with frilly shirts open to the navel, accessorized with a remarkable amount of very white teeth. Pirates have eyepatches and treat women pirates with respect, only the villains have any skin blemishes, and only bad girls come to bad ends.
In the SCA, this manifests itself in people who prefer "pretty" over real. In costuming (the focus of my post, I swear!), it leads to some of our more amusing myths - especially the one about how all colours back then were faded and dull, and everyone below aristocratic status accessorized with dirt. When you see a woman who has reasonably good clothes, but refuses to cover her hair, and wears a ton of modern-looking makeup, that's an example of a modern "pretty" filter - they can't see (yet) that a properly finished an accessorized outfit is truly a thing of beauty.
(It also manifests itself in poor judging practices - honestly, I wish people would educate themselves a little before simply accepting whatever current trope is circling the costuming circles. If you have been told something, research it please, especially before taking points off someone's entry. I hate going through judging forms and finding out the judge knows considerably less than the entrant, and is penalizing them for it.)
(Actually, I usually can tell that someone is ready for a Laurel when they're willing to wear something that directly clashes with modern beauty "ideals". If they're up for crazy hairdos and strange adornments, then they have the coveted "eye".)
If we as a culture - even up to our museum curators and consultants - are more interested in a good story than the truth, we lose. The past is fragile, and in the case of clothing/textiles, easily destroyed. If we do not take steps to preserve the information properly, then bang, bang, the past is gone, dead. History should not be seen as a reality show, cropped and edited to only show the parts we think are juicy, with any truth manipulated for better viewer numbers, it's our past. If we're not interested in learning about it (including the boring, unromantic bits), well, then - to paraphrase Santayana, say hello to fucking it up all over again.
(He's more articulate, I'm pithier.)
The past may not be exciting on a day-to-day basis, nor as extreme in its highs and lows, but it's pretty damned outrageous. What they wore, how they felt about stuff, the colour combinations they liked - it's all the meat of the most fascinating research. There's no need to embellish or romanticize it - it stands just fine on its own merits.
Which brings me back to my jacket, which is green with rose pink trim. Because they had it. And they used it. And I'm sick of people spreading the misinformation that people wore dull boring colours. After 400 years, yes, they are faded. But we're not reproducing 400-year old artifacts, are we?
- I hope you don't mind, but I wielded my awesome *koff* MSPaint skills on your behalf:
(Um, those are supposed to be ruffs on the cats. And Lennie is carrying an axe. You know, because.)