I know I’ve been talking a lot about living history lately, but I want to touch upon one more issue that living history museums and interpreters often find themselves discussing. That issue is costuming. Correct costuming is often the first step in creating a good, believable living history experience. But what is “correct”? Must costumes be exactly accurate, or can concessions be made? What is “accurate,” anyway?

Many longtime historical costumers and reenactors are sticklers for costume accuracy. On the surface, there is nothing particularly wrong with that. Strict costumers put a lot of effort into making sure that the clothing they are wearing is exactly accurate to the time period they are portraying in order to provide visitors with the truest picture of a time period. When they can, they look for patterns, plates, and pictures matching an exact year. They comb historical descriptions for useful tidbits of information. Some strict costumers even try to keep clothing a visitor cannot see – like socks or underwear – accurate as well. They sometimes claim that even the smallest inaccuracies can ruin the experience for visitors.

Though strict costumers undertake their projects with the best of intentions, for the sake of comfort, budgets, and practicality, museums might find themselves forced to stray from strict costuming – and I am here to say that that can be perfectly okay. Accuracy is important and institutions and individuals should be aware of the concessions they are making, but carefully chosen concessions can make the experience of outfitting interpreters much less stressful. Concessions do not have to ruin a visitor’s experience, either. For example, although much historical clothing was hand sewn, visitors are less likely to comment upon machine-sewn clothes than some perfectionists claim, and such costumes are infinitely cheaper. In addition, depending on the style of dress, stays and corsets are not always necessary, though interpreters should realize what articles of clothing they are missing in order to better educate visitors. On the other hand, inaccurate buttons and zippers can be difficult to hide and are often the kind of “mistakes” troublesome visitors are looking for.

The possible problems with strict costuming may have to do with more than practicality, though.
Are strictly accurate costumes actually accurate? This may seem like a silly question, but it is one worth considering. Consider the way people approach fashion today: your average person rarely wears the most up-to-date of fashions, styles are mixed and sometimes eclectic, and clothing often varies by generation. And all this is true in a world where media spreads much more quickly than it ever did in the past. We should not assume that everyone in a particular time period dressed like the most recent fashion plate. As a matter of fact, we have good reason to think that might not be true at all.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Bright Star, a new period film that wasn’t afraid to demonstrate this variety and eclecticism in everyday clothing. Set in Regency England, a period that is often a favorite of costumers, Bright Star tells the story of the tragic romance between poet John Keates and Fanny Brawne, a neighbor of Keates’ and a successful fashion designer in her own right. The film is beautiful in any number of ways, not the least in its costumes.

I admit, I do not possess much in-depth knowledge of Regency clothing, but I know enough to spot the wonderful variety of clothing in Bright Star. The older characters dress in more old fashioned, Georgian-style attire, while the youngest have somewhat adapted clothing more practical to children – girl’s dresses are shorter, their clothing plainer and less adorned. Some people seem to have pieced together somewhat mis-matched parts of their wardrobe, and dresses do not all look exactly the same, as they often do in such films. The full effect does not detract from the “historicalness,” but instead adds to it by creating a fuller, more complicated, less stylized picture.

The film’s willingness to break strict costuming rules can be seen most plainly (and most wonderfully) in Fanny Brawne’s costume. Fanny is meant to be a fashion designer and an artist, someone who isn’t afraid to try something new with her needle and who has become quite successful doing so. By dressing her in unusual clothing that, as the character points out, she is meant to have designed herself, the film creates an image of a woman who stands apart and who creates beauty, just as the film’s famous poet does.

Bright Star pushes the boundaries of strict historical costuming in a way that adds to the film’s historical mood. Its creators have taken what is strictly accurate for the period, but then they have played with it. The historical costumes make sense in context of their characters and the variety of their experiences. This is a lesson from which museums, historic sites, and their interpreters might learn. When deciding upon historical costumes, researchers should not only examine exactly “accurate” costumes, but also think about the context of that clothing, what it might have meant to people, and the way clothing fit into everyday life. In doing so, they can create historical costumes that are unique, accurate, and meaningful.