Monday, August 12, 2013

A Costumer Goes to Gettysburg, by Coleen Swafford

I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. I want to share with you some of my experiences leading up to the event, the event, and following it.


Now I thought I was pretty well informed about Civil War clothing and accessories. I mean I had researched and even presented a class on them to docents at a local historic village. But then I joined several forums a few months prior to the event and I was schooled.
  1. Costume is a bad word. Most of the people participating in this hobby (especially in the East) are hard core. These are their “clothes”. “Costume” denotes all sorts of horrible things such as polyester, zippers, and sunglasses. In other words “farby”. Clothing guildelines were published for this event several months in advances but the real 411 came from the participants themselves.
  2. If you ask for an opinion, be prepared to get one. More than once I witnessed as na├»ve people posted pictures of something they planned to wear and ask for opinions. They were then hurt when someone told them they needed more petticoats or the pattern they selected was wrong. I also found it interesting that the experts never posted pictures of themselves. 
  3. The difference between a hat and a bonnet. And yes Virginia, there is a difference. When I first joined the forums there were a number of “experts” stating that older women HAD to wear either fancy bonnets or slat bonnets. Being that I am not fond of bonnets myself, I was thrilled when someone produced several CDVs of older women wearing hats of various shapes and sizes (I love documentation). And while I am on the subject of head coverings, I will pass on what I learned several years ago about nets. A lady I volunteered with informed me never to use the word “snood”. That was for renn faires and 1940s. A Civil War lady wore a hair net. It was not as thick as a snood and usually the same color as your hair. This year I actually found instructions for creating a period appropriate hair net. Results are below. 


I could comment about the organization of this event but this article is about costuming so I’ll stick to that. Like most large events, you find the experts, the ones who are learning and almost there, the beginners, and those who don’t care.

Experts – At this event, they set up a civilian town in the middle of the battlefield (The Battle of Gettysburg was fought around and through the town of Gettysburg). To become a resident of this town, you had to submit a photo of your clothing and description of your persona. Being the insecure person I am, I figured I wouldn’t meet their standards and would just stay with my husband’s unit. However, on Friday, I had the chance to have a long talk with the village’s mayor. We were standing by a fence waiting for a battle to begin. I was explaining to a companion about needing to be approved to be a resident of “Gettysburg” and I told the mayor that I aspired to that. The mayor stepped back and looked me over from head to toe and told me that what I was wearing would have passed except for my glasses. I was wearing one of my work dresses with an apron and bonnet. I knew my glasses wouldn’t pass as I had opted to my new ones as opposed to my old wire frames. I was thrilled. I passed muster! That was as important to me as winning a costume contest.

One of the “experts” attending was Kay Gagney. This lady has designed civil war patterns for Simplicity. They held a fashion show and she presented several dresses she had made from Godey’s fashion prints and explained the use of each dress and when and where it was worn. I volunteered as photographer and was allowed on the stage with these masterpieces in order to photograph them. They were truly impressive.

Those Trying – I generally put myself in this class but a better example was the lady camped next to us. She was an older lady and wore a print skirt, white blouse and apron. She was also wearing a snood, tennis shoes and sunglasses. She was with me when I talked to the mayor and was very interested in his description of correct costumes. She had never been told what was right and what was wrong. I was sure that her impression would improve in the future.

Newbies – I feel sorry for newbies who do not have someone to mentor them in what is right and are left to the examples of Hollywood and the whims of unscrupulous sutlers. I watched one sutler swear up and down that the pink skirt and white blouse she was selling to a lady were totally accurate. I also heard a story of a soldier who bought what he was told was a “stainless steel” canteen. When his commander saw it, he informed him that it was a cheap tin one and accompanied him back to the sutler to get what he had paid for.

Those Who Don’t Care – My daughter’s friend fell into this category. She was there with her father and brother. She conceded to wearing a long skirt and white blouse but that was it. She wore shorts under her skirt and tennis shoes. And still she was better than the spouses who wore tank tops and shorts in military camp.

Post Event

One thing every successful reenactor or costumer knows is to “go with the flow”. You can’t control everything, especially the weather. You plan for contingencies and “make do”. Thus, I did not get to wear my new ball gown. It was raining, the dance was in an open sided tent and there were several inches of mud everywhere. I did get to wear the new day dress I made to the Fashion Show.The highlight of the week for me had nothing to do with fashion or costumes. It was watching the final battle, Pickett’s Charge. I found a spot to watch not far from the line of canon. It is impossible to describe: feeling the canon fire, smelling the black powder, watching 10,000 reenactors on the field and realizing that this was only a hint of the real thing. It made up for heat, rain, mud, ticks, and everything else.

Will I continue to do this with my husband? You betcha. I’ve already ordered black wool to make a dress for memorial ceremonies.

- Coleen Swafford

No comments:

Post a Comment