Whenever you get into a discussion about historical clothing or gear you immediately (well, almost at least) bump into the expression historically correct. This is one of the most misunderstood terms in the whole hobby. People think that historically correct is about how it was back in olden times. To an extent this is true, but at the same time it’s entirely wrong. Let me explain why.
As most people of course know, history is all about the past. But history is also about a specific place. So history is really about a frozen moment in time and space. Everything that happens during that small segment, 11.55 a sunny spring Monday in March in the year of our lord 1123 somwhere outside a small village in Northern France, early night time in the Amazon 5000 years ago right after an important initiation ceremony, the last shivering seconds right before the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne… that is history.
The problem with history is that the moment can’t be captured. If it’s not now, then it is in fact, history, and history can never be captured in it’s entirety. The truth about the world is destroyed at the same moment that we are not there anymore. History is a construction. As we humans can never fully understand our world, never capture every moment, never see the entire picture (and even if we could we could never describe it accurately and objectively) history can never be an absolute truth. History is gone, and it’s up to us to construct it, or reconstruct it.
But history doesn’t destroy itself completely, as we all know. I am sitting in an armchair that may well have been made before my birth. It has seen history. It can tell us something. It is these traces from history that we must use in order to say something about the past. No, it will never be a perfect truth, since history is dead. But it will be a partial truth, something truer than a lie, and more than a speculation. It will not become Historically Correct, it will just become Not Historically Incorrect.
Which brings us to the next question: what conclusions can be drawn from the sources? If I took a photo of my present home and used it to draw conclusions about life in the early 21st century, then my conclusions could of course be more or less realistic and plausible. Take the airmchair for example. It’s a brown leather armchair, in a common model. We can safely say that during the early 21st century, in Sweden, there was at least one arm chair that had a leather cover. We can’t say anything about how common it was, not yet, because we have not yet seen any other specimens. We might have to look at some other armchairs, from the same era, to establish, to ourselves, how plausible it is to assume certain things. For example: were all armchairs in the early 21st century made with a leather covering? A small google search would of course immediately give you an answer: no, they were not.
But let’s move on. What I wanted to show is that we can’t say anything about history, or anything else for that matter, without sources and facts. This is, believe it or not, something that seems to be up to discussion. People want to be able to make claims without having any proof for them. Also the lack of sources makes people even more prone to say or write stuff that cannot, as the CIA would say, either be confirmed or denied, and post it as a truth.
Which brings me to one of the most common arguments about history: ”We can’t know how it was, we can’t know the entire truth, therefore you can’t say that it wasn’t like that.” This is an absurd argument that aims to circumvent logic by using something called an argument of ignorance, argumentum ad ignorantiam. One of the reasons people use it is because it shifts the burden of proof from the one saying something to the person questioning it. In reenactment I call this ”the viking pancake argument”. It goes something like this ”They had pancakes in the viking age.” ”How do you know that?” ”Well, we don’t have any proof that they didn’t have pancakes in the viking age.”. This in short means ”prove me wrong”, which of course is impossible. I can’t find a pancake that has never been made, and so I cannot prove that it hasn’t existed. But, and this is my entire point… It is not my job to disprove what you just said, it’s your job to find sources to support your claim!.
This argument is often followed by another pet peeve of mine, the ”they had all the materials, so they must have done it.”-argument. This is also, well, in short, rubbish. Yes, they did have eggs, milk and flour in the viking age, and they did have flat hot surfaces (such as pans, most probably the viking pans are for making bread, though) so they could have made pancakes. It’s true. But by the same logic we have cotton today, so the t-shirt I am wearing, which is knitted, could just as well have been made into an 1890’s evening gown for a lady, because it could also have been cotton. So why isn’t it?
Because of culture. It is not acceptable for me to wear a bustle dress in public without being questioned. I would have to defend it, or explain it, every step of the way. Not because long dresses are really more feminine than masculine, there are many cultures where long robes have been totally OK and even a sign of high rank, on men. But not in mine. There is no logic to this, just culture, because logic is culture bound.
Which brings us to the next thing that gets my blood pressure going: when people say ”well, someone must have done it.” I’m not going to say much about this… well, not more than ”How many bearded men in 1890’s bustle dresses have you seen about town lately?”. We want to fit into our culture, and our culture today, even if it’s probably the most liberal culture yet, still has boundaries that we don’t really challenge very often, because they are not visible to us. It has been the same in all of history. We want to fit in and be accepted, otherwise we don’t have anyone to help us, we get cast out and die alone (*sob*). But even if we have some man, right now, proudly marching around in his bustle dress, is this the norm? Is it what we would like to show the future as an example of the representative 21st century man…? No, it’s not. It may not be a lie, but it’s a smaller truth than the one we should be showing.
To sum up: historical correctness is not about showing the absolute truth, it’s about showing something that is true-ish, truer or at least not a lie. Because no one likes being lied to.
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I have often seen people go round and round with these arguments and I agree with you. If people who want to be ”historically correct” would just more commonly admit they are dressing partly for modern reasons, many arguments could be avoided. The modern reasons are often very sensible, relating to the wearer’s budget, available modern materials, activities the wearer has to perform in period dress they would not have performed historically (such as driving a car), and so on. Because I’ve also often seen the wearer put on the defensive and told they ”have to” (for example) spend more than they can afford, because reenactment should *of course* be more important to them than say, paying their mortgage or saving for their kids’ college tuition. People should learn to separate what they and other people have researched from what they are wearing: What you know is not identical to what you wear. And the reenactment culture should allow them to say, ”Yes, I know this isn’t 100% correct but it’s the best I could manage” without jumping on them.