What makes it “period?”

NOTE: I recognize that not everyone cares deeply about authenticity. That’s absolutely fine!  I am not going to judge you. But if you WANT to “do it right” here are some goals sparked by a recent conversation:

What makes a garment authentic? When you nail it, there’s a magical sense of transporting in time. Glaring mistakes can draw you back out of the fantasy. Nobody expects perfection, but the closer you get, the easier it is to imagine yourself in the past. You should be aware that my experience/ filter is Roman: For other periods your approach may vary. No matter what your era, though, try to wipe your mind of the Hollywood version of your persona, and stick to actual research. Pick a specific time, place, role, and status, and match these components:

Construction: Make the garment the same way they would have. Each piece (gore, sleeve, neckline, etc.) should be modeled after extant pieces (if possible), art, or scholarly best guesses if not. Give more weight to period construction evidence than to modern tailoring.

Fabric: The fiber content (silk, linen, wool, cotton), weave (tabby, twill, herringbone), and weight are all important to create a convincing look. How a fabric drapes makes a massive difference. Obviously we can not always afford the perfect material, but be aware of these issues when substituting, and match them as well as possible.

Color: Look at as many paintings of daily life* from your period as possible, to get a sense of popular shades and tones. Consider which dyes were available, and how they worked on the fabric you are using (or emulating). Some period dyes are not quite as saturated as modern chemical dyes.

Patterns: Solids, stripes, prints, floral or animal motifs – all change with fashion trends of the time. Notice negative space on the prints. Are the designs spread out, or do they fill every inch?

Silhouette: This has more to do with undergarments. Be aware that a modern bra can completely change the way your garb fits. Drape also can change your silhouette drastically.

Sewing: Handsewing in period stitches looks so different from machine sewing.  At a minimum, handsew all the visible seams.

Trim: The modern eye tends to want a lot of glitzy trim on tunics, etc., but sometimes less is more. Again, look at your paintings.* What are people actually wearing?  If you do use trim, match the period material and aesthetic.  Especially with metallic thread – does it match your persona’s status? Does it fit with the look of the era?

Fittings: Buttons, clasps, and pins are small details that can really “sell” or betray your authenticity. You can find convincing versions at big fabric stores if you’re lucky… Local SCADian artisans, Etsy and period replica companies may be a better bet if you need something unique.

Accessories: Think about your hats, purses, belts, jewelry, and shoes. Even your makeup, if you wear it. What can you do to make yours more authentic?  Modern hairstyles can be hidden with a headband, wig, or hairpieces, all of which are period. If you can’t afford or make truly historical shoes, get some smooth leather slip-ins, which will pass at a glance. Try to avoid jewelry that is too fancy for the status of your clothing. Hint: In nearly all period cultures, headcoverings are daily necessities for public appearances, particularly for women. On the other hand, I will never tell you not to wear your glasses. Safety and quality of life first!

Having a complete outfit (with all the layers that entails) from a single time, place, and role really brings it together. Again – nobody expects perfection. Do what you can, and make choices with an eye towards always being as close as possible. 🙂

By the way, it’s my policy to never criticize or make suggestions on someone’s garb unless they ask me. I will assume you are happy unless you request feedback.

The (atrocious) movie Pompeii thought this was the way to dress Senator Sasha Roiz. It’s a weird black and gold mutation of a centurian outfit (generally not worn inside the city limits, BTW). Although it’s true that senators often had military leadership experience, he should have been wearing a toga and tunic.

* Research your paintings with a critical eye! Sometimes primary sources can mislead, because they are taking creative license to make a point. Pompeiian frescos show gods and goddesses in archaic Greek clothing. Medieval images have a “foreigner in a funny hat” problem. Not to mention that paint colors can shift with time. See my other papers on research and documentation.

GRATIAS TIBI AGO to my Laurel, Eulalia Piebakere, for her invaluable feedback and assistance!

About Sharon Rose, LAc, MSAOM

Acupuncturist, medical massage therapist, historian, scientist, road-tripper, geek, LARP & board gamer, food fan, Roman fanatic, belly-laugher.
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