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!

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The Getty Villa





Fellow Romanophile Cheryl Hall (Claudia) and I rampaged through the Getty Villa and Museum. Here are my favorite shots of us. To see the rest (61 of us including some cheesecake shots on a marble bench, and 345 of the exhibits) visit https://www.flickr.com/photos/147749893@N02/albums

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At September Crown, one sweet gentle took offense to me referring to Drusa as my slave. “Maybe you could call her… your ladies’ maid?”

My reaction was “Um… but in my period that would have been a slave.” I chalked it up to my passion for Getting It Right (even in my non-SCA life I am all about accuracy) but something about it has been tickling the back of my brain. This morning I finally placed it.

Ignoring a truth because it makes you uncomfortable is not okay.


Owning a human being is wrong. I am NOT trying to say slavery wasn’t that bad, or that slaves didn’t endure unspeakable hardship. I’m saying it existed.

My friend Kate playacting as Drusa is wonderful because 1) It’s consensual on her part, 2) It allows me to fully immerse and live how a Roman matron would.  When I am fully dressed in my palla, I need my hands free to hold it on as I walk. As with much of high-status clothing through the ages, the point of it is that I am not doing physical labor. I need a slave to carry my things. If our goal in the SCA is to actually understand lost cultures – not just to wear a Halloween costume – social context is important!

Slavery in ancient Rome was very different from the American form of slavery. Although I’m sure abuse existed, it was more rare. The vast numbers of slaves (up to 75% of the population, depending on the period) meant that slave owners policed themselves. There was considerable social pressure to be fair and humane to avoid uprisings. It wasn’t racially based. Some slaves owned slaves of their own! Slaves were captured spoils of war, or poor people who sold themselves or their children into captivity, or those who were unfortunate enough to be born into servitude. Being freed was common. It was often a reward for good service. Slaves could also be freed in a will, or save up money to buy their own freedom. Even after liberation was gained, many relationships were maintained. We can see that business and emotional ties remained strong in the multiple epitaphs put up by a freedman for his former master, and vice versa.

Still, the sexual and physical control of another human is abhorrent. The Romans, as well as many other cultures, built their empire on this horrible practice. Some still do. To sweep it under the rug and pretend otherwise is to whitewash history.


ADDENDUM: This sparked a lively debate on Facebook with a dear, trusted friend. It occurred to me that this is a cultural difference. I’m 100% ethnically Jewish. At Passover every year, the Seder dinner is a retelling of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. Specifically, it’s designed to teach the “youngest child” – We want to be sure the next generation knows the history. I would love it if someone had an Egyptian persona and mentioned their Jewish slaves. It happened. Wishing it didn’t can’t change history.  So I’m coming at it from that perspective – loathing the whitewashing. But I totally respect others’ feelings to want to be isolated from a hated word. I’m very sorry I made anyone uncomfortable.

PPS: Drusa asked for this status. She was concerned about being uncomfortable not knowing anyone / not knowing what to do. It’s worked beautifully to bring her into the SCA. It helped that we didn’t have the racial issue to complicate things.

Posted in Recreating history, Research & Documentation, Roman history | 1 Comment

Toilet History

SCA events are usually camping events… and that means biffies (aka Portajohns, Honey Buckets, etc). I decided a little distraction was in order at this year’s September Crown, so I posted a series of 4 pages on Roman toilets (Cloacina, goddess of the sewer, private and public bathrooms, and bathroom-related graffiti) inside the biffs, then encouraged readers to “catch ’em all!”  The 5th page lists the sources I used.


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Colorful art!

This is a great little documentary looking at the ruins of Herculaneum. I don’t usually dig (!) mass media aimed at the general public, but the reconstructions of the ceilings are amazing!

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Posca – Roman Gatorade

Posca is a wonderfully refreshing drink that was used by Romans to deal with a hot Mediterranean climate and hard physical work. If you were poor or a soldier, it’s just vinegar and water. If you were lucky enough to afford it, honey was added.

A sugar, an acid, and water: This formula has been used as an electrolyte replacer for millennia. It’s MUCH better than water for keeping you happy and functional on a hot working day. The Persians did a mint/sugar thing called Sekanjibin. In the medieval period it was called shrub. In the American south it was switchel… until it was replaced with lemonade.

It’s super easy to make:

1 part vinegar (I use Bragg’s apple cider vinegar for its digestive benefits. The Romans would have used wine vinegar)

1 part honey

You don’t even need to heat it – just stir it a little. That gives you a syrup that is shelf stable and great for transporting to events. Dilute it about 10-1 with water in a cup or pitcher. If it burns, add more water. If it tastes bad, add more syrup. I know that sounds odd, but just trust me.

NOTE: Some people like to add in spices (coriander, ginger, etc) or mint for variety!

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Daily Life in Ancient Rome

I taught my new class for the first time last weekend at Grand Thing. It was really fun! I love bringing the little details alive… it’s what makes history sing! The handout is available here: DAILY LIFE in ANCIENT ROME. It’s mostly a list of topics, but includes references in case you want to investigate further.

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