Hot! Ask A Reenactor: What’s a Farb?

If you spend any amount of time around reenactors, you will hear the term “farb” bandied about quite a bit. You’ll hear it used as a noun (“that guy is such a farb”), as an adjective (“his jacket is so farby”), and even as a verb (“so what’s this I hear about you farbing out at the event last weekend?”). So, what does this word mean?

Somehow I doubt the colonists had polarfleece earmuffs and transitions lenses in their glasses.

“Farb” means something or someone that is inauthentic.

A “farb” is generally a person who is wearing or doing something that is not in keeping with the period or impression they are portraying. Something that is “farby” is something inaccurate. To “farb out” means to intentionally do something that you know to be incorrect. “Farbery” is a general term for all things relating to farbs and inaccuracies. A “farbism” is an incorrect belief that has come to be accepted as the truth.

Is being a farb bad?

Calling someone or something a farb or farby is pretty much the worst insult you can give someone in the reenacting hobby. While the word “farb” makes no distinction between intentional and unintentional inauthenticity, the implication is that the reenactor knows that something he has is incorrect, but he is too lazy to use a more authentic item. It’s hard to say whether that is true of most farbs, but it is certainly true of some. Some farbs are “unintentional farbs” who simply don’t know that their gear or clothing is incorrect, but many are simply too lazy or too cheap to use an appropriate item. The latter are generally very looked-down-upon within the hobby, whereas the former are merely seen as needing proper guidance.

Are some farbs worse than others?

There is also a spectrum of farbery, with some offenses being greater than others, but much of that determination lays in the eye of the beholder.  In general though, at the top of the chart are offenses such as use of modern items (glasses, watches, shoes, sleeping bags), use of non-natural fibers in fabric (for periods where it didn’t exist), and grossly inappropriate equipment. Near the bottom are more minor offenses that often go un-challenged such as inappropriate hairstyles (within reason), modern food, and modern items converted to look like original items (you see this a lot in reenactment vehicles).

Who decides what is farby and what isn’t?

While the general rule is that all things inauthentic are, by nature, farby, all units have their own peculiarities when it comes to what they accept and what they consider to be farby. A major trespass in one unit may be standard procedure in another, and some units let certain things slide while being stringent on others. Some units will allow “girlfarbs” (women dressed as men), provided that they do their best to hide their gender and as long as their equipment is top-notch, while others consider them a heinous offense. One unit may allow modern socks to be worn, but have a ban on non-period food, while another may disallow facial hair but will allow the use of sleeping bags. Because of this, most units have very clearly stated standards for what they will and will not accept.

Couldn't he at least buy some plain leather boots?!?

I don’t want to be a farb. What can I do to avoid becoming one?

My best advice for avoiding farbery is to join a unit that has a low tolerance for it. It’s pretty easy to spot reenacting units with a high degree of authenticity – their members generally take a strong stance against inauthenticity, they have clear standards for what to wear and where to get your equipment, and they have a heavy focus on having the best portrayal of their period in the hobby. They take their hobby seriously and put a lot of time and effort into researching the people they portray. Many of these units have a reputation for being somewhat uptight, but if authenticity (and the respect of other reenactors) is what you’re looking for, this is the route to go. The other necessity is research. Research research research. Don’t have anything in your clothing or equipment (your “kit”) that you haven’t documented. Photographs and illustrations are a good place to start, but reading original accounts is often even better. If you place a high value on authenticity and are careful about what you choose to wear and carry with you as a reenactor, chances are that you won’t end up as a farb (at least not intentionally).

Why do reenactors dislike farbs?

There are several reasons that farbs are looked down upon in the reenacting hobby. One argument I’ve heard is that it’s an insult to the people we portray. Another is that it’s an insult to reenactors who actually take the time and effort to create a highly authentic impression. Yet another is that seeing something inauthentic on the field takes other reenactors “out of the moment” by reminding them that what they’re experiencing isn’t real. Just as some units have looser authenticity standards than others, some reenactors are more bothered by farbs than others. As a general rule, pre-20th century reenactors tend to be bothered by farbs more than 20th century reenactors, and reenactors who primarily attend private, reenactor-only tacticals tend to be bothered by them more than reenactors who mostly attend public living history events.

What are your personal feelings on farbs?

Well, I spent the first 6 or 7 years of my time in the hobby as one! When I started reenacting, I didn’t have much contact with other reenactors, so I didn’t have much guidance either. As a result, much of my equipment was not correct for the period. To top it off, I was a girlfarb as well, because I didn’t like the idea of spending my entire weekend cooking and cleaning over a campfire while the men and boys got to do all the “fun stuff”. Most reenactors are farbs to some degree or another when they start out, unless they’re given a whole lot of good advice and support from the very beginning. That said, I am relatively intolerant of most farbery these days. Most farby items stem from a wish to maintain modern comfort and convenience while portraying an era in which they did not exist, and I think that that takes away a lot from the purpose of reenacting. If you want to have a comfortable and convenient hobby, go to a drive-in campground. The rest of farbery has to do with either laziness or ignorance. Given how easy it is these days to put together a fully accurate impression, I don’t really tolerate laziness as an excuse for inaccuracy. As more and more information about reenacting is available on the internet, I am less and less tolerant of the ignorance excuse as well, but I am always happy to lend a hand to someone who clearly is inaccurate only because he doesn’t know any better. I don’t really make fun of farbs the way some reenactors do (okay, I do sometimes, but only the reeeeeally egregious ones), but that doesn’t mean that I’m a fan of them, either.

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12 Comments

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  1. i didn’t realize the hobby could literally influence one’s hairstyle. cripes.

    • Oh yes. Hairstyle and facial hair are both pretty standard considerations, and it’s actually something of a problem for those who do periods with wildly different hairstyles (Marc has opted to simply keep a short, 1940s-ish haircut and wear a wig when he does colonial stuff). Most reenactors are also encouraged to stay fit, as there weren’t too many fat or obese soldiers throughout history, and there’s even a guy out there who wrote an article about fitness and exercises for reenactors. The fitness issue isn’t just an authenticity issue, it’s also a comfort issue. Most reenactments (private ones, at least) do require carrying heavy gear over long distances or during high physical exertion, and if you’re not in shape, it’s really not very fun.

      The hobby can also influence where you live, but that’s for another post.

  2. I have never heard the term FARB- We use the word WANG. Certianly in the UK i have only ever heard the term WANG.

    It means the same thing, it annoys me greatly when I have gone to a lot of effort to make my kit as reaslitic as possible, when I see another mediealist wasking past in glasses or drinking a can of coke. In our group we cannot even partake in non realistic food or drink, we cannot carry shopping bought at market in czrier bags (my wicker basket is a godsend!), We are proud to be as historically accurate as we can.

    Personally I think it is for the organisers of the event to talk to WANG groups/ group members and help them to stop, or if it is bloodymindedness, tell them to leave said group.

    Most good groups have kit people can borrow and will happily help people to look authentic- it isn’t cheap especially if you need to have authentic glasses made as you can’t wear contacts but this is what the hobby is. Over Easter wekend a new member of our group turned up in a Ren-style wedding type dress, wrong material aside it was about 2 centuries early for our period, so we rallied round and got her kitted up in a simple kirtle and headgear.

    I am afraid I am a bit millitant about it and hate to see Wang. You can always excuse a newbie, but those who have been in it years still smoking a fag near the battlefield? No excuse!

    Andrea xx

    • Here in the US, most public events are put on by organizers that don’t know their stuff, so they’d have no way to sort the farbs from the authentic folks. Private events are generally invite-only, and generally have considerably higher levels of authenticity.

      And yeah, newbies aren’t the problem as much as folks who just don’t care.

  3. Isn’t your camera always a farb item? Is that a usual exception to the rule or have you had trouble with that before? I remember that you sometimes pack it in your “med kit”, but how else do you get away with it?

    (tone is just curious, not accusatory or argumentative at all- never know how tone gets perceived on the internet ug.)

    • Cameras, like cell phones, are one of those odd items that reenactors will usually look the other way at. When I’m at a living history event, I prefer not to have it out when the public is around, and if I do, I make it clear that I’m currently being a photographer, not a reenactor. At private events, they’re less okay, though I have solved this problem by making such a name for myself within the hobby for my photos that I actually have event organizers asking me to attend and photograph their events! That way, if someone gives me grief over it, I can say “take it up with the event organizer”. I do tend to try and make it less obvious, out of respect to other reenactors. I keep it hidden away in a period bag, and I have a non-brand, plain cloth strap that I put onto it for events.

  4. Are you never a girlfarb anymore? That sounds like it could be kind of a drag since in certain points in history it seems like it would be more fun to be play a guy, especially in wartime.

    • Yep, not anymore. I’d lose my street cred if I did, and since I’ve made a name for myself as a reenactment photographer, I can’t afford for that to happen.

      I do tend to focus my time and effort on impressions where I can go out with the guys without being farby. I love my Soviet impression because the Soviets used women in everything, including front line infantry (and were the first western army ever to do so). I also enjoy my Vietcong impression for the same reason, though the US GIs love my photos so much that I now often come out as a war correspondent, as there were many women shooting the Vietnam War.

      I wish I could be a girlfarb for 18th century stuff, but frankly, my body is now too “feminine” for me to really pull it off, and I find that seeing girlfarbs in a lineup does sort of take a lot away from the “real” feeling of the event.

  5. Using farby stuff never really bothered me, depending on the situation. Its usually like little stuff. I’ve never really had anyone bother me about it. My unit is more than fine with me having my camera out, since taking photos for them is usually a given. Sometimes I’ll have a water bottle out of my haversack, which is where my camera also goes when I’m not using it.

    Some Rev. War events I’ve been to are just so… so dumb. Like having the parking lot right next to the event and having reenactors walk to the parking lot to get their stuff, etc. Sigh. Just some layouts of some events are just… blaaaah.

  6. I am someone wanting to get into 18th century reenacting, but have certain barriers at this time, prime among them that I lost my job as I was collecting various items of clothing.

    So far as farbery goes, I want to be as authentic as I possibly can, but I’ve always been low income, even when employed. Because I don’t want to wait ten or more years (I’m already in my fifties) before I can participate, I think a more reasonable goal is to be as authentic as I can afford to be at any given time. Through my reading and research online, I already knew to avoid obvious farby items such as sleeveless bodices, shower-cap style mob caps, zippers, grommet fastenings in back, and the like.

    Right now, I have a cotton untrimmed anglaise gown, neckerchief, shift, petticoat, and round-ear cap. I lost my job before I could buy stays and shoes. I have some foot problems, so I’m hoping to get the Burnley and Trowbridge mules at some point after becoming re-employed, whenever that is. I think with what I have so far, the only mistake I’ve made is that the pattern on the gown may be about 20 or 30 years off, but it’s not too bad for a beginner. I’d like to get involved in some non-overnight events at first, perhaps a woman’s gathering or a tea party, but I have no idea where in my area. (Upstate SC).

    So far as fat reenactors go — I’ve seen plenty of portraits of fat military men from that era. William Washington and Nathanael Greene come to mind — surely there were men in the ranks built like that, too.

    But, being that I’m not wanting to “girlfarb” — too old and too busty for it — I don’t think me being plus size should be a problem for a female impression.

    I’ve bookmarked this site and will be returning often to read.

  7. The farbie things that gripe me most are, and I’m not “perfect”, eyewear and cold weather footwear….I see too many reenactors whose clothing will pass in general… but then look at their glasses and they are wearing tinted or photo grey lenses with plastic frames while trying to portray F& I or Rev period …..same with footwear, too many modern boots or mocs especially during cold wether. I realize that both of these items are spendy and the last things to procure for authenticity but they are probably the most visual to any person “visiting” an event as a spectator..

    • Me personally I am a civil war reeanactor I am from 9th Illinois cavalry company b and if people wear something that is not authentic they do not get let into camp until they take It off