Hot! Best Practices for Reenactors

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I like to think that I tend to hang out with a pretty on-the-ball group of reenactors, no matter what period I’m doing.  This hobby means a lot to me, and I’m always trying to help new reenactors start out on the right foot, and good reenactors to become even better reenactors.  With that in mind, I have polled my friends and asked what they would consider to be “best practices” for those wanting to be good reenactors.  The answers range in topic from authenticity, to research, to generally being a nice person.  I think that there’s something here for pretty much everyone, because there’s always room for improvement.

Without further ado, here you go!

It’s hard to narrow down, since every period has differences. But overall I think a good practice for reenactors portraying military roles should be in decent physical shape. But of course life makes that hard to do sometimes.

Don’t bring the “patio set”. If you couldn’t carry it for miles on the march, it’s excessive and very likely, incorrect.

Have an open mind with a personal mission of continual education and improvement.

Right or not at all.

Try and keep a 3 day shave or less!

Research before opening your mouth to criticize.

Keep up with the scholarship. By which I mean “don’t just rely on a 30 year old popular history”.

Pick a role, do your research and then do your absolute best to do that role as best you can.

Be merciful on those just starting out.

Don’t copy others around you, find out what was common and wear that.

If you make it yourself, make it to the very best of your abilities and don’t rush it. If you buy it, be smart about it.

Be humble. Start at the bottom, pay your dues, earn your rank. Never self-bling.

Don’t copy crap. Ask for documentation prior to copying someone in the field just because you (or they) think it’s correct.

Do no harm.

Avoid reenactorisms….just because the stitch-nazis tell you something “WAS THIS WAY” or because everyone is doing something, does not mean you should. Your own research is key.

Remember to act like a soldier when you are playing one. Also, learn to sew.

When you have down time, don’t whip out a cell phone: instead make any repairs that need to be made, clean your weapon if you are doing a military impression, and if all manual work is done, write a letter, talk among people, or play a period correct game.

It all goes back to “be the person you are trying to be” and use respect for that person in the process. You’ll do far better at your portrayal.

Research first – reenact second.

Make a solidly documented and comfortable suit of civilian clothing appropriate to your period, and wear it more than you do battles or wear military stuff.

Don’t be an asshole.

Ask for documentation on everything, no matter how knowledgable the person is (or is thought to be). Not because they might be wrong, but because you should always have the original proof to show others. I heard it from so-and-so means nothing and leads to the phone game.

What on here do you feel you could personally work on?  Myself, I need to be a bit better about doing my own research.  Granted, when I ask people for advice, I tend to go to people that are trusted in their field, but I still should be doing more work on my own instead of relying on the reenactor equivalent of a secondary source.

What do you feel should be included on a list of “best practices” for reenactors?

 

 

30 Comments

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  1. Finish the picture. Even if your efforts are rudimentary or lack skill, don’t stop with the clothes. Hair, make up, hats, accessories can make even a poorly constructed outfit seem right. A beautifully executed gown with a hair scrunchie will never seem right.

  2. Your last one, definitely. There are whole units who don’t appear to know this one….

  3. Such a great list. As a budding reenactor I appreciate this very much.

  4. peter monahan

    Well done, that man [or woman]! ‘Try to speak correctly for the period.’ I don’t mean ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and so on, but drop ‘Awesome’, ‘OMG’ and cool from your vocabulary. Address military persons’ by their ranks and civilians by ‘sir’, ‘madam’ or whatever is correct for your period. A small thing but people do notice – both the jarring anachronisms and the correct forms.

  5. Invest in PROPER period eyeware! Obviously your 14th c Mongolian peasant wouldn’t wear spectacles. In that case, I’d go for contacts. if contacts are not an option, try to wear your glasses at inauspicious times when the public isn’t looking. I despise nothing more than to see someone who has invested in a $4,000 worth of proper kit who is wearing modern plastic glasses.

    • Easier said than done. I cannot wear contacts for medical reasons, but I also cannot see without my glasses(at all). I am legally blind without them. “Medival” frames won’t work with my lenses, as they are very thick. It’s a good idea in theory, but not always a good idea.

      • One of my favorite encounters was with a woman interpreter at Fort Snelling who was baking. I asked who was in the other room and she said that she couldn’t see that far but thought it was (…). Sometimes you might not want to ‘see that far’ for period reasons. Leaving the corrective lenses home isn’t a bad idea. Except when you are driving to the event.

  6. One of my person hurdles is accepting the fact to openly admit verbally, whether it’s by a fellow re-enactor or the public when asked a question, “I apologize, I do not know.” And then attempt to seek a person whom you feel can answer said question to the best of their ability.

  7. #1. Research -primary sources whenever possible. # 2. Research.

  8. Almost all his points are good. One I take exception to is “find out what was common and wear that.” Any scientist knows that a measurement is meaningless without a tolerance. Likewise I am not content with finding the most common, I need to know HOW common and what are the less common alternatives. Especially in militia but also in the regular military, men are not identical clones. Portraying the diversity of militiamen is almost as important as portraying the most common militiaman. The carpenter standing shoulder to shoulder with the pig farmer and the lawyer is what the revolutionary militia is all about. For public educations sake someone should be able to ask a question and get a different answer from each reenactor as they reply from their persona’s point of view. If they ask what you will do if you lose the battle you should have at least a vague answer ready. If they ask what did you before the war you should have a good answer and it should be unique.

  9. In addition to my already-included comment, I have one to add:

    Research, research, research, and SHARE your research widely.

  10. Jake Pontillo

    While you are at it, why not ask the people you originally polled
    for a list- a bibliography if you will- of the actual places one can go or use to do the research necessary? Not everyone who wants to do historical research has training to do so..

    • Because the range of time periods that this blog represents is so wide, such a list would be absolutely enormous. That’s why the items on this list are general, rather than specific.

      • True enough but I think MOST of us are F&I, Rev War and CW. OK, so when I did CW I laid out a LOT of money for the whole uniform, from Jarnaigan and now I hear that Jarnaigan is not good. THEN I use the Osprey series for the rest of it and I hear that those books are not that good. It is truly depressing. Unless there is some secret society can SOMEBODY please at least begin a bibliography?

        • Actually, you’d be surprised at what the audience here is. There’s a significant number of folks do who WWI, WWII, medieval, and various niche impressions.

          To answer your question: your unit should have resources like those you describe. Barring that, primary sources are really what you should be looking at.

  11. If it’s possible, talk to people who were there or were close to those who were. You’d be surprised how many veterans and their relatives are open to talking about their experiences and what they saw even outside of the United States. Many of them will also have photos to share, which help immensely.

  12. I couldn’t even start to read this article. I will go back and read it after I make this comment. I have been a reenactor for more than two dozen years. Historical accuracy has been hammered into me from the get-go. I’m having an issue with the background illustration for this article. The ammunition shown on the bottom right is hunting ammunition. It would be against the Geneva convention to use this in actual battle. All ‘modern’ military ammunition has a full metal jacket (FMJ). This bothers me more than the case hardening on the flintlock just above on the right. Yes, I am being picky and pedantic, but giving people bad information is worse than giving them none.

    (OK, now I will read the article, just had to get this off my chest!)

    • Expanding bullets, were banned in the Hague Convention, 50 years before the Geneva Conventions. If you’re going to be pedantic, at least check your facts first.

    • WHAT is Tom in WI talking about? Are there variant pages that show up on different peoples’ pages? What page of this blog is he talking about? ammunition? Case hardening on a Musket- where is all this?

  13. Take the time to do it right, and finish what you start.
    If it’s a new gown, or new gear; don’t take it out and use it at an event until it is actually finished. A safety pinned hem is NOT acceptable (though a fully finished, but untrimmed gown is accurate) new gear that isn’t marked or is still in modern storage doesn’t belong out either. You wouldn’t wear jeans with a seam missing or open, so don’t wear breeches without buttons either!

  14. Remember that one daguerrotype picture of a Confederate cavalryman wearing mathcing riding overalls and holsters made from leopard skin? And that you have seen 4 or 5 of these clowns at one event? Individualism and “looking for that one extraordinary outfit” is a No.
    When portraying a soldier from the 18th or 19th century, let go of any individualistic item: you might have some personal stuff, you might even have pimped your Frenhc revolutionary bonnet -de-police with some excellent authentic embroidery of revolutionary emblems and slogans like “Vaincre ou Mourir”… but back in the days, every soldier was made to look and act exactly as all the others. Although we live in a very individualistic society, military units, especially in those days, were uniform in just about everything. Forget the fancy decoration, the embroidery on your haversack, the trousers no one else has, or something out of the ordinary hanging from your backpack that makes you stick out in the unit: although you might have found that one picture of that one soldier wearing striped pantaloons, that does not mean you should. If there were differences in dress, these were narrowed down to company size, since cloth and items were bought in large quantities. Forget the 30MM wargame French Infantry regiment you have painted in 25 different coloured greatcoats, or who wear 4 different kinds of headgear: uniformity was kept, even under the most difficult circumstances. If a source says the old hats were cut down to make Light Infantry caps, you can be sure the WHOLE unit did this. Not just one or two. Those motley garbed units everyone thinks look so “badass” are just a group of guys who really don;t get it.

  15. Don’t stare down at your feet while you are marching. Look up. It’s a pet peeve with many I know.

  16. A friend of mine went to England to research the uniforms of the British garrison in Boston in 1775. He found that the troops came over in three ships. The commander decided that while they were weeks at sea they would modify their uniforms and showed a model uniform to tailors from the three ships. The tailors did their work on their separate ships, and as each tailor interpreted the model uniform differently, by the time they reached Boston there were three different versions of the same uniform.

    Also as the madder red of the British uniforms faded in use, replacements would be issued new uniforms that were a different red than the weathered uniforms of the original troops.

    Granted these variations would tend to be on a company, not an individual level. But even His Majesty’s well supplied troops in the field would not look nearly as uniform as most artist drawings depict. It is likely colonial forces, when they actually had uniforms, would be even worse.

    • Funny thing about faded uniforms. When I was in the US Army Infantry we used the green fatigues in the field. We all wore them but some of them were much older and much more faded than others so there was a real series of shades. Our Class A’s were, of course, much more uniform in color, but for sure field uniforms are definitely going to show variants at least in shade of color- I think this is going to be true for ANY period when we are talking about the stuff actually worn in the field for any period of time .

  17. I agree with Jake. To some authenticity is new, parade ground, regulation correct, to others it is what it would have been like on campaign. The terribly washed out and patched up with brown cloth state of the British army in the peninsular is commonly mentioned in memoirs yet if you see a unit reenacting the battle of Salamanca or some such they will be in bright red jackets and clean white trousers. So who is most authentic?
    Well neither, there is always room for background and interpretation and for practical reasons most folk dont keep two sets of everything, the new and the knackered!

  18. Reading all these comments, I’ve come the conclusion that authenticity is kind of a funny animal.

    I certainly appreciate people’s comments here on uniform color variation. There probably aren’t too many reenactors who’ve actually tried to dye their own clothes using period methods. I did this when making my regimental coat (AWI) and it was quite an experience. Even within the one garment, there is color variation, so I’m sure this was likely the case in “historical real life”.

    I decided to try and make my own uniform, mostly for the challenge and partially for economic reasons. It was actually cheaper in the long run to order madder red (plant roots) and dye the cloth myself than to purchase it commercially manufactured. It was quite a project and in the end, I actually ended up with two coats. (One is finished and the other is not.) It took me about 4 months to make the entire uniform. I hand stitched all the seams that can be seen from the outside and decided to make a uniform as it would have been when they got on the boat leaving for the colonies. I have to say that in all this, I now I have a real appreciation for the effort it took to dress an army prior to the advent of the sewing machine.

    When I was researching the clothing in making this uniform, I was surprised how much variation was in the colonial British army. Not just from one regiment to another, but even in some respects within a regiment. Having rather unique circumstances, I decided to make the coat of a regiment I haven’t seen in any reenactments. I liked their regimental lace and my sewing machine just happened to have the exact same leaf stitch pattern.

    Now I know there are those who would argue authenticity because sewing machines didn’t exist, and therefore did not make regimental lace, but on the flip side, it came out showing something of accuracy we’d never see, since no one manufactures the leaf lace of the 64th regiment of foot. When I began researching regimental lace, I found the coats were far more decorative than we see at most reenactments. Now I know a lot of regiments took their lace off during the war, but I also think it serves the public to see that things had changed and where they had started from. That’s one of the things I like to explain to people.

    Another thing that is rather unique to my circumstance and something I can’t get around, is my crutches. Yeah, all the authenticity Nazis can yell at me, but I refuse to use 18th century crutches – to dangerous. I use forearm crutches, which have been covered with leather and upholstery vinyl that looks like wood. It’s funny, I’ve had quite a few compliments on my adaptation and some times people tell me I do a real good impression of someone who can’t walk well. This is of course until the realize it isn’t an act! My crutches also give me a chance to explain a little bigger picture as to how adaptive equipment didn’t really come into manufacture until WWI, because before that, the people who needed it, didn’t usually survive long enough to require something that was beyond rudimentary. It gives me a little chance to talk about period medical care and so many other things that people may not know about or think of.

    I haven’t been to many events yet and I’m hoping to get to more this year since I’ve had some very interesting conversations with visitors and am looking forward to having some more. My ability to participate though, will depend on my child’s medical needs. (Which right now are many.)

    So, I guess if I were to add my two cents to this ‘best practices of reenactors’. I’d say – have an open mind. Not everyone is going to approach reenacting the way “you” do. Visitors who have questions about weapons or tactical information, I’d be very happy to point them to someone who would know more than I would. As per cultural and sociological study though, that’s my area of interest and that’s what I tend to talk to the public the most about.

  19. Daniel Alfonsea

    Regarding the uniformity vs individuality issue. The important thing is the scale and proportion of it.
    Example: in a 500 men Napoleonic French Line Infantry battalion, in campaign specially, there was, no doubt, some variance: some civilian waistcoats, some missing shako covers, some differenly-colored trousers or breeches. But what is definitely a no-no is the same in a four-men reenactor unit, with not even two being alike, and believe me, this does happen. And those doing it try to convince you their impression is correct. Well, I don’t think so. Indiviadually, their impressions may well be accurate; but put them together, for a unit impression, and it does not work. Not in my book.

  20. Daniel Alfonsea

    Great article BTW!

  21. I need help for mountain man era dress for woman explorer… boots especially. any good source to go to for women’s pants 1840-1880 or fabrics for summer wear…. anyone mixing mountaineering clothing with dresses? I also want the hair to be correct, and my hair is short, so will don a wig if needed. I’m searching Women in Pants book, etc. for photos, and have looked at all the online reproduction clothing… not what I am looking for. Not pioneer dresses nor native American regalia unless I can be accurate and represent it well for Pawnee or local Nebraska area.