Sunday, 12 April 2009

Fugstume History

Note to all reenactors: popular books on the history of costume are NOT reliable sources.

Almost every one I've seen has taken cues from the History of Costume by Braun & Schneider, a collection of Victorian plates printed in German between 1861 and 1880.  Do a Google search on 'Costume History' and this is the first site that will appear.  Though the people who have made it available online do specify that "One must be aware... that these illustrations have a Victorian perspective to their designs," they also state that "This book is an excellent source for students who are studying the history of fashion and for costume designers."

No, it isn't... at least not in every illustration on every page. It might be an excellent source for students studying the changing perception of costume history and the ways in which modern tastes and conventions influence our interpretation. But some errors are pretty glaring in light of more recent research.

I'm not going to cover all the stuff that makes me suspicious, and I'm sure there are more details that I'm missing but that would be obvious to a trained costume specialist.  I'll just rant a bit about the things I found most jarring. 

Let's start with the 4th century Teutons.  According to Selkie, our resident historian, most of the information here might still fit with archeological findings, though the theories on this early garb have changed.  But there are some probable errors: the tunics with short sleeves, not long sleeves; the chainmail shirt with no sleeves, when it ought to have short sleeves; and those spirals over the boobs.  There is no evidence for boobiespirals.  Also, what's up with the kid?  Belt and fur lining, fine.  But straps over the shoulders?  No undershirt?  Have we got an infant Conan the Barbarian here?

Next up, Charlemagne.  Where have I seen bliauts like those before?  Oh yeah, the portal jambs of Chartres Cathedral.  And when was Chartres begun?  1145.  Yes, folks, bliauts were worn by French women of the 12th century.  And when was the rule of Charlemagne?  768-814.  Oopsie.

Let's pick on the 11th century Normans, shall we?  I don't believe the woman's overtunic that ends at the thigh.  Even the blokes' tunics came down lower than that.  As for the split skirt and exposed legs?  WRONG WRONGY-WRONG-WRONG!

The dress on the right is at least 50 years too early.  It's listed as "early 15th century."  The closest actual example I could find was a portrait of Elizabeth of York, c. 1500.  

As for the Italians (woefully underrepresented in this book, despite the fame of their art), I'm not sure about the Incredible Bow-Bedecked Monstrosity of Doom.  I doubt anyone has ever used this many bows, not even Marie Antoinette.

They stick bows all over the sleeves of a Landsknecht gown, too, and I know that's just plain wrong.  It's no surprise that Braun & Schneider, being German, devote 28 plates to the Landsknecht era.  But alas, they totally ignore the wealth of information in the works of Cranach.  

Plate 33 shows lace cuffs — WRONG.  There is also no evidence for big, floofy, Baroque-style sleeves with bows.  The colour choices are strange as well; the favoured shades would have been red, green and black, with some blue and brown as well, and would have been dark jewel tones, not pastels.

Y'know, I had a set of storybook paperdolls when I was little.  They were almost as tall as Barbie, and they had the most wonderful detail I'd ever seen in any paper dolls, anywhere.  The artist had labelled all the gowns with a place of origin and approximate date, ranging from early Slavic to 1600s Spanish Infantas, giving me the notion that this woman had done serious research.  I think that above all else, it was these paper dolls that awakened my interest in costume.

15 years later, I discovered that most of those "historically accurate" depictions had been lifted straight from Braun & Schneider.  Yeah, I felt a little disillusioned.


  1. Just a point or two to add as a historian: both in history and archaeology, new finds are still being made. So a careful, good scholar can produce a study using all the material available and it may still become out-of-date.

    Also, some details of early medieval costuming are theoretical reconstructions - we only have partial evidence and must guess based on what we have. These guesses aren't WRONG, but they aren't proven either - so tread lightly.

  2. I recognise that absolute historical accuracy can really never be attained. I also realise that with new discoveries being made all the time, some of our own theories may someday seem as laughable as the odder things in this book. Viking apron dresses, for example, have recently become controversial. But I'd like to think -- or hope! -- that we're slowly refining our theories and more or less getting closer to what things really would have looked like (with, of course, the odd mistake or outright bugfuck theory thrown into the works).

    The bottom line as far as I'm concerned? You wouldn't browse 19th century texts for the latest in, say, historical theories or archaeology. So why would you do it for costume?