Thursday, April 9, 2009

Re-creation vs. Reproduction?

The old saying that "there are two different schools of X" seems to hold for historical costuming.

One school, which consists mainly, but not entirely, of living history enthusiasts and historical reenactors, tries to craft historical clothing that comes as close to being the real thing as possible. They do not merely attempt to cut their cloth in an appropriate period style. They also seek to use fabrics that are as authentic in fiber type, weight, color and weave as possible, and often hand sew the garments with period-style tools using period stitches. Sometimes, they even spin the thread, weave the cloth, and dye it themselves, as this woman did to make an Anglo-Saxon cyrtel. (Sadly, her site is now defunct. I obtained the link I've provided via the Wayback Machine, and it does not seem to reliably show all the photographs, though the links to the archived copy of all of her subpages appear to work).

The other school of thought goes for the emulation of appearances. This is how I started out in historic costuming. I figured that I didn't have much money, and I didn't have the skills of the ancients in leatherworking, metalwork, weaving, or even sewing, so that I'd be lucky if I could achieve an approximately period effect with whatever modern artifices I could scrounge. So I cheerfully used polyesters with plausible-looking (to me) weaves, velcro fasteners, plastic buttons, and trims with vaguely period designs in my crude little costume reproductions.

I still don't have the patience or time to do museum-quality recreations (no matter what my husband might say if you broach him on the subject), but over time my standards have risen. Now, I make all my historical clothing out of natural fibers, preferably the fibers and weave-types actually used, and I employ designs that we know, from archaeology, were used in period. I've even begun hand sewing entire garments within the last few years.

But sometimes a bit of modern artifice will work wonders--especially if you are not working on clothing that must meet the standards of a living history society or similar body. That brings me to the observation that inspired this post.

Today, thanks to Katrin Kania's blog, A Stitch in Time, I learned about the revamped web site of the National Museum of Denmark. The National Museum houses a number of famous Viking artifacts, including the Mammen embroideries. Katrin's site pointed out that the web site now has excellent photographs of those textiles and others found in the same grave, in a format that makes them nearly infinitely zoomable.

Among the textile photographs was an excellent shot of one of the pair of fabric bracelets from the grave that are ornamented with metal brocaded tablet weaving. (It's the second photograph from the bottom on the above page). The photo shows an impressive amount of detail if you zoom in several times.

Go on, try it. I'll wait.

What the brocaded band reminded me of was a piece of commercial trim I bought from an EBay vendor for a costume I made for my husband two years ago. A picture of it appears with this post. As you can see it is very metallic silver--so much so it was hard to photograph it in such a way that you would be able to see the detail.

Does it remind you of anything? It reminds me of the brocade on the armlets. Though the brocaded band on the armlets is clearly woven with both silver and gold thread, and like most tablet weaving of the period, is much narrower than my commercially made trim, which is three inches (about 7.5 cm) wide.

But if you ignore the borders on my commercial trim, the pattern is very similar to the Mammen band. The band even looks and feels as though it's woven of metal thread, though I don't have the expertise to ascertain whether it really is or not. I wish I was good enough with a camera to take a photograph of this trim of the same quality as the National Museum's photograph of the Mammen wristlet, so you could see the metallic threads in it. I knew, when I originally bought the trim, that the design was similar to period motifs, but I didn't realize how impressive the resemblance was until I saw the photograph of the Mammen wristlet band today.

The moral I'm inclined to draw from my impromptu comparison test is that some modern improvisations may produce a costume that is more in the spirit of the original, even if it is not crafted using only period techniques. Others are, of course, free to disagree.

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