Historical Reconstruction: A Valuable Source for the Historian

As an historian of early modern dress and material culture my research requires a wide range of documentation – wardrobe warrants, probate inventories and wills, visual sources such as engravings and paintings, popular literature like plays, didactic texts and broadside ballads, and even personal correspondence such a letters and diaries – in order to construct an accurate picture of a past material world. However, there are often still limitations to using only these traditional written and visual sources.
Wardrobe warrants and probate inventories can tell the historian the economics of clothing production – who ordered what, how many and when, as well as information about the materials used in their production, however, they don’t outline patterns or methods of construction. Other texts like popular literature and personal correspondence can tell us information about how these items functioned socially – what people thought of them and how that influenced social and cultural norms, but many of these sources express just that: thoughts, both popular and personal, leaving the historian to pursue the relationship between ideas and everyday embodiment. Then there are visual sources that are not only valuable in their own right, but can help to interpret the written record, allowing the historian to decode sometimes complex technical terminology or to match descriptions of dress with a dated image. Surviving artefacts themselves also hold the key to vast amounts of information that has been lost to the printed or archival record, or is not discernible in visual representations. For example, sweat marks and continued wear and tear in particular places on the garment can tell us much information about the effect that dress had on the body or that the body had on dress. Yet whilst the life of the garment (and that of the person who wore it) may still be visible on surviving artefacts, some questions remain unanswered, and this is where historical reconstruction can be a valuable research tool for the historian.
Historical reconstruction has, until recently, not been seen as a concern of the serious academic, believed to belong to television, re-enactors or living history museums. Yet reconstruction has been used by archaeologists, curators and conservators for many years. More recently, Ulinka Rublack from the University of Cambridge has incorporated reconstructions into her work on Renaissance fashion, leading the field in early modern material studies. Pamela H. Smith, an historian of early modern science, has established the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, which uses reconstructions of recipes from early modern texts to explore the intersections between artisan practices and scientific knowledge. Renown fashion historian and the figure to whom many of us now working in the field owe our gratitude, Janet Arnold, was also a pioneer of fact-based faithful reconstructions of historical dress, and institutes such as the School of Historical Dress run by Jenny Tiramani exist to teach both scholars and amateurs alike period-accurate construction techniques.
Two years ago I was awarded a grant by the Department of History at the University of Sydney to make, using historically accurate materials and sewing techniques, some of the items that my research examines – an Elizabethan bodie (corset) from around 1603, a mid-seventeenth century bodie and two styles of farthingale (structured underskirts) – in order to learn not only about the historical production process, but also to interpret the often polemical and sometimes outrageous sources that often describe early modern women and their dress. We may never know exactly how a sixteenth or seventeenth-century woman felt when she wore these items, nor am I suggesting that we can use reconstructions accurately to recapture bodily experiences from the past; it would be anachronistic to place these garments on a modern body unburdened by years of wearing restrictive clothing to see how “we” would feel wearing them, as historical notions of comfort and other sensory experiences vary widely. However, faithfully recreating these garments allows modern historians to not only understand historical methods of construction, but also to gain a more nuanced view of surviving historical records.
My four reconstructions took about one and a half years (of non-continuous hand sewing) to complete. All of these garments utilised period-accurate materials that were found in surviving wardrobe warrants and tailoring bills such as silk taffeta, linen, silk thread, and wool. As whalebone (‘baleen’) is, for good reason, not available anymore I decided to use a modern plastic alternative that mimics baleen’s properties such as its strength and flexibility.
The two ‘bodies’ were made to the exact size and dimensions as the original surviving examples, with the same sewing techniques employed in the originals to make the reproductions. Unlike the bodies, accessing an original or observation based pattern of either a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale was impossible as no examples of either style have survived anywhere in Europe. Instead, my reconstruction of these ephemeral garments was much more experimental and relied on archival material, visual images, as well as my own understanding of seventeenth-century construction techniques.
The process of reconstructing these garments by hand has given me invaluable knowledge about not only how to construct early modern dress, but also how to analyse surviving objects in museum collections – a skill which some scholars of historical dress still lack. Most importantly for my research, however, is the fact that placing these reconstructions on models of different sizes and instructing them to sit down, bend over and walk has allowed me to assess the visible physical limitations that these garments placed on the modern female body and then apply those observations to my historical research. This is one of the main merits of historical reconstruction: it allows us to reconstruct lost objects of the past to examine often problematic surviving historical sources, whether it is in relation to sources on production, or the everyday social embodied acts of wearing. After all these items were real, and many women (and some men) spent their whole lives wearing different styles of various sizes and shapes, and so reconstructing them not only allows the historian to become closer to the sources of the period, but also to people and their real and lived experiences of these items.
If you would like to read in more detail about the step-by-step process of making my reconstructions please visit my
own blog.