Authentic period clothing…that's the magnificent dresses of Ann Boleyn, in any number of movies, or the finery of Martha Washington in the latest TV special, or the clothing from Downton Abby now on display an easy drive from my home. Oh, wait a minute those are costumes.
Most reinactors and interpreters are pretty picky about the difference. Costumes are made from a modern fabric that looks like to the proper cloth. They are made with modern methods, like sewing machines. They only have to look like the real thing, they don't have to be it. Costumes have to put up with a lot of rough wear and need to keep looking new and clean in spite of makeup perspiration and frequent cleaning.
Authentic clothing has to be authentic, not just look authentic.
At this tea several of us were in authentic period clothing, two from the 1700s and one from the Civil War period. We had a dress model wearing an 1820s high waisted empire gown.
One of the women said "I love your costumes." I whispered to her that they were authentic period clothing, not costumes. For the rest of the tea she called them authentic period costumes. You really can't win. But she did love them and that was the point. We do try to slip in a bit of education around the lemon cake and the tea sandwiches.
Let me describe what I wear in an attempt to portray the miller's wife in 1739 or the shepherd of a flock of sheep sometime in the early 1800s. My clothing has to be sturdy, but it also has to look like I have been wearing it for some time. It has to be clean, but not necessarily free of stains. It has to be mended if necessary, and the patches don’t have to match.
Why do I take all this trouble? For me it's all about education. I don't have to talk about what I am wearing. I look the part and people often ask questions. “Why are you using pins instead of buttons?” This usually from men, “what are you wearing under it?”
Is it really authentic? Well, more or less. The long inside seams may be machine stitched. The cloth itself should be a lose weave linen, or a rougher fabric like hemp. Everything I wear is made from new cloth. Nothing is cut down, or turned. While my shortgown and petticoat are different colors, they go well together in accordance with modern sensibilities. I use safety pins where they don't show and long straight pins where they do.
Instead my clothing is made of the heavy cotton used in horse blankets, and the fabric is made in a factory instead of on a loom in someone's chamber (bedroom to you).. Some of my long inside seams are machine stitched. I try to hand stitch as often as I can, but there isn't always the time. The pins I use to hold my shortgown shut are modern factory made pins. My miller's wife would not have worn panties, or a bra. But I find it hard to do without modern undies. My stays, which I should wear in place of a bra, lace up the back so I need someone to help me get in and out of them.
I find the clothing to be comfortable, cool in summer and warm in winter. I can work in it easily. I wouldn’t mind being a farmer’s or miller’s wife all the time.