Mar 18, 2011

A World in a Wardrobe: Costume as Communication in Historic Sites

17 March 2011
Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies, director, JMD and Company, The Tudor Tailor, Godalming, England.

Jane spoke to us of her research into costuming in historic sites. The research is ongoing, and I look forward to seeing the results some time in the future.

"Costumes should be as correct as possible, not only for the period and the activity being performed, but also in all their details ... not only should the costume elements be correct, but, ideally, so should hair styles, makeup, watches, accessories, and even eyeglasses". Alderson & Payne Low, 1976, 35-36.

Even though this quote was written in 1976, Jane felt it was still relevant today. Other quotes she shared with us in her talk include:

"Where do you draw the line on authenticity?" Queen, 1999

"Accuracy is dependent on availability and use of sources" McMahon, 1999

"It is an aesthetic judgement whether a garment is representative of a range of sources" Marendy, 1993.


  • Spectrum - "Historically accurate" to "totally stylistic" Radcliffe, 1987
  • Hierarchy -
    Replication: duplication of an extant item exactly
    Reconstruction: uses some justifiable speculation
    Recreation: uses guesswork and imagination
    Wayland Barber, 2005



When Jane was surveying historic sites with employees, she looked at:

  • why and how costume was used
  • practical difficulties and demands
When looking at accuracy:
  • verisimilitude and fit of the visible garments
  • correct layers to provide the historical shape
  • having period underwear
  • wearing the right shoes
  • having the costume police on patrol
Anachronisms that needed to be policed at a historic site include:
  • spectacles
  • jewellery
  • makeup
  • perfume
  • hairstyles
  • shoes
  • c21st underwear
... Jane did find in her questioning that these were worn to a greater or lesser extent at most sites.

When looking into maintenance of costumes at historic sites, she saw that at two sites
  • Interpreters assisted two hours a week with laundry, repairs and ironing
  • Staff will "wear and care for suitable historic costume"
Training is an important part of an interpreters introduction to their job. They need to
  • interpret dress
  • understand posture and deportment appropriate to their character, time and costume
  • know how to dress
  • care for their clothes
  • know how to store them correctly
  • keep check on inventory.
"Costuming is the first, most visible, and often the most memorable part of a visitor's experience". A site.


Jane found that most sites surveyed felt they were more successful if curatorial involvement with design, making and wearing of costume was advisory instead of supervisory. Volunteers felt more involved if allowed to design and tailored their costumes in line with "well-researched and accurate data".

She found that a majority of sites either trained their staff annually or never in interpretation, posture, deportment, dressing, storage and care.
"Inaccuracy of information about costume leads to a misinformed public" A site

Sites revealed that most evaluated their costumes either daily or weekly, however 19% evaluated annually or never and 17% monthly or quarterly.
One site is quoted saying "The 'costume policewoman' assures accuracy, assembling materials for costumes and shepherding the costumes from patterns to completion".

Costume maintenance showed that 39% of interpreters maintained their outfits, 51% maintained parts of it and 10% maintained none of it.
"Keep costume and personal appearance tidy and clean" a site
"Costumes are permitted to be 'only period correct dirty' " a site

Surveying site's maintenance revealed 39% allowing interpreters to be wholly responsible for their outfits, 28% of sites maintained the outfits daily or weekly, 21% of sites maintained costumes annually or never and 11% of sites maintained monthly or quarterly.
One site reported that "the costume department maintains the garments. Daily laundry is required for washable fabrics."

to be continued...

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