Why oh why don’t we give history a chance?

After weeks of planning, sewing, and just plain excitement about the event, I was forced to sit there with my jaw slack – cursing the current American attitudes towards education, especially history.

Let me explain: One of my historical groups held a Dining Out in downtown San Francisco last Saturday. For this event, many of us (myself included) had gone to great lengths to prepare self and clothing for an event themed 1870’s – 1890’s. My whole day was spent on last minute touches for my bustle gown, including secret hooks to hang the fan off of, fluffing the pouf of the skirts, and polishing the shoes. .. Don’t even get me started on the torture I put my hair through to make it historically right. And darn it – I looked good. I wasn’t the only one – we all looked good. And to my critical eye: we looked VICTORIAN. We looked like all the fancy ads that get reused when advertisers want to evoke a sense of the ‘good ole days.’ We looked like half the documentaries on the History Channel. We looked like we stepped out of most every John Wayne film ever made. By golly, we looked like we walked out of any of the amazing array of movies set in the Victorian time period. Tombstone? Sherlock Holmes, anyone? The men were in military uniforms and frock coats with top hats. The ladies were in gorgeous gowns with corsets (under the clothing, thank you) and gloves.

So naturally, once the dinner was done, none of us wanted to take these amazing historical creations off. We’d worked too hard to get them done. So, we did what anyone else might do, we went bar hopping. Happy frosty adult beverages all around. And that’s when it happened – not once, but several times.

“Hey, are you guys from the Renaissance Faire?”
“Wow, you look just like Daughters of the American Revolution. George Washington stuff, you know.”
“Oh you just look like a bunch of Southern Belles, don’t you?”
“Is that like Bible times?” (Okay, this guy was drunk, so perhaps he shouldn’t count.)
“Why are you dressed so weird?” (This came from a girl wearing one of those dresses that comes in a plastic egg and not much else. I was at least dressed.)

The remarks were numerous, and what made me mad was that they were ignorant. Of course I tried to give credit to people who recognized we were dressed in period clothing – of some sort – not everyone is a clothing nazi like me. But this shouldn’t have been so hard. Of course we appreciated people being confused about WHY we were dressed as we were, but how did we get to a point where people just don’t have a clue about history. Recent history too – as in 130 puny years.

I believe it’s because we treat history as a subject so boring that the sooner we forget it, the sooner we’ll have more attention span to give to NASCAR and Fox News. Sara Palin got the basics I learned in elementary school wrong – and was proud of the fact! Granted, that didn’t surprise me nearly as much as the reaction against those who tried to correct the error. There was actual pride in her faux facts. Not counting all the outright lies told to bend people to accept some political nonsense, we actually aren’t as savvy to our own history as we should be. And many out there are proud of it.

I know, I’m complaining about clothing and average folks not knowing what I’m wearing. Not exactly life ending. It’s just one example. Let me relate a story told to me by a friend: at a Renaissance Faire, she had to explain to a Mother and her two children that they had actual houses in both Elizabethan and Biblical times (“no ma’am, they did not live in caves and tents.” “But Jesus was born in a cave!” “I believe that was a manger, though sometimes caves were used to house animals, but he was born there because there was no room at the Inn – a house – a physical structure.”) She was met with a completely blank stare.

When did we decide that history was boring and needed help? I cite the Elizabeth movies as an example. The Director changed everything, including making one of the smartest women monarchs into a dithering, blundering weakling. Do I need to mention the Tudors on HBO for grotesque twisting of real facts? Why on earth would anyone change what was already fascinating? And I direct that question to authors as well. The plethora of books about the Tudors and Stuarts, chalk full of inaccuracies, just makes me want to pull my hair out. And people call them good history. They’re not! They may be good fiction, but they are not good history. If you want to change the facts, say so. It’s cool to do that – call it literary license. But don’t call it factual history. (By the way, my novel is skewed history – and I admit it!)

Another time I’ll take on the issue of America’s current infatuation with willful ignorance, but please, in the meantime, give history – real history – a chance. It is living, exciting, fascinating, complex and intriguing. It is the base from which we operate as a nation and a culture.

And no, my 1885 bustle gown isn’t what was worn by a woman in the Revolutionary War – yet after a deep breath and a ‘hush up’ to my inner costume nazi, I had to appreciate that the lady who said it was at least aware that we had a Revolution in this country and was awfully nice in the way she chatted us up.

4 thoughts on “Why oh why don’t we give history a chance?

  1. I will never forget the day that I stood in the yard at the Rose & Stag, wearing two skirts (floor-length), a blouse/chemise that went down to my knees underneath, a front-laced bodice, a snood-style cap covered by a straw hat, stockings, underpinnings and shoes — and had a man and his lady friend stare at me. She was wearing flip-flops, cut-off jeans (so short that you could see the white fabric from the pockets) and a camisole. He looked at her and said “I’d never let you out of the house with your T*** hanging out like that.” I had on more underwear than she had outerwear! It is truly astonishing what people think they know about the past.

  2. It drives me crazy, too.

    Now where are the pictures of this incredible event, for those of us that actually enjoy historical accuracy… I would really love to see what you wore, what everyone wore.

    Please post, pretty please with a cherry on top!

    History nut,

  3. Adam Lid

    I’ve done my share of various living history/reenactment events over the years and I’ve grown to intenselly dislike public events for many of the same reasons. I really dislike being seen as part of some zoo exhibit (“Hey Martha, look at the people dressed in funny clothing!”).

    It also seems to get worse, the further back in time you portray. One time I was participating in a 4th of July Day parade where we were portraying mounted Continental soldiers. It was obvious (so I would have shought) that we were portrying members of the American military c. 1776 or so and we even had an appropriate American flag of the period. So what happens? Some bozo comes up to us and asks in all seriouslness, are we pirates. I could hit him with my sword (a very real sword) I was so irritated.

    As for Faire, somehow it seemed that 95% of the people visiting thought we were a bunch of hippies in funny clothes wh owere just using the whole affaire as cover for some ongoing spectacle of debauchery to be followed up by the nightly orgy (well, you KNOW that’s what REALLY goes on in Actor’s Camp!).

    On the other hand, once in awhile you get some appreciative people and while they may not be the most historically informed, they at least are making an effort to find something out.

    I’ll go back to my tack room now… 🙂

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