What makes a garment historically accurate?

One of the questions I ask people to answer with each Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is how historically accurate their submission is, and the answers have revealed an interesting range of interpretations of what makes a garment historically accurate.

I put the question in the facts list because I think it reveals a lot about the intent of a garment, and I hoped it would encourage people to think about historical accuracy and what really is accurate.

I don’t actually think all garments need to be historically accurate – there is a time and place for accuracy in a garment.  For some of us accuracy is our ultimate goal, others just want to create pretty frocks.  For me, as a researcher, sometimes sewing a garment that you know is inaccurate in certain respects can reveal almost as much about a period as sewing a perfectly accurate one would, and so is worthwhile in its own right.  I do think it is important to consider what aspects of your item are accurate, and what aren’t, to really understand how that will affect the finished product.

For me, historical accuracy is much more than the weave of your fabric, or whether it is hand sewn or machine sewn using the correct stitches for the timeperiod and type of garment (though those are obviously very important) – it’s about considering the entire societal context into which it fits.

Cotton knit t-shirting, for example, is a perfectly accurate modern fabric, but if someone 150 years from now sewed it up into a wedding dress based off an image from a modern wedding magazine, using a combination of t-shirt & wedding dress techniques, they would create a very odd garment indeed – not one that we would recognise as normal.  It isn’t however, entirely implausible. We live in an age where experimentation is accepted and celebrated – one without a rigid social structure dictating the correct fabric or garment to wear in many situations, so there may be at least one very wedding-y wedding dress in cotton t-shirting.  Evidence suggests that such experimentation  was not the case in most other periods of history.

Here are some questions that I ask myself when I try to make a perfectly historically accurate garment:

The Wearer & Society:

– What type of person would wear this garment?  What would their class be?  What type of event would they wear it for?  What would they do while wearing it?

The Wearer & the Maker:

– Would the wearer & the maker be the same person?  If not, what was their relationship likely to have been?  Who would be the impetus behind the design and the major aesthetic features?  What conditions would it be made under?  Would it be specially made for one person, or commercially produced?

The Fabric:

– What fibre are period examples of this garment made in?  What weave?  What weight?  How would the fabric handle?  What was the dye being used, and what colours were fashionable?  Does my pattern match patterns seen on the same kind of garments of the period (because a fabric may be perfectly period for a day dress, but not an evening dress)?  Would a seamstress of the time recognise my fabric as suitable for the type of garment I am intending to make (irrespective of its fibre content)?  Where would my fabric have been purchased, and made?  How much selection would the seamstress have had?

The Sewing:

– How was a garment of this period  patterned up or draped?   How was it fitted?  How was it  assembled?  Would it have lining, support?  Would machine or hand sewing have been used?  What stitches?  What type of thread?

– How is the sewing and the fabric choice going to affect the overall aesthetic of the garment?  How it hangs, drapes & moves?  How it feels on you?  How it wears over time?

And finally:

– Would your garment look out of place if it was transported back to the era that inspired it?  Would it be visibly and obviously alien?  Quirky, but not horribly out of place? A reasonable facsimile, until someone inspected it very closely?  Completely indistinguishable from other garments of the period?


The final question is, for me, the ultimate litmus test.  It does mean that (in my opinion) it’s quite possible to make a mainly machine-sewn 18th century garment, with the right fabric, with the maker and wearer and their status and relationship really considered, and considered in relation to the fabric and sewing, that is far more accurate than a totally hand sewn garment made from fabric that is inappropriate to the garment type, wearer, and social situation.

This is my current take on historical accuracy.  It’s evolved a lot from my post on historically accurate fabric of four years ago, though some of the same themes remain.  I wonder what my views will be in another four years?

What do you think?  What makes a really historically accurate reproduction?  What do you consider when you aim for historical accuracy?


  1. Andrea says

    The very most important consideration to me is the social class of the wearer and the setting in which it will be worn.

    The last garment I made was an unstructured day dress for an Arizona pioneer event. It is a Prairie-type dress with no waist, just an identical front and back. I put a collar on it and simple cuffed sleeves. Shaping is provided by an apron. Because I am very wide my pattern was too wide for my calico. I solved that by cutting my pattern apart longways and cutting the center on the fold and the side pieces on the flat. I ended up with six pieces instead of two. However, I firmly believe I solved the problem in the same way a w woman sewing at home in the time period would have solved it.

    So, as I eluded to, the dress itself is cotton calico. The apron and the slat prairie bonnet are recycled from a Civil War era day dress of cotton homespun type fabric. Those don’t at all match or go with the dress fabric, but a settler may well have her grandmother’s or mother’s dress. It was a lot of fabric and there is no real reason it wouldn’t be save for restyling or reuse.

    I was nearly the only one at this event who wasn’t in finery. That irritates me. Almost everyone wants to dress in upper-class clothing because it’s prettier or more interesting or it’s just plain more fun to play dress-up in better dresses. But it just doesn’t reflect what would be worn on a homestead. Even if I were the lady of the house I would wear a plain day dress or work in.

    • Elise says

      You’re from Arizona? Awesome! When some of my earlier ancestors migrated to southern Arizona in the 1870s, they absolutely wore things that had been handed down to them. They were sharecroppers–what else would they have done? (yes, they even had sharecropping in AZ, although most people think of the American south)

    • I agree. They had to use what they had and re use everything. There was no throwing it out if it was stained. All fabric had to be cut up and recycled.
      I tried to explain this to a group of ladies at an event once and the best anology I could think of was my great grandmothers quilts they were peieced together out of scraps of old clothes. The fabrics did not match and it was ok. If we want to look the part we need to be more realistic.
      I think I may cut up one of my daughters old dresses and make an apron out of it.
      Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Bravo for being one of the few souls who will be appropriate for the event and wear lower class clothing! *high five from the fellow lower class reenactor*

  2. I definitely agree that if a fabric cannot be distinguished from an all-natural fiber fabric by look, feel, or wearing, there’s no point in refusing to use it because it’s not all-natural. I also agree that it is critical to historical accuracy to use fabrics that were appropriate to the social class of the intended wearer and the intended function of the garment.

    However, I think that perfect accuracy may well be impossible for periods before about 200 years ago, since we do not have enough information about the options available to the seamstress and that some techniques for making fabrics and threads have gotten lost. So it becomes necessary to try to come up with the best alternatives, considering the costs of fabrics and notions today, and what knowledge we have of the fabrics and notions that were originally used.

    • “I definitely agree that if a fabric cannot be distinguished from an all-natural fiber fabric by look, feel, or wearing, there’s no point in refusing to use it because it’s not all-natural.”

      I have to say, I do refuse to use synthetics despite this due to one important consideration: fire risk. For those who reenact around open fires, synthetics are too much of a risk no matter how natural they look.

      (And, no, this is not just paranoia. I know a gentleman who set his braies (underwear) on fire. Luckily they were linen and just smouldered…)

  3. My approach is affected by certain factors. 1. access to fabric. I can’t always get the right fabric weather that be supply wise or not being able to afford it. 2. I can’t make things for the sake of it. They have to be wearable in a modern situation. 3. I don’t have a dressform so I have to fit clothing using a mirror, pins and a lot of cursing. lol!
    So I always start by thinking if I was me back in that time what would I do…(which I think includes if the historical me had access to the fabric I have now would they use it). As a natural hand sewer (self taught) when I have prooblems I generally come up with solutions that I later discover is the historical way.
    I like to go for the ‘impression’ rather than obsess over little innacuracies I can’t possibly solve.

  4. I like the way you’ve presented this (both in the post and in your format for the HSF) in shades of grey, rather than black and white. By definition, ANY garment we make today, no matter how perfectly researched and executed, is historically inaccurate simply because it was made today.

    Personally, I find the joy — and academic value — of reproduction sewing is much more in the journey than the destination. Short of deconstructing the seams in historic garments, sometimes the only way to understand how they were made is by mimicking the process.

    It also gives us insight, as you point out, into the lives of the people who made and wore these garments in days gone by. For instance, a hand-sewn 1850s work shirt for someone reenacting a gold-miner becomes much more interesting when you realize that the women who originally made them usually lived in NYC, supported themselves and often a few children with their needles in an attempt to preserve their social status rather than accept better-paying work as a servant, had to buy the fabric out of their own pocket, often sewed late into the night by candlelight, and needed to complete a dozen shirts a week (2 per day, 6 days a week) in order to survive!

    On the other hand, give all the back history to someone who’s never hand-sewn an entire shirt, and they just won’t get it.

    • Elise says

      Me too—although sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I like that intention is more important than anything else. It’s practical–just like our fore-stresses would have been.

  5. I agree with you! I have laid a silk next to a fake and could not tell the difference…until I looked at the price. For me this is a hobby and not a career. I’m not spending tons of money for a hobby when 95% of the people in the world could not tell the difference nor will I hand sew when no one will be looking close enough to see machine stitches. Besides, if you have car keys in your bag, deoderant on your body, fillings in your teeth and plastic boning in your dress you are not accurate and most of us are not willing to leave the keys in the car, smell au natural, knock out our fillings and kill a whale for the sake of being authentic. And most of us are not going to rely on Victorian methods of dealing with that special girl time….If I know that they didn’t use polyester blends and I know they didn’t use a sewing machine I’m merely being educated and honest with myself and anyone I’m talking to about the dress. I don’t see less than a 100% as a failure. If I feel pretty, it is a success! I kind of think of myself as more of a theatrical costumer than a museum curator or reenactor. My goal is to have my audience believe I have stepped forward in time. They will not know enough/care enough/ get close enough to see the inaccuracies. I just want to suspend their beliefs for a moment.

    • I’m not entirely sure that we agree at all – but that’s not a bad thing. Different opinions are what make the world interesting!

      For me, it’s all about research and understanding, so my goal is always teach my audience enough that they will care and understand about what is real and isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that which isn’t real isn’t OK – just that I need to know, and I need to let the audience know, and hopefully, I can even make them care.

      • The difference between the two of us I guess is who our audience is. Mine is someone who stumbles upon me and my friends having fun at a venue and who may or may not stop for two minutes and ask a question or make a comment. Your audience are people who read your blog, saw you when you worked at the museum, come to your talks and classes…they EXPECTED to see you and they expected to learn from you. Your primary role is teacher, mine is actress and big kid playing dress up.
        I want to know what is true and what is not for my own interest and then I want the most affordable way to copy it-like a theatre costume maker would. If I am honest with myself and people I’m talking to then there is learning and no harm done. I hope I never come across as some sort of expert and I hope that I always recognize people who have more than a passing interest and that I am pointing them towards sources that are truly more informed than I am! I’m also still learning so 10 years from now I may cringe and say to myself “how on earth did I believe that monstrosity was 90% accurate!”

        Keep doin’ what your doin’! I’m always learning from you!

        • I think I agree with your approach a lot! I’m doing this for fun; if I were an official part of a re-enacting community, this might get more involved, but right now I’m mostly going for historical accuracy because I like learning that sort of thing. Or not going for it, depending…

          Though I go for natural fibres whenever I can, even in my modern sewing, simply because I do not like the feel of man-made fibres when I wear them. 😛 With the exception of rayon/viscose, perhaps. This, I guess, is made easier for me because I do not go for luscious silk Victorian gowns; my weakness are rather lightweight cotton frocks.

    • This is in no way a criticism (because I agree with you, I like to know what accurate is but I love to play dress up, and life doesn’t allow for accurate dress up at the moment) but I’d like to point out just how accurate some theatre costumes are.
      I recently took a weekend course where one of the tutor was Jenny Tiranami, who has made costumes for places like the globe theatre and the metropolitan opera. She was talking about things like the 80m of hand made bobbin lace she commissioned, the cloth custom woven in Italy with metal is threads and the french tailoresses they bought in to spend months hand sewing the costumes.
      I was honestly blown away (and very jealous) I had no idea there were theatrical companies with deep enough pockets and enough interest in accuracy to make something like that possible, and it has certainly given me loftier ambitions regarding what I might make in the future.

    • This is in no way a criticism (because I agree with you, I like to know what accurate is but I love to play dress up, and life doesn’t allow for accurate dress up at the moment) but I’d like to point out just how accurate some theatre costumes are.
      I recently took a weekend course where one of the tutor was Jenny Tiranami, who has made costumes for places like the globe theatre and the metropolitan opera. She was talking about things like the 80m of hand made bobbin lace she commissioned, the cloth custom woven in Italy with metal is threads and the french tailoresses they bought in to spend months hand sewing the costumes.
      I was honestly blown away (and very jealous) I had no idea there were theatrical companies with deep enough pockets and enough interest in accuracy to make something like that possible, and it has certainly given me loftier ambitions regarding what I might make in the future.

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  7. I think that there is another level which we as individuals probably don’t aspire to – but it’s where I (and others) started down the Historical Costumer trail – Theatrical Reproduction. The design and the fabric are sometimes accurate and at other times “inspired by” while the main focus is to portray information about a character in clothing that 1) allows the character to move properly (including dancing) and 2) keeps to the characters “theme” 3) looks good from 30 feet away and 4) will still look nice under theatre lighting. Construction is usually modern in that machines are used and garments are MADE to be sturdy and altered in the future with large seam allowances and medium to large stitches. Patterning can be original vintage patterns or drafted on dress forms altered to fit the actors. Fabric content is usually not a factor as you are looking for the cheapest – ahem least expensive – version or approximation of the drape, feel and lustre of the original period inspiration pieces. These costumes are rarely if ever worn by women and men who know how to move in them or have worn the clothes (or supporting undergarments) more than three times before the opening of a show. All of this done in a span of weeks with constraints of “I don’t like it” or “It is itchy” from Directors or Actors sometimes requiring a complete rework of a costume in the last 48 hours before an opening. Sorry its so long… but I thought it was worth pointing out.

  8. Gerdiene says

    I will be giving a talk at the local stitchery guild and this is exactly the topic i will be exploring, using examples from my own collection that spans theatrical to fairly accurate. May I borrow some of your observations? On average things i make for myself are a mismash, accurate in one area, completely modern or random in another.

    • Synchronistic of topic! I’d be honoured if you wanted to borrow any of my observations (though a mention would be nice if it isn’t too awkward to slip in). My sewing is a mishmash too, but I always consider why I am sewing something, what the purpose is, and what I gain or loose by doing it one way, or the other.

      • Gerdiene says

        I will certainly mention you by name and blog. Your final question is the one that really blew my mind, since so much of my own experience comes from ‘how would this look on stage/screen?’. It puts my entire collection in a new light, and I love that. New perspectives are priceless.

  9. I think the notion of ‘authenticity’ can become a heated one, mainly because of the assumption that everyone has the same aims for the costume as you do yourself. Actually, some of us are working for theatre, some do reenacting, some just want personal dress-up clothes or an outfit for a party or fayre … others again are professionals doing historical/archaeological research.

    I try to remember that, unlike me, most costume bloggers (it seems) are not reenactors. There is a very different standard (and attitude) required when you are presenting yourself as an authentic representation of a certain era to the public. And that holds even if you’re a volunteer and it’s kind of your holiday weekend (something a lot of reenactors seem to forget). Yes, it’s not as authentic as real research requires but it does require a certain level and, even more importantly, it requires HONESTY about where you’ve cut corners or where you simply don’t know. This is particularly true for me as I focus on the 14th Century when information is pretty sparse!

    My personal big bugbear is social class. SO MANY reenactments are populated by people in fancy, synthetic nobles’ outfits. Usually, the accessories and details are either absent or of very poor quality or don’t match the rest of the outfit. Also, the behaviour, deportment and habits of the wearer do not match the clothes. Finally, there is no real explanation as to why the pretty upperclass ladies would be in a military camp. It looks stupid and it gives a false representation of history.

    My personal aim is to try to demonstrate that lower class representations can be interesting and fun. Yes, my dress isn’t tight-fitting and aesthetically pleasing to the modern eye. But, I hope to be reasonably comfortable outdoors all year around, be able to go hiking and chasing after children or livestock without trouble, roll up my sleeves to do the washing up or cook over the fire, spin, sew, etc. AND unlike all the pretty princesses I can reasonably explain why I’m in a military camp, talking to men unchapheroned, sitting on the floor if there isn’t a chair, doing heavy lifting or practical chores, etc.

    I certainly am not there yet, but I hope one day I will be.

  10. Thank you for this post! I must admit that my primary frame for “historical accuracy” (since being a raw beginner in that area, I know that I probably overlook a lot of nuances without realizing it) is related to your final question about how well (or badly) what I make will fit in were it to be transported back in time or worn in a historical setting (e.g., a particular context: walking down the street, an evening party, in an encampment). And that perspective governs the fabrics, construction, colors, etc… to an extent that is limited by budget and time – as many have already pointed out. I don’t do reenacting now, but I might someday, so whatever I make I want to be as close as possible (given limits of circumstances) to what actually was so that what I make now I could actually wear then without major alterations or feeling embarrassed about anachronistic flaws.

    I find that I tend to see fabric and think “OH, that would look great as a ____” and then if it’s not expensive, buy up as much as possible… and then I look to see whether there is any “proof” via portraits/paintings, museum exhibits, etc., that something of that color scheme/cut/fabric existed or if there’s something similar ENOUGH that it’s not TOO big a step for plausibility since I want to be sensitive to that if I’m to use the term “historical accuracy” in some relation to what I make (though sometimes I overreach because my imagination runs away with me, i.e., now-discarded idea of a Waverly floral print for a saque. It would have looked pretty, but it might have been unwearable for historical functions).

    I don’t use a machine for any of my sewing – be it modern clothes, fantasy costumes, or historically-inspired garments – out of personal preference (I just don’t get along well with sewing machines for some bizarre reason, and there’s no table space for one in my room anyway, so moot point). Mostly, I just sew for fun – something like therapy after a rough/long day at the office, to make something beautiful and special and wearable. It’s very satisfying to make something and know not only how it was put together but why (context of where it would be worn), and be able to point out subtle ways it differs from real history (case and point: the tablecloth indienne dress).

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