Negotiating the Slippery Slope:A guide to avoiding research pitfalls
Atlantian Costume Symposium, April 2007
Research is a jigsaw puzzle.Worse, it’s a bunch of jigsaw puzzles all heaped together, and every single puzzle has significant bits missing.Our job as historically minded costumers is to sort the puzzle bits, get them into their correct boxes, and then put them together as best we can.We can get stuck for a long time trying to force a piece that seems like it should fit, but doesn’t, or we can spend forever trying to find a missing bit.At best, we end up making guesses about the final picture.At worst, we try to justify cramming in all the bits that clearly come from another puzzle.
There are three main things to avoid in research – wishful thinking, assuming too much on too little evidence, and applying modern technique to period problems.We’ll cover those in more detail, and look at strategies for avoiding them.
You find a fantastic picture and see something marvelous in it.You want to reproduce it.You can see it in your mind, and you’re convinced it’s perfect.Stop.Look at the picture and draw out what you think you see.Now try and find another picture that matches your drawing.Find one more.Can’t find it?Maybe it’s not what you think it is.
You get a great idea about how something should work, or be put together.It seems logical to you, and even though you can’t find any clear examples of it, you think see it in this one picture you’ve found, and it sure looks that way to you.Stop.Are you sure that’s the way it works?Really sure?Why?Do you have anything to back up your theory other than “it makes sense to me”?
One of the biggest mistakes people make in picture interpretation is to see what isn’t there.It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s that they’re not trained to look at the picture without imposing their biases upon it.
You cannot start with a theory and then try and force the pictures to fit that theory.No matter how clear and great it seems to you, try and find a similar example somewhere else, even if it doesn’t perfectly match.If you can’t find a single correlating example, you need to re-think your theory.You always need to make sure you see what’s in the picture, not what you want to be there.
Two things must happen when you’re putting forward an idea that’s new or unknown.First, you have to find corroborating evidence.An idea based on one picture is worth the paper it’s printed on.Second, don’t allow what you want to be true to cloud your vision.The SCA is particularly fertile ground for mistakes based on wishful thinking; we are not required to present much in the way of documentation for ideas, and most of the people who will see the idea don’t have the background knowledge necessary to point out the fallacies in our research technique.
Make your documentation as extensive as possible.So you have a picture – find another.Find two.See what the written records of the day have to say.Check museums for possible extant examples, or ones that might show other possibilities.Stretch your research muscles beyond what’s immediately available to you.
Ask other people to look at your work with fresh eyes.Don’t get so caught up in the brilliance of your idea that you reject anyone with doubts.Further research will hopefully prove one of you wrong, but don’t be heartbroken if it’s you.
2.Too Much Assumption on Too Little Evidence
You have a picture.Or a mention of something that sounds too cool for words.You want to make it right now.You’re already planning it.
(You know what’s coming next.)
Cease.Pause.Arretez.One picture is beautiful, but there are many problems with using only one source of documentation.It may be the only one ever made.The artist could be unsure of what they’re looking at (considering how often this happens with furniture drawings, the odds are good that costume encounters the same issues), or it could be completely allegorical.Art is all about symbolism – colour, accessories, pose, clothing – they’re often less a representation of what’s fashionable than a commentary on the subject, even in portraits.Tudor painters filled their paintings with all sorts of obscure symbolism designed to pose a riddle to the viewer.
Or you may not understand what you’re looking at.A different perspective can yield all sorts of new information, since many pictures show only partial views of clothing.Language changes over time – a single mention of something can be easily misinterpreted, or the word for the garment may have changed over time.Or the writer may have made something up (Herbert Norris is particularly notorious for this).
Find a second picture.And a third.See what other countries were doing at the same time – often, there’s a lot of crossover in fashion.The more documentation you have, the more secure your interpretation.Even in cases where very little concrete documentation exists, a thorough perusal of the current scholarship on the garment can yield unexpected information that changes your thoughts.
Get to know the context of your picture.Investigate the symbolism of the time.For instance, a lot of biblically-themed paintings feature clothing that never existed anywhere but the artist’s imagination.The Madonna is often painted in blue, not because blue was a fashionable colour, but because blue is the colour associated with her.The more you know about the culture of your garment, the better your odds of correct interpretation.
3.Application of Modern Construction Technique to Period Garment Interpretation
This mistake happens most often in construction, but can come into play when interpreting a picture.If your experiences sewing include a lot of modern information, you can be vulnerable to applying that knowledge instead of looking for period techniques.Most often, this happens in accessory construction, but almost anything can be misinterpreted; for many years in the SCA, there existed a strange hybrid thing called a “Yorkist Gown” that was a modern interpretation and construction of a 15th century overdress, and if you asked anyone, they swore that it was period.
Take the time to not only look deeply at your proposed garment, but explore anything and everything you can find relating to garments from that era.Read what other people have to say – even if you think they’re wrong, and you’ve stumbled on the discovery of the century, it’s good to know what other people think when you have to defend your process (and you will).
What have we learned?
If the evidence doesn’t support it, don’t do it.
No matter how great you think your idea is, if you can’t definitively back it up with at least related documentation, don’t make it.Keep exploring the theory, by all means – you might find something really wonderful – but don’t act on it yet (at least, don’t use it to justify anything).There is no reason to put a bunch of work into something you haven’t finished researching.
Keep adding resources to your list.
Never stop at one book, one picture, one mention.We call the people who do “One-Source Wonders”, and we don’t take them seriously.There is always more information out there, and more information makes for a better finished product every time.
Be aware of the reliability of your sources.
Keep your information sorted by reliability – extant garments, period pictures, mentions in period writings (such as wills, etc.), secondary research, and on.Even a bad source will prepare you for the mistakes other people have made in interpretation.A diligent researcher will explore as much as possible before starting their project, no matter how impatient they are.
The Internet is your friend.
In the past five years, there has been an explosion in the number of museums that have put a significant part of their collections on line.You owe it to your research to explore the amazing amount of information out there.Don’t stop at the obvious searches, nor with the easy museums (though they’re an excellent place to start).It makes no sense to limit your research when we have such unprecedented access to museum information.
Control your urge to find the “easy” solution.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you know how to sew.Maybe you’ve done all sorts of things.Perhaps you have a knack for problem-solving.These are good things, but when it comes to period reconstruction, you need to tread carefully – there are many modern costuming tricks that can sabotage your project if you’re not paying attention, particularly when substituting one technique/material for another.A French seam is not the same as a flat seam, nor is plastic canvas necessarily an adequate substitute for buckram.Resist the urge to use a costuming technique to solve a problem before you explore it fully.
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.