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What’s Underneath Your Dress?

by Tanya Brock, Dayton History on

Me showing off my new outfit to wear as Carillon Brewing Co. manager.

Me showing off my new outfit to wear as Carillon Brewing Co. manager.

If you have ever worn a historical costume, chances are you have been asked this question. Each time I wear my historical dress in Carillon Historical Park at least one visitor asks me about my undergarments. When I’ve been asked this question it usually takes me back due to the bluntness. Honestly, what type of response are they expecting?

Lately I’ve been wondering, what’s underneath the visitors’ question? It is nice they are intrigued and curious. Clearly they have made some connection to the history I am presenting to engage in (such personal) dialogue. But, does it matter what is actually under my dress or just the information of what historically would have been worn? What level of authenticity do visitors expect when they attend a historical site or program?
Here are some points I’ve considered when determining what to do:
  1. Significance to the theme. How important is the item in delivering the message of the theme? How will each item deepen the delivery?
  2. Sense of identity. Wearing all the pieces of a historical outfit will help me truly connect and identify with what women wore and how it felt compared to my modern clothes. When asked about articles of clothing I can respond with factual information and experiential insights.
  3. Cost. Reproduction items often cost quite a bit. Knowing this it is best to shop around for several sources, get quotes, and budget accordingly.
  4.  Reality. Some items from the past are in the past for good reason. For example, we have learned about dangers of things like extreme corseting. Realistically I can’t ask myself or my staff to put their body in danger. Knowing and sharing the modern knowledge about historical practices is sometimes the best option. Is there something similar I could use as a compromise but continue to illustrate the role the item played?
  5. Longevity. How long will the item be able to be used? Can it stand up to the wear and tear it will endure while it is worn and cleaned for sanitation?

Right now I am looking at the above points to help me decide about costumes but I have used them to determine item selection for building materials, historical dinning furnishings, and exhibit interactives. How far have you gone to provide authenticity to your visitors? What have you left in the past and determined as unnecessary?

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