Developing a Character, Developing a Costume

What do you wear for historical reenactment?

Suzanne Smith Arney Jul 12, 2021 - 6 min read

Developing a Character, Developing a Costume Primary Image

The bright color of the modern indigo swatch on the left compares well with the vintage fabric on the right. The warm yellow in the vintage sample is chrome yellow, a mineral pigment.

“Clothes make great detective stories,” says textile scholar Nancy Kirk. Because many aspects of character are expressed by our clothing, she believes that a reenactor should have a persona: a town resident will dress differently from a farmer, a widow from a wife. “Create your character first,” she says. “Then you will know what he or she wears.”

Sometimes when Sara Ream puts on her green calico dress and beribboned straw bonnet, adjusts the dainty collar tatted by her daughter Angela, and walks with her husband across grassy fields, she can believe she teaches in a mid-nineteenth-century schoolroom instead of a twenty-first-century one. “Being in character, even for a few hours, really gives you a different perspective on history,” she says. Ream caught the reenactment bug while sewing Confederate military uniforms for her son to wear in the 3rd Missouri and 4th Arkansas Civil War reenactors’ outfits. Ream and her husband, Steve, are “civilians.” Donning reproduction costumes and invented characters enables them, like other reenactors, to experience history in an intimate way and to bring historic events to life for observers.

According to a 1999 National Park Service report, the first organized reenactment in the United States occurred in 1822 when twenty Revolutionary War (1775–1783) veterans reenacted the fight on Lexington Green. The report, which estimated the number of contemporary (mainly Civil War) reenactors at 40,000, states, “While camp life and community have always been the social center of the reenactor community, battle reenactment remains its performative centerpiece.” Participants run the gamut from the most casual participants to those who, like Sara Ream, look the part but opt for unseen modern conveniences and undergarments to authentic reenactors who immerse themselves in the culture, including garments “from the skin out,” food, language, and behavior.

For even the most authentic reenactors, however, wearing antique clothing is usually not an option. As Nancy Kirk points out, “If you could find a period outfit, it’s probably too fragile to wear.” Even if you could find one, body shapes have changed. “Women then were shorter, and smaller in the shoulders and bust than we are today. You can replicate the styles and techniques, but not the body shape.”


How then to choose suitable reproduction fabrics to make an authentic costume? “You’ve got to look at the real thing,” Kirk suggests. Her favorite source for study? Quilts. “Quilts may contain hundreds of fabrics. It’s the easiest way to see a variety of fabrics,” she says. Find them in exhibitions at historic homes and museums or make an appointment with a facility’s collections department for a closer examination.

Some authentic reenactors dye their own fabrics with locally harvested madder, indigo, butternut, or sumac. Of these, indigo is the most colorfast; Kirk notes that it’s nearly impossible to tell indigo-dyed reproductions from the originals (although synthetic indigo is used today instead of the dyestuff extracted from Indigofera tinctoria).

Many reenactors buy fabrics and patterns, often through separate vendors, and then find a tailor to make their clothes. Others prefer to make at least part of the outfit themselves. “If you only make one thing, sewing it by hand, authentically, can be a great entree into life in that period,” Kirk says. “You’ll understand the time and the care involved.” She advises anyone thinking of entering a reenactment competition to not only read the rules about costume but also “[t]alk to the judges and learn what’s important in presenting this character.”

Suiting the costume to the character is what counts in portraying a Civil War civilian or a passenger on the Titanic. Kirk remembers well the order for the acclaimed movie Titanic—“That’s what got us into reproduction fabrics.” The designer needed costumes in triplicate, which could never be met with vintage fabrics. Actors—men, women, and children—needed to be filmed before, during, and after going into the water. Sometimes the sequence was repeated several times, and dry clothes had to be available.

Any costume, in fact, any textile, whether of vintage or reproduction fabric, needs proper care (see “Home Care for Your Heirloom Textiles” by Linda Moore, available in the PieceWork All Access Library). Nancy Kirk’s book Taking Care of Grandma’s Quilt (Omaha, Nebraska: The Kirk Collection, 2008) is full of advice for caring for keepsake fabrics. You’ll learn why you need white cotton sheets and aluminum foil, which storage bins to buy, and how to display and document your treasures so that one day they can be passed on to new generations.

For more on historical reenactment, see Terri Drouin-Guerette's article "My Life as a Revolutionary War Reenactor" from Spin Off magazine.

Sources for Reproduction Fabrics and Clothing

Suzanne Smith Arney is a freelance writer living in Omaha, Nebraska, who enjoys writing about artists and their work and the role of art in our everyday lives. In addition to those cited in her article, she thanks Sharon Sobel and Kimberly Wulfert for generously sharing their knowledge of antique fabrics and costume.