Dressing up: It’s fun but is it REAL history?

By David Hearn (Independent Scholar)

Dressing up as a soldier of The Diehard Company or brave Victorian Bluejacket might be a fun way to spend a day but is it actually “history”? Does the authenticity of the costume being worn matter? How can trudging around a field at a county show or showing visitors around a stately home advance the study of history one single step? Of course none of these questions are ones that should be put to the members of the numerous historical re-enactment societies that there are up and down the country who take their activities very seriously indeed.

Some academic historians who spend the best part of their day reading, researching and writing may have a tendency to think of re-enactors as boys (the majority of re-enactors do tend to be male) who are still playing soldiers (again the majority of re-enactment societies do seem to be military); “boys” who should have “grown up” years ago. Yet this is a very long way from the reality. Every detail of uniform, equipment and drill of the Victorian military units which they are portraying is painstaking researched from primary sources.  Sometimes the focused study of a particular regiment can allow a depth of research that some academics can only dream of. In his 1999 book, Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horowitz gives a detailed description of the activities of American Civil War re-enactors. Men so dedicated to what has become more than a hobby that they diet  to get an authentic Civil War “look” and only eat food that would be available during the Civil War.

Whilst most re-enactment groups are military in nature – redcoats firing rifles and cannon are, after all, a good crowd puller at a County Show – there are Victorian re-enactment societies which welcome the whole family. The most notable of these being The Victorian Strollers whose web site proudly boasts that they provide supporting artists to the “Film and TV industry” which, perhaps, highlights the other side of re-enactment.

Figure one: Victorian Strollers

This leads me to wonder; is it possible for someone to be both an historian and an actor or are these two roles mutually exclusive? Few can argue that there has been an increase of public interest in history fuelled, to a great degree, by television and film. If TV and film history is put before the public by actors who seek only to make money from their work then re-enactors can translate visual history into tangible history. Who, if they were to tell the truth, either child or adult would not love to know more about Victorian fashion or handle an Enfield Rifle Musket and learn from a real person rather than a book or the internet?

Last year I dressed in the walking-out uniform of a Rifle Volunteer and guided visitors around a local coast defence fort. Wearing a wool uniform on one of the few hot days of last Summer gave me something of an insight into the discomfort suffered by Victorian soldiers but, more importantly, it gave me the confidence to act in a far more extrovert way than I would normally which heightened the enjoyment of the day for me and, hopefully, for the people on the tours.

Re-enactment is real history. It is rigorously researched and brought to life in an entertaining way by sympathetic people. Taking part will not be for everyone but as an introduction to living history it has to be hard to beat.

David Hearn is a first year history student at Liverpool John Moores.

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