Research with Red at the Concord Museum

I am thrilled to announce that I will join RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books at the 2018 New England Chapter of RWA® Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference to present our workshop: Breeches, Banquets, and Balls: Living Your Heroines’ History.

Don’t just research history—live the life of your characters! See how cooking their feasts, wearing their clothes, and recreating their dances or battles will make your writing better. Join practical historian and blogger RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and Jennifer Hallock, history teacher and author of the Sugar Sun series, for the latest online and offline trends.

Red is an experienced practical historian and officer in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of over 30,000 members worldwide who are “dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.” Dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that she makes herself, Red attends “tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.” Oh, and she cooks and bakes for those feasts. Our workshop will tell you all about her adventures and how it gives her insight on daily life in historical times.

I have a lot to learn about making clothes (or food) from history, so Red gave me a primer at a new exhibit at the Concord Museum, “Fresh Goods: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750- 1900.”

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history
Red “shopping” for shoes at the Concord Museum.

Do you see those shoes? People had small feet. I learned that. Also, as Red pointed out, shoes were made from the same fabric as dresses, which is why they had so little durability. If you have read that a character danced right out of their shoes, that description may be literal. It was possible to wear through the soft soles in a single ball, especially in flats. Heels helped.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

I loved the colorful clothes at the Concord Museum. These dyes must have been quite expensive, which may be why they were so treasured and therefore survived—more on that below. We saw dresses for every stage of a woman’s life, too. Below (going backward, from right to left) you can see the dress of a young girl, who then grew to be a young woman and required a formal gown to attract a husband, and then with that husband needed a maternity dress. If your family was frugal—and they probably were—they saved your baby dresses for your babies, and so the cycle went.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

As Red showed me, the fabric of these dresses often predated the styles they were recrafted into. It was not uncommon to see an 1860 dress made out of an 1820 dress, which may have been sold first in 1790 in a slightly different pattern. In fact, clothes were so often repurposed that it is hard to find surviving pieces of a working-class person’s wardrobe because they were worn to the bone. What is left to us is often clothes in odd sizes—especially small pieces, Red tells me—or the clothes of the elite, who bought new duds every time fashion changed. And fashion changed a lot. Do you see the photo above, with the blue dress? Look at the dress on the far left with the big sleeves—you see the one? Yes, the 1830s were a rough time. Sort of like the 1980s.

Concord Museum history bedroom Regency Victorian Georgian American history

And going to a museum with Red makes you look at things differently. For example, at the display above of life for a woman lying-in after the birth of her child, my first thought was: “Are those tea cookies real? Because I’m hungry.” My second thought was, “Look how pretty this room is!” (And our friend Namrata Patel—also a presenter at NECRWA, giving a must-see workshop on search engine optimization—said: “Where can I get this wallpaper?”) But Red’s question was, “Where is the chamber pot?” because she has lived this period (or, rather, earlier) and knows what is truly important. She also admired the washstand in the corner and wished she had one of those for her SCA “camping” retreats.

This trip was just the beginning of my education—and yours. I hope you can join us in Burlington in April! You can see all the great workshops and speakers, as well as register, at the NECRWA conference home page.