Sunday, June 5, 2011

How To Be Seen

No, this isn't an entry about how to publicize yourself, or become famous. I'm fairly rubbish at that, so I'm in no position to give advice. No, this is an entry about how the public perceives you. Me. Us.

Last weekend, my friend Erinn and her husband & daughter joined us for a day at Greenfield Village, as visitors. It was really interesting to get their perspectives as first time reenactment-attendees. The biggest thing Erinn commented on was the different attitudes between reenactors. She found some of them to be very forthcoming and welcoming, and some of them to be downright off-putting.

When I was little, I loved visiting historic sites. The moments that meant the most to me were when the living historians took a few minutes to talk to me. The tours, the exhibits, they didn't mean much. It was the personal connection that left a lasting impression with me. When I was working in the living history field, I would semi-routinely invite women and children to touch my body when they asked me about my corsetry. I vividly remember a family of three small children and their mother running their fingers over the ridges of my stay laces in back, eyes wide with wonder and exclaiming in delight. I showed more than one family my hoops last weekend, and I definitely had a discussion about fake hair a couple times, as well as inviting strangers to touch the fabric of my skirts more times than I can count. For me, convention, dignity, and personal space go straight out the window as soon as I put on the trappings of yesteryear. If I can help someone make a connection with the past, even if it means stepping out of my own comfort zones, then so be it.

Maybe that says more about my comfort zones than anything, but there you have it.

Conversely, Erinn found that several reenactors with whom she came into contact barely managed a civil "hello," much less giving her a chance to ask any questions, or open any dialog. Some of them, unfortunately, were even people that she'd met before. Fortunately, that wasn't her sole impression of the event--being ignored--and she had several positive things to say, too, but it got me thinking. What's the difference between how one person comes across to the public vs. the next guy (or gal, if you prefer)?

For myself, I've put a lot of time and thought into cultivating an approachable persona both in person and online. I fervently hope that people aren't afraid to say hi to me, or to ask me questions. Reenacting is something I do partly for myself, but also because I like to share cool stuff with interested people. Personally, I'd be crushed to think that someone went home from a reenactment and told a friend, "She was really unfriendly. I didn't feel like she wanted to talk to me at all. Didn't even say hi."

Now, to be fair, there are two sides to every argument, and I've had plenty of rude questions and semi-arguments from inappropriate people, too. Not everyone is polite or interested, and some of the visitors I've talked to honestly shouldn't have been allowed out in public. However, is that really an excuse to cold-shoulder anyone before they've had a chance to ask a question? I try to think not, although I'd admit if pressed that I have fairly strong misanthropic tendencies. That doesn't mean I shouldn't put my best foot forward, especially in a situation where I'm in a position to share something I love.

So, I guess the question is, for all my historically-inclined friends--how do you want the rest of the world to see you when you've stepped back in time? What kind of persona are you putting out there?


  1. Ususally our society don't do publi re-enactment. We may have a picnic or go somewhere in costume, but for our own pleasure. If people ask me questions then, I'm polite, of course, but I don't go out of my way to explain things or invite people to touch my things. However, sometimes we are part of an exhibition and get something for our trouble, and on those occasions I interact much more with interested people, as I'm not a private person then. I think it's quite fun, but I have always had positive experiences with that. Not everyone has, though, I have a friend who got her glasses toen from her face and got screamed at by a man "because glasses weren't invented then"...

  2. Whoa, I'm sorry, if someone got that close to my face, I'm pretty sure I would punch them! I think that's crossing a line. I'll invite people to poke at my corset boning, but they've always been polite and waited for me to offer before, too.

  3. Thanks for the great post! This is something I struggle with in my own Living History experiences (because I'm shy) and with my outreach into the living history community (as the host of Living History Podcast.) If folks are interested in joining in at a reenactment I think they definitely should, but I know many reenactors who do it for personal reasons may not have the strongest social skills. Not everyone makes a good educator, though it sounds like you're fantastic at it. One thing that we encourage on the podcast is for reenactor groups to be honest with themselves and ask those that are more comfortable with public speaking to keep an eye out and assist their fellow members who may struggle with such things.

    Living History is not a huge community, and members of the public may interact with only a few of us every couple of years. So I agree that is it important to make connections whenever we can, even if it is only to smile at folks if we are too shy to actually say hello.

  4. I really try to be outgoing and friendly. At many of the events I go to, I have immense amounts of little girls asking me "Are you a princess?" I have also semi-invited people to check out my corset by feeling the laces and boning through my dress.

    I've always felt much more outgoing in my clothes (as in, living history clothes) so I have more of a tendency to say "Hi!" than I do regularly.


  5. Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking post! I struggle to overcome natural reticence when I am reenacting - I am naturally an introvert and truly have to work to overcome it. I have found that a simple "Good day" to anyone I make eye contact with is often enough of an open to a conversation.

    Like you, I have very little issue with "personal space" or propriety, so I try to remember that showing someone my petticoats/hoop/corset is something I should try and make hush-hush ("Well, I'll let you look, but only over in this corner/behind the tent"). That much can teach them about period ideas of propriety. The gentlemen in my group are great at loudly clearing their throats and making themselves scarce during those moments, which adds to it.