Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Defense of Progressive Reenacting

Dear Readers,

It was a busy weekend in American Revolutionary War reenacting circles. Whether you are a member of the BAR, BB, CL or, NWTA, the fact of the matter is that drama is unfolding in the reenactor world. I am personally aware of two units splitting apart, over some aspect of the division between progressive and mainstream reenactors. Yesterday, this article appeared, criticizing a minority of progressive reenactors for bullying mainstreamers. So, from the perspective of a professional historian, I would like to give a defense of the progressive moment.

First of all, what is a progressive reenactor? You will often face various straw men in the search for the progressive. The first is the stitch counter- a reenactor who sews all their own clothing by hand, and aggressively encourages all around them to do the same. The next is the campaigner, who sleeps out on the ground at every event, and looks down on all of those who fail to follow suit. The third is the misogynist, who actively opposes women in a military role at reenactments.

The purpose of this post is to make the following four contentions. First: reenacting is a hobby, but one with a serious duty to honor the past. Second: a progressive is not any of the straw men presented above, but rather, anyone who makes an effort to improve their historical impression consistently. Third: individuals of any income, gender, or knowledge base can meet with the above definition of progressive. Four: despite the potential to ruffle feathers, progressivism is undoubtedly a GOOD thing.

All hobbies have barriers to entry. In order to kayak you must own a kayak, or borrow from someone who does. In order to paintball you must have a gun, protective equipment, and paintballs. Reenacting is the same way. You must be willing to invest to some degree, or find a generous unit with unlimited loaner equipment.  However, reenacting has another, very important barrier to entry.

As a historical professional, I feel reenacting has an additional barrier to entry: you must be willing to honor the past. In my opinion, talking on a cellphone in front of the public at a reenactment dishonors the past. Being unwilling to break from a first person impression when members of the public are clearly confused also dishonors the past. Wearing white sneakers at an event dishonors the past. In the same way, angrily confronting said sneaker-wearer and driving them out of the hobby as a result also dishonors the past. ALL reenactors have a duty to read and learn, not just the history of their particular unit, but how that history fits within the story of the period as a whole. This is part of honoring the past, and a barrier to entry in reenacting.

A very wise reenactor once indicated to me that there are levels of being progressive. Not everyone is going to be a stitch counter-campaigner. Being progressive is not a set standard of requirements, it is a state of mind- a constant search for further historical accuracy. At a recent event, a unit I am a part of went to battle in full kit, and grounded non-essential kit in front of the public, showing the public an often overlooked aspect of combat in the American Revolutionary War. Many members of the unit were not in hand sewn kit- but it didn't matter- that was a progressive moment for the unit. Another easy way to demonstrate historical accuracy on the battlefield is to represent the breakdown of fire-control. Start a battle firing crisp volleys, and devolve to independent fire as the battle wears on. A willingness to improve, rather than a gold standard, should be the benchmark for progressivism.

A frequent objection to progressives is the cost of high-quality materials associated with progressive kits. Not everyone can afford Kochan and Phillips broadcloth for their uniforms, nor should they. Not everyone has the time to hand sew all of their kit, nor should they. I would rather see a well-fitted coat made of Woolrich cloth with the inside seams machine sewn than a poorly-fitted hand sewn coat made of Kochan and Phillips. If you are on a budget, but want a high quality kit, talk to those around you who sew. Many reenactors are happy to come alongside new members on a budget. In addition, a large portion of the reenactors I spend the most time around are still in school- no excess of money there. However, I often find that those with little excess cash are the most motivated to construct good quality kit. And, at least in my opinion, construction of good quality kit is a way of honoring the past.

Women desiring to portray soldiers often face objection from progressive reenactors. As someone self-identifying as a progressive, I would rather see a female soldier in well-fitted kit than a man swimming in a grossly oversized regimental. However,  I believe that female reenactors portraying soldiers have a duty to attempt to hide their gender. Many women (including my girlfriend) practice the art of hiding their gender while in the ranks. Along with having a well-fitted kit, this is a way of honoring the past.

Some progressives have the potential to be abrasive. I would encourage them to tone it down. However despite the possibility of hurting feelings, I contend that progressivism is definitely a good thing, and that it should continue to forge ahead. As reenactors, we have a duty to honor the past. While we should also attempt to have a good time, honoring the past should be ever present. And, at least in my mind, honoring the past and having fun seems to be a largely overlapping Venn diagram.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


  1. I apologize, but I had to skim due to time. From what I've read, let me say that I don't disagree with your post. I find it quite apt. And I likewise think that women should hide their gender in such situations when portraying a soldier (to the best of their ability). Though, room MUST be made for those who simply can't (e.g., older women are going to have some difficulty doing that).

    There is this belief that my post is somehow directed at Progressivism. It isn't. Though I wasn't so direct, it should be clear that my objection is with the approach some progressives take towards strangers at events and how some interact with curious observers or new people to the hobby online. These were my targets.

    You will note that I take research very seriously--I'm a regular contributor to the Journal of the American Revolution and have also reviewed (rather harshly) television shows that are fast and loose with history (on ye ol' blog).

    I have absolutely no problem with progressives--but I do think that the movement does take some of the blame for the persistent instances of bullying. Likewise, mainstreamers also have their share of the blame for allowing bullying to happen on their end. We all need to accept this and accept our roles and then, and only then, can we start making changes and finding solutions.

    I thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation. I appreciate your willingness to engage this subject civilly and respectfully. I will be adding your blog to my blogroll. =)

    1. Tom- I agree very much with what you say. I think that there is room in the hobby for everyone, and it is a shame that both sides are not willing engage with each-other in a civil manner. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Alex, thanks for writing a post that lays out beautifully what a progressive reenactor *should* be. After reading Tom's post and reflecting on this quite a bit, I think much of the trouble comes down to disagreement on where, precisely, dishonoring history happens on the Ye Olde Authenticity Spectrum (white sneakers, absolutely! but what about a gown whose fabric is a touch off or socks with a more modern knit than they ought to have? Errors I try to avoid for myself, but should I be diligent about enforcing that standard on others?) and the fact that, no matter where you go or what hobby you join, some people are jerks. The very few jerks *on both sides* are making life difficult for everyone and have a tendency to force their interpretations of what level of authenticity is correct in a not-very-nice manner.

    Fortunately, I do think that those jerks are the vast minority, especially given that I personally haven't encountered much bullying on either side--but I've witnessed it, especially in online venues (so easy to go off the rails there!) and responses to Tom's post indicates that it does exist in real life, too.

    I agree--moving forward and improving ourselves is a good thing. I hope it continues. Let's all go hibernate for the winter, make some improvements on our kits, and emerge drama-free in the spring :)

    1. Rowenna- I couldn't agree more! Bullying anyone into leaving the hobby is never an acceptable thing. Hope to see you at events next spring! Thanks for the comment.

    2. One concept I was working with--a solution really--is to encourage unit workshops on improving kits. Those who want to participate can, especially when it comes to sewing sessions or making hunting frocks together or something. I think this could go a long way towards improving the general kits of a unit but, and this is important, we don't bully those who don't attend.

      There are other ways to solve the problem too--unit mentoring should be enforced across the organization and this way anyone who has a problem with someone's kit can approach the mentor who can vet the veracity of the complaints (some people need orthotic shoes, or can't get custom lenses in their prescription, or are allergic to certain fabrics--and that's that). This way the recruit doesn't get approached directly and scared off.

      I'm very pleased with the way this conversation is going. Despite the few bullies who have engaged me on my blog to deter me from raising this issue (unsuccessfully), most have been extremely interested in talking out the problems we face. That is encouraging to say the least.

  3. Hi!

    Lets see if this will post. I was very interested in your post and well informed by you article which made complete sense to me.

    I just was wondering if girls should act as soldiers since we dont agree with women in the army but then again it is rather hard for the women to play their true historical role as spy or messenger in a reenactment. You are right if they are to act they should hide their identity. They do that when they play the fife!

    I always wondered how authentic we should really be. Do the men have to have wool jackets? And do the ladies have to hand stitch their gowns( who sees the underside any way?)? The right fabric really helps.