On Getting That Authentic Look

Posted By on August 23, 2013

Members of the Sea Rats on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick.

Members of the Sea Rats on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick. Joe is pulling their boat along the shore.

Folks often compliment our authentic look and ask how we get that appropriately grim appearance. The answer? We work in our 18th century / War of 1812 clothes, both at events and at home. Stains and patches are period. We came by this practice through sheer practicality. Our heavy black woolen deck coats are the warmest, sturdiest garments we own. Whenever we’re doing something brutally menial in cold weather, they’re the best choice. A little wear and tear makes them more historically accurate looking.

We were very much inspired by the Sea Rats Atlantic, a sadly now-defunct group of enthusiastic young reenactors who started off doing Golden Age of Piracy but expanded up to maritime events through the War of 1812. They took the well worn look to an art form. Joe Ruggiero, their late founder, wore his historic clothes to rags and then would patch them some more and keep on going. The end result was a truly wretched and motley looking group that honestly looked as though they’d just been press ganged from one of the sketchier urban gutters. They were great guys who always looked straight out of the rougher period illustrations. (Of course, it helped that they rarely brought tents to events and would instead sleep piled around their unit’s campfire, rolled in woolen blankets. Even at events where it snowed.)

Moving ash logs.

Moving ash logs at home.

A lot of reenactors go to great efforts to keep that “right out of the box” look on their clothing. That does make sense, especially for most military portrayals in which uniforms would have been issued and replaced once they started showing too much wear, but for civilians and ordinary sailors in the pre-uniform Navies the look should be a bit less crisp. A spotlessly clean apron on a camp follower tells me she’s wearing that clothing for show and hasn’t been doing anything all weekend. A Jack Tar without a drop of tar to be seen is similarly just sporting stage dressing. We’re portraying common sailors, the rougher sort, so Ekk and I abuse the heck out of our historic reproduction clothing and wear it while logging, blacksmithing, tarring, painting, and generally being rough and tumble. At the end of the day, jump in a river or lake to wash off the worst of it, then get out a needle and thread to patch any new holes.

Working at the forge.

Working at the home forge.

It’s even harder to knowingly spill that first drop of paint when you know how much the clothing in question costs. I understand the hesitation to get dirty among the folks who don’t sew and have had to purchase everything they’re wearing. Even seasoned reenactors sometimes cringe when they see Ekk and I carelessly pile into the water to retrieve an oar or launch a vessel while wearing our handsewn period leather shoes – but the trick is that we know how to make them ourselves, and when the shoes get too worn out, they can be replaced for just the cost of materials and a little time. That’s a major factor in why we’re comfortable trashing our clothing – we made it all and can just as easily replace it with our own skills. Sailors’ clothing is simple and uncomplicated. A shirt or pair of slops can be cut out and finished in an evening. Obviously, if one of us ever gets around to having an officer’s impression, we’ll take a bit more care with the uniform.

Getting wet and muddy was just a fact of life for most people throughout history, but it’s one that most modern folks strive to avoid. I’ve seen Scotchgard applied to hems and rubber galoshes hidden under skirts. Watch a rain storm move across a reenactment and you’ll be treated to the absurd spectacle of clear plastic ponchos over otherwise flawless historical appearances. But if you’re wearing authentic materials such as wool, the rain or snow doesn’t matter as much. (Ekk and I have occasionally been called absurdly tough in tones that suggest the speaker can’t tell if what we’re doing is admirable or crazy. My vote might be for a little of both.) Wool is still warm when wet. And if you’re around a campfire or musket shots, the authentic materials are also safer than any modern rain repellant textiles. Ekk doesn’t own any synthetic fiber clothing because of his work as a blacksmith and welder. I’m similarly careful in what I wear while doing glassworking. Cotton and wool will just burn and self-extinguish; polyester melts and runs onto your skin. Ouch.

Tarring planking.

Tarring planking in the backyard boatshop.

When our clothing is finally too worn for use, we follow another period practice and recycle it on down the line. Tattered garments get torn up for use as cleaning rags, handkerchiefs, and half a dozen other miscellaneous uses. Ekk turns a small amount of it into charcloth for use in starting fires with flint and steel. A lot of our clothing started off life as something else, as well – worn blankets are cut down into wool jackets, and old sails taken out of service in the rigging become new canvas slops, hats, and waistcoats. All the stiffness has been worn out of it and it’s comfortable fabric with just the right amount of that careworn look. In the historical period we portray, even the flimsiest of rags could be sold to be turned into paper. There is a lady near us who makes paper by hand from old cloth. She has said if we ever get enough hemp canvas to make all our sails from it, she will purchase the worn out sails as they come off. It’s a neat full circle back to period practice.

And the end result is that our stuff stops being costuming and starts being real clothing. We’ve earned every stain, patch, and burn.

About the author

I'm a museum professional with an MA in Museum Studies and Atlantic History. A lot of my research has been in colonial and maritime history, as well as material culture of the 16th - 19th centuries. I've held a lot of weird jobs covering everything from beekeeper to tall ship deckhand. I currently live with my partner on the Canadian border in Vermont.


One Response to “On Getting That Authentic Look”

  1. Don Craig says:

    Sarah, great article. You’re describing it as it should be.

    Don Craig, Battle of Plattsburgh

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