Reconstruction has until recently not been seen as a concern of the serious academic, relegated to the domain of television, re-enactors or living history museums. Yet reconstruction has been used by archaeologists, curators and conservators for many years, standing in for objects that are too frail to be put on permanent display or adding a “physical depth to present interpretations of now-absent objects.”
Although reconstructing historic items of dress is subjective and is never preferable to historical evidence, through my experience with museum curators, through conversations with students of historical design at the Royal College of Art in London, as well as other scholars in the material studies academic field, I have learnt that reconstructions can help the historian to not only interpret evidence but to understand movement and bodily constraint in regards to past fashions. Ulinka Rublack from the University of Cambridge has incorporated reconstructions into her work on Renaissance fashion. Hilary Davidson has engaged in historical reconstruction for many years during her career as a curator at the Museum of London and in her scholarly work since, helpfully outlining its merits in her most recent article ‘Reconstructing Jane Austen’s Silk Pelise‘. Renown fashion historian and the figure to whom many of us now working in the field owe our gratitude, Janet Arnold, was a pioneer of fact-based faithful reconstructions of historical dress, and institutes such as the School of Historical Dress run by Jenny Tiramani, and publications by Tiramani and Susan North from the Victoria and Albert Museum lead the field in reconstruction in early modern material studies.
When I have given papers I have come across questions about movement and constraint, as audiences try to visualise the reality of these garments from the pictures and textual evidence I have provided. To some extent, these are questions which my extensive archival and historical sources cannot answer with certainty. We may never know exactly how a sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth-century woman felt when she wore these items, nor am I suggesting that we can use reconstructions to accurately recapture bodily experiences from the past. However, I can recreate their materiality to help analyse the primary sources that I already have – such as commentary on their size, on movement and restriction, or the concealment of pregnancy for example.
I have been lucky enough to receive a grant from my university to reconstruct the items that my research examines – a spanish farthingale, a french farthingale, a wheel farthingale, late sixteenth-century bodie, early-mid seventeenth-century bodie, bum rolls and a late seventeenth century bodie.
Materials to be used are those that closest resemble the original materials which I have found in archival records. Baleen for example is not able to be used, but cane or modern dressmaking boning can be. Other fabrics such as linen and silk are readily available, albeit expensive. I am not making these items to learn about the tailoring field or the process of construction, although I will undoubtedly learn a lot about this in the process, I am reconstructing to learn about mobility, movement and space. Patterns used in these reconstructions will be taken from reliable sources such as Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, Jenny Tiramani and Susan North’s previously mentioned book, and historical patterns. As there are no surviving examples and no surviving patterns for some of the garments, mainly those for French and Wheel Farthingales, some of my reconstructions will be based on descriptions of women wearing them, visual images and educated guesswork as well.
I’m hoping to keep track of my reconstructions on this blog, as sort of an online diary. Please feel free to comment and add any suggestions!
 Katy O’Neill and Francesca Butcher, ‘The Fashionable accountant – Reconstructing his best outfit’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 24 Novemeber 2014 <http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/research-department/the-fashionable-accountant-reconstructing-his-best-outfit>