Research: We See What We Want to See; We See What We Know

Dress research is one of the great pleasures of the historical costuming hobby, and it’s also a necessity. We all start off along this interest in old clothes knowing nothing, then slowly and diligently compiling and refining and adjusting our knowledge over time.

In my nigh 15 years of historical costuming, the overarching lesson I have learned concerning dress research and knowledge is that it is constantly shifting. The more I learn and study and look and dig and discuss, the more my pre-conceived ideas are turned upside down. New information is coming to light every day; it is the obligation of historical dress students to update and include the new knowledge in their projects, papers, and presentations. This does not mean that we know everything all at once, or need to, only that whatever new tidbit you pick up should add to or adjust your trough of truths moving forward.
Recently in researching for The Book and working with Abby Cox, I’ve had a couple big shifts in my dress knowledge that got me thinking about confirmation bias. These shifts scared me not because it was new information come to light but because it was information that had always been there, right in front of my eyes, that I simply failed to see.
Look closely at every small detail of this portrait. What do you see? Make notes of it. Did you notice the small frill of lace around the neckline (the tucker)? This small detail is so important yet is the most commonly missed part of historical costume recreations.
What a silly idea, that we just simply don’t see what’s right before us, and yet it happens all the time! When researching, we tend to look for something specific that will confirm an idea we already have. I find myself so focused on looking at one part of a painting, print, or extant gown that I totally miss other aspects of it.
For instance, the first project we made for The Book was an under-petticoat. This simple, short petticoat serves multiple purposes and is worn under the stays and under the skirt supports too. I originally questioned this – wait, I thought petticoats were worn over the stays…? As it turns out, in myriad primary sources showing women dressing, there it was, the under-petticoat under the stay tabs and beneath the hoops or bum pads.
There’s a lot to see in this image – take a good close look and make note of each detail. “Restoration Dressing Room” print, published in London by S.W. Fores, 24th April 1789. V and A S.1803-2009
Now this may seem obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. Why did I not know this? It was not for lack of looking at images but lack of seeing this detail. It was because my concept of how to get dressed was formed early on in my costuming career and then hardened. Ouch.
I bump into these things all the time now. What are we really seeing when we look at original references? Are we thinking about historic construction, design, materials, and dressing through a modern lens or that of a mantua maker, milliner, seamstress, or couturier of that unique time?
At first glance this just looks like a short sacque but with a closer look the cut away front breaks some “rules.” It’s a polonaise sacque – yup, front of a Polonaise, back of a sacque. The problem is not this garment; the problem is our modern “rules.”
It’s a fascinating brain melt to grill up for breakfast! I encourage everyone (myself included) to crack open the very first historical costuming book you bought and really look at the images again. Notice every small detail and think about the “why” behind its depiction. You’ll be amazed at what you missed and also what you now understand better with the experience you’ve gained in making your own costumes.

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