Friday, 31 October 2014




I'm tickled to be writing on a holiday so geared towards my interest in textiles. On a day dedicated to dressing up as something other than yourself, it's time to take a look at an issue at the heart of costuming: authenticity.

Black and white photographs with text of a woman in a sparkly dress and two children in sober, dark clothing.
Credit: The Addams Family (1991); image.

The joke is that Wednesday Addams really has dressed up as herself--she is a homicidal maniac! Hers is a startlingly authentic costume, to the point where it can hardly be called a costume. It begs the question: what is authentic dress, and how does it differ from an authentic costume? Ideally, authentic dress would be a natural representation of a person's aesthetic likes and intentions. This is obviously complicated by ever-changing trends and economic limitations. An authentic costume would ideally be a true representation of a character. But, it is impossible to authentically be someone else--you can only authentically be yourself. If Wednesday had dressed up as me, and declared the same costume, would she be dressed authentically? If I dressed up as Wednesday and declared the same costume, am I dressed authentically? In both cases, it's an uneasy "no"--the costume becomes a reference to me, in the former case, or to Wednesday, in the latter. In either case, she and I are not authentically "everyone else" or the other person. We remain ourselves, referencing another person. The costume only works if you dress as yourself--and then it's not a costume!

We can turn to another space for costuming, where it's appropriate to blur the line between who you are and who you're dressed as--the theatre. I recently came across a conservation success story that's a couple years old: that of the famous Beetle Dress created in 1888 for Ellen Terry's run as Lady Macbeth. You might recognize it from the 1889 portrait John Singer Sargent painted of Terry in-costume and in-character.

Painting of a women with long, red hair holding a crown above her head; she is dressed in a brilliant emerald gown in a medieval style.
Credit: John Singer Sargent (1889);  Tate Gallery

The dress is now displayed in Smallhythe Place. Whether it is authentic or not is a delightfully messy story.

Prior to conservation the dress had been amalgamated with another, similar dress as a means of repairing or altering it; conservators returned the dress to its original form by taking the whole thing apart and reassembling what they consider to be the real dress, using photographs and the Sargent portrait as a guide. They also extensively repaired the intricately crocheted fabric and beadwork (done entirely with beetle wings!) to make the dress look as close as possible to what it was when Terry wore it as Lady Macbeth. Terry was a superstar of her time; she is as much a part of the costume as the character.

But Sargent himself bends the perception of authenticity--even though the portrait is inextricably linked to that particular run of the play, Sargent made up a more dramatic pose for Terry. Now the dress is displayed in that pose--is this appropriate? Is it more authentic as a relic of the portrait, the actress, or of the play? And remember, the creator of the play and the character of Lady Macbeth, William Shakespeare, was dead and gone long before 1889. Is the portrait then even authentic, if the Sargent painting is the 19th-century equivalent of a Marvel fan posting Captain America fan-art on tumblr?

Collection of colour photographs of a green gown in a medieval style; some show various pieces of the gown from various angles.
Credit: Smallhythe Place/Zenkie Tinker

As a textile and object of study, the dress has been stripped of the information and value that it had accumulated about 19th-century costuming practices. Its many alterations pointed to the costume being an object of use; its authenticity was tied to its history of exhibition on the stage, and its 'patina' of degradation. In its restored state, it is now technically inauthentic. It is no longer what it was, as its category has changed.

For, now, in its new category as a culturally-significant object of experience, the dress is wildly authentic. It has been restored to the spectacular showpiece that it was in its day. To view it is to experience history from the outlook of your own personal time machine. The display forces the viewer to reckon with the accumulated cultural heritage referenced by the object itself, its pose, its former wearer, and the research and workmanship that went into restoring it. It brings the viewer into an associative space--the experience is, at least, authentic.

Fashion often teeters on the line between creating objects of use and showpieces; how useful, really, are stilettos or palazzo pants? That particularly evocative pieces often end up in museums as culturally-significant objects, removed from usefulness and aimed at creating an association with the zeitgeist of a particular moment, makes it very clear that ordinary clothes and costumes are not much different. Your hip new outfit could be the costume of tomorrow! When future generations of children dress up as hipsters for Halloween, just as current generations dress up as hippies and ad men from Mad Men and flappers, remember the zeitgeist of our time and consider if you authentically embodied this cultural moment in your dress. Don't let it change your wardrobe now though--wouldn't want to be inauthentic!

Anyway, I was originally going to write this post about creepy mid-century children and their terrifying Halloween costumes, so here's a photo to keep you looking over your shoulder all night:

A man and a woman stand outdoors, both wearing large animal masks.
Credit: SickChirpse
Happy Halloween!

Smallhythe Place
The Guardian


  1. Wow! Lots to think about with this post! The biggest question that arises for me is how do you define "authenticity"? It's a pretty loaded term - and one museum professionals must grapple with all the time. The question of displaying authentic (or inauthentic) artifacts, and how that affects a visitor's experience, is a debate we've all been a part of.
    Authenticity can mean different things to different people, especially when you're talking about culture (a category dress and costume often fall into).
    I'm not sure I have anything really groundbreaking to say, only that this post brought up some good questions for me - so thanks!

  2. Great story and fantastic images! Even post-Halloween, your last image is quite haunting :) I think bringing together Halloween and authenticity is a great way to question what authenticity represents so I am glad to see this idea being troubled in your post. I would love to see the hipster (as we understand him/her today) to be captured in future Halloween costumes. Would challenge anyone to try that out for 2015!