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19th Century Clergy and other "Characters"

I recently received an email asking for suggestions on what a Methodist minister should be wearing in the Civil War era South.

I referred the questioner to a page in my "Gentleman's Page" website which shows a 19th Century clergyman, but his question does raise an interesting and broader ranging question: what if the questioner wanted to portray a Baptist preacher in an ordinary business suit--how would anyone know, without him constantly introducing himself, what he was portraying?

If you are participating in a living history program, be it a Civil War re-enactment or occupying a historic house, and you want to present a specific sort of person, what can you do to provide clues to the unwitting public about who you are supposed to be?

In the case of my clergyman, I had to inform him that I was not really familiar with the Methodist tradition, so I didn't know if he should be wearing the black suit and dog collar, but I also suggested that if he wanted to play a clergyman, then he should wear the kit. Otherwise he will just be a guy in a suit with a lot of explaining to do.

Clergymen are a special case of course. Most professions don't have a real uniform, but many do have little accessories that can also help the cause of providing the pubic with non-verbal cues as to who you are. Here are a few that come to mind:

War correspondent: sketch pad and pencil
Important person (politician, banker etc.): black frock suit with top hat
Doctor: the "Black Bag".
Cook: soiled apron.
Blacksmith: leather apron
Marshal: black frock suit with badge and gun
Sheep herder: shepherd's crook and clever dog
Gambler: frock coat and garish vest
Telegrapher: Eyeshade and shirtsleeves (with shirt garters)

The key to all of these is that they play to common archetypes familiar to anyone who has seen a few Hollywood westerns (and who hasn't?). There may be perfectly valid historically correct cues that one could present, but they will not have the immediate impact of a familiar archetype. If you are presenting a more subtle portrayal, be prepared to "go into your act" frequently, and perhaps carry around business cards that explain yourself ("Mordechai D. Shark Esq. Attorney at Law") which you distribute liberally.

I realize that these are all men, with the possible exception of the cook. It is different for women. With the exception of dance hall girls and whores, women's attire will generally drop them in the category of "working woman" and "lady of fashion".

Beyond that, woman's portrayals will often be more driven by what they are doing than what they are carrying. In the 19th Century, men were out in the world working and women were in the home or its immediate vicinity working. If you are portraying a man with a job, but the venue doesn't actually provide you with a suitable work place, you will be stuck talking about it.

However, womens' work can happen anywhere near a home or military camp. These include things like knitting, laundry, cooking, butter churning and the like--all of which sounds like a topic for a future post.

To conclude, my advice is to look for familiar archetypes when you create a character, and freely incorporate what ever you can into what you are doing. You will save you and your audience a lot of trouble if you can convey as much key information as possible before you even open your mouth.




Dance hall girls are a creation of Hollywood and never existed as such. There were prostitutes who would have worn their best dress (not corsets and under clothes, why would you give it away? Free sample?) and performers who may have mixed with customers in their stage clothes, BUT the "Dance Hall Girl" is basicly a myth. Fun to wear what with the feathered headresses and all. Please weigh in with your outrage.

This is quite true as far as the notion of women strolling around in those colorful and quaint outfits that are, alas, far too common in the gunfighter reinactor crowd.

Certainly the "dance hall girl" outfit did exist but they were stage costumes and not something you wore on the street. How many Vegas showgirls today hang out at the bar in their feathery grande tenue?

Perhaps an interesting topic for a future post might be what soiled doves really did wear and where they wore it.

Victorian whores were Victorians too, and were not immune to the pressures of 19th Century notions of propriety--even when they were flauting them.