Sometimes it’s a last-minute morning run to a supermarket to grab food on the way to an event. Or maybe it’s a stop-off at a restaurant on the way home. Even a pit stop to gas up the car. Either way, the reactions from the unsuspecting public are always amusing and never predictable.
I once had a man stop me on the street as I packed up my car, dressed only in my smallclothes. But he correctly identified me as a Revolutionary War reenactor (100 points to him!), and asked if there was an event nearby. He sounded keen to attend and it saddened me to inform him that the one I was headed to was over an hour away.
That’s a good interaction. He realized I was a reenactor. He knew what time period I portrayed. He seemed really excited that there might be a reenactment happing close by.
Most of the time, we aren’t that lucky. I don’t mean to harp on the public. They mean well. Often, they want to make informed inquiries but simply don’t have the framework by which to formulate questions. I know reenactors who have been asked at events if the campfire they have set up is a “real fire”. I don’t think these spectators truly think that the fire itself is fake; in all probability what they really want to know is if the campfire set-up is period-correct. They just don’t know how to ask. So instead, they ask if it’s real.
The above paragraph doesn’t cover the malevolently uninformed, of course – the ones who think they know it all and try to tell us WE’RE wrong. That’s a story for another time. However, while I expect to field even awkwardly-worded questions while at an event, it’s the bizarre things I encounter when out in the “real world” that never cease to amaze me.
In my experience, the blanket category the average person places reenactors under is Civil War. One would think (a dangerous pastime) there is enough iconography of both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War that even the uninitiated would at least be able to tell the difference. Particularly, I would like to assume (an even more dangerous pastime), because of the American public’s insistence upon referring to the British as “redcoats”. But no. I’ve been asked on more than on occasion if I was a Civil War reenactor, even when looking at a picture of my regiment.
One year my job put me as extra help in an American History class. I was all in my glory when we hit the unit on the Revolution because the teacher was gracious enough to let me field some of the questions her students asked her (intellectual endeavors, like average musket range or why the Brits were so stupid as to stand in straight lines and fight). I thought I had made it pretty clear that I was a Rev War reenactor, particularly after I loaned her some pictures to show her classes of events that I had been to. They depicted camp set-ups, Rebel firing lines (that I had snapped myself in the middle of a battle), and one drill session in which I was prominently visible in full kit with my musket at the Present. A student turned to me one day and asked, quite sincerely, my opinion on whether I would have believed in colonial independence or whether I would have remained loyal to the Crown – even though, as he put it, “I know this isn’t your area because you’re a Civil War reenactor”.
Another time, returning from a living history day, my friends and I spent quality time on the side of a highway deadlocked by a multi-car crash when our one friend’s car broke down. AAA insisted they could get a tow truck to him in 45 minutes, despite our repeated explanations that traffic was stopped and a truck would be lucky to get to us before midnight. So there we were, in the shoulder of one of the busiest highways in the tri-state area, dressed like British soldiers of a bygone era. As the cars crept by many a camera and cell phone was extended out a window. I’m pretty sure we’re on the Internet in many places under the category of “look at the weirdos we found on the side of the road!”
One fellow rolled down his window as he coasted by at approximately the top speed of a tortoise and said to us, “Is that some sort of Russian costume?”
My friend shook his head. “No, we’re on our way back from New York.”
“Oh, okay,” the man replied as if that explained it all, and crawled on.
The public is even less informed when it comes to women’s clothing. In men’s clothes, generally the average Joe is able to realize that we’re in a uniform that isn’t current; therefore we must be one of those crazy people who pretend to fight old battles. It baffles the mind how many times I or one of my female friends have been mistaken for Amish. Even if the general population doesn’t recognize the difference between the different dress silhouettes, I think most of them have an idea (even if slightly misinformed) of what the Amish look like. Once, three of my friends and I made a pit stop to a sandwich store across the street from a living history day to procure lunch – I and one other were in late-bustle (1880s) dresses; the other two were in Napoleonic empire-waisted gowns. We passed a mother and young daughter on the sidewalk, and the girl exclaimed, “Mommy! Look!” We were almost out of earshot by that time, but I heard the mother reply, her voice disappearing into the air, “Yes, honey. In certain parts of the country there are people who live without electricity…”
It happens all the time. All. The. Time.
Again, it’s not fair of me to criticize. It’s not like they do this intentionally. They’re not even attending the reenactment, so why would they expect to see people dressed like us on the street? And for the most part, how they react makes me laugh. To all the cashiers who have rung up my groceries with wary but pleasant smiles on their faces, or waiters who have taken my dinner orders without batting an eye, you are both polite and tactful. Next time, don’t be afraid to ask what’s going on. I won’t bite. Mr. Russian Costume, I salute you. That’s an original one.
Just please. We’re not Amish. And the Civil War doesn’t involve red coats.