15 April 2012

Garb: Some thoughts on a troublesome word.

There is a word at the top of this page that carries a lot of baggage in our community. I'm speaking of "Garb". It seems odd to me to spend a lot of time discussing a simple noun that has been around since at least 1580, which was used by Shakespeare in Hamlet and Coriolanus to describe the fashion of a country (sometimes in reference to language, sometimes attire). But discuss it I do. 

In fact, in costuming forums and in real life, I am constantly called upon to defend my use of the word by those who hate it with a passion that I find surprising. And of all the linguistic eccentricities for which I might be called to the carpet, why choose garb?

"Because it's a word that describes quite accurately what I'm doing here" doesn't seem enough for most of my challengers.
garb (plural garbs)
1. A type of dress or clothing.
2. fashion, style of dressing oneself up
3. (figuratively) a guise, external appearance
Seems simple enough. We need a word to describe the fashions and styles of another time, to differentiate from the fashion and styles of our time. So we reach for a suitable word and run with it.

And trip over all the people trying to stop us.

Last week, I sat back and watched a group that I used to belong to turn itself inside out in an argument about the use of the term 'garb' on this blog and others. Mostly -- though I went unnamed -- it was clear that the instigator was upset by my use of the term in another forum. The teeth-gnashing, and eye-poking that ensued among partisans on both sides was truly something to see.

It's just a word, people... or is it? 
In search of historical context, I went looking for the source.

I reached out to Jon DeCles, who was there when both the Society of Creative Anachronism was born and when Phyllis Patterson was struggling to bring the Renaissance Pleasure Faire to life and asked him what he remembered of the use of the term "garb" -- this is what he said:
I can recall the use of 'garb' in the format of 'medieval garb' being used in the earliest days of the Society for Creative Anachronism, i.e., the late 1960s. The point was to make a distinction between 'clothing' and 'costume.' The distinction was an important one because costumes didn't have to have pockets or fasten with period fasteners, they just had to look good from a distance. It was an important point because the SCA got many people from Science Fiction Fandom who were used throwing together splendid costumes for one use at a masquerade ball at a convention, often made from old stuff they got at a thrift store but often bearing little resemblance to anything 'period.'
I still remember Phyllis Patterson struggling with getting people to understand, at her Renaissance Pleasure Faires in those days, that hot pink satin hennons were not characteristic of the Elizabethan Age.
(Thanks, Jon for taking some time out of your day to answer an out-of-the-blue question for me.)

Jon's note confirms what I have always assumed: that the application of the term "Garb" or "Renaissance/Medieval Garb" has always been used to differentiate between clothing and the one-use costumery of the masquerade ball or the October traipse through a corn maze. It's a bit of jargon we've adopted to set our costuming apart from other sorts of costuming.

One of my missions with this blog and as a costumer in general is to make this pastime accessible to all.  And to do that I have to get newcomers past the ingrained cultural baggage that 'costume' has in the United States at the dawn of the 21st century. Because we are combating an implicit association between the word "costume" with the word "Halloween".

If your goal is to become a costume historian, I pray you, don't use the term. The academes get quite sniffy about nomenclature. If you are talking to new recruits to this pastime and want to sidestep the first thought that pops into their head when you say 'costume' (no matter how anthropologically correct it might be) then pick a different word. Any word. Honestly, we've so debased the coin of 'costume' that anything else is better. I don't really care which one you use as long as you don't stomp on someone else's choice.

From where I sit, it's a lot like freaking out when someone uses the word 'dude' in modern life instead of 'fellow' or 'guy'. Oh, it happens -- I hear people get mad about it all the time, but I don't understand it. It's hard not to think that some folks just enjoy being annoyed by things they cannot control. Garb has become ingrained in our subculture, it is part of how we differentiate between the clothing we wear in the 21st century and the clothing we wear when we step into the past.

Here's the thing... There has always been a bit of a noticeable rift between reenactors and historians, which has led to a desire in many to strive to 'be taken seriously by the establishment'.  And on a fundamental level, I think that this desire to abandon anything that is specific to reenactor culture arises from that. When the academes sniff at our efforts, it hurts a little. I work at a college, I've seen the looks directed my way when I talk about how I spend my free time.

If you're a reenactor and a certified costume historian (or any kind of historian) you are standing astride two worlds, increasing the friction felt from things that are specific to the culture of one and disdained by the other.  Though that is changing. I believe that the rise of 'Experimental Archaeology' like the folks in From a Green Valley can be tracked back to the assimilation of reenactors into the historical fold. The idea that historical lives can be understood without directly experiencing them has been eroded. By us.

So if you're walking the academic road, I salute you. Within your world, I certainly understand that those looks are troublesome. I feel for you. I honestly do. But anytime that leads you come after me, to make it my problem, you've crossed a line.

Why anyone cares what I call my stuff is anyone's guess. I use garb, attire, clothing, and other words 
interchangeably, because as an advanced user of the English language, I know that's how it's supposed to work. Telling me that one of those words is 'bad' comes across as rank hipsterism.

Whether you intended it that way or not, that's how you are coming across: "Garb is so yesterday; we say 'attire' now, loser."

Having long ago set aside use of the term "garb nazi" to describe the holier-than-thou costumer and for a long time I've been using 'garb snark'. Maybe it is time to set aside that term now and start using 'Costume Hipster'.

I implore all of you: Go forth from this place and be nice to one another. Use all of your words. Use the correct words. Hell, make up some words if you want to. Don't just use the ones that the cool kids tell you are cool today. 

Anyway, that's my two cents. Don't spend it all in one place.

- Scott


  1. Huzzah, for the many uses in the english language for period clothing. I agree having been in the SCA for 8 years, its amazing how touchy some people are on what you call their clothing.

    I call garb as a general SCA term for any type of period styled clothing. My raiment are gowns either shift, bodies, kirtle, overdress, and so forth for specific pieces of clothing, as they are supposed to be called in Tudor period.

    Though I am glad to see comparisons with Theater groups, sca and other reenactors trying to come up with something expressive. Though they are touchy terms of endearments for garments.

  2. "I use garb, attire, clothing, and other words interchangeably, because as an advanced user of the English language, I know that's how it's supposed to work."

    And this is why I think you're awesome. :)