Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Different Kind of Apprenticeship

Yesterday I went to an SCA event 4 1/2 hours from my home to watch a dear friend of my receive an award I have known he was destined for since I first met him almost 8 years ago. My people call moments like that stardust. It is something special to watch someone who has given so much time, talents, and self to a group to be recognized with their highest award in that area.
I also had a bit of stardust sprinkled on my head when the Queen of Atenveldt chose my display on 16th century corsetry and accessories as her favorite of the day. On my drive home I reflected on the experience and decided to post an edited version of an article I wrote for USITT Desert Conference's news letter about my experiences with costume and stardust in the SCA. I hope it warms a few hearts out there in cyberspace even a fraction as much as mine was warmed yesterday.

A Different kind of Apprenticeship
Costuming in the Society for Creative Anachronism
Maridith Feher
                The Society for Creative Anachronism is one of the largest educational, non-profit groups in the country. I first joined this diverse group in 2007, and have maintained an active member ever since. Anyone who chooses to go to an event will first notice how ingrained costuming has become into the SCA. Individuals who arrive at events in modern clothing are jokingly called, “naked.” There is a wide range in types of clothing SCA members will study, and funding individuals can put into the clothing will vary. Another major factor in an individual’s attire is the skill levels they, or their friends, posses. My costuming through the SCA has been an amazing journey which has focused my techniques and skills in pre-17th century clothing.
Maestra Tatiana and her Husband.
In 2013, I entered into an apprenticeship with a woman called Maestra Tatiana. Within the SCA, she is recognized as my Laurel. Laurels are a group of individuals who have been recognized for their skills with arts and sciences from pre-17th century life. Our relationship is that of a student and teacher, but also an extended family I can call on when my personal life is in crisis. Unfortunately, just as I was moving into an easy travel distance Tatiana had to move out of state for work. Ten years ago this would have ended our association. With all of the tools available to us I still talk to my Laurel at least once a week and our connection keeps growing. During these chats, we discuss progress on my research projects, issues I may be having with a particular piece, and what is expected of a Laurel in the SCA.  Because of our unique geography problems I have also been adopted by a group of other Laurels who are mutual friends of Tatiana and I so I have someone local I can go to with immediate questions, go to events with, call me on being crazy, and advocate for me when necessary. Every Laurel-Apprentice relationship is a bit different. My Laurel no longer lives near me so, I have to be more self-motivated then some of my peers are.  Other Laurels will give their Apprentices projects and homework. My Laurel revels in my love of researching small details to better understand the larger picture.
One of my First SCA outfits with my Husband.
Photo at event in Phoenix, AZ. September 2008
With the burst of interest and research available within the SCA’s time line, a costuming Laurel is no longer someone who can make pretty and detailed clothing. Laurels are expected to research fabric fragments in public collections for types of weaves or fiber content. A costuming laurel should be skilled in period handwork techniques, and have other areas of interest to make them more approachable by the public.  If skill was all that was required to become a Laurel there would be droves of them within the SCA. Laurels are also expected to have a joy of learning and teaching their arts, and be a role model for others in the SCA to aspire toward. Any individual can research types of lace. A Laurel will learn the skill and then share their skills with others through teaching and making pieces to share with others. While the Laurel is teaching about that piece of lace they will also be researching and experimenting with period correct materials to find out how each fiber behaves.
Pair of Bodies made with help from Maestra Tatiana in 2012. Photo of their condition in 2015
My drive to learn is one of the reasons Tatiana and I have been drawn together. We met at a corsetry workshop she was teaching in Mesa, Arizona in 2012. She was impressed with my desire to learn and dedication to understanding the period correct techniques. I believe she was also flattered that I chose to drive 3 ½ hours to take her 4 hours class. We discussed period materials and patterning for hours, and she got my information so she could keep track of how my set turned out. I was curious about the period use of reeds as a stiffener and ordered some to experiment with. The resulting pair of bodies, based on Elizabeth I’s funeral effigy set, is comfortable, and shockingly durable for the type of wear they have been put through.  As one research project gives way to the next, my perception of clothing from this time frame has morphed in the last eight years.
Gold Florintine Gown
Worn at SCA event in Tucson, AZ
March 2015.
When Tatiana began looking for pictures of my work online she was shocked at my transformation. Several of my newer friends could not recognize the images of me in 2007. As our relationship grew I shared more research ideas and she would give me feedback. When you are not working as a group to achieve a look, I feel it is important to have someone to bounce ideas off. This may be a hangover from my time in the costume shop, but it works well for me. Not only am I making beautiful pieces of art; I am researching a piece of history and how it functioned within society.
The largest differences I have experienced between costume for the stage and the clothing worn in the SCA is the function. Stage costume is used to tell a story. The designers are sending a message with every piece of clothing an actor wears, or does not wear. Period stage costume of today rarely sees the kind of abuse a historical washerwoman would have put it through. Well researched and constructed clothing for the SCA can be used as a heraldic story board, but is usually a reflection of hours of research into a particular time frame. Theatrical costume is often built quickly; an entire cast will be clothed in a matter of weeks, and using the theatre’s budget.
Photo by Patti Jo Collum. March 2015
SCA clothing can take years to make, depending on the kinds of treatments being used. Take my Anne Boleyn portrait reconstruction as an example. I first started that dress in 2010 and it has grown and evolved with the research I have done in the last five years. The more research I did the more I realized that period techniques needed to be used and this increased the time I was spending on every aspect of the clothing.Some dresses are simply labor's of love because few could ever afford to pay an individual or group for the labor involved in any outfit. SCA members can spend over eighteen hours in their clothing doing a wide range of activity. My favorite moments in the SCA have been watching the historical research collide with theatrical pageantry.

I am a better costume technician as a result of my time within the SCA. I have been given a safe playground to experiment without the stress, usually, of needing a pieced on stage as soon as possible. If the experiment does not work, it is a learning experience I can build on to better understand how clothing was constructed at the time. I like to think of myself as a costume detective, on the hunt to understand and construct clothing Christina of Denmark or Cosimo de Medici would recognize. With every passing year I believe I get a step closer to my goal. 

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