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Phase Three – Formulating the Hypothesis
Once we have finished the search for source material, a picture begins to emerge of what the Fruitsellers’ outfits looked like: what features do the versions have in common, what closures, sleeve options, and decorations are seen, what accessories complete the outfit and what items are paired with it without fail. This information allows us to do what is known in scientific circles as formulating the hypothesis.
A hypothesis is an unproven theory. It is an idea that we formulate as we’re looking at the information presented in the literature (and pictorial and textual) search. For the Fruitseller’s Outfit, perhaps our hypothesis is “The Fruitseller’s gown is a bodiced gown with a straight waist seam and rectangular skirts. The bodice is not boned and can be closed at center front or side back by hidden hooks or lacing. Sleeves are typically attached by ribbons but can also be slipped off the arms and tied behind the back. Contrasting trim around the neckline, opening, seams, and hem is common. The Fruitseller’s Outfit typically includes a coloured apron. The gown is worn over a smock of two varieties: scoop-necked and pleated or high-necked with a ruffled collar.”
Formulating the hypothesis is an important part of historical clothing research, especially when no extant garment exists for us to study. An experienced researcher can look at the drape of a skirt or the creased in a bodice in a painting and posit with a great degree of certainty how the garment is constructed.
Of course the hypothesis is not a certainty; it needs to be tested. Through testing we might find out, for example, that the garment requires a gored skirt to make the shapes we see in the pictures.
Of the utmost importance when formulating the hypothesis is that we do not insert our personal prejudices into the equation. More than one supposed “reconstruction” has come out looking nothing like the original because of the insistance that “they couldn’t possibly have worn unstiffened bodices” or “there has to be a bumroll because women’s bums aren’t that big naturally”. Fourteenth century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham stated that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon was often the correct one. We do well to keep Ockham’s razor in mind.
Another trap it is important to avoid is to use our knowledge as modern people to solve the problems of reconstruction. Costume-makers may use stay tape, hidden snaps, weighted hems, and other devices to make a costume behave properly for the stage, but when researching historical clothing, we must restrict ourselves to the techniques we can prove were used in the period in question. It simply does not matter if plastic cross-stitching media makes better hats or if “a little stitchwitchery will never be seen.” If you are seeking to replicate historical clothing — make it as they made it — using these theatrical shortcuts will not bring you nearer your goal.
Tomorrow… Testing the Hypothesis
© 2009 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice, the author’s name and website, and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.