One of the enduring questions in the HEMA community is why do so few people wear historical clothing during their HEMA practice? Surely it makes sense to train historical martial arts in the historical clothing from that period in time? Maybe the clothing itself will lend insights into how people moved or may have used their weapons?
The authentic look
I used to be involved with historical re-enactment, where the look of the historical clothing was more important than the authenticity of the fighting.
Now, I’m more interested in the authenticity of the fighting than the look of the clothes. I have had all too much experience of badly fitting, cheaply made, poorly tailored “historical” clothing that was not particularly representative of what it should have been in terms of the specifics of how it hung, how it moved, how comfortable it was… Maybe it “looked” the part, but it wasn’t right. As a result of this experience, I know that including that sort of thing in my HEMA practice would not help me achieve any authenticity in the fighting. In fact, it would get in the way and create as least as many artefacts and anachronisms as modern clothing.
That being said, I do acknowledge that adding authentically designed and correctly made historical clothing with authentic and correct materials, designs, and manufacturing processes probably would improve the context of my HEMA. However, anything short of “historically accurate” would not achieve this.
The cost of historical authenticity
Since the historically accurate clothing is incredibly expensive (in terms of time, money, or both), I am not keen to mandate that for my students. I would rather that they just get the most important equipment at the beginning of their training (mask, sword, gloves, in that order) and get stuck into the important part of the practice: the practice.
As a side note, with gear that costs so much, I don’t want to put it in harm’s way. While I might be happy to wear a £20 tourist kilt where it might become damaged, I am not going to wear a proper £1000+ kilt outfit where people are trying to cut me with swords, or where I might be rolling about in mud. That is just not on the cards!
First impressions based on look
Another consideration is that many things are simply easier if my activity doesn’t look like LARP or re-enactment. I have had many students over the years who are not interested in the clothing, who just want to learn to use swords, and so having a more modern style of uniform appeals to them and helps with recruitment. Also, venue managers have been more inclined to let me use their space when I explain that we do martial arts in a modern fashion with modern gear, and that we don’t just play with swords and dress up in some kind of historical clothing – clearly, several of the venue managers I have worked with over the years have had negative experience (or a negative impression) of other groups where the look of the clothing took precedence over the correctness (and maybe safety) of the fighting.
Today, I find that fewer people draw the comparison between what I do and LARP or re-enactment, but instead I find more people compare HEMA to Battle of the Nations and suchlike, and are very hesitant about joining my club until they establish we are definitely not doing that that sort of thing.
Having a more modern looking uniform simply makes life easier for all the clubs I run (and have run), and that is the main reason why I am in favour of it.
The historical-ish look, and safety
If a HEMA club wanted to do everything in perfectly correct historical gear, that is fine. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it is very expensive and/or time consuming.
If a HEMA club didn’t quite want to go that far, and wanted the historical-ish look without worrying about the accuracy, then that’s also fine, but it would be wrong to assume that they are learning anything useful by wearing incorrect clothing that hasn’t been made properly. If it has been made properly, great; if not, then it’s not right and won’t teach the correct lessons.
Another issue I have with the historical-ish look (without the correctness) is how can you guarantee the protectiveness of the safety gear? When everything is bought cheaply or handmade cheaply, how can you guarantee (as a club leader) that everyone will have protective gear of suitable quality? Are you willing to assume the legal liability for allowing people to engage in higher intensity sparring with inadequate gear that really should have been forbidden on grounds of safety, but that was given the OK because it looked kind of historical-ish?
One of the nice things about modern equipment is that you can eyeball it quickly and reach a conclusion about its protectiveness. Something that falls foul of quality control is then unusual and an exception to the rule. I know that when I see someone in SPES gear, they will probably be safe in that gear, unless there is a catastrophic failure. If I see someone in what looks like a cheap gambeson … well, I am going to worry about it. I have seen enough cheap gambesons fail in one way or another to be worried when I see a training partner or student wearing one.
There probably are lots of good reasons to wear good quality, historically accurate clothing (in terms of design, cut, tailoring, fit, materials, etc). If the clothing isn’t historically accurate, then it’s no better than modern clothing, and may come with drawbacks. With modern equipment, it doesn’t pretend to be historical, so you can just get on with the business of doing your practice and being safe.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.