The Balance of Accuracy and Accessibility

Silk fabric during the Tang Dynasty was, to the best of my knowledge, 24″ wide. 1 2 This is not a common width – I have only found it once, and it was a very expensive reproduction of a period fabric. Because of this, we, as a community, accept that most people are going to make garments out of fabric that is either 45 or 58-60″ wide – the standard commercial widths. It is what is accessible, even if it isn’t accurate. The same is true for printed motifs as opposed to woven – while it may be more accurate to use a woven (jin) silk for a particular garment, accurate motifs are difficult to source (locating them, price point, international shipping, etc.). Better to block print a design that you know is accurate on a fiber/weave you know is correct than settle for an inaccurate woven design with questionable fiber.

I don’t use period cosmetics – I apply modern cosmetics in a period style. I have done research on what materials were used in Tang Dynasty cosmetics, and I am aware of similar research by other SCAdians. I choose to use modern cosmetics to achieve a period style due to the broader accessibility of modern cosmetics – literally anyone can go into a drugstore or grocery store and buy what I use, as opposed to struggling to source various ingredients and going through the arduous process of making the cosmetics in their kitchen, then storing them. When you only go to one event every few months or so, period cosmetics – which have to be made in batches and have a much shorter shelf life – aren’t a reasonable investment of money or time for practical use. I’m also married to a Metallurgist with a background in Chemical Engineering and who used to do FDA compliance work who makes lots of faces when I start doing stovetop experiments – and has vetoed some as Household Safety Officer.

There are still some choices that can be made here – like drugstore brand cosmetics vs. bare mineral/organic/etc., but affordability comes into play again. Cosmetics are the sort of thing where I wouldn’t expect someone to buy a separate set of products for the SCA when what they might use for modern life will do the trick just fine. A comparison might be interesting, but again – cosmetics, even modern ones, are an investment of not only the product itself but also tools and time to learn how to apply them.

One of my goals with sharing what I learn about Tang Dynasty material culture is to make it as accessible as possible. It’s more fun when other people play with you, after all. And the more people that are learning about a thing, the more brains are engaged, the higher the chances get that you figure out The Thing that has been eluding someone’s understanding.

Should we strive for authenticity? Of COURSE WE SHOULD – within the balance of accessibility. When I was sourcing stones for Lady Mi’s necklace, I couldn’t find turquoise for a price that was in my budget – I have a household to help upkeep and two small kids to help provide for, because I am a Responsible Adult. So I used glass, which is a reasonable substitute, and a material that artisans would have had access to in period.

The research element here is key – as it is with anything Tang Dynasty related, in my book, because it is not a culture I hold any personal identifying claim to – finding an appropriate, accessible alternative can require just as much research as finding out what was used in period. But that research is worth it, because you’re building your case and helping others down the path who come behind you. It’s work worth doing, and it’s work worth doing well.

This is why there is a section on most guided documentation forms (and why when we counsel people on how to write their documentation) to specifically address substitutes. It’s 100% okay if you can’t use exactly what they would have used in period – just explain what you used instead and why you made that choice. If it’s reasonable – find-ability, affordability, safety, etc.

There is a difference between pushing for accuracy and gatekeeping, just as there is a difference between thoughtfully using accessible materials and being lazy with your research.

As it is with so, so many things – it is about finding the proper balance.

Further Information:

  1. Burnham, D. K. (1997). Cut my cote. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.
  2. Wilkinson, E. (Ed.). (2018). Chinese history: A new manual (5th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Yenching Institute.
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