The Value of Secondary Sources, Warts and All

Before I can address the issue of secondary sources, I must make a confession. It is not a particularly safe thing to share, if I want to be taken seriously as a historian, but in order to discuss the context for my views, I must admit it: I have been a Civil War reenactor. I reenacted for nine years, and I loved it. It was through reenacting that I got my first living history job, and it was through reenacting that I received ongoing exposure to the public consumption of history, and the fascination that people have with the clothing and everyday material culture of the past.

There is an unfortunate tendency among academic historians, and to some extent even among public historians, to look down the proverbial nose at Civil War reenacting and other types of hobby-history. But there is value to be found in such things, on multiple levels, including the experimental archaeology angle – reenactors, like other living historians, are actually implementing experiments into the “how did they do it?” questions of the historical discipline. And especially for a field such as the history of clothing, which is continually hampered by myths about who wore what when (and how, and why), that kind of experimentation is extremely valuable. Through the field of public history, I hope that more connections can be made between living historians (both professional and amateur) and academic historians, to exchange resources and essentially combine forces.

Now that my secret is out, I will get to the point and share my perspective on the strengths and the issues of secondary sources, specifically as regards the topic of historical clothing.

Within the Civil War reenacting community, there is a subset of people involved in a movement for greater authenticity. They often call themselves “progressive reenactors,” and many of them are every bit as serious about their historical research as any professional historian. They emphasize the importance of research in the hobby, specifically primary source-based research, and are generally sticklers for not only representing the past in a documentable way, but for representing “the norm” rather than exceptions or unusual elements of the past.

There is a lot to be said for this attitude, especially in the friendlier segments of this sub-subculture, but time and again I come back to a feeling of frustration at the widespread progressive reenactor mindset that primary sources are the only real sources, and that everyone must do all (or at least most) of the research themselves. Because, really, primary sources are not the only sources, and they aren’t even the only good sources. The entire academic discipline of history is devoted to creating secondary sources, which ideally combine the expertise of a skilled researcher with compiled and/or analyzed primary source material, presented in a cohesive and comprehensible whole. Applied to the massive and complex topic of historical clothing, there are innumerable ways in which secondary sources can illuminate aspects of that study, especially when different types of secondary sources, from different perspectives, are used in concert.

Obviously, not all secondary sources are created equal, and not all secondary sources are reliable or accurate. But the response to that limitation should not be to tut-tut at secondary sources and people who use them, it should be – in my opinion – to contribute to or encourage the improvement of the quality of secondary sources available. That could entail such approaches as directly writing secondary resources, writing critical reviews of available secondary sources, writing recommendations about how to create well-documented and useful secondary sources, working with museums to improve the accuracy and usefulness of online catalog information for extant garments, and making suggestions to burgeoning researchers about how to critically read secondary sources and combine different types of sources (both primary and secondary) into a cohesive body of reasonably well-documented research.

Secondary sources are not inherently bad; they’re simply limited. But so are primary sources. Everything has its own perspective, its own context, its own biases, its own limitations, and hopefully, its own strengths. The fact that some secondary sources are absolutely abysmal, and all have limitations, does not mean that researchers should start from scratch; rather, it means that researchers should attend to their critical reading skills, keep in mind the context and bias of each source, and endeavor to combine their secondary source readings with examinations and analysis of primary sources. In short, devoted amateur historians can, and indeed should, study history the same way that academics are trained to.

And not just the history of important people and earth-shaking events; the history of clothing and other aspects of everyday life as well. Critical reading and careful analysis are perhaps especially important in the study of historical clothing, because the subject is so fraught with research minefields, from Freudian analysis of “neurotic” fashion (Freud is not a reliable source for theory about anything) to the widespread tendency, in texts about about history of clothing, to make sweeping generalizations without citing sources at all. Massive misunderstandings abound, from exaggerated cartoons mocking fashions being misinterpreted as literal records of period clothing, to the historiographical nightmare that is William Barry Lord’s 19th century tight-lacing fetish book, which has been quoted for a century and a half as a primary source on the degradations and mutilations of Victorian corsetry, but is in fact nothing more than a thinly veiled, sensationalistic rehashing of tabloid journalism.

However, even texts talking about Freud or making unsupported generalizations can still be full of great primary source images, and are often readily available in public libraries. Period cartoons can tell us things about historical fashions and historical attitudes toward those fashions, but they must be considered in a layered and nuanced way, rather than as straight representations (for instance, no, crinolines were not actually wider than ladies were tall). And Lord’s The Corset and the Crinoline, later reissued under the title Freaks of Fashion, is likewise not a straight representation of anything, but skilled researchers like Valerie Steele have been able to draw from his book insight into the trumped up tight-lacing controversy of the 1860s and ’70s, and the mythology that stems from it.

I believe in the value of research, and I believe in the value of sharing research in comprehensible, useable, but also carefully documented ways. I believe in utilizing the research of those who came before me, but being careful not to take for granted than an acclaimed expert, or a famous museum, or a book with especially glossy photographs, is necessarily reliable or 100% accurate. I believe in the value of critiquing the research of others, politely, but publicly and honestly. Through critical reviews, historians can challenge one another to do better, to avoid leaving holes in their research, to make arguments which are well-supported with evidence, and to remember that there are other points of view. I believe that secondary sources have a significant role to play in the construction of a nuanced understanding of the history of clothing, for beginners, experts, and everyone in between.

It is because of those beliefs that I have spent countless hours creating this site: because I don’t want my faculty committee and my boyfriend to be the only people who ever read through the research that my year-long thesis project has produced. So this secondary source is going on the internet, in the hopes that it can be of use to historians of all stripes—and anyone else whose fancy it happens to strike.

In a way, I think that the annotated bibliography is one of the most important things that I have produced, because it evaluates sources, and outlines what they have to offer. Really, it’s what I have wished for ever since I first started researching the history of clothing. Even though it’s only my perspective, I try to get my facts straight and be clear about my opinions and what I’m basing them on. And it’s a start. Moreover, it’s a start from which I can link to other reviews of books, in the hopes of offering a wider range of perspectives.

Because making connections between pieces of research, and between researches, is the whole point, in the end. If we aren’t making those connections, and utilizing the research of others as well as our own individual, original research, we’re all just scrabbling in the dark, re-inventing the wheel. I would like to think that, in some way, however small, this website and my Division III project on the whole are contributing to the making of connections between different fields and approaches to studying the history of clothing, and I very much hope to go on in my career to continue making those connections.


p.s. I would love to provide a link/citation for my remarks about Freud, but my googling efforts have not turned up anything publicly accessible that covered the kind of general debunking that I’m looking for. If anyone knows of such an article that I could link to, please tell me!

2 responses to “The Value of Secondary Sources, Warts and All


    it doesnt make sense to me -.- ..

    • What is it that doesn’t make sense to you? (And, I apologize for the delay in replying – I got very busy with finals and then quite forgot about my notifications for a while!) I’d be happy to try to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense.

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