UK researcher studies historical re-enactors and their dress

Historical re-enactors at a Grant vs. Lee Re-enactment in Brandy Station, Va.

PHOTO: Kim Miller-Spillman

It has been more than 150 years since the first battle of the Civil War, but it is estimated that thousands of individuals spend billions of dollars each year to participate in or attend Civil War reenactments.

Kim Miller-Spillman, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, has spent her career researching historical re-enactors to learn the importance of period clothing in recreating historical events and in their lives.

“I’ve always had a fascination with how we can become somebody else by changing what we wear,” she said. “There are so many groups in which adults dress in costume for fun and fantasy. We know that children like to play dress-up, but our knowledge of adults dressing in costume is somewhat limited.”

By surveying re-enactors, Miller-Spillman learned that they come in all age ranges, occupations, education levels and income levels. For women, the most common age range was between 46 and 53. The most common occupation was in the professional category, which included nurses, doctors and lawyers. More women respondents listed a college degree than any other education level, and their most common annual income was between $50,000 and $74,999.

The most common age range of male respondents was between 42 and 45 years old. Like the women, most male re-enactor respondents held professional jobs, and more male re-enactors listed college as their highest educational attainment than any other education level. The most common average income male re-enactors reported was between $35,000 and $49,999.

Re-enacting can be an expensive hobby. In her research, Miller-Spillman found the majority of men and women re-enactors spend between $1,000 and $3,999 on their period clothing, artillery and accessories. Both report they purchase most of their clothing through sutlers, merchants who sell Civil War-related merchandise at re-enactments.

 Miller-Spillman asked re-enactors how important having the correct attire was to the hobby and to be able to experience a magic moment where participants feel like they’ve returned to the 1860s and are witnessing the battle firsthand.

Like their varying demographics, Civil War re-enactors listed a variety of reasons behind their interest in historically accurate Civil War clothing. Some of the most common reasons men listed were a love of history, fun and enjoyment and a requirement for participating in re-enactments. The most common reasons for women were the opportunity to escape and being able to assume another persona.

Of male respondents, 85 percent had a magic moment while re-enacting. For women, 53 percent of respondents said they have had a magic moment. The majority of those who have had such moments said historically accurate clothing was critical to making that happen.

Miller-Spillman will present her research Oct. 21 at Transylvania University as part of a Civil War Speakers’ Panel to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ashland.

Contact: 

Kim Miller-Spillman, 859-257-7779

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