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Melinda Hughes-Berland

13 Secrets of Historical Reenactors

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Melinda Hughes-Berland

While time travel might be impossible (so far), historical reenactors say their hobby is the next best thing. But what’s it really like to take part in a Revolutionary War battle or to live in a Viking village? How—or why—does one get started as a reenactor? And really, aren’t those shoes uncomfortable? Mental_floss spoke with several historical reenactors to get their insights on what it's like to bring history to life.

1. THEY’RE OFTEN JUST REGULAR PEOPLE—IN CHAIN MAIL.

While some historic reenactors are paid museum employees or professional historians, the majority are people with regular jobs who got inspired by a particular period in history. Some say they got hooked visiting a reenactment village, while others describe a more surprising inspiration. Benjamin Bartgis, a Maryland-based reenactor who specializes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, says it was reading the My Name Is America historic novels in elementary school that got him interested. Jack Garrett, founder of the California-based group the Vikings of Bjornstad, says that for him it was the 1958 movie The Vikingsplus a curiosity about what it would feel like to wear chainmail.

2. IT’S NOT JUST DUDES DOING BATTLE SCENES.

One common assumption about historical reenacting is that it mainly consists of people (usually men) recreating specific battles from history. And while battle reenactments are popular, many reenactors are equally passionate about portraying daily activities. Historic villages, like Colonial Williamsburg, and events like the Jane Austen Festival in Kentucky often showcase reenactors carrying out historic trades, such as cooking, tailoring, and blacksmithing, as well as going about other ordinary aspects of daily life. Such “everyday” reenactments may become even more popular in the future: “Millennials are more interested in everyday life and civilian portrayals” compared to older generations, Bartgis says.

3. THEY DON’T WEAR “COSTUMES.”

Some reenactors will bristle if you call what they’re wearing a “costume.” They refer to the clothing and other physical gear needed to create a historical persona as a “kit,” and lavish a lot of time and labor on making their kits as accurate as possible. Period-appropriate, handmade clothing can also get very expensive, with specialty items such as coats and shoes starting at several hundred dollars.

4. EVEN HISTORICAL REENACTMENT IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.

As with a lot of things, pop culture influences which reenactment eras and activities are popular at any given moment. The release of a smash book, movie, or video game can cause a surge in popularity; WWI and WWII video games have particularly boosted reenactments of those eras in the past few years. Historical anniversaries—like key dates in the Civil War or American Revolution—can also spark a flurry of renewed interest and commemorations.

5. THEY HONE HISTORICAL SKILLS.

Jack Garrett

It’s not just about dressing the part: Reenactors also practice the skills of an earlier era. Albert Roberts, a reenactor who portrays physicians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, jokes that when he began he didn’t have any practical 18th century skills at all. “I couldn’t hunt, I couldn’t fish, I couldn’t soldier, I couldn’t ride horses, I couldn’t blacksmith, I couldn’t carpenter, I couldn’t birth babies,” he says, “so I had no value.” But after assisting, and then taking over, for the doctor at historic Mansker’s Station in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, he now has a deep knowledge of old medical techniques.

Bartgis, in addition to mastering Colonial penmanship and bookbinding for his 18th century persona, also has a basic grasp of sailing skills for his work with Ship’s Company, a living history organization dedicated to preserving late 18th and early 19th century maritime history.

Plus, many reenactors also have significant craft skills. Garrett notes that his group crafts most of their Viking gear, aside from speciality items like helmets. They even created their own Viking treasure hoard by molding and casting ancient coins.

6. THEY ARE HISTORIANS.

Most reenactors spend countless hours delving into the history of their preferred era and becoming knowledgeable specialists. Steve Santucci, the adjutant (military secretary) for Revolutionary War group the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, tells mental_floss: “the amount of time spent on the field is quadrupled by the time we spend researching.” He refers to the battles themselves, which are fought as much as possible in the same places they originally occurred, as “walking in the footsteps of history.”

But while reenactors pride themselves on their scholarship, there can be some guesswork involved, especially for particularly ancient or less well-documented eras. Garrett (whose own library numbers 700 volumes) says researching 9th through 11th century Vikings often requires testing equipment and theories in order to connect random dots. “A good deal of what we do is what we call ‘experimental archaeology,’” he says, explaining that he will often take information from archaeological sources—like ancient carvings depicting Vikings carrying their swords a particular way—and test it out.

7. THEY GET ASKED SILLY QUESTIONS.

Members of the public seem to love to ask reenactors the same kinds of questions. Among the queries they get tired of hearing: “Are you going to eat that?” (referring to food they’re cooking); “Aren’t you hot?” (referring to period clothing); and “Is that real fire?” (this one seems hard to explain). And inevitably there’s the smart aleck school kid who will ask where they’re hiding their TV.

8. THEY LIKE TO SHARE THEIR KNOWLEDGE.

Jack Garrett

Bartgis is quick to say that educating the public is one of the best things about being a reenactor. “As much as we like to make fun of questions like [the above], they’re all valid,” Roberts adds. “We’ve done all this research so we’ll have this knowledge that we can pass on to the public.”

Garrett agrees. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “Nothing makes you feel better about doing this than the smile of someone who may have a different understanding of history.” For instance, he particularly enjoys combating the image of Vikings as “wild, uncouth barbarians intent only on rape, pillage, and slaughter.”

“Without sugar-coating the realities of the Viking age, we try to put that in the context of their times and overlay the image with descriptions of their art, culture, religion and technology,” he explains. “What’s the most common artifact found buried with Vikings? A comb.”

9. THEY DON’T ALWAYS REENACT FOR THE PUBLIC.

As much as they like interacting with the public, reenactors will sometimes stage separate events for themselves. Bartgis describes taking part in a 15-mile overnight march in single digit temperatures as part of a reenactment of the 1777 Occupation of the Jerseys (part of the Revolutionary War). Besides the reenactors’ own enjoyment, the immersive event was staged for museum educators and professionals to enhance their understanding.

But sometimes reenactors will plan private events just for fun. Garrett’s Bjornstad crew convenes with other Viking reenactment groups at a twice-yearly feast held at a historically accurate longfort in Missouri.

10. IT CAN GET CLIQUE-Y.

Asked about the worst part of reenacting, Roberts says it’s the cliques. Reenactors often split themselves up according to their degree of commitment to accuracy and in opposition to the much-maligned, less accurate “farbs” (sometimes said to stand for “far be it from authentic”). Likewise, some professionals working at museums and historic villages take offense as being called “reenactors,” preferring instead the term “living historians.”

“The thing is, if you don’t encourage and educate the farbs, your hobby dies,” Roberts says, noting the need to educate new blood.

11. THEY MIGHT WEAR BREECHES TO THE GROCERY STORE.

“You really know that you’re a reenactor when your reenactor clothes make their way into your modern wardrobe,” Roberts says, explaining that he once wore his 18th century stockings to school, under his pants, because he had no clean socks. “Nobody knew but me, but I was like ‘I may have a legitimate problem.’”

“If you do this for a while,” Bartgis adds, “you end up going and doing grocery shopping in your old-timey clothes ... or putting gas in your car while wearing breeches and stockings and a wig.” He also says that he and his partner have flown on a plane in their kits, and sometimes ended up in a bar kitted up after an event—to the delight of the bartender and patrons.

12. IT’S A CHANCE TO ESCAPE THE EVERYDAY.

Reenactors say they love the chance their hobby offers to get out of the daily grind. Bartgis says the many magic moments he’s experienced are exemplified by “working with a bunch of people to haul a cannon up a hill, while someone is singing a work song, and you’re all pulling together—or coming together on a sail boat that’s under a full press of sail.”

According to Garrett, “The thing that connects all of us is that for a moment it’s nice to get out of traffic and the normal day to day stuff that we all deal with, and just do something different.

13. THEY DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN THE PAST.

Most reenactors, while drawn to the past, are happy enough to be living in the modern era. Asked if they’d like to live in the time periods they reenact, the answer is typically a resounding “No!”

“Intestinal parasites and fleas,” says Garrett. “Dysentery and smallpox,” says Santucci. “I like my modern medicine,” says Roberts.

However, Bartgis notes that while studying the past has made him more appreciative of the present, he’s also been able to recognize that many other things have not changed much. “People have been arguing about what kind of country this country should be since the Revolution,” he says. Also, “people have been struggling to make ends meet for a really long time.” He adds that his perspective on the tenuousness of life in the past has given him “a lot of perspective about how we take modern stability for granted.”

All images via Getty except where noted.

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11 Secrets of Personal Shoppers
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Personal shoppers aren't just for big spenders—they can help regular folks find clothing and accessories that are flattering, stylish, and budget-friendly, too. We spoke to a few of these fashion mavens to get a behind-the-scenes look at their job, whether it's how they can save you money, when they might encourage you to step out of your comfort zone, or why their feet are probably sore.

1. THEY DO MORE THAN SHOP.

“When I tell people I am a personal shopper, they think all I do is shop and hang out at the mall,” Nicole Borsuk, a personal shopper in Atlanta, tells Mental Floss. While buying clothing is a big part of the job, it's not as simple as it may sound—personal shoppers work closely with sales associates at retail stores to hunt down elusive pieces, put promising items on hold, and determine when new clothing will arrive at the store. And whether they are working with sales associates or advising their clients on what looks fashionable, personal shoppers need excellent communication and people skills. “You have to be very good at building relationships,” Borsuk says.

Personal shoppers who work as independent consultants also spend considerable time running their business: they write blog posts, search for new clients, and manage their finances. “Finding ways to grow and market my business … is one of the most important things I do,” Borsuk says. “However, I would much rather be spending time with my clients and be putting fabulous outfits together.”

2. THEIR WORK STARTS LONG BEFORE A CLIENT HITS THE DRESSING ROOM.

A young woman helping another woman assess a dress in a dressing room
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According to Lori Wynne, a wardrobe consultant and personal shopper who owns Fashion With Flair in Atlanta, a personal shopper's work begins before a client is trying on clothing in a store’s dressing room. “My service starts by analyzing their closet and current wardrobe, creating ‘new’ outfits with the clothes they already own, culling items that do not fit their body or lifestyle, and creating a personalized shopping list,” she tells Mental Floss. Based on a client’s current wardrobe and shopping list, Wynne then chooses a store that best fits the client’s needs. “I shop before the client arrives in the store. I load the dressing room with the items, then the clients arrives. No sifting through the racks or going from store to store,” she says. “It is a very effective use of time for my busy professionals or stay-at-home moms.”

3. THEIR FEET ARE PROBABLY SORE.

Personal shoppers have firsthand knowledge of what it's like to "shop ‘til you drop." The constant walking through stores and standing in front of racks can make for some seriously sore feet. “My least favorite thing [about my job] is how much my feet hurt after a long day of shopping,” Wynne admits. Personal shopper James Gallichio adds that a desk job would be much easier on his body. “The hardest part is the constant exercise. Four days a week I do 5-8 hour shopping sessions where I’m walking around constantly, which takes a fair drain on energy,” he writes in a Reddit AMA.

4. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO SHOP FOR ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.

Turquoise women's t-shirts of various sizes from small to large hanging on wooden hangers
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Personal shoppers emphasize that shopping for other people requires a vastly different skill set than shopping for oneself. “Some people may think that if they have great style, they can dress anyone,” Wynne says. “Your individual style doesn’t look good on every body type, age, and gender. A personal shopper must understand styles for all ages, budgets, and body types.”

Competent personal shoppers, then, have a comprehensive understanding of types of fabric, garment construction, and how different clothing brands flatter (or don’t flatter) diverse body types. Personal shoppers also pick clothing and accessories in colors that will complement a client’s skin tone and hair color, rather than opting for hues that they personally like.

5. THEIR FEE STRUCTURE CAN VARY CONSIDERABLY.

Personal shoppers who are employees of department stores are usually paid a salary and receive commissions on any items they convince a customer to buy. But independent personal shoppers, who are not affiliated with a store or line of clothing, have more flexibility. Because they directly bill their client, they can charge a variety of fees for their services, whether it's an hourly fee, a flat rate, or a package of multiple sessions. Some personal shoppers even offer a "complete makeover" package that includes additional services such as makeup application and hairstyling.

6. WEALTHY PEOPLE AREN’T THEIR ONLY CLIENTS ...

A woman in sunglasses carrying multiple pastel shopping bags
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“Most people see hiring a personal shopper as a luxury,” personal shopper Lauren Bart tells Vogue Australia. But personal shoppers disagree. “You do not have to be wealthy to hire a personal shopper. I actually save my clients money and time,” Wynne says. By guiding them toward quality pieces that will last many years (rather than pieces that wear out after a few months), personal shoppers can save their clients some serious moola. Plus, they can discourage clients from buying clothing and accessories that they don’t love, minimizing the chance that clients will get bored of their purchase.

7. … BUT THEY PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS FOR BIG SPENDERS.

That said, personal shoppers also know how to cater to big spenders. Nicole Pollard, a celebrity stylist and personal shopper in Los Angeles, tells The Hollywood Reporter that she arranges for stores to open early, has a tailor on call, and pops expensive champagne for VIPs. “I live on text. It’s the fastest way to get things done such as opening Chanel on New Year’s Day or any other Rodeo [Drive] boutique at the crack of dawn,” she says. “Champagne, chocolates, coffee—whatever the store needs to do to keep the clients happy. The sky is the limit.”

Pollard will also go far to ensure her celebrity and royal clients don't end up in the same clothes as someone else at a big event—for example, by researching the colors of a particular dress shipped to local department stores and then ordering other hues unavailable locally for her clients.

8. THEY COAX CLIENTS OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONES.

Two women looking at books of samples in a clothing store
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Besides giving their clients advice on which garments complement their body and skin tone, personal shoppers also encourage people to go a little wild. Without a personal shopper’s gentle nudging to experiment with a patterned blouse or shimmery sandal, a client may never consider certain items wearable. “I love it when my clients say, ‘If I had been shopping by myself, I wouldn't never [have] chosen that item. Now that I have it on, I love it!’” Wynne says. “It makes me feel good that I have encouraged them to try something new or out of their comfort zone. They immediately see the benefit of my expertise.”

9. THEY GO THE EXTRA MILE TO PLEASE THEIR CLIENTS.

Personal shoppers don't just bend over backward to please their uber-wealthy clients—they also go the extra mile when it comes to their regular customers. Many clients text and email their personal shoppers at the last minute for fashion emergencies, and personal shoppers often work on tight deadlines to find the perfect outfit. When Borsuk worked with a client who was hard to find tops for, she scoured stores looking for the perfect outfit for an upcoming bris. “I went to every store I could think of in metro Atlanta. We thought we had found the perfect outfit, but the skirt couldn’t be altered because of the way it was made,” Borsuk says. “The week before the bris I went to Neiman Marcus. They had items overnighted and had a courier take outfits to her house.”

Thankfully, a skirt that Borsuk threw in at the last minute worked with the original top. “Everyone thought she looked amazing, and she got so many compliments. She was thrilled! I was so happy that my client looked so good on such a special day,” she says.

10. THEY’RE UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THEIR CLIENTS’ INSECURITIES.

A woman contemplating two different dresses on wooden hangers
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In the process of seeing a client’s home, closet, and naked (or barely clothed) body, personal shoppers can get to know their clients quite intimately. In the course of working together, some personal shoppers may even spot signs of body dysmorphia, compulsive buying disorder, or hoarding in their clients. Personal shopper and stylist Michelle McFarlane tells Cosmopolitan that helping people try on clothing requires vulnerability and trust. “People bring all kinds of insecurities and hang-ups with them when it comes to their clothes and their image, so you have to be adept at making people feel at ease,” she says. “Part of it is just having a kind, friendly, and understanding personality; the other part is prepping things ahead of time so the shopping experience goes off without a hitch.”

11. THEY LOVE USING CLOTHING TO MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY.

Personal shoppers stress that helping people find clothes they like is about more than clothing. With the right skirt or top, people may experience profound shifts in their body image, confidence, and self-esteem. “I love seeing how happy my clients are after our session, and how good they feel in their new clothes,” Borsuk says. “It is a great feeling to be able to make my clients feel more confident about the way they look.”

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hand Models
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You don’t know Ashly Covington, but you’ve probably seen her hands. As one of the top hand models in the industry, her digits have appeared in ads for McDonald’s, Huggies, L’Oreal, Nikon, UPS, and hundreds of other companies. She’s on billboards and TV, in magazines and books. “Most everyone has seen my hands and has no idea,” Covington says.

Indeed, hand models are in high demand. Every brand from Revlon to Taco Bell needs someone to show off their products with perfectly buffed nails and smooth, spotless skin. After 13 years in the industry, Covington still loves her job, but says there’s more to it than just having a pretty hand. We spoke with her and a few other people in the business about what it takes to have famous fingers.

1. THEY’RE OFTEN DISCOVERED IN PUBLIC. 

Most hand models didn’t grow up dreaming of this career. Instead, they fell into it by getting noticed. Covington, for example, wanted to be an actress, but early in her career, an acting agent told her to forget her head and focus on her hands. “I was like, should I be offended by that?” she recalls.

Carmen Marrufo, a “parts” agent, sometimes stops people on the street or in the office to tell them they could have a career in hand modeling. “I once had a woman come in to the office and leave me an envelope,” she explains. “I looked at her hands and said, ‘Oh my god.’ I ran after her. She was in the business for a while and made a lot of money.” 

What are agents looking for in a hand? Long, straight fingers and wide nail beds for showing off polish. No lumpy knuckles, lines, or scars. And an even skin tone is key. But all of this can also depend on what “category” of hand modeling you’re hoping to break into. Female hands with shorter nails and nude or no polish are “mom hands,” good for cooking, cleaning, and showing off household items (sexist, but true); longer nails are great for “fashion hands” that model jewelry and high-end fashion items; smaller hands can even be good for holding kids’ toys, since kids don’t always have the attention span for sitting still under hot lights for hours on end.

2. THEY CAN MAKE A LOT OF MONEY …

According to Forbes, a successful hand model can make upwards of $75,000 a year. Covington says she once made $13,000 for two hours of work.

3. … BUT, THERE’S A CATCH.

Because most hand models are freelancers, the amount of work they get in a month can fluctuate wildly. So while $13,000 for one day of work might seem like a small fortune, it might have to last for a few months if the work dries up. Plus, hand models get called in for last-minute work all over the country and often have to pay their own way. Covington splits her time between the east and west coasts, and once flew to California twice in one week for an indecisive client. It’s for times like these that she keeps a go-bag packed and ready. “The last-minute flights are the really expensive ones,” she says. “They won’t book us until a day or two before and so it’s not as lucrative as all these people make it out to be.”

4. THEY DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT THEY’RE MODELING.

Courtesy of Ashly Covington, handmodelusa.com

Hand models aren't always given a lot of detail about their assignments. For example, a model might know the client is Baskin Robbins, but only find out on-set that she’ll be playing with Oreo cookies for the shoot. Kimbra Hickey, whose hands grace the cover of the book Twilight, only knew she was shooting a cover for a teenage romance novel. She had no idea the book would become an overnight sensation, and has since tried to get in on the fame by touring with the cast, recreating the cover shoot in public, and selling apple-scented lotion.

5. THEY’VE PLAYED CELEBS’ HANDS. 

Courtesy of Ashly Covington, handmodelusa.com

The next time you see a commercial featuring a famous actress applying a skin cream or mascara, remember this: That’s probably not her hand. Parts model Adele Uddo has doubled for celebs such as Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon. And trying to maneuver around a celebrity so that nothing but your hands are in the picture can require some awkward acrobatics. “A lot of times it’s me crouched behind them trying to hide with my hand coming up under their arm and over their face,” Covington explains.

6. FINGER EXERCISES ARE A THING.

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Sometimes a hand model needs to move a single finger just slightly in one direction without moving the rest of the hand, which can be really difficult. To practice, Covington started doing finger exercises designed for musicians like flute players, in order to gain muscle control over her individual digits. “I’d be on the subway or at home watching TV and I would run through them,” she says. “I still do. I can move most of everything independently. I invented my own sort of school for that.”

7. BEER-SLINGING IS AN IMPORTANT SKILL. 

Much of being a hand model involves handling objects with absolute precision over and over again. For example, a beer commercial required Covington to slide a few beers across a table so that they stopped with the labels facing the camera. “What you don’t see is there’s a camera over my neck, my head is bent all the way to one side, and I can only see with one eye what my hand is doing,” she says. “It’s all about speed and pressure. It’s like how baseball pitchers think when they’re throwing.”

Sometimes, it can get awkward. If the hand model is affecting how the light hits the object, they’re covered in a sheet from the wrist up (see above). “I’ve been positioned between a director of photography’s legs a couple of times,” Uddo says. “And sometimes I have to do intricate moves where I can’t even see what I’m doing, like pouring while I’m underneath a table.”  Here’s a picture of Uddo hidden behind a screen on set:

A photo posted by Adele Uddo (@adeleuddo) on

Covington taught herself to pour a beverage so that it splashes at just the right angle in the glass. And because some clients want her to chop things on camera, she takes a knife skills course every year. 

8. OLIVE OIL IS THE BEST LOTION. 

Covington’s key for smooth hands? “Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.” She usually uses olive oil or coconut oil. Uddo has been making a concoction for years in her own kitchen that includes coconut, almond, and olive oil with vitamin E. A good, thick layer of moisturizer gets slathered on multiple times a day.

Also, many hand models don’t wear jewelry because rings and watches can leave marks on the skin. Covington says she hasn’t worn hand jewelry for 13 years. 

9. GLOVES ARE WORN ALL YEAR ROUND.

A scratched finger, bruised knuckle, or broken nail is really bad for business, so many hand models wear gloves when they’re out and about. “I got a cut once because a lady was pushing her way onto the subway and her big gaudy ring hit my hand,” Covington says. “Most people have cuts on their hands all the time and they don’t even know where they got them. If that happens to me, I can’t do the job tomorrow.”

10. TEA BAGS AND GLUE ARE A HAND MODEL’S FIRST-AID KIT.

Need a quick remedy for a broken nail in a pinch? Find a tea bag and some nail glue and you’re good to go. “The first big job I booked in New York was for Dior and I broke a nail like two days before I was flying out there,” Uddo recalls. “I called a celeb nail technician and she came over the next day and re-secured it with a tea bag and glue. It was amazing. You couldn’t even tell.”

The glue sets the nail in place, and the tea bag acts to bind the two pieces back together. Top with a layer of polish and nobody would know it was broken. If you want to see how it's done, here's a demo.

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