History isn’t a Fantasy, but it is an Imaginary

I wrote a few weeks back about a major blowup that happened in the historical costuming community, when a prominent member outed herself as a bigot. This is only one of many recent events that seem to be constantly shaking this subculture, likely as its membership grows and changes, and as it responds more to and reflects more the social issues that are on everyone’s lips these days. As Bo Burnham has observed, the outcome of all this pain and consternation is more content. Lots and lots of videos about racism, whitewashing, colonialism, and of course the global system of capitalism. Those videos all essentially express the same message: history, especially European and North American history, is not as white as we have been told, and we need to reflect that more, even in play.

This, I think, is a correct and important message. In fact, I agree with it so much that back in 2017, I helped to found a group of historians (and art historians and literary scholars) that is constantly working to spread this message through accessible media [if you click this link before 10/17/2021, it might lead nowhere because the website is being renovated]. But the subtext of our message and of this message in the historical costuming community is not quite the same. You see, there is a major difference between how the general public understands history and how academics understand history, one that I have been trying to puzzle out ever since I started watching videos of people sewing Edwardian skirts, and that difference determines what people think should be done about the fact that history is more complicated than most white westerners have been taught.

Most people who are not trained as academics (that is, they have not read and argued extensively about history, the methods of writing it, and the theories about what is or should be emphasized) believe that history is stories about the past. It is the repetition of things that happened. Now, I push my students to specify what exactly should be included in that, and they’ll usually come to the conclusion that the things we tell stories about are the things that have relevance to present society, usually because they explain its origins. That about sums it up, right? History is stories about the past that explain the origins of the present society.

Except that historians don’t think that’s what history is. Historians think that history is intentionally crafted narratives about themes and issues that are relevant to the present and how those things might have been felt in the past. That’s kind of wishy-washy academic speak. Essentially, historians aren’t as focused on what happened as the general public is: we’re more interested in why it happened and how people of the time felt about it. And we don’t always do that because we think it directly explains how we got to where we are now – that perspective is called presentism, using the justification of the present to study the past. Instead, most historians believe that as our values and interests change as a society, we ask different questions of the past. Is there widespread paranoia about nefarious forces in a strict and conservative society? People become interested in stories about similar instances of paranoia. Is there consternation about identity and how differences in identity dictate our roles in society? We try to find a similar society in the past. History is often understood as a mirror – we are looking to the past to find ourselves, or maybe the version of ourselves that we want to see.

So, if you believe that history is stories about the past that led to today, then once you understand that history is more complicated than you have been led to believe, your next steps will likely be to change the society-wide understanding of what is true. You will argue that monuments to people who had been presented as inspirational or great leaders should be taken down because from a wider lens they are revealed to have been murderers and oppressors of others’ freedoms. You will call for greater representation of a wide diversity of ethnic groups and individual experiences in historical fiction that more accurately represents the social reality of the past. And you would be right to do these things, because you are trying to correct a falsehood. Things that were not true were believed to be correct, and now that you understand that you were deceived, you should strive to replace those falsehoods with truths.


If you believe that history is our own current understanding of current issues as they played out in the past, you might be more circumspect, even more hesitant about changes that should be made based on information that is new to you. Because, indeed, this is not new information, it’s just new to you. If you understand that the narratives you are told are colored and framed entirely by your present circumstances, then you also recognize that you, in the present, are not an objective observer of the past. You still do not see the truth of the past. You see the version that is most potent to your present. You pay attention to the peoples and societies and times and places that look familiar to you, because history is still a mirror, and, even if it’s a bigger mirror with fewer bubbles in it, and now you’re looking at what the mirror shows around you, you’re still looking at you.

One recent piece of content that has come out of the historical costuming community is a video entitled The dangers of making history a fantasy, the preview image for which sports the bold statement “History is not a fantasy”. It argues that costumers should not use their hobby as a way to escape the troubles of the present, because the past was not a simpler time. And while I would generally agree that the past is just as complicated as the present, that any foreign society is just as complicated as your own, I will still maintain that any story you tell about the past is going to be something of a fantasy. It is going to have elements of fiction, to have pieces that are missing and can’t be filled in. Even with perfect information, unless you lived it through the eyes of everyone who was alive at that time, you will still have to fill in part of the story with your imagination. You will still have to create a logic to make sense of the pieces you don’t have, or to fit together the pieces you do into a way that you can remember and hold onto them. So it is true that history is not a fantasy in the sense that it is not Neverland, a world of play that exists only for your amusement. But if you’ve read Peter and Wendy, you know that even Neverland isn’t that for anyone except Peter Pan. Everyone else can get hurt, physically and emotionally in Neverland. No one grows old there, but that’s only because they only exist in real time when Peter is around. Without him, their reality slows down, waiting for him to return (the M Night Shyamalan ending that is implied is that, in fact, everyone in Neverland is already dead). History is the same way. The records of history – the artifacts, the manuscripts, the stories people left behind – aren’t frozen in time. They’ve just been slowed down out of disuse. And we, like Peter, bring them to life when we interact with them, only to leave them inanimate when we put them down again. But they still exist in our present. They’ve lived through all the years since their creation. They have their own lives, but we can only see them in terms of ours.

Part of my dissertation is arguing about the imaginary that Latin Europeans created about the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century. They had medical texts that they had been told came from Sicily, and maybe other places before that. And they made up a story to explain how those texts moved. They said that the texts had been written in Arabic and had been translated into Latin, and that was why the existed in Europe at that point. Except they hadn’t. Other texts had been written in Arabic and Greek. And then, having read or otherwise absorbed information from those texts, Sicilian physicians wrote new texts in Latin, which sometimes talked about those older Arabic and Greek works. The people in the thirteenth century weren’t wrong about the beginning and the end of the story, but their understanding of the middle wasn’t true to the processes that actually took place. The key facts were there, but the logic was all wrong. And yet I can’t really blame them. That’s history. You see the story that makes sense to you. It’s inherently subjective.

And because it’s subjective, it can be a place to play. You can imagine yourself in a version of the past where you don’t die of a fever at 2 years old, where you have the same education you are afforded in the present, and where you are not persecuted for your heritage. And you can do that because the part of the past that looks familiar to you is the intellectual dynamism or the cultural fluidity. You want to explore that, and so you don’t get caught up in whether the fourteenth-century rigid Muslim jurist whose work you are reading would spit on you, Jewish woman that you are, if he met you in his time and was given the opportunity to discuss his work with you.

The imagination that I have about history is what makes it possible for me to sympathize with my historical subject. It’s what allows me to look past the things that are foreign, or, even better, to engage with those things, and deepen my appreciation for everything else in the mirror that isn’t me.

So, yes, history is an imaginary. And yes, you should be playing in it. You just need to start focusing on what you can see that doesn’t look like you.