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All prepared for Patriots Day

Reenactors make sure raiment is right

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / April 18, 2011

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SOMERVILLE — They are fashionistas of 18th-century retro, cognoscenti of Colonial vogue, mavens of minuteman style.

Liz and Matthew Mees are among an orthodox new wave of amateur Revolutionary War reenactors who see the authenticity of their appearance as a critical component of their re-creations of history.

Today, when they join hundreds of portrayers of Colonial men and women for Patriots Day reenactments, the Braintree couple will appear in outfits and kits that reflect countless hours of study and considerable cash to ensure that each garment represents as precisely as possible the clothing and weapons borne by our forebears.

And they will cringe when they see more casual reenactors carrying the wrong muskets and haversacks, or wearing era-inappropriate beards and sleeveless bodices.

“We reenactors understand that it is our personal responsibility to portray our characters with as much accuracy as possible,’’ said Liz Mees, who belongs to the Ladies of Refined Taste, a group whose members hold seminars on Battle Road glamour dos and don’ts and teach each other how to make their own clothes. For what they cannot make, the ladies and other uber-conscientious reenactors draw on a small industry of suppliers that has sprung up to satisfy their demands for exact replicas of Revolutionary outfits and kits.

And though they stop short of upbraiding reenactors who get it wrong, they are constantly trying to hone their own representations, and educate the public about the myths and misconceptions about what people wore and carried into battle on that April morning 236 years ago.

“When you make a presentation, you appear as close as you can to what the 18th century would have looked like,’’ said Ed Hurley, of Arlington, who was wearing the woolen suit and round steel eyeglasses of an 18th-century gentleman at a recent Battle Road rehearsal in Somerville’s Nathan Tufts Park. “If you’re going to perpetuate the memory, you might as well do it as accurately as possible.’’

Hurley, who volunteers at Minuteman National Park, said the reenactment movement has come a long way since it began as a widespread hobby during the 1975 bicentennial celebration. Back then, reenactors brought to parades and re-created battles whichever Colonial-looking stuff they could find. But over the past decade, Hurley said, “standards started to come into focus,’’ as researchers for the National Park as well as amateurs spent more time and resources poring over original documents for visual evidence of clothing and weapons.

Hurley was watching a drill by members of Colonel Bailey’s Second Massachusetts Regiment and Gardner’s Regiment — two groups that devote themselves to painstaking accuracy.

None wore a beard — clean-shaven was the societal norm in the 1770s. Their tricorn hats were devoid of decoration; Yankee Doodle may have stuck a feather in his cap, but most militiamen did not. The drill was commanded by Captain Barry Greene, who stood out from his musket-bearing charges in his fine red wool coat.

Wait, a Colonial commander in the crimson garb of the enemy? That must be a mistake!

Not so, said Greene. A red woolen coat in the 1770s was not just the uniform of an English officer; it was something often worn by gentlemen with the means to acquire expensive dyestuff. Greene’s character, a successful businessman who outfitted his militia, wore red because he could afford to.

“Red’s a popular color,’’ Greene said. “It speaks to your stature.’’

Matthew and Liz Mees portrayed a pastor and his wife who had come to view the drill. She had spent four hours the night before making a hat of straw and silk to match the sleeved, lilac silk gown and matching petticoat that she had donned over a stiff undergarment called “stays,’’ which 18th-century women employed to “set the contour, shape, and silhouette.’’ Under her petticoat, at her hips, she wore a bumroll, designed to accentuate her hips, making her waist appear slimmer. She sported a pearl necklace that identified her as a woman of means. Each item was carefully selected based on the ongoing research of primary sources by Mees and her fellow Ladies of Refined Taste.

“We draw on the shared research of everyone,’’ she said.

Liz Mees was once challenged at a reenactment on her choice of umbrellas (she was correct), and another time was criticized for serving tomatoes at a militia camp (“A stupid mistake,’’ she said, because our 18th-century European forebears believed tomatoes to be poisonous). She and the other ladies sometimes carry illustrations that prove their items meet their standards of reenactment rectitude.

Liz Mees and her fellow portrayers do not want to be seen as sticklers, or hecklers. At the April 10 drill in Somerville, rather than point out the flaws in the appearance of others, they acknowledged their own.

Matthew Mees’s pastor was perfect from his black, flat-brimmed wool hat to his leather-bound King James Bible. But he acknowledged that he was wearing right- and left-buckled shoes; a pastor in 1775 would have worn a pair of interchangeable straight shoes. Hurley observed that his eyewear may have been closer to 1780s fashion than 1770s (though he vowed to do further research into the matter).

Businesses have begun catering to the demands of these forensic forays into bygone fashion. Edward M. Roche, a lieutenant and chief of staff of Gardner’s Regiment, knows of opticians who cut prescription lenses to fit Revolutionary-era frames. Another business supplies spotoons, poles fitted on one end with a blade, which officers used to align their men. And Middlesex Village Trading Co. in Charlestown, N.H., makes period-perfect replica muskets.

Pete Plunkett, the owner, is as dedicated to firearms as Liz Mees is to finery. One of his pet peeves is that Colonial reenactors often carry the “Short Land’’ British musket, a weapon so new in 1775 that most British Regulars in the colony would not have been carrying it. Other Patriot reenactors are armed with the Charleville muskets that the regular Colonial Army started receiving only after France joined the war in 1777. In New England in 1775, it was far more likely that a militiaman would have carried a fowling piece, or something left over from the French and Indian War, Plunkett said.

“It’s fairly common to see the wrong muskets,’’ Plunkett said.

Matthew Mees owns a replica of a 1777 French musket because he is training with a new unit of French Dragoon reenactors. This, he said, is why he plays an unarmed pastor when he appears with Massachusetts militia units.

As lovingly as his wife prepared her outfits, she said she would have no trouble discarding any item if she discovered that it were period-incorrect.

“If I find out tomorrow there was an embargo on this fabric or this color didn’t exist, I’ll drop it in a second,’’ she said.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.