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Annotations To an Enjoyable Experience

In History, Social Conventions on July 28, 2009 at 7:38 am

(Don’t get the wrong idea about the following post- I had a great weekend. But, I’ve already talked about the positive aspects of dressing funny whilst camping, and this post is about something else. Think of this as an annotation, or addendum, to something that is mostly positive.)

Celtic knots and skulls seemed to be on everything. Bracers, boots, coats, necklaces, tatoos. The intricate, interweaving braids and headbones formed the ornamentation of choice, closely followed by pentagrams, dragons, and the occasional fairy. It was hot, unpleasantly hot, and I wanted a cigarette. No idea why. It’s a vice I try to limit, but I was in a mood and craving one. I was dressed as a pirate. All around me, other people were also dressed as pirates.

I was at what people who are into this sort of thing term an “event,” a large-scale camping trip wherein lots of people strut about in historical garb, maintain historical personae, and generally carouse and drink a lot. Several of these events are associated with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This one wasn’t- it was a pirate-themed extravaganza Called Sea Dog Nights and Gypsy Carnival. I’ve done this sort of thing before and enjoyed myself, but last Saturday found myself wandering and filled with a peculiar kind of anxiety about it all, an anxiety that I think had something to do with all of the Celtic knots all over the fucking place.

I don’t want to sound too pedantic, but Celtic imagery has about as much to do with historical pirates as petunias have to do with janissaries, and the juxtaposition was bugging me. (Bear with me here- I’m not trying to bitch, really. This is not a “Joe spews bile on x” post, not that I ever do that.) What was bothering me, is that the connections seemed tenuous and almost arbitrary. All over the place people were dressed in in Hollywood-style pirate garb, kilts, belly dancing skirts, boots, tricorn hats, flowing dresses, etc. It seemed, at once, a wild motley of unrelated things, a hodgepodge of anachronism. At the same time, though, there was a weird, settled uniformity to it. Almost all of the visual elements were things that had been adopted by geek culture, things that I was familiar with because they’d been adopted as recurring visual tropes by the sort of people who know what THAC0 means.

This bothered me. I looked around, very much hoping for some kind of originality, some kind of garb or conceit that would surprise me, and found not much of it. There was one guy dressed up in gear that looked African in origin, and I thought that was quite cool, but saw little else in the way of aesthetic differentiation. There were only the same sorts of variations- look, here’s a skull! Here’s a ship, a dragon, a pentagram!- recurring again and again. I wanted someone (for clearly there were a lot of creative, driven people involved in this thing) to mix it up. I wanted someone to wear a Fez or samurai armor, to dress up in a toga or gladiatorial gear. I wanted see someone bedecked in Aztec finery or have the rigging of a Chinese junk set up in their camp. The whole thing was crazy, yes, creative, definitely, but I wished that it was more insane and unrestrained, more varied and unrestricted. More diverse, divergent, and arbitrary, even more anachronistic. If histories were going to clash with each other, if supposed “pirates” were going to walk around with kilts on, than I wanted it to be anachronistic all the way. Vikings in cowboy hats. Centurions with muskets. Persian Immortals behind Prussian artillery. It wouldn’t clash any more than this Norse-looking figurehead at a pirate party.

The standard tropes seemed far too comfortable. I wanted someone to do something risky.

Make no mistake- I had a great time. I had a really good time. I mingled with my friends, drank a lot, and greatly admired the industriousness of my roommate K who managed to construct a wonderful and quite comfortable pavilion for us to hang out in. The inside was strewn with carpets, drums and cushions and a hookah acted as a centerpiece, making the camp a bit different from the normal “scurvy dog” theme that kept popping up. Lounging about inside, I had nothing but appreciation for her creative energy, and, indeed, saw her deviation from the norm as laudable.

At night I took in fire dancing and music, and in the dark the ships’ masts and pavilions of the participants lost all hokiness, and I was taken in by the experience. Yes, I was taken in, eventually. I sang, pranced about, and had fun, even as I thought way to much about it.

But, I kept thinking to myself: Go further. If you’re going to play fast and loose with history (and I’m okay with that), then play as fast and as loose as you can. I would have nothing but respect for someone if they showed up at something like this dressed as Barbary Corsairs or Zulu. I would applaud anyone who dressed as a detachment from the Golden Horde or the Huns. Variation, daring, rather than staid replication of the standard tropes, would have breathed even more life into the event. Instead, the same safe themes and memes were stamped out again and again.

There is a Wondermark comic that I quite like, purporting to show next year’s internet memes. Instead of ninjas and pirates it shows deep-sea divers and gendarmes, among others. I appreciate it greatly, because it shows the arbitrariness of fads and crazes, and posits that deep sea divers are just as potentially meme-worthy as, say, ninjas. It’s a nice wake-up call to anyone who has been immersing themselves in the cozy repetitions of the internet and popular culture. The fad that you see as so whimsical may indeed be, but it is not apogee of quirk or fun. There is plenty of other stuff out there to gawk at- plenty of the world that can be mined in the name of oddness.

I’ll definitely go to an event again (I like camping, and I like drinking, and they tend to be mainly that) but I think that the participants could learn a thing or two from that Wondermark comic. Remixing the same song over and over again does not make for a good party. Yes, pirates are kind of neat. Even the Hollywood sort. But c’mon- branch out, reach out. It’s not like anything is historically accurate right now, so you might as well go fuck-wild and be awesome about it. I think these last guys were onto something: Pirate motor cycles. Purple, chrome, and ahistorical in a gleeful, badass way.

  1. You /did/ go to a pirate-themed event, so it's not really that surprising that most of the people there were going to be going in something generally piratey. I think Celtic knots and the like are just easy symbols that people are familiar with that have some sense of historicity to them.

    That being said, I do agree with you. The SCA was originally created to be a medievally, European-themed society (and for whatever reason, there's now a particularly popular Norse contingent), and I guess that's what people stick with.

    Apparently, my picking an Arab persona is somewhat pushing the boundaries. I agree that it would be much more interesting if people just dressed up in whatever historical costume they found interesting. I mean, for me, events are just a weekend-long costume party with drinking.

    I guess for people who are more in to it, though, the sense of structure (holding court, having tournaments to nominate a new prince, etc.) all require some sort of consistency of theme.

    It's a lot harder to have a barony if half the people in it are mamluks, is all I'm saying.

  2. You know, I didn't even think of it in terms of the whole "this is a fictional society" aspect. I really did just approach it from the standpoint of it being costume party. If it's a costume party, then, I think, you might as well have diversity.

    However, if you're going to intermingle different time periods at court (and I know fuck-all what they do there) then you might as well intermingle geographies.

    And yes, it was a pirate-themed event. Going with the theme is to be expected a bit.

  3. Omigod I have so many things to say and I have to go to work so I will just say this: I recently learned that the chainmail in "Holy Grail" was all knitted. I know, right? I totally think you should go as a Hun (I can knit you a vest using fur stitch out of a furry yarn- maybe not super convincing, but pretty dang funny) OOH! or Ghengis Khan! And bring a bunch of warriors to subdue the populace. Yes, fun times. Excellent… Anyway, I have to go to work, but I have many thoughts and will maybe post them on me own blog. KNITTED! And garter stitch too! I will teach you to knit and then you can be the guy who led the children's crusade! Everyone love's that guy!

  4. You've just outlined a large part of the reason that Sea Dog isn't my favorite event. I prefer my pirates to be Norse, Chinese, Arabic, Moorish etc. rather then then Hollywood circa 2005.

    In particular the tapestries with Celtic knot work and skulls and crossbones bug the crap out of me and I try hard to keep them out of my camp.

    The other thing that tends to irk me about Sea Dog is rather then trying hard to put together an attractive, interesting, historically anachronistic costume, many people use it as an excuse to wear as little as possible, regardless as to whether that costume looks good on them or not.

    Albeit, my costume for the weekend was skimpy and cleavage bearing, especially due to the excessive heat, so perhaps I should keep my mouth shut.

  5. Sydney, could you knit a chain-mail bikini? 'Cause that would be awesome.

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