Costume at an SCA event runs the gamut from "this is sort of like a t-tunic.." to "I have to start getting dressed an hour before I have to be seen.." In between one can see every degree of attention to authenticity. Corpora merely says that members must make an "attempt" at pre-17th century costume. This article is for those who would like to look a little better than they do at the present time.
I am often asked for advice about costume, and I am always willing to offer any help. There are times when it is obvious that the good gentle has worked very hard, and cares about the authenticity of their garb, but they are also obviously way off the mark. "Sorry, that sucks swampwater," is neither nice, nor encouraging, so I try, "Where did you come across this design?" (This sounds much less threatening than, "What is your documentation?") Too many times the clue to their problem is made evident as soon as they tell me the name of the "great" book in which the garb is found.
There are some REALLY BAD BOOKS out there. There are a lot of reasons for a source to be unreliable, such as misinformation, secondary sources, inaccuracies, etc. I want to focus on a major costuming problem: the illustrations. (That's because a lot of people never bother to read the text, anyway.) The best illustrations are primary source materials: portraits and drawings from the period. There are many other books with drawings by modern artists. Some of these are good- most are not. In the Victorian period, "scholars" researching costume would frequently look at a period portrait, and then redraw them- often imposing the Victorian ideal on the drawing. This can best be seen when all of the Elizabethan women end up with Victorian hourglass shapes. Many later authors based their work on these illustrations, and the images were distorted even more.
What follows is a list of books that are untrustworthy due to their illustrations. (I would also advise skepticism when reading most of the text, also.) This is a very incomplete list, but these are some of the worst and I hope that it will warn some good gentles before they invest major amounts of money in a well-intentioned but ill-advised costuming enterprise.
Bigelow, Maybelle. (1970). Fashion in History: Apparel in
the Western World