I had a number of interesting conversations lately with historians, reenactors and like minded people (note, I use all these terms loosely to convey the basic idea) many of which have gravitated toward historical clothing, and the NHS vision of how and when to use it. A great many people in the reenacting hobby have wondered why we now abandon our costumes at more than half of our events, and others, why we specifically mandate historical anachronisms where in many cases it would be easier just to follow historical precedent. The answer is not so simple - or at least not for those folks in the hobby.
Before I continue I want to put my standard disclaimer out there - for my reenactor and living historian readers and people of that general ilk - there are many ways to interpret this hobby, and each has its merits. I am in no way insisting that ours is the best, it is just what works for us. I am glad to see such diverse interests converge on a subject that, thanks to the faults of our modern educational system, is the better for having any attention brought to it. Keep on truckin' guys.
The NHS philosophy regarding costumes is a simple matter of ORM, or Operational Risk Management.
Throughout history, the jobs that sailors and marines did was arduous, difficult and hazardous. Those jobs today are fraught with danger, even in regular operation. Something as simple as slipping and falling in a boat, or on a dock, can cause a participant to go home with broken bones or worse. Leather soled shoes slip easily in boats and on wet surfaces, bare feet pick up splinters from pressure treated wooden docks (a particularly nasty hazard, considering the wounds become inflamed and infected almost immediately), wool clothing absorbs water and can drown a participant who falls overboard. I could go on all day - I've dedicated literally DAYS to thinking about this.
That's not to say we have no controls to implement. There are two general schools of thought here - one, to slow the pace of operations, or two, to neutralize hazards.
Most missions of historical sailors and marines CAN be executed wearing period clothing, and there are many other groups out there who demonstrate that this can be done. The reenacted crew of HM Sloop Otter comes to mind - we see them at Great Bridge every year. They all have great kits, and a boat, and incorporate both. The Ship's Company is another great example - and there are many others. They all do this exceptionally well.
From observation, many of these groups implement controls on the hazards by keeping the pace slow. If - when boarding their boat for instance - they move more slowly, it gives each person more time to monitor their own safety and allows leaders to supervise more closely. There is a great deal of oversight involved, and I believe I would be safe in saying that they have few personnel casualties because of the level of caution.
On the other hand, this does restrict the operational tempo. Additionally, many hazards might be beyond the capabilities of the group to adapt and overcome, due to the natural speed and progression of events. Open water operations in small boats comes to mind - where wave, weather and currents can require a quick response and where a crew is not focused on the minute hazards, but the timely execution of an action. In such instances, certain concessions need to be made to maintain an op. tempo that permits completion of these tasks - namely giving the crew certain comforts that permit them liberty to move quickly and not worry about the small hazards, and focus on the big ones. We would not have been within acceptable risk limits crossing Chesapeake Bay in period costume, for instance.
How was this done, historically, you might ask? How did they keep a high op. tempo while using this stuff? The answer is by constant repetition and familiarization with a way of life that is - materially speaking - almost completely foreign today. We COULD solve this by immersing ourselves in the period details on a daily basis, but that obviates the function of all this as a hobby, and not a lifestyle. And since our real lives are more lucrative and fulfilling, I'm sure few of us are prepared to diverge to that route any time soon.
Shoes are a great example of this. Period shoes are not only slippery but don't fare well when immersed in water. Historical sailors and marines who knew no different learned to balance and tread carefully with great proficiency - they had to, they wore them every day. We don't have that luxury - I think few people do. That being the case, the standard for NHS sailors and marines are the standard Navy-issue steel-toed rubber-soled boots. The advent of the NWU and new standardized boots means that almost everyone has an old pair of boots kicking around that can be used and abused in the name of NHS efficiency. And despite their weight, they have proven easier to swim in than most historical footwear.
We also have a new trend emerging that also has full NHS administrative support, and that is the use of Five Finger Shoes. These shoes conform to the foot of the wearer, toes and all, to permit a greater range of motion, feel and control, and force the wearer to use muscle groups in the feet that are underutilized with the wear of conventional shoes. It is the closest and safest alternative to barefoot we permit, and makes for interesting conversation.
Now, I'm sure most people know we could argue about this for weeks and have no resolution. I do enjoy debating the subject with others, so please feel free to contact me any time - there is always room to adopt, adapt and improve. And remember, I'm not saying that anyone is wrong - we are all different, and have different priorities.
I for one find that fantastic and exciting.