The Good, The Bad and the Farby

by Jonah Begone

Railroad bandannas, Buck knives, sunglasses, Boy Scout canteens, revolvers, Indiana Jones fedoras, embarrassing first-person impressions, digital watches, Elvis sideburns, cigarettes, Henry VIII-scale obesity, taped and stapled cartridges, nylon flags, plastic shirt buttons and Wild West behavior. You all know what word describes this and more: FARB! A term that describes unauthentic behavior or equipment. The ultimate condemnation; the difference between being accepted and being a collective embarrassment! Let's examine this unique phenomenon.

You might think that Farbs are restricted to modern reenacting, but you'd be wrong. They've always been with us - as long as there have been people with an obsession with the past (resulting in a hazy realization of their own place in time), there have been farbs. You just see more of them now because our leisure-oriented twentieth-century society encourages these people, and enthusiastic communities provide them with the outlet of reenacting.

Look at any medieval manuscript illustration. It doesn't matter what the text is about - it could be relating an Old Testament incident or something that happened in Rome or in Babylon. You'll always see the characters drawn in the same way: crowded together and pointing at something or another, dressed in medieval clothing. Farbs! Indeed, the monks who illustrated these manuscripts may have been the First Farbs.

And forget all that praise you've heard for Shakespeare - he was a Farb, too! Consider: Globe Theatre productions with men and women running around in Elizabethan clothing portraying Dark Age and Medieval Britons, Danes and even Romans! Even worse, think of modern, doubly-farbish Shakespeare productions where actors dressed in Kabuki clothing are speaking Elizabethan English and are portraying Romans, Danes, etc. It boggles the mind!

Modern American farbism began with Hollywood, the "Dream Factory" - the enemy of Historical Truth. Ask any underpaid school teacher: there's more money to be made in entertaining people than in educating them. Hollywood realized this, and gave the people what they could accept: costume dramas containing recognizable twentieth-century people in essentially twentieth-century situations, but with a thin veneer of historical authenticity. Sometimes, however, Hollywood screws up and produces movies that are true to the period they try to depict. Farby in some details, perhaps, but valid in "feel." These invariably become box-office disappointments and reenactment cult classics. (I have documented many of these in previous articles.)

The rise of authenticity in reenacting is basically the story of a small group of amateur historians rejecting what Hollywood taught them. These people are the "AUTHENTICS ONLY" you read about in event announcements. (This phrase is now meaningless. Have you ever heard about some reenactment group acknowledging that they couldn't attend an event because of this restriction?). The powder blowers, the Hollywood-educated and perhaps those too new to know any better are the Farbs.

My first exposure to a farb was in high school. There was a kid running around pretending to be an interviewing journalist during the 1939 Berlin Olympics. He would corner people and ask them what they thought of Jesse Owens, etc. At the time I thought he was weird. Now I understand that he'd be a natural for reenacting!

He had the farb trait of an apparent lack of self-perception. Standing there in a Outlaw Josey Wales getup in an otherwise perfectly authentic Civil War setting, the common farb has no idea that he somehow doesn't fit in. The reenactment Farb always seems to be somewhat socially maladjusted, like computer nerds.

So far I've only referred to farbs in the male sense. Don't think there aren't Female Farbs. There are, and such may be called "Farbettes" (a more delicate term). You can spot them easily once you know what to look for: parasols and ruffled, flouncy pastel-colored ballgowns worn in the middle of the day in camp by the lofty wife of some lowly, grubby private. Zipper down the back, polyester, cleavage. Modern make-up. Free-flowing hair. No corset.

This is in the same camp that the rather harsh-looking (but more authentic) sweaty, dirty-aproned wife of another private is stirring meat in a huge pot over a roaring fire. You would think that a lot of resentment would result from this contrast, but none does, and the males apparently don't care that a farbette is in their midst. Some cowboy walking through camp will draw the most catty and gossipy comments from the men, but let little ol' Scarlett plunk herself down in camp for the weekend and nothing but tolerant smiles result! (Less an indication of gallantry, perhaps, than of common sense. Would you tell your friend's wife she's a farb?)

So what is a farb? Can we get any clues from the origin of the word? Those of you who claim a German first-person impression in your repertoire will recognize the word as meaning "color" in that language. As a grubby, standard blue-issue Civil War Federal private I certainly regard any impression that seems unduly colorful (or clean) with some suspicion, but perhaps this is too obvious.

I've also heard that one of the first true "authentics" coined the word "farby" from the phrase "far be it from me to criticize..." in regard to an unauthentic uniform, but this meek and tolerant attitude seems somehow foreign to the world of reenacting I've come to know. Perhaps like some of the world's other great mysteries, the origin of the term "farb" will remain hidden and cryptic.

Do we now understand farbs any better? Perhaps. With the advancement of knowledge, dedication, commemoration, professionalization, etc. in THE HOBBY will they someday disappear? I doubt it - like the poor they will always be with us. We can say, however, that in the world of reenacting the old proverb "Clothes Make the Man" was never more true!