There's a great thread on the CW Reenactor's forum about the reason to be progressive in terms of a reenacting impression. This has struck a familiar chord, and I'd like to have a say about it yet again.
So here's my take on the "why" of progressing your impression to the next level. Incidentally, "why" is a very good question, and hopefully my response will be worthy answer.
When I started out reenacting in 1982, I wasn't the paragon of authentic reenacting, even at the time when the standards weren't as high as they have been reached in recent years. In my first outing, I was part of a dismounted cavalry group, had polyester brown pants (at least the button holes for the converted fly were hand-sewn!), yellow elastic suspenders, a "show" kepi that seemed to fit like a turret on my head, dingo boots, and an Indian-made Enfield Carbine converted to fire blanks. Later, I added a "butternut" sackcoat trimmed in yellow. To the left is yours truly at a reenactment in early 1983. I don't know many reenactors who start out at the top of the authentic food chain, but early on is the time that determines what road we want to take as reenactors. At this time, my first "why?" was answered pretty quickly. By looking around at the more serious groups and reenactors, I knew if I wanted to go to better events, I needed to get a little more serious about the hobby. A no-brainer there.
I started to dig a little bit deeper on my chosen unit and branch of service. I questioned other reenactors about their uniforms, and in a series of hard lessons for my group, learned how it feels to be stiffed out of events because of impressions that didn't seem to be up to par. I quickly learned that I needed to drop the sackcoat in favor of a plain gray shell jacket, get cavalryman's accoutrements and bone up on proper drill. Soon the rewards came in the form of easy entry into the "good" events, invites to other events, a couple seconds of glory in a BBC TV series, and a little respect from our peers. Still had some of the remnants of the old impression, such as the boots. To the left is what I looked like in late 1984.
Early in 1985, some of the guys who had the means took the next natural step in their reenacting evolution - they bought saddles and got horses. This was a crossroads for me. I didn't have means to become mounted, so I had the choice to either stay where I was as dismounted cav (which despite the doors opened via better authenticity, didn't get me into all of the good events), or to progress in another direction (and have a chance to get into some primo events). I always wanted to try my hand at being an infantryman, and the leap wasn't too great. So I sold my cav gear and shed the hated Dingos, and then bought brogans, infantry gear, and borrowed a musket. This won me the ticket for some great experiences that I still carry in my memory today. I also made the step into doing a Federal impression (incidentally, I'm not a galvanizer -- I love the blue as much as the gray, and I only wear one uniform per event.)
From then on, it's been easy to get into the events I want to attend, I've helped to establish groups, and had loads of fun. I haven't always reenacted or have ventured off into other reenacting periods for short periods, but knowing if I could do better there will be a pay off has always guided me into being a better reenactor, no matter the era. Even today, I attend some great events that are top-notch. I have an eye for what's authentic and the willingness to do what I can do to benefit the hobby via my impression and knowledge.
I've always wondered, "what of the guys who stayed as dismounted cav?" I can say that the results were pretty predictable. Most of the guys who were in my group, or brigaded with my group either 1) (a couple) evolved and stayed with the hobby for a few years, 2) (most) lingered on and eventually dropped out, or 3) (one) became event party-horses and dropped from the reenacting part of the hobby and simply show up with camp gear and booze.
It all really amounts to knowing why you're in this hobby to begin with, and having a decent interest in the history to set the personal stage for being a progressive reenactor. I'm a military brat/history buff who was raised on reading Osprey books, reading biographies, and playing wargames. The hobby is an extension if that interest. I respect my fellow reenactor's efforts and points of view. I like getting out and be amongst the history of a place, and catching up with my reenacting friends. The combination of those things drives me to do better the next event.
I've noticed that the closer a reenactor is to the superficial fun, less interested he seems in the history, and the more interested in the purely social aspects of the hobby. Unfortunately, there seems to be several events that cater to that sort of reenactor, which ultimately causes their segment of the reenacting population to grow, which in turn doesn't benefit the hobby, and at times serves to degrade the efforts of more serious reenactors who get lumped into the same category. An event that caters only to numbers and has a festival-like backdrop enables farbery.
OK, I've wandered from the point - "why be progressive in reenacting?"
I progressed simply because I was seeking a more realistic experience, and improving my impression enabled me to do that. There has to be a motivating factor. Some other factors can be to honor a relative or heritage, to collect, to challenge one's self physically, and etc.
In my mind, event quality is the key for reenactor progression. It's almost like the free market -- if there is quality available and attainable, people want it. Once you get the mix of quality event and a demand, then you have progressive reenactors coming out of the wood work.
The CW Reenactors board has discussion about some reenactors getting irate about not being able to get into good events because of a poor impression. That kind of experience makes or breaks reenactors. Bonafide farbs never learn the lesson, and from my experience, eventually quit the hobby when all events begin blur into the same party. Then they gripe about how they were "run off" by the authentic reenactors. The true progressives get pissed, but understand the point and do something about it.
The other thing that kept and still keeps me going is a sense of achievement or satisfaction. I didn't put a finger on that reason until someone posted it on the Authentic Campaigner forums. But it was an accurate observation. That defines the other part of why I'm progressive -- I feel that I'm doing things right, and I get a good feeling about it.
There's probably a plethoria of different reasons to be a progressive reenactor, but I was driven by a couple reasons that keep me doing as good as I can. Those reasons have been good enough to keep me going through 24 years of reenacting.