Tuesday, July 27, 2010

18th Century Frocks and Fashions (or, Frolicks in Williamsburg, volume the second)

The Lady Dunmore Ball Gown, on display in the milliner's shop

I may be forging a career in literary studies, but my second calling has always been historic fashion and period costume reproduction. As a special treat to coordinate with the additional re-enactors in town for Under the Redcoat, the CW Costume Design Center put together several one-off programs. The first was a one-on-one costume clinic at the CDC, to which I ambitiously carried a basket-full of in-progress garments. Of course, we only found the time to chat about one (a blue flowered quarter-back gown copied from Janet Arnold), but the time spent was tremendously helpful, and I’m so grateful CW thought to offer such a unique opportunity.

The second CDC program we attended was an afternoon lecture by Brenda Rosseau (CDC director) and Tom Hammond (supervisor of research and design), which addressed the CDC’s approach to reproducing extant garments and how these reproductions are used to complement historic area programming and other CW initiatives. Highlights discussed in detail included a gorgeous embroidered yellow “court suit” (the production process was unbelievably complicated, as you can imagine!)

and the reproduction of a Chinese painted silk from a gown in the CW collection. The latter was made for artist-in-residence Mamie Gummer’s visit in May, and Brenda described the years of laborious attempts to replicate successfully the original stunning painted design. Their solution – a most unconventionally modern one in the costuming world! – worked incredibly well, and from even a foot away, you could not tell the difference between that and a truly painted textile!

We were also shown a reproduction of one of Tasha Tudor’s donated items, a curious piece in that it doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether it wants to be a short gown or a long jacket, but it’s quite lovely and definitely a style I’d like to attempt at some point in the future.

Of course, the milliner’s/tailor’s shop is always a must-see (multiple times!) on every trip to CW, and this visit was no exception. Sarah, the milliner’s apprentice, happened to be attired in her own reproduction of a CW printed cotton gown, and I enjoyed the opportunity to pepper her with questions that I’ve been saving up for just such an occasion. I also learned how to do a mantua maker’s stitch, and am now wondering how I got on so long without it! My sincere appreciation to the ladies of the shop for so graciously indulging my numerous questions.

On display on “tailor’s day” was an in-progress white cotton (or was it a cotton blend, argh, I can’t remember now!) riding habit which immediately caught my eye and has finally succeeded (as nothing else has thus far) in inspiring me to attempt something in that “genre.” Mr. Hutter was, as always, generous and eager in his responses to my inquiries about the printing and importation of textiles in the Rev War period, and he recommended several fantastic new sources to consult on the subject.

Another extra special treat this trip was the chance to explore the study drawers in the textiles room at the DeWitt Wallace. Somehow, in all our many previous visits, we’ve never been able to time it to catch this opportunity, so I took full advantage to stare and drool and exclaim and sigh and snap away. A couple of favorites are below, including a 1756 silk satin wedding gown (who says wedding gowns weren’t white or cream until Victoria’s time?!),

these incredible quilted petticoats (can you tell which one is loom-quilted and which one is hand-stitched?),

and the original of “the” Costume Close-up jacket, which Ashley coincidentally happened to be wearing that day (which the museum textiles volunteer found most amusing!).

And finally, in celebration of their 75th year, the CDC is offering a tour of their facility every Thursday, for which we were lucky enough to secure tickets. From the sewing room, with its rafters packed end-to-end with jackets and gowns, to the fabric room stock-piled high with bolt after bolt of stunning and oh-so-hard-to-find yard goods, to the accessories room brimming (literally) with confections from head to toe, this was truly an unforgettable experience. Talk about a dream job!


lahbluebonnet said...

Wonderful write up! You're helping me remember many things I forgot! I have got to see the special collections in the drawers. I've never done that before. That's neat to learn a new stitch. I went to Ashley's page and love her photo! LOL You look great too in your gown!

Time Traveling in Costume said...

I was given a private tour of the CDC by a friend who works in CW a couple years ago, and I also was in rapture of it. I loved seeing yours from a year later. I have my photos here: