Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Notes on...

As part of our Fashionable Frolicks through history, costuming, and other topics, we plan frequently to post about books, films, or other media that spark our interest and that we hope might be interesting to you as well. When you see a post with the title Notes on… , you will know that it is one in this “feature.” We will also be sure to tag each of these posts with a label of the same name so that you can easily click on the link to the right and find all of the posts in this group. And now I present to you our very first Notes on...

Unwise Passions
By Alan Pell Crawford

The Randolph family of Virginia surely sounds familiar to anyone who has studied early American history. The first Randolphs settled in Virginia in the mid 1600s and quickly became one of the most prominent and influential families in the colonies. Among the most well-known descendants in the 18th century are Peyton Randolph (chairman of the 1st and 2nd Continental Congress, whose home is an exhibition site at Colonial Williamsburg), Edmund Randolph (our country’s first Attorney General), and of course Thomas Jefferson (his mother being Jane Randolph, sister of Peyton).

Crawford’s Unwise Passions has been on my wish list for quite some time and when I recently found a copy at a local book sale, I knew that I had to get it. The book unravels the scandalous (and true) story of Anne Cary Randolph, who was known as Nancy. Nancy’s brother was Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. who was married to Martha (Patsy) Jefferson, TJ’s daughter. Just prior to the prologue, Crawford offers a condensed version of the Randolph family tree. While I felt that I had a decent understanding of the family, I found this page to be an invaluable help as I began reading this book.  (You can view this on as part of the "look inside" feature.)

As an unmarried young woman who finds herself at odds with her new stepmother, Nancy moves to her sister’s new home at Bizarre on the Appomattox River.  Unfortunately, her presence only brings trouble.  She becomes engaged to her cousin Theodorick Randolph, who is the brother of her new brother-in-law, but he dies before they are married.  Rumors begin to circulate that Nancy is carrying a child, and that her brother-in-law is the father.  Suspicions are raised further after a strange night of occurrences; while staying with some friends, mid-night screams and footsteps were heard, though no one would be allowed to enter the rooms where Nancy was staying with her sister and brother-in-law.  The next morning, servants find a dead baby on the plantation, and Nancy is blamed for murder as well as incest.  The family and their friends are forced to appear in court and publicly denounce the accusations against them.  It is declared that they are innocent, but the family is forever divided by their feelings for her.  When her strongest advocate dies, she is cast out of the family and their homes and is forced to find her own way.  I won't tell you how it ends (because I do recommend that you read the book yourselves!); however, I will say that it is in a way satisfying to see how the different characters meet their fates.

Amidst the story of Nancy’s tribulations, Crawford recounts the political upheavals of the new nation, which involve several members of the extended Randolph family and other well-known figures of the time, including Patrick Henry, Gouverneur Morris, and St. George Tucker.  I was also grateful for the extra insights Crawford provided concerning the other characters.  For example, I was very intrigued to read about Nancy's nephews.  One of them, St. George Randolph, was born deaf.  After his father's death, his uncle took him to a school in Europe, and although he was a very bright young man, St. George never learned how to speak.  He suffered additional traumas, including watching his home burn to the ground, and it is said that he later went mad.  While searching for additional information about St. George Randolph, I came across this interesting excerpt from Littell's The Living Age, which is available through Google Books.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Redcoats & Rebels" at Old Sturbridge Village

A view of the military tents from inside the Fitch House

I am the first to admit that I do not take full advantage of the cultural opportunities close to home (I guess I prefer to drive 8 hours to Williamsburg instead!), but I am determined to do better. As part of this endeavor, I drove up to Sturbridge, Massachusetts the other weekend for the special event, “Redcoats & Rebels” at Old Sturbridge Village. I visited OSV once or twice with school groups when I was younger, but remember very little from those visits, and unfortunately had not been back since. I was hoping to visit during the ALHFAM conference this past summer, but unfortunately could not make it to the conference this year.  So, when I saw that there was an 18th century event, I just knew that I had to go. Somehow I managed to convince a good friend of mine to accompany me on this adventure. She had never been to OSV or any type of historical reenactment event, so I was excited for her to finally get a glimpse of what intrigues us so much about it.

The sun falls through the front door of the Fitch House

Old Sturbridge Village began as private collections of New England antiques belonging to the Wells family. As their collections grew, they wanted a creative way to display their interests. In the 1930s, they bought a large piece of property from David Wight and began transforming it into a small village where trained professionals could demonstrate the trades and techniques which produced the items in their collections, which could now be displayed in homes or buildings as they would have been used in their time. Several historic buildings were moved from various locations to serve as the backdrop for this working village. The village opened to the public in June 1946, and today the conglomeration of buildings, artifacts, and demonstrations provide an interpretation of New England life from 1790 to 1840.

An interpreter demonstrates cooking at the Freeman Farm

Interpreters recruit some help with the wood

The kiln at the pottery (or the pizza oven as one young visitor called it)

Most of the regular museum exhibits (if not all) were open during this special weekend, so we took the opportunity to take a look around. First, we took a walk through the Salem Towne House. The house was built in 1796 in Charlton, Massachusetts and moved to OSV in 1952. The interior decorations, furniture, and other items reflect the time period of the 1820s when the house was inhabited by Salem Towne, Jr. and his wife Sally, along with their nine children and hired help. While most attributes of the home are decidedly New England in style, the front entrance hall and the upstairs hall reminded me very much of the Wythe House in Williamsburg. I think the brightly colored wall paper may have something to do with this.

Towne House, upstairs hall

Towne House, downstairs hall, looking out the back door

A close-up of the hall wallpaper and mirror downstairs

One of the most interesting aspects of this house to me is the upstairs “ballroom” which spans the width of the house. Interpreted in this room are two bedrooms, one on each far end, with a work space in the middle. Trees are painted on the walls and on the ceiling is a gorgeous deep sky blue with Masonic symbols painted at one end of the room. Salem Towne, Sr. was a founding member of the Lodge in Charlton which held meetings in this room for almost ten years.

Towne House upstairs ballroom, looking to the left

Towne House upstairs ballroom, looking to the right

Towne House upstairs ballroom ceiling

Just before the battle began, we popped into the Saw Mill, which is a reproduction built by OSV in 1984. We only walked through quickly, but it immediately reminded me of the mill where Pa (Michael Landon) worked in Little House on the Prairie.

The Saw Mill

For museums, it can be a struggle to get visitors involved enough to truly comprehend what it was like to live in a particular time period. Showing live portrayals of trades and crafts is always a wonderful avenue, as are hands-on exhibits, which I think OSV has accomplished with some innovative ideas. One such interactive experience is the Fitch House, which allows visitors to roam freely throughout the house; they can sit on the furniture, open drawers, and try on some clothing of the time.

The Fitch House offers a full hands-on experience

Plenty of drawers to open and papers to read inside the Fitch House

Children can try on 1800s clothes

Also in the hands-on category is a life-sized replica of a cow where visitors can actually “milk” the “cow” to get a sense of some daily farm chores. Don’t worry, they have plenty of real animals too!

We had the chance to "milk" the "cow"

This was the eighth annual Redcoats & Rebels weekend at OSV and it's been called the largest reenactment in New England, with over 800 reenactors participating. The troops, who all hail from New England, offered an extensive and varied look at the military participants of the time. (A full listing of the troops can be found in this press release.)

The military tents were visible as soon as we walked into the village. The common green was full and tents were erected on every spare piece of ground. Each group of tents was identified with a marker indicating the regiment and offering a brief history of the group being portrayed. I found this to be very helpful, since most of the tents did not have regiment names and numbers on them.

Walking into the village

Tents on the common with the Center Meetinghouse in the far back

We strolled through some of the camps and took a look at some of the medical instruments laid out. The Stow Minutemen provided some fife and drum music and the Kings Rangers hosted a brief lesson in dance. I think the overall ambiance and the actual battle reenactment were portrayed successfully. I have seen some concerned comments regarding the lax standards of authenticity at this event. I am not involved in military or camp reenactments (yet), so I do not think I can offer a very accurate or fair assessment. I did notice some interesting choices in clothing, most particularly in the women; however, I did not study them too closely, as I assumed that they were most likely visitors dressed for the occasion, who cannot be monitored as such (and which we all know can sometimes result in some mortifying choices).  Speaking of dress... On the schedule was listed "Ladies of Refined Taste: A Fashion Show."  As the presenter explained, it was not going to be a show of wealthy fashions after all, but rather some examples of the working class instead.  At first I was disappointed, but this ended up being a very neat idea.  The presenter read various runaway ads from the 1770s; as she read each one, an interpreter dressed as the described runaways passed through.

This was my first time experiencing an actual battle reenactment. I’ve seen plenty of military demonstrations and camps before, but not an actual battle. We watched the troops line up at the town common and followed in a large crowd as they made their way over the covered bridge and down to the Freeman Farm fields. One of the British troops separated and marched back into the woods behind the fields.

The troops preparing to march into battle

We stood on the hill and watched as the guns and cannons began to fire. It is an interesting experience: the battle taking place is so real, from the authenticity of the uniforms and weapons, to the fire and smoke of the cannons and guns, and even the falling of injured men, but the “audience” is so calm, even excited as they snap pictures and lift their children to see the action. I also felt a similar experience at Under the Redcoat as the British troops marched in to take over the city. The spectators where we were standing were very quiet and it was as though we were watching a parade. I’m sure we would have all been much more frightened if we were actually there at the time.

The spectators

Redcoats vs. Rebels

As the battle progressed, we made our way further up the hill to stand along a fence near the pathway. One of the OSV employees monitoring the crowd was close by. I overheard him explaining some of the intricacies of the event to interested visitors. The morning prior to each battle, they hold a meeting to discuss how the fight will progress. Apparently, it never goes as planned – they never know exactly where the troops will go or how long it will last. Part way through the battle, fire ceased and we were asked to make way for paramedics. A few moments later, with no sign of any paramedics (at least from my view), battle commenced. Apparently, it was not a serious injury. Since the Redcoats won the battle on Saturday, it was predetermined that the colonial army would win on Sunday. Below is a video of the Redcoats final retreat over the fields:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Looking forward to “Costume Accessories from Head to Toe”

Later this year, Colonial Williamsburg’s “Quilted Fashions” exhibit, currently on display at the DeWitt Wallace Museum, will make way for “Costume Accessories from Head to Toe.” The exhibition will feature a timeline of fashion accessories spanning the period between the mid-seventeenth century and the mid-nineteenth, and will include not only the artifacts themselves, but also illustrations of their period use and function. Included in the exhibit will be an eighteenth-century print made reality by the skilled hands of the staff of CW’s Margaret Hunter shop. While visiting the shop recently, we found mantua maker and milliner Doris Warren hard at work on one of the caps represented in "Spruce Sportsman or Beauty the Best Shot" (which you can see here).  As she stitched, she animatedly explained the project.

The ladies of the shop have been offering tantalizing glimpses of their progress via their Facebook page. Needless to say, this promises to be yet another exciting and meticulously researched exhibit that both Ashley and I are eagerly anticipating.

As an added bonus, CW is organizing a coordinating symposium, scheduled for the 13th to the 16th of March 2011. With two and a half days of lectures and a day of workshops and specially organized behind-the-scenes tours, the event will provide a unique and invaluable chance to hear some of the best in the field discuss the historic role and (perhaps more importantly) the modern-day significance of the types of trend-making items on display. This will be immediately followed by a two-day academic conference, "A Reconstructed Visitable Past: Recreated Period Attire at Heritage Sites," on the reproduction, use, and function of historic costumes in a museum setting. I, for one, will not be passing up this rare and exciting opportunity!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gone with the Wind Costume Restoration

Ashley came across this press release yesterday.  It details the efforts of the University of Texas at Austin to raise sufficient funds to restore five of Vivien Leigh's iconic costumes from Gone with the Wind.  Apparently, they've been so well-traveled over the years that they're quite literally falling to pieces and UT would like to find a way to conserve them and reinforce them enough that they can be shown again during a 75th anniversary exhibition for the film in 2014.  I understood that the Met here in NYC had several of these gowns on display, though I'm not sure if they were these or others from the film, as I've always been too involved in work to get over there see them!  I'm sorry for that now, especially if they are heading back to Texas, oh-so-far out of my reach.  It's such a shame they've deteriorated to this extent, and it certainly does speak to the fragility of items like these, and how crucial it is that steps are taken to preserve what is there before it's too late.

Back in 1998, Gone with the Wind was restored and re-released to theatres and we went to see it with our mother and a family friend, both of whom remembered seeing it in earlier re-releases in the 60s and 70s.  There's just something about that massive screen enabling those sweeping views to mean more than they do on a television aspect ratio.  They certainly don't come close to achieving movies like that anymore - in either the artistry of the cinematography or the impressive, larger-than-life quality of the costumes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Threaded Bliss

Throughout our posts on general topics will be intermittently interwoven two featured sets of more focused postings.  In addition to our "Notes on..." feature exploring books, films, and other relevant media of interest (to be introduced soon!), we will also integrate a series of posts under the title of "Threaded Bliss" specifically detailing our efforts at the reproduction of period garments, along with other costuming adventures.  This series, too, will be tagged in the menu at right and within the individual post labels to enable easy identification and navigation of postings within this group.

Reproducing the Costume Close-up Jacket

This was one of the easiest reproduction pieces I’ve done thus far, mostly because I only had to make the most minor of adjustments to the original pattern to make it fit Ashley (she swears she was born in the wrong century!). It went together beautifully, the only hitch being that you have to remember with the lapped seams to leave the seam allowances at the neckline and the bottom free so that the edges can be turned in smoothly. I’m so pleased with the end result; after all, one really can’t help being charmed by the cut of the back with those flouncey little “swallow tails”! The sleeves curve to cup over the elbows, which, along with the short skirt, dates the jacket to 1775-1785.

The original jacket, as displayed in Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg, left, with my reproduction on the right.

The pattern: Costume Close-up, by Linda Baumgarten, with John Watson and Florine Carr, pp. 39-42.  The original is in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Museum (acc. no. 1962-259).

Construction details: The jacket is entirely hand-sewn.  Costume Close-up gives superb details about the construction methods used in each of its garments, and it is immensely rewarding when using this book to know that your final product can be a very close copy of the original in almost every way, from the cut of the pattern, to the order in which the pieces are assembled, to the stitches used for each part. My jacket, like the original, is assembled using lapped seams. The edges are then turned in and finished with a stitch called “le point a rabattre sous la main,” which Baumgarten describes step-by-step in the introduction to the book.

The back of my reproduction jacket.

The back of the shoulder strap, showing the lapped seams and the sleeve set in from the outside.

The bound front slit in detail.  This slit was used to help give the jacket a more tailored shape when pulled tight around the stays.

A detail of the sleeve, showing the turned under lining finished with la point a rabattre sous la main.

Unlike the original, though, I elected not to place lacing holes along the front edges.  I thought it might spoil the simple yet elegant lines (and I wasn’t in the mood to hand-sew that many eyelets!).  The stomacher is thus secured in the other period-appropriate way, with straight pins.  Though a stomacher is missing from the original garment, Baumgarten believes, based on the size, shape, and fit of the jacket, that one most likely did exist, or that the gap left in the jacket's laced front would have been filled by a handkerchief.  My stomacher pattern is a simple one, based on the shape of other extant stomachers worn with both jackets and gowns.

The fabric: What a lucky Ebay find! This is a long discontinued Williamsburg reproduction of an original textile from their collection, supposedly used in Wetherburn’s Tavern in the 1770s or 1780s. The colorway is quite close to that of the original jacket, which uses madder red and a penciled blue in a block-printed floral pattern. The repro is a cotton-linen blend; the original is presumably 100% cotton. Both jackets are fully lined in linen, though I decided not to line the tails of mine separately.

The original in a study drawer at the DeWitt Wallace, with my reproduction beneath.  Forgive the wrinkles in the lining; I hadn't ironed it before this picture was taken!

Finishing the look: The swallow tails of the jacket, and the period to which the jacket dates, demand that this garment be worn supported by a bum roll underneath in order to ensure it falls properly over the hips and back. The jacket is thus worn over a shift with narrow, close-fitted sleeves, fully-boned stays, a bum roll, and a cream linen petticoat. A madder red linen outer petticoat and a shallow-crown straw hat embellished with box-pleated red silk satin ribbon complete the look, which is accessorized by a linen handkerchief and a double-strand necklace of red coral beads tied with a brown silk ribbon.