Thursday, March 31, 2011

"The Art of Beauty:" A CW Podcast

This week's Colonial Williamsburg podcast discusses the receipts and uses of cosmetics in the 18th century.  I have never done any research into 18th century cosmetics, so I found this to be very interesting and wanted to share it here with you all.  You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript here.

Francois Boucher, La Toilette, 1742.

In this podcast, Meg Brown shares some of her research about cosmetics as well as stories of her experiments in recreating some of these receipts.  She begins by describing the ideal 18th century "beautiful" woman: pale skin (no freckles or spots) and dark hair and eyebrows.  To achieve this look, they used powders and pastes and other receipts, some of which were highly toxic.  Ceruse, which was used to make the skin very pale (the white stuff popular in the Elizabethan era), was a mixture that included white lead.  By the 1770s, doctors were beginning to discourage its use due to symptoms in both those who used the cosmetic and those who were making it.  One of the most interesting things discussed was about hair dye.  Ms. Brown described a receipt (that she has experimented with) which called for black walnut and white vinegar.  Sounds like a receipt for ink!  In addition to applied cosmetics and perfumes, they also had face washes, some of which included strawberries and gin or strawberries and white wine (mmm!).

Ms. Brown recommended "The Toilet of Flora" as an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more.  This is an 18th century publication and can be found on Google Books (there are a few editions available there).  It looks like there are also a few recently republished print editions available as well.

If you're interested in experimenting with some 18th century cosmetics yourself (the non-toxic kind, of course!), I've read a lot of good things about Ageless Artiface, though I have yet to try them myself.  If anyone has, I'd love to hear about your experience!

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Of All Things Millinerial"

Janea Whitacre, Mistress of the trades of millinery and
mantua-making, prepares for "From Freedom to Slavery," a special
program staged in the milliner's shop.  Close-ups of the muffs on the
counter can be seen in this post from Wednesday's muff workshop.

The title of this post, a quotation taken from Janea Whitacre's presentation during last week's accessories symposium at Colonial Williamsburg, serves to remind us (as Janea's accompanying dramatic "fashion show" did last Tuesday) of the variety of items that would have been available for bespeaking or ready-made sale at the shop of a milliner and/or mantua maker during the eighteenth century.  From suits of clothes (caps, aprons, and kerchiefs) to hats to gloves and mitts to bags to petticoats to buckles and jewelry to cloaks and capes to gowns and jackets, the milliner, as Janea explained, was so called because she sold a "million" things.

A young apprentice catches the early afternoon light in the upper
window of the Margaret Hunter shop.

The Margaret Hunter shop, the site of only one of Williamsburg's several milliners during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, currently interprets the trades of millinery, mantua-making, and tailoring as they were practiced in colonial America.  For a fantastic overview of the evolution of the trades themselves and their practice at CW, be sure to check out this article.  As I'm sure it also is for many of our readers, the shop is always our favorite stop (often multiple times!) on every trip to CW.  With so much to see and so much to learn from the talented journeywomen and men and their apprentices who perpetuate these needle arts, we never tire of visiting!  And since everyone loves to revel in frocks, fashions, and fripperies, here's a photo diary of some of favorite shots from our time there last week.  Enjoy!

The gorgeous white short cloak and the white satin accessories below it (a stomacher and small bag) were bridal accessories featured in one of the scenes from Tuesday's symposium fashion show.  While white wedding gowns didn't become the norm until Queen Victoria popularized them in 1840, they weren't entirely unheard of.  CW's collection includes a cream satin gown dating to 1756 which is documented to have been made and worn specifically as a wedding gown (though I'm sure it was subsequently used on other formal occasions as well).  You can see this gown in one of our previous posts.

The hat below, though a reproduction made in the shop, is a very special antique in and of itself.  It was made by Colonial Williamsburg's very first milliner in the 1950s and is an exact copy of the silk-covered hat currently featured in the "Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe" exhibit.  More specifics and the option to super-zoom on the original hat can be found in the exhibit's online counterpart.

The reproduction hat made in the shop in the 1950s, now
brought out and given a place of honor to mark the symposium
and current museum exhibit.

The original hat, currently on display in the
DeWitt Wallace Museum at CW.

The in-progress sleeves of a wool riding habit which was
 featured in the symposium's fashion show.  The waistcoat for the
ensemble can be seen here, and the finished habit here.

Doris Warren, journeywoman of the trades of millinery and
mantua-making, discusses some of the shop's treasures with visitors.

If you're curious to learn more about the practice of the needle trades at CW, you might enjoy exploring these links from past CW podcast interviews.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

One More Frolick in Williamsburg

Our final day on this recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg was spent with our wonderful friends from Teacups in the Garden.  We attended a few CW presentations, enjoyed the beautiful weather (until the temperature dropped at night, anyway!) and celebrated Miss C’s 18th birthday!

 With our friends from Teacups in the Garden!

As we walked through the Visitor's Center in costume that morning, we heard a young boy exclaim, "Mom, look!  The colonial people are out already!"  (Kids really do say the darndest things!)  We began the day behind the Governor’s Palace to hear Mr. Jefferson speak.  As always, it was wonderful to hear him discuss his thoughts on our “new” nation and to witness the wonderful talent of Mr. Barker’s interpretation.  Afterwards, we strolled through the gardens admiring the first flowers of spring (some wonderfully fragrant lilacs!) and stopping for photos (some for ourselves and some for other guests).

 Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson

Spring is on the way!  (See the flowers to the right?!)

We then attended a special program in the Margaret Hunter shop entitled “From Freedom to Slavery.”  As we gathered in the shop, a third person interpreter stepped forward to provide us with an introduction.  He explained that in the past, he would come out after the presentation to answer questions.  Considering how emotional the scene was (and since there is no introductory information given by the actors), he instead made the decision to start with some background information, in addition to offering the option of answering questions afterward.  The scene depicts a wealthy mistress who brings her recently "rescued" slave, Elizabeth, to the shop to be “properly” clothed for her servant duties.  Elizabeth fled her life as a slave several years prior and had found a home with a Shawnee tribe, where she led a free life with her new husband and their children.  Her mistress describes the ordeal to the milliner infront of Elizabeth in a condescending tone, clearly showing no understanding or compassion for the life of her slaves and the joy that Elizabeth had found with her new family.  When the lady and the shop mistress exit the room to talk, Elizabeth is left with the milliner's slave, and the two share a heart-to-heart talk about the challenges they face having to put aside their own identities in the English world in which they are forced to live.  It was a truly poignant scene which touched on so many issues of slavery, particularly of women, in the 18th century.

An interpreter explains the scene as Janea Whitacre prepares for "From Freedom to Slavery."

As a special treat (and since it was the only tavern open at the time), we lunched with our friends at the King’s Arms Tavern where we delighted in scrumptious fare!  As we were descending the stairs to leave (most of us being in costume), a young boy at the foot of the stairs exclaimed quite enthusiastically and politely for one so young, “I like your hat!”  When the next lady followed, he exclaimed once again, “And I like your hat!”  And once again to the next, “And I like your dress!”  What a gentleman!

Mr. Walker at the CW shoemakers' shop.

In the afternoon, we strolled down Duke of Gloucester to do some shopping.  We stopped frequently for photo ops and to greet friends we met along the way.  We also attended a talk at the DeWitt Wallace by Carla Killough McClafferty, author of The Many Faces of George Washington.  She shared with us the fascinating journey of Mount Vernon’s creation of three eerily life-like George Washington statues.  These three statues, depicting the man in three stages of life, are full body reproductions of what researchers believe are the truest depiction of what he looked like.  They studied paintings, letters, and other documents, and even studied his surviving dentures!

As we made our way back through the historic area, we were drawn back to the Margaret Hunter shop (because who could resist!).  A school group was waiting to explore the shop, so we only had a few moments to "Ooo!" and "Aaah!" over the wonderful projects they had displayed, and to congratulate the milliners on such a fine job with all their hard work for the symposium.

The Margaret Hunter Shop

Afterward, we witnessed some Revolutionary City scenes before heading to dinner.

The CW junior fife and drum corps play during a Rev City scene.

That evening, we attended the ever-popular “Dance, Our Dearest Diversion” at the Governor’s Palace where 18th century dancing is demonstrated and the audience is encouraged to participate in several dances.  We all had the opportunity to take a turn before the evening was out, and then ventured back out into the chilly night to say farewell to our friends until our next visit.

Check out our recent flickr set for more pictures from this visit!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Reconstructed Visitable Past: Day Two

Day two began with Session III: Technicalities, starting with Jenny Tiramani (costume and set designer and dress historian, London, England) presenting on “Fitting New Bodies in Old Shapes: Experiments with Patterns of the Past.”  Most of the information and photos that Jenny shared with us are unpublished (but soon to be!) so I cannot share all of the details here, but you can pre-order her new book, Seventeenth-Century Women's Dress Patterns: Book 1 on  She is currently working on subsequent volumes, and on finishing the work of her late friend and fellow costume historian Janet Arnold, so stay tuned for more goodies in the future!

Extant stays, 1740-1760, in the CW collection (featured in Costume Close-up)

Next on the program was Dr. Lynn Sorge-English (Department of Theatre, Costume Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia) with her presentation “Stays for the People.” Dr. Sorge-English also presented some unpublished work, which I consequently (and unfortunately, sorry!) cannot share here, but she too has a soon-to-be-published book from which her talk was drawn: Stays and Body Image in London: The Staymaking Trade, 1680-1810 can be pre-ordered from In brief, her talk explored the life of one rural English staymaker in the mid-18th century. Using his diaries, heretofore only read in light of their religious association, she gleans a fascinating spectrum of information about the staymaking trade, its practitioners, and even its customers. Be sure to check out her book to read more of this exciting scholarship. Accompanying her discussion on stays, she also described her work with the CW Costume Design Center to help establish stays patterns that could easily fit any interpreter. The stays, which come in 10 set sizes, can accommodate staff of any shape and size, eliminating the extensive (and expensive) task of fitting a new pair of stays for each staff member. Yet another example of a necessary but working compromise of costuming historic sites.

The "stays for the people" developed by Sorge-English,
still used by the CW CDC to fit costumed employees.

Saundra Ros Altman (creator and owner, Past Patterns, Dayton, Ohio) and Isabelle M. Lott (CEO, Pattern Works International, Grand Rapids, Michigan) discussed their experiences in pattern-making from extant garments.  Saundra started her company with next to nothing and has been able to build it into a wonderful resource for costumers.  Isabelle demonstrated her use of CAD (a computer software) to draft patterns efficiently, which offers some great potential to historic sites needing to quickly and easily scale up or down available period patterns.

Following a coffee break (I know it seems like we had a lot of coffee breaks, but with so much information coming at us, we needed the extra boost!), we had a presentation by fellow blogger Abigail Cox (of Stay-ing Alive), who spoke on “Educating and Constructing over the Internet: The Popularity, Potential, and Perks of Historical Costuming Blogs.”  She outlined this new “genre” of blog and explored the potential for a wider use of blogs by museums to highlight and make more accessible their costume collections.  A question from the audience encouraged some further discussion on this topic.  Costume scholars and enthusiasts are clearly reaching out for more knowledge, and further details from the museums would be helpful and widely appreciated, and an asset for museums because of the audiences they could draw.  The difficulty with this is, of course, that museums struggle with the wider dissemination of their collections because of possible implications on their visitation; would you visit a museum if you could access everything online?

“New Opportunities: Developing and Teaching Classes on Historical Clothing Construction” by Carolann Schmitt (Genteel Arts, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) discussed techniques for developing costume workshops for re-enactors and the staff of living history sites.  She shared her own experiences in creating classes and figuring out the most effective ways to organize and teach period construction techniques.  She provided a wonderfully helpful set of guidelines to think about when planning such classes, and stressed that it is often the opportunity to have a garment custom-fitted that helps draw individuals.  Johanna Tower (historical clothing and textiles, Plimoth Plantation) followed with a discussion of the link between historical knowledge and applied skill.

CW apprentice tailor Neal Hurst at work in the Margaret Hunter Shop, July 2010.

Concluding the morning session was Neal Hurst (apprentice tailor, Historic Trades, Colonial Williamsburg), who spoke on “The Bridge between Craftsmen and Academia: The Tale of Two 21st Century Apprentices.”  He began by outlining the trades programs at CW, most specifically those practiced at the Margaret Hunter shop.  The shop opened in 1954 simply as another souvenir store; slowly, CW began using the trades as education and preservation tools, thus greatly enhancing the mission of the foundation.  Beginning in the years after World War II, CWF initiated a number of apprenticeship programs, though it wasn't until 1995 that an apprenticeship for the millinery and mantua maker trades were established, and not until 2003 for the tailor.  While CW cannot hold their employees to the strict rules of a true 18th century apprenticeship, they still follow the basic structure of this learning curriculum.  Apprenticeships last seven years, and after completion of certain goals and projects, they are promoted to journeyman/woman.  Neal highlighted the importance of these trades, stressing that some of the tradesmen at CW are the only practitioners in their field left in the world, and thus how essential it is that their knowledge be carried forward through educational and training programs like those offered at CW.  (If you're interested, one of Neal’s apprenticeship projects even has a facebook page.)

 Interns are also an important addition to the trades of CW.

We were surprised at lunch time by our friends Laurie and her daughter and son, who came into town for the weekend!  We had a nice relaxing lunch together at the DeWitt Wallace café (still no Brunswick stew) and then took a walk through the Accessories from Head to Toe exhibit upstairs.  (Just so you all know (because it is that important to me!), I did finally get my Brunswick stew at Huzzah! that evening!)

Following lunch was a presentation by Frances M. Burroughs (director of operations, Educational Programs, Productions, Publications and Learning Ventures, CW) titled “Extending the Message: Historical Csotume Exhibitions and Media.”  She shared with us some of the innovative ways that CW is using to extend its exhibits to a wider audience, such as the use of the current Historic Threads online exhibit, photos and slideshows, podcasts, and even a video which plays in the exhibit space (we all got to view the video on the “big screen” accompanied by some fun production stories and anecdotes about the filming process!).  Clips from the video can be seen in this recent vodcast about the exhibit.

“Stepping into Their Shoes: Visitor Engagement at Historic Sites through Costuming” by Elizabeth L. Mauer (creative director, Re-Living History, Alexandria, VA) took a look at how visitors wearing costumes affects their interactions and experiences with costumed interpreters.  She used a story of a young visitor to CW who, while dressed in costume, received special attention from interpreters; they acted as if she was “one of them” or “in the know," encouraging her to adopt her own period persona in a way, immersing her fully in the educational interpretive scenarios.  Dressing up as a type of “play” thus becomes an invaluable method for learning through suggestive interaction, rather than passive didacticism.  Elizabeth said that this paper will be on her website soon, so be sure to check there to read more.

The next presentation by A. Newbold Richardson (Past Crafts Textiles and The Costume and Textile Specialists, Alexandria, VA)  entitled “More Than Play: Serious Interactive Dress-ups for Museum Educators” flowed nicely from the previous talk to further explore the use of costumes to transport children in order to help them grasp a better understanding of the time period portrayed.  Since so many museums have limited budgets (especially when it comes to costumes), and since most children do not really know how accurate a piece of clothing is, she suggests using the costumes as more of a tool to understand period posture and deportment - to help feel what it felt like "back then" - rather than as strictly historically accurate objects of study.  For example, a tight fitting waistcoat (even if it is the only piece of clothing for a child to wear) will give them an idea of the posture and restrictions of the time period much better than simply seeing the garment worn by an interpreter.  Shy children or those with disabilities can be easily incorporated into the lesson through the simple act of being costumed alongside their peers, providing a shared experience through what she termed "socio-dramatic play."

Tailors' workspace at the Margaret Hunter shop.

Following our last coffee break was a panel discussion titled “How Accurate is Accurate Enough?”  The panel consisted of Tom Hammond (CW, CDC), Jenny Tiramani (costume designer and dress historian), Hannah Howard (Pennsbury Manor State Historic Site, PA), Natalie Garbett (costumer), and Mark Hutter (CW journeyman tailor).  I was very excited for this discussion, but as the first questions were put the panel, I could tell that this was going to be a very general discussion.  I felt that the panel, as well as the participants from the audience, was being too careful and polite about certain issues.  Based on the presentations and discussions so far, it is evident that everyone and every site has their own opinion and standards when it comes to the use of costumes.  However, it was also evident that many have a very strong opinion on one practice or another, and I think it would have been enlightening to delve into further discussion and debate concerning some of these practices and issues.  I think this may have also provided those who are new to costuming or who are struggling with issues at their site to examine more closely the possibilities that are out there and to consider what might work best for their own individual site.

Following the panel, Dr. Jane Malcoln-Davies returned to discuss “Measured Smiles: Benchmarking Front-of House Staff’s Contributions to Visitor Experiences.”  Once again, her research and discussions with various historic sites allowed her to share statistics on interpreter training, effectiveness, and visitor reactions to costumed interpreters. 

Our keynote speaker, Richard Pickering, ended the session with another rousing talk.  He described how we are “standing on jello”: what we think is right today, will inevitably change tomorrow.  Our vision of history is constantly shifting and it is important that we help the public to understand this, while keeping aware of it ourselves as we continue to learn and grow and educate.

I want to say congratulations and thank you to Colonial Williamsburg, the staff who organized this conference, the wonderful presenters, and all of the registrants who attended.  This was such a unique opportunity for us all to explore the many uses and advantages of costumes and how they can impact our educational efforts.  These two days were packed full of new ideas and important discussions which I hope will continue throughout the museum and costuming communities.

The conference ended with an open house and reception at the CW Costume Design Center.  The staff kindly placed projects around the building for us to admire and examine, and very graciously answered all of our inquiries and curiosities while we enjoyed some tasty treats.

Costumes on display at the CW Costume Design Center.

K.C. and Rebecca drooled over the bolts of fabrics...

...While I drooled over this reproduction of Jefferson's 1790 great coat!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Reconstructed Visitable Past: Day One, Part Two

Following lunch, the Case Studies session continued, reconvening with “The Hive: Creating a Buzz” presented by Stephanie Smith and Hallie Larkin (volunteers, Minuteman National Historical Park, Concord, Massachusetts).  They relayed the inspiring story of creating a volunteer-run organization which provides workshops and events to aid reenactors in acquiring the most accurate clothing and accessories possible.  Independent reenactors oftentimes are unsure of where to go for resources or simply don’t know where to start.  The Hive uses a variety of primary sources (from extant garments to prints and paintings to runaway ads) and offers a fun, free, and friendly atmosphere where reenactors and volunteers are taught by example, not just told, how to portray accurately.  They have offerings for men and women as well as children, and offer support for projects both small and large.  They use their own experiences and even have a “dos and don’ts” fashion show where common clothing mistakes are highlighted in a jocular manner, so that no one will feel embarrassed about making the mistakes we've all made as beginners.  Be sure to visit their website to read about their work and their upcoming workshops.

CW actor-interpreters strolling on Duke of Gloucester Street

In “What Are You Obsessing Over Now? Twenty Years of Clothing Continental Army Interpreters,” Michael S. McGurty (interpretative programs assistant, New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, Vails Gate, New York) told us about his trials in costuming living history sites, most specifically in persuading management to dedicate more time and resources to accurate clothing.  One anecdote he shared described his elatation when at one point in his career, he actually achieved permission to procure a large amount of wool from an English supplier who dates back to the 18th century to recreate some new regimental coats for the museum staff.  The shipment, however, was stopped by customs on its way into the country and ended up costing a great deal more than anticipated.  But these, he said, are the necessary trials of this field, which is still worth it despite them all.

Following this was Lindsey Holmes (costumier, Past Productions Museum Theatre Company, London, England) who presented “Dress Sense: Costume as a Multisensory Historical Experience.”  She described several of her recent projects which used clothing, either as the topic itself or as an accessory to the theatrical production, to engage the audience further into the stories.  For example, for one museum-based performance, actors were stationed in rooms around a house as the audience moved from one room to the next.  She noted how the sounds and movements of the costumes (going up the stairs, rustling as they walked, etc.) enhanced the characters and their portrayals and gave the audience a multisensory experience of what the sights and sounds of the period were actually like.  Even the smell of the clothes, by washing or storing them in the manner of their time period, can greatly enhance the believability of a living history performance.

 A doll on display at the George Wythe House, CW.

After another short coffee break, we heard “The Mythical Bodice and its Successors at Colonial Williamsburg,” presented by Claudia Brush Kidwell (curator emeritus, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.), Sally Queen (manager, CW Costume Design Center, 1987-1995), and Linda Smith (cutter-draper-patternmaker, CW Costume Design Center).  This presentation and discussion was a lot of fun and is one of my favorites from the conference.  I think we’ve all witnessed examples of how historical costume recreation has evolved over time, and this was just one example.  The panel began by sharing one of their favorite slogans: ISLAGIATT ("it seemed like a good idea at the time").  They described how a few of the hostesses at CW began wearing costumes in 1934 as part of the special Garden Week.  The public loved the idea and both visitors and management started asking for more.  CW experimented with different styles and levels of clothing (even modern uniforms, which angered visitors!) over the years, until in preparation for bicentennial celebrations, they needed to construct many costumes quickly and at a low cost.  Enter "the bodice," with no historical basis whatsoever, but it was quick and easy to make and, well, ISLAGIATT.  By the 1980s, clothing accuracies were just beginning to be researched and discussed more widely; as knowledge was enhanced, the CDC decided to replace the bodices with historically documented short gowns.  In order to fund this new project, however, CW sold the bodices to other historic sites, thus perpetuating the practice of wearing this "mythical" piece of clothing and passing it as one with historical basis.  Through this presentation, these ladies called on us all to get the word out there: stop wearing them and teach the next generation about proper garments instead!  The presenters also described some of the projects the CDC has pursued since that time which help portray an accurate sense of the time, and which also fit the needs of the employees, their physical work, and the agenda of the Foundation as a whole.

The afternoon ended with our keynote speaker, Richard Pickering (deputy executive director, Plimoth Plantation).  His presentation, “Shifting Seam: Tailor Made History for the Next Generation,” began with the story of his first steps into history, thanks to a Miss Harris who noticed his interest and drew him in further by taking down the barriers and allowing him to witness history on an entirely new level.  As practitioners of historical research and interpretation, it is our responsibility to train the next generation by opening their imaginations and inspiring them to ask questions and to encourage them to make inquiries.  Mr. Pickering also told us about a project which placed a group of female college students into a full immersion experience at Plimoth Plantation.  With only a few weeks of training, the students were literally left in the woods at night as interpreters led them to Plimoth and through a full reenactment of a documented scenario.  They were reenacting the actual event of a ship, stuck on the rocks near Plimoth, which they needed to abandon in the middle of the night.  As they walked through the woods, unaware that any settlement was nearby, they encountered some Native Americans who led them to Governor Bradford in Plimoth.  The ladies were then dispersed as servants to the families in the settlement.  Click here for a NY Times article about the project.

What a wonderful first day of the conference!  So many stories and experiences shared and so many discussions opened.  I am looking forward to seeing how some of these discussions progress and how they affect the use of costumes and the costuming practices of living history sites in the years to come.

But first, day two of the conference!

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Reconstructed Visitable Past: Day One, Part One

Thursday morning began the two day conference at Colonial Williamsburg titled, “A Reconstructed Visitable Past: Recreated Period Attire at Heritage Sites.”  The aim of this conference, following the Costume Accessories: Head to Toe symposium, was to share and discuss topics relating to the use of costumes in museums and living history sites.  The roster of speakers was a broad collection of costume designers, museum managers, and independent scholars from North America and Britain.  The registrants at this conference were just as varied and included museum staff, scholars, re-enactors, and costume enthusiasts from around the globe.  Costuming is an amazing tool for portraying and teaching history and an essential element for any living history museum.  As we discussed during the conference, costumes can also transport and engage visitors in a number of ways.  We touched on so many topics and issues, so I am going to try to keep this outline of the presentations as brief as I can.

Brenda Rosseau (manager of the Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center) and James Horn (vice president, Colonial Williamsburg Research and Historical Interpretation and Director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) welcomed the group to the conference and opened by giving a brief description of the use of costumes at CW.  With over 800 employees to dress, the Costume Design Center currently has approximately 55,000 pieces in circulation, with an average of 50-60 items issued per employee.  The staff at the CDC is responsible for the research, construction, and care of all costumes and accessories used by interpreters throughout the historic area, as well as those worn by the actors in the Emmy-winning Electronic Field Trips series.  In addition, costuming comes to life in the historic area itself, where the mantua makers, milliners, and tailors of the Margaret Hunter shop practice and portray 18th century sewing techniques on a daily basis, producing entirely accurate pieces that are both worn and put on display in the shop.

Colonial Williamsburg interpreters, costumed by the CW
Costume Design Center.

The first formal presentation was given by Dr. Pravina Shukla (Indiana University) who discussed "Costume and Sites of Heritage."  Dr. Shukla began by categorizing different types of heritage sites, such as those sites with educational goals, sites where history and culture are interpreted by professionals, or heritage sites that are only significant to the people, where no tourist or official interpreters are found.  For this last type, she gave an example of some traditional costume in Sweden which is only worn for ceremonies as part of their own heritage preservation.  Just like historical interpreters or reenactors, they strive to keep their costumes as accurate as possible.  One of my favorite anecdotes from her presentation was a discussion with a Civil War reenactor who used his own independent research and the resources available to him in order to assemble his costume and persona to be meticulously correct.  He felt that unless he was doing his best to portray his interpretation as accurately as possible, he would be doing the public a great injustice.  And while he knows that he can never fully become the character he interprets, he would not want to wear something or do something in public that would embarrass the historical person he has taken the responsibilty to preserve and portray.

Next on the program was Dr. Jane Malcolm-Davies (director JMD and Company, The Tudor Tailor, Godalming, England) discussing "A World in a Wardrobe: Costume as Communication in Historic Sites."  This fascinating study compiled data from sites currently utilizing costumed interpreters and discussed the use of costumes from the perspective of the costuming staff, the interpretive staff, and vistors themselves.  She explored how much of sites’ budgets on average are allocated to costumes and why these sites decided to start using costumes in the first place.  Information was also gathered concerning any procedures in place for training costumed staff (were they taught how to wear their costumes?), for the maintenance of the costumes (are interpretive staff in charge of cleaning their clothing?), and evaluation processes (do supervisors evaluate the staff's appearance?).  Finally, she shared how the costumed interpreters felt about their costumes, including their attitudes about wearing them and how they felt it influenced the way they perform their jobs.

A costumed interpreter at the CW Magazine engages visitors in military discussions.

The final presenter in the first session was Heather M. Meiklejohn (costume curator, Parks Canada) who gave us an overview of her specific job challenges.  As the sole costume curator for an extensive region, she does not even have the opportunity to visit all of the sites she manages in person.  One of the neat ideas she shared with us is something Parks Canada has developed called “History Online.”  This online resource for staff begins with a page listing all of the sites.  From there, staff can explore each site and find anything they might need to know, like details about the educational offerings of the sites and even a section called “How to wear your costume.”  This online “manual” is also available in hard copy or on a DVD for all staff.  One of the biggest challenges, she explained, is getting the staff to actually read this and to refer to it when they have a question.  In addition, they are beginning to explore additional interactive opportunities (such as facebook, flickr, Wikimedia, etc.) to reach out to staff and to encourage questions and conversation among staff and between sites.

After a quick coffee break, Session II: Case Studies began with “'The Devil’s Brood': Interpreting Henry II, His Family and Court at Dover Castle."  Mark Wallis (managing and artistic director) and Stephanie Selmayr (director and head of costume, Past Pleasures Ltd., Godalming, England) shared with us some beautiful slides of the costumes and new interpretations at Dover Castle.  They addressed the challenges posed when one is required to costume a period in which little to no extant examples remain, and images are inconclusive and often difficult to decipher.

Christopher Daley (historical clothing services supervisor, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation) followed with his presentation titled, “Counterfeited According to Truth”: The Challenges of Accurately Clothing Powhatan Indians at Jamestown Settlement."  I really enjoyed Mr. Daley’s presentation, in which he clearly discussed where their costuming inspirations came from, what their specific challenges are, and how they overcome those challenges.  Because Jamestown is a state-owned site, he explained, certain concessions need to be made, which often conflict with the historical accuracy of their interpretation (for example, wearing latex gloves when slaughtering animals or safetly glasses when working with hot metals).  Another very interesting topic which he brought up was public perception; when visitors come to a site, they bring certain preconceptions and expectations. In some cases, those preconceptions are wrong, and visitors consequently have trouble accepting the truth, which in other cases, they struggle with putting their preconceptions aside to focus on the interpretation.  For instance, some of the interpreters who portray the Powhatans are not Native Americans, so the public sometimes has trouble seeing beyond this necessary inaccuracy of portrayal to learn from the interpretative actions, settings, and lessons being offered by the interpreters.

Wigs on display at the Governor's Palace, CW.

The final presentation prior to lunch was Denise Lebica (manager, historical clothing and textiles, Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts) with “Dressed to Till: Clothing as an Interpretive Tool.”  She described how Plimoth teaches their interpretive staff how to wear their costumes and to be aware of what they are doing and how their clothes should change to fit the task at hand.  For example, when staff are preparing to do some sort of dirty work, they make sure that visitors see them put on their aprons; this conveys through the physical use of clothing the fact that since clothing was valuable, Plimoth's settlers would have done their best to protect it while they worked.  One neat tool they sometimes use in interpreter training is bringing the people of a painting to life.  After looking closely at the painting, a staff member appears wearing the same clothes, which gives the trainees a sort of 3D view of how the clothes are actually worn in the past.

I was told from the café staff at the DeWitt Wallace that Brunswick stew would be on the menu for Thursday, and I was so looking forward to it!  Alas, when I arrived at the café on Thursday, I was greeted with the sad news that the stew never made it, but was promised that it would be there the next day.  So we ran over to the Cheese Shop once again and spent the remainder of our lunch time shopping in the historic area.

Stay tuned for more!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Colonial Williamsburg & Buttons Workshop

While Rebecca was busy enjoying the symposium of prettiness early this week, I tried to get as much CW fun into my schedule as I could fit!

Saturday was a long drive, but with very little traffic we made good time.  We took the opportunity to sleep in a bit on Sunday and to walk around the historic area.  It was a bit windy, but the weather was absolutely gorgeous compared to the weather we left back in New England.  We stopped by the Margaret Hunter shop where Mr. Hutter was busy shining his buttons and working on a new riding habit for the symposium.  We found some time to chat and look around the shop before heading over to the DeWitt Wallace to pick up our registration packets and to take a walk through the accessories exhibit.  That evening, Rebecca headed to the opening events of the symposium and I found a pleasant bench (running into a friend on the way) to work on some sewing and to enjoy the last of the warm sun.

Strolling with Mr. M.

On Monday, my Mum and I visited some CW buildings to see what might be new around town.  We were rather shocked at the new look of the middle upstairs room of the Governor’s Palace.  For as long as I have been visiting CW, the walls of this room have been covered with a very unique and beautiful leather covering.  It added a certain elegance to the room.  The walls are now plain white, which actually made the room feel smaller and definitely took away any “wow factor” to the room.  One of the interpreters told us that the leather covering was in disrepair and was too difficult to maintain.  Also, while they have recently been making other changes to the Palace to bring the decorations specifically into the time of Lord Dunmore’s residence, they don’t believe that the leather covering would have been there at the time.  I was told by one interpreter that the walls will remain white, while another interpreter said that there were plans to recover the walls in a new paper.  These comments were not from anyone charged with studying or interpreting the building itself, so these descriptions may not be entirely true and there may be other plans for the room.  Sometimes it is sad to see objects or an interpretation change that we have become used to.  But at the same time, it is always exciting to see research and perceptions change in front of our eyes.

Room in the Governor's Palace with leather wall covering.
Summer 2010

The same wall as seen March 2011 with bare walls.

Monday was also the first day of this season’s Revolutionary City events at CW.  We stood with some friends as we watched Lafayette deliver his speech, which was followed by some examples of music and theater.  We then witnessed the scene of Mrs. Washington visiting the Capitol and aiding a Rev War veteran, which was also a repeat from past seasons.  The events ended with a presentation by George Washington in front of Raleigh Tavern.

Ron Carnegie as George Washington

Tuesday morning I braved the chilly, cloudy weather to listen to Mr. Jefferson behind the Governor’s Palace gardens.  As always, it was a pleasure to hear Mr. Jefferson and to witness his interaction with the audience.  After a brief walk through the gardens I met back up with my family and we all went out to lunch with a friend.  It was great to catch up and to share stories.  Afterwards, Rebecca headed back to the symposium and Mum and I hid from the chill by visiting some more CW sites.

Bill Barker as Mr. Jefferson in the Governor's Palace gardens.

Finally, the day of workshops arrived on Wednesday!  CW tailors Mark Hutter and Neal Hurst began by giving us a brief overview of a few of the different types of buttons and how they may have been used in the late 17th and 18th centuries.  We dove right into making a thread button using linen thread.  Thread buttons were typical on linen garments (linens usually referring to underclothes).  Because these buttons were pure thread, the garments were easy to launder with the buttons still attached.  I needed to restart this button several times before I had a solid starting point, but my stitches were horrendous after that and I had a very sad looking, unfinished button to show.  But I learned a new technique and hope to try this one again with my handy instructions nearby.  Our instructors were also sure to remind us that button making was not a technique that every tailor would have perfected.  Tailors, as well as most housewives, probably knew how to make simple buttons, but they were actually widely produced and available for sale by the 18th century.  A set of “coat buttons” or “weskit buttons” could readily be purchased to finish a garment.

After our attempts at this thread button, we were instructed in the making of a button which Mr. Hurst has researched and examined to recover its construction.  These buttons are covered with fabric and then embellished by interweaving threads.  Getting the threads to make the proper design was the most difficult part, and I have to admit that I didn’t quite manage to master one of these by the end of the class either, but thoroughly enjoyed learning this new technique.  I can’t wait to try this one again too!

Examples of the "Neal Thomas Hurst buttons" on a pair of breeches from the Margaret Hunter shop.

One of the final buttons we learned was the death head.  (I wrote about my attempts at this button in an earlier post.)  Mr. Hutter did an excellent job of explaining the construction of these buttons as he offered us a wonderful demonstration.  His method was slightly different than that of Mr. Fuss.  I actually had success with this one, probably because I already had some practice with it.  At the end of the class Mr. Hutter also briefly demonstrated how to make a multi-colored death head, which I am looking forward to trying at some point.  I also watched as he demonstrated construction of a late 17th century globular button, which made a very neat looking round button.  Thank you to both of our instructors for a fun and very informative class!

Examples of death head buttons on the waistcoat of a new women's riding habit, featured
in Tuesday's fashion show as part of the symposium.

Rebecca and I both spent the second part of the week engaged in the Thursday-Friday conference entitled “A Reconstructed Visitable Past,” which focused on the use of costumes in museums.  It was a very enlightening two days which I am looking forward to sharing with you all shortly – so stay tuned!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Costume Accessories: Head to Toe" Colonial Williamsburg/CSA Symposium

Day Four

Muffs, mitts, caps, fringe, cloaks, and other pretties made by the CW milliners.

The lectures having ended Tuesday evening, Wednesday was the designated optional programs bridge-day between the Sunday-Tuesday accessories symposium and the Thursday-Friday conference on the use of costumes in the interpretation of historic sites.  There were a number of costume- and textile-related tours to choose from in the morning, while the afternoon sessions were set aside to attend one of four workshops.

My first program was a behind-the-scenes tour of the costume collection and the new Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe exhibition, let by none other than Linda Baumgarten herself.  Talk about star-struck and the opportunity of a lifetime!  :-)  First, she took us into the costume storage facilities, which house closets full (and I mean FULL) of hanging original gowns and petticoats and formal jackets, with drawers of breeches and waistcoats in between.  Linda had pulled an incredible gown out for us to see, along with a frock coat.  After about fifteen minutes of drooling and sighing, we headed upstairs where Linda gave us an overview of the challenges she faced and the pleasant surprises she encountered in mounting the accessories exhibit.  She explained some curator's techniques to displaying antique items without damaging them, and also shared some of the secrets revealed by the items themselves as she studied them closely prior to mounting them.  What a special treat this tour was!

A fabulous 1800ish bonnet made by the CW milliners that was
featured in the fashion show on Tuesday afternoon.

The second tour I chose was of the textiles storage facility.  Kimberly Smith Ivey, associate curator of textiles and historic interiors, led us around the state-of-the-art room filled with rows upon rows of drawers full of gowns, jackets, aprons, breeches, waistcoats, dolls, samplers, sewing implements and accessories, quilts, bed hangings, chair covers, and rolls of fabrics, along with buttons and jewelry.  For an hour, we got to explore this plethora of treasures.  We divided into several smaller groups, each group heading towards the items in which they were most interested, and from our corner with the gowns and jackets, we periodically heard from elsewhere in the room gasps and squeals and sighs (meanwhile often exuding plenty of our own!).  It was probably the happiest roomful of people I've ever been around!

A velvet-trimmed silk satin muff made by the CW milliners.

After lunch, Ashley headed to a button workshop (which I'll leave to her more capable hands to describe!), while I scurried off to one on silk muffs, led by Janea Whitacre.  Scattered across a table was a pile (oh, glorious pile!) overflowing with muffs, mitts, caps, bonnets, cloaks, mantles, and fringe.  After explaining the evolution of the style and shape of the fashionable muff across the century, we selected our fabric and trims and got to work.  Three and a half hours later, we had all finished or mostly-finished them.  Of course, there being a big difference between finished and mostly finished, I will refrain from sharing my mostly-finished muff until it's completely done.  I selected a pretty springy-minty green silk, perfect for those cool yet bright spring days.  As soon as it's done, I promise to share lots of pictures!

The Spruce Sportsman muff, made by the CW milliners and featured
 in Tuesday's fashion show and in the accessories exhibit video
at the DeWitt Wallace.

A precious miniature muff, measuring only about 4.5".

Today began the "Reconstructed Visitable Past" conference, with a 9 to 5 day chock-full of back-to-back talks.  But that will have to wait until tomorrow!  Two posts in one day is more than enough for exhausted me!

"Costume Accessories: Head to Toe" Colonial Williamsburg/CSA Symposium

Day Three

Goodies on display at the Margaret Hunter millinery shop.

My apologies for the absence of new posts Tuesday and Wednesday; Ashley and I ended our Tuesday evening with some English country dancing at Newport House and got back so late that I just dropped into bed exhausted (but happy!).  Yesterday I was in bed by 9:30 after a day of pretties information overload.  As a result, I'll be doing two postings this evening, so be sure to scroll up or down to make sure you don't miss one or the other of them!

Tuesday's lectures opened with a prodigiously enlightening discussion of "traditions and revolutions" in hairstyles and wigs from 1748-1804.  Anne Bissionnette, assistant professor of material culture and curatorship at the University of Alberta, suggested that philosophy and history combined in hair at the middle of the eighteenth century, with styles reflecting the trend for recovered ancient cultures and aesthetics.  In general, then, women's wig styles from 1748-1760 favored tight curls worn close to the head.  By the 1760s, wigs were quite affordable and widely worn by all who could afford one.  Bissionnette theorizes that this prompted a brief return to natural hair by the young gentlemen of the aristocracy in an effort to counter the equality of appearance across all social levels that inexpensive wigs allowed.

After a brief summary of the Macaroni movement of the 1760s and early '70s, the discussion turned again to women's hairstyles, which changed rapidly from egg-shaped to an inverted pyramid (again inspired by ancient examples) to the poof and hedgehog styles that dominated the 1780s.  This turn towards informality and a (cultivated) "natural" appearance continued with slight variations into the turn of the century, corresponding to (or reflecting), Bissionnette argues, an increased emphasis on the individual.  This lecture was so jam-packed with information that it's very difficult to try to summarize my pages and pages of notes into such a small space, so pray forgive me if I've omitted something.  I assure you it was by necessity and not neglect!  If there's anything you're interested in hearing about, just let me know and I can go back to my notes for more.

A CW interpreter on Palace Green.

Robin Kipps, the apothecary supervisor at CW, followed with a fascinating look at what might be called medical prescriptions for clothing in the eighteenth century.  Scattered throughout medical manuals, she observed, are suggestions about quilting medicines into waistcoats or night caps (depending, of course, on the location of the malady), advertisements for specially-purposed health-related garments (cork jacket, anyone?), and even advice for parents on the proper use and function of leading strings (yeah, maybe swinging your toddler by them isn't such a good idea after all...).  Her unique perspective on clothing and accessories suggested a fresh and fascinating new way to look at traditional fashionable items that could be re-purposed to serve highly specific functions.

The Pasteur and Galt Apothecary at Colonial Williamsburg -
an most unexpected place to find advice on accessories
(albeit it medicinal ones!).

After lunch, Susan North returned to the podium to reconvene with a talk about linen, cleanliness, and the fashion, form, and function of the white laundered accessory.  Her lecture drew upon her current research project and offered a series of observations and questions prompted by the materials she has thus far encountered.  The pristine white of kerchiefs, caps, cuffs, and ruffles served as an outward manifestation of cleanliness in underwear, North argued.  Medical literature yields contradictions at every turn regarding the preference for and benefits of linen vs. flannel underwear, and civility literature often suggests that clean linen needed to clean more for fashion's and appearance's sake than for the sake of cleanliness.  I'm always intrigued to hear about peoples' current projects, so I'll be eagerly anticipating further results as this one continues to develop.

A satin-striped silk gauze cap on display in the milliner's shop.

The final lecture, given by Cynthia Cooper (head of research and collections and curator of costume and textiles at the McCord Museum), took a tour through the changes in fashion of three prominent accessories: shawls, sashes, and scarves.  Accompanying the talk (which spanned the early eighteenth century all the way to the end of the nineteenth) was a collection of stunning slides of items held in the McCord Museum and scores of illustrative prints and paintings.  I found her focus on the "otherness" of these items of dress to be particularly illuminating.  Shawls, for instance, arrived in Europe and England from India in the late 1790s.  While images of them display a certain willingness to incorporate such an exotic item into fashionable continental dress, contemporary images simultaneously reveal an ambiguous relationship to it; while the shawl was a masculine article of clothing in India, Europe's aesthetic reaction to it, removed from its original function, re-imagined the shawl into a feminine accessory worn in a completely different way.  There were scores of additional examples, but again, the limits of space prevent me from being able to include everything here!  Again, just let me know if there's anything you were looking to hear about that I've left out and I'll happily post more.  :-)

The formal part of the conference concluded yesterday with a jaw-dropping, show-stopping fashion show featuring the reproduction costumes and accessories of the Colonial Williamsburg milliners and tailors.  Janea Whitacre, mistress of the trades of millinery and mantua-making at CW, narrated the development of the professions from the time of Elizabeth I to the invention of the sewing machine.  As she shared amusing period anecdotes and historical tidbits related to the evolution and eventual divergence of the trades, costumed "characters" walked the stage, sometimes pausing to recite a piece, act a dramatic scene, or even sing a song of fashion for the audience (yes, certain accessories deserve to be immortalized in song, and the calash is definitely one of them!).  The sheer number of gowns, cloaks, hats, mitts, caps, neckerchiefs, and shoes on display was incredible, each one more beautiful than the last.  Oh what a dream job those milliners have here!  If you'd like to see some photos from the fashion show, check out the facebook page of the Margaret Hunter Shop.

Reproduction unfinished child's stays.

PS: Just in case you're wondering where all the pretty pictures are here and on other blogs, photography during the conference is strictly on a private-for-personal-research-use-only policy, so to respect that, all of the photos in our conference posts are drawn from various other sites around Colonial Williamsburg, and not from the symposium itself.