Dressing the Past: Costuming Challenges at Ferry Farm & Kenmore

Twelfth Night 2016 19

The cast of Twelfth Night at Kenmore in their period clothing. In our educational programming, we must dress staff and actors of different body types who portray a variety of social classes and time periods.

We have been working tirelessly to improve the accuracy of the costumes that actors and staff wear when performing for or interacting with the public at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm. This is no easy task, but it improves the visitor experience and helps them better understand the Washington and the Lewis families in the context of the 18th century.

This blog post addresses some of the challenges and successes we’ll continue to experience as we expand our costuming after the reconstructed Washington house and the new historic landscape at Ferry Farm opens to the public.

Some of the challenges we face are no different than what other sites face. The modern expense of this specialized clothing, the difficulty of fitting multiple wearers, questions of time period to portray and achieving the small true-to-life details of historic clothing are all important to the success of dressing the interpretive staff. But we’ve come a long way and are on the path to sustained success.  We’ve been working on all of the pitfalls mentioned above and have made great headway. Below is an examination of some of the difficulties we’ve faced and the ways we have met them straight on.

Expense of this Historic Clothing

Cloak

Cloaks are necessary to keep actors and staff warm but they are among the more expensive pieces of clothing needed to properly dress as someone from the 18th century.

The cost of well-made, accurate period clothing is one of the greatest hurdles we’ve or, for that matter, any historic site or museum experiences. Eighteenth century clothing is a highly specialized type of clothing that is often imitated with mixed success. For example, a good quality off-the-rack great coat costs about $325, while a custom-made high-end 18th century men’s great coat costs about $1,000. There were pieces in our costume stock that did not fit our criteria and had to be removed – meaning they had to be replaced with new (and more expensive) articles of clothing. Correcting past clothing choices is its own challenge, but it is far from insurmountable. We make very careful decisions about what was a priority and where we should spend resources first and we have begun acquiring garments that we deem priorities.

One-Size-Fits-No One

Because of the number of people we costume, we sometimes have to use the same costumes on different people (not at the same time, of course!). This is a challenge because both men’s and women’s 18th century clothing was fitted to the individual. A tailor would custom-make waistcoats, coats, and breeches to fit the wearer; even when the ensemble was fashioned out of a hand-me-down suit.  Mantua makers (dress makers) would custom-make women’s gowns and petticoats to fit snugly. We must make our clothing fit a variety of wearers.  We are now quite proficient in the art of pinning and mysteries of knot tying. It’s not perfect, but it goes a long way toward creating a more accurate fit.

Another important part of fit for women is the undergarments. Stays, bum rolls, and hoops create the ideal 18th century shape. Stays were 18th century support garments, much the way corsets were in the 19th century. We recently made acquiring stays a priority and purchased some in a variety of sizes.  This has improved the actor’s appearance in addition to helping her achieve the proper 18th century posture.  Bum rolls accentuate the behind (no, really!) and hoops accentuate the hips.  These help create a period appropriate look that we are now pleased to share with visitors.

The True-to-Life Details

Costume details

Small details like the fan, necklace, brooch, and hair style create a fully realized character with a stronger connection to the past.

Just as it is today, the small details make the 18th century outfit. Attention to men’s and women’s shoe buckles and hats, men’s knee buckles, and women’s jewelry and stays polishes the look that makes history come alive. Our men’s and women’s hats are correct to the period and we have a nice but limited collection of accouterments.  Because 18th-century-style shoes are expensive and we can’t exactly buy a pair of shoes in every size, we have been using buckles on plain black shoes to disguise their modernity. As we move forward, we are working on better solutions to best achieve the small details needed to make a costume fully 18th century.

1750s vs. 1770s

Another challenge we face as the Washington house and Ferry Farm’s new historic landscape gradually come on-line is that we’ll have to costume staff for both the 1750s – the period we interpret at Ferry Farm – and the 1770s – the period we interpret at Kenmore.  This is important for a number of reasons. First, we want to demonstrate clearly that the events that took place at the two sites took place in two different time periods. This sounds obvious, but visitors will better internalize the time difference between the sites with the aid of clothing. Secondly, it would be flat-out wrong to dress the staff portraying our historic figures at both places in clothing from the same period. As a museum, we have a responsibility to make the visitor experience as accurate as possible.

Despite the challenges, our devotion to accuracy in the period clothing worn by our staff will improve the visitors’ experience and help them better understand the Washington and Lewis Families.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

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