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

Photos: “Much Ado About Nothing” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn

Shakespeare on the Lawn at Historic Kenmore returns this coming weekend with two more performances of Much Ado About Nothing.  Catch one of the final shows at 7:00 p.m. either on Saturday, June 17 or on Sunday, June 18.  Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket and a picnic. Thank you to sponsor Lewis Insurance Associates. More event details are here. In the meantime, enjoy these scenes from last weekend’s performances!

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2017

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2017 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place this past weekend. Here are a few photos from that performance.

Henry Mitchell, A Loyalist’s Sacrifice

Editor’s Note: This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Historic Kenmore presents its annual production of Twelfth Night at Kenmore (click for event details). This dramatic theatre presentation imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends. Among these friends is Henry Mitchell, whose support for the American cause is being questioned by his neighbors and by Henry himself. Mitchell is a new character for this year’s Twelfth Night but was also a real merchant living in Fredericksburg in the 1700s. To create this character, we researched the real Henry Mitchell. This blog post shares the fascinating story we discovered. 

When we look back over two centuries, victory in the American War of Independence seems inevitable.  Similarly, we often think that all of our ancestors chose the ‘right’ side and supported independence during the Revolution.  Things were far more complex, of course.  A sizable portion of the population — two historians say about 20% — living in British North America opposed revolution and fought against independence.

benjamin-franklins-join-or-die

This political cartoon from the a 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette and believed to have been created by Benjamin Franklin originally appeared during the French and Indian War but was used again during the American Revolution to encourage the colonies to unite against British rule. Credit: Library of Congress

One such individual in Fredericksburg, Virginia was Henry Mitchell, a merchant born in Scotland who came to America, lived in Fredericksburg for nearly two decades, and worked as the Virginia-based factor (representative) for a trading house in Glasgow.[1]

Henry Mitchell participated in the community and, in the early days of tensions between the colonies and the mother country, took part in the anti-British non-importation movement known as the Virginia Association.  Indeed, Mitchell was named an Associator on October 23, 1770, the same day Fielding Lewis was placed on the committee as noted in the Virginia Gazette.  The Associators made sure the local populace did not purchase boycotted goods. The Association lasted a short-while before collapsing in 1771.[2]

Along with this political activity, Mitchell frequented George Weedon’s tavern and, on December 27, 1773, attended “dinner and club” with Fielding Lewis and several other Fredericksburg luminaries before Masonic services.[3]

Then, a strange incident took place in early 1775.  In nearby Orange County, as reported in the Virginia Gazette, Rev. John Wingate was brought before the local patriot committee to answer for allegedly possessing “pamphlets containing very obnoxious reflections on the Continental Congress and their proceedings.”  He was ordered to produce the pamphlets. Wingate refused, saying “that they belonged to Mr. Henry Mitchell of Fredericksburg” and that he could not show them to the committee without Mitchell’s “express permission.”  The committee tried to persuade Wingate that since Mitchell “was well known to be an associator, and acknowledged by himself to be a hearty friend to the cause” that he would not mind if they looked at the pamphlets.  Then, they noted ominously that “if Mr. Mitchell was not this hearty friend we hoped him to be,” then the committee would demand Mitchell himself come before them and show them the pamphlets.  Wingate finally relented and no further discussion of Mitchell was recorded.

This incident raises all sorts of questions.  Did the pamphlets really belong to Henry Mitchell? Was Wingate telling the truth or attempting to smear Mitchell for some reason? Was Mitchell undergoing some kind of change that had caused or was causing him to shift from supporting the anti-British Virginia Association to embracing loyalism?  Were his earlier patriot leanings an act? If so, to what purpose?  If you’re not careful, you can succumb to all sorts of wild speculation!

Mitchell continued his trade in Fredericksburg throughout 1775. Then, at the end of the year, he placed an ad in the December 8 edition of the Virginia Gazette announcing he would be leaving the colony in the spring and that he wished to settle his accounts before departing. Although loyalists often made their intentions to leave known in this way, Mitchell specifically noted his plans to return.

In July 1776, merchants in Fredericksburg suspected of loyalism were brought before the local committee and direct to either take a loyalty oath as required by the most recent Virginia Convention or, if they would not do so, to give up their arms. Henry Mitchell was among this group of, as the Virginia Gazette put it, “Sundry persons, supposed to be inimical to America” and refused to take the oath.  Having refused to swear allegiance to the American cause, he and other loyalists they were ordered to be sent the governor so they could be expelled from Virginia.[4]

king-george-iii-of-england-by-johann-zoffany-1771

Portrait of George III of the United Kingdom (1771) by Johann Zoffany. Credit: Wikipedia/The Royal Collection.

This expulsion did not happen immediately, however. Mitchell finally placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette on February 21, 1777 announcing his intention “to leave this Country” permanently and notifying those to whom he owed debts and vice versa to settle them up.  He also advertised his houses in Fredericksburg as available for sale or rent.

mobbing-the-tories-from-charles-and-mary-beards-history-of-the-united-states

“Mobbing the Tories” illustration in History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, New York: McMillan, 1921

Why did Henry Mitchell and vast numbers of colonists choose to remain loyal to the crown instead of supporting independence?  The answer to that question really comes down to each individual loyalist whose motivations were often very personal and unique.  Unfortunately, we do not know Mitchell’s particular reasons.  People who found themselves held under suspicion by their patriot neighbors were often pushed to loyalism by the fear of mob rule or anarchy.  The patriots’ use of loyalty oaths may have actually created many loyalists.  People resented being forced to choose sides.  Meanwhile, merchants and others whose livelihood depended on trade with Britain and the rest of the empire sometimes choose empire over independence for simple but powerful economic motivations.[5]

In 1777, Mitchell finally left Fredericksburg for H.M.S. Phoenix and went to New York, where he lived until 1781 and continued his trading activities.  He then sailed to Scotland in 1781 and found his “partners had misapplied remittances” sent from Virginia.  He was left bankrupt and dependent on relatives.[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] “Mitchell, Henry,” American Loyalist Claims, Washington, DC: National Genealogical Society, 1980, 351; Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998, 238n.

[2] Felder, 193.

[3] Felder, 180.

[4] Felder, 231, 238.

[5] Shannon Duffy, Ph.D., “Loyalists,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/loyalists/ [accessed December 14, 2016].

[6] American Loyalist Claims, 351; Felder, 240n.

Photos: Last Year’s “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

On Friday, January 6, Saturday, January 7, and Sunday, January 8, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in January 1776. It is the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual celebration, however. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.  Immerse yourself in the experience the candlelight, music, and decorations of an eighteenth-century Christmas!

Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 5:15 p.m., and 6:00 p.m.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org
Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; free ages 3 and under.

Here is a collection of photos from the last performance way back in January.

Photos: “The Taming of the Shrew” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare by Candlelight

Taming of the Shrew (1)

This past weekend was Shakespeare by Candlelight at Historic Kenmore!  William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was presented in eighteenth-century style on the Lawn at Kenmore on Friday and Saturday nights and, because of a thunderstorm, indoors on Sunday night.  Enjoy this collection of photographs from the Saturday and Sunday performances.  Learn more about The Taming of the Shrew’s history here.

Shakespeare’s Comedies in Colonial America

Washington Allston, American - Scene from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (Katharina_and_Petruchio)

Scene from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” or “Katharina and Petruchio” (1809) by Washington Allston. Public domain. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art/Wikipedia.

When we look at the history of Shakespeare in America the preference for his classic tragedies is obvious. Romeo and Juliet and Richard III are two of the three most-performed plays of the 18th century (George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem rounded out this top three). While this ranking is based on surviving records of theatrical productions and therefore incomplete, it is still quite apparent that the Bard was unmistakably popular.

Of those oft performed favorites, tragedy wins out. Of the 13 different Shakespeare plays performed in Colonial America, the only comedy was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why? Was it the general sentiments of an American audience? Was it a larger issue of theatrical expectations? Why didn’t American audiences watch Shakespeare’s comedies?

It is not because the people didn’t want comedies. Just like today, people liked to be entertained and for everyone who loves a heart breaking tragedy, there is someone who would prefer a light-hearted comedy. Comedies were actually wildly popular in colonial America, even beating out many tragedies in popularity! The aforementioned The Beaux Stratagem was one such comedy, as was John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provoked Husband and David Garrick’s The Lying Valet, which were also reportedly performed with regularity.

In colonies opposed to theatre based on moral grounds (think New England), a belief in the inherent sinfulness of plays and entertainment meant that, if theatre was to make its way into these colonies, it should certainly avoid comedies as they were usually rife with scheming rakes (The Beaux Stratagem), irascible wives (The Provoked Husband), and lying servants (The Lying Valet).

Tragedies, however, could be held up as moral lessons. One such play that was extremely popular in the colonies (even though it had fallen out of favor in London) was The London Merchant or The History of George Barnwell. It was a contemporary tragedy that told of a young man whose life had promise and success until he met a conniving woman who tempted him to steal, lie, and cheat for her love. He succumbed to those sins and they ultimately led to his untimely death.

The American Company of Comedians tried to break into the New England market with Othello, but instead of advertising it as a play they described it as  “Moral Dialogues… in Five parts, Depicting the Evil Effects of Jealousy and other Bad Passions, and Proving that Happiness can only Spring from the Pursuit of Virtue.”

Such moral apprehension about theatre was nearly non-existent in Virginia.  Why do we not see more of Shakespeare’s comedies in Virginia? The lack of comedy performances was also due to the theatrical expectations of the time. Theatre-goers knew that their evening at the playhouse would consist of two plays: a mainpiece and an afterpiece.

The mainpiece was the first play of the evening. It was longer and typically a tragedy or ballad opera (the musicals of the day). While it wasn’t impossible to see a comedy first, mainpiece was traditionally the more serious portion of the evening.

The afterpiece was always much shorter and typically a light-hearted comedy, farce, or romance. This division of the evening into mainpiece and afterpiece meant that there just wasn’t any real place for Shakespeare’s comedies. They were either too light-hearted to be a mainpiece or too long to be an afterpiece.

Shakespeare’s plays, however, did what they always do: they got with the times. Eventually, the Bard’s comedies transformed into shorter afterpieces and one of the most popular comedic afterpieces performed in the colonies was Catherine and Petruchio, essentially a shortened version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It maintains most of the confrontations between the titular characters and their epic battle of the sexes, a theme popular in many contemporary farces.

First Quarto title page of The Taming of the Shrew

The title page from the first quarto, printed in 1631 Quarto of A wittie and pleasant comedie called The Taming of the Shrew. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library/Wikipedia.

Despite American audiences’ preference for the tragic tales of William Shakespeare, his comedies were not lost, only transformed. Indeed, the Bard flourished on early American soil.

Joe Ziarko
Guest Contributor

Enjoy an evening of history and entertainment under the stars on the Lawn at Kenmore with a performance by candlelight of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, staged in an eighteenth-century style om August 12, 13, & 14 starting at 8:00 p.m.

Taming of the Shrew was presented in colonial Virginia, and the prologue of the play includes an introduction to theatre in the American colonies, before the Revolutionary War.

$15 adults; $7.50 students
For more information contact Vickie Hayes at 540-370-0732 or hayes@gwffoundation.org.
Candlelight tours of Kenmore offered from 6:45 p.m. – 7:45 p.m.
Performance on the Lawn at Kenmore—please bring a folding chair(s).