Thursday, December 5, 2019

Living History (Theatre): I'm a costume director- what does that mean?

I'm including this in my 'Living History Theatre' series, but it could work for any living history group, whether or not you do first person.

Scene: Our living room, I believe on a Sunday

My fiance: "Want to go to dinner?"
Me, staring at computer "Yeah, sure"
My fiance, twenty minutes later "So, are we leaving?"
Me, still staring at computer "Oh yeah, um, just give me a minute....B-- is supposed to be posting some stuff in this sale group, and I want to be able to tag our ladies who need things before they sell."

My fiance, thirty minutes later *looks sad and hungry*
My, downloading Facebook on my phone "sorry, sorry! I'll just keep checking this in the car....."

Why was Brian being put through this cruel and inhuman denial of tacos? Well, not because I needed any new regency clothes (OK, I snagged a couple things for myself from the sale, but I didn't NEED them). See, I'm the Ladies Costuming Director for the First Person Interpreters at Historic Locust Grove. And I was waiting to pounce on any second hand garments or accessories which would meet our clothing guidelines, and connect them with the ladies in our group who are still building their 1816 wardrobe.

A lot of living history groups have specific guidelines for clothing for participants. I have been a part of several which do, and I wanted to give a breakdown for how this works in our program. Our group has set some high standards, because we are a living display in a twice-accredited museum. Our basic philosophy is that the clothing we are wearing needs as much time, research, and consideration as any other reproduction piece that would be placed in the house. I know that there is often a fear that having high standards will keep people out, that we are gatekeeping. But I argue that, done correctly,
this can be a supportive process that makes the process of getting started in living history a little less daunting and confusing. And I'm very pleased to say that a lot of the members of our cast did not come from the living history community. We were actually their entry into living history, not the other way around.

So, how does this work at Locust Grove?

First of all we have a handbook of clothing guidelines. This is a list of required and suggested pieces of clothing. These are broken down item by item, including recommended patterns and suppliers. The idea is to create a road-map for people entering the program.

Once a year I give a workshop on ladies clothing where we go through this list and look at primary sources, including portraits, extant garments, fashion plates, etc. This workshop is required for ladies in their first and second years with the program, and heavily encouraged for all others.

Lecturing on changes in ladies clothing during the late 18th and early 19th century at the 'Burrthday' event last February. Photo courtesy of Historic Locust Grove. 

All clothing has to be approved before it can be worn as part of our program. This includes the fabric, the research, and the finished product. The ladies email me, text me, etc when they find fabric, accessories, or anything else they want to buy.  Not only do we want to uphold the standards of the museum, but we don't want anyone spending money on the wrong thing. Many of us can tell you the story of all the things we regret spending money on when we first wandered into living history- our goal is to spare new recruits that remorse!

We also have a closet of loaner clothing for people in their first year. The more of this you can make available, of course the better. However keeping a full range of sizes in all garments is difficult to say the least.

We also schedule one or more sewing days each year- sometimes these are dedicated to a particular project like shifts or petticoats. Other times it's just a come one come all opportunity to bring your projects and get help, advice, or just camaraderie. This year we are working on spencers and pelisses.

I will often get together with ladies in the program to drape a pattern on them. There are finally some good patterns for the mid-to-late 18teens coming out (including some great ones from Fig Leaf Patterns) but till recently there just really haven't been great options. So a lot of our ladies have gotten custom draped garments. This has been a great opportunity for me to practice my draping skills on a lot of different bodies!

I keep in touch as they work on the project and consult along the way. I will also help make adjustments on mock-ups, to be sure that the maker has the perfect fit before cutting into that fashion fabric. A lot of our ladies have spent time standing around in their Federal undies in our living room.

One of our girls being very game for the camera

Then, once the garment is done, I will give it final approval, or ask for further alterations.

I also spend some time pouring through online forums looking for good deals on ladies clothing for our ladies, or for the program to buy for loaner gear. I have often fronted the money when I find a good deal I think will go quickly, then passed it on at cost to someone in the group. The biggest item is stays- they are the most important building block in a ladies wardrobe but the most intimidating to newer sewers. If I see a set for a good price, I pounce.

I should note that there's a certain degree of economic privilege at work here.  I've never exactly been wealthy, but I am at least at a point in my life where I can pick up a few yards of fabric or a used spencer, etc and wait for someone in the group or the site itself to reimburse me. A few years ago I would not have been able to do this. (Hell, the whole reason I learned to sew at 19 was because I was broke and wanted to do living history). It's worth noting that if you really want to make these things work as a group, or even as an individual,a certain fund or cushion of money makes it a lot easier. I'm not saying it can't all happen otherwise, but I'd be doing my past self a disservice not to recognize this.

If I see something posted for sale that doesn't look like it's going to sell immediately, like fabric or say one of these lovely bonnets, I will send it out to our email list.

Photo by Heather Rene, 2018. 
I may be biased, but I happen to think they look pretty great.

Now, you will notice what I DON'T do- I am NOT making everyone's clothes. Unless someone has specifically commissioned me to make a garment for them for money, I do not do the construction. I am happy to help people fit as many mock-ups as they need, but then they have to go do the construction. I hope that through this process they are gaining skills and confidence to do this on their own! While our primary goal is to put on programming at Locust Grove, on a wider basis I am very pleased to say we have brought people into the wider living history community. You know, that hobby that so many people want to tell you is 'dying' ;-)

If you are interested in reading further....

Here is a post on one of Fig Leaf Patterns 18teens patterns

Here is a more in depth post on creating dresses for one  of our younger characters

Here is a post on creating clothing for another one of our ladies

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Nice Day in the Kitchen- Apple Pie and Macaroni(and cheese)

I got to go cook for a field trip at Locust Grove last week. I haven't gotten to do this in awhile, and it was a lot of fun. It was actually a homeschool group, and they nicely divided the kids up into three groups by age. It was especially nice to get to talk to three different age levels in one day, but not all at once. The smallest ones are usually at the level of 'yes, you can make food with fire, wow!', the second group was about the right age to learn what we mean by primary sources, and the older ones, who were about 11-13, were able to understand a bit better when I talked about how this work was done by slaves at the Croghan farm. 

A Buttered Apple Pie - Amelia Simmons, 1796
Pare, quarter and core tart apples, lay in paste..cover with the same; bake half an hour, when drawn, gently raise the top crust, add sugar butter, cinnamon, mace, wine or rose-water

It's times like this I really wish Locust Grove had a bake oven, since this wasn't the easiest thing to handle in a dutch oven. Getting it out without burning your fingers isn't the best thing ever, and I managed to mess up the crust a little between that and rising it up to add the rose water. But, no matter, it was very well received! I absolutely love rose water as a flavoring, and this reminded me why. 

Macaroni - The Virginia Housewife, 1824
Boil as much macaroni as will fill your dish, in milk and water, till quite tender; drain it on a sieve,  sprinkle a little salt over it, put a layer in your dish, then cheese and butter ....put the dish in a quick over, twenty or thirty minutes will bake it. 

This has become another of my go-tos. It's easy, it's vegetarian, it is absolutely delicious, AND it really gets peoples attention. I actually brought this one in to one of my classes where I teach last semester and the students really enjoyed it. 

I was quite pleased with how it came out this time- when it looked almost ready I put a few more coals on top of the dutch oven and just left it 3-4 minutes longer to get some nice browning on the top. I was very careful not to wait too long so it wouldn't get burnt, and it came out just right. It was a big hit with the other volunteers and my kitchen helpers.

This was election day in Kentucky, which meant that the public schools were closed to serve as polling places (for a state with notoriously low voter turnout, we actually do a decent job of marking the day). There were two neighborhood children playing on the grounds who were just awesome. They kept coming into the kitchen to see what was going on, and eventually became my helpers. Normally I don't feed the public at these things, but one of them has a dad on the board, so I said they could have pie if they got permission.

It was delightful seeing them pop back up all sweaty and breathy, because they had obviously run home and then run all the way back after having asked mom (the one boy lives next to the Grove, so they weren't dodging traffic or anything). It was just really nice to see kids outside, playing, having adventures. And they even walked away with a taste for rosewater in pie :-) 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Living History Theatre: Rehearsal Techniques

We had a really good rehearsal for the Locust Grove First Person Interpreters on Saturday. Everyone seemed to leave with a greater degree of confidence, so I thought I would talk a little bit about what we did. I've talked a bit about some of these things in some earlier blogs, but this should be a little more in depth of an idea of how this plays out in a rehearsal.

The Gwathmeys practice introducing themselves.
Photo courtesy of Fox & Rose Photography

Asking leading questions, giving each other an 'in'. 
When you are doing first person, you usually have topics you have researched really well and want to talk about. But sometimes it might feel awkward to launch into a monologue out of nowhere. Conversely, you probably have questions you are really hoping you won't get, because you haven't been able to research that yet, or you have researched it and cannot find an answer.

We went around our circle and talked about things we want to talk about. Then we ran several scenes were people would practice asking each other leading questions in character to bring out that information.

"I understand you have a new grandbaby!" "Oh, yes, I'm making her some new clothes right now, I am so excited! She has the biggest blue eyes..."etc

Sharron with her letter in rehearsal.
Photo courtesy of Fox & Rose Photography.

 "How is your son? I know he has been traveling"

"Oh, it is so kind of you to ask, I have actually just had a letter from him! Now see here what he has written...."

Mrs. Fitzhugh reads the letter from her son to guests. 
Photo Courtesy of Historic Locust Grove 

"Tell me again about the war papa. Were you really at Yorktown?" 
"Oh, no, I didn't make it to Yorktown, they thought I had done enough by then. But let me tell you about Brandywine, child..."

Audience focus 
What we are doing is part of a museum program, and our primary focus is interacting with the museum guests. From that perspective, it's not enough for us to be comfortable talking to each other in character, we have to  be sure that we are including our guests. So we also practiced running scenes like the one above, where someone else would come in as a guest. We practiced including them in the conversation.

"oh, pardon my manners, madam, here we are going on, let me introduce myself, Colonel Richard Taylor, and this is my lovely daughter Miss Emily Taylor." 

"Where are my manners? Please, allow me to introduce my friends"
Photo courtesy of Historic Locust Grove

"I was just asking papa about his time in the Revolution. Do you know he served with George Washington? Please tell us all about it, Papa."

What you are really doing here is involving your guests in an improv scene. By acknowledging their presence and introducing yourself, you send the signal that they are allowed to talk to you and ask you questions.

It's ok to say 'I don't know'
There are so many things we dont' know about the world we live in, and people living in 1816 didn't know every detail about their world either. When someone asks you a question in character you don't know the answer to, don't let it break you! It is absolutely fine to just not know it in character.

We portray the year 1816. Some of the people we portray were active in the Revolutionary war, others stayed home. Some weren't even alive. When someone asks Ann Croghan detailed questions about the War she says "oh, I don't know, I wasn't alive then! But you should go and ask my father, he was in the War." The man playing her father has spent a lot of time researching William Croghan's involvement in the war and is ready to talk about this.

Comfort and cohesion 
All of this rehearsing allows our cast members to work on their confidence and their comfort with each other. If  you have tried and stumbled in rehearsal, that's fine! The public wasn't there, we all just laugh and move on. That doesn't happen overnight, but we have worked really hard to be sure that our rehearsals are a friendly, safe space where people feel comfortable pushing themselves out of their comfort zones and laughing it out with their friends.

Photo courtesy of Fox & Rose Photography

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

New Regency Ballgown

I made this ballgown for the Locust Grove Ball in February. 

Photo credit Historic Locust Grove 

This was mostly based on this example, sketched out in Costume in Detail 

I actually fished the fabric out of my stash (yay, destashing!). This was a cotton sari I had bought from Regency Revisited eons ago, and totally forgotten about! I really need to go through my fabric tubs more, you find the greatest things!

Costume in Detail pages 103-104

The first part of this project involved my amazing fiance helping me make a duct tape dress form. I didn't actually take pictures of this, because I honestly was too afraid it wouldn't work out. In the end, it *mostly* did, and it has been invaluable! Also the whole affair was pretty fun, though I don't know what anyone walking by our dining room windows thought! (Fun fact we live next to a funeral home...) 

We fit the duct-tape form with my regency stays on, so I could drape on the right bustline. I stuffed the inside with pollyfill and plastic trash bags. Having this made a HUGE difference! I was able to drape a mock-up over the perfect bustline (though I have no photos for the same reason). 

When I tried on the mock-up, there did seem to be some distortion around the armsceye. However I was able to solve it pretty easily by just slashing it and redrawing the curve. 

A lot of this project was just taking the time to set the the gathers how I wanted them. It was time consuming, but it was a fun and satisfying process.  I gathered the front and back onto a piece of tape right under the bustline to provide stability. 

I cannot TELL you how much I agonized over the direction the peacocks were going here. Ultimately I decided it was fine, but Brian was pretty entertained to hear my muttering that the 'the damn turkeys are going the wrong way!"

Once the bodice was done, I just had to place the skirt, which was pretty easy.

I tried to keep the front smooth, but keep pleats on the back and sides. The original  had them mostly towards the back, but I like to add some on the sides as well so everything flows well over my hips. 

After I had pinned everything in place, I topstitched it. I was able to mostly hide the stitching, but there is also a line of stitching showing on the sketch in CID, do don't worry too much about. Topstitching is totally period. 


You can kind of see the stitching for the drawstring channel under the bust, but from the sketch in CID it looks like it is like that on the original. 

I ran into some issues because the ribbon I used for the drawstring was not long enough, and ended up popping back into the channel as I put the dress on. I was able to fish it out, but I really should have known  better. 

I finished this dress about an hour before I left for the ball, so I pretty much realized there would be some issues putting it on the first time and went in prepared. Luckily my friend Tom Tumbusch was there to help me get dressed, and he is AWESOME.

One other thing I realized far too late in this process was that I should have traced a line showing where my stays sit on the dressform. As it was I may have made the dip in the back a *little* too low. Luckily  Tom was able to help tuck everything down and pin it in place. I think I can alter it pretty easily before I wear it again, but I also need to just trace the darn stay lines on this thing.

Making a duct tape bodice over your stays is great, BUT
  • You will still need to do a mock-up!
  • Draw a line showing where your stays are on the the dressform.
  • Longer drawstrings are better than not long enough! 

With the ladies of the Indiana Historical Costuming Society. This was a really fun night.
Photo credit Historic Locust Grove.