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