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Author Topic: Building a Costume Closet for a Pioneer Site  (Read 6194 times)
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Miss Whitlock
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« on: July 16, 2015, 08:49:53 PM »

Hi all,

I am a seamstress who is in charge of a historical site's wardrobes, and I would like advice on how to deal with costuming the masses, so to speak.

A little background:
The site I am working for is Philip Foster Farm, on the Barlow Road. Philip ran a store and farm here (he was Sam Barlow's not-nearly-as-famous partner in the road, who lived there and managed things) from the 1840s to the 1880s. I try to costume between 1850 and 1865, since that seems like a well researched section of time.

A large part of our site is having costumed volunteers that give tours and give hands-on experiences of pioneer life. We have dozens of these volunteers, and most of them are between 8 and 16 years old. We also have staff (costumed) to manage the farm and direct volunteers.

I am trying to find an authentic looking way to costume these kids and adults. The barriers I am hitting are:
1)Reluctance of volunteers to wear what we have (ugly fabrics, uncomfortable design, and the "that is not what I would call pretty" factor)
2)The limited amount of time and labor that can go into this (although many of our volunteers help repeatedly, making custom costumes for each is not practical)
3)The variety of sizes needed (an 8 y.o. girl needs a different dress, and apron, and petticoats from the 10 y.o.)

I think that will do for a start. Do you have recommendations for how to get authentic-looking dresses that can be flexible enough to fit different people?

Thanks ever so much for any and all help you can give. Sorry if I come across too vague; it is sort of an overwhelming issue. Smiley
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BetsyConnolly
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« Reply #1 on: July 16, 2015, 10:10:00 PM »

I think you will find that you are not the only person with this particular set of issues! If you search around on the forums, you will find thoughts from lots of folks who work at historic sites and must deal with factors like tight budgets, time constraints, the tastes (or lack thereof) in their volunteers, and so on.

Here are some of my thoughts regarding your barriers:

Regarding "Ugly" dresses/fabrics: Until one develops one's eye regarding period fabrics, shapes, and styles, the most authentic dresses can look the "ugliest". The mid-19th century aesthetic is different from today. What about hosting learning opportunities for volunteers to help develop their eye for the period look. Convert them, as it were Smiley

Regarding adjustable clothing for children: The Original Cast had a similar issue - how to get the most life out of one garment, that could be used for more than the scant amount of time a growing child requires to outgrow it, or for more than one child. I highly recommend you check out Liz's patterns for children and infant clothing - not only are the patterns great, but the wealth of information in the instructions is worth the price. Most children's clothing can be made highly adjustable, with drawstrings in neckbands and waistbands and looser/more forgiving styles. A pinafore or an apron can hide a multitude of sins.

Regarding adjustable clothing for adults: There are threads hanging about discussing how to make adjustable dresses. Liz's blog article about the same thing is here: http://www.thesewingacademy.com/2012/05/great-expectations/ This is commonly used to make dresses that will fit expecting mothers, but it needn't be a maternity style; it can be a great way to make a dress fit for more than one body.
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Betsy Connolly
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MaryDee
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« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2015, 04:37:19 PM »

There have been a number of threads, especially from EKorsmo, about sewing dresses for Fort Nisqually volunteers (girls and children, using Elizabeth's patterns).  Also, Paula has been sewing like mad for a group of teenagers who will be doing a handcart expedition on the Oregon Trail next month.  You might want to check out their recent posts.  Hopefully they will be able to give you some ideas. 

Not all "period" fabrics are ugly; study them a bit and you'll find a lot of really pretty ones by 21st century standards.  I've found that some of those colors and patterns really tend to "grow" on me, although some are hard to find even in "reproduction" fabrics, probably because those dyes are no longer in use.   When you look at modern photos of original dresses, remember that in a lot of them the dyes have changed over 150-160 years, turning a sort of nondescript brown.  You can tell the original color only by peeking inside the seam allowances.   As Betsey says, you have an opportunity for some education here!  I recommend Eileen Trestain's Dating Fabrics

I hadn't heard of your site and would love to come visit some time! 
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EKorsmo
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« Reply #3 on: July 17, 2015, 11:58:59 PM »

Hang in there, Miss Whitlock!

I'd like to second Betsy's and Mary's suggestions.  Multiple set of button-holes or hooks, drawstrings (where appropriate), and tucks can really help stretch the size of different garments; aprons and pinafores are a godsend.  For large groups of young volunteers, I can't recommend Liz's pattern enough--there are enough style variations to make every dress look unique and avoid having "cookie-cutter" effects.

Out of curiosity, how often do you check in/out your costumes?  Are garments worn for a year by a given volunteer, or are they expected to fit a new person every other week?

In regards point 1, you could try sharing favorite period images with your volunteers to get them excited about appropriate styles/color combinations/prints and start subtly training their eyes.  It won't work on everyone, but once you convert a few, it'll get easier.  It seems like getting a few really well-dressed individual running around makes everyone else more enthusiastic about dressing better.  A few eye-trained volunteers who like to scour thrift stores can also help stretch the fabric budget.

"Uncomfortable" is concerning: is this more a matter of perception ("I think corsets are uncomfortable and refuse to even try one on"), different expectations for period vs. modern dress ("I don't want to wear all these layers in the summer"), or are there fitting/construction issues to be addressed?  Demonstrating period solutions to discomfort can win people over.  From personal experience, a light sheer or shirting-weight cotton dress is quite comfortable to wear in the summer heat, and often surprises people expecting heavy garments made from synthetic fabric.  Likewise, getting appropriate-length skirts on young girls can help with comfort and tripping problems.

Most of all, remember to catch your flies with honey.  And keep asking questions.
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Paula
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« Reply #4 on: July 18, 2015, 07:19:02 AM »

Does your site have a budget for upgrades or additions? I have a ton of resources proposals and ideas from when I was trying to get EOT off and running.  I'm out of town right now but when I get back let's get together and see if I can help.
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Heidi Hollister
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« Reply #5 on: July 19, 2015, 09:55:46 AM »

One idea is to make wrappers that look un-wrapperly.  I know Paula and Micaila have both done these very successfully.  They will accommodate various sizes and can still look period.

Children's clothing can have tucks added, extra waistband width modified by moving a button, drawstring necklines and waists are options for the younger ones.  At End of the Oregon Trail we tried to start migrating the inaccurate things to the visitor dress up box, modifying them if we could to a more correct shape, and updating the volunteer wardrobe to better accuracy.  When I was interpreting there, we started off with just the sack dress stereotypical and wildly inaccurate "prairie dress."  The other interpreters there were not concerned about accuracy and didn't see the need for a change.  It can be difficult to change that mentality, but not impossible.  We started by replacing the undergarments to more accurate things.  Rayon elastic waist petticoats updated to cotton ones with proper waistbands.  The plan was to slowly replace the questionable items with better ones.  Tucks in the petticoats ensured they could be let out for taller interpreters and taken up for shorter ones.  (we had one who was 4' 10")  We then tried to remove the worst offenders in the wardrobe, relegating them to visitor dress up.  The next step was to move toward proper outer garments.  I've seen what you have at Phillip Foster Farm and you seem far ahead of EOT in your starting point. 

Fort Nisqually posts illustrations of what various interpretations should dress like.  That helps people know the look they're trying to go for.  Surrounding them with what the RIGHT look is, does help move their minds toward a more period mindset.

If you can, visit Fort Vancouver and speak with Eileen Trestain.  They have an extensive wardrobe and a system in place that can help give you ideas.  Of course Phillip Foster Farm doesn't have those kind of resources or volunteer base, but they've got some great ideas which may help give you direction.   When I was helping get EOT going again, we also got ideas from Gennesse County Museum too that might give you some guidance.

As Paula said, she's got a lot of resources.  So does Micaila.  They are both WONDERFUL people who did a lot to help End of the Oregon Trail move beyond the sack dresses and elastic wasted petticoats to something much better.  I unfortunately never got the privilege to see what they have moved toward, but I know with Paula and Micaila at the helm, they were going in a very good direction.

I know how overwhelmed you feel.  I was in exactly your shoes 7 years ago.  It's tough, but if you can get one or two people who share your vision, it will make your job SO much the easier.  EOT would not be where it is today if I had to do it on my own, but Paula and Micaila came to help and I'm sure they've taken it to a higher level after my departure.  Talk to them, they know the journey well.
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Maggie Koenig
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« Reply #6 on: July 19, 2015, 06:43:26 PM »

Another thing to do is encourage volunteers to make or acquire their own clothing.  Provide them with a list of approved vendors, pattern makers, fabric sources.  Then, work on educating them before they go shopping and perhaps even make it a requirement to get approval before fabrics are purchased. 
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Maggie Koenig
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Ms. Jean
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« Reply #7 on: July 20, 2015, 03:32:45 AM »


Aprons, sontags, and neckerchiefs are appropriate to the period and can go a long way to improve the overall look of a dress...pinafores for girls, and sun bonnets for all!
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Ms. Jean
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Miss Whitlock
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« Reply #8 on: July 20, 2015, 04:12:42 PM »

Thank you for all the wonderful advice and guidance!

The nature of our closets, EKorsmo, is that we actually have three different closets. We have a "New Volunteer" closet, a "Camp/Assignables" closet, and and "Reproductions" closet.

  • The outfits in the New Volunteer closet need to be super flexible, and cover everything in the spectrum of the human form. So far they have been those nightgown-type dresses, with aprons, but I am trying to move more towards wrappers there. That is a sticky point, since the little girls things in
  • The Camp/Assignables, I am happy to say, consists of authentic dresses and petticoats, but the dresses have no give in the neckline and waist size at this point. After a volunteer has worked 20 hours or so, and intends to continue working, we assign one of these outfits, for however long the outfit fits and the volunteer works here. We also have a school that runs on the site, and I assign those kids outfits from this closet. We also use it for our day camps. I am trying to make this closet more flexible in sizing, since it needs to accommodate up to 20 girls during the camps, but it does not have to cover every possibility, since I usually have time to sew custom garments if required.
  • Our Reproductions closet is self explanatory, and it only comes out during events.
Paula: we do have a budget for expansions and upgrades, although they have not given me a limit yet. All I know is that there is money.  Tongue I would be so very glad to meet up with you!

Heidi, MaryDee, BetsyConnolly: *writes reams of notes*  Cheesy Thank you!

MaryDee:
Quote
I hadn't heard of your site and would love to come visit some time!
  Cheesy http://philipfosterfarm.com/

I am very excited to utilize the resources that you all have recommended!

The idea to "convert" volunteers to accuracy and authenticity  is great! I can start hunting up attractive CDVs etc. right off the bat!

I will certainly continue to scour the forum for other threads on this topic.

More questions:
  • Can little girls wear sontags?
  • How are pinafores different than aprons, and who would wear them?
  • How does one insert a drawstring in the waist of a child's dress (which presumably has a waistband)?
  • Do you have recommendations for setting standards (a.k.a. "no makeup", "no earrings", "bonnets must stay on outside" etc.)?
  • For girls' dresses (under 16) should I try to represent most with wide necklines? I ask because we do not generally provide chemises, and instead have them wear their t-shirts underneath.
  • Do you have recommendations for the great "I don't like my sunbonnet (it's  uncomfy, I can't see)" issue?
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Maggie Koenig
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« Reply #9 on: July 20, 2015, 07:05:37 PM »

Clothing standard changes need to come through whomever is in charge of the site or the official person in charge of signing off on volunteers.  I handle the clothing at my site but without the backup of my director is simply a "could you please".  In the long run the director and I have decided to go with a small changes over time approach.  So, start with the lets not wear obvious makeup and work on what jewelry we wear.  Eventually, you will get to the point where you have the standards and the willingness in place to go for the big stuff.  Start off with goals for each week, month or season and work with people until they get used to the new standards.

As for bonnets, if they don't like the slat bonnet look look at other options like corded bonnets or capleline bonnets.

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Maggie Koenig
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Heidi Hollister
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« Reply #10 on: July 20, 2015, 09:32:42 PM »

Yes, little girls can wear sontags and fichus.

Pinafores are predominately for little girls and go over the shoulders like a bib.  This is one I made from Liz's pattern.  They can be fancy or plain, belted at the waist or hang straight out from the shoulders.

Aprons can be both for little girls/boys or adults.  The adult versions are often just half aprons that fall from the waist but can also include pinner aprons.

Dress standards are something that can be put in the policies for the site.  Micaila or Paula may have the ones from EOT, but if they don't for any reason, I still do.  We started off with no nail polish, hoop earrings only, no watches, and no eyeshadow and you were required to wear a petticoat (we had pictures in our office of why this was policy.)   It got more detailed the longer I was there and Micaila and Paula were heavily involved in that process.  Like Maggie said, start off with the glaringly obvious stuff and work toward more refined requirements.  It can be hard when there is already a base that has momentum in the wrong direction, but it's not impossible.

Wide necklines do indicate childhood and youth.  They aren't required, but they are cooler.  Children's wear seems to have a hodge podge mix and match elements of wide necklines, shorter skirts, short sleeves, and back fastenings.  There doesn't seem to be any absolute requirement for any of them, (though the back fastenings are very predominate, but not quite exclusive) Mix and match at will.

As far as putting a drawstring into a waistband, you can make two buttonholed slits, slide a cord through the slits on either side of the waistband and adjust as necessary.  Slits top and bottom make for a very nice finish, though only one is absolutely necessary.  I'm trying to find pictures but don't see them straight off.

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Miss Whitlock
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« Reply #11 on: July 25, 2015, 10:54:20 AM »

Thanks very much! The standards will be the hardest part to implement, but thankfully I do have the full support of the lady in charge and the board.

Heidi: How adorable!
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Elizabeth
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« Reply #12 on: July 28, 2015, 08:43:56 AM »

Adjustable tapes are more common than cord... you want a flat woven cotton or linen tape for those. MUCH more comfortable than cording. Cheesy The technique (and others) are in the children's patterns.

Petticoats are a big deal, and they're one of the more easily-flexible items, too, which is lovely! Most girls are amenable to "twirling skirts".

More thoughts after our library trip. Cheesy
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Elizabeth
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