My mother’s house has always been full of fabric. Mom is a quilter; she made clothes for me when I was very little, but most of my childhood memories of her sewing are of a hand-pieced, hand-quilted bed cover for me, covered in flowers and cows and bright colors. It took her eleven years to make, working on it in little bits and pieces on summer vacations and sunday afternoons when the “quilty ladies” would gather, sometimes at our house. She came into my first grade classroom to teach us how to make little nine-patch quilts; as far as I can remember, mine lived on a cat bed for years until it finally got so disgusting that we had to throw it away. I never had much interest in sewing myself when I was a little kid, but I loved helping her pick out fabric, and I loved all sorts of other crafts – beads and lanyard and friendship bracelets, classic summer camp fare. I did always love clothes – I played dress up in Disney princess costumes and my grandmother’s nightgowns from the 50s, I dressed up stuffed animals and barbies and friends, and eventually moved on to American Girl dolls (widely acknowledged to be the gateway drug to history), and drew pictures of outfits inspired by my favourite book characters. I was a crafty kid living in a sewing house; I think it was inevitable.
I eventually decided I wanted to learn how to sew when I was fifteen and wanted to dress up as a Jedi for halloween. I wanted it to look as much like the real ones as possible so I did my research; found a pattern, looked at a ton of pictures, read the tutorials on early cosplayers’ blogs. Mom took me to buy fabric from a little hole-in-the-wall place in Brooklyn that she had been going to for years. She showed me how to press and cut the pattern pieces, and how to use her 1930s Singer Featherweight sewing machine, and then told me to follow the directions in the pattern and that she didn’t make clothes anymore and that was it. She helped me if I needed it, but for the most part I fumbled my way through that first pattern myself. I had unintentionally chosen a really good first project; it was a simple t-shaped garment with some borders, and I enjoyed the puzzle of putting it all together. I especially enjoyed the satisfaction of wearing a garment that I had made myself – that I had transformed from a flat piece of cloth into something I could put on my body. I was hooked after that. When later that year I became obsessed with The King and I and Gone with the Wind, I had no hesitations in deciding that I could make my own ballgown.
That was when I started catching the fashion history bug; I hated learning about wars and politics in history class in high school, but on my own I wanted to learn all about what everyday people in history did – what they ate, what they did for fun, and especially what they wore. I was also struggling at the time with being a fat teenage girl who didn’t want to dress like everyone else. Because I didn’t REALLY want to wear velour track suits and tight shirts with flirty slogans on them, I had spent years of feeling out my sense of style shopping with my grandmother at Kohl’s, wearing A-line dresses and trumpet skirts that were clearly meant for suburban middle-aged women who worked in offices. In a time when conformity was encouraged and plus-size options were limited, the ability to make my own clothes was LIBERATING. I embraced my childhood love of poodle skirts and decided I wanted to be a Rockabilly. I discovered Vintage Vogue patterns and used them to make myself 50s dresses in bright colours and bold patterns. I finally took some proper sewing and fashion design classes at FIT in their weekend program for teens, and made myself some more dresses, a crappy civil war ballgown, and a red trench coat to dress up as Carmen Sandiego for halloween. And, at the end of junior year, I sold my beloved American Girl dolls and used the money to buy my first Renaissance Faire costume. I went to college for costume design for theater, but only because I couldn’t find a program that would let me study fashion history as an undergrad. It turned out to be a good move; I learned how to build all sorts of garments and craft objects, I learned how to drape and pattern, and I learned the costume shop attitude of ‘everything is a transferable skill so you can figure out how to make anything’. But I was always the one who did way more research than necessary, and wanted to do things with historical rather than theatrical methods.
The most formative experience came senior year: I studied abroad for a semester in London. The program was the Rutgers Conservatory at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the advisor of the design program was the incomparable Jenny Tiramani. We began the semester in the midst of production on the Globe’s 2012 Richard III and Twelfth Night. These were ‘original practice’ productions, meaning they were intentionally done as closely as possible to Elizabethan theatrical practices as could be managed – they had all-male casts, and beautiful hand-sewn costumes made of custom made textiles. Over those three months, Jenny gave us insight into all of the research and experimentation that had gone into creating these incredible productions. We took a Shakespeare literature class where we examined a play for the clues in the text of how it was originally staged. We took a props class where we ground our own mineral paint pigments and made casts of our faces using burlap and wax. We went to museums and historic sites to look at portraits and extant garments and original furniture. And we took an Elizabethan costume construction class where we built a pair of beautiful silk sleeves, and sewed, starched, and set ruffs. My ruff was my first entirely hand-sewn garment. We set our ruffs at Jenny’s little house in Shoreditch, which was packed full of books and papers and fabrics and artifacts and cabinets full of Janet Arnold’s files. She showed us a project she was working on – a suit made of strips of red and yellow silk, recreated from an illustration in a German fashion book from the 1580s, with an extremely shallow-crowned hat that they were still trying to figure out how it stayed on your head. This was it, for me. There were people out there putting all of this effort into figuring out how clothes were really made and worn in the past, and then DOING it. And I wanted to be one of them. Jenny taught us that we can never know everything, but the more detailed, the more specific you can make your research and interpretation, the more real it will be to the audience. This struck a chord with me in a way nothing else I was taught in school had.
That was what set me on my current path. I got a job at Colonial Williamsburg right out of college, went to graduate school for fashion history, and now I work at Plimoth Plantation, a museum that is world-renowned for first person interpretation. I’ve come to love the community of people who recreate historic fashion – it’s very affirming to know that there are other people who love it so much that they have dedicated their lives to the study and practice of it (see, family? Playing dress-up is a viable career choice!). And I absolutely LOVE creative transformation of historical fashion – I know many historic costumers have mixed feelings about such things, but I love steampunk and cosplay and renaissance faire costumes (most of the time), they’re great outlets for my love of fantasy and flare for the dramatic and whimsical (you can take a girl out of the theater…). I hope to continue on this path for the foreseeable future – it turns out I have really strong convictions about the subject! And I hope to keep making connections with all of you awesome people who love it too.