Milliner and Mantua Maker

Janea Whitacre has been creating beautiful dresses in the Margaret Hunter Shop for 24 years.

Learn more: Milliner


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Janea Whitacre, and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, she’s mistress of the millinery and – this one’s going to throw me – mantua-making trade. Which is what? What do you do?

Janea Whitacre: I have the great good fortune of being surrounded by incredible fabrics, and we make fashion accessories as milliners. For the family, shirts, stock ties and handkerchiefs for the gentlemen, shifts, aprons, kerchiefs, caps, baby clothes…

Lloyd: I’m going to insist on this – mantua?

Janea: Mantua-making – that’s gown-making, so we’re the 18th-century dressmaker, and what we do is cut the gown to the person, so the lady is her own mannequin or her own dress form. So I don’t need to take measurements, I don’t do patterns. We cut to the person.

Lloyd: Okay, so at the risk of getting this wrong, what you are is what in a male version a tailor would be.

Janea: There’s a lot of overlap between the trades. The tailor is going to claim that stay-making and making ladies riding habits is his trade. I’m going to claim that it’s my trade. But the difference between the trades is really how we cut the fabric out. He takes measurements and does patterns. We usually don’t, because our customers are perfection in their stays. So as long as they have the stays, we’re ready to cut. Now, if our customers trust us, we will cut the gown to the stays alone, and then they don’t need to be inconvenienced by the fittings.

Lloyd: Okay, explain stays to me now…

Janea: Stays, most people think stays are very uncomfortable, tight-laced, you pass out. But it’s really not the case. Stays are a support garment that fits from the waist to the arm, helps us stand up straight so we have good posture, and creates a mathematical cone shape of balance and symmetry to the body. I certainly wouldn’t be wearing stays if they weren’t comfortable. The extreme fashion, tight lacing or straight lacing is done occasionally, but we laugh at those people in the 18th century for doing that.

Lloyd: How important was fashion – if you laugh at the people who were doing high fashion…?

Janea: Extreme fashion…

Lloyd: Extreme fashion, okay…

Janea: I’d like to think that fashion is really important. The London Times in 1785 said that “there is a fashion in politics as there is a politics in fashion.” We can’t think of anything more important than presenting one’s self well, showing good taste and manner, and keeping up to date.

Lloyd: I don’t know what the answer to this is, but what levels of society would have been your customers?

Janea: Everyone. The members of the gentry coming inmaybe had most of their clothes imported from England made by the trades there. But fashion changes four and five times in a single year, so they’re coming in to at least find out what the fashion is and buy some accessories, to alter the wardrobe. The middling sort, those people with money and the inclination to dress better, are certainly our customers. One of the concerns of the 18th century, you can’t tell who someone is by what they are wearing. It’s how they are wearing the clothes, their manner, their deportment…which then gets back to the stays, because the stays help us stand up straight and give us that natural ease. Servants coming in, there are some stores here in Virginia in their account books that list slaves as having credit accounts, so they had money occasionally.

Lloyd: You said fashion changed four or five times a year. How did you find out?

Janea: I think that our milliners keep up good correspondence with their London merchants. The milliner, who owned the shop that I work in, Margaret Hunter, had a sister who lived in London. And we know that that sister, Mrs. Farrow, is sending fashion magazines and information to Virginia as late as 1800. I can’t imagine that a London merchant would give up the opportunity of packing a box and giving descriptions of what to do with the items inside – what to do with the lace and the trim. And then send it out to us. And, we’re going to look at those fashionable people that come off the ships. After all, if you got yourself on a slow boat out of England, you may actually be wearing last season’s fashion, but we’re already wearing the new style here. (Laughs.)

Lloyd: I had no idea that fashion was such an important part…

Janea: Well, I look at it from the world of fashion and costume history, so even importing economics and politics to me is flavored with fabric and fashion. I’m sure an economics historian or a political historian is going to have a totally different slant on the same issues and situations.

Lloyd: A political historian probably would, but I don’t know, fashion and economics is quite tied together.

Janea: It is…

Lloyd: If you don’t have millinery, you can’t very well spend that money.

Janea: Right, I was reading a book that was published in 1685 on trade and commerce, and they said that if you had merchandise and merchandisers, you’d have trade – so not quite supply and demand, but you need us, the shopkeepers, and then you’ll have business.

Lloyd: You can create demand, and I suppose that’s what a millinery shop did in those days.

Janea: One of the neatest things about our trade is it is one of the few that nearly always was owned by women, that and mantua-making, so there are 18th-century career opportunities.

Lloyd: (Laughs.)

Janea: It’s fascinating to study the business from the perspective of a woman living within 18th-century society.

Lloyd: Okay, quick change of pace, how long have you been doing this?

Janea: 24 years this year.

Lloyd: Oh? And you’ve always been in…

Janea: …always been in the millinery shop, but when I started, I was loaned out to the spinners and weavers for a little while; I had the pleasure of supervising the wigmaker, the weaver, and the tailor at one time. They are all now independent, and I’m back to making things in lace and gauze and you know, having fun in the millinery shop.

Lloyd: What is the nicest thing to make, or what is the most fun thing to make for you?

Janea: The most fun thing is to study an original item and come back and work my way through the process of copying it so that I can put the copy next to the original and know that the trade is literally in my hands, that I can do the same work, sometimes to the same speed, not often, but occasionally we can make a gown in a single work day as the trade would have done in the 18th century, possibly.

Lloyd: Okay, now if you don’t get it done in a single work day, how long?

Janea: Well, it depends on the gown. A plain dress can be made by one person in about 10 hours if the fabric and the threads and everything’s working together. Even a ball gown could be made in that amount of time with seven or eight people, in a day’s time. I don’t think our customers would be very pleased with us if we had promised something, and then, hmmm, had to wear last year’s gown to the party.

Lloyd: Same as now…

Janea: Exactly. (Laughs heartily.) We find ourselves in many of the same situations. Once in a while, we create that 18th-century experience. A couple of years ago, we made a gown for a lady, a character, and our costume department was making a gown for the lady who was playing Lady Dunmore. Well, both gowns were exhibited the same evening at a Palace Ball. We had made the exact same gown.

Lloyd: Ha, ha, ha… (Laughs loudly.)

Janea: It was the talk of the town; it was the talk of the Historic Area for a couple of days.

Lloyd: It would have been the talk of New York for a couple of days…

Janea: Both ladies being very gracious in any century, complemented each another on their good taste, and the evening went on.

Lloyd: Do you make your clothes now?

Janea: 21st-century clothes?

Lloyd: Yes.

Janea: Occasionally. I get out the sewing machine and put fabrics together and make things that are a little off the wall occasionally, but sewing machines and I don’t get along terribly well together, and so I am happiest if I am actually sewing something by hand.

Lloyd: So, 18th-century clothes, you make your own?

Janea: We do, in the shop we dress ourselves, and, occasionally, 19th-century, 20th-century clothes. Once in a great while we get the opportunity of making something out of the 18th century, maybe for another museum or for a project Colonial Williamsburg is working on, and we’ll do it by hand if it was designed before the 1850s.

Lloyd: Probably shouldn’t ask it but will anyway, are you wearing stays?

Janea: I am indeed.

Lloyd: Do you always, I mean is that a regular part of the18th-century dress?

Janea: It’s a regular part, because the gowns are cut to the stays, so if I’m not wearing stays, I can’t wear a gown. I don’t recommend driving a car in stays and hoops, especially if your car has bucket seats, because you get kind of trapped in the seat…

Lloyd: I don’t think I’ll ask for any more information…

Janea: Ha-ha, ha…(laughs heartily once again.)

Lloyd: …I am deeply cowardly…

Janea: Ah, sir…

Lloyd: It has kept me good for years…what do visitors want to know when they come in to your shop, and there you are working away at whatever you are working away at?

Janea: Often times – just like you asked who the customer is – they want to know whether they would have been able to transfer themselves from the 21st century to the 18th century, you know, could I have bought this? Would I have needed it? Would I have liked this? We want them to be our 18th-century customers, and so they ask us questions, like the prices of things, or “would I really have had this?”

Lloyd: And the answer is…

Janea: But, of course – we’re quite lenient with credit in the Margaret Hunter Shop. (Laughs.)

Lloyd: No wonder…Now, you said you had been there for 23 years, and I know for a fact there was an anniversary recently.

Janea: Mmm-hmmm…

Lloyd: Which was what?

Janea: Well, April 14, 1986, three of us completed our first gown, and we really didn’t know what we were doing, but we had a grand time doing it, and that was 20 years ago today. We have the gown, it’s been worn… it was made for a lady who wore it to a medical history symposium, and she was a keynote speaker, and then we re-made it slightly for another lady who is on staff who went to England for a formal party. At the party in Bath, she was dancing 18th-century dances, and an English lady came up to her and said “My dear, your gown isn’t like all the others.” And so Karen told her that it was a gown we had made the gown in the shop in Williamsburg using 18th-century technology and methods, and she said, “Oh that explains it; it is not a costume at all.” That’s one of my favorite complements to the shop, that it’s not a costume, it’s real clothes.

Lloyd: Well actually, the truth is it is a costume – it’s just an authentic costume.

Janea: Well, the 18th-century definition of costume includes, if you were a painter, the rest of the painting, the set, is everything accurate to the picture or the time? And, when you put 18th-century clothes into an 18th-century environment, the balance and symmetry, it really is beautiful to see that decorative art next to and surrounded by all the rest of them.

Lloyd: But you still have that first gown?

Janea: We still have that first gown, and this year, we found the identical fabric, and we’re going to make a second gown, using all the things we’ve learned over the last 20 years, and I want to put the two of them side-by-side and do a program next year because the gown will have come of age – 21 years old.

Lloyd: I wish I could say that.

Janea: Me, too. (Laughs.)

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.