75 Years of Costume Design

Costume design center

Colonial Williamsburg marks 75 years of costumed interpretation in 2009. Costume Design Center Director Brenda Rosseau describes the metamorphosis from 1934.

Learn more: Colonial clothing


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter, and today my guest is Brenda Rosseau, Manager of the Costume Design Center at Colonial Willamsburg. This year, we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of costume design at Colonial Williamsburg. Brenda, thanks for being with us.

Brenda Rosseau: Sure.

Harmony: Can you talk to me about where costume starts at Colonial Williamsburg?

Brenda: The first costumes were used here in 1934 for the visit of President Roosevelt to dedicate Duke of Gloucester Street. They were used on the docents, or they called them hostesses at the time, at the Raleigh Tavern. There were about six women in that first group.

It was probably the idea of James Cogar, who was chief curator at the time. It was so popular, it was so successful, that on November 5, Kenenth Chorley, who was then president of the Foundation, decided that all hostesses in all the exhibition buildings should be wearing period-like costumes.

Harmony: And that’s where it started. Six hostesses then to how many people today?

Brenda: Over 800.

Harmony: That’s a big change. Who was making those first costumes?

Brenda: It was a Mrs. Cooley, who actually lived on Jamestown Road, right across from where the Business School is now. The costumes at the time cost about $25 apiece, and the hostesses were given an hour to walk down there for their fittings and then walk back to their jobs.

Harmony: What did they look like, the first costumes?

Brenda: They decided to, it’s interesting, because they made the choice to dress them to the 1750s and ‘60s. And they had huge panniers, which are those side hoops. So there was this sort of flattened silhouette.

Harmony: What did they look like? When you say they were really huge…

Brenda: Well they were body width. It was like three people standing together, do you know? That’s how wide they were, just on the skirts. So the silhouette was essentially a cone perched on an ellipse. So you had these wide hoops that were collapsible, both in the period and in 1934. They made them so you could pull the hoops up and pass through doorways.

Harmony: They’re so wide that you couldn’t fit through a doorway?

Brenda: You could, but in smaller houses like the Raleigh Tavern, you know, some of the doors are not wide enough for the women to pass. They’d have to go through sideways.

Harmony: How has the representation of costume changed over time?

Brenda: Well, essentially the first costumes are during the colonial revival period are very, they represent sort of only the upper echelon of colonial society, that two to five percent that are the gentry. It’s not a realistic depiction. It’s a kind of moonlight and magnolias depiction of Colonial Williamsburg in the 18th century. Though they were somewhat realistic, do you know, they gave ambience, they really weren’t used as items which teach, do you know.

The object really didn’t teach because they weren’t using accurate construction methods, they weren’t using the right foundation garments, they weren’t using the correct materials, and they were only sort of depicting that very sort of thin line of gentry as opposed to the other 95 percent that lived and worked here.

Harmony: So today your goal is to represent …

Brenda: All strata of society. It all has to do with the development of looking at costumes as and object which is worthy of study. That developed over the years. Probably in the 1980s when antique clothing became instead of an art object, became worthy in academia as an object worthy of study. That’s when interpretation of clothing changed pretty dramatically.

Brenda: For instance, we actually study the antique to see how it goes together, to see how it fits on the body. And, so we’re really fortunate today that we can study the antique, we can take a pattern off the antique, we can try and match the textile as closely as possible. We can mimic. And then we’re fortunate in that we can recreate the item. We can try and fit it on a modern body and then make those alterations to produce the product that we want.

Harmony: Talk to me more about the way that you’re able to reconstruct clothing for the lower classes of society that you’re trying now to represent more accurately.

Brenda: Well, ideally you’d like this triangulation where you have a written description of the item, ideally, what you’d like to have, is a painting of the person or a depiction of the original garment and a person in the garment so you can see how it fits on the body and what it’s supposed to do and how it’s supposed to hang, where it’s supposed to fit close and where it’s supposed to be loose.

Then you’d have a letter saying, “I had this garment made …” and then you’d also have the antique. That never happens, so you try and you gather information from all different areas. For instance, to recreate slave clothing, we really sort of pretty heavily rely on runaway ads from the Virginia Gazette and from newspapers of the period, because absolutely none of that survives.

There are a few, you know, drawings, line drawings, very few depictions of African Americans in English art. There are some, but not a whole lot. They’re usually in livery, which is servant’s attire. So it’s hard to get a real understanding of what your average enslaved person in the Chesapeake is wearing. There are plantation owners that keep really, really great records.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson tells exactly what he gives to whom. So there are some. We know what it’s supposed to be, but we don’t really know what it looks like. So what you do is, if it says, “We gave him two waistcoats,” you determine of this particular fabric. Well you probably know what the fabric looks like, you know what a waistcoat looks like, and then you just sort of extrapolate from that what the items look like.

Harmony: What kind of materials were used in the 18th century, and how much are we able to replicate that today?

Brenda: We’ve had pretty good success, actually in finding materials that were used in the 18th century. They’re using silk, linen, wool, and cotton. Those are your choices in the 18th century. They sometimes blend those together. For instance, we have in the collection, what they call the Virginia coat which is made of a combination of cotton and wool. That’s going to be pretty hard to replicate, because some of these things have to be spun together.

We actually are working with the weavers right now to see if we can get that particular item reproduced, that particular cloth reproduced. Then there we have a really wonderful resource of being able to actually have access to items, types of fabrics that are normally not available on the open market, do you know, linsey-woolsey. We’ve found sources for tow-linen.

I think our biggest problem is finding linens of the right quality. The decorator market, we’ve been really fortunate in the last 10 to 15 years in that the decorator market, especially for gentry wear has been heavily influenced by the 18th century, so we’re able to find silks and satins that we can use on the gentry clothing.

Harmony: So over time, we’ve gone from representing mainly the gentry to including other strata of society including enslaved and working-class folks. What’s the new chapter? What are you doing today?

Brenda: The road we’re heading down is a more diverse picture of Williamsburg in the 18th century. For instance, we have the Native American Initiative that we just finished working on. That was fascinating because you know, we’ve done some reproductions before of those particular items but not to that extent. We had to build two complete outfits for five people.

So we built trade shirts and quilled moccasins and breechcloths and things that we’re not really used to building. We really need to do a lot more research on children’s clothing. We recently reconstructed the regimental coats for the Fife and Drum Corps for their 50th anniversary and for military programs as well. So we’re trying to look at the Historic Area as a whole to see where the, you know, where the weaknesses are in costuming.

Harmony: It’s hard to imagine Colonial Williamsburg without costumed interpreters, and I think that speaks to the importance of costume in interpretation.

Brenda: If it’s done well, I think that clothing can be an amazing object to teach. I think the most difficult thing is being able to read what that clothing says, do you know. It can tell you so many things. It speaks volumes about personal choice. I chose to put this on this morning. It speaks volumes about the complexity of manufacture, do you know, how difficult it is to put these things together. When the public reads that, it just adds another layer to what we’re trying to do here.

Harmony: Brenda, thanks so much for being with us today.

Brenda: My pleasure.

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