Marrying Pocahontas

What did Pocahontas wear to her wedding? History doesn’t tell us, but research, an educated guess, and a fleet of seamstresses will outfit the bride in a stunning ensemble for the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of John Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas in April 2014. Brenda Rosseau of the Costume Design Center describes the choice in this week’s podcast.

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Harmony: Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Well, I’m always happy when we get to talk about Colonial Williamsburg’s Costume Design Center on the podcast, because it gives us a chance to talk about the really painstaking work that is done there to make sure that each yard of fabric, each stitch of clothing is absolutely as authentic as research and study can make it.

The operation is lead by my guest, Manager of the Costume Design Center, Brenda Rosseau, and she’s here today to talk about a new project they’ve embarked on, the John Rolfe Jacket. Brenda, thank you for being here today.

Brenda: You’re welcome.

Harmony: Well before we talk about this new project, I do really want to let people know that the costumes that they see in the Historic Area as they walk by, as they see a costume on a historic interpreter, they’re actually seeing an exhibit walking by them. Talk to me just briefly about the research that’s done to make sure the clothing you're putting on our interpreters is just as accurate to the 18th century as it can be.

Brenda: We attempt to base every item that we put on the street on an antique. Ideally when you put an object on the street, what you want to happen is sort of this . . . you need three things. First of all, you need an antique that you can study, hopefully that has a connection to the Chesapeake. You’d like to have some kind of written documentation regarding that antique that says, ideally, "On this day at this time I wore this item and it was made for me by, and I paid this much for it and this is where I wore it and this…" And that never happens by the way. And thirdly, you’d really like to have an image, a period image, depicting the antique so you can see how it’s supposed to fit on the body.

So with those three things, which never occur naturally, that’s the criteria that we use for using antiques from the period to develop our pattern lines at the Costume Design Center.

Harmony: Every now and then you get to do a special project, which is why we invited you by the program today, because you’re doing the John Rolfe jacket. Tell me a little bit about this jacket that you’re reconstructing.

Brenda: Well we’re working on this with Preservation Virginia. They are going to be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in April of 2014. We will be dressing a number of characters for that program. So what we decided to do for Pocahontas -- since we have to put her in both Native and English dress -- is to create a jacket, an embroidered jacket which are very popular in the period.

They have these embroidered jackets have about a 25-year life span from about 1600 to about 1625. We’re doing a black work jacket because we thought that that was plausible that this was something that would have been done in Virginia.

We're basing it on an antique that is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s called the Falkland Bodice and it dates to about 1610. They believe that originally it was constructed in central England, probably in the Midlands. It’s totally black silk on white linen, embroidered, and it’s embroidered with motifs from a book by Jeffrey Whitney which was published in 1585 called "Emblems and Devices." There are mythological beasts and animals and flora and fauna.

So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to change those motifs. We’re going to use the jacket as a basis. We’re going to change those motifs to animals and flora that are specific to Virginia. So in the place of a leopard, we’ll put a jumping deer. In the place where there are embroidered flowers and fruit that are specific to England, we’ll replace them with items that are specific to Virginia.

Harmony: So your original example, your antique example is in pretty bad condition?

Brenda: It’s in very bad shape. It’s cited in a couple of books so there are lots of photographs of it. There’s a book by George Wingfield Digby called "Elizabethan Embroidery." There’s a photograph of it there. There’s also a series of books published by the VMA called "Costume and Detail," and it’s cited in one of those.

Harmony: The fun part of this project, I think, is the way that the reconstruction is working. So you mentioned that you will be transposing some Virginia elements in or swapping in some Virginia elements for some of the other elements on the jacket. How are you going to go about reconstructing this jacket? It’s really a fun story about sort of modern technology.

Brenda: Well the first thing that we’ve done we have our Pocahontas, and we did a basic fitting on her. We’re constructing a pair of stays based on a pair of surviving stays, or a bodice or corset, from the early 17th century for her. And then we fit a muslin of a jacket taken from several of the surviving jackets that are in existence and that are published both in Janet Arnold’s "Patterns of Fashion" and in the collection of books that were published by the VMA by, edited by a Jenny Terimony and Susan North. There are a couple of women’s jackets in there. So we’re using that particular form.

We’re not using the exact form of the Falkland Bodice because it hasn’t been patterned and it’s pretty fragile. It’s my understanding that they don’t want people to study it or touch it because it is so very, very fragile. But we’re using that form. So we’ve built a muslin to try on her, and the muslin fits pretty well.

The next thing we’re going to do is, we’ll fit the stays on her, the completed stays on her, and the final mock up of the jacket. Then we’ll take the jacket apart, the muslin apart. We’ll copy it down onto blank paper and then we’ll draw the design motifs on it and change the motifs that are in the original to the ones that are specific to Virginia. A tobacco leaf will figure pretty prominently. The other thing that we’re going to do is probably have a sinking ship as one of the motifs to commemorate the loss of the Sea Venture on which John Rolfe was a passenger from England.

Harmony: And as you create this jacket you’re using some help from outside the Costume Design Center. This seems like a new approach.

Brenda: Yeah, we’ve enlisted the help of volunteers. It’s not the first time this has been done. It’s the first time it’s been done at Colonial Williamsburg as far as I know. But Plymouth Plantation did a project a couple of years ago whereby they did a polychrome jacket and they used volunteers, which was a multiple colors of silk. They used volunteers.

That’s now at Winterthur actually on exhibition I believe. Our jacket is not quite so grand. It doesn’t have any gold work embroidery on it at all. It doesn’t have any spangles. It’s strictly black work, and it’s very possible that something like this could have been used and or created in Virginia if indeed they had the time.

Harmony: So if you want to volunteer to have your hands on history this way how can you volunteer to throw a couple stitches on this jacket?

Brenda: You can get in touch with me through my email and that’s [email protected] or you can call me at 757-220-7434 and I’ll send you a kit. We just want to get an idea of how you stitch. It should be relatively easy to complete. It’s the outline of a little raven with some seed stitches in it. There are only really three or four basic stitches in this garment. There are an outline stitch, or a stem stitch, and long and short stitches and seed stitches. So it’s very simple. It’s not as complex as the Plymouth jacket was. We're hoping that a number of people will volunteer, and we invite all skill levels.

Harmony: Why did you decide to take this approach to bring in the public, to bring in America?

Brenda: Because we could never do it in three months by ourselves. It would just be impossible. If we were going to do it by hand it would take . . . we don’t have the time or the staff to complete by ourselves. And we thought it would be a good community project, a way to interest the public in the events.

Harmony: Well tell me this, then. It seems to me that if you’ve chosen this very ambitious jacket to be worn at this event even though you knew you could never stitch fast enough to do it all. Why is it so important that this jacket be the one that is worn? Why is this the right jacket?

Brenda: It is a theatrical choice, but I thought it was the right choice because, first of all, it is within the realm of possibility. You know, it’s something that could have been done in Virginia. And it also is emblematic of all of those things that are specific to Pocahontas. So we hope it to be her history and the merging of these two cultures as well. So we’re going to use an English form, but use things that are specific to Virginia to her.

Harmony: It’s such a wonderful project. I really love this story behind it; that it commemorates this event, the way that you're using antiques and what you know and what you can infer, and then at the end the way that it comes together bringing in volunteers and bringing in the community to really add their hands to this project. It’s a wonderful piece of history and I hope you get a lot of volunteers for it.

Brenda: We’ve already gotten a lot of response. We’re really looking forward to starting it probably sometime in mid December.

Harmony: I can’t wait to see it all together. Brenda, thank you for being our guest today.

Brenda: Thank you.


  1. What a wonderful show! We listened to all the podcasts about Pocahontas while driving to see the wedding recently. I cannot tell you how great it is to hear the voices that make everything so exciting in the area. We have been back to the Archaearium to see the the Pocahontas jacket. And I was wondering if the sinking ship motif ever made it onto the jacket?Thanks so much for making this available.

    • Dave and Cyndi,

      Yes, the sinking ship did make it on the jacket and it is located on the mid back panel on the right. The motif came from “Whitney’s Choice of Emblems,” which was the inspiration for the antique on which our jacket was based.

      Thanks for listening!

  2. […] forget to save the date and RSVP to the wedding of early America’s ultimate power couple — John Rolfe and […]

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