Eighteenth-century undergarments may not top everybody’s list of must-have clothing items.
But if you’re a female interpreter working for Colonial Williamsburg, there’s no substitute — and the best place to get authentic replicas of period stays, petticoats and shifts is the foundation’s costume design center.
Ditto for the men, where the average three-piece work-a-day suit of colonial-era laborers, tradesmen and gentry alike might feature as many as 30 or 40 tediously sewn-on buttons.
Then there are the eye-popping ensembles of clothes constructed and sewn by hand in the 18th-century manner for the well-dressed interpreters and actors who portray such prominent historical figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Though not part of CW’s original interpretive plan, such period costumes quickly became a defining part of the Historic Area after six hostesses at the Raleigh Tavern began wearing them for a visit by President Franklin Roosevelt in October 1934.
More than 75 years later, the busy center produces some 2,500 articles of clothing and related accessories a year, outfitting hundreds of characters ranging from slaves to noblemen at an average cost of $3,000.
The original corps of hostesses in the Historic Area wore modern dress for more than two years before the change sparked by Roosevelt’s visit.
Created by Williamsburg seamstress Mrs. H.G. Cooley, the costumes constructed for use in the Raleigh Tavern added so much historical texture to the period experience of the building and its furnishings that — within a month — the foundation asked her to clothe all of the Restoration’s interpretive staff at a cost of $30 a gown.
From one seamstress and six original gowns, the program has grown enormously over the years, especially after the foundation revamped its interpretive strategy during the 1980s to focus on the everyday life of the colonial era.
Clothing became one of the Historic Area’s most important educational tools for portraying 18th-century social classes, gender roles and occupations, prompting a new emphasis on historical research and a greatly expanded array of authentic attire.
Today, the costume design center employs nearly 30 people in such tasks as design, cutting and draping, tailoring, pattern-making, fitting and costume maintenance and cleaning. The team produces nearly 150 articles of clothing and accessories, ranging from simple caps and kerchiefs to elaborate court suits and ball gowns.
From that catalog, each employee who works before the public receives a kit of items that clothes them “from the skin out — from head to toe,” Rosseau says. Female employees get an added assortment of undergarments that recreates the distinctive womanly silhouette of the time with such 18th-century essentials as stays and petticoats.
Since 2002, intensive research has become a crucial first step in the design and construction of every new item, with most based on patterns taken from actual antique examples as well as illustrations and written accounts from the period. Digitized with a computer-aided design system, the patterns are then adapted to an employee’s measurements, resulting in a custom fit when needed.
Want to go?
What: Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center Open House
Where: 250 First St., Williamsburg
When: 10 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22
Info: 229-2141 or 1-800-HISTORY