Last fall, I had the pleasure of attending the 84th Anniversary at Colonial Williamsburg’s Costume Design Center. It was fascinating to wander through the large building located adjacent to the Historic Area. The large rooms are filled with men’s and women’s clothing, as well as a vast variety of accessories. Costume production, mending, and cleaning all take place here.
While the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926, it was 1934 when costumed hostesses first appeared in the former capital. The occasion was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visited for the dedication of the Duke of Gloucester Street. These first costumes were such a hit that it was decided to begin the manufacture of costumes for all the hostesses. The largest living history museum in the country initiated the largest costuming endeavor. Each interpreter would need clothing for the different seasons for each of their roles so a permanent costume department became necessary. The Design Department grew steadily, eventually moving out of the stables at the Governor’s Palace to its current location.
By 1936 there were 53 interpreters and their clothing needed to be cleaned, mended, and maintained. The use of the costumed interpreters expanded throughout the historic district, but most were dressed as gentry. That changed over time with the addition of coachmen, trade interpreters, the fifes and drums, waiters, kitchen workers, gaolers, and in the 1990s African American and domestic trades. All interpreters wore clothing appropriate to their station in life.
Over time, more attention was given to the authenticity of fabrics, design, and fit as a result of continuing research of documents, portraits, and old collections. Even the shoes and glasses interpreters wear are accurate for the period. Rationing during WWII halted the costume operation, but it picked up again after the war. Additional characters, like children, militiamen and actors were added bringing the number of interpreters to 230 by 1952 and 533 by 1968. Many interpreters play multiple roles.
Today, over 600 staff members play 1,122 different roles. That’s a lot of costumes to be made and fitted to each individual for summer and winter, cleaned, and maintained. No small task.
There is more about the Colonial Williamsburg costumes in my interview with Colonial Williamsburg interpreter, Jane Hanson in my March 13th post.