Friday, 1 April 2016

INTERPRETATION, MERCHANDISING, AND HISTORY: THE HISTORIC COSTUMERS OF INSTAGRAM

SEW WHAT?

BY: ANYA BAKER

I had to take a credit in Drama & Theatre to fulfill the requirements for my English Lit. undergrad--I chose (no surprise) a course in Theatre Costuming. Twelve of us in the course were tasked with outfitting the entire student cast of a production of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9: a play set half in the 19th century, half in the 1979. Costuming is hard. I made a tailored Victorian frock coat for a very muscular man (and therefore, not a beginner's tailoring project), and spent more time ripping out the stitches than sewing them. This wouldn't have been a problem, if the deadlines of a stage production weren't looming over my head as I sewed.

So, I didn't go on with costuming, even though it marries my two great loves: sewing and fashion history. Instead, I just follow dozens of costumers on Instagram. Interestingly, many of them have connections to museums or related heritage institutions. 

Professional costumers, in researching and expertly executing authentic-looking pieces for the stage or screen, are fantastic resources for museums to use for programming, research, or artefact creation. The thing about costuming for the stage is that the lighting, elevation of the stage in relation to the audience, and the shape and required actions of a performer all affect the interpretation of the historic dress. Some things get simplified, because no one is going to be able to see them. A historic interpreter sitting in an exhibit isn't forty rows away from the visitor, like an audience member might be from a performer; in a museum, the costumes can be interpreted as reproduction artefacts. Moreover, in the hands of the public, a reproduction artefact can be a special-occasion dress or even a part of a regular wardrobe.

People really love dressing up. Costumers can make a living off of merchandising their knowledge of history and skillful reproduction capabilities, like the historical shoemaker of Instagram, Lauren (@americanduchess) of American Duchess:

Image credit: Lauren.

Others, like Cynthia Settje (@redthreaded), owner of bespoke costume business Redthreaded, are well-known for making custom and ready-to-wear pieces for the public, and bespoke costumes for the stage. A specialized knowledge of fiddly garments like corsets, stays, and everything ruffled is required in building a customer base both in and outside of the theatre:

Cynthia's caption declared that her studio sewed 53 petticoats over the course of several months. That's 53 more petticoats than I ever want to sew. Image credit: Cynthia Settje.

In terms of museum work, many costumers merchandise not only the finished product, but also their skill sets as historic textile experts. Izabela Pitcher (@izabelapriorattire), who owns the bespoke costume business Prior Attire, advertises herself not only as a costumer, but as a for-hire interpreter for Living History demonstrations or costume-making sessions. The breadth of her knowledge of historic dress is astounding, as are number of related skills involved in performing as an interpreter in different time periods: everything from fencing to making bobbin lace! This medieval dressmaking workshop at the Valence House Museum in Dagenham is my everything:


My kind of afternoon. Image credit: Izabela Pitcher.

Looking authentically historic makes people connect with the past. Making costumes that ooze authenticity, like Jasper and Angela (@walking_through_history) of the blog Walking Through History, and providing built-in programming opportunities appeal both to museums and members of the public. They run a historic banquet business, in addition to making highly detailed costumes for themselves modelled off of paintings:

Look at that lace! Image credit: Jasper and Angela.
Costumers like Ruth Watkin (@ruthwatkincostumes) work directly with museums to interpret the exhibited artefacts into textile programmes, like these amazing Vermeer reproductions at Kenwood House in London:

Image credit: Ruth Watkin.

Can you imagine taking a museum selfie with a Vermeer, looking like you stepped out of a Vermeer painting? The role of interactive artefacts in this programme elevates the visitor from being a passive viewer of the artwork to being a part of the exhibit.

There are plenty more costumers on Instagram and they are hugely inspirational, not only for my dressmaking practice, but for my museum practice, too!

Finally, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a museum professional finally in possession of a graduate degree must be in want of a new gig. This is the end of my time writing for Musings.


I'm shifting my blogging efforts over to Baboushka Buttons, if you want to keep up with what I'm stitching. Good luck to whoever takes over "Sew What?", and thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. I'm very sorry to see your time at Musings end, but I'm thrilled to hear you're continuing your blogging escapades over at a site of your own! Thank you for bringing your beautiful prosaic writing and love for fashion to the Sew What column. I have loved watching it grow and evolve over the past two years; every post was somehow more exciting and interesting than the last. This post is no exception -- social media is such a wonderful way to share the often behind-the-scenes work of costumers, and I'm happy to see that you've shone a light on their efforts. If the column continues, its next contributor has some big shoes to fill!

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