"Wear layers" had a completely different meaning back in the 18th century. Those layers of apparel are now exposed during tours at Colonial Williamsburg's Costume Design Center.
The Thursday behind-the-scenes tours reveal designers and tailors in action. On view are revolving racks holding some of the Virginia landmark's 59,000 pieces of clothing. "Each one is historically accurate," explained center director Brenda Rosseau. In 1934, Colonial Williamsburg began creating reproductions of 1765-to-1781 period attire. Today, the work involves computer-generated design and a huge modern pattern plotter.
"An actor-interpreter's clothing allotments depend on the job," said Rosseau, who also serves as the center's research and design supervisor. "It can take 45 to 50 articles of clothing." For example, tradesmen have more specialty items. Costumes can't be worn off-duty, with the value of each wardrobe ranging $2,500 to $3,000.
The newly expanded behind-the-scenes tour "appeals to history and fashion buffs," said Virginia Lee, manager of community programs for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
If you go Colonial Williamsburg costume programs: * Costume Design Center Behind the Scenes Tour: 3:30 to 4:20 p.m. Thursdays. Free with basic Colonial Williamsburg admission; reservations required * "Fashion Before Ease": Performance about 18th-century courtship attire. Saturdays 6 p.m. at Hennage Auditorium. 800-HISTORY cwf.org Williamsburg visitor information: 800-368-6511 visitwilliamsburg.com
Rosseau pointed to mannequins adorned in intricate layers. She lifted a polonaise, a European-inspired woman's gown with a fitted bodice and draped overskirt. Layers include shifts, an under-petticoat, corset and hoop to maintain the "correct silhouette." A gentlewoman's outfit often included a stay (corset), shift linen or twill, hooped petticoat, decorative "stomacher," gown, lace neckerchief and wide-brimmed hat. Men's dress was often more complex. Rosseau pointed to breeches, a romantic shirt, ornate waistcoat with buttons stamped with insignia of military regiments. Also displayed: fife and drum uniforms and class clothing distinctions of this striated society. In the accessories department, where shelves overflow with men's and women's stockings and shoes, a hatmaker demonstrated how she shapes a tricorn, the traditional cocked tricornered hat.
The Colonial gentleman typically donned underdrawers, breeches, leggings ("spatterdashes"), a robelike banyan or waistcoat, formal full-skirted coat or informal frock, outer cloak, hat, and cravat around the neck.
In a 1759 letter, the Rev. Jonathan Boucher observed of Virginians: "Solomon in all his Glory was not array'd like one of These."
In the summer heat, visitors can thankfully sport a fraction of the fabric worn by Williamsburg actors. The design center tours make self-evident a truth perhaps more applicable to Colonial than contemporary fashion: Style overrules comfort.
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