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Dressing for the Occasion

By Mary Miley Theobald

18th century domestics

Employees representing 18th century domestics model typical costumes available in 1950. Colonial Williamsburg's increased emphasis on authenticity made these costumes obsolete.

The new costume department was located in the stables at the Governor's Palace. For many years an effort was made to incorporate the sewing and laundering into the other activities performed before the public. Some of the costumes were laundered the old way and hung outside on lines to dry. The debate on ironing--whether to use electric irons behind the scenes or the old style flatirons before the public--raged for years.

The Second World War intervened. Rationing made textiles scarce and for almost a year, the costume operation shut down entirely. Existing costumes wore out and could not be replaced.

After the war, the craft shops reopened and waiters were put back into costume. A tailor joined the rehired seamstresses and the whole operation moved to the rooms above the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop. As new buildings opened to the public and programs grew, more demands were placed on the men and women who sewed. For the first time children were added to the list of costumed personnel and so were maids, coachmen, concert players, militiamen, and play actors, bringing the total number of people costumed in 1952 to around 230.

As if they didn't have their hands full sewing clothing, the seamstresses and tailors were regularly asked to perform other needlework tasks. They repaired worn carpets, the tapes on Venetian blinds, the flag that flew over the Capitol, and table coverings. They made curtains for the stage, sewed slipcovers, and embroidered fabric for one of the coaches. And by 1968 they were producing clothing for 533 individuals.

The trend toward synthetic fabrics in the sixties brought with it a problem: fewer natural fabric options. A decision to focus the clothing styles on the 1760s and 1770s instead of the 1740s made it necessary to replace the widest side hoops with a more moderate bulge or none at all. It was credible colonial dress but not terribly authentic by today's standards. There was no attempt to use stays and the synthetic fabric colors were not true to the eighteenth century.

Preparations for the Bicentennial brought concerns about the cost of costuming all the extra personnel necessary to handle the anticipated crowds. As an experiment, red, white, and blue polyester knit suits were ordered for the summer hostesses in 1973.