Monday, February 26, 2018

"Dressing 18th century" at the Paca House and Gardens, Historic Annapolis


     When Historic Annapolis asked me to give a presentation to the docents on how to dress in 18th century style clothing, I jumped at the chance.  I volunteer there in varying roles, one of them as an organizer of a group of about 25 living historians that come together a few times a year to bring the Paca House and Gardens alive.  Yeah - it is like herding cats - but wonderfully dressed cats.

     The site has a variety of different things going on in town, one of them includes docents explaining various trades that were prevalent during the 18th century in the Hogshead building on Pinkney Street, and they also give tours in the Paca House.  Some of them dress up in period style clothing. 

     The living historians that I organize (doesn't include the docents) portrays anything from a below or above stairs servant, to a coffee house owner, to the governor of Maryland and anything in between.  So, working with Lisa Holly Robbins, VP of Education and Interpretation, and Janet Perkins Hall, Volunteer Coordinator, we were asked to put together a basic program for the audience (which was opened up to the public as well) on dressing 18th century style.  This included what they needed to do to look right, what to wear, etc., in order to create the illusion that would ensure a good representation of the period was being done in town.

     Historic Annapolis has upped their game for interpretation, and has some of the very finest living historians in the country volunteer there.  I am very proud to assist with brining in accurately dressed people and create programs with them.  The site is always looking for volunteers!  

Just some of the Cast of Characters in the Paca House and Gardens
for a program in December 2016 (I am on the far left)

    I needed help in this endeavor to do this true justice.  No one wants to just sit in a room with someone talking AT them.  Enlisting the help of two amazing living historians and my friends, Kerry McClure and Nicole Foronda, allowed a unique perspective to be brought in.  We combined our experience, education, and individual focus of what we love of the time period into a presentation that I think WOW'd the stockings off of the ladies in the audience.

Just BEFORE the program - messing around with back lacing stays
L-R - Nicole, Kerry, and me

     We decided to focus on the years 1765 to 1775.  This was a time that the Paca family would have known - with me as someone dressing in the lower sorts, Nicole dressing in front of the group as the middling class and showed the ladies how to put on stays (many do not wear them), and Kerry as Gentry undressing for the group to show them the difference underneath a lady's clothing.

The beginning when we were talking about FABRICS!

Kerry talking to the audience while Nicki laces her stays, and I standby 
with the next item for her to put on - pockets!

     Putting together a good basic overview is very important.  What do you concentrate on without going down the proverbial rabbit hole on certain topics?  An entire program could be created on fabrics alone, not to mention the types of garments they wore, or jewelry (my personal fav besides food.  LOL).

Showing the proper way to put on a hat - an outer garment

     My idea was to focus on the basics of what they wore, and how they dressed per "class."  In order to do that, we had to also show portraits and prints of the three basic levels of society in order to differentiate these lines - and we were dressed in those classes to cement the visual for them.  That isn't easy since it wasn't cut and dried then, and it isn't now.  Kerry put it plainly in that "those in the time period would have known their place based upon who they were, what they wore, and where they lived."  They did not travel as much or move around as we did, so they would have known who was in town, what their role in town was, who their families were, if they had money just by their mannerisms, if they did not, if someone had fallen on hard times, you get the point.  This is important when researching a person from that time.  SO many variables.  Just because we see them in a portrait in a silk gown does not mean they were of the upper classes.

Forgot garters in this slide

      Included in our talk was a basic checklist of items needed if someone wanted to dress as we do in living history for all three classes.  Many in our audience were docents or tour guides in the city, and if they wanted to move beyond or tweak what they are currently wearing, we gave them the options.  We did have a "what to avoid" slide that I am sure many related to (i.e., the "French bodice, mop cap worn down almost to the eyes, etc.), and I hope if they were wearing some of those things that they would be changed.

Kerry and I at a program about tea in 2017 - I as servant, she as a Gentry lady 
coming for tea with Mrs. Paca

     The other point was to be the example when we walked in the room, not "those people" who shamed others because they may not have progressed past a certain place in their dress for whatever reason.  Often a docent is reliant on a site's clothing, or a person does not dress up enough to invest the money into all of the elements they need.  Whatever the reason, we gave them ideas to think on, options, and enthusiasm to possibly volunteer or dress more in 18th century style clothing.

     The exercise of pulling all of this together gave us the appreciation and conclusion that all of the classes had the same basic garments - but with more as you moved up in a class.  That meant your fabric may have gotten more fine, more colorful, you had more accessories, better shoes, and/or more or finer jewelry. 

     There is so much we do not know, but Dressing 18th Century is all about talking about and showing people how to create the illusion of what they wore in the past.  This collaboration could not have happened without all three of our combined experiences coming together.

Kerry showing the amount of fabric in her gown and how adjustable it was based upon
a woman's possible fluctuation in weight for pregnancy or eating too much cake!  :-)

     If your site would like a presentation, please contact me at to see what we can do for you.  A small fee to cover any travel costs will be required.  I also have a presentation on jewelry that spans the years 1725-1825 available.

Garters!  Woo Hoo!