American Village staff are passionate about their work.
What does working as a historical interpreter entail? See what two American Village staff members had to say about their experiences in these roles.
Nancy Moore Estes
Director of Costuming
The design, construction and acquisition of costumes is important to the work of the American Village. Most of our clothing is in the style of the last quarter of the 18th century. I look at each character’s life and economic status in order to design and assign the proper set of clothing. Sometimes I go beyond the 18th century into other styles of fashion. When I designed my Dolley Madison gown I researched that time period in fashion and looked at existing gowns for inspiration. I also read about Dolley and her sense of fashion. She was a very fashionable lady. Based on my research, I was able to acquire the fabric that I wanted and make the gown.
Our clothing is made to serve multiple programs offered at the American Village, and I keep that in mind when making an everyday suit or gown. Sometimes clothing gets very faded or wears out and we replace those items. I am always trying to make our costumes better year after year as the budget and time allows. For example, this year I made our female pilgrims kirtles to accommodate the warm days during our Thanksgiving program.
We are fortunate to be able to make most things in our onsite costume shop. A few items, however, like some chemises, military coats, corsets and capes are more cost effective to purchase than to make. We also purchase shoes, stockings, gloves and hats. All of our ladies gowns, jackets, petticoats, caracos and men’s suits are made in house. This ensures that the article of clothing will fit the interpreter well.
All of the fabric that we use is modern, but for the most part, it is made out of all natural fibers. We use a lot of linen, cotton, wool and silk or a combination of those fibers. We do not use polyester or rayon on a regular basis, but sometimes we may take a few liberties if the look of the fabric seems appropriate.
Some costumes have definitely been more involved to make than others. I think I am the most proud of those. The King George cape that is used in the Living America’s Story: Presidents program was a huge undertaking. Trying to find the right velvet, trim and fur was a huge task. Ermine is very expensive so I found a site that showed me how to make my own ermine. It wasn’t hard but the process was very time-consuming and all of the pieces had to match. In the end the cape and caplet looked great.
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“…In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance…” –Phillis Wheatley
The question was posed as to how I approach the story of Phillis Wheatley. It really comes down to what I’ve learned about her as history has recorded and how I perceive her nature and spirit from what I have learned.
I have a wonderful script at my disposal that the multi-talented Noel Stewart created. There is so much eloquence, intelligence and wisdom in that script, and I believe the story it has to tell strikes definitive chords within a listener’s being. You are hearing a sometimes neglected perspective of history that you most likely have never heard before. I think the words “intelligent, eloquent and wise” encompass a great whole of who Phillis Wheatley was and still is. I try to encapsulate those qualities and many others every time I have an audience.
I draw much from her works, of course. Phillis Wheatley is not a person of which history knows everything about, as opposed to well-known historical figures like George Washington, Abigail Adams or Thomas Jefferson. Her birth and early childhood are a partial mystery, and such can be said even of the unfortunate circumstances of her passing. That being said, I think one of the best ways to get to know her is to read her wonderful poetry. I’ve read and re-read her poems, essays, and selected readings; doing your homework will always yield benefits.
It may sometimes be difficult to puzzle out all of her subtle genius, but her language is as inspiring as it is captivating. She is inspiring, especially as a black female person achieving unprecedented heights in such a short amount of time in an otherwise unaccepting world. I’m still learning things about her life as my research continues, for it never stops. People are learning more and more about who she was and how her work changed mindsets, again with that subtle genius, even today.