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Student interprets historical textiles at Colonial Williamsburg

Kara Gordon, second-year Public History MA, has always found historic textiles to bring more meaning and authenticity to history.

“Imaginary people don't wear clothing, and so studying these intimate pieces of material culture, trying to recreate them, and then even wearing them for extended periods of time really helps you to connect more personally with the reality of the past,” she said.

It was her fascination with how historic textiles bring personality to the past that led her to an internship at Colonial Williamsburg in the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop. As one of the many sites at Colonial Williamsburg set up to preserve and interpret 18th century trades, the Millinery shop focuses on interpreting : millinery (which provided 18th century customers with all of their clothing accessories) and mantua-making (the 18th century word for dress-making).

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One of these interpretation techniques she experienced this summer was called “Gown a Day” where the Millinery tried to see if they could produce a gown in 12 hours. Based on research, they believe women would have been able to make a gown in one 12 hour workday, so this event is a fun way to test that.

“Partially, it is for them to test their own skill and mastery of the trade and compare themselves to their 18th century counterparts,” Kara said. “Partially, it is just a fun thing to do that attracts a lot of visitor interest. The shop was full all day and… we have had over 100,000 views of our live streams on Facebook.”

This year the shop made two gowns, each gown made by a group of three women. While the gown would have been made by just one woman in the past, working in groups of three allowed them to interpret to guests while working and take legal breaks as needed. Both gowns were made well within time this year and the gowns will be used for other tradeswomen in colonial Williamsburg. As her first time participating in this event, Kara found it chaotic, but thrilling and enjoyable at the same time.

“So far, the experience has been wonderful. The internship has been the perfect blend of giving and receiving, because while I am learning so many new skills, I also have the chance to share what I love with the public.  My supervisors and coworkers are not only masterful artists in their trade but are also dedicated and serious historians and simply wonderful human beings. I get to go to work every day in the 18th century, and so far have loved every minute.”

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For Kara, part of what she loves about working with historic textiles is the satisfaction of making something beautiful with her hands. She finds it fascinating to see the styles, colors, and shapes that give each era its own personality.

“I feel like I now have an understanding of 18th century women that could never be gained from a book. For instance, I could tell you that stays (an early form of the corset) laced too loosely are way more uncomfortable than stays laced too tightly, that it makes much more sense to put on your shoes before you get dressed, and that bug bites under stockings is probably the most annoying thing ever. And for me, that's history at its best,” she said. 

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