The Dilemma of Interpreters' Costuming

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

Hello to everyone from Williamsburg!  My father, stepmother-to-be, and stepsister-to-be are visiting for the first part of this week, before we go on to Washington.  Yesterday afternoon I went to Margaret Hunter's millinery shop and met Samantha of Couture Courtesan, who is as lovely and nice in person as she seems online, and I am a huge, crazy fangirl.

One of the first things I noticed when I got here was that the interpreters portraying a character, speaking lines in demonstrations or walking around decoratively - the actor-interpreters - tend to have fantastic clothes.  As I visited more and more sites, though, I noticed that the interpreters who are hired/volunteer to perform an informational or service function - the worker-interpreters - are pretty much always, if not always-always, dressed in bedgowns(/shortgowns, but I'm using bedgowns for convenience) and aprons, without stays, when they're women.  Not only was the difference noticeable to me, the inaccuracy bothered me a bit: gowns were far more prevalent than bedgowns in most public situations, and when women were exerting themselves in physical tasks, they were more likely to go without the outer covering than the stays (according to genre prints and paintings, anyway).

So there are two obvious potential general models for this kind of thing, one in which worker-interpreters  aren't issued stays as a matter of course, and one in which they wear them as a rule in most cases.

The former has benefits, the first being that the costume shop seamstresses don't have to fit stays to all of the women who are working as waitstaff, gatekeepers, ticket booth attendants, and tour guides, because they're numerous.  It also can help to work against the heat, which is a big problem in a lot of sites in the summer.  I read an article once about the history of Williamsburg's interpretive program, and the author wrote that older women who had once worn girdles were much less into wearing stays than younger women; I would say that on average the worker-interpreters are older, so the personal preference of the majority might play a part.  The downsides are the inaccuracy and the generally "messy" look that loose bedgowns have.

The other model has an obvious disadvantage, namely that restricting most worker-interpreter jobs to women who are willing and able to wear stays can diminish the pool of potential employees.  There's an argument there that it's unfair to those who can't, but I tend to see it like the "must be able to lift 40 lbs" requirements on some jobs.  There ought to be some places for women in bedgowns, but for the most part, portraying eighteenth century women means wearing stays.  That is the upside: the entire place looks more accurate, which is a great thing.  When it comes to the heat issue, I'm honestly not sure which is better, as both seem to have possibilities there.  A baggy, long-sleeved, lined cotton bedgown can hold heat in; a more fitted gown or jacket would have shorter sleeves and not create a lot of space for hot air to stay close to the body, and just being in stays and a petticoat would be cooler than either option, I think.  The biggest issue, though, apart from the increased work for the costumers, is that you're putting an extra requirement on women that doesn't apply to men.  There's no solution to this.  On the one hand, women have to wear stays and men don't; on the other, the men look much, much more put together on average than the women when women aren't in stays, which is also not great.

So, what do you think?  What seems like the more preferable situation for an historic site to go with?