Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A Wardrobe Workshop

September 2, 2016 Think THF
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Greenfield Village and you can’t help but notice the clothing. From the colonialera linen garments worn by the Daggett Farmhouse staff as they go about their daily chores to the 1920s flapperstyle dresses donned by the village singers, or even the protective clothing worn by the pottery shop staff in the Liberty Craftworks district — all outfits in Greenfield Village are designed to add to the guest experience. In many cases, these tangible elements help accurately showcase the time period being interpreted. 

“Clothing is such a big part of history,” said Tracy Donohue, general manager of The Henry Ford’s Clothing Studio, which creates most of The Henry Ford’s reproduction apparel and textiles for daily programs as well as seasonal events. “It’s a huge part of how we live even today. The period clothing we provide helps bring to life the stories we tell in the village and enhances the experience for our visitors.”

The Clothing Studio is tucked away on the second floor of Lovett Hall. It provides clothing for nearly 800 people a year in accurate period garments, costumes and uniforms, and covers more than 250 years of fashion — from 1760 to the present day — making the studio one of the premier museum period clothing and costume shops in the country. 

The scope and flow of work in the studio is immense, from outfitting staff and presenters for the everyday to clothing hundreds for extra seasonal programs such as Historic Base Ball, Hallowe’en and Holiday Nights. Work on the April opening of Greenfield Village, for example, begins before the Holiday Nights program ends in December, with the sewing of hundreds of stock garments and accessories in preparation for hundreds of fitting sessions for new and current employees.

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“When it comes to historic clothing, our goal is to create garments accurate to the period — what our research indicates people in that time and place wore,” said Donohue. “For our group, planning for Hallowe’en is an especially fun challenge. We have more creative license with costumes for this event than we typically do with our daily period clothing.” 

For Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village, the studio staff researches new characters and can work on the design and development for more elaborate wearables for months. In addition to new costume creation, each year existing outfits are refreshed and/or reinvented. Last year, for example, the studio added the Queen of Hearts, Opera Clown and a number of other new characters to the Hallowe’en catalog. Plus, they freshened the look of the beloved dancing skeletons and the popular pirates.

Historic clothing, period photographs, prints, trade catalogs and magazines from the Archive of American Innovation provide a wealth of on-site resources to explore the styles, clothing construction and fabrics worn by people decades or centuries ago. Each year, Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life, and Fran Faile, textile conservator, host the studio’s talented staff for a field trip to the collections storage area for an up-close look at original clothing from a variety of time periods. 

“Getting the details right really matters,” Miller said. “Clothing is part of the powerful immersive experience we provide in Greenfield Village. Having people in accurate period clothing in the homes and the buildings helps our visitors understand and immerse themselves in the past, and think about how it connects to their own lives today.” 

Did You Know?
The Clothing Studio has a comprehensive computerized inventory management system, which tracks close to 50,000 items.

During each night of Hallowe’en, Clothing Studio staff are on call, checking on costumed presenters throughout the evening to ensure they look their best.

What They're Wearing Under There
At Greenfield Village, costume accuracy goes well beyond what’s on the surface. Depending on the time period they’re interpreting, women may also wear chemises, corsets and stays.

“Our presenters have a lot of pride in wearing the clothing and wearing it correctly,” said Donohue.

While the undergarments function in the service of historic accuracy, corsets also provide back support and chemises help absorb sweat. Natural fibers in cotton fabrics breathe, so they’re often cooler to wear than modern-day synthetic fabrics. And when the weather runs to extreme cold conditions, layers of period-appropriate outerwear help keep village staff warm. The staff at the Clothing Studio also sometimes turns to a few of today’s tricks to keep staff comfortable. Wind- and water-resistant performance fabrications are often built into Hallowe’en costumes to offer a level of protection from outdoor elements.

“It can be 100 degrees in the summer and 10 degrees on a cold Holiday Night,” Donohue said. “Our staff is out in the elements, and they still have to look amazing. We care about the look and overall visual appearance of the outfit, of course, but we also care about the person wearing it.” 

From The Henry Ford Magazine. This story originally ran in the June-December 2016 issue.

The Henry Ford Magazine

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