Volunteer costumers help Fort Vancouver re-enactors look authentic

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoEleven-year-old Benedicta Hardy tries on her re-enactor's dress while wearing her everyday shoes.

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If you go

What: An 1840s Christmas at Fort Vancouver.

Where: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 1001 E. Fifth St.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday (fort is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

Cost: Adults $3; youth 15 and younger are free.

Caleb Hardy can play the music. A few days ago, he was getting ready to play the role.

Hardy is a re-enactor who will be part of the 1840s Christmas event Saturday at Fort Vancouver. Hardy will be one of the costumed musicians performing seasonal songs that were played when Fort Vancouver was the Northwest headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Their performance is likely to include some familiar tunes.

"Some songs that were popular now were popular then, like 'Silent Night' and 'Auld Lang Syne,'" Hardy said.

"I like 1840s music," the Portland resident said. "I don't know how much I'm like those people, but I like what they liked."

Hardy also will be dressing like them after a recent fitting session in the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site's costume department.

The volunteer costumers have outfitted more than 100 re-enactors for the annual Christmas event, said Eileen Trestain, coordinator of the costume department.

They will represent the full range of people who lived and worked at Fort Vancouver about 170 years ago. They include performers -- singers, storytellers and dancers -- as well as hands-on workers such as blacksmiths and cooks.

Artisans will help visitors create keepsakes such as holiday wreathes and wooden tops that can be taken home; other re-enactors will demonstrate black powder shooting.

They all will be dressed appropriately, thanks to a wardrobe collection that is far too big for the period clothing storage area.

"We have 4,972 numbered items, which includes jewelry pieces and gloves," Trestain said. "We probably have a third of that on site; two-thirds are checked out" by about 600 volunteer re-enactors.

(That includes Trestain, who portrays Vancouver pioneer Esther Short).

The costume department, under the roof of the fort's reconstructed 1840s kitchen, is looking forward to a getting a bigger place. In early 2013, the costumers will move to a building adjacent to the Visitors Center at the east end of Officers Row.

The costumers do more than check out trousers and hoop skirts. While Sheila Dolle and Sandi Glandon were fitting musicians Caleb Hardy and Ethan Hardy, other costumers were doing needle-and-thread work in a quiet corner.

Brigid Nelson had a bright orange dress on her lap. The young re-enactor who wears the dress has grown a bit, Nelson said, so "I'm letting the hem down."

Up-and-down hems

Her needlework on the hem also represents 19th-century clothing. The historically accurate stitching didn't represent her best work, but it was quick and it was easy to take out when the time came. A seamstress would alter a dress time after time.

"You can't go to Target and get another dress," Nelson noted.

"Children's dresses often were made with tucks hidden in the waistband, so they could expand," Trestain said.

If the dress was durable enough, the process would be reversed. The hem could be raised when the dress was handed down to a younger sister.

Men's trousers, shirts and vests are usually sewn by the volunteers, as are some of the hats. Clothing for children and women is made in-house, and some of the women's corsets are made by volunteers, Trestain said.

Materials are donated or purchased with grant money, and some of the patterns are based on actual clothing from the 1800s.

"Several of us on the costume crew collect antique clothing we can look at for references," Trestain said.

There are some modern accommodations. On a shirt, for example, all the stitching on the outside of the garment is hand-sewn.

"The insides we do by machine," Trestain said. "It's faster and more durable."

The costumes will be the focus, so to speak, of a new opportunity at this year's Christmas event. Visitors who bring their own cameras will be able to pose in old-fashioned holiday scenes with costumed re-enactors.

"Last year, we realized the public had a lot of fun taking photos alongside our costumed re-enactors," said Cassie Anderson, park ranger. "This year, we're giving you more of a chance to do just that."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.