Fort finds good fit for clothing at Summer's End Promenade (with video)

Re-enactors will don outfits representing 100 years of history

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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photoEileen Trestain, head of the costume department at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, tightens a corset in preparation for a dress fitting for Heidi Pierson, a National Park Service cultural resource specialist, Wednesday.

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If you go

What: Summer’s End Promenade.

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Along Officers Row and the Fort Vancouver Parade Ground.

Weather: If it rains, the event will be at the ­Visitor Center, 1501 Evergreen Blvd.

Nineteenth-century corsets weren't as uncomfortable as you might think, Eileen Trestain said — not if they were fitted properly.

Those cinch-up midriff wraps weren't necessarily about achieving an hourglass figure, either, Trestain said as she laced up Heidi Pierson's corset Wednesday afternoon.

Anybody who's ever shopped in a home-improvement store has seen the modern equivalent: the really wide belts worn by employees for back support.

And 150 years ago, women's work meant lifting a lot of heavy things, including big iron kettles, said Trestain, an expert on historic clothing and textiles.

Trestain is head of costuming at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, and her department will put 100 years of fashion on display Saturday. The Summer's End Promenade will feature re-enactors wearing clothing that represents styles from 1845 to 1945.

Pierson is a National Park Service cultural resource specialist who will take part in the promenade.

It will be a chance to show a much wider range of costuming than usual, Pierson said. Fort Vancouver's living-history presentations typically reflect the Hudson's Bay era of the 1840s, but plenty of American history was made after the British left.

Saturday's re-enactors will be able to discuss what they're wearing, and how the clothing reflected the styles of that particular era.

Don't expect to come across any century-old apparel, however.

With limited exceptions, "anything older than 1920 is too fragile," Trestain said. "Military uniforms from the 1920s are wearable; dresses are not wearable."

Trestain does have some garments that are historical artifacts, but they are used only for instructional purposes.

"We can use old dresses to show how the sewing was done," she said.

Sewing skills have changed a lot in the past 150 years, Trestain said, "and most volunteers have to learn a whole new 'old' way of sewing."

When it comes to historical accuracy, the sewing volunteers pick their spots. They use sewing machines when working on interior seams and other features that can't be seen. When working on pieces of garments that are plainly visible, the volunteers do historically appropriate hand stitching.

Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, said that the costumed re-enactors can provide the person-to-person contact that connects with park visitors.

"I knew early on this was an area that was critical to focus on. Period costumes help bring a unique feel and understanding to this national park," Fortmann said. "Costumes add that extra something to the historic structures and reproductions. I knew I wanted to expand the program."

When Trestain arrived in 2004, the costume department had about 500 items -- and then the inventory went down drastically.

"We took half of them out because they were not historically accurate," Trestain said.

Now the costume department has 5,682 individual items, from underwear to outer garments, from hats to shoes.

The costumers have a new home that's a better fit for all the dressmaking and alterations. After the military left Vancouver Barracks, the costume department moved from cramped space on the second floor of the reconstructed kitchen building inside the fort stockade to a modern facility.

It's much roomier, with natural daylight that is much better for sewing. And it has a modern wiring, Trestain said. They can plug in two irons at the same time without blowing a circuit.


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

View a video of the Fort Vancouver Costume and textile department on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.