A Stitch in Time
Cockayne Historian Brings New Life to Old-Style Gowns
GLEN DALE — The wedding for which Kara Gordon is preparing technically happened 151 years ago. But, she can still feel the panic.
It’s not modern-day problems like photographers and centerpieces that have her mind and fingers flying. Gordon, a master seamstress in addition to being site manager of Glen Dale’s Cockayne Farmstead, is outfitting everyone from the bride to the minister who will preside over two reenactments scheduled for May 23.
Fortunately, she knows what she’s doing.
Her master’s degree in public history from West Virginia University included an internship with the clothing team at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. There, she added luster to a lifetime interest in creating, wearing and even folk dancing in historically accurate gowns.
“I never really did Victorian before, but I’ve just gotten into it recently,” she said of her position at Cockayne causing her to venture into a new era. (The farmstead was constructed in the 1850s, but was in its heyday while Queen Victoria was driving style — hence the choice of a house wedding that happened in 1870.)
Perhaps because she also sometimes works in costume herself, it has fast become one of her favorites.
“I do tend to feel a little bit more confident when I’m wearing dresses like that,” she said, gesturing toward a gown from her other favorite style era, the 1780s.
It is displayed in its multi-layered glory on a dress form, part of Gordon’s personal collection of more than 20 gowns ranging from the 1770s to the 1890s in style.
Innermost is a thin shift.
That’s followed by stays made from canvas and artificial whale bone — back support and then some, she noted. There’s a couple of internal petticoats (for poof) and an outer petticoat (for beauty and color). That lot is covered by a loosely structured “gown” that is accessorized with a scarf-like fichu at the neck, an apron and a ribbon belt.
“I honestly feel a little more comfortable — not pajama type of comfortable — but it’s easier to do things,” she said of working or dancing in such a dress.
Well, some things.
“These outfits and cars don’t go together,” Gordon joked of the shape of bucket seats and the reality of stays and corsets. “You can’t slouch. If you try, you can’t breathe. That’s why all those benches (in old churches) are so straight.”
And, don’t get her started on bustles. While she long thought they looked “dumb,” Gordon said she got it within minutes of donning one.
“What does a bustle do?” Gordon explained. “It keeps the skirt off the back of your feet when you’re backing up (so you don’t trip). You certainly wouldn’t have known this unless you’re actually wearing it.”
If wearing such clothing has helped Gordon understand history in a first-foot way, sewing such items by hand in the same way her predecessors did has been truly illuminating.
The 1780s gown for example, she said, is an engineering tour de force. Such dresses were made (and are still made, by Gordon at least) without a pattern. Fabric was simply draped on the intended wearer and the cutting and pinning began.
Interestingly, given the custom-fit technique, Gordon said much historic clothing — including the 1780s gown — didn’t use “darts.” Those structural seams fit modern clothing around women’s actual shapes.
Stays, instead, pushed women’s curves upward and shaped the upper body into a triangle.
“All of it together, it works,” Gordon said of the multiple layers leading to an idealized silhouette that still allows movement and breath. “But, if you try to change any of the things, it doesn’t.”
“That’s really what appeals to me. Not just the finished product, but the method,” Gordon said of this aspect of her work. “You’re learning history as you’re making it. I’m lucky to have a job that incorporates that.”
Just don’t expect to commission a gown from Gordon anytime soon.
She has done such a side gig — making uniforms for military re-enactors and briefly having a shop on Etsy. But, the difficulty of fitting garments to far-flung clients and the cost of such work brought a quick end to that.
Just the fabric and notions for a single gown could easily add up to more than $300, she explained.
(For her own gowns, Gordon trims expenses by getting flexible with her source. A Regency gown was upcycled from an old silk sari. A cotton chemise a la reine began its life as curtains from Target.)
And, even if she paid herself only minimum wage, the 1780s gown, for example, would top $500 in labor.
“Nobody wants to pay that. Well, a few people do, but not that many,” Gordon said. “I’ll make them for people that I like and I don’t charge them.”
She also generally opts out of men’s clothing, she said, noting most of the male re-enactors for the upcoming Cockayne event will be wearing purchased designs. Why? The fabric for men’s clothes is thicker and the structure of pants, in particular, is more difficult to work.
Such clothing is also not quite as pretty as, say, a dress modeled after one worn by Marie Antoinette in a painting and now by oneself.
“I just like that it makes you feel like you’re in the past. It’s different wearing it.”
Readers who would like to attend the May 23 Cockayne Farmstead wedding re-enactment and a room-by-room interpretation of what was behind such festivities, can purchase tickets by phone by calling the museum at 304-845-1411. Visitors will be assigned times to allow for social distancing.