The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

And back to costuming: Historical Sew Monthly catch-up -- War & Peace

George Washington, by Charles Peale Polk,
c. 1793. Smithsonian Museum.
The Challenge: April – War & Peace: the extremes of conflict and long periods of peacetime both influence what people wear.  Make something that shows the effects of war, or of extended peace. 

A friend of my parents' is in the media business, part-time, and occasionally has a project where he needs a costume designer.  The first time he brought me into a film project, around 20 years ago, I went up to the Santa Cruz mountains where the team was filming a documentary about Johann Sebastian Bach, using the California Redwoods as stand-ins for the forests of Germany.  I was a costume assistant – ironing, dressing people, polishing shoes, and mending – and it was a really interesting experience.  A few months ago, this same friend called me up and said he was part of another small film project, and they needed a costume designer.  This time, since there was only one actor to be costumed, they only needed one person, and he asked me to put together a bid.  I must have been the only costume designer who sent a bid, because they accepted mine immediately!  Then, the actor that I was about to start costuming ended up not being hired (the client on the East Coast didn't like his audition tape) and I was put on hold for over a month while my parents' friend tried to find someone else.  Two weeks ago the company found someone that they liked, and the client on the East Coast liked, too, so I found myself in the middle of research. 

original epaulettes belonging to George Washington,
ca. 1783. Massachusetts Historical Society.
The project is a 2-minute film clip for a website, showing George Washington in his Continental Army uniform, reading from a letter he wrote in 1790, the year after he became President. Originally, my job was to co-ordinate the rental of an appropriate costume and wig, be at the filming (in a studio) to help with any last-minute emergencies, and return the costume and wig to the rental shop after having it cleaned.  In the past week or so, I have not only researched and rented (most of) the costume, but I have been assigned the job of doing the actor's makeup for the camera, dressing his hair like Washington's, assisting with filming location review (filming in a historic building, now), assisting with props acquisition, supervising the filming around the antiques on display at the location (the museum where I work) and making some of the items seen in Washington's portraits, that didn't come with the costume I was able to rent, namely an appropriate neck stock (the ones the shop had were all too fancy) and a pair of silver-starred, gold, fringed, epaulettes for the jacket (see portrait of Washington above).

original epaulettes belonging to George Washington,
c. 1779, Smithsonian.
The costume I was able to rent wasn't quite the right color (the navy blue was a shade too light and the "buff" was more like light brown), the waistcoat has a deep V-neckline instead of the high neckline in the original, and the fit will be too loose, but most unfortunately, it didn't come with gold epaulettes on the shoulders!  In every image of Washington in his uniform, he has gold epaulettes with fringe, cording and three stars (silver?) on his shoulders; the client (in Boston) would definitely notice if I left them off! 

Luckily I had made epaulettes for a show at my home theater (Lyric Theatre of San Jose) several years ago, so I knew what to do, but it still took me a while to put everything together.  Thankfully, the Smithsonian has an original Continental Army uniform that belonged to Washington, from about the same time period as the film project, and photos of it are available on the website!  I studied all the paintings of Washington that I could find online, and the photos of the original uniform and 2 sets of epaulettes, which aren't displayed together. 
original uniform belonging to George Washington,
c. 1789, National Museum of American History.

I bought some wide, old-gold colored ribbon, and matching upholstery fringe and cord, 1-inch wide slightly shiny metallic gold ribbon, as well as some star-shaped buttons, at the fabric store.  The actor's shoulder-to-shoulder measurement is 17 inches, so I estimated that the epaulettes should be rectangles, 6 inches long and 2 inches wide, with 2-inch fringe (if I could find some).  The old-gold ribbon was almost 2 inches wide, so I cut a 6 ½" length for the backing of each epaulette, and put together two widths of the metallic ribbon with a narrow zig-zag stitch for the top/visible side.  I turned the cut edges to the inside and sewed the two layers together with a line of straight stitches as near to the edge as I could sew.  Then, I measured out about 8 inches of fringe for each epaulette, and pinned, and then sewed it in a double layer around one end of each epaulette.  I took the cord and stitched it, first by machine and then by hand when it got too thick for the machine, so that it covered the top of the fringe, and the cut edges were turned under the epaulette.  So far, so good. 

coloring the blue plastic stars silver.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The stars were another matter at first; in the package from the store, they were plastic, in 3 different sizes, and red, white/clear, and blue!  The backing of each button was silver foil, and originally I planned to sew them on with the foil backing showing, and then somehow dull the mirror-like shine.  Then I found a metallic silver marking pen in my desk!  I tried coloring over one of the smaller star buttons (I only needed 6 of the largest size) and it worked like a charm!  The only issue was that it was difficult to hold the button and color it at the same time, without getting my fingerprints in the silver ink on the button, so I unfolded a paper clip and made a little pair of tweezers with it, and was able to fit the ends of the paper clip wire into the holes in each button to hold on to it.  Six formerly blue stars were colored silver, and once they dried, I sewed them to the epaulettes, 3 stars for each, spacing them 1 ½ inches apart.  I put two safety pins in the back of each epaulette, ready to attach them to the coat (I'll pin through the shoulder seam from the inside), and they were ready to go on the General's uniform!

Fabric: synthetic ribbon, cord, fringe, and plastic buttons, metallic silver ink, cotton thread.

Pattern: none

unfinished epaulettes with the supplies used.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Year: 1790-ish

Notions: a little more than 12 inches each of the two kinds of gold ribbon and the gold cord, about 16 inches of gold fringe, 6 plastic star buttons  

How historically accurate is it? Appearance, very.  The original epaulettes were likely made of gold-wrapped silk threads, and they are tarnished and darkened, but still metallic; I used all modern synthetic materials.

Hours to complete: 1 hour or so.

First worn: The actor will wear them this coming Friday on camera!

finished epaulettes!  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Total cost: I had to buy the whole spool of one of the ribbons, and bought a yard each of the wide gold ribbon, gold cord and about 2 yards of the gold fringe (it was the last on the spool). In all, it was probably less than $10, but I have extras to use for other things. 
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)