Sea gowns and pantaloons and buckram, oh my!

Clothing historian Jane Malcolm-Davies of The Tudor Tailor has shared her expertise at Hampton Court Palace, Buckingham Palace, The National Trust and Historic Scotland, among other sites.

By Faye Wolfe 

“I’m interested in how fashion history helps to build up a picture of larger changes in a society,” said Mount Holyoke College student Elizabeth Lowe ’19. That’s why, as a double major in history and theatre arts, she studies material culture and is involved in costume research projects on campus. Last fall, she was the costume designer for the Mount Holyoke production of “Bull in a China Shop” by Bryna Turner ’12

That’s also why she signed up for a day of workshops featuring clothing historians Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila of The Tudor Tailor, held recently at Mount Holyoke’s Rooke Theatre. The event was sponsored by the theatre arts department with the Five College Consortium

“Opportunities to do hands-on historical research really appeal to me,” Lowe said, during a break in the daylong program. “And it’s always great to talk to people in the field, to hear about how they’ve learned their craft, their research methods, the types of sources they use.” 

The workshops fit in neatly with Mount Holyoke’s commitment to object-based learning, an approach that involves students handling objects large and small to facilitate deep learning. To that end, Mount Holyoke students can find many such immersive experiences in and out of the classroom, from curating exhibits to research with faculty and internships in a variety of fields. 

The Rooke Theatre’s costume shop manager, Elaine Bergeron, organized the day of workshops with Elizabeth Pangburn, a visiting guest artist in costume design, and Kiki Smith, professor of theater at Smith College and an award-winning costume designer. 

“I have so many students interested in learning more about clothing, as research for costumes or as an area of fashion or gender studies — you name it,” Bergeron said. “I take care of one of Mount Holyoke’s historical clothing collections and I know the amazing stories clothing can tell, as well as the secrets you can unlock when you really understand how something is made and worn.” 

Malcolm-Davies and Mikhaila each have a rich array of academic and professional credentials, including co-authoring the reference text “The Tudor Tailor.” Their company of the same name focuses on 16th-century English clothing. They’ve shared their expertise worldwide with productions on stage and screen, historic sites, reenactments and in the classroom. 

Why study what people wore 400 years ago? Over the course of the day, the two offered myriad answers to the question, demonstrating that historical apparel serves as a unique window into the past — and the view can be enthralling. 

About three dozen people, including some from the Five Colleges and the region as well as Mount Holyoke, gathered over the day. They looked at slides of iconic art and “archaeological brown” mittens (a term that describes the typical color of wool that’s been in the ground for a couple of centuries), examined wool samples, learned about best practices in research and costume-making — and got plenty of career advice. 

“Contacts. It’s important to have lots of contacts in this field!” Malcolm-Davies said exuberantly. 

Bergeron was thrilled by the Tudor Tailors’ own willingness to be available to students. “Jane and Ninya were so generous with information about internships and even opportunities to work with them in the future,” she said. 

During the morning workshop, “A Voyage of Discovery,” Malcolm-Davies delivered up a steady stream of fascinating facts and insights. Gathered in a classroom around a big table, the students freely asked questions, volunteered theories, worked in groups and singly on exercises of Malcolm-Davies’s devising, and photographed, tried on and turned inside out re-creations of 16th-century sailors’ “Venetian pantaloons” and a floor-length “sea gown.” 

As Malcolm-Davies talked about types of primary sources and how she has delved into them in such far-flung locales as Red Bay, Labrador, Mikhaila was across the hall in the black box theater spinning a sort of detective story. Let’s call it “The Mystery of the Sprayed-On Bust,” or, how did tailors in the Henrician era get that smooth fit of neckline to bosom, as seen in Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII’s wives? 

When Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies were working at Hampton Court Palace in London on the gowns of its costumed interpreters, they embarked on a quest to find out. They experimented with bents and bones, busques and lacing, paste buckram and brass pins. They sought out effigies of knights’ wives. A colleague who knew “secretary hand” (a sort of early shorthand: “c’s like r’s, r’s like w’s”) decoded Tudor inventories. 

In the process, they unearthed their share of secrets. But perhaps the greatest revelation of Mikhaila’s talk was that their research involved lots of digging, lot of trial and error, a few leaps of faith, and a little luck — valuable lessons for students contemplating careers in this line of work. 

The afternoon sessions were even more involving. As students braided each other’s hair and fashioned linen headdresses on the black box stage, others banged and hammered wool with big wooden mallets to “full” (clean and thicken) it, then raised the nap with teasel brushes. 

All the workshops had plenty of technical detail, deliciously served up, and the audience ate it up, eagerly asking questions. Where do you source your linen? Did Tudor tailors use hooks-and-eyes? Was there a religious aspect to the wearing of linen headscarves? 

Lowe, for one, came away with quite a few choice bits of information and some new approaches to investigating a subject she’s drawn to. 

“I learned a lot that I didn't know before about early-modern and Tudor clothing,” she said afterward. “And the research methods that they talked about were really interesting. I can definitely see myself applying what I learned from the workshops.” 

Mount Holyoke’s emphasis on material culture and hands-on learning is why Bergeron lined up the Tudor Tailor workshops, as well as a trip to Historic Deerfield to learn how flax was made into linen, and a behind-the-scenes tour of Rhode Island School of Design’s archives. Besides bringing the subject alive, these experiences, said Bergeron, “show that there are serious and fascinating careers available in these fields.” 

And sometimes, well, play’s the thing. Deborah D. Korboe ’21, an architecture studies and art studio double major, got hooked on theater when she toured Rooke during Orientation. “I found the costume studio, and it was, ‘yes, please!’” she said. Since then, she has worked on costumes and lighting for College productions. 

Korboe’s reason for taking the Tudor Tailor workshops: “I’m just here for fun!” she said, as another participant fitted her with a linen headdress. 

Fun? Yes, please! 

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