Historic clothes in today's scene

September 04, 1991|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

KATHI REYNOLDS, a professional dressmaker, is deluged with calls from customers seeking original creations for the galas on their social calendars. But unlike most designers, who might pull out the latest copy of Vogue for ideas, Reynolds turns to something like "Costume in Detail: Women's Dress 1730-1930."

Reynolds' specialty is vintage clothing, particularly the styles of the 18th and 19th centuries. Her customers are museums and historic sites, tour guides and individuals who participate in historic re-enactments.

When the daylong Battle of North Point Defenders' Day Program gets under way at Fort Howard Park Saturday, Reynolds' period costumes will be much in evidence. Defenders Day is a Maryland holiday commemorating the battle that halted the British land advance on Baltimore and essentially turned the tide of the War of 1812.

Not only is Reynolds outfitting several of the historic characters in the program, including Francis Scott Key and Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, but she'll conduct a fashion show twice during the day to show visitors the variety of clothes worn by civilians during the War of 1812.

While battle anniversaries are often the reason for a re-enactment, the civilian activities surrounding the military action are becoming increasingly popular among history buffs looking for a chance to step into the past. And civilian clothing of the era, says Reynolds, is critical for setting the scene.

"If you're performing Colonial music, it doesn't come off if you show up in modern dress. It adds much more to the whole presentation if you're in the proper period dress because it gives people a visual cue of what's to come."

Among Reynolds' most recent period creations is a wedding gown of blue-green satin with a white silk organza pelerine. The dress was worn by the bride when the wedding of a 19th-century working-class couple was re-enacted at the 1840 House in Baltimore earlier this summer.

It's just one of dozens of pieces -- finished and unfinished -- that Reynolds points out as she walks a visitor through her studio in her home in Thurmont. She points out a quilted cotton petticoat fashioned after those of the mid-1700s and a simple calico print dress with bib-apron front, circa 1800.

Among the evening wear is a blue and white brocade and taffeta gown designed to be worn to a Victorian-style ball, and a court dress like those worn to English Civil War feasts in the 1640s. The latter is made of silk and velvet, with hand-sewn seams and hem. Scattered throughout the room are dog-earred remnants of the 300-book reference library she's accumulated over the years in researching her fashions.

Reynolds was making all of her own clothes by the time she got to high school, but her interest in period clothing began before then. At 13, as a volunteer youth guide at a historical village in Fond du Lac, Wisc., she was able to get a close look at 19th-century dresses for the first time and examine how they were put together.

Her fascination with the "insides" of clothes continued through college and graduate school in library science. "I started collecting cutting diagrams and taking notes on the last part of the 1800s. I wanted to know: 'How were pieces cut, how were they seamed together, how were the seams finished, how were the sleeves set in . . .' "

By the time her husband Allen's job as a medical librarian brought the couple to Western Maryland in 1980, Reynolds had acquired enough experience as a seamstress to try a career at it. Among her first customers was the Rose Hill Children's Museum in Frederick; a year or so later she found herself studying the 1770s to make a costume for a friend who was into American Revolution re-enactments. In 1984, when Maryland's 350th anniversary came around and a customer requested an appropriate dress, she dug back into the 1600s.

In time, she stopped making contemporary clothes altogether and concentrated on researching and sewing period costumes. She says most of the profits from her business, Creative Clothes, into expanding supplies and equipment to meet the growing demand for period costumes.

The former librarian prides herself on the historical accuracy of her work -- from the texture of the fabric to the placement of a pocket to the way the hem is finished. But it's not always easy to make an exact replica.

Heavy silk like that used in many of the fashions in earlier times is available, she says, "but it costs $50 a yard." And colors of yesterday can't always be duplicated. "Certain shades, particularly the tans and browns, just can't be created with today's dyes."

When she was asked to come up with a dress the well-to-do Baltimorean Betsy Patterson Bonaparte might have worn as a spectator of the 1814 battle, she remembered a pair of sheer white muslin curtains with embroidered trim that a friend had passed along to her. The curtains were turned into a simple cotton day dress, which will be seen in Saturday's fashion show.

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