She has her place in history sewn up Evoking the past: Kate Reynolds has been commissioned to make clothes for exhibition on White Tower diners and Pennsylvania Avenue's Royal Theater.

February 16, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

THURMONT -- Patiently sewing pieces of delicate silk and fine brocade into a gracious gown is more than simply dressmaking for Kate Reynolds. It is an adventure in history.

In her cluttered workshop, the 44-year-old seamstress re-creates items of clothing as far apart in time as that worn by the Cavaliers who settled Maryland in the 1630s and that emblematic of two Baltimore landmarks in the 1950s -- White Tower diners and Pennsylvania Avenue's Royal Theater.

The Baltimore City Life Museums will open exhibitions on the diners and "The Avenue" this year. Mrs. Reynolds has been commissioned to clothe the guides and living-history interpreters.

The "Towerettes" who served up hamburgers and coffee wore (( practical white uniform dresses with red polka dots, aprons, belts and perky little hats. Although she has contemporary dress patterns, Mrs. Reynolds is researching every detail and conferring with a former Towerette to ensure accuracy.

To evoke performers of the Royal Theater's glory days, Mrs. Reynolds is using a 1942 pattern for a long-sleeved, full-skirted gown with a sweetheart neckline in iridescent royal-blue taffeta overlaid by net decorated with silver sparkles.

The museum also asked Mrs. Reynolds recently to take on another job -- clothing detective.

Excavation for a new unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore last year uncovered two long-forgotten cemeteries from the first half of the 1800s. One was a potter's field for the poor, and the other belonged to Christ Church, a now-defunct Episcopal congregation.

Using items found in some of the graves, Mrs. Reynolds is trying to determine the clothing styles of some of the 186 people whose skeletons were found. The arrangements of buttons, and the buttons themselves, can indicate the type of garments. Other finds include cuff links, a cravat pin, a heart-shaped fob seal, pins and a decorative comb.

Mrs. Reynolds, a college-trained librarian, began sewing period clothing as a girl growing up in Fond du Lac, Wis., in a family of needlewomen. She started with doll clothes and began sewing her own dresses in elementary school.

"Once I figured out how to sew modern clothes, I decided there must be something more exciting, so I started looking at period clothing," Mrs. Reynolds said.

Her father was a school art instructor who had many books of paintings illustrating clothing through history.

"The problem was that there was no idea of the internal construction or what the backs looked like, and none of the books on costume details were on the market then," she said.

In seventh grade, she hit pay dirt, becoming a volunteer guide at a restored 19th century Civil War-era house in Fond du Lac that had a large collection of vintage clothing.

"The clothing was from 1817 through the Civil War to the turn of the century. I had the chance to turn it inside out to examine the construction," she said.

Stress on authenticity

She studied books on theater costume-making and engaged in it. But there is vast difference between stage costumes and those for historical re-enactors, living-history interpreters, museums and people who want period costumes for personal use.

"Theater costumes have to be sturdy, able to withstand rough wear and a lot of use by different people during rehearsals and during the run of a play. And they are not designed for close-up scrutiny," said Mrs. Reynolds, who did most of the costuming of interpreters at the museums' Carroll Mansion and 1840 House.

Historical clothing worn by re-enactors and interpreters is designed with authenticity in mind because it receives close scrutiny and because critics are likely to point out anachronisms, she said.

"Re-enactors dress authentically from the skin out -- cotton or linen underwear, corsets, stays, everything. I never know where people are going to wear the clothes, and they have to be right," said Mrs. Reynolds, who moved to Maryland in 1980 with her husband, a medical librarian at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She launched her business, Creative Clothes, the next year.

Only natural fabrics -- wool, cotton, silk and linen -- will do because synthetics don't have the same "hand" -- they don't hang right -- she said, adding, "I try to use not only the cut and technique of the period, but the fabric as well."

Before 1675, the law in some countries required that clothing for both sexes be made by all-male guilds. King Louis XIV granted a petition to allow Frenchwomen to make their own clothing; Englishwomen followed suit quickly, and the fashion industry was born, Mrs. Reynolds said.

A 'fantastical' look

Designing, cutting and sewing remained guild secrets, however, the women had to figure things out for themselves. The cut of the dresses was basically simple, Mrs. Reynolds said, "but the quality of the fabric and the trim made them look fantastical."

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