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Period costume-makers need both fashion designer and historian skills

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, 10:21 p.m.

These people take us back in time. When you see them, you think of years gone by.

They are “re-enactors” who help tell a story of a specific time period. You know them when you see them by what they wear.

Their authentic-looking clothing is more than a costume. These garments are often handmade and the amount of research that goes into their creation combines the expertise of both a fashion designer and a historian.

Some can take weeks to make.

“The character is like a mask,” says Patti Amor of Lancaster, a costumer and co-entertainment director with husband Doc Amor for the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, which opened Aug. 18.

“It is not you. It is someone else,” she says. “And when you are wearing the right garment you won’t be afraid to do anything, because the guests don’t know who you are. They think you are that character, and how you look is so important.”

It definitely is, agrees historical garment designer Jessica Young, owner of Trafford-based Penny River Costumes.

“When you put on the clothing, you become the character in that time frame,” Young says. “You are not a modern person anymore. Depending on the outfit, you might have trouble walking or sitting, but you learn to adjust.

“You usually have limited movement. But you get used to it.”

Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival

If you want to catch a glimpse of the amazing historical costumes designed by Patti Amor, visit the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival which runs weekends through Sept. 22-23, including a three-day stretch for Labor Day, Sept.1-3

The festival takes visitors on a magical tour through time and legend.

When you walk through the castle doors at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, you will be welcomed back to the year 1534.

As you wander down the village streets and pathways on the festival grounds near West Newton, you will see master revelers, watch artisans create original works of their ancient craft and be taken in the by tantalizing aromas of roast turkey “legges,” steak on a stake and fresh baked goods. Featuring a cast of hundreds of authentically costumed merrymakers, living and working throughout the village and performing continuously upon the festival’s stages, the activities create the illusion of a rollicking 16th-century festival day.

Themed weekends began with the rolling out of the welcome mat for King Henry VIII and Queen Anne’s arrival at the castle.

Scott Walton of Greensburg is the king.

“Having the right garment helps you get into the character,” Walton says. “It definitely makes a difference.”

All actors and actresses auditions for the parts and are outfitted accordingly by Patti Amor, who finds materials at Amish stores near where she lives, in thrift stores and online shops, and pretty much wherever she can.

She has a collection of 200-plus garments. All of the pieces are machine washable.

The individuals wearing them go through a lot just to get dressed. It’s more involved than most people realize, Patti Amor says. They aren’t just putting on a suit and tie or a dress. There are undergarments involved and layers of clothing like people really wore back in the day.

There are corsets and hoops worn under clothing for women and bloomers for men.

Patti will be playing the part of Esperanza while Doc Amor is Pelais.

“I will be wearing a garment that my wife made years ago, and it still looks good,” Doc Amor says. “It’s also authentic. I say she is a fashion designer of clothing, not costumes, because these are well-made garments and they fit so well — sometimes so well that you don’t eat lunch because there is literally no room for it.”

The goal is to have actors dress for their parts to help make the renaissance come to life.

The costumes have to be spot on, says Patti Amor. If not, she will definitely notice.

If the wrong button is used on a jacket or the shoes aren’t representative of the time period, that item sticks out like a sore thumb, says Patti Amor, who has even dressed a horse to match an outfit her son wore at a previous event.

She started making this clothing for her family members and herself to wear to a festival and now she’s part of the performance. The clothing is fit to the individual and she often has to make minor fixes during a festival, from lost buttons to split seams.

“I have read books on historical costumes,” says Patti Amor, who is self-taught. “And I don’t like cookie-cutter costumes. I want everyone to look different. In my head I see what I want to do. I like to add colorful pieces to the outfits.

“If it doesn’t fit right the actor or actress won’t be comfortable in it. I won’t put something on someone if it doesn’t fit,” she adds. “This is an interactive festival because we engage with people, so it has to be believable.

“What we wear helps create the escape magic when guests walk through the castle door back in time.”


Penny River Costumes

Jessica Young participates in various events throughout the year, including a program she presented on “Eighteenth Century Clothing” at the Bushy Run Battlefield Museum in Penn Township earlier this summer.

Her talk included a demonstration of the different pieces and parts of typical 18th-century dress for men, women and children, featuring garments that she made. She conducted a “getting dressed” segment and a colonial fashion show.

Young has a degree in theatrical costuming from the University of Richmond, and has worked as a costumer for Carnegie Mellon University and Colonial Williamsburg.

She’s been involved in the Frontier Court Re-enactments event, hosted by the Westmoreland County Historical Society in June at Hanna’s Town, Hempfield, and plans to attend George Washington’s Colonial Market & Fair Sept. 14-16 in Mount Vernon, Va., to meet an associate who does embroidery for period costumes.

Young will be wearing a garment she is making just for this event, a 1780s Italian gown. She says she finds fabrics everywhere from flea markets to high-end fabric stores.

“For everyone involved in these events, from performers to vendors, it is important to have the correct look,” she says. “You have to be dressed a certain way to be taken seriously.”

Designers such as Young notice every detail from matching stitching to whether something has been sewn by hand or on a machine. Sometimes the wearer sweats a lot, so it’s nice to have items that can be hand or machine washed. Young takes her undergarments in the shower with her to hand wash them.

“The amount of research that goes into making this clothing (is such) that you could qualify for a masters’ thesis in what they wear,” says Young. “If you try to fake it, they will know.”


Fort Ligonier

You can always go back in time at Fort Ligonier, but one of the best times to experience this national historic site and museum is during the Living History Weekend on Sept. 1-2.

Fort Ligonier comes to life with costumed interpreters, living history demonstrations, musket firings and 18th-century games.

“Living History Weekend at Fort Ligonier features top-notch interpreters who illuminate life during the French and Indian War era,” says director of history and collections Erica Nuckles, a Mt. Lebanon native who lives in Ligonier and has a PhD in history. “This event provides an exceptional experience where visitors get to step into history in a multi-sensory way by seeing, hearing, touching and even smelling the past.”

Nuckles’ passion for history and period costumes comes from her parents, who live in Greensburg. Her mother Sally Nuckles is a seamstress and her dad, Steve Nuckles, shared a love of history with his family.

The three will be part of Living History Weekend. Erica Nuckles makes some of the outfits, buying many fabrics from Burnley & Trowbridge Co. and William Booth Draper.

“There is a lot of research that goes into this clothing,” Erica Nuckles says. “The garments create the character, and actors and actresses really develop and delve into the person they are portraying. We are always re-evaluating what we are wearing to make sure it’s authentic. It’s fun to always be learning about this clothing. It’s important to get the details right.

“I know I sound like a nerd, but I have found my community, my people who share a passion for this clothing.”


Freeport Theatre Festival

The Freeport Theatre Festival does a series of plays about Western Pennsylvania History, specializing in dramas. Participants also re-enact outdoor battles.

The current show is “Rivertown Fireman’s Jubilee,” which runs Aug. 17-19, 24-26. It’s a nostalgic look at small town life and the people who support and protect it.

Owners Rennick and Marushka Steele make some of the garments and purchase others from Smoke & Fire Co.

When it comes to costumes of the 18th- and 19th-century, many re-enactors purchase period patterns and have their uniforms and dresses made by a seamstress, Rennick Steele says.

“Attention to period detail is exacting for most,” he says. “In the theater, we cannot afford that kind of detail; however, we have had young George Washington’s and General Braddock’s military uniforms made from a pattern we purchased from Smoke & Fire, a re-enactors treasure trove.”

Rennick Steele says they are fortunate to have capable seamstresses to help create the impression of authenticity.

“Re-enactors spend thousands of dollars on authentic recreations, using fabric of the exact weave, of the period,” he says. “Civil War re-enactors travel to a shop in Gettysburg which sells fabric of the correct warp and weave. Some make their own outfits.”


JoAnne Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062 or or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.

George Washington and company at the performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
George Washington and company at the performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
Sgt. Algeo, Mike Huston, made every piece of this costume for his performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
Sgt. Algeo, Mike Huston, made every piece of this costume for his performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
The cast of “Rivertown Fireman’s Jubilee” being performed at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
The cast of “Rivertown Fireman’s Jubilee” being performed at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
George Washington and company at the performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
George Washington and company at the performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
Sgt. Algeo, Mike Huston, made every piece of this costume for his performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
Sgt. Algeo, Mike Huston, made every piece of this costume for his performance at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
The cast of “Rivertown Fireman’s Jubilee” being performed at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
The cast of “Rivertown Fireman’s Jubilee” being performed at the Freeport Theatre Festival.
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