Part 4 of a five-part series.
Costumes are a big part of the process behind the scenes of the Guided Spirit Walks production while our actors are busy rehearsing. To be as immersive as possible, we dress each of our actors in period specific outfits. We have done lots of research to ensure that our script is historically accurate. Our actors have been training to represent their characters as fully as possible through the delivery of their lines, and so it is important that their outfits follow that trend. I had initially underestimated this element of production. I think that to me, costuming seemed like a process as simple as picturing what we wanted our characters to wear and dressing them as such. But of course the people being portrayed in “At War’s End” are not “characters” as usually imagined; they are the memories of real people whose appearance is up to history, not to our imaginations.
I am no fashion expert, so I did some research of my own into the shifting trends of dress in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I was surprised at how interesting I found the various changes in clothing over the last two hundred years. From a historical perspective, I found that fashion trends followed social values. This has been especially true in the way that women were expected to dress. It’s telling that men have been expected to wear only slight variations of the same three-piece suit since about 1830, with shifts from top hats to bowler hats to modern styles. Women’s fashion, however, has changed more drastically, based on how much a woman’s body should be covered or how her figure should appear. The hoop skirt’s parabolic growth and decline through the Nineteenth century shows a fascinating fixation on women’s waist and hips. I took some time to think of how fashion, beyond the need to survive various climates, is entirely arbitrary.
The need to accurately represent era-specific fashion trends, however, meant that our clothing choices were not at all random. Adrian let me sit in on a meeting between himself and Stanlee Hickey, our costume designer. I observed as the two discussed just how important it is to create costumes that balance historicity and feasibility for the actors, who are in a cemetery and are not on stage. They tried to make use of whatever materials we already had before purchasing designs online. I had not thought about where costume designs came from, but learned that especially for ones like ours that need to be historically correct, designers will find patterns online that show real styles from the period. Stanlee will then add her own creative touch by combining pieces from templates, changing colours or materials, or adapting designs to our existing materials. Stanlee, who has been working passionately in theatre for approximately 20 years, stressed the importance of taking care of these costumes. Leaving them on the ground or eating food in them makes her cringe! I learned that the clothing process is no simpler than the research and crafting required to write our script. This was certainly evident in the way that Stanlee approached and discussed her work.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the outfits that we’ll be using in this year’s production. Having several military men as our characters in “At War’s End” we’ve ordered numerous reproductions of World War One era uniforms. The most distinct pieces of these Service Dress uniforms are the jackets. The Canadian Service Dress jacket sported gauntlet style cuffs, box pleated breast pockets, and a seven button front. These brown jackets were implemented in 1903 to replace more brightly coloured predecessors. Despite orders to leave jackets loose to fit sweaters underneath, many soldiers tailored them tighter to look sharper. The British Service Jacket was adopted by the Canadian Expeditionary Force shortly after the beginning of the war in 1914 because the Canadian version was too poor quality to serve effective in combat. The British jacket added wool rifle patches over the shoulders for extra padding, in addition to plain cuffs and a five button front. The Kitchener Pattern Service Dress was later introduced to alleviate some wartime economic strain; it abandoned the rifle patches and pocket pleats to save fabric.
Leading into the Twentieth Century, womenswear had become less extravagant. In the wake of the 1880s’ movement the Rational Dress Society, health corsets had been introduced for more comfort and reasonability. The wide dresses and large hoop skirts of the mid-19th Century had shrunk into a long, slim, low waisted style. With social change and the idea of an educated, career-driven “New Woman”, the female tailored suit was introduced. Of course, the necessity for women to enter the workforce during the war forced acceptance of suits and professional wear, which joined tunics, high heels, and big hats as marks of early Twentieth Century women’s style. Certainly, this progress in fashion reflecting social norms was short of the ideal, but showed a gradual building gender equality.
Be sure to watch for these various costumes at the Guided Spirit Walks! I’ve seen our team put in more work than I had considered to bring these costumes together. We chose these outfits based on historical accuracy, practicality, and feasibility. I have no doubt that they will add a sense of fullness to the many other elements that bring these century-old stories to life. In two weeks I will be posting my final blog, where I discuss the poetry that serves as interlude between each scene. Don’t forget to come see “At War’s End” to see what happens when we combine all of the research, rehearsal, and costuming and put it in place for the production.
Click here for Part 5 of this behind-the-scenes series.
“I’m Paul. I am in my second year with GSW but have several years’ experience with other local Spirit tours. My daughter, being a Brock history student, encouraged me to help out with a tour she was involved with and I never looked back.
The staff and volunteers at the St Catharines Museum are meticulous in their research and preparation. They inspire me to improve my knowledge and performance, and are a delight to be around.
For me, the volunteer acting has taken me to act in commercials, background acting for TV and more recently a part in a play.”
“I am delighted to join the GSW cast. I bring acting, improv and immersive theatre experience from performances in St. Catharines and Toronto. I am the great-granddaughter of Commander George Steer who came out of retirement, re-enlisting with the Royal Navy, to serve in WW1. I honour his war effort along with all those who served.”
Guided Spirit Walks run September 7th, 8th, 14th, and 15th at 6pm and 7pm at Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Tickets are on sale now!
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Chris McGivern is the Museum’s summer Program Assistant and is studying Concurrent Education at Brock University.