Wrapped up in History: Guided Spirit Walks Costume Design

10 Years of Guided Spirit Walks

The 2021 Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery are upon us! This year’s season is extra special for two reasons. One, this year we celebrate our 10th annual production! 10 years of characters, costumes, and cemetery tours to be celebrated. Two, this is also the museum’s first major in-person program since the pandemic began! After over a year of being in lockdowns and developing and delivering virtual programs, we are finally able to share St. Catharines’ history with our community in-person. We are thrilled to invite everyone back to Victoria Lawn Cemetery for the 2021 Guided Spirit Walks: Before They Were History.

It is hard to believe this production has been running annually for 10 years. The Guided Spirit Walks are a part of the legacy of Niagara-area projects that have been running since 2012. Our very first production began as the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemorations theme and over the course of the years, we have been able to focus on different themes and characters, explore new stories, and revel in the wild and interesting history of St. Catharines. The Guided Spirit Walks have become a staple of the Museum.

To be able to host this year’s production in-person again is something we are very grateful for. Our main priority is safety, so the show has been adapted to ensure our cast and audience feel safe and comfortable throughout the night. This means, smaller tour capacity and specially assigned, physically distanced “seating” at each stop. While the virtual Guided Spirit Walks we hosted last year were fun, and we were able to reach new audiences who tuned in from across the country, nothing compares to being immersed in the experience at the cemetery. We can’t wait for our cast and audience to be back together again!

This year, we are telling the stories of St. Catharines residents from before they were famous. St. Catharines is made up of so many well-known figures, whose stories are already familiar, but we want to explore their lives when they were just ordinary folk. The stories being shared will let audiences glimpse into the lives of these figures, and understand the thoughts, dreams, and ideas they had that helped them make history. Some famous characters this year include: shipbuilder Melancthon Simpson, founder of North America’s first Girl Guide troop Mary Malcolmson, mineral spa resort owner Eleazer Stephenson, and more!

Historical Style

One of the most important (and fun) features of our show is the costumes. They help to bring our show to life and immerse the audience into past societies. Since we do not have the luxury of ample props and set design, the costumes are crucial to placing the audience in a specific moment in time. They are an integral part of the set. This year, our show features characters and stories that range from the 1820’s – 1940’s. That’s over 100 years of fashion to explore! While going through the tour, the audience will be able to see the distinct fashion features and how they changed throughout the decades – hemlines, fabrics, collars, and more. Thanks to our awesome costume designer Stanlee, we are able to have custom-made, historically accurate costumes that take the production one step further.

Get to Know Stanlee

Stanlee has been the Guided Spirit Walks custom-made costume designer since 2018. She works endlessly gathering inspiration, searching for accessories, meeting with our cast for fittings, and hand sewing the costumes we use in our production. We are so thankful for her expertise and help in making our show that much more amazing!

This year, we sat down with Stanlee for an interview to get some insight and behind-the-scenes knowledge of her process and experience with costume design.

What is your background and how did you come to costume design?

Stanlee: I’ve been sewing for over 50 years. I fell in making costumes for productions quite by accident. I had been making clothing and had been making Halloween costumes for my kids (and now grandkids). When my oldest daughter was in her last year of High School she volunteered me to help make the costumes for their production of Into the Woods. A few years later she volunteered me again and I did the finale costumes for a Chorus Line at McMaster University . Many years later I ran into the director of A Chorus Line. She was now the drama teacher for one of the local high schools. Since then I have done Beauty and the Beast, Peter and the Starcatcher and Into the Wood( again) with her. I also had the pleasure of doing Damn Yankees with Garden City Productions. It through my affiliations with the high school that I became acquainted with the Museum Spirit Walk I like detail. The more I sew, the more detail I want to do. I am fascinated with what’s inside a garment and how it comes together. I reference many ideas from my childhood seeing Ice Shows, Circus’ and stage plays, as well as old Hollywood movie musicals. I watch a lot of historical documentaries and historical dramas ( which are not always historically accurate) because they just fascinate me – but now I do find it hard to not judge the costumes! I have a huge regard for those who made all the huge and often lavish pieces of clothing all by hand in the past.

You are designing the costumes for all our female characters this year, as well as a few pieces for our male characters. Can you take me through the inspiration behind each costume?

Stanlee: The script is the biggest inspiration. My first step is always looking at where each scene takes place, what era, and do research based on that. I try to find images of the historical figures featured and garner a sense of their personality from the script and then envision the costume. It can be tricky though because there are limited sources and sometimes there isn’t always images of the figures portrayed. For example, this year’s scene with Marion Hooker takes place in the 1930’s, but the only images we could find of her are from the early 1920’s. I’ve had to look elsewhere for inspiration, and found it in images of New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, who would have been one of Marion’s comtemporaries. Others like Abigail Phelps are also tricky since I have to refer to painted portraits.

L: Portrait of Abigail Phelps (STCM 1975.177.1A) R: Cast member Jackie at a fitting with Stanlee for her Abigail Phelps Costume

The biggest thing to keep in mind with this show is that it isn’t a costume drama. I have to be very cognizant in designing. It’s more important for me to be historically accurate than to make a statement. This show’s also different because unlike a stage performance where performers are significantly farther away, the audience is physically close to the performer. Detail and accuracy are important since it’s more intimate and personal. In a stage performance the costumes are louder and more flamboyant to cultivate the feel and atmosphere of the story being told. The cemetery stage is much different. The details can speak for themselves.

L: Mary Malcomson (STCM 10166-N) R: Cast member Kathie in her Mary Malcomson costume

The stories we are telling range from 1820s to 1950s. What era is your favourite for costumes? Why?

Stanlee: Anything that isn’t now! I love creating for any period of time that I didn’t live in. Not to age myself, but anything mid – 1950’s back is totally cool with me. I find any fashion from later just harder to design and it brings back memories of poor fashion choices from the past! Its always interesting to shift between eras. This year’s show isn’t stuck in one era which keeps things new. I like the challenge.

What has been the biggest challenge this year?

Stanlee: Time is always a challenge. This year we started later than we typically would due to the pandemic. We could only start costume fittings after the museum opened in mid-July. There’s also the urgency to find fabrics due to concern of another lockdown. I’m very peculiar about materials that are used – we can’t use plastic buttons or anything outside the time period, so sometimes finding materials is tricky. It’s all part of the fun!

What are you most excited about this year?

Stanlee: Creating costumes in the case of the cemetery is part of the set. It’s what places the audience in a specific time and place. And if people get the sense of that, I’ll be happy! I’m also excited about the performers. I want them to be happy and comfortable in their costume. It helps them get a better sense of the person they are portraying, and helps the character come alive.

L: Mary and Bill Burgoyne (STCM 1947.46.3.3) R: Guide Rachelle trying on her Mary Burgoyne costume

Any good design/sewing tips you have learned over the years?

Stanlee: I’ve been doing this for so long that all the tips I hear just become routine. A good one though is using a mixture of vodka and water to neutralize odours when a piece can’t be washed. Use 1-part vodka and 1-part water, (or 2:1 depending on severity) and spray on the fabric. Always patch test it someplace inconspicuous first, but it’s all natural so the material shouldn’t get damaged and it will help neutralize odours that come over time!

Marisa’s Thoughts on Guided Spirit Walks

As an intern for the St. Catharines Museum this summer, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the Guided Spirit Walks production planning. It is so interesting to see how much thought and detail is placed onto every part of the production.

During rehearsals it’s so exciting to see the cast members grow into their role. From the first script read through when everyone is just finding their lines, to the final rehearsals when the script becomes second nature. Seeing the cast bring the lines to life and become the person they are portraying is so thrilling. They all play their characters with such conviction it’s hard to imagine they are just playing a role.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be present for some costume fittings this year! It amazes me how much detail Stanlee puts into each costume. Everything down to the buttons is historically accurate. The costumes are my favourite part of the show. They really bring the show together and immerse the audience into each era. The costumes are so telling of the character’s personality. It is so fun to watch the actors become their characters once the costume is on.

After being a part of all the behind-the-scenes planning, I can’t wait to see the final production in September. Watching all the little pieces come together and seeing how much work every single person puts into the production makes it that much more special. This year’s show is incredible and I am so excited for audiences to see it!

This year’s Guided Spirit Walks are September 10-11 and 17-18. Due to limited capacity, tickets are already sold out. You can get on our waitlist by visiting our website.

Want more Guided Spirit Walks content? Visit our social media pages for loads of fun content to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

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