Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center

Colonial Williamsburg's Costume Design Center celebrates its 75th anniversary of costumed interpretation in 2009.

75th Anniversary Timeline

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Costume Design Center


President Franklin D. Roosevelt sits in his car at the opening of Duke of Gloucester Street in 1934


Costumes were first worn October 20, 1934, by Colonial Williamsburg hostesses at the Raleigh Tavern for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit for the dedication of Duke of Gloucester Street.

1935 - Governor's Palace - hostesses looking toward the palace and kitchen from the walk.


The first costumes were so successful that by November 5, 1934, costumes were ordered for all hostesses in Colonial Williamsburg exhibition buildings.

1935 - Governor's Palace - rear of the palace from the gardens. Hostesses stand in the gardens.


Early hostess gowns were intended to represent the fashions of the 1750s. Enormous panniers, or hoops, endowed the wearer with three times her natural width. Ladies wore their hair in the style of the day, which was judged to be unobtrusive, if not authentic.



The Historic Area is increasingly populated with costumed interpreters, with a heavy emphasis on gentry-class clothing.



The first decade of costuming suggests the 1700s, but places pockets too high and leaves shopkeepers in shirtsleeves rather than in proper coats.



Early trades interpreters are somewhat overdressed, since the upper classes would not have spun their own cloth. The chore would have been the province of the enslaved or rural population, who would have worn plain, utilitarian clothing.


1940s - Man with horse


Costumed coachmen bring depth to the interpretation of servants of wealthy colonists. Peyton Randolph and George Washington are both known to have specified the details of their household's livery.

1947 - Bonnie Brown spins wools on a spinning wheel in the George Wythe South Office


A natural silhouette belies the fact that early interpreters were not required to wear stays: rigid foundation garments which constricted the torso into a smooth, conical shape.

1948 - At the Peruke Maker's


Loosely-fitted pants and 1940's shoes disguised with buckles are indicators of the modern era, rather than the colonial. As costume evolves, clothing is fitted closely to the body, as it would have been in the 18th century.

1948 - At the ballroom in the Governor's Palace


The low sleeve line worn by this interpreter at the Palace is authentic to the period, but later research will show that the shirt ruffle should only extend half as far down the chest, and that the Governor's servant probably would have worn a wig.


1950s - Costumed hostess and coach driver


Decorative flourishes like bows and short, ruffled sleeves please the decade's sensibilities, but are not rooted in period examples.

1952 - At the courthouse


The ladylike capelet worn by this interpreter is correct for the 18th century, but her cap is not. As understanding of antique clothing progresses, more aspects of costume will be based on surviving garments and period illustrations.

1952 - At the Deane Shop


Trades interpreters are beginning to be clothed in more class-appropriate clothing, although loose sleeves and breeches indicate that improvements in fit are still to come.



Today's research tells us that these waistcoats should have twice as many buttons, placed more closely together.

1956 - At the Wythe house


Elbow-length sleeves on the ladies and oversized cuffs and scant buttons on men's coats reveal that more refinements will be made in the coming years. Plaid, abundant ruffles, hair flowers and fuchsia gowns are more theatrical than authentic.


1961 - Costumed hostess and guests in the capitol


The breast knot worn by a costumed hostess in the capitol is correct for the period, though somewhat over scaled.

1965 - In the kitchen


Pinners worn on the heads of gentry-class children are charming to the eye, but not historically accurate. A domestic slave of the period likely would have worn a head wrap, rather than the mobcap pictured here.

1965 - Fifes and Drums


Hunting frocks worn by the Fifes and Drums are replicas of what is considered the first truly American garment, developed by frontiersmen.

1965 - Fifes and Drums


Sixties-era fifers and drummers wore white breeches and waistcoats covered by red wool regimental coats.


1973 - Council chamber in the capitol


It's possible that a slave would wear the neck ruffle seen on this interpreter in the capitol, but it's more likely that it would have been worn by a man of the gentry class.

1975 - Fife and drums


In accordance with military practice, the Fifes and Drums dress in the clothing of the regiment they march with, but their colors are reversed to indicate their status as musicians.

1975 - At the Wythe house


By the 70s, the once-ubiquitous panniers, or hoops, are only worn by gentry women for very formal affairs.


1983 - Costumed interpreters at the Kings Arms


The 1983 Economic Summit occasioned the need for a great quantity of costumes. The laced vests seen on the women on the porch were widely issued, but had no basis in historic evidence.

1986 - Palace supper room


The choker, or "betsy" worn here is appropriate for a gentry lady of the period, but little attention is yet given to the authenticity of fabric dyes. Wigs probably would have been worn by all gentlemen at the table.


1992 - African American interpreters corps


African-American interpretation begins to encompass individuals in domestic, rural, and trades positions. The head wraps worn by the women are an example of an increased understanding of the enslaved, but facial hair and modern glasses hint at the present day.

1993 - The shoemakers


Tradesmen's clothing develops an authentic patina through years of use. Here, breeches and coats fit snugly, and each layer of clothing communicates a distinct function.

1994 - Laurie Brown


As the understanding of historic dress deepens, hair is dressed closely to the head, figure-shaping foundation garments are worn, and the gown's neckline and sleeves are proper for the third quarter of the 18th century.

1994 - In the riding chair


The riding habit worn here is based on an original example. Made of wool, it would have been constructed by a tailor, rather than the milliner and mantua maker who typically created a woman's clothes.

1995 - A ball at the capitol


The fabrics and patterns displayed at this festive palace ball are based on surviving garments and period illustrations. Gloves and wigs are worn by all, and panniers, or hoops, appear as indicators of high formality.

1996 - Mary Wetton spinning


Spinning interpretation comes full circle. This woman is dressed in the simple clothing of a rural laborer more likely to be found in homespun than her gentry-costumed predecessor.

1996 - Dressing Mrs. Washington at the Costume Design Center


Costumes are fitted to each individual in the Costume Design Center. Here, no less a lady than Martha Washington is pinned and hemmed to perfection.

1999 - Filming of 'A Day in the Life'


'A Day in the Life,' an instructional television series, is filmed in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area, and costumes for all levels of society are part of the production.


2000 - At the print shop Pete Stinely


Tradesmen's costumes reflect the current study of clothing, incorporating the correct number of buttons, type of jacket, and style of glasses.

2002 - Lord and Lady Dunmore enter palace supper room with liveried servants


Lord and lady Dunmore make a formal passage from the Governor's Palace dining room to the ballroom in court dress. The footmen's livery is based on a surviving letter which specified fabric color and trim.



The ornate embroidery on Lord Dunmore's waistcoat would have been professionally embroidered on a panel, then made up by a local tailor.

2002 - Washington/Jefferson take tea at the Wythe House


By 2002, all patterns and fabrics are based on surviving examples and research. From period caps to handmade shoes, every effort is made to clothe interpreters in authentic articles.

2004 - Mark Schneider as General Lafayette


The Marquis de Lafayette joins the cast of revolutionary figures in the Historic Area. His blue and buff continentals and mariner's cuff are patterned after a painting of the Marquis. The plume in his hat is an indicator of rank.

2006 - Tea at the Randolph house


Gentry women at tea are clothed in silk gowns and caps, both marks of high status. All interpreters are required to wear stays, which lend the Revolutionary era's silhouette to the scene.

2007 - Mr. Washington


George Washington is portrayed in civilian dress. His handmade leather gloves are based on a pair worn by Washington himself.

2008 - Fifes & Drums


Uniforms for the Fifes and Drums are updated based on a surviving example in London's National Army Museum and notations made in orderly books.


New vistas in costumed interpretation continue to unfold, as the American Indian story begins to be told in the Historic Area.