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Victoriana Comes to Life
By Christine Stoddard
On the best of days, Nancy Lowden coordinates a whirlwind of enchanting historical interpretation events for Maymont Mansion, the heart of a beautiful estate-turned-beloved-public park in Richmond, Virginia. Broadly, Nancy's task is to get Maymont's visitors excited about the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Whether that means throwing a Mother's Day tea party or arranging horse-drawn carriage rides, she helps bring the lives of the former Maymont owners, Mr. and Mrs. Dooley, into modern Richmond context.
More specifically, as Maymont's Historical Program Manager, Nancy designs engaging tours and celebrations, decorates the mansion, oversees the mansion's gift shop, coordinates historically-themed birthday parties and, most notably, runs a vast costume shop. Running that costume shop is what gives her most pleasure.
Costumed interpreters play a treasured role at any historic site. They give visitors at any park or museum insight into the past by displaying the suitable garments and mannerisms. Maymont predominantly makes use of third-person interpretation, which means that the interpreters do not seek to project the persona of any particular person and may answer modern-day questions (“What is Maymont's website?”/”Could I take some video of you?”)
Nancy admires Maymont's interpreters for “putting on a corset and braving the cold no matter the weather.” During the Christmas season, when the chill is a given, Maymont hosts several events that re-create what it was like to experience the holidays during Mr. And Mrs. Dooley's time.
This year, for instance, Nancy organized 'An Old Fashioned Christmas' on Sunday, December 6, which featured over thirty interpreters, caroling, and even a children's party with St. Nick. Most of the interpreters spent time outside, wearing full-on Victorian attire despite the wind. They greeted guests, passed out programs and doled out any necessary information. Inside, interpreters gave tours in layer upon layer of clothing. You can probably imagine the slight discomforts with either job yet, at the same time, interpreters smiled and seemed genuinely happy to be there. It was Nancy who mobilized them, both in and out of mansion doors, plaid scarves and all.
A fashion buff, Nancy enjoys dressing her interpreters in clothes that are not only historically appropriate but also flattering. She ensures that each and every costumed interpreter—from older gentlemen to little girls—appears as elegant as one of Mr. and Mrs. Dooly's guests would have had they come calling.
She accomplishes this partially because she has a large collection of reproduction garments at her disposal. But Nancy's also a gifted seamstress and depends upon the dedication of volunteer seamstresses to help her add at least one to two whole outfits to Maymont's wardrobe each year.
Before she and her ladies begin creating a new garment, they do their research. Often they look through books and at other museum collections for inspiration. Once they have decided upon the sewing pattern, they search for the perfect the fabric; this usually means scanning upholstery options for the right heft and vibe. Victorians generally relied upon heavier yet seemingly daintier cloths than we typically wear today. Think of lush velvet and stiff lace, for instance.
When Nancy is not sewing, she is dressing costumed interpreters. Victorian ladies especially required assistance during the the three to five times a day they might have changed jackets, skirts, blouses, gloves, hats, etc. Because Maymont's interpreters wear true reproductions, the same necessity applies. Nancy's interpreters need her nimble fingers to button, clasp and pin them into 1890s glamour. She knows just how to position a hat (Victorians believed that it should “rest on the head like a hen”), to say the very least.
“Growing up, I always thought it would be fun to dress up people on a TV show...and this is sort of like that,” Nancy explained.