Another Gone with the Wind Moment at Madewood:
Verneatha flew through the doorway into the kitchen, pale and breathless after delivering snacks to guests at the pre-dinner reception on the other side of the house.
“Miss Angie,” she exclaimed, “there’s people from the past in the library. I just saw them,” she attested, barely able to speak.”
Angie rushed to the library; and there they were, dressed to the hilt in elaborate 19th-century attire, very real — not from Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara — and newly arrived from Washington’s Puget Sound, where they’d purchased a large home in Port Orchard on the Kitsap Peninsula to house their extraordinary costume collection, which began with the purchase of a gentleman’s frock coat and paraphernalia in 1985.
Julia and Terry Cheetham, 70 and 71 years of age, came together from different parts of the globe — she from Seattle, he from Yorkshire, England — in the early 1980s, when on one enchanted evening, “at a dance that neither of us was particularly enthusiastic about attending,” Julie wrote in an e-mail, “we spotted one another across the room.”
Their fascination with historic costuming and each other grew over the next few years:
“One day in 1985,” she related, “we were antique shopping in a local small town that has been developed as an antique center and found a three-piece frock coat suit (rarely do the coat, trouser and vest all survive) that fit Terry perfectly. In the same shop was an exquisite white lace and crochet 1908 gown that fit me. We bought them both and our antique clothing collection was off and running.
“We both became interested in what is generally termed ‘vintage dance,’ referring to social dance of the period c. 1840s – 1940s.”
Soon, enthusiasm and authenticity ran headlong into reality.
“We rather quickly ceased wearing the antique clothes because the women’s is too fragile. We did continue collecting and have a quite large and comprehensive collection from which we create periodic themed displays and which I use for educational lectures and workshops for reproduction costuming groups.
“When we first began wearing costumes, rather than the antique clothes, I designed and made them myself. My day job — an administrator at the University of Washington — was rather demanding, however, and we were busy several nights a week giving dance classes and hosting weekend dances. It was then that I decided to have my costumes made.
“Terry has often used tailors, if possible, because tailoring is a different skill from dressmaking. When we first started we had tailors from Germany and Italy who understood traditional men’s styles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Jerry and Julie chose these particular costumes to wear at Madewood because they are designs from the late 1840s.
“This type of clothing,” explained Julie, who has written magazine articles on historic clothing, “would have been worn by fashionable people in the daytime anywhere in North America, Great Britain or Continental Europe. Actually, Terry’s short frock coat would have been more suitable for Southern regions because it is exceptionally lightweight for wool and a light color suitable for hot weather. The tan fall-front trousers are also light weight wool, while the aqua and tan striped vest and the tan cravat are silk.
“The fact that I wore a simple collar inset and a lace cap covering my hair relates to two factors–first that this would be typical in the daytime for a mature woman, and secondly that we dressed in day wear for the main, long, afternoon dinner as typically observed on 19th century southern plantations.”
One of the most “exotic” places they dress up is the Newport, Rhode Island, Vintage Dance Week that just celebrated its 25th anniversary in August.
“After spending all day in dance classes covering dance styles from the various periods of the mid 19th – early 20 century, we attend a ball each night and each ball is set in a different time period. Formal costume for that specific period is required each evening. But the best part is that the balls are held is the elaborate and exquisite ballrooms of the great mansions formerly belonging to the Astors, Vanderbilts and other incredibly wealthy families.”
It all sounds great; but how, I asked, do such elaborate costumes get to these fancy venues?
“Packing is stressful,” she confessed. “I make a spread sheet that includes every event, the primary costume I will wear and all the accessories from head to toe, Terry’s primary costume and all his accessories.”
Excess baggage fees were $160 for their recent week in Newport, RI.
“Forgetting something when you are in a place where you cannot run out and buy it can be disastrous.
“Packing hoop skirts, bustles, hats that crush,” she continued, “is always a challenge and takes practice. It takes from 3 to 5 days to get out our costumes and accessories and pack, and the same amount of time to unpack and put everything away.”
And when they return home, Julie and Terry — both retired for the last nine years — teach historic dance at night and arrange costume displays in their spacious home, a task at which Terrry, who for many years made custom furniture and cabinets for many homes in the Puget Sound region, is uniquely qualified.
But at Madewood, wouldn’t it have been easier just to rip down some drapes, as Miss Scarlett had done, and whip up a pair of costumes to wear to dinner?
That, Julie would no doubt maintain, would spoil the fun:
“People sometimes seem surprised that people our age are still playing dress up.”
And they have no plans to stop now.