Historical Fashion

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on November 4, 2009
Hank Randall Henry Cooke reproduces attire from centuries past in Randolph, Mass.

When George Washington took the presidential oath of office on April 30, 1789, he most likely was dressed in a milk chocolate-colored suit and waistcoat, white ruffled linen shirt and embroidered silk stockings. His attire is a small detail to most Americans, but not to historical tailor Henry Cooke, who created an identical costume for an inauguration exhibit at Washington's former home, the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, in Virginia.

"Washington wanted to dress in a manner that was sober, fashionable and an expression of the new nation he was about to lead," says Cooke, 51, who has devoted countless hours researching and re-creating clothing from centuries past.

Cooke owns Historical Costume Services in Randolph, Mass. (pop. 30,963), and since 1984 has earned a living creating reproductions of historical clothing for museums and people who portray former U.S. presidents, Colonial-era characters and Civil War re-enactors.

When Cooke begins a project, he conducts extensive research at libraries and consults his vast collection of notes for any references to a particular type of garment or outfit. He also visits museums and historical societies to inspect authentic clothing of prominent figures such as Washington, John Adams and Ben Franklin.

After the research, he takes precise measurements of his clients, or life-size mannequins, and constructs a prototype outfit for the initial fitting.

Cooke stays true to the way clothing was styled 200 years ago. "The garment was molded to fit the body in the 18th century," he says. Sleeves, for example, are cut more generously today than they were in Colonial times.

A finished garment, which can require up to 200 hours to complete, depending on its complexity, usually is made of period fabricswool, cotton, linen and silkcolors and patterns.

Cooke sews the garments almost entirely by hand, employing antiquated stitching techniques, if necessary. Eighteenth-century buttonholes, for example, were far more pronounced and sewn in a square pattern, rather than the oval shape of modern clothing.

Customers appreciate the attention to detail. Diana Courdray, Mount Vernon's education center manager, says Cooke's contributions to three different Washington mannequins have been remarkable. "Washington looks very real, and it's the clothing that really sets the figure apart," Courdray says.

Tailoring is in Cooke's blood. His mother was a dressmaker and taught her son the art of working with needle and thread at an early age. In college, he joined a Revolutionary War re-enactment regiment and made uniforms for himself and fellow troop members. He then obtained a master's degree in history from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. (pop. 55,765), and assumed he would work at a museum. But as his tailoring business increased, he decided to make the trade his profession.

Cooke's unique combination of talentspart historian, part tailorhas proven successful. He has worked as costume consultant for the History Channel and various historic sites and made countless pieces for re-enactors across the countryat an average cost of $2,000 per outfit.

For Jim Hollister, education coordinator at Minuteman National Historical Park near Lexington, Mass., the quality workmanship is worth every penny. Hollister, 36, spends most of his day dressed as an 18th-century farmer and claims that his authentic attire helps "fire the imagination" of visitors.

"If the outward impression is believable, the rest of it falls into place," Hollister says.

By achieving this level of authenticity in his costume reproductions, Cooke strives to bring the past to life. "I try to take the dry, dusty bones of history and breathe life into them," he says.