The Costumed Life

There are people who like to dress up as if they were in a different era. And then there are people who LOVE it.

It’s said Richmond is a city that lives in the past, but within our city are people who truly live in the past, spending their lives as costumed tour guides or movie extras.

Kelly Ault is one. She’s been volunteering for the past 16 years at Meadow Farm Museum in Henrico, giving tours of the 1810 farmhouse in her homemade period dresses. She even used to cook in the basement fireplace until it got too dangerous.

“I’ve always been a history nut,” she says. “It’s the fascination of pretending you’re in another time.” Growing up in Williamsburg can do that to you.

With Ault this day is Caroline Meeks. It’s her first day in costume. Her center-parted hair is pulled back into a snood. Her blue dress was made by the museum’s volunteer sewing guild, supplemented with shoes, hats, and accessories purchased by Henrico County Parks and Recreation at estate sales. A former volunteer at the John Marshall House, she says, “I just love history and the costumes.”

Ault and Meeks move gracefully through the house as if they truly live there. Between tours, they aren’t checking their messages on a cell phone. They stay in character. Ault reads and Meeks knits.

Meadow Farm animal specialist Andy Butler said at least 20 volunteers show up every week to populate the farm in various roles, and more come for special events. It’s a uniquely enthusiastic group. Butler, a former special ed teacher who brought students to the farm on field trips, applied for a job there in 2000 and has been taking care of the farm animals and playing various characters ever since. During an 18th century wedding re-enactment, he was married 11 times in a single day.

The costume closet at Meadow Farm.

The costume closet at Meadow Farm.

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Jump ahead 50 years, and the Maymont mansion that once belonged to the Dooley family is set forever in the Gilded Age, the opulent time between the Civil War and World War I when the rich acquired electricity, phones, indoor plumbing, and servants to dress them. Helen Raidabaugh, who used to ride her bike to Maymont in the 1960s just to hang out, applied there for a part-time job 14 years ago when she retired from teaching. “Anyone who comes here gets into costuming. We’re provided with a wealth of information about the time period,” including how to speak without anachronisms like “Merry Christmas.” In the Gilded Age, they said “Happy Christmas.”

Maid costumes at Maymont.

Maid costumes at Maymont.

“I play the maid,” she said. “We do skits where I dress the grande dame.” Vintage costumes are fragile so reproductions are made using historically accurate patterns.

Evelyn Zak has been giving tours at Maymont “on and off since 1973,” and when she dresses, “I play a rich old lady with a lot of pearls. It’s the little girl in me that just gets going” when she’s in costume. The dresses were “more like Holly Hobby” when she first started, but they have become serious business under Nancy Lowden, the historical program manager who maintains the wardrobe. “Working with Nancy, we’ve created our own personal costumes that fit better and are historically accurate. We want to really get people into the period when they visit.”

Lowden herself started as a volunteer at Maymont 20 years ago when she discovered “how fascinating historic fashion is. The Gilded Age is one of the most beautiful eras for elegant clothes and refined manners. Seeing everyone enjoy themselves and even learn something is a great reward.” She can call on up to 35 staff and volunteers to dress for special events and tours throughout the year, including teas on the porch, servant quarter tours, and Christmas. They participate in WCVE’s Downton Abbey premiere parties, too.

“You look forward to doing it. There’s a special camaraderie when you’re squeezing yourself into corsets to wear for eight hours,” says Zak. “It changes your persona, your mannerisms change with the clothes. If you come here one time, you’re in love with it.”

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Photo of Guy William Gane III provided by Mr. Gane.

Photo of Guy William Gane III provided by Mr. Gane.

Guy William Gane III knows about falling in love with the past. He owns Old Timey Casting, a business he started in 2013 that provides consultation services, re-enactors, and historically knowledgeable hosts for special events, commercials, and films. He’s been a Civil War re-enactor since 1996, with numerous film and TV credits. To see him in costume in sepia-toned photos copying 19th century poses, you’d swear the photos were actually taken in 1860.

The idea for Old Timey Casting started when he worked on the HBO series John Adams and became a reality after he was hired to coordinate re-enactors for the 2014 feature film Field of Lost Shoes and episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards.

“I decided this was the direction I was meant to go. I have an amazing pool of talent. We’ve hired several thousand people, and it’s been my full-time job since August 2014.” He’s been fascinated with the Civil War since childhood, dreaming of battles and sketching soldiers. “When I found out re-enacting was ‘a thing’, it changed my life forever. I can pull together an entire crew, cast and props, from horses to wagons, wardrobe to weapons, from the French and Indian War (1754) to World War II (1944).” The accuracy is vital because it’s “a memorial to those we represent. I want my massive collection to be of service instead of in trunks,” he continues.

“Essentially we are one large history family!”

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This year’s free holiday event at Meadow Farm is Saturday, December 19th, 5:30-8:00 PM, a candle-lit history of Christmas carols.

The Maymont by Moonlight Christmas event, December 11th and December 18th, is already fully booked for the season.

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Mariane Matera

Mariane Matera also composts, which she considers dumping old food into the garden, but she suspects it might be more involved a process than that.

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