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Old Fort Niagara & Niagara University partner to make historic clothing

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Wed, Dec 14th 2016 03:05 pm
Niagara University student Sonia Angeli sews a 1770s British 8th Regiment waistcoat as part of a costume construction course offered through the theater and fine arts department.
Niagara University student Sonia Angeli sews a 1770s British 8th Regiment waistcoat as part of a costume construction course offered through the theater and fine arts department.

The Old Fort Niagara Association and Niagara University have partnered on a creative project to produce 18th century men's waistcoats, which theater department students are sewing and donating to the fort's fife and drum corps.

Five university students in associate professor Marilyn Deighton's costume construction class have spent between 20 and 25 hours sewing 1770s British 8th Regiment waistcoats for their final project, which is due this Friday. The vests are made of white wool, lined with unbleached linen, and sewn with a welt pocket (one without a flap).

The idea for collaboration happened this past summer, when the fort's fife and drum corps' coordinator, Suzannah Emerson, contacted regional theater departments with the invitation to partner in the making of historic clothing. Emerson offered to provide the fabric and share the history of the clothing in exchange for the making and donation of the finished products, which would add to her group's limited clothing wardrobe.

Deighton enthusiastically responded and built the project into her syllabus. She and Emerson decided to work on the 18th century waistcoat, which is a buttoned vest that was worn over a linen shirt and under the British red military coat.

Suzannah Emerson, Old Fort Niagara's music coordinator, left, and Marilyn Deighton, Niagara University associate professor, center left, work with students who are sewing waistcoats. 

Suzannah Emerson, Old Fort Niagara's music coordinator, left, and Marilyn Deighton, Niagara University associate professor, center left, work with students who are sewing waistcoats.

"There is a wealth of creativity, knowledge and talent in our community, and it's great to see the fort and the university come together to showcase it," said Robert Emerson, Old Fort Niagara's executive director. "We appreciate and salute professor Deighton's interest in working with us on the waistcoat project. It will be a highlight to see the clothing worn by our fife and drum corps staff."

"When Suzannah contacted me, I immediately thought it would be a great final project for my costume construction class," Deighton said. "This is an excellent opportunity for my students to work on a period garment and learn several advanced sewing skills, such as working with a heavy wool fabric, welt pockets and buttonholes. These waistcoats are great examples of skills that they can add to their costume portfolios and resumes.

"Also, because hand-sewing these waistcoats requires a significant amount of additional time outside of class to complete, the students are earning five community service hours."

Over five three-hour class sessions, students learned about the function, appearance and creation of the vests. Niagara County Historian Kate Emerson visited the class to share the history of the clothing, including how and why waistcoats were developed, how they looked, and how and when they were worn. The cutting, assembling and sewing instruction was provided by Deighton, and then the students were left to their tasks.

This Friday, the students' final projects are due, and Suzannah Emerson plans to view the waistcoats and bring along additional period clothing to show the students. After the vests are graded, they will be donated to the fort's fife and drum corps and will be worn by musicians this upcoming spring and summer.

Old Fort Niagara's fife and drum corps practices and performs military music of the fifes and drums from the 18th and 19th centuries for the site's daily and special programming, and parades. Historically, fifes and drums were used for military communications for centuries. The Old Fort Niagara Association has been investing more resources to develop a larger corps of musicians, which creates demand for new clothes. The corps' wardrobe includes French, British and American uniforms, which are additionally distinguished by time period. More information is available the corps' Facebook page, "Old Fort Niagara Field Musick."

Deighton, who holds an MFA in costume technology, has directed costume shops for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New York City, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and North Carolina's Shakespeare Festival. In addition, she was a tailor for the Broadway version of "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," and a draper for the Robert Altman film "Cookie's Fortune," which starred Glenn Close and Julianne Moore. Her studio course (THR/FAA 243) at Niagara University allows students to learn the fundamentals of costume construction through demonstrations and practical applications.

Niagara County Historian Kate Emerson presents historic details of the men's 18th century waistcoat to Niagara University students as a contributor to a collaborative project between Old Fort Niagara and the university.

Niagara County Historian Kate Emerson presents historic details of the men's 18th century waistcoat to Niagara University students as a contributor to a collaborative project between Old Fort Niagara and the university.

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