Dressed suc­cess for

At Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s man­sion at Mount Ver­non and other his­tor­i­cal sites around the coun­try, interpreters look their parts to help ex­plain by­gone days to mod­ern vis­i­tors


MOUNT VER­NON, Va. — Elizabeth Keaney’s work dress code might be stricter than yours: Her gig por­tray­ing a young Martha Wash­ing­ton at Mount Ver­non means she spends 30 min­utes a day lac­ing her­self into corset-like linen stays with a fat nee­dle called a bod­kin and strap­ping on hipex­ag­ger­at­ing “pocket hoops.” The hoops, plus petticoats full enough to make Marie An­toinette jeal­ous, sup­port her floor-length, full-skirted cot­ton gowns.

“You def­i­nitely take up more room in these clothes, but I’ve got­ten used to it,” says the his­tory in­ter­preter. “The first time I tested them out in my apart­ment, I knocked over a wine glass!”

For a lit­tle over a year, Keaney, 38, has been slip­ping into buck­led shoes and teeny lace caps for sev­eral days a week to con­jure the first U.S. first lady. She chan­nels Martha in 1769, be­fore the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, when the colonies — and her hus­band — were strug­gling with Bri­tish taxes and pon­der­ing their free­dom. On a typ­i­cal day, she might give tours of the man­sion grounds, con­duct a chat ex­plain­ing the (some­what) meet-cute she had with Ge­orge and stroll the prop­erty in a wide straw hat while field­ing ques­tions from tourists.

But show up at Mount Ver­non a day or two later and you’ll prob­a­bly suffer Ye Olde Whiplash. There’s an­other Martha Wash­ing­ton, this one seem­ingly zapped in from the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery. She’s got frizzy white hair, a silk gown in a wall­pa­per stripe, and, well, sev­eral decades on Keaney. That’s Mount Ver­non’s other, se­nior-level Martha, 73-year-old Mary Wise­man, who has been on the job here since 2002. She holds court with tourists in the In­ter­pre­tive Cen­ter on a stage set of sorts — a high-backed chair, a por­trait of a young Ge­orge and a can­dle on a small ta­ble. Oh, and that hair? It’s a wig she af­fixes with spirit gum.

With the hind­sight of 1798 (the year her char­ac­ter in­hab­its) and in a Vir­ginia gen­teel ac­cent, Wise­man re­counts mem­o­ries such as join­ing her hus­band in the Val­ley Forge camps and play­ing host­ess to Mount Ver­non’s ro­tat­ing cast of house­guests — the Mar­quis de Lafayette, for one. A flurry of ques­tions, of­ten from chil­dren, fol­lows her chat. “Did Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton tell any lies?” asks one. “Did you have a pet?” asks an­other. “Yes, my fa­ther brought me a bear cub as a child, but we had to let Blackie go even­tu­ally,” she replies.

And no, Wise­man and Keaney don’t ap­pear to­gether in char­ac­ter; that’d be the stuff of science fic­tion. But the older woman serves as a men­tor to the younger, and they con­stantly trade notes and ideas.

It takes all kinds

Like other his­tory interpreters at at­trac­tions around the coun­try (and world), Keaney and Wise­man func­tion as ed­u­ca­tional time trav­el­ers in a tech-crazed mod­ern world. Some re-cre­ate fa­mous fig­ures in first per­son (such as the Marthas and Wild West gun­slinger Calamity Jane in South Dakota’s “Dead­wood Alive”). Oth­ers suit up in throw­back garb to play com­pos­ite char­ac­ters or types. Depend­ing on where you’ve landed, you might find deer­skin-clad Wam­panoag In­di­ans at Mas­sachusetts’ Plimoth Plan­ta­tion, 1920s towns­peo­ple at Den Gamle By (the Old Town) in Arhaus, Den­mark, or an­cient Egyp­tian roy­als at Cairo’s tourist-trappy Pharaonic Vil­lage.

Some interpreters are full-time staff, oth­ers are vol­un­teers, and a few — like the younger and older Ge­orge Wash­ing­tons brought in by Mount Ver­non for hol­i­days, Pres­i­dents Day and other func­tions — free­lance for spe­cial events.

All interpreters have sim­i­lar mis­sions: To bring dry or dis­tant eras to crack­ling life. Most are his­tory buffs or have de­grees in mu­seum ed­u­ca­tion. And ideally, they’ve im­mersed them­selves so deeply in their time, per­son or site that com­ing upon one seems un­scripted and down­right trans­port­ing.

“Most of the vis­i­tors to Hearst Cas­tle don’t know much about the 1930s, and it’s my se­cret agenda to help them learn,” says Chris­tine Hein­richs, a vol­un­teer in­ter­preter who suits up in feath­ered hats and swanky floor-length gowns to im­per­son­ate a well-heeled party guest. “They’ve usu­ally heard of Charles Lind­bergh, so I’ll talk about the Lind­bergh baby kid­nap­ping or the corona­tion of King Ge­orge VI, since peo­ple know him as Queen Elizabeth’s fa­ther.”

Re­in­forc­ing a mes­sage

Of course, the cos­tumes and com­port­ment of interpreters play a big role in whether trav­el­ers buy into the whole liv­ing-his­tory ex­pe­ri­ence. “What our peo­ple wear is im­por­tant, be­cause vis­i­tors want to be trans­ported,” says Anna Altschwa­ger, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of guest ex­pe­ri­ence at Old World Wis­con­sin, a his­tor­i­cal park where cos­tumed char­ac­ters emu­late 19th-cen­tury im­mi­grant life amid re­stored an­tique barns and cab­ins. “Clothes are a gate­way that get peo­ple to en­gage, and it’s not the same if a staffer is in a polo shirt.”

For the most part, es­pe­cially at at­trac­tions re­viv­ing the prein­dus­trial world, gar­ments are stitched by hand and de­vel­oped based on old house-sale in­ven­to­ries, ex­ist­ing ar­ti­facts or por­traits and pho­to­graphs.

Some sites in­vite you to join the throw­back party in a tac­tile way, ei­ther by suit­ing up in his­toric garb or try­ing your hand at an­te­dilu­vian crafts or trades.

In the end, “I don’t think the liv­ing his­tory field should be some anachro­nis­tic ‘let’s pre­serve this in am­ber’ thing,” Altschwa­ger says.


Elizabeth Keaney por­trays a young Martha Wash­ing­ton at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s Mount Ver­non in Vir­ginia.

Mary Wise­man por­trays el­der Martha Wash­ing­ton at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s Mount Ver­non.

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