Tour Guides and Museum Staff in Period Costume: A Welcome Addition or Tacky Distraction?

One of my fellow industry tweeters has asked for my opinion on this review of Hardwick Hall by Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph:

“My first visit last month to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire was overwhelming: it’s a staggering masterpiece of Elizabethan architecture, with staircases, halls, galleries and windows of breathtaking magnificence and grandeur of conception. Alas, one of the National Trust’s most irritating gimmicks came close to ruining the experience – room stewards dressed in period costume.

They looked like something out of a Carry On film, not least because they all sported modern haircuts and Specsaver glasses. Their faint pretence of representing figures from Bess of Hardwick’s household carried no histrionic conviction whatsoever: perhaps RADA students should be employed – they might carry the impersonations off with more bravado.

This sort of “live interpretation” is becoming increasingly common throughout the heritage sector (although, to be fair, it’s not often offered every day) – for example, the newly spruced-up Hampton Court is infested with ’Enery the Eighths during the 500th anniversary of his accession, the reconstructed workhouse in Southwell dresses its staff up as inmates, and Wordsworth’s Cockermouth house has bonneted maidservants welcoming visitors “as if they were guests of the Wordsworth family”.

These kitschy charades are meant “to bring things to life” for the kiddies. For me, the effect is to kill them stone dead, reducing the delicate atmosphere of the past to a hard-sell theme-park entertainment which numbs the imagination with its plonking literalness, and I guess any canny self-respecting 12-year-old would feel the same. Stop the overkill! Stop patronizing us! Television history programmes are now abandoning the fad for cheesy “dramatic reconstructions” – I wish bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage would follow suit, leaving the ghosts and images of history to steal up on us in silence.”

That’s a pretty damning report of Costume Done Badly. But just because one site has failed, does it mean that costumes should be relegated to the it-sounded-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time pile?

I have been a tour guide in uniform, my own clothes, and in period costume.

At one of my workplaces which I’m afraid I’m not allowed to name by law, we are uniformed. However, despite the grandeur of the building and it’s illustrious history, our uniforms are often badly fitting and the fabric itself is cheap. The design of the uniform is highly unflattering and the man made fibres make us sweat in summer and chilled in winter.

At another of my workplaces the head honcho at the time (now mercifully replaced) thought it a great idea to put staff in all black mountaineering coats complete with black knitted beanies. It was a masculine museum, but still, we looked like Wetherspoons bouncers.

And at a site literally next door to this particular tweeter’s current place of work, the staff had bright purple and blue tshirts, red fleece jackets and grey cargo trousers. We looked like incredibly camp builders.

Some sites of course, have beautiful uniforms. My current place has immaculate, made to measure uniforms that exude elegance and authority. We look the business.

Uniforms have been a major part of museum life for a long time, but I’ve just shown that some places get it very wrong. It’s exactly the same for museums and stately homes that plump for costumes.

I have sniggered and admittedly sneered at certain very high profile palaces and houses that have gone for the costumed option but steadfastly refused to spend a decent amount of money bringing the actual clothes into fruition. No Georgian woman I have ever read about wore bright purple dresses made from polyester. Some of the fabrics I have seen in sites that really ought to know better would be more at home at a teenage girl’s disco dancing competition. Sequins? No. Just no. Next time I see one I may just scream.

Rupert Christiansen mention glasses and hairstyles. Glasses, you can’t do much about. Unless the museum is going to pay for contact lenses, no dice. And I for one am certainly not going to attempt to tell someone what they can or cannot put into their eye unless there is a risk of harm. Hair? Again, there are boundaries as to what you can make an employee do to their own personal appearance, however, some employees really do take the mickey.

The effect that you want to achieve is all about the effort that you put in. I despair of attractions that put in a half hearted effort and are shocked when they get half hearted results.

I was a costumed guide at the Weald and Downland Museum. I had a few houses to look after, I led a few tours and school groups, and spent most of my time cooking and demonstrating culinary techniques in the Tudor kitchen there. I also joined a little company of “living history” historians working there who worked at other sites during special events etc in our own time with our own equipment. Now and again I go back to visit in fits of nostalgia.

The year I spent there was the year that the Tudor kitchen was fully kitted out and started to be a real feature. It was the hard work of a lovely lady called Dawn, and I am proud to say that I was her assistant in the whole endeavour.

When I was there, we were in full costume.Everything was made by hand, including our corsets. If you have never made a corset from scratch, you have no idea of the toil it takes to make that final stitch. Our fabrics were carefully sourced to be as authentic as possible. No man-made fibres! Even some of our needles were traditionally made. We had hand stitched shifts, underskirts, over skirts, aprons, bodices, stomachers and kirtles. Time, effort and literal blood, sweat and tears went into those costumes. And we looked damn good! Everything was as authentic as possible. And because we were proud of our appearance and the work that had gone into it, our deportment was all the more professional. We were strict with ourselves about modern touches like jewellery and nail varnish because we were proud of ourselves.

This is in stark contrast to the sullen staff forced to wear costumes so dire that a fancy dress shop would discard them.

When I revisited the Weald and Downland recently, the lady working in the Tudor kitchen was wearing a Barbour jacket, jeans and wellies. It jarred unpleasantly with the meticulously planned kitchen I had been so proud to help bring back to life. In that context, modern clothes looked ridiculous. The reason that costume works so well there is because we always dressed appropriately for whatever skill we were demonstrating, and a lot of thought was put into what we wore.

In the article that was brought to my attention, the attraction itself is a stately home of significant historical importance. In my opinion, forcing your no doubt rebellious staff to don cheap, badly fitted costumes and adopt the persona of an historical resident is tacky to the extreme. I never had to pretend to be a time traveller and speak in a poor olde Englund accent. Instead of a gimmick, my dresses had been just another demonstration tool. I can safely assume that Christiansen’s visit was unsatisfactory because the staff were too uncomfortable or embarrassed to do their jobs well. No-one is motivated to work hard when they suspect that they look like a tit.

The key factor about choosing whether to go down the costume route is environment. The Weald and Downland nailed costumes because they are a relaxed, outdoorsy site and don’t have any pretentions.

However, if the site in question is a respected stately home or palace, my opinion is that a tailored uniform is the route to go down. Every castle or hall has an image and reputation. You do not expect theme park-esque frivolity at a stately home. If that is what their visitor manager wants, their visitor manager should go somewhere else. Places like Warwick Castle get away with their pantomimish costumes because they are unashamed of their US inspired methods and are run by Merlin Entertainment rather than a Duke trying to turn a profit on his crumbling country seat. If sites like Hardwick Hall etc want a taste of historical clothes for the kids to enjoy, then I would advise reserving costumes for school holidays. That way, those of us who like our history with a mature respectability can amble our way through hallowed halls guided by people who aren’t ashamed of what they’re wearing.

Furthermore, for those school holiday events with people in costumes, I will always recommend leaving your own long-suffering staff alone and getting in some re-enactors.

I was once roped into a Napoleonic re-enactment society who needed musicians. In return, I got to travel Europe and got some excellent history lessons. (I also got to shoot muskets and rifles, who can turn that down?) I was in awe of the attention to detail these guys employed in their appearance. These guys live and breathe period clothing. And the vast majority of them look the business. It’s no wonder that when Hollywood comes calling, these guys are always extras. The fact that re-enacting is their hobby means that it is also their passion. No sullen sighs when their clothing gets put on! Their knowledge of their subject is encyclopaedic.

I was lucky enough to participate in a few of the annual Medieval Festivals at Herstmonceux Castle (http://www.mgel.com/medieval/index.html) with a living history education group I worked with. I was surrounded by people who looked as if they’d stepped straight out of the past.

As with all hobbies, there are of course a few re-enactment socities who look like idiots. But they are likely only there for the beer tent.

I disagree with Christiansen when he talks about kids not liking costumes. If nothing else, the deserved reverence in which the TV series of Horrible Histories is held completely shuts down his argument. One of the reason that children (and adults, myself and many tweeters included) adore that programme is that it takes the format of a teacher recited dates whilst wearing tweed and throws it out of the window. Horrible Histories has such an impact not just because of the information given, but the costumes, sets and props fire up the imaginations of our children. And the reason that Horrible Histories never looks tacky is because they do their job well. It does exactly the same job as we tour guides aim to do. It educates whilst being bloody entertaining.

So, in conclusion, unless you are willing to spend a lot of time, money, effort and research on getting your costumes just right, as well as having a very patient and confident staff, leave out the costumes til half term, and get the proper guys in to wear them. Your staff will love you, kids will love you, re-enactors will love you, and critics of the dumbing down of our society won’t write snide articles in the Telegraph.

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