8 Questions with Henry Cooke


November 11, 2015
by Editors Also by this Author


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If he had lived in the eighteenth century, Henry Cooke would have been called a Master Tailor. Today we call him a historical costumer, but his tailoring is no less masterful. In an era when all clothing was hand made, proper fit was important. Achieving the right fit and the right look means understanding the way clothing was constructed. Cooke has made a livelihood out of studying original garments, finding the best materials, and mastering the techniques of measurement, cutting and construction that make reproduction clothing look like the real thing; if you’ve been to a museum, a site with historical interpretation, or a reenactment, you may have seen his work or at least seen his influence. We spoke with him about his remarkable profession.

1 // How did you get started in this unusual business?

It started out as a practical matter – I got into reenacting in 1974 and needed clothing. My mother was a sewing teacher and dressmaker, but the only patterns I could get were from the publication Sketchbook ’76, which had rough patterns and minimal information, and  no instructions. My mother took one look at them and said that they were unlike anything she had ever seen and didn’t have a clue as to how they were made, but I was willing to try to make the clothes, she would try to help me, and that’s how I got started.

As time went on, I got involved in creating the 10th Massachusetts Regiment in 1977, and had guys who needed uniforms. The only supplier we knew was in New Jersey and his quality didn’t seem too good, and I said I could do better, and so started making uniform clothing for the guys in my unit. Word spread, and I started making clothing for others. Through all this I got better at the basic mechanics of sewing clothing using modern techniques, but something wasn’t quite right but I didn’t understand the technology of the late eighteenth century as it applied to making clothing.

Meanwhile, as an undergrad at Tufts University, I changed majors from geology to history, and began to learn how to do documentary and material cultural research, and began to understand better how clothing of the Revolutionary era was constructed. When I graduated from grad school in 1984 I was competing with people with more degrees for entry level jobs in history, so decided to keep making clothing til something better came along.

I decided that I wanted to get into the heads of the tailors of the past to better understand their techniques and technology, and began to use my historian skills to do primary source research and began to visit museums to study original garments.  I will always be grateful to the generosity of those curators who welcomed me into their institutions and allowed me hands-on freedom to study garments, taking notes and occasionally patterns.  This was in the mid-1980s, and by 1989 I had decided that I wanted to focus my energies on studying original clothing as the basis for the clothing I would make for customers, and created Historical Costume Services.

2 // Your work requires a combination of historical research and craftsmanship. How do you apportion your time between these two distinct pursuits?

It depends on the project. Some require more research than others, and often for museum figures, the research has already been done, and I just need to learn more about the clothing and its construction finishing and embellishment and find sources for the materials needed to do the job.. In other cases, I need to do considerable research to literally develop a description of an ensemble for a specific persona, and the individual garments and accessories within it. In the case of a military figure, this might also require determining the proper equipment and arms and then finding sources for them.

One of the advantages I have over some other folks making reproduction clothing is that I am vertically integrated – that is, I can do everything from the initial research, through design/patterning, textile sourcing and selection, to production and completion.

3 // Some of your work goes to people who will wear it while performing everyday period tasks, while some of it is strictly for display. Do you approach these two types of projects differently?

Not really. Sometimes the clothing for historical interpreters is requested to be made entirely by hand, while others are made with inside seams sewn by machine, with all finishing and visible stitching done by hand.  Occasionally, I will have a museum project that will only want attention to be given to those parts of a garment that will be seen by the public. This results in a garment that can only be used for a single narrow purpose, and cannot be used on another figure or in another pose that exposes other parts of the garment that are not completely finished.  The other concession to complete authenticity on museum figures is that things like shirts need to be pared down to a dickie and sleeve ends that are attached to the arms of the mannequin. This is because of the way that mannequins are made requires the upper body to be largely dressed, with arms in the sleeves, then the ensemble is placed over the torso, and the sleeves engaged into attachment points at the shoulders and locked in place. To have a complete shirt on the figure creates a lot of bulk that gets caught in the shoulder joints, inhibiting the locking in of mannequins arms.

4 // How do you handle customers who want things that don’t make sense from a historical perspective, whether it be innaccurate designs, inappropriate colors or materials, or unlikely combinations of garments?

I try to encourage them to follow known and documented historical practices, and always reserve the right to refuse to take on a project if it doesn’t meet my standards for historical authenticity.  Because I have developed a reputation for historical accuracy and quality, I would rather pass up a job that doesn’t meet those standards than compromise my professional values and knowingly do something I know to be incorrect or wrong.

5 // What has been your most challenging project?

To date, the most challenging project was the research and production of clothing to outfit three figures of George Washington for the Ford Center at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It was a tremendous learning experience. Originally, I was supposed to just make clothing, but as the project developed, my understanding of clothing as a mould of the body within it proved a useful skill as I worked as part of a team that included sculptors, historians, and a forensic anthropologist., as we gained insights into the shape of the “real” George Washington, and through that insight gain a better understanding of the physical presence of this Founding Father, how it affected his personality, attitude and actions.

6 // Are there some projects you find more rewarding than others?

Repair and conservation of original garments is very rewarding, because you are helping to save a piece of history and make it so it can be displayed and appreciated.  Helping a customer create a persona through my clothing is also rewarding, as it allows me to use all my skills as a researcher and my creative and production skills.  Museum mannequins can also be rewarding as they allow me to stretch my skills and help create figures that are believable down to the smallest details.

7 // In addition to creating garments, you host workshops and seminars where you teach people how to make their own. Has this achieved the results you hope for, and do you find it rewarding?

I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t make clothing for everyone, and many folks have good basic skills, and can make clothing that will fit and function well and correctly.  I also learned that while some people want to learn the inner art of tailoring, many are content with picking up a few skills needed to make a particular garment they want to make, be it a coat, vest, or legwear.  These folks want to learn the skills needed to make a garment, and for them, providing a garment in kit form with instructions works the best for them, which with personal instruction and guidance from me helps them to get quality results.  I also enjoy meeting people and sharing what I know, and learning from them as well. Sometimes I can also bring original garments for “show and tell” so they can see what I have seen and learn how the garments were made and maintained over time., sort of like going to a museum, but without the display case in the way of your learning. The most rewarding part is helping someone discover their sewing abilities and see the pleasure they take in their accomplishment.

8 // What is the benefit to historic sites, reenactors and others in using clothing that is accurately made, as opposed to things that simply look OK from a distance?

Clothing made in a historically correct manner will function like the original garments did, enhancing the abilities of the reenactor or interpreter to bring the past to life in a believable way. The clothing, beyond being a visual prop, itself becomes part of the material culture of the historical interpreter and another interpretive object to be used in helping to tell the story of the interpreter better.  Properly made and fitted military clothing allows the equipment worn to fit properly and move with the body, and not inhibit the reenactor’s abilities or safety.

One thought on “8 Questions with Henry Cooke

  • I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Cooke at a workshop, and I greatly admire the skill with which he teaches and supports the participants (and even those who were in a neighboring workshop.) Thank you for investing the time and energy into this field and for your willingness to share your talent and experience with others. It really helps those of us who are learning and trying to do it right.

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