New Brunswick

Historical costumer brings Loyalist fashion to life

Henry Cooke is a historical costumer who restores and recreates clothing from 200 years ago. He is giving workshops in Saint John this weekend on making Loyalist-style clothing.

New Brunswick museum offers workshop on making 18th-century coats

Historical costumer Henry Cooke is in Saint John this weekend to conduct workshops on making Loyalist-style clothing. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum)

Trying to find 18th-century cloth to help repair a damaged military coat may not seem an everyday problem, but in Henry Cooke's line of work it's common.

Cooke is a historical costumer based in Massachusetts who makes his living restoring and recreating clothing from the past. He focuses primarily on garments from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries.

"I do a lot of work for Revolutionary War re-enactors. I also do a lot of work for museums and historic sites focusing on that time period."

Cooke, who just delivered a talk at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, is hosting two workshops at the museum this weekend. Participants will be able to try their hand at making clothing worn by Loyalists, who started arriving in the area from the United States in 1783.

Cooke, who delivered a talk on Loyalist clothing at the New Brunswick Museum on Thursday, has been working with re-enactors and museums since the 1980s. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum)

"We're going to be constructing what is known as a frock coat," he said. "We will literally be recreating history using the materials, the techniques used by tailors 200 years ago to recreate clothing of the past."

Sewing at a young age

Cooke, whose mother was a sewing teacher, said he learned to sew at the age of five and started making his own clothing when he got into historical re-enactment. He helped put himself through school making clothing for fellow re-enactors.

"When I got out of graduate school I was competing with folks with PhDs for entry-level museum jobs, which is what I was looking to do. And instead I said, 'Well, I'll keep making clothing until something better comes along.' And that was [in] 1984."

Restoring an 1840s diplomatic uniform

4 years ago
Duration 0:15
This time-laspe video shows Cooke putting the finished 1840s diplomatic uniform of Rev. Dr. Peter Parker on a mannequin at the Framingham History Center.

Cooke said the evolution of fashion can reveal how our forebears' lifestyles changed over the years, and how fashion adapted to accommodate it. For example, the back of a man's coat in the mid 18th-century featured lots of tail pleats to allow for swords strapped around the waist to poke through. 

"As time went on, the back of the coat got steadily narrower, so that by the 1770s it was so narrow you couldn't wear a coat with a sword around your waist, so you had to wear [the sword] over your shoulder."

Cooke said historical grab can also tell a story of what was happening in the world at the time the item was made. For example, cotton became a more common material when England expanded trade into India.

Repairing a diplomatic uniform

One of Cooke's most recent projects is a diplomatic uniform that belonged to Reverend Dr. Peter Parker of Framingham, Massachusetts, who negotiated the United States' first trade treaty with China. Parker was a missionary and served as the main interpreter during the negotiations of the Treaty of Wanghia in 1844, later becoming the ambassador from the U.S. in 1845.

Parker's uniform was a dark blue typical of diplomatic corps. Cooke said the uniform was similar to what many diplomats in Western Europe and North America wore at the time, a tail coat with acorns and oak leaves embroidered on the collar and cuffs.

Cooke's mother was a sewing teacher and he began sewing when he was five years old. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum)

Cooke said Parker would have also carried a diplomatic sword with a depiction of the American eagle on it, with the sheaf of arrows carried in one claw pointing down to indicate diplomacy over militarism.

To restore the coat, Cooke used wool from a Chilean diplomatic uniform that he was given years ago "for the purpose of cutting it up to repair other garments of greater value."

Cooke used that material to fill in holes around the embroidery on Parker's coat where insects had eaten it away.

Another recent project required Cooke work with a sculpture studio in New York City, which created mannequin figures from life casts of real people. Cooke dressed the mannequins, then distressed the clothing to look as if it had been in the field for several months.

That uniform was for an exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia focusing on the life of an Irish officer who served in the British Army during the revolution.

With files from Information Morning Saint John