A quest for authenticity
HISTORY | The head seamstress at an 18th-century millinery shop makes history that visitors can reach out and touch
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Janea Whitacre wears a thimble to work. It’s shaped to cover the third finger of her left hand, and a tiny hole is forming in the silver tip where her needle daily hits the same spot over and over.
“No bother,” she says, gesturing next door. “The silversmiths can patch it.”
An apothecary down the way also offers his services, as does a weaver, a wheelwright, and a harpsichord maker. This is Duke of Gloucester Street, a stretch of clapboard buildings and picket fences in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living history museum in the world. Think time capsule—with a pulse.
Whitacre, 63, has worked in the millinery shop, an establishment that mixes millinery (ornaments and accessories) with mantua-making (dress design), since 1982. Determined to parlay her art history degree into a “real job,” the developing seamstress eventually landed a role as interim supervisor of the shop. Her promotion came with an unusual challenge: “I was told to develop the trade. It was a nebulous sort of suggestion with no outcome promised,” she remembers. Still, Whitacre went on to initiate Colonial Williamsburg’s millinery apprenticeship and journeywoman programs. Today, she’s still threading needles and enthusing a daily rotation of visitors who stop in to learn about 18th-century wardrobes.
“We were career interpreters when I first started, so we talked, but we didn’t make,” Whitacre explains. “You could point to the antiques, but you couldn’t hand them to a guest to feel and experience. I wanted to get those pieces out from under the glass and make copies they could touch.” She points to a mauve taffeta gown in the corner as an example of her work. “It’s copied from a portrait, and there’s a trim on it that took me four tries to re-create.”
The quest for authenticity means each exacting detail of a garment is done by hand in natural light or by the glow of a candle. Research is part of the process, too. Whitacre studies old newspapers, magazines, and prize finds like an account book chronicling 1769 Louisa County, Va. Its contents helped her determine the cost of producing an entire ensemble—shoe buckles to sleeve buttons—from that period. She used the information in a March program called “Disaster Strikes” about a Colonial woman whose house burned down. “She ran out with her blanket, her night shift, and her slippers. She needed a complete outfit right away,” she says.
The small millinery shop today looks largely as it would have in the 1730s, and Whitacre is one of only three Colonial Williamsburg employees ever to have been named supervisor there. The steadiness stands in contrast to a world in flux outside its door. Still, Whitacre believes some things stay the same, regardless of current events.
“Everyone I talk with is pretty much on vacation, so there’s a joy in doing something different, coming to explore a different time period,” she says. “Hopefully, they leave with a smile. And that hasn’t changed in 40 years.”
Colonial Williamsburg will celebrate its centennial in 2026, the same year marking the 250th anniversary of American independence. President and CEO Cliff Fleet predicts a defining moment for both: “It will be a time for honoring the labors, struggles, and triumphs of all those who led us to this point in history.”
But Brenda Hafera of the Heritage Foundation believes Colonial Williamsburg is at a crossroads: “They need to decide if they’re going to be an activist site or an educational, historical site.” She cites remarks made by Beth Kelly, a vice president at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation who asserted the need to commit “to the unfinished work of eradicating systematic racism.”
“When sites move from depicting slavery in a matter-of-fact manner to unpacking and interrogating ‘white privilege,’ they have waded into activism,” says Hafera.
Ellen Peltz, public relations manager at Colonial Williamsburg, maintains that its teams of historians have always pursued new information about the past. That’s why presentations include lesser-known chapters of history. “This fact-centered approach, which extends through our partnerships with other institutions, ensures that our educational work is inclusive, objective, and relevant.”
But those partnerships concern some onlookers. Last year, the Mellon Foundation awarded Colonial Williamsburg $5 million as part of its $250 million Monuments Project. Mellon’s grants support “the transformation of our nation’s histories.” Additionally, Colonial Williamsburg is a member of the American Alliance of Museums, which names DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) as a strategic priority. In a March report, the alliance announced plans to create a list of concrete actions member museums must take to demonstrate their commitment to DEIA and anti-racism values. —K.M.
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