Mystic Seaport focuses on the details to make costumes for “Nautical Nightmares” come alive
Patched skin, cobwebbed veils, sunken eye sockets. All of this might make for some spooky costuming, sure, but for the Mystic Seaport’s annual traveling play “Nautical Nightmares,” the devil lies in the details. Specifically, in this case, it’s the details that will make these costumes not only scary, but historically accurate.
“Yes, we are supposed to be putting on a scary Halloween play. But above all things, it’s very important to us that we also make these costumes historically accurate,” head costumer of the Mystic Seaport’s Interpretation Department Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue says.
Based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” “Nautical Nightmares: A Creature Among Us” will bring show-goers on a winding story of terror and intrigue, introducing them to characters derived from the original story and new characters from the Seaport’s own 1876-inspired town village.
Combining elements from both time periods, however, could only be told through Bayreuter Donohue’s sartorial choices as she modified characters from Shelley’s world into the 1876 atmosphere of the Mystic Seaport.
“People have come to expect that what we are presenting is historically accurate, so we really try to live up to that reputation,” Bayreuther Donohue says of herself and of her team of six costuming employees and volunteers.
This year’s costuming production, which began in August after the script for the play was completed, required the creation or repurposing of 19 costumes — a list that includes six police matrons, five members of an angry mob, four sailor ghosts, an Arctic whaling captain, Dr. Frankenstein, his creature, and the creature’s bride.
In the mid-19th century Constantine House on Greenmanville Avenue, also known as the period costume workshop, these costumes are born and brought to life.
A long desk with four sewing machines equally spaced apart sit in the building’s downstairs sewing rooms. Above this desk, spools of different colored threads take up the walls alongside inspirations of 19th-century attire ranging from a photograph of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” to fashion sketches of women in corsets. And although the sewing machines are presently clothed with purple covers, just a month prior, they were being utilized to full capacity to create the costumes needed for the play.
Bayreuther Donohue remembers one in particular — that of the Arctic whaling captain.
“That was perhaps the most difficult costume to create because we had to start it from scratch,” Bayreuther Donohue says.
The process began with finding a photo for inspiration. Luckily, the Seaport had held an exhibition in 2008 about an Arctic whaling captain named George Comer. Photographs of him sitting in a heavy caribou-fur coat were pulled from the museum’s archives and acted as the basis for the costume.
“We at least knew from the beginning that we wouldn’t be using real fur,” Bayreuther Donohue says. “We dealt with that material in the exhibition earlier and learned that it sheds horrendously. Instead we bought faux caribou fur from an online retailer.”
The archives from other museums were also utilized. The Musée McCord in Montreal, Canada became a prime source to learn about the sewing techniques that the Inuit utilized, for example.
“We wanted to look at the foot gear as well as the parkas and the construction of those. There is a particular Inuit construction that doesn’t leave needle holes to the air. We also looked at how they pleated the seal skin for the soles of boots in order to get the best materials and most accurate portrayals (of these costume elements),” Bayreuther Donohue says.
Besides an Arctic sea captain, Bayreuther Donohue’s eye was also needed to ensure that the finer details to the other costumes weren’t overlooked. Namely, in the case of the police matrons, Bayreuther Donohue noted that in 1876, police uniforms had not been formally designed yet. Instead, most police personnel were using military surplus from the Civil War.
“We drew heavily on that idea while creating the matron’s uniforms,” Bayreuther Donohue says. “And we had a fair amount of stuff shipped up from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to help with those details. That town is a mecca of fabric, buttons, buckles, hats, suspenders …”
Of course, costuming is more than just a combination of precise detailing, Bayreuther Donohue explains. She also considered plot elements from the original story to tie into the costumes themselves. In particular, she toyed with the idea of the creature living in the shadow of his master/father figure Frankenstein, and displays these story elements through his costume.
“The creature is trying to look like his father figure as much as possible and is trying to mimic what a gentleman would looks like,” Bayreuther Donohue says. “He has trousers, a shirt and a vest like Dr. Frankenstein, but they generally don’t fit and are in general states of disrepair. We also gave Dr. Frankenstein a very nice top hat which would be usual for a gentle man in 1876, but the monster gets one that is too small.”
“The first thing we do is go for realism, it’s always the stuff that looks like it could really happen that is the scariest. If it’s too far out, it’s easy not to be scared by it.”