From Corsets to Collaboration: AAUW Goes Hollywood

by Mary Brady

Are you one of those people who sits through the entire list of credits at the end of a movie? I am. I get terribly annoyed at streaming videos that cut them off. The directors’ tracks are made for people like me. Call me a production junkie, but I want to know the who, what, when, where and why of a film. I find that the story behind the art is often just as interesting as the work itself. So, here’s one for you, fellow junkies…

The Ah-Ha Moment

“From Corsets to Combinations” started out as an idea for a lecture with a live audience in a theater.  Then I suggested juicing it up a bit with live models. We were thinking about replicating previous programs at Oldcastle Theater, but were concerned about social distancing both for those on stage and off. Face-to-face theater just didn’t feel safe for the foreseeable future. Gradually, we realized that there was another option. So, thanks to the pandemic, a star was born – well, actually, several stars were born. Necessity is, as always, the mother of innovation.

Before any cameras and megaphones were involved, the idea was vetted by AAUW’s Program Committee. Offers of help with publicity and concerns about social distancing and access to the program by all members were raised and fully explored. Because some of our members do not have cable and some do not have streaming/internet access, and a significant portion of our audience has hearing impairments, we will make the program available online on YouTube, on CAT-TV, and as a DVD. And closed captions will be available for those who want them.

This discussion also led to thinking about how to support our members who do not currently have high-tech equipment and skills. (See the related announcement about the AARP Grant Proposal.) A possible future project was born!

None of this happens without the efforts of large crew of varying talents. AAUW’s year-long Suffrage Centennial program of films, lectures, and the Library of Congress’s Transcription project provided the catalyst for these ideas. With the pandemic still raging, our experiences with virtual meetings and Zoom have provided a road-map for future AAUW programs, such as the virtual version at the Sojourner Truth performance tentatively scheduled for this fall.

The Players

Lynda Meyer, our video’s featured fashion historian, was introduced to us via a visit to the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, where the curator of the Dover Historical Society and I noticed clothing from Lynda’s shop on display.  On the way home, we stopped in North Adams to take a look. Our visit to “Lynda’s Antique Clothing Loft” opened our eyes to a fascinating world of lacy, beribboned lingerie and vintage furs. Hoop skirts and crotchless bloomers were just the beginning of her fascinating tour through the history of the 20th Century women’s fashion revolution. Lynda has worked with many museums and other educational institutions to illuminate the history of fashion, but prior to From Corsets to Combinations, she had never made a video. When approached with the idea, however, she was fearless and ready.

French postcard from suffrage period

Cassandra Peltier, Executive Director of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, shared Vintage Tweets, a book of suffrage-era postcards collected, curated and published by the Museum’s President, Carol Crossed. The book inspired and enlightened us with its illustrations both humorous and shockingly misanthropic. The involvement of women in the Northeast’s textile industry of the past century, highlighted in the museum’s collection, gave further explicit evidence, demonstrating how women’s history has been inextricably related to material culture and shaped as well as mirrored by the fashion industry. Bras and stilettos and Spanx…oh, my! Women have always had a love/hate relationship with our wardrobes, while men’s costumes have barely changed in two millennia.

Jackie Marro, an experienced videographer with museum credentials, was enlisted to shoot the show. As owner/operator of the Dollhouse and Toy Museum of Vermont and with the critical eye of a former professor of fashion and pattern design, Jackie had already mounted her own Suffrage Fashion Show in miniature at the museum. She suggested the Park- McCullough House as an appropriate backdrop for our video program.  Was it ever!

Chris Oldham, Executive Director of the Park-McCullough House, was quick to agree. Although the House was closed to visitors, he generously gave us free reign and even allowed us to paint his hair gray for a cameo as our villain, Governor Percival Clement. He also took us up to the attic and showed us a fragile, mysterious (and a bit creepy) artifact – clearly related to the suffragists of the Governor’s family who lived in the mansion in 1920. This fascinating object will be on public display for the first time ever during our launch party. Perhaps someone in attendance can suggest why it was made!

A call went out to our members for volunteer models. Four masked women stepped forward. We were assigned personas, based on our dress sizes. We were invited to study up on our suffragists.

Lynda did a miraculous job of casting. Kay Wisneiwski (as the proud and beautiful Inez Milholland) made a golden tiara and strutted her riding boots and silk cape with flair. Cathy McClure’s regal bearing in Lucy Daniels’ walking suit and lovely hat was a perfect fit. Cassandra Peltier embodied Achsa Sprague’s demure and spiritual demeanor, and Jennifer Kern floated into her white 1920’s corsetless shift, adorned with a flower garland — an ethereal waif, magically transported from 1920’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As crusading Clarina Howard Nichols, I got to wear a bustle and carry a sign, with sassy attitude. “Someone” even got carried away and decided to hand out business cards.

We had fun! After being under house arrest with viral fears for several months, it was a huge and visceral relief to be “out” – meeting other members, marching in the spacious, breezy and green acreage of Park-McCullough’s gorgeous grounds, wide veranda, and formal Victorian garden. Even under face masks and layers of petticoats, we couldn’t help but feel a bit liberated from binging Netflix and cleaning closets.

Kathy Wagenknecht and Dawn Rodrigues joined us on the Park-McCullough House’s spacious veranda one breezy afternoon to watch us parade and offer moral support. Greg LaFave, also an antique clothing expert, painted signs and reproduced an authentic Suffrage parade banner that he generously loaned to the cause. (As a result of this introduction, Greg will be mounting a new costume exhibit at Park-McCullough House this fall – watch for it!)

After a rehearsal walk-through Wednesday and the shoot on Friday, editing began. Using our old Apple laptops with legacy Final Cut Pro software, Jackie and I began constructing the final product. I transcribed the script and Jackie did the rest. Kathy Wagenknecht  chimed in as our Script Consultant, and Deb Burns (who led us in a Suffrage sing-along at our last Holiday Party) contributed her sweet a cappella singing voice. We argued, conspired , searched the internet for advice and public domain graphics and finally peaceably  agreed to combine our perspectives. Our budget for the entire production was $200.

The final product will launch on Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, CAT-TV, DVD, and a 20-foot outdoor screen on the Park-McCullough House lawn on August 26th, (See Premier on the Lawn.)