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NU students sew 1770s-style clothes for Fort Niagara fife and drum corps

YOUNGSTOWN -- A creative collaboration between Niagara University theatre department faculty and students and the Old Fort Niagara Association has resulted in the donation of carefully-researched and crafted 18th century men’s waistcoats for the fort’s fife and drum corps.

Five NU students in associate professor Marilyn Deighton’s costume construction class spent more than 20 hours this past semester sewing 1770s British 8th Regiment waistcoats for their final class project. The vests were made of white wool, lined with unbleached linen, and sewn with a welt pocket without a flap.

The fife and drum corps will wear the finished products this spring and summer at Old Fort Niagara. They practice and perform military music from the 18th and 19th centuries for the fort’s daily and special programming, and parades.

“There is a wealth of creativity, knowledge and talent in our community, and it’s great to see the fort and the university come together to showcase it,” said Robert Emerson, Old Fort Niagara’s executive director. “We appreciate and salute Professor Deighton’s interest in working with us on the waistcoat project. It will be a highlight to see the clothing worn by our fife and drum corps staff.”

Suzannah Emerson, the fort’s fife and drum corps’ coordinator, contacted regional theatre departments this past summer, with the invitation to partner in the making of historic clothing. Offering to provide the fabric and share the history of the clothing in exchange for the creation and donation of the finished products, Emerson was hoping to bolster her group’s limited wardrobe.

Deighton not only accepted the invitation, but incorporated the project into her syllabus. She and Emerson decided the project would entail creating 18th century waistcoats, which are buttoned vests worn over a linen shirt and under the British red military coat.

Deighton said she found the project “an excellent opportunity for my students to work on a period garment and learn several advanced sewing skills, such as working with a heavy wool fabric, welt pockets and buttonholes. These waistcoats are great examples of skills that they can add to their costume portfolios and resumes.

“Also, because hand-sewing these waistcoats requires a significant amount of additional time outside of class to complete, the students earned five community service hours,” she added.

During five three-hour class sessions, students learned about the function, appearance and creation of the vests. In addition, Niagara County Historian Kate Emerson visited the class to share the history of the clothing.

The Old Fort Niagara Association has been investing more resources to develop a larger corps of musicians, which created  the demand for new clothes. The corps’ wardrobe includes French, British and American uniforms, which are additionally distinguished by time period.

Deighton, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts in costume technology, has directed costume shops for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New York City, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and North Carolina’s Shakespeare Festival. In addition, she was a tailor for the Broadway version of  “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” and a draper for the Robert Altman film “Cookie’s Fortune,” which starred Glenn Close and Julianne Moore. Her NU studio course allows students to learn the fundamentals of costume construction through demonstrations and practical applications.

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