Dressed for war

Virginia Johnson designs costumes for PBS miniseries

The time: 1755, the early days of the French and Indian War, as the great powers of England and France grapple for domination over North America.

The place: the Pennsylvania wilderness.

Virginia Johnson in her Waltham, Mass., costume shop © Mark Morelli

The scene: British troops advance toward the French Fort Duquesne. It’s a sea of red coats, but a close look reveals subtle differences in the uniforms—in the color of the cuffs, for example, or the style of the regimental lace.

It’s details like these—the size of a pewter button, the fit of a pair of heavy wool trousers—that concern Virginia Johnson. A lecturer in the Department of Drama and Dance, Johnson is the costume designer for an upcoming PBS miniseries, “The War That Made America,” a four-hour docudrama that will tell the story of the French and Indian War and how that conflict laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.

“Everything in this series is designed to be painstakingly accurate,” says Johnson, who is the head of design and technical theater for the drama and dance department. “Because it’s a documentary, historical authenticity is really important. It’s an educational tool as well as a story.”

That means outfitting a cast of hundreds in dress that not only replicates the look of the mid-18th century but is authentic in almost every way. “We used all natural fabrics, all natural dyes, wools and linens,” Johnson said.

Johnson has worked on several PBS productions, including “The American Experience” and “NOVA”; she supervised the costuming for a “NOVA” episode about Typhoid Mary that will air this fall. Now she is working on separate projects about John Adams and George Washington.

“The War That Made America” is being produced by WQED in Pittsburgh. Johnson came on board through the project’s Boston ties: Writer/directors Eric Stange and Ben Loeterman are based in the Boston area. Most of the filming took place over the summer in Pennsylvania, but the series’ final scenes—which will show colonial troops mustering at the start of the Revolution—will be shot in Boston, either this fall or next spring. The series is expected to air in 2005.

Most one-hour dramas need 20 to 30 costumes, Johnson said. “The War That Made America” requires approximately 500 costumes for both main characters and extras. Johnson and her assistants began building the outfits at her Waltham costume shop last February.

“We’ve also been able to rent some costumes, some that were created for [the 1992 movie] “The Last of the Mohicans,” which took place at the same time period,” Johnson said. Unfortunately, [that movie] chose to represent only two regiments of the British and French, so we’ve had to have the other regiments built from scratch.”

Little intricacies
“One problem is that the period of the film has not been costumed very often in the theater, especially the dress of the lower and middle classes. It’s not a very glamorous period,” she said. “There’s lots of documentation about clothing of the 1770s, but the clothing of the 1750s, ’60s, was different.” For instance, during the 1750s, men’s pants were fashioned with a button fly. By the time of the Revolution, men were wearing drop-front pants with a flap over the fly. “It’s the little intricacies,” Johnson said.

Just as the filmmakers were determined to depict accurately the specific British and French regiments that fought at particular battles, they were also committed to showing the Native American tribes that participated in the conflict.

“The Indian tribes were very different. Some were nomadic; some were well-established. That made for differences in how they dressed,” Johnson said. “We want the viewers to know, visually, what tribes are being represented.”

Many items—especially for the principal Native American characters—were handcrafted. “There are still Native Americans who have the skills and craftsmanship to make accessories and garments from the mid 18th-century,” Johnson said.

Over the summer, Luke Brown, a junior majoring in drama, traveled to London to research 18th-century court dress for use in the production. He was also on the set for the filming in Pennsylvania and pulled together costumes for the colonial scenes. Brown is doing the research as a Tufts Summer Scholar, a program that gets undergraduates involved in research. “This is a wonderful opportunity for doing research and seeing the fruits on film,” Johnson said.

The biggest difference between a television and stage production is the timeline, Johnson said. “Here at Tufts, you have six intensive weeks to design and build a production, and, two weeks later, it closes. In TV, you have six months to prepare for a shoot. The film wraps, and you don’t see the end product for sometimes two years after that.”