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Costume Expert Undresses History for Students

January 29, 1987|WENDY HASKETT

SAN MARCOS — It was 9:30 on a crisp January morning at Palomar Community College. A mutter of excitement rippled through the History of Interior Design class as they heard the door of the next classroom slam.

"Here she comes!" a student standing by the window cried. "Oh, my God!"

A flash of golden-orange velvet glimmered past the window. The winter sun glittered on the "jewels" framing a high, hooded headdress.

"Lois has had a heck of a time getting dressed," instructor Lori Graham explained to her class as Lois Hammond swept through the door.

It was easy to see why. Her clothing, all sewn by her, was almost an exact replica of Hans Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour. Her farthingale-underpinned skirt barely made it through the aisle between the desks.

"I've come," she said, as she smiled around at the class, "to give you a peek into the closets of women 400 years ago."

Hammond can picture those closets vividly.

A slender woman, blue-eyed, lively, and in her mid 50s, she has been a costume technician at San Diego State University's Drama Department for 15 years. She also teaches the history of fashion and fashion drafting and draping at Palomar.

Even her vacations ("I have a very understanding husband," she said.) are usually spent peering at portraits, or antiquated etchings, or tombstone effigies, in order to glean details of the way people were.

"I love it," she said. "It's my passion."

Sometimes, when Hammond lectures while dressed in one of her authentic-in-every-detail historical costumes, she peels off her garments (right down to her authentic-in-every-detail chemise). Sometimes she passes the garments around. She has done this while dressed in Victorian clothing. She has done it while clad in Georgian.

However, the 16th-Century gown she's wearing on this particular day is too complicated to climb out of without help. It isn't exactly easy to climb into, either. (One of Hammond's students, Maxine Collins, aided by Palomar instructor Margaret Gunther, had struggled for half an hour just to get her laced into the corset.)

"Wealthy women of this period usually spent all morning getting dressed. Guitar players and poets used to wander in and out to entertain them."

Another World

As she talked, Hammond seemed to bring another world into the sunny, cream-walled classroom. The world of wall tapestries, clashing swords, drafty corridors and dark and dastardly plots--the world of the Renaissance, which lasted from about 1490 to 1603, and included the reigns of hot-blooded Henry VIII and his iron-willed daughter, Elizabeth.

This was a world where women painted their faces with white lead. An era when small dogs scurried along the table tops at mealtimes, to clean up the bones and crumbs. A period in history where people took about three baths in a lifetime.

"But didn't they smell?" a student asked.

"To us the stench would seem overwhelming, initially." Hammond said. "But they were used to it. They did scratch rather a lot, though."

Every color then had a symbolism, she explained, as Graham set up the slide projector. If your lover left you there was no need for embarrassing explanations. You simply wore willow green, and everyone got the message. Blue--"They spelled it blew"--was a color for servants. Yellow was worn by bridegrooms (along with an earring in the left ear).

"This color I'm wearing was called 'flame,' " she said. "It would probably be worn by a woman who was a friend of the queen. Although maybe in Henry VIII's time that wasn't such a hot idea!"

In the 16th Century, she explained, as the class watched a series of slides of portraits, men aspired to a very virile, sexy look. Women aspired to exactly the opposite.

"Some did wear low-cut dresses. But the shape of most women's bodies disappeared under a mass of fabric."

Men, however, displayed almost all of the leg in tights. Silk ones if they were rich, woolen ones if they weren't.

The 16th Century was also the era of the codpiece, a frequently ornamented, and later exaggerated, flap that covered a necessary opening in the front of male breeches. (Three centuries later the Victorians were to ruin many Renaissance portraits by painting out the codpieces.)

After showing the slides, and in lieu of removing her own garments, Hammond undressed two dolls that she had carted along with her. One was costumed as a woman of the Italian Renaissance. The second was a startlingly accurate-looking model of Queen Elizabeth I, her white face framed by an enormous ruff.

Hammond makes the dolls herself, from muslin stuffed with anything available, to use as a teaching tool in her classes.

Bumrolls and Flea Furs

She began her demonstration by carefully edging backward into a chair. Very carefully.

"You'll notice I'm not sitting back. I can't," she admitted. "It's because of the sausage-shaped 'bumroll' I've got tied across my hips to make the back of my skirt stick out in a bell-shape. And, yes, a 'bumroll' really is what they called it."

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