Comfort and Style at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

Skilled interpreters at historic places consider their audience, the setting and the story they are about to share. The historic replica clothing they wear should be chosen for authenticity and appropriateness. At a site that is open throughout the summer season, the interpreters’ clothing is generally lightweight and appropriate to the weather. But many seasonal parks open in late spring and stay open into fall. This is the “shoulder season,” a time when mornings can be chilly and cold rain can challenge the interpreter and the audience.

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse (Mackinac Island Images)

Recently I worked on a project with Craig Wilson, the Museum Historian at Mackinac State Parks in northern  Michigan. You may have heard of Mackinac Island; it’s a place where automobiles were banned almost as soon as they were invented. There are still no automobiles on the island today. People get around on foot, on bicycles, or by horse-drawn conveyances. You may have seen bits of Mackinac Island, including the historic Grand Hotel, if you watched the romantic film “Somewhere in Time.” Mackinac City is on the mainland, one of six local park sites.

Mackinac Island, Michigan in summer

Mackinac Island, Michigan in summer (Mackinac Island Images)

In the wintertime the region is cold and covered with snow. But starting in early May, the summer visitors begin to arrive. Mackinac State Park welcomes them with historic sites from several eras, including the 1889 lighthouse.

Mackinac State Park Lighthouse

Here’s what their website tells us about the history:
“A point in the storm and a guiding beacon since 1889, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse helped passing ships navigate through the treacherous waters of the Straits of Mackinac. There’s just as much to see from the top of the tower as inside the original buildings. Authentically restored quarters and exhibits, including the original lens and an audiovisual program, Shipwrecks of the Straits, make this “Castle of the Straits” a true gem of the Great Lakes.

The lighthouse is located in Mackinaw City, Michigan. It is closed in the winter and will reopen May 5, 2014.”

Problems in clothing the interpreters

Craig Wilson wanted to provide something that was both warm and authentic for the primary interpreter during the cool spring and fall days. The women interpretive guides usually wear skirts and shirtwaists from the era of 1910 to 1915, mostly in neutral summer colors. Some days, those cotton blouses just aren’t enough protection! Lavender’s Green worked with Craig to research and create a jacket that was both warm and authentic.

Designing the jacket

Fashions were changing rapidly during the ‘teens, the time represented at the lighthouse. A review of fashion plates and photos shows a wide range of styles that might have been worn in the big cities and by the wealthy vacationers at Mackinac Island.

October 1916 Russell's Standard Fashions, publ. by Dover Press

October 1916 Russell’s Standard Fashions, reprint published by Dover Press


Dorothy Minto, photographed in 1912 by Bassino

Dorothy Minto, photographed in 1912 by Bassino

However, a lighthouse keeper was not among the well-to-do classes, and the lighthouse keeper’s wife or daughter would probably not wear a high-fashion suit on her daily rounds. Instead, we looked to examples provided in contemporary paintings. These were scenes from everyday life, and they helped us to see what a woman might have thrown over her clothes in her home or garden.

Amer Edmund Tarbell (American painter, 1862-1938)  Josephine Knitting

Josephine Knitting by Amer Edmund Tarbell (American painter, 1862 – 1938) shows a simple separates look for at-home wear.

Another classic jacket is pictured in the 1915 painting, Portrait of E N Glebova by Russian painter Pavel Filonov.

Another classic jacket is pictured in the 1915 painting, Portrait of E N Glebova by Russian painter Pavel Filonov.

A slightly later painting, The Garden Bench, painted in 1920 by American Rae Sloan Bredin, shows a similar jacket in a summer setting.

A slightly later painting, The Garden Bench, painted in 1920 by American Rae Sloan Bredin, shows a similar jacket in a summer setting.

We chose this basic style, with a high waisted belt and some flare over the hips, as a typical style of the time. We had measurements for Helen, one of the long-term interpretive staffers. I started with a pattern from Folkwear Patterns, which is now out of print. Folkwear’s “Equestriennes Riding Habit,” (copyright 1994) was a copy of a three-piece 1920 linen riding habit, unlined. I began with that jacket, simplified the pockets, and added a silk lining.

Fabric and color choices

Craig wanted the new jacket to be a dark color that would coordinate with the existing wardrobe at the park. Skirts in the collection were tan, black and other neutral shades. I selected a nautical blue wool flannel based on its warmth and the beautiful color. I was able to discover a 1907 painting that showed that exact shade being worn in a casual, watery summertime setting.

Lady Rowing a Boat by Lilla Cabot Perry (American 1848 - 1933)

Lady Rowing a Boat by Lilla Cabot Perry (American 1848 – 1933)

The wool jacket is lined in white china silk, similar to what you might find in a vintage garment, and a useful extra layer against the Lake Michigan wind.

blue 1913 jacket 008 blue 1913 jacket cropped

The finished jacket

Senior Lighthouse Interpreter Helen wearing the jacket

Senior Lighthouse Interpreter Helen wearing the jacket

While it may not be high fashion for 1915, the new jacket is certainly an authentic and practical addition to the lighthouse interpreters’ wardrobes.

Kay Demlow

Owner at Lavender's Green Historic Clothing
I created Lavender’s Green Historic Clothing in 1991 to bring the clothing of the past to people living today.As the researcher, designer and primary dressmaker, I create custom and semi-custom garments for museums, reenactors, and Living History interpreters in the United States and Canada.I especially enjoy women's clothing of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a public speaker, interpreters and a member of several reenacting organizations,I also wear period clothing at historic events throughout the year.

6 thoughts on “Comfort and Style at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  1. I think is just perfect for the venue, a well raised young woman would not have dressed in a flashy manner to visit such a place not matter what her social standing. Personally, I believe everyday clothing is FAR too little represented; historic costuming is too much in the “ballroom” or “house of negotiable affection” styles. Truly, the young lady looks charming. As usual you have hit bang on the mark!
    I want a suit like it!

  2. You do amazing work, Kay. This piece is perfect and should keep the interpreter warm on those chilly Michigan mornings.

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