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At George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon, interpreters look their parts

MOUNT VERNON, Va. – Elizabeth Keaney’s work dress code might be stricter than yours: Her gig portraying a young Martha Washington at Mount Vernon means she spends 30 minutes a day lacing herself into corset-like linen stays with a fat needle called a bodkin and strapping on hip-exaggerating “pocket hoops.” The hoops, plus petticoats full enough to make Marie Antoinette jealous, support her floor-length, full-skirted cotton gowns.

“You definitely take up more room in these clothes, but I’ve gotten used to it,” says the history interpreter. “The first time I tested them out in my apartment, I knocked over a wine glass!”

For a little over a year, Keaney, 38, has been slipping into buckled shoes and teeny lace caps for several days a week to conjure the first U.S. first lady. She channels Martha in 1769, before the American Revolution, when the colonies – and her husband – were struggling with British taxes and pondering their freedom. On a typical day, she might give tours of the mansion grounds, conduct a chat explaining the (somewhat) meet-cute she had with George and stroll the property in a wide straw hat while fielding questions from tourists.

But show up at Mount Vernon a day or two later and you’ll probably suffer Ye Olde Whiplash. There’s another Martha Washington, this one seemingly zapped in from the National Portrait Gallery. She’s got frizzy white hair, a silk gown in a wallpaper stripe, and, well, several decades on Keaney. That’s Mount Vernon’s other, senior-level Martha, 73-year-old Mary Wiseman, who has been on the job here since 2002. She holds court with tourists in the Interpretive Center on a stage set of sorts – a high-backed chair, a portrait of a young George and a candle on a small table. Oh, and that hair? It’s a wig she affixes with spirit gum.

Mary Wiseman portrays elder Martha Washington at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon)

With the hindsight of 1798 (the year her character inhabits) and in a Virginia genteel accent, Wiseman recounts memories such as joining her husband in the Valley Forge camps and playing hostess to Mount Vernon’s rotating cast of houseguests – the Marquis de Lafayette, for one. A flurry of questions, often from children, follows her chat. “Did George Washington tell any lies?” asks one. “Did you have a pet?” asks another. “Yes, my father brought me a bear cub as a child, but we had to let Blackie go eventually,” she replies.

And no, Wiseman and Keaney don’t appear together in character; that’d be the stuff of science fiction. But the older woman serves as a mentor to the younger, and they constantly trade notes and ideas.

It takes all kinds

Like other history interpreters at attractions around the country (and world), Keaney and Wiseman function as educational time travelers in a tech-crazed modern world. Some re-create famous figures in first person (such as the Marthas and Wild West gunslinger Calamity Jane in South Dakota’s “Deadwood Alive”). Others suit up in throwback garb to play composite characters or types. Depending on where you’ve landed, you might find deerskin-clad Wampanoag Indians at Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation, 1920s townspeople at Den Gamle By (the Old Town) in Arhaus, Denmark, or ancient Egyptian royals at Cairo’s tourist-trappy Pharaonic Village.

Some interpreters are full-time staff, others are volunteers, and a few – like the younger and older George Washingtons brought in by Mount Vernon for holidays, Presidents Day and other functions – freelance for special events.

All interpreters have similar missions: To bring dry or distant eras to crackling life. Most are history buffs or have degrees in museum education. And ideally, they’ve immersed themselves so deeply in their time, person or site that coming upon one seems unscripted and downright transporting.

“Most of the visitors to Hearst Castle don’t know much about the 1930s, and it’s my secret agenda to help them learn,” says Christine Heinrichs, a volunteer interpreter who suits up in feathered hats and swanky floor-length gowns to impersonate a well-heeled party guest. “They’ve usually heard of Charles Lindbergh, so I’ll talk about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping or the coronation of King George VI, since people know him as Queen Elizabeth’s father.”

Reinforcing a message

Of course, the costumes and comportment of interpreters play a big role in whether travelers buy into the whole living-history experience. “What our people wear is important, because visitors want to be transported,” says Anna Altschwager, assistant director of guest experience at Old World Wisconsin, a historical park where costumed characters emulate 19th-century immigrant life amid restored antique barns and cabins. “Clothes are a gateway that get people to engage, and it’s not the same if a staffer is in a polo shirt.”

For the most part, especially at attractions reviving the preindustrial world, garments are stitched by hand and developed based on old house-sale inventories, existing artifacts or portraits and photographs.

Some sites invite you to join the throwback party in a tactile way, either by suiting up in historic garb or trying your hand at antediluvian crafts or trades.

In the end, “I don’t think the living history field should be some anachronistic ‘let’s preserve this in amber’ thing,” Altschwager says.