Andrew Welch's Town Crier Uniform
The most striking thing about any town crier is their outfit (also known as their livery or uniform - it is never refered to as a "costume" in town crier circles). While uniforms vary widely from place to place and country to country, every town crier around the world wears an outfit that reflects a significant historical influence.
In the first place, the town crier's job was to convey messages from the authority of the land - indeed an assault on a town crier carrying out their duties was at one time considered as treasonous as an attack on the person whose authority they represented. It was therefore important that the garb of the town crier reflect that authority in some impressive fashion.
Secondly, being a respected and honorable profession, the job of town crier was often filled by retired military officers, with the appropriate standing in their community, and the appropriate uniform to go with it! This military tradition is often reflected in the outfits worn by today's town criers.
In the present day, the town crier's historical look is also used to convey the long past of tradition and heritage that is associated with the role, going back hundreds of years. The outfit of many town criers reflects specific elements from the history of the place that they represent.
Lastly, there is the practical consideration that a town crier must draw attention to themselves in order to effectively deliver the messages that they are charged with circulating, and an eye-catching livery is just the thing to attract a crowd.
The most common historical period chosen for town crier outfits these days is late 17th/early 18th century Europe. No doubt this represented the peak of the profession, before other forms of public communication began to take over.
The traditional colours of the uniform are red, gold, and black, which I suspect is heavily influenced by the British military tradition, as well as the aforementioned need to stand out in a crowd.
The hat of the town crier - most commonly of tricorn (three-cornered) design - is often adorned with feathers (either marabou or ostrich). It is said that these represent the feather quills of the pens which the original town criers used to write their proclamations. Indeed, the ability to read and write was not only a prerequisite skill - it was the shortage of that ability amongst the general population that created the need for a town crier in the first place!
Since present day town criers are often goodwill ambassadors for their communities, is it also now traditional that their outfit reflect something of that place, be it crests, county colours, or a specific uniform from their region's past.
A Uniform for Caledon
Town criers are usually responsible for their own uniform. While making your own is an option, one must keep in mind that this is more than just a theatre costume, viewed from several meters away and made to last three weeks. The outfit of a town crier must be comfortable in all sorts of weather conditions, photographable from every angle (especially up close), able to withstand the wear and tear of many years service, and should also be as authentic as possible to the chosen time period being portrayed.
My first few appearances as town crier in Caledon were unexpectedly much earlier than I had anticipated. As a result, I needed to create a look very quickly that would at least 'suggest' an appropriate level of pageantry and tradition. There was not even enough time to properly slip into Toronto to try and rent something from one of the better costume establishments found down there.
Instead, I borrowed a few pieces from local theatre contacts, added a few more from my own collection, absconded with a small handbell from the local school, and with a winter coat of my wife's, created something that would pass a cursory inspection and also keep me warm in the frigid temperatures of my first few events.
The lacy thing at the neck (called a jabot - a French word) was made by hand, and the boot tops were a theatrical novelty item - another stopgap measure that saved me worrying about the necessity of period buckled shoes straight away.
Soon after, it became apparent that I also needed a temporary indoor uniform, so again, a few items were tossed together. I replaced the coat with a vest and added a red sash. Meanwhile, as additional requests started to come in for more town crier engagements, a more appropriate and permanent outfit was clearly required.
I should perhaps point out that I had never made a real item of clothing before. The sum total of my experience would have been watching my mother's occasional dress-making when I was very young, and a few experiments of my own, creating jackets and trousers for stuffed animals, when I was not much older. I suspected that I was in for some challenging times...
The first step was to create a design. I wanted to recognize Caledon's signature as "the greenest town in Ontario" and it's efforts towards sustainability and environmental stewardship in my final result. My first draft is shown at right.
The primary element used in this design is the gold leaf motif that appears on the lapels, cuffs, and pocket flaps of the frock coat, symbolizing Caledon's close ties to nature, and echoing the leaf theme apparent in Caledon's town crest.
As it turns out, there are in fact two(!) town criers in Bracebridge with essentially the same colour scheme and general look to their (matching) outfits, so among other things, I decided to reverse the colours, giving me a hunter green coat with red trim. This also worked out well financially, since the green Italian cashmere wool fabric (from Designer Fabric) was less than half the cost of the difficult-to-source red wool broadcloth (from MilitaryHeritage.com).
The rest of this page is devoted to my struggle to create my first ever piece of clothing from scratch, some of the discoveries along the way, and anecdotes about the execution of my design.
The actual pattern for the frock coat was the result of combining a generic commercial 'pirate costume' pattern (Simplicity #4923), with an authentic pattern for a 16th century French officer's coat (which I believe came from the Fortress at Louisbourg), supplied by a theatre contact. Putting two incompatible designs together is non-trivial and a lot of trial-and-error with newspaper mock-ups was required. I also decided to begin with a trial coat, constructed from a less-expensive red fabric.
The prolific leaf motif of my design presented some interesting challenges. After some early experiments with hand embroidery over wire, I decided to look into commercially available custom embroidery services. I created a digital graphic, consulted with the embroiderer, and was all set to go - until I happened to meet up with a true miltary heritage expert.
Peter Twist, of MilitaryHeritage.com, is a renowned expert in period military uniforms, regalia, and other lore. His firm supplies stunning, museum-quality uniforms to forts, parks, and collections across North America. He is also a sought-after consultant to the film and television industries - most notably as an advisor the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. He generously took the time to walk me through a wealth of knowledge and techniques used in construction of a military uniform of the period I was looking at, including materials, button placement, and working with what is known as "military lace" - gold trim.
I learned that my leaf design could be realized by pulling the string core out of rope braid, ironing it flat, and then shaping it as I wanted.
Faced with creating 36 leaves, I came up with my own form for shaping the ironed flat braid. I tied off the midpoint of the braid, gave it a twist to hold a point, put the braid in the form, ironed the right angle corners for the stems, and smeared a small amount of wood glue on the corners and along the back to help the leaf hold its shape while being attached.
The individual leaves were then sewn onto the lapels, pocket flaps, cuffs, and cape corners. Each leaf took about one hour from start to finish.
The stem of each leaf was to represent the button holes. In some cases, such as for the pocket flaps, the buttons actually perform as real buttons. The nine buttons on each lapel are sewn through so that they do in fact hold the lapels in place, but they are not unbuttonable.
My goodness, cuffs can be tricky! Having already altered the cut of the sleeves, and not liking the original cuff design anyway, I had to start from scratch. The cost of the red wool meant that some careful experiments were required with newspaper first. (I noted later that I had used the fashion pages of the weekend Globe & Mail - how appropriate.) Cuffs come in multiple parts with several layers to sew. Getting the order of assembly right is a critical step.
I decided my first pair of period shoes would in fact be boots. This would give me the most flexibility for working in all weather conditions, and temporarily save me the worry of britches and hose. I started off looking for second-hand riding boots, but ran into three obstacles: (1) Men's riding boots are hard to come by; (2) They are designed for riding, not walking; and (3) they are frightfully expensive, even used.
I abandoned that route and had a pair of period field boots custom-made for me by Robert Land in Guelph. They were truly beautiful, and cost me less than my used riding boots option. The only catch is that they were very tough to remove. I constructed a robust device to aid in their removal, and it works very well, so long as there is something solid to anchor it too! Eventually, Land Footwear built a replacement pair with more room and swapped the boots at no charge. I still use the custom-built boot jack, but the on and off process has become much easier!
Perhaps the biggest lesson, which works against the instincts of any contemporary seamstress, was this:
Seams (and flipping inside out to sew) matter a lot less in period military sewing.
Why? Because back then they just sewed directly through the fabric and then covered any visible seams with military lace - the gold stuff. Once you figure that out, everything gets a lot easier and flatter!
I already knew that fine wool, arranged in multiple layers, is an excellent insulator. What I discovered is that (a) many town crier events take place in extremely hot weather, and (b) many town criers know this already and have non-wool frock coats! A summer-weight uniform may soon be in the making...
My shoulder cape was designed to be reversible, with red on one side and green on the other. This worked out very well, when, six months after being appointed Official Town Crier for Caledon, Ontario, the Town of Erin bestowed the same honour for their municipality. I quickly modified the green side to be trimmed in shamrocks instead of the leaves used for the rest of the coat, and I now have a uniform suitable for my new appointment as well.
One more trick... I mounted my Guild crest on a small piece of sheet metal, allowing me to use magnets to attach it to either side of my cape, or even my vest, if I am not wearing the coat!
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