Chick History would like to welcome to the website Janice Formichella, founder of The Feminist’s Guide, a travel website designed to document and highlight the various locations around the country where notable women have lived, worked, and are memorialized. Today is the first in a three-part interview Janice conducted for Chick History with Ashlie Jensen, an Educator and Elizabeth I interpreter at the Higgins Armory. Enjoy!
by Janice Formichella
As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by female members of royal families, particularly those of the British monarchy. Queen Elizabeth I has always been someone who I have had a deep interest in and respect for. I wrote about this life-long interest of mine in a recent Women’s History Month post and highlighted my favorite royal women. It was through this post that I met the talented and charming Ashlie Jensen, who introduced herself to me on Twitter after reading my piece. Ashlie and I struck a quick friendship and as I learned about her career as an Elizabeth I interpreter I became determined to work together in some capacity, and to promote her exciting work.
Ashlie works at the Higgins Amory in Worchester, MA. Among other things she acts as a first-person interpreter of Queen Elizabeth I, meaning that she wears authentic Elizabethan costumes and acts as Elizabeth in museum tours, skits, lectures, and more. Ashlie writes her performances herself and even designs and sews her own costumes. I think she probably has the coolest job of anyone I know.
JF: What part of your job do you love the most?
I love interacting with the public. That is the best part of my day. Whether I am running a role-play or a craft with a school program, doing a show, or just talking with people about our collection in the Great Hall of the Higgins Armory Museum, I am happy because I am educating people about history. I can’t get enough of what I call “geeking-out” with a person I have never met before over history!
Ashlie in one of her hand-sewn costumes
she uses when interpreting Elizabeth I.
JF: I saw you discuss your gorgeous costumes in an interview on your site and am amazed that you sew them yourself. Where do you find the patterns, and how do you maintain historical accuracy?
Thank you for noticing the effort myself and my talented mother put into creating historical clothing! Historical accuracy has always been extremely important to me; even in high school, I was the “historical accuracy police” for the drama department and my fellow medieval enthusiasts. I feel that accurate clothing only enhances my interpretation of Elizabeth I and the other historical women I portray. It is one thing to see these voluminous dresses on screen in a movie, but quite another to see them up close. I allow those I interact with to touch the clothes and accessories I am wearing and to ask questions; this really brings alive the time period for them!
One way I maintain historical accuracy is by reading contemporary sources; my colleagues and I cannot stress enough the importance of reading literature and viewing art from the time period you are aiming to re-create. Another way is that I only use patterns that are based off of surviving garments in museums or private collections; a close second to this is using patterns based off of illuminations from Books of Hours or portraits. And in using these patterns, I only use fabric, trim and notions that were readily available for the time period.
If you are just getting into historical costuming, I recommend getting familiar with Sumptuary Laws. Sumptuary Laws are a system of laws put in place by every ruler of every country, in every time period, that dictate what fabrics and even what colors you can wear based on what class you are born into. These can also include what hairstyles are appropriate to wear. With my Elizabethan costuming, I am playing the queen, so far more fabrics and styles are available to me than if I were portraying a middle-class working woman.
The most important thing for me is to own as many replica pieces of garments and accessories associated with Elizabeth as is possible, in order to tell her story better.
JF: What is the most common question you get at the museum about Elizabeth?
When I am dressed as Queen Elizabeth, people tend to play along with my first person interpretation and ask me questions as if I really were Elizabeth. When I am not dressed as Elizabeth, but the topic of her comes up, I get entirely different types of questions!
After I have done one of my programs as Elizabeth, children usually zero in on one of the following: Elizabeth’s childhood or my clothes. I try to give child-friendly, but still truthful answers about Elizabeth’s relationship with her father, her sister, and her time spent in the Tower of London, which they always want me to elaborate on. If the kids are really young, I concentrate on conveying Elizabeth’s triumph over adversity, rather than the sad or graphic details of her formative years. And when kids ask about my clothing, I do break character a bit and show them the different layers of my historically accurate garb. Lifting one’s skirts is something, of course, that Queen Elizabeth herself would never do!
The most common question adults ask me is: why do I feel so strongly that Elizabeth is worth knowing about? My answer is always this: Elizabeth survived a childhood of neglect, scandal, and then danger, to become the greatest monarch England has ever had. She inherited a country that’s treasury was drained, was suffering from religious persecution and mistrust of government, and had recently lost its last hold on the continent in Calais, France. Through her keen political acumen and her ability to listen to wise council, Elizabeth was able to rebuild the treasury, establish a moderate religious policy that was unprecedented, and thus keep her country from the religious wars that were destroying the rest of Europe. In Elizabeth’s time as Queen, during which she sacrificed her personal happiness in order to give herself entirely to serving her people, England became economically and artistically rich, and she laid the foundations for England as Empire. I don’t think anyone can hear her story and not be inspired!
Stay tuned to Chick History for more from our wonderful interview with Elizabeth I interpreter Ashlie Jensen. In the next segment Ashlie discusses her role in helping to set the record straight when it comes to Queen Elizabeth’s history and the many misperceptions about her life.