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Bringing history to life around the state


Unlike her co-workers, when Kjirsten Gustavson orders supplies for work there might be a few things on the list that you wouldn’t expect — such as a laundry basket or lingerie.

And some days she shows up to work at historic sites across the state dressed from head to toe in historic clothing.

Or she might spend a day in her office at Peebles Island State Park in Waterford sewing some of that clothing.

“Sometimes I feel a little guilty when I’m sewing because I’m having too much fun,” she joked.

Gustavson, a PEF member who works as an interpretative programs coordinator in the Interpretation Department of the Interpretation Unit of the Bureau of Historic Sites, part of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), is passionate about history.

“I decided to work in history when I was an undergrad,” she said. She earned a master’s in museum studies and, through the recommendations of friends, eventually landed at OPRHP.

With an interest in theatrical costume, it was easy for Gustavson to shift her focus to historical clothing. “In grad school, I had the opportunity to work with collections of the New York State Historical Association,” she said. She also took courses in costume study.

Her thesis was on adolescent girls’ undergarments during the late 19th century. “The concept of adolescence was not well developed in the 1800s,” she said.

Her studies looked at the difference in garments worn by children, teenagers, and adult females — with children tending toward shorter skirts, and women toward ankle and floor length.

“Adolescent girls differed from adults and children,” she said.

Not only did the length of skirt differ, Gustavson said the corset material did as well. Younger females wore less stiff corsets, while those worn by adults had firmer boning.

Her knowledge and passion for the clothing of old, she now shares with audiences around the state. One of her programs, which she titled, “UnderWhere?,” features Gustavson in period dress at the start of the program. As she moves through the program, she removes layers of 1880s-era undergarments to discuss each one.

“At one program I had a young girl who had read the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books,” Gustavson recalled. She said the young lady could ask intelligent questions or recognize the layers as she revealed them. “She could make the connections.”

Interactions like the one she had with this young audience member are what make Gustavson’s job so rewarding. “I love being with the public,” she said.

Moving from undergarments to athletic wear, Gustavson also showcases historic women’s bike attire with a “Woman on a Wheel” program.

This time she dons a jacket, corset, dickie, bloomers, and button-up high-heeled shoes — a circa 1895 bicycling costume.

Why was women’s bicycling fashion of historical importance? “There was social power in being fashionable,” she said, adding that this holds true even today.

HistoricGustavson takes her craft seriously. She goes above and beyond, even keeping her hair long so she can style it in period hairstyles to go with her costumes.

For Gustavson, there is never a dull day at work.

While her previous 12 years based at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown afforded her more daily interaction with the public, she still gets to travel around the state and educate New Yorkers and tourists.

“We have a lot going on,” she said. “Our department tries to support the overall mission and goals of the sites and to improve the way we present history.”

Her work isn’t confined to the Capital Region. She’s been to Buffalo and to Allegany, to Olana, and spent the Fourth of July at Clermont in period costume.

Gustavson said it’s important to reach a wide audience, including the younger generations.

“We are working creatively to meet national trends,” she said. “We want to make our museums more fun and accessible to as many people as we can.”

Recently she worked with Emily Robinson, education assistant for Clermont State Historic Site, on Clermont’s History Comics Club.

Students chose a member of the Livingston family, researched them and then created a comic about their character. At the end of the program, the comics were compiled and printed by a professional comic book printer and then displayed at Clermont’s Visitor Center.

Robinson is also an independent comic artist who has had several comic books and a graphic novel published. The program blends history and comics as an art form.

Gustavson also recently assisted with production of a museum theater piece, “The Sincerity of My Affections,” staged within the rooms of Schuyler Mansion in Albany. The production took place Aug. 1, part of the Friends of Schuyler Mansion’s fundraising event.

“We’re always looking for new and creative ways to make history interesting and fun,” Gustavson said.

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