Panel preview: A Q&A with historical costume builder Samantha Bullat

Samantha Bullat/The Couture CourtesanRegency Era fashion is a popular topic among Jane Austen fans, and this year we’re offering two turban-making workshops led by Samantha Bullat, known online as the Couture Courtesan. She is a professional tailor and historical costume builder for the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, VA. Attendees of the 2018 Jane Austen Summer Program on “Northanger Abbey” and “Frankenstein” might remember Bullat’s presentation on gothic elements in Regency clothing. We wanted to catch up with her to see what she has been up to since then.

This will be your second JASP. We’re so happy to have you back! What are you most excited about doing this year at JASP?

I am most excited about attending the ball! I was unable to last time and was very sorry to have missed it. I love English country dancing, and it’s such an important part of socialization in Jane Austen’s world. 

[Read our 2018 interview with Samantha Bullat here.]

This year, you’ll be talking about global and Ottoman influences in Regency fashion. What are some examples of those influences — visual cues people should look for to spot these influences? How do you even go about researching such a topic?

The turban is undoubtedly the most iconic fashion element to come from Ottoman influence. I’m looking forward to sharing about the origins of such a quintessential look. The paisley shawl also has Eastern origins, even though we so strongly associate it with 19th-century England. There actually is quite a large body of scholarly work on the subject of “Turquerie”, “Egyptimania,” and European appropriation of Eastern style because it was such a phenomenon during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

You also will be leading our turban-making workshops. What should we expect from those?

My workshop[s] will focus on how to use pashmina shawls to create beautiful turbans to finish your Regency look, ornamented with feathers and jewels. While turbans of the period were also made by sewing fabric together, I wanted to teach something that anyone could do, even if they didn’t know how to sew. 

What advice do you have for a first-time attendee of JASP?

I was so heartened by how friendly and welcoming everyone was to me as a newcomer. It helps to know that everyone in attendance shares your interest in Jane Austen, so there is always something to talk about!

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Samantha Bullat as Isabella Thorpe and Trey Heath as James Morland from the Northanger Abbey Musical (Courtesy of Samantha Bullat/The Couture Courtesan)

Tell us about a recent costuming project you have worked on that you really enjoyed.

Last year I made a Tudor lady’s ensemble from the skin out, which fulfilled a childhood dream of having a gown like Anne Boleyn! I spent a few years sourcing the materials and doing research, and I’m very happy with the finished product. 

What advice do you have for others who would like to get into historical costuming?

I think it’s important when getting started to remember that everyone was a novice once and not to get discouraged! It is okay to make mistakes. The next time you try something, it will only get better. It’s so easy to compare yourself to more experienced costumers and feel discouraged. But everyone is on their own journey. Just make what brings you joy!

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel? If so, which one and why?

I don’t think I do! But I have always felt most kindred with Marianne Dashwood…

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Samantha Bullat as Isabella Thorpe and Trey Heath as James Morland from the “Northanger Abbey” musical (Courtesy of Samantha Bullat/The Couture Courtesan)

You performed in the “Northanger Abbey” musical as Isabella in Williamsburg last fall during the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. What can you tell us about that experience? 

It was such an honor to be a part of bringing a friend’s lifelong dream to life on stage and with so many other dear friends as part of the cast. It was a lot of hard work but also made us like a family. I developed such a soft spot for Isabella Thorpe and have a lot of sympathy for her! But it was also terribly fun to play the “bad girl”!

Did you help with or have input into the costumes? And how did the costumes give actors insight into their characters?

There were a fair number of us in the cast who could sew, so we were in charge of our own costumes. I was grateful that Amy [Stallings, writer of the production] agreed with the direction I went with Isabella’s costume, which was a very pink and ostentatious gown. Emma Cross, who portrays Eleanor, chose to wear a lot of white to reflect Eleanor’s innate goodness.

Bullat is scheduled to give her plenary talk Friday, June 19, at 9 a.m. Her workshops (which require additional fees) are scheduled for 12:30 to 2 p.m. June 19 and 12:45 to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20. REGISTER HERE. (If you have already registered for JASP and wish to add on the workshops, you do not need to re-register for the program; you may sign up for only the turban-making workshops.)

About Robin Floyd

Robin K Floyd works as an educator at Wake County Public Schools. In her spare time she enjoys learning about literature, history, and fashion. Her favorite Jane Austen novel is Northanger Abbey, closely followed by everything else!

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