Stop in at the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton during Patriot Week — starting on Wednesday, December 26 — or any time during the year, and chances are you would think the Colonial-era redcoat officers who had been garrisoned there would feel right at home in the recently restored officers’ house.
You could imagine them enjoying the solid wood furnishings and silverware comforts on the first floor and then ascending to the second floor quarters to retire for the night.
Except now one of the officers is out of luck. One of the rooms has been converted to something else entirely. Instead of a bed, he would find stacks of cloth patterns, rows of heavy shears, and piles of chalk and tape that give away the room’s current use: a tailor shop.
It is there that David Niescior creates clothing using the same methods and materials as 18th-century tailors. The heavy iron shears used to cut cloth were manufactured in England, and several date back to the War of Independence. The chalk is used to outline the fit before cutting.
The only period tool Niescior does not use is the heavy iron, known as a goose. The heavy slab is heated in a fire, but Niescior uses an electric iron because fire code forbids fireplace use.
“Back then they said, ‘Tailors always got a goose in the fire,’” says Niescior, who in addition to creating period garments provides one hour-long interpretative tours of the museum three days a week.
And while the museum’s historical origins were military in nature, most days Niescior wears civilian clothing from the time period. “I find civilian clothes more interesting because soldiers’ uniforms are made to look good as opposed to functional, which is the reverse of uniforms today,” Niescior says. “Army coats, especially in the 1770s, tend to have fake pleats and tails.”
From the button placement to the fabric’s pattern and thickness, the period clothing is carefully tailored by Niescior in his tailor room. Most museum visitors are surprised to learn that the costumes are hand sewn, and Niescior adds, are more surprised that there is surprise that a man is doing the work, a 28-year-old one at that.
But Niescior says it should not be a surprise. Tailoring was historically a predominantly male trade providing custom-fit clothing for men. In most local shops a customer would show up with fabric, turn it over to the tailor, get measured, and return to pick up the finished clothing a couple of days later. In contrast to women’s clothing of the time, which draped or wrapped around the body, men’s clothing was shaped. Think of a modern suit’s shoulder pads.
Niescior specializes in clothing worn from the 1750s through the 1770s, reflecting the period of time of the Old Barracks’ most active use. He says the clothing silhouette changed rapidly during this short time period. The 1750s Rococo style featured fuller coats with skirts and lots of pleating. By the 1770s Rococo gave way to a neo-classical style in which coat bodies had a slimmer silhouette with sharper and clearer lines.
Both styles accentuated the form of the leg, as well as emphasizing the gut. The 18th-century waist is located slightly below the hip. Contrary to popular belief, showing off the stomach was not meant to signal a well-fed person. Niescior says they simply thought the stomach looked cool and in turn tailored clothes to snugly fit the body.
“We have an eye on the details. They add up, and we have a moral responsibility. If you can’t actually point it out, it’s much harder to show people this stuff,” says Niescior. “A tour guide tells you what something is. An interpreter tells you what something means. For example, the clothing material speaks to British mill imports, shipped to the colonies under the mercantile system. And you see that the clothes are closely fitted: you can explain that fabric is expensive and this style minimizes the amount of fabric used while maximizing durability.”
Far from both the 18th century and Trenton, Niescior grew up in Cherry Hill, where he still resides. His parents are both computer programmers, Polish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s. Niescior majored in history at Rutgers-Camden and then earned a master’s in history, specializing in 1760s Colonial history. He is thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., but he says there is “scant living in humanities.”
In 2013 he began volunteering at the Old Barracks Museum and after several months he joined the staff. “It is better than the Japanese restaurant I was working at,” Niescior says.
Fellow Old Barracks historical interpreter Asher Lorie initially introduced Niescior to the museum. The two were involved in the same Revolutionary reenactment group, which Niescior had found online. The group conducted living histories and “big shoot ‘em up” battle reenactments.
However, Niescior eventually left the reenactment group. They were intent on buying uniforms and materials from suppliers, a practice he says is “not necessarily focused on historical accuracy.”
It’s a question he poses: “Is it more important to be uniform or more important to be correct?” Niescior provides an answer of sorts: he joined a new group with a “do-it-yourself” attitude. After all, he says, who cares if you bought something?
While Niescior does buy materials to use, he says he looks for vendors and mills that reproduce the fabric as closely as possible to the actual finish of 18th-century fabric.
“I look for 100 percent wool that is plain woven, with an over-under pattern, as opposed to the twill weave you see in jeans,” says Niescior. “People today prefer wool that is softer, but 18th century woolens tended to be more firm in the hand. It’s hard to find woolen goods that are stiff and robust. Stiffer material tends to make sharper looking coats, and it lasts longer. It’s scratchier, but it looks better in certain applications.”
A fundamentally unique aspect of 18th-century tailoring used by Niescior is the method of cutting out patterns, or drafting, using the “rock of eye.” This approach drafts patterns from a sense of proportion. An 18th-century tailor would use a tape, but it was not numbered. Instead, a tailor would measure the tape along a customer’s body and mark notches aligned with their actual size. This measurement was then adjusted against a pre-made block pattern. In other words, tailors did not rely on computation.
Niescior says he taught himself through trial and error. Earlier attempts at uniform making resulted in waistcoats, which are supposed to cover the whole waistband, being too short. “You figure out your size after a while,” he says.
In addition to Old Barracks uniforms, Niescior also does commissions for other historical institutions on his own time. However, the time-consuming nature of tailoring prevents him from taking up too much work. He charges around $20 an hour, and he estimates a full suit — coat, britches, and waistcoat — takes 50 to 60 hours.
What doesn’t he make? Stockings, hats, and shoes, which were made by knitters, hatters, and shoemakers in the 18th century, all different trades.
The barracks were built in 1758 to house British soldiers fighting the French and Indian War. During the Revolutionary War, the British kept prisoners of war in the building. When the Continental Army famously wrested control of Trenton away from the British in the winter of 1776-’77, the building was converted into an army hospital.
Niescior has Continental as well as redcoat uniforms. While the daring feats of George Washington and his scrappy band of revolutionaries are broadcast far and wide, Niescior also finds the British point of view historically compelling.
“The biggest misconception about British soldiers is they were monoliths. They are maligned as villains and as being incompetent,” says Niescior. “British soldiers had their own idea of liberty, that you can’t have liberty without law. They believed they were preserving and defending protections.”
This is in contrast to the radical core of the Founding Fathers, that all men are created equal and endowed with natural rights. Niescior says the prevailing political theory of the times considered republics disastrous — from the classical era to the ignominious end of Oliver Cromwell in England and the Dutch republic across the Channel, the thought went that republics inevitably resulted in tyranny. From the British perspective, their constitutional monarchy was more stable while also featuring political representation.
At the same time, Colonial life was highly stratified, and who better to tell the difference than a tailor?
“Clothing was a very useful gauge of where they fit in the social hierarchy,” Niescior says.
Virtually everyone’s clothes were custom made at the local tailor shop, but the quality of the clothing material distinguished one’s social status. Officers wore coats with super-fine wool while regulars wore thicker coats made out of common grade broadcloth.
As for tailors, theirs was not a glamorous trade in the 18th century.
“Tailors existed in great numbers back then. They became a handy trope for political cartoons, and they tended to be depicted as cheap and scrawny,” Niescior says. “They are always stuck between projects. They don’t make a lot of money. And there is almost an effeminate portrayal. They are not as manly as a bricklayer or a sailor.”
A 21st-century tailor, Niescior finds it to be a pleasurable handicraft. “I have a lot of respect for people who make things. I enjoy the research into how garments were made and trying to replicate that as close as possible,” Niescior says. “I like being able to look down at something I’ve been able to produce. It’s a happy middle ground between humanities, and enjoying what you learn, and the mechanic who likes what he can build.”
Visitors to the Old Barracks’ museum also pay notice. As Niescior says, “They get a much better sense of what the 18th century looked like and how styles change and shift through time. It makes it that much easier to suspend your sense of disbelief and get a sense for the period.”
Something to recall when one visits the Old Barracks throughout the year — or during Patriots Week.
Old Barracks Museum, 101 Barrack Street. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 45-minute tours on the hour. $6 to $8. 609-396-1776 or www.barracks.org.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Trenton Downtowner.