Lee Conte says she doesn’t own a “Back to the Future-style” Delorean, or an H.G. Wellsian time machine.
Nonetheless, she frequently travels back into the past.
For eight years now, as a volunteer actress in the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest’s annual Tale of the Tombstones walk at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Conte says she has counted on her grandmother’s 1950s “portable” Singer Featherweight sewing machine, to bring characters such as this year’s role, suffragette Stella Skiff Jannotta (1867-1954), to life again. The walk takes place this Sunday, Oct. 18 beginning at 12:45 p.m.
A history buff, Conte spends one day a week photographically cataloguing the antique dress collection in the Historical Society’s exhibit space, currently at Pleasant Home.
Seeing all those old-timey dress designs, and using that heirloom sewing machine, Conte says, makes each dress its own sentimental journey.
“My grandmother’s machine only sews a straight line,” she said, “and [the Featherweight name] is a misnomer because it weighs a ton. But it is what I sew everything on because Grandma Conte would walk into a store and see something and say, ‘I am not going to buy that, I will make it.’ And she could whip out a suit in what seemed like minutes.”
This year’s Titanic-era walking suit, she said, began as all her dresses do. She pins fabric to a mannequin and counts on her passion for sewing clothes to kick in.
“I always go out when the fabric is on sale and buy all this black,” she noted, “because I usually play characters who are in mourning. This year, because Stella Skiff Jannotta is a rich woman, I felt she could not just have a plain suit, so it will be plum and black, and to the walking suit I am adding a soutache, which is like this ribbon where you sew these little patterns onto it to make a 3-dimensional embellishment. I pin it onto the dress, then sew the soutache on the fabric.”
One little panel of soutache takes her a couple of hours of detailed handwork.
“If Grandma Conte could see me now, she would cringe at how long it takes me to make one of these dresses,” she laughed. “Or she would be proud that I am following in her footsteps. This dress is from the Edwardian era and is very fitted, but the skirt is a little bit open, so you can walk in it. Otherwise you couldn’t walk.”
What attendees won’t see is the hand-crafted corset which “isn’t that bad. It will be stitch tight, but I can still breathe in it, so there is room to be comfortable,” she said.
And slipped over that she will be wearing a camisole and a full-length lace petticoat to recreate her character’s visual form.
“Back then, the idea with the underclothes is that they protect the overclothes. So the women of that era would wear all these layers of underclothing because they were easier to launder,” Conte explained.
“I do not know what possesses me to do all this, but I just love it,” she added. “There is something so beautiful about transforming somebody from today’s era back into an earlier time. When they see me on Sunday, I want people to say, ‘Wow,’ and have a tactile experience of history.”