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Anne Arundel 100

From Homespun to Hologram: The Woman Behind the Bodice

Written by Anne Dowling Grulich

Genie Posnett stitched costumes for the Smithsonian exhibit "Written in Bone."
Genie Posnett stitched costumes for the Smithsonian exhibit "Written in Bone."

 "We can capture the physical likeness, but the voice eludes us," says Genie Posnett, costume fabricator for the "Written in Bone" exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and associate costumer at Historic St. Mary's City. "What kind of woman was Anne Wolseley Calvert? How would she have spoken - like Margaret Thatcher or Lady Diana?" These questions and others continue to haunt Posnett. And for good reason:  For the "Bone" exhibit, she was quite literally transformed into Anne Calvert, wife of Philip Calvert, Maryland's 17th-century chancellor. The Calverts came to St. Mary's City in 1657 just after Lord Baltimore's control of Maryland was re-established following a Protestant coup. Anne Calvert died around 1680.

The display of human remains is controversial in any setting, including across the lawn from the National Museum of the American Indian and down the road from the National Holocaust Museum where stories of survival are told. But "Bone" is stunning in its content and presentation with its focus on the intimate details of a half-dozen Chesapeake individuals from all walks of life. The exhibit goes beyond science to explore the heart-wrenching details of everyday life revealed by forensic examination of archaeologically recovered bones. In the past, artifacts have been mended and buildings reconstructed to interpret such histories, but now the bones of Maryland's founders walk in the nation's capital in a profoundly moving story.

We're plunged into a darkened world of skeletons, spotlighted figures, striding holograms, a Vermeer, and an African queen. You may recognize staff members from Historic St. Mary's City (HSMC) in the faces on the walls. Aaron Meisinger, interpretive programs coordinator strides across the opening wall in hologram form as he transforms from skeleton to 17th-century dress to modern apparel.  St. Mary's alumna Meghan Sullivan '08 poses Vermeer-like, patiently sewing. Archaeologists Tim Riordan and Ruth Mitchell appear in videos.  Archaeological drawings and images by Don Winter, archaeology laboratory assistant, and the research of Henry Miller, director of research, and Silas Hurry, curator of collections, are evident everywhere.

The person behind the costumes, corsets, caps, and breeches in the exhibit has a dual role. As HSMC's costumer of period clothing, Genie Posnett gleans information from archaeological finds, art history, and spinning and weaving practices. She also bears an uncanny resemblance to Anne Calvert. Thus, it was decided that she would not only dress Anne Calvert but be Mistress Calvert in the exhibit video. Her transformation is startling as Calvert a.k.a. Posnett turns and walks painfully toward the Smith's Ordinary site.

How did we get from Mistress Calvert's skeleton to this limping 3-D form?  It all began with the discovery of the lead coffins at St. Mary's City in 1990 when the Smithsonian's Doug Owsley was called in as forensic anthropologist along with a team of experts in a wide variety of specialties, and it concluded in 2008 with the stitching of Calvert's garments.

midhologramTo create the most intimate personal artifacts Calvert would have possessed, Posnett turned to artist Theodor de Bry's engravings, and books like Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion and Norah Waugh's The Cut of Women's Clothes, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum collection and her experience in developing costumes for HSMC's interpreters. Posnett developed her own patterns by extrapolating from the drawings and images. And due to her resemblance to Calvert, Posnett herself was the perfect model. Posnett worked at home on contract to the Smithsonian for most of this project, so Anne Calvert was literally a guest in her house.

Details as minute as the stitching on Calvert's seemingly plain, white, linen hood with its underlying lace-edged cap, and the manner of tying it at the neck required solid research and experience in 17th- century garment re-creation. "This hood is an improvement over a cross-cloth, a triangular scarf wrapped and tied as a head covering during the period," explains Posnett, "which would have served many purposes for the wearer no matter what their station in life."  Similar to a scout's bandanna, it can cool you down when wet, protect your head, or provide modesty inside a low neckline. Period endhologramportraits indicate that wealthy women adapted the triangular scarf more permanently with stitched pleats along the back of the neck and a tie under the chin. And in this museum setting, since the fabric had to be coated in resin so it would maintain its shape, Posnett used heavier linen to support the weight of the resin finish. The bamboo for the stays of Anne Calvert's bodice were cut at St. Mary's City, and painstakingly and authentically secured into the garment.

The cane with the bone disc handle that supports Calvert in the exhibit video was fashioned by Joe Greeley, HSMC waterfront site supervisor, after the bone handle of a cane recovered from the 17th-century Van Sweringen Site. The base of the reproduction cane is covered in copper with a linen overlay so it doesn't slip. Anne Calvert's right leg was deformed and shortened by a badly healed break of her right femur in the last years of her life, and it had an abscess that would have drained with a foul odor. In fact, Anne Calvert may have been bed- ridden at various times, but with no skeletal evidence of the use of crutches, the exhibitors adapted the idea of using a cane. Generally, men used canes as fashion statements during this time period, so Anne might well have leaned on her husband's.

Posnett made two sets of clothing for Anne Calvert - one in silk and one in wool flannel.  The silk version appears in the exhibit to reflect Mistress Calvert's social status, but Posnett feels Calvert would have worn something akin to the flannel outfit at St. Mary's City, given her age and the pain and discomfort she dealt with in her later years. Anne Calvert was 60 at the time of her death - quite unusual for a woman on the Chesapeake frontier - and had numerous chronic ailments in addition to her bad leg.  Forensic examination of her hair revealed strong evidence of arsenic that was often part of 17th-century medicine. What she thought was a cure probably shortened her life.

And finally, the facial reconstruction of Calvert.  It was developed from a model by forensic artist Sharon A. Long using Calvert's skull recovered in the lead coffin. Says Posnett, "The wrinkles are based on mine and Mother Teresa's; the likeness is Anne Calvert's."  So, when you go to the exhibit you will see the complete transformation, head to toe, from bone to Anne Wolseley Calvert, and the role Posnett plays. The hologram video-Calvert who turns and walks away towards Smith's Ordinary in St. Mary's City is indeed part Posnett, not only in physical detail, but in spirit.

Genie Posnett muses: "They always talk about Philip Calvert and the men. Margaret Brent left, rebuked by men. What kind of woman was Anne Calvert?  When she came over in 1657 she was not a young woman. One day, when I was coming out of the reconstructed chapel where Anne was buried, I realized that this is where Anne Calvert would have drawn her spiritual strength during life. And she would have needed it as a wealthy woman coming from England, having to cope with so many physical problems."  In considering the infant that was buried in a small lead coffin next to Anne and Philip, and presumed to be Philip's child by a second marriage, Posnett wonders, "Had she already lost Philip?"

Such is the power of archaeology.