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Sewing Together the Cloth Of History

Sewing Together the Cloth Of HistoryA historian by training, Tufts graduate Henry Cooke is doing his part to preserve history – making a name for himself as the “Ralph Lauren” of restored historic uniforms andcostumes. Randolph, Mass.

Boston [11.24.03] Henry Cooke began his undergraduate studies at Tufts as a geology major - but a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, where he saw a collection of historic military uniforms, changed not just his major, but his life. Two decades later, Cooke is playing an important role in preserving the history he went on to study - becoming one of the top restorers of original period military uniforms and costumes.

"A lot of my peers dread getting up and going to their jobs each morning," Cooke - who earned a bachelors (in 1979) and masters (in 1984) in early American social history from Tufts - told The Boston Globe. "I have a short commute."

In a small workshop located in his Randolph home, Cooke merges his historical knowledge with his carefully developed tailoring skills - breathing new life into uniforms that are hundreds of years old.

"Restoring uniforms is a kind of historical reenactment in itself," reported the Globe. "Cooke works the way all tailors did prior to the Civil War. Until the middle of the 19th century, uniforms were all handmade."

The process, Cooke says, was slow and painstaking.

"It all started out with a tailor's measuring tape and a piece of chalk," the Tufts graduate told the Globe. "They could literally chalk this garment out on a piece of fine wool broadcloth to the measure of the man ... uniforms at this point were made to literally fit like a second skin."

But replicas, produced with modern approaches, often fell short, so Cooke taught himself to sew like a tailor from the 18th and 19th centuries.

"I realized I needed to do a lot more learning to see how clothes were made, worn and issued to troops," said Cooke - who has been described by the Globe as the "Ralph Lauren of historic costuming."

The results have kept private collectors, documentary filmmakers, museums and historical commissions seeking the Tufts graduate's for his unique services.

From the Connecticut Historical Society - which asked Cooke to provide expertise on its clothing collection - to the reenactors at Sturbridge Village, Cooke's expertise has been sought out just about everywhere a historic uniform is displayed.

"Cooke is much in demand for his expertise, because in the hobby, authenticity means everything, right down to the 40 pewter buttons he hand-casts for each 10th Regiment coat," reported the Globe.

The Tufts graduate also expands his interest in historical costumes beyond his workshop.

As a participant in a variety of historical reenactments, Cooke often finds himself wearing the very uniforms he works so hard to restore.

"Its about making history come alive," Cooke said in an interview with the Globe in 2000. "It's an imagination game, like playing cowboys and Indians as a kid, except we're big kids now, with a serious purpose. By acting out a fantasy, you try to catch a kernel of experience of what it was like in a given time."

For a historian like Cooke, reenactments provide a rare glimpse into the harsh realities of the past.

"For a few fleeting moments it seems real," Cooke told the newspaper. "You get a sense of what it was like to be frightened out of your wits when a column of redcoats comes at you, with bayonets fixed, looking 7 feet tall in their fur hats. You feel the fear the common man must have felt. You realize that these were ordinary people in extraordinary times."

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