Last updated: February 17. 2013 8:20AM - 40 Views

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PHILADELPHIA — Clarissa Dillon used to mortify her teenage son by wearing her work clothes — a colonial-style getup — while driving him somewhere.

"He'd say, ‘Oh for God's sake, Mom, you look like a baby in that bonnet!'" she recalls.

But Dillon was — and, at 79, remains — unmoved. That's because for this ardent devotee of 18th-century "domestic arts" in Southeastern Pennsylvania, everything about ordinary life at that time, in this place, is worth exploring.

If that means "wearing funny clothes" and sporting what looks remarkably like a baby bonnet at the wheel of her car, too bad. And by the way, it's not a bonnet. It's a cap, and on days when she's doing a program on medicinal plants or cheese-making, she'll be wearing it and other authentic stuff everywhere she goes.

"I only get dressed once a day," she explains.

Last week, for example, Dillon dressed as a "successful, middling sort of Chester County farm wife" for a midmorning meeting at the 1696 Thomas Massey House in Broomall, where she tends the kitchen garden and does her programs.

By the time she arrived, she'd already been to Bryn Mawr Trust to do some banking. Later, she planned to "clip the ivy that's trying to eat the sidewalk" in front of her house in Haverford.

That means what the bank tellers saw that morning, and what her neighbors would see in the afternoon, was the same century-busting outfit she wore to the Massey House. And why not? It's comfortable.

But don't call it a costume.

"Wonder Woman wears a costume," Dillon sniffs.

She wears "period clothing," made of linen and hand-sewn by herself. It consists of another of those teenage angst-inducing white caps, a well-worn apron — "I carry wood and plants in this" — two ankle-length petticoats, and a "short gown" worn over and pinned to a shift.

On top, underneath the other layers, she's held together by "work stays" that — unlike their criminally tight cousin, the corset — provided welcome back support.

And no, she's not uncomfortable. "I'm not as hot as people wearing polyester underwear," she says.

Dillon is a historian, a retired elementary school teacher (31 years) and an author. She has a political science degree from Bryn Mawr College, and a master's and a doctorate in American history from the University of Chicago and Bryn Mawr, respectively.

Her dissertation was about, what else, 18th-century kitchen gardens in southeastern Pennsylvania, an interest sparked when she arrived at Bryn Mawr from her hometown of Chicago.

"There was Valley Forge. There was Brandywine. There was this sort of thing everywhere," says Dillon, who is drawn to colonial history for other reasons, too.

She loves the smell of wood smoke. She enjoys blacksmithing, sewing, and cooking, "following clues and looking things up. It's like being a teacher, very addictive," she says.

Dillon fits right in at the Massey House, one of the oldest English Quaker homes in Pennsylvania — and in the garden, where she tills the soil with grubbing hoe and wooden shovel and tends an unruly collection of plants with culinary, medicinal, and household uses.

They include Rosa gallica and rue, black currants and root vegetables like Gilfeather turnips, skirret, viper's grass, and lemon balm, whose leaves were made into tea that Dillon says was "good for tired brains."

"A lot of a colonial woman's life revolved around the kitchen garden. She was responsible for the health and maintenance of her family, so you need to know what she does all day to see the whole picture."

"Clarissa is awesome," says Pat Martin, Massey board president, who, in period clothing herself, cooks colonial dinners for guests twice a year at the house.

"It was hard living back then," she says. "You think things just grow out there" in the garden, "but wow, then Clarissa shows you that they had to do this, they had to have a nice garden to have enough food for the winter.

"It gets you out of your century, into another world," Martin says, "but look at today's world and sometimes you think it might be better to go back."

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