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Dressing the part: Celebrate Lafayette’s style

Fascinated by historical fashion, military spouse Rebecca Russell celebrates the style of a bygone era with a costume ball devoted to the time of Fayetteville’s namesake Marquis.


Call it a happy coincidence when military wife and historical costume expert Rebecca Russell stumbled across Fayetteville’s Lafayette Society last summer and discovered that the group was full swing into planning for a bicentennial celebration of the Marquis de Lafayette’s farewell tour.
Russell had just received a mini-grant through the Arts Council of Fayetteville-Cumberland County to host Regency costume workshops and was in the process of organizing a birthday ball honoring Lafayette as a historical reenactment.
“I was a few months into planning and doing some research for historical groups to invite to the ball when I happened upon the Lafayette Society. It seems completely silly in hindsight that I was unaware of this amazing group right in my own front yard,” says Russell.
The 49-year-old mother of four says it was a serendipitous moment to hear of the celebration plans, which seemed to line up well with the Grand Birthday Ball and Soiree that she is hosting in September.
“I had discovered Lafayette’s birthday was around the same time as my oldest son, Renton’s, birthday. He would also be turning 19 this year, which was the age Lafayette was when he joined George Washington in the U.S. fight for independence. A little bit of research led me to the fact that Lafayette came back to the U.S. during the 1820s and so, voila! A birthday ball in the late Regency era made total sense,” Russell says.
Hank Parfitt of the Lafayette Society thinks it will be a perfect preview to his group’s celebration, which will take place in 2025 along with other nationwide observances of the bicentennial of Lafayette’s return visit to the United States shortly after the American Revolution ended.
“Fayetteville was the first city named for the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1783, and the only namesake that he visited during his 15-month tour in 1824 and 1825,” says Parfitt.
Traditionally, the Lafayette Society has hosted a weekend of birthday tributes. Russell will add the Grand Birthday Ball, which she feels will add a touch of grand Regency style.
She hosted a Lafayette Ball and Costume Workshop in June that was funded in partnership with the Arts Council.
“I originally envisioned a three-part workshop series: Foundations (undergarments), day wear and evening wear. The first one we had was a lot of fun. We conducted it in person at the Arts Council building and also had a live-stream for folks to tune in from all over. That part was a learning experience. It was the first time I’d used Facebook Live to stream anything,” Russell says.
She had six participants in person with another seven or eight following online. She hoped to improve the format based on that first experience.
“At this point, I’m still working out the details of the other two workshops. I have not received additional grant funding, so I’m looking for alternate locations,” says Russell.
Passion for pageantry
Russell’s love for sewing was nurtured by watching her grandmother, who was an avid sewer and quilter.
“I spent a lot of summers with her. She taught me how to sew at a very young age. Honestly, I can probably say about 4 or 5. I started with little plastic cards and yarn. By 7, I was hand-sewing doll clothes, and by 9, clothes for myself,” Russell says.
Her love for historical and vintage clothing can be traced to when she saw the miniseries “North and South” in the summer before she entered seventh grade.
“I designed and sewed my first Civil War dress, which admittedly was horrific and not historically accurate. I think it was white cotton, red lace and made from a Gunne Sax pattern, but I did it all by myself. As soon as I finished it, I knew it was wrong, so I spent weeks in the library researching and came up with some new designs.”
She is constantly learning sewing techniques because it is a continuous process, she says.
“I’m completely self-taught, but no one is ever really an expert. There are always things you can and should learn.”
Her excitement for historical reenactment and costuming strengthened when at age 13, her father took her to her first Civil War reenactment.
“We were living in Centerville, Virginia, when the 125th anniversaries of all of the Civil War battles were starting. My dad is a big history buff, so we went out to the Battle of Bull Run. I think I was wearing a dress from the wrong time, and some very nice people pointed me in the right direction. I’ve gotten better,” Russell says with a laugh.
Now, she is considered an expert in her field and loves sharing her passion with others, which is why she dreamed up the Grand Birthday Ball.
“I wanted to have an event at the end of the workshops to celebrate Lafayette’s birthday where we could all dress and dance as they did,” says Russell, who is charmed by the pageantry of the era.
Lafayette returns
At least 40 to 50 people from out of state who share her passion for history reenactments have signed up for the ball.
“I was definitely gearing this event toward those who travel for these types of events. There used to be a big Jane Austen event in Tennessee that had a huge following. I went to a Bridgerton ball in D.C., which is also hosted in several places. I’ve been to Civil War balls a lot of times. I was drawing on those experiences because they are a lot of fun. Some of the ideas I’ve brought in for this came from those,” says Russell.
Tik Tok sensation Asta Darling will be the guest of honor.
“Asta Darling is huge in historical costume cosplay and has millions of followers on Tik Tok and Instagram. She sews amazing costumes by hand,” Russell says.
North Carolina resident Lynn Bull also will be a featured guest, portraying the Marquis de Lafayette of 1825.
Russell said the costumes for the Lafayette Ball will be from the late Regency period in 1824-1825.
“The dresses have high waists and narrow-ish silhouettes. The late Regency is starting to turn toward the Romantic/Victorian period, so waistlines are starting to come down a bit, sleeves are getting bigger and hemlines are getting wider. But basically, you’re looking at the Jane Austen, Bridgerton, Sanditon-looking costumes, which can range from very simple or very ornate,” Russell says.
And it’s not just for the ladies, she says. Men can get as fancy as they like, as they did back in Lafayette’s day.
“The men’s costumes for this era are over the top. We are talking crazy coats, high collars, knee britches and other details that make their outfits so fun.”
She hopes that patrons have fun dressing for the ball.
“The Cameo Art House Theatre is going to show the movie ‘Austenland’ the night before so people coming into town can go to that on Friday night. It’s a really funny movie that kind of pokes fun at people who are in love with Jane Austen-type stuff. Also, I’ll have local hairstylists who can help get their hair done for the ball on Saturday night,” says Russell.
Tickets are on sale and range from Gentry class at $95 to Royalty, at $275.
“I am really loving planning all the little details to go with the ball. It’s basically like I get to plan an event that I always wanted to attend. So, I think to myself what is something that I would have wanted to do at a ball and add it,” says Russell, “The royalty-ticketed guests will have a private room on the second floor where they can look down on the dancing and activity below and have their own personal server.”
In addition to guests being in authentic costumes, Russell has added waltzes and reels that will be called by a Regency dance master; card tables with Regency games such as dominoes and skittles; a fortune teller; a silhouette painter; and a professional photographer. An exhibit hall will add an educational component, including displays of military uniforms and civilian clothing from the period.
The Lafayette Society has other Lafayette birthday celebrations planned that weekend, including a concert of French music; a historical lecture at Fayetteville Technical Community College and another at Methodist University featuring Lafayette and Native Americans; a historical bus trail tour; and a birthday party with cupcakes at Cross Creek Park.
To purchase tickets to the Grand Birthday Ball and Soiree in September, visit thelafayetteball.com. For more information about the bicentennial celebration of Marquis de Lafayette’s Farewell Tour or about the Lafayette Society, visit lafayettesociety.org.