Going for Baroque: an Interview With Kat Peng

Going for Baroque: an Interview With Kat Peng

I met Kat last October at Sunday in the Park, an annual Victorian street festival at Atlanta's Historic Oakland Cemetery.

Not yet registered for the costume contest and dangerously late, I was nearly frantic as I struggled with the bustle of my reproduction 1880 dress. I spotted Kat through the crowd, up ahead. I figured if anyone could help, this poised, confident woman, so eerily authentic in her civil-war era costume, could. And she did.
We spent the next several hours together, awaiting our turns on the stage, posing for photos, and chatting. I was mesmerized. By the time it was over, and she'd won "Best Historical Costume," I was fascinated.

Liza and Kat (in pink) at Sunday in the Park, 10/2013

Kat has been involved in the arts all her life, studying ballet, jazz, tap, voice, theater, and historical dance. She holds a degree in Jewelry Design and Metalsmithing from Georgia State University. She and her husband have two sons, ages 1-1/2 and 3.

BDV: Did you grow up here in Atlanta? Was there a lot of twirling in poofy dresses in your childhood? What were you for Halloween?

Kat: I am an Atlanta native. When I was little I loved to dance and wear long dresses. Every year I looked forward to my dance recital because of the beautiful costumes, make up, and getting to wear pantyhose like an adult.

For Halloween I usually recycled my dance costumes and when I got older I switched to corseted gowns with big skirts and ringlets. Not only was I warmer than the other girls, I received compliments because I looked so different from them.
BDV: You began studying dance at age 3. Were you always interested in historic costume as well? How are the two fields related for you?
Kat: I always loved the costumes in movies like Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Titanic, and various WWII films. The clothing and manners appealed to me because it was so different from the time period I was living in.

Most of the clothes I wore during the 80s were not that great and there was a lack of social graces. I admired the time when people dressed up, took pride in their appearance, and were polite to one another. I was the odd person out. I had really long hair because long ago, that was a women's great beauty.

When I got to Georgia State, I was delighted to discover the Georgian Dancers, and studied Renaissance and Baroque dance with them for 3 years.

Today I use my design skills to help me recreate historic gowns. I really enjoy pleating trim for hours and hours, and seeing the final project always fills me with a great sense of accomplishment. I also enjoy doing research and learning the period-correct way of sewing for each time period.

BDV: In 1998 you co-founded Atlanta Baroque Dance, which "specializes in performing, reconstructing, and teaching court and country dances from the 17th and 18th centuries." Can you describe some of your performances?

Atlanta Baroque Dance members performing. Photo (c) Christopher Wilson.

Kat: Performances usually consists of a court dance performed by my dance partner Chris and me, then two or three country dances performed by the rest of the company. If the audience is interested, we will teach a dance and that's always fun. I like to think that people get more out of the experience when they leave knowing a dance from 1745.

BDV: We'd love to learn more about your costume design business. Where and how did you gain your knowledge of period dress? Were you already a skilled seamstress before you developed an interest in creating historical costumes?

1850s dress designed by Kat for the Atlanta History Center

Kat: My mom taught me how to sew when I was little, and then I learned by restoring costumes and vintage pieces I found at the thrift store. There were many people I met and corresponded with who've helped me create historically accurate costumes. Among these were dancers who were also costumers.

For example, Paige Whitley-Bauguess was the first person I met who wore period-correct stays under her costume. This opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. [It forces you to] move the way you would have then. Kay Dreyer, director of Stately Vintage Dancers, helped me research my mid-Victorian dance gowns and all the layers underneath.

BDV: When creating your costumes, where do you draw the line between efficiency and historical accuracy? How do your materials, construction methods, and finishing techniques compare with those of original garments?

Kat: I probably used to spend more time and money driving around looking at fabrics, weighing the pros and cons. For example, would this color have been invented by this year? Is this organza too shiny for this period? Can I find something less shiny at another store? Obviously, budget is a concern. So I get the best that I can afford.

I try to recreate garments as accurately as possible and have spent a great deal of time in costume museums studying actual period pieces. I do use a sewing machine for my 18th century gowns, and just hand finish everything that will be seen on the outside. I'm what is called in the reenacting world a "stitch counter." I think if you're going to do something, you need to do it to the best of your ability.

BDV: Are you currently taking orders for your designs?

I am on hiatus until my sons get a little bigger. I'm only working on personal projects that I can get done while the kids are sleeping.

BDV: Your love of historic costume crosses a wide range of styles and eras, from the Baroque to Viva Las Vegas. Which is your favorite fashion era?

Kat in 1940s dress at The Fox Theatre. Photo (c) Matthew R. Nicholson

Kat: I first fell in love with the hoop skirt and then I discovered that the silhouette came back again in the 50s. How beautiful and sensible to make a shorter skirt. I've had many favorites over the last few years, but right now, my favorite period is the 1940s.

Kat in 1940s by Chas Underwood
Kat in 1940s dress by Chas Underwood

I had the pleasure of dancing with Atlanta's Big City Burlesque and Vaudeville dance company. The director was an encyclopedia of dress from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I felt so lucky to learn from him and to get the opportunity to wear vintage dance costumes from Hollywood. I never felt so beautiful in my whole life.

Kat in vintage burlesque wear. Photo (c) Kenton McGee.

BDV: You recently served as an extra in a period film shooting here in Atlanta. What did that involve?
Kat: I was hired as a swing dancer, and later as an extra, for a flashback scene on The Originals TV show. It was a fantastic experience and I felt a little like my old self. I now have the bug and hope to get hired as a historic dancer in future films.

BDV: I admire your ability to find ways to dress up, whether it's full-on Victorian or more-accessible mid-century. What are some of your favorite events and arenas? If someone were interested in similar pursuits, where should they look to find like-minded people and appropriate events?

Kat: Years ago, my girlfriends and I decided there weren't enough events in Atlanta so we would create our own. We'd dress to the nines, go out and have a martini, listen to jazz, or meet for high tea.
I find dressing up is more important for me now than ever, because I'm at home all the time and day to day, everything is the same -- wake up, clean a mess, clean another mess, and then go to sleep. I need a reminder of what I used to be as an individual. 
If there is an [era-specific] event, I will dress up for that time period. I was very lucky to have met several groups of people that really like to dress up. Swing dancers, rockabilly people, and Revolutionary and Civil war reenactors. I still volunteer for the Stately Oaks Vintage Dancers and at The Margaret Mitchell House as a Victorian dancer.
My advice to someone who wants to get into this is to search online and find a nearby event you're interested in. If it's too expensive, offer to volunteer, and then network, network, network.

You have to be brave and start somewhere. You only have one life. Spend it doing something you're interested in! I can die knowing I got to do almost everything I dreamed of doing when I was a child. My last dream would be to dance on the stage at the Fox Theatre. I'm still working on that one.

BDV: What do you wear on an ordinary day? And what was going on here?

Kat: This picture is just another example of my new life. I can no longer take 2 hours to do my hair and make up and get dressed. My husband had to work, so the kids came with me to the tea. I plan on making them outfits some time in the future.

I am still losing my baby weight so I don't fit into most of my vintage. During the day I wear regular clothes and if I were to go to an event, I would wear a modern reproduction with vintage accessories. I prefer to be period correct and I feel like a fashion plate when I do.

I am a unique person and wearing something one-of-a-kind just reiterates that fact.

BDV: Kat, I'm so glad to have met you, and I look forward to joining you on some of your dress-up adventures. Thanks very much for taking the time to answer our questions.


Liza Dolensky

Wonderful interview with my good friend Kat. Beautiful photos!

Liza Dolensky

I reenact with my grandchildren 17oo’s local history, Spanish and British. But though I only dress period for these events, I never met older clothing I didn’t like more than present clothing. There is something I like about every era, from Medieval to Victorian to 1940’s and more. I’m old enough to have lived in pre-unisex times, when feminine things were enjoyed without apology, and caring about one’s appearance (for both sexes) was a quality, and everyone looked nice even to run errands…sigh! True that what counts is the person inside, but does the outside need to be as boring as is generally today? It’s always enjoyable to meet people who feel the same way, and only on fb there must be quite a few, from the samples I’ve seen. Thanks for this talk with Miss Kat, and best wishes in all you do.

Liza Dolensky

When I lived in Atlanta, I always loved to watch period movies with Kat. She would comment on the costumes and educate me on whether they were historically accurate or not. One of my favorite moments was when we were watching a particularly saucy scene where a lady quickly undressed from her French Revolutionary clothing for her lover while running in a garden. Kat leaned over and said something like, “That would never happen. She would have so many layers and corsets to untie. She’d probably need assistance from some ladies in waiting.”

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