Fort Gibson couple customs costumes for battle actors

Sunday, December 5th 2004, 3:14 pm
By: News On 6

FORT GIBSON, Okla. (AP) _ When it comes to history, Mike and Betty Bradley reap what they sew.

The English couple's love of nearly everything American, combined with their costume-making prowess, has made them well-dressed veterans of medieval battles, Indian conflicts, the Civil War and even a few star wars.

Their shop, Sutler's Store, specializes in clothing from the 19th-century era when Fort Gibson flourished. The store is even on the Fort Gibson Historic Site.

Although a sense of history is great for business, their sense of humor helps, too.

``We have no political ax to grind,'' Mike Bradley said. ``We've fought for the North and the South.''

The Bradleys deeply care for authentic Americana. The costumes they make are valentines to that devotion.

Their shop offers the costumes they design for re-enactors all over the country.

The Bradleys make sure they get the right wool, the right kind of buttons, the right look down to the wrinkles.

``Most customers are pretty picky,'' said Betty Bradley, who does all the sewing. Her husband makes the caps, helmets and connections.

Mike Bradley is a full-time historic interpreter for the fort's regular events.

The Bradleys' personal story is quite a history, too.

Both were born in England. They have been married 44 years. Mike Bradley said his elevation from the son of a coal miner to a machine mechanic didn't sit well in the de facto class system of postwar England, so the young couple moved to Australia. A family connection got them to California in the early 1970s to help run a costuming business.

The Bradleys' work has been seen in movies such as ``Glory'' and ``Son of the Morning Star.'' Their couple's costuming business put them in touch with re-enactors who needed clothes to look the part.

Mike Bradley's fascination with the military led him into mock battles from Gettysburg to Honey Springs.

At one of those, he became friends with Whit Edwards, who is now the education director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Edwards eventually talked Bradley into moving to Fort Gibson.

Edwards said Bradley's way with words and history made him a natural at the fort.

``Mike could talk the paint off a barn,'' he said. ``He's never met a stranger.''

Betty Bradley is not quite as forthcoming as her husband, but she is no less friendly. She pays attention to what the customer wants in an old-time uniform and makes sure it's done right, Edwards noted.

``There's different levels of authenticity out there,'' he said. ``The Bradleys are capable of doing museum-quality work.''

They reach for that standard of quality by studying actual uniform regulation documents from whatever period they are trying to copy. They've rummaged through archives and museums here, there and everywhere to find those documents.

For the Bradleys, authenticity is not academic, it's personal.

The couple's historical passion has brought them customers, certainly, but those customers also became friends.

``I can go to battlefields all over America and know someone,'' Mike Bradley said. ``It's the greatest family-oriented business.''

And it's the littlest members of those families on whom real history can have the greatest impact, he pointed out. He has worked in films, but celluloid is downright silly when it comes to accuracy, he said.

Re-enactments are the real show.

``The only reason I do it now is for the camaraderie and for the kids,'' Mike Bradley said. ``It's crucial that we convince the kids that history is viable, before Hollywood destroys it.''

Such comments may thin out the film work, but the Bradleys couldn't care less. Fort Gibson is hardly history's biggest stage, but they believe it is grand enough to show what the past has to offer.