Friday, February 12, 2016

The Return of Mademoiselle Guimard

This time last year I was excited about a project I never completed. Let's rather say I just haven't completed it yet.

But I haven't forgotten, or gotten over my interest in this incredible painting of Mademoiselle Guimard, by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790:

Mademoiselle Guimard by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790
A year ago I started and failed at this costume. I had deconstructed my blue Lacma Sacque-ma to use the silk for Guimard's robe, but alas it was not to be. Way  back when I dyed the silk brocade, weird things happened, and the fabric took on a strange life of its own that made it really hard to work with. I was also too excited hasty and cut it all stupid and it just didn't work out.

A year later, Guimard has come back to me. I've been thinking about what to make for the Costume College gala this year. Last year my dress was huge and sparkly, so it's difficult to not feel pressured (self-pressure) to somehow top that this year. I know that's nonsense, but the gala is that one big event of the year to really hammer down on a fantabulous costume. In thinking about this, the bright colors and many layers and textures of Guimard's costume came to mind.

I also have quite a lot of the fabrics still waiting patiently. Here's my sketch:

I've broken down the costume into three main piece:

1. The puffy poof pants. We can't see what Guimard is wearing in the painting, but this fashion plate of a very similar costume shows harem pants. Mine will be bright coral pink and enormously poofy.

More about The Orphan of China and The Sultana - click through 

2. The gown. I will make this as a garment all its own, most like a Robe a l'Anglaise, but since this is a theatrical costume, I plan to make the skirt short and one side split, so I can pull it up the way Guimard has done in the portrait.

3. The robe. Blue silk lined in green silk, trimmed on the edges with brown faux fur. This will be constructed like an open robe or polonaise, cut all in one at the back with stacked box pleats and a train.

Accessories - a wide silk sash and red belt; turban; some really interesting shoes (of course!)

So that's the plan! This time I'm starting with the poofy pants and working my way out. The most challenging piece will again be the robe, but I have a much better plan, more skill, and non-weird-grain fabric to work with. I'm excited!

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Problem with "Always" and "Never" in Historical Costuming

Dress - 1864-67 - cotton - The Met
< soapbox >

Every once in awhile some new statements will pop up in this community that make me balk. These statements usually come along with the term "always" or "never," (or sometimes both) when talking historical dress.

Here are some doozies I've run into over the years:

"18th century and Regency shoes were always straight lasted"
"Victorian gowns never showed ankle."
"Mourning dress is always black, and black gowns are always mourning gowns"
"18th century gowns were always trimmed in self-fabric"

...and most recently...

"Solid colored cotton dresses did not exist in the 19th century. Extant solid colored dresses have always been found to be wool, silk, a combination fibre, etc."

Every single one of those statements is false.

Complete bollocks.

Yes, I said bollocks.

Another view of the dress above, without the jacket. Dress - 1864-67 - cotton - American - The Met
As soon as a statement like one of these comes up, I try to figure out where it came from. I can start by canceling out that it came from any credible museum researcher or dress historian. I've been schooled by more than a few museum professionals on the use of definitive language when describing what we think we know.

At first this frustrated me. It seemed like I couldn't get a straight answer out of my museum contacts about seemingly simple stuff - what kind of fabric an extant gown was made from, or what exactly was this type of dress called, etc. I didn't like their fluffy answers; I wanted things to be black and white. The problem is that with dress history, things aren't black and white. Jan Loverin, curator of the Marjorie Russell Textile Museum, would not tell me that a certain fabric was wool because it had not been examined under a microscope and confirmed that the fibre was indeed wool. Abby Cox, apprentice milliner in Colonial Williamsburg and holding a Master of Letters in Decorative Arts and Design History from the University of Glasgow, would not give me a solid definition of a Robe a la Turque because there is no definitive description in primary source material.

Dress- 1860s- American - cotton - The Met
Dress (girl's) - 1837-39 - cotton - American - The Met

The important point here is that these professional would not tell me these things. When I asked Jan Loverin about this, she told me that trained curators, historians, and researchers know that their field of study is constantly changing and it's simply inappropriate and irresponsible to make definitive statements. New information is uncovered regularly, changing our knowledge and understanding of the past.

Dress (girl's) - 1886-88 - cotton - American - The Met

Historical dress research is in no way static - just think about the number of extant garments we have in museums, and how many may be in private collections, and how many are languishing in somebody's attic or basement. In addition to extant garments, think about how many other primary source materials we have - paintings and prints, periodicals and novels, advertisements, fashion plates, private letters. Do you see the problem? When a statement like "colored cotton dresses did not exist in the 19th century" is made, I must counter with, "but have you examined every 19th century gown surviving in every collection in the world? Have you read every magazine, seen every fashion plate and their descriptions, read every letter surviving from that time period?"

Lilac colored tamboured muslin (cotton) day dress - 1860s- The Glasgow Story - click through for original record
When statements like these are made, it's a challenge. Usually it takes only a short time of searching to find examples that negate the statement categorically, which is why I'm illustrating this post with a whole series of solid colored 19th century gowns.

Instead of making statements like "Solid colored cotton dresses did not exist in the 19th century," instead say something along these lines:

"Of the extant 19th century garments I have studied in the collections of ________ and _________, I found what appeared to be 10 printed cottons, 20 solid colored silk, and 5 solid colored wool gowns."

See the difference?

Day dress - 1810-1815 - cotton - Norway - Digitalt Museum
You might think I'm mincing words and being overly sensitive about this, but I encourage you instead to think about how definitive statements impact our hobby.

And for the record, I've been guilty in the past of using the dreaded "always" and "never," and you know what? Each time I've done that, I've been proven wrong within minutes. And I felt really foolish for being so unbending in an area of research that is anything but static.

The broader lesson here is to be open and curious in dress research, and search for the answers to your questions. Want to make a mid-Victorian gown in a solid-colored cotton? Look for primary sources supporting your idea instead of going off of rumor and misinformation.

< / soapbox >

A note about what I found for solid colored 19th century gowns: I looked for primarily mid-Victorian dresses (though included a couple earlier and later examples in this post to show transition and technology) specifically in solid colored cotton, so omitted white and ivory cotton garments, of which there are many. I did find that the majority of cotton dresses surviving in the museum collections I searched were printed calicos. I also noticed that the colored cotton gowns I found were not without decoration, some more than others, as illustrated above. If I were making a decision to sew a mid-Victorian day dress in solid colored cotton, I would most likely go for a light shade such as lavender, pink, or tan, and plan on decorating it with applied trim. However, this does not mean that solid colored cotton gowns in dark colors didn't exist; it only means that in my short search I did not find any, but that with more research I may find evidence of some in the future.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Historical Coral Jewelry Set by K.Walters at the Sign of the Gray Horse

Coral bead jewelry set by K.Walters at the Sign of the Gray Horse - coral earrings, necklace, ring, and bracelets made from Swarovski coral beads
I've never been much of a jewelry girl....until now. I've been thinking more about jewelry as important accessories to historical costume, both day and evening, but my collection is sparse, to say the least. Time for some shopping - oh darn!

There are a couple fantastic historical jewelry makers, one of whom is K.Walters, At the Sign of the Gray Horse. I'd seen her creations online, but never ordered anything, not being much of a jewelry girl.

But as I get more into accessorizing, I thought a couple coral pieces would be a good "starter" set, since coral jewelry is *so* historical, and *so* versatile. I asked Kim, the proprietrix of Gray Horse, if she could create a graduated coral bead necklace and bracelets. She encouraged me to also try the earrings with clip-on findings, and now I'm really glad I did!

Since the jewelry was made for me, the bracelets fit my spindly wrists perfectly - not too loose and not too tight.
When the set arrived, I was impressed by the beauty and quality of it. The photos online do not do the Gray Horse jewelry justice! The beads are Swarovski crystal red coral beads. The findings are delicate silver - the bracelets and necklace have a slide/snap fastening that's makes it really easy to get the jewelry on and off, especially the bracelets. Kim also included a ring as a surprise, and let me know that she is working on bringing tiaras to her shop (which I will definitely be getting, to complete my very first parure).

As for the earrings, I have to say I've never worn a more comfortable clip on. These have a screw-back for adjustment, and I could not feel them when they were on. They didn't hurt my sensitive ears at all, and they stay put all day without incident.

The drop earrings are clip-ons, since I don't have pierced ears. They are incredibly comfortable, lightweight, and add that something extra. I'm amazed at how much of a difference a pair of earrings makes in creating a fully finished look.
One of the things I really like about Kim is that her work is full of love. She enjoys making the jewelry, she makes an effort to get to know her clients and create items they'll love, and the profits from her craft go to support her rescue horses (hence the name of her shop). Supporting small businesses with heart is important to me, and I couldn't be happier with supporting At The Sign of the Gray Horse.

If you are interested in historical jewelry, check out Kim's online shops. She can make just about anything, so be sure to contact her for information on custom jewelry creation:

K.Walters At the Sign of the Gray Horse - website
Gray Horse on Etsy
Sign of the Gray Horse on Facebook

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

1880s Wool Ensemble - The Bodice and Finished Outfit

1885 Wool and Velveteen Day Dress
In the last post about this outfit, I talked about apportioning rulers and how I made the overskirt/apron for this outfit. I promised you I'd follow up soon with information about the bodice, so here goes!

This bodice started out as Truly Victorian TV420 1879 Cuirass Bodice, but it was too small for me and also too early for the bottom half of my outfit. 1879/80 was still very Natural Form, so it was never meant to fit over a bustle, and the pattern also had slightly dropped shoulder. It still served as a good start, and with hacking, taping, pinching, nipping, slicing, and smooshing, somewhat morphed into Truly Victorian TV460  1885 Cuirass Bodice, which I don't own, but need to (it would've saved me a lot of work!)

Frankensteining my pattern on the dress form. You can see where I slices and taped in extra pieces to expand the too-small bodice to fit over my corset, bustle, and underskirt. I made the apron before I started on the final bodice, so I could fit the bodice over it as well as the other pieces.
The flat pattern. The two pieces on the left are the bodice fronts, showing the funky curve created for the black velveteen piece.
The major changes I made on the bodice were to de-drop the shoulder, cut my own shape for the hem, add the center back pleat, and convert one set of the front darts into the curvy seam that forms the black velveteen section on the front.

A quick fit and adjustment of the soft-paper pattern before cutting the final fabric.
I did quite a lot of fitting and fiddling on this bodice. The many seams and darts on Victorian bodices make fitting accessible and precise, but the form-fitting nature of these garments means they have to be fit on you. I start with finishing the front closure and machine baste the whole thing together, leaving the darts free in the front. I fit the side and side back seams, put the bodice on, and then fit the center back seam and darts temporarily.

On Victorian bodices I always do the front closure first, on the straight, and the darts last. I leave my darts un-cut, even though it creates bulk on the inside, because I may need to let the bodice out in the future.
Then comes boning. I follow the instructions in Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques for sprung bones. It's taken me awhile to figure out what a sprung bone is and how it works, but I think I've got it now. I'm not sure how to explain it simply, but it involves securing the boning to the bodice in an arced, or sprung, position, as it will be worn on the body, thereby creating a smooth surface on the outside. I will do a tutorial on this later, which I hope will explain it thoroughly.

With the bones secured, I revisited the center back seam and the darts, and took in any additional areas that needed fitting. For instance, I needed to pull up the shoulder seams on the back pieces to remove some buckling, and pinch in a bit on the basque at the back so it lay a bit more smoothly over the bustle.

Lots of fitting. Lots.

The final result is a bodice that fits really really well.
The last bits were the sleeves, hem, and collar. I'm happy with everything except the collar, which doesn't meet in the front (there had to be something, right?), but I applied this piece with a whipstitch, so it's super easy to take off and replace at a later date. Even not meeting in the front, I'm still very happy with it...and hey, I can at least move my head.

The only bit of color I wore with this outfit was a pair of coral drop earrings by K.Walters At the Sign of the Grey Horse - these earrings are part of a set I will be reviewing soon.
I'm so pleased with this outfit! It fits, it's fun to wear, it's swishy and feminine, yet buttoned-up and somewhat militaristic, which I have always liked. I may at some later date add soutache braidwork for embellishment, which would make it more military-inspired, more Russian, as was the original intent.

1885 Wool and Velvet bustle dress - done and fun!
I'm sure I left stuff out, so please feel free to ask questions. :-)