Category Archives: Clothing Research

On My Bookshelf: The Mode in Costume, 1942

IMG_1462I have a difficult time appreciating older costume books. I’ve been kind of scarred by Earle and McClellan. When I got this book, a first edition of The Mode in Costume, I wasn’t expecting much, and the book really delivered for a while …

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So where do we start on this black gown … neckline, sleeves, waistline, skirt cut … The francaise next to it is pretty much okay, though. Any book that uses Earle as a source, however, is going to be kinda-sorta okay in some places, and hideously awful in others.

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Oh gawd!!! Nooo! Nooooooooo!

It’s one of those here’s-what-everybody-everywhere-wore-since-the-dawn-of-time books, and you can never expect these books to have enough detail to satisfy a moderate interest, or to have thorough enough research to build upon. I flipped from Egypt to 1800s Europe in a few minutes and didn’t see anything that really caught my attention – until I realized that the clothing in the book went right up to the date of publication. There’s no way the authors could have gotten their own clothing wrong.

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Just that line of cigarette smoke screams 1930s-1940s.

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And here we see the entire male wardrobe for the movie Casablanca …

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Huzzah, authors! I mean, these are gorgeous. For fun (because I don’t know what the rest of society deems fun) I went back and read the forward.

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Yes, it’s a statement of the state of the fashion industry at an incredibly turbulent time. I’d always heard fashion professors say that 1930s fashions ‘fossilized’ through the 1940s until Dior’s New Look came in, but I never knew that people acknowledged this during the war. The forward also notes the opportunities American designers had during France’s occupation, without naming anybody.

So do I like this book at all? Kind of. If you’re doing historical clothing research from before 1900, don’t you dare use this book. Really. If you want an overview of 1910-1940 clothing in France and the USA, it’s a start. If you want to know what people thought of fashion history in the 1940s, and what inspired costuming, go for this one. For the history of fashion history, it’s pretty awesome.


Mannequin Woes/Wins

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Isn’t she beautiful. Her name is Mabel.

This is what goes into my gorgeously professional photo shoots (please read that with sarcasm):

1 way-too-small dress form

1 Folgers coffee can (empty, javajavajavajava)

1 black garbage bag (because classy)

2,307 straight pins (because I can)

1 curtain (thanks mom)

2 pieces of tissue paper (S-bend FTW)

Half a pillow (lifehack: WalMart pillows are cheaper than buying stuffing in a crafts store!)

1 pair of new socks (a huge sacrifice because I LOVE new socks)

1 sheet (again, thanks mom)

Et voila, after some strategic cropping:

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With my 1911 tea gown. Ain’t she sweet.

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Old Pants!

I’ve been told the Irish invented them. Or Native Americans. Or whatever culture you feel strongly about or can claim ancestry from. Because descending from a culture that didn’t come up with pants for eons is a little embarrassing to us ‘Muricans.

Today, my award for best invention ever goes to the Chinese. Two 3,300 – 3,000 year old burials were recently excavated in the Tarim Basin, and yep, the dudes were wearing pants. Check out the weave on those things, too. Pretty snazzy.

So in the list of things we’re thankful for, thanks, 4,000 year old pastoralists, for pants. They rock.


Exposed: A History of Lingerie

The Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC has a new exhibit which opened today at noon – Exposed: A History of Lingerie. I had a few hours today to go see it. I still had a bad taste in my mouth from the last time I went to see a FIT exhibit. I was really hoping for a better experience this time.

IMG_1418The exhibit begins with a few historic pieces such as 1880s corsets, and modern counterparts drawing on those designs, such as Rudi Geinrich creations. The rest of the gallery is a timeline of underwear, starting with rare 1770s sleeved stays and ending with a handful of 2014 pieces. The garments on display are all wonderful examples of their type. For the constricted gallery space, there’s a lot of stuff to see, though many facets of 18th/19th century lingerie (such as drawers or chemises) are not shown.

IMG_1419Since the exhibit was in the same gallery space used for RetroSpective, the clothing was poorly lit. The beautiful, flowing lace, silk and tulle were reduced to 2D shapes, seen from 4-6 feet away, tucked into the shadows. The curators could have achieved better visuals with large poster prints.

Through the gallery I saw some incorrect terminology, but nothing else stood out to me. I have a feeling that the labels are farmed out to undergraduates for grades.

I thought the most misleading thing about the exhibit was how some of the garments were displayed. You can’t understand a 1815 corset when it’s laced onto a modern form and has no busk: you’ll never know the real shape. There was also a 1890s princess slip with a corset over it, the garter straps hanging down to nothing. It was apparent that whoever dressed some of the mannequins really had no idea what he or she was doing, and had no desire to learn how do it it right.

I was moving through the 1960s pieces when a tiny old woman next to me tapped me on the arm and pointed to the 1962 pantygirdle. “I have that in my drawer” she said. Apparently, she was a lingerie designer from the late 1940s up through the 1960s, and had designed pieces that were in competition with pieces FIT had on display. She knew her stuff.

And man, was she pissed.

“That’s incorrect. And that, too. He never designed that. He never used that dart in the sixties. This isn’t his. He wasn’t known for these. That’s not a babydoll dress.”

Obviously insulted, she systematically took apart every label from 1950 through 1980, then she told me “I’m 97, I lived this.” and to the side, “I’m gonna call up Valerie and spank her.”

In my less-than-perfect opinion, this exhibit was more of the same let’s-put-the-Delphos-dress-on-display and let’s-shock-people-with-corsets. The gallery space is poor, and the exhibit isn’t very informative or accurate. In the opinion of the designer I met in the 1960s section, the exhibit was a completely incorrect view of her life and career – she’d both made and worn these garments. She had every right to be pissed.

And according to her, Valerie Steele has some explaining to do!


Dress Formlets!

Dress formlets! Yeah, tiny dress forms. Like, 6 month – 6 year olds. Huzzah for slightly more professional photography!

Next addition: a tripod.

Next addition: a tripod. That should have been obvious, but whatever.

I finally had an unplanned day off from works, and I decided to spend a little time on the collection. I went out and picked up three little dress forms (Craigslist FTW) which made me happy. I have a handful of infant and child’s clothing that really should be photographed on forms, and now that is very possible. Was, very possible. It was the first thing I did when I got home.

Seeing clothing on a human form is always enlightening. My favorite moment was when I was having trouble dating a tie. It was either a short 1970s tie, or a long 1940s tie, according to the dimensions. I was leaning toward the 1970s because I’m always hesitant to date something earlier – it usually isn’t. I was sitting at the table with the tie on a few pieces of archival paper when my dad, who was watching, said “well, let’s see.” He took the tie, put it around his neck, and he didn’t even get to knot it when I said “it’s from the 1940s!” There was no doubt. I just needed to see the thing in situ.

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The very 1940s tie.

I’ve been having the same trouble with this one child’s blouse shirt thing. The bloused effect dates from between the 1800s to the 1840s. There’s no machine stitching to date it, without a doubt, after the 1850s. I spent a week scouring the Interwebs for any picture of a kid wearing something like this, but I only found a few portraits from the 1830s-40s.

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The garment in question.

I’m fairly confident that it’s from that era. The bloused effect, the short puffed sleeves, and the squared neck seemed to fit in there. The somewhat high waistline would suit the 1830s, when waistlines were slowly dropping from the super-high position of the 1820s. I was still a little skeptical, so I figured I’d be able to tell better when I got the thing on a form.

Well, I put it on a dress form for a 2-3 year old and it was way too big. I took it off and put it on a dress form for a 4-6 year old. Still too big, but now the waist wouldn’t close. The shoulders were way too wide for the form. I didn’t even take a picture; it kept falling off. It was almost as big as my 1888-92 bodice, which I had thought was for a 10-13 year old, and … I guess … isn’t …

I’m still fairly confident with the 1830-1840 date span. The biggest shock is that both that 1888-1892 bodice and that light blousy top were made for kids between 5-7 years old. Looking at them on a flat surface or stored in paper, I couldn’t have ascertained that. Heck yeah, dress forms.


Wash, freeze, or … microwave?

Levi’s has been in the news today, and for an interesting reason. A sigh of validated relief rises from every stressed-out college student as they hear the CEO of Levi’s say yeah, you can wear those jeans again. And again. And again.

I’ve heard the argument for not washing your jeans before, but I never heard of how else denim purists would clean their jeans, if not washing them. One option seems to be freezing them. Pretty cool. Pun intended. Obviously I’m interested, since I’ve already been throwing every piece of antique clothing I buy into a few Ziploc bags and in the freezer for a month.

OK so yeah, science says that generally, freezing isn’t going to help reduce bacteria. Maybe if you keep your jeans in the freezer for a month, as I’ve done with my antique clothing, freezing will be more effective. I don’t know; I use it to kill mold and it seems to work really well. The funnier side of this debate is this silly opinion article. The author is pretty anti-freezing, and suggests that microwaving is the most efficient way of sanitizing clothing. In my opinion, microwaving doesn’t sound like a solution. It might set all my ketchup stains, and that’s a bummer. Also, the metal rivets in jeans tend to be metal, and metal and microwaves kind of have this track record thing going on. Obviously I’m interested,¬† because now I want Mythbusters to do an episode to see if you can really light your pants on fire on the popcorn setting. I’d totally watch that.

There’s a whole other issue here, though, and everybody seems to be missing it. The really crucial debate is if you’ve got anything else in the freezer with your frozen clothing. Even when double-bagged, the clothes tend to pick up smells. Obviously I’m interested, since I now own half a 100-year-old layette that smells like onions and frozen French Toast.

Damn it.


Clothing Forensics!

I love it when people dissect clothing and are able to tell a story from what they find. So this is pretty cool … The National Gallery of Victoria is kinda sorta doing that with some of their collection. Check it out!

 


A 1880s-1890s Bodice

About a month ago I bought a great late 19th century bodice. I got it on a whim, thinking from the photos that it didn’t look like it was made out of silk. I’ve been trying to avoid silk because I can’t take care of it as well as bast fibers. Well, when I unpacked the bodice, I found that it was completely cotton! Tiny happy dance.

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The bodice is sized for a teenager. This means that the style it is made in is neither for a woman or a child – it’s like transitional fashion. I’m guessing it was worn with a long skirt, as women wore, but there’s a possibility that it was worn with a mid-calf skirt, the way tweens dressed. I’m not completely sure yet.

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Fully lined in that ubiquitous glazed brown cotton. The bodices closes with a long row of hooks & eyes, and two rusty straight pins still in place. I’m not sure how the collar stayed put, though, there are no pins, hooks & eyes, or pinholes anywhere on it.

It’s completely handsewn, except for the topstitching on the flap at the front, the cuffs, and the little red sleeve caps. It was probably made from a pattern by a fairly experienced but non-professional seamstress – it’s a complex pattern, but I can see where the seams were once sewn in, ripped out and resewn. So … there’s no tag. Nothing that would make tracking it down easier. Boo.

It doesn’t have any boning or boning channels, which kind of strikes me as odd for a bodice from this period – but unboned bodices from the 1880s-1890s are out there.

So I know it’s from the 1880 or 1890s. I’m figuring between 1885-1895, because the sleeves are just a little gathered underneath the sleeve caps, hinting at those huge ridiculous poofy sleeves that came into fashion in the 1890s. It doesn’t have the long slender waists of the 1870s/early 1880s, either, which were called cuirass bodices.

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Sleeve cap from the front

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From the top, with the cap folded up showing gathered shoulder

Here are some similar bodices, all from the early 1890s.

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This lavender silk bodice has similar sleeve caps, though larger, and a similar waistline. I can’t see how this one closes, possibly along one of the bands of beading in front.

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Another bodice with the same sleeves, sleeve caps, and waistline. I can’t see how it closes but it must be down the side.

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Found on Pinterest


15 Hours = eh ….

It’s taken me a while to get a picture of myself in my 15-hour gown, but here it is, at the Bedford PA Historical Society’s new 18th/19th century artisan’s show & conference, America’s Past Preserved.

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Cranberry linen overload!

While a 15-hour, $5 dress is pretty great, there are so many obvious problems …

1) I went for a late 18th century round gown / apron front setup. I kept the waistline low because I’ve seen other American dresses with this sort of configuration. On me, I think it’s very unflattering and doesn’t lend itself to much flexibility. I couldn’t get the apron front to stay in place, either – you can see my stays showing at the waistline where the apron front has sagged. No matter how tightly I tied it, it kept sagging. I’m just going to give up on it now …

2) The front of the bodice overlaps more on the bottom than on the top. When I pin it together, it doesn’t line up straight. That, and the front seems to come down too low, so it creases where the apron front sits and looks icky.

3) The sleeves turned out huge! They’re puffy in the back and too wide everywhere else. I added way too much selvage when I cut them, and I cut them over my awful 1740s chemise which has huge bulky sleeves – a bad move, but it’s the only chemise I have right now, save my 1790-1820 chemise. Soooo … a new chemise needs to be in the works for the next event …

4) When I made this gown, I also made a 1780s/90s cap to wear with it, but as soon as I put it on, it screamed Amish. I have absolutely nothing against the Amish, how they live or or what they wear, but whenever I dress in 18th century clothing, I get called Amish. In all honesty I’m tired of having to explain myself to 50% of the people I come in contact with, so avoiding all triggers sounded like a good idea. Oh well. I’m saving the cap to wear with something more obviously Empire/Regency, so maybe I won’t get so many “oooh look at the Amish girl!” stage-whispered comments.

This brings me to a thought I’ve been having for a while. When I make 18th century clothing, I have to find a middle ground – I have to come up with something as accurate as my skills and research can produce, but also something that the general public interprets as 18th century. The general public is always a mixed bag. There will be knowledgeable people out there who understand my issues with my red dress, and know that it’s probably not super accurate in its current state. Then, there will be people who think I’m Amish, or from the Renaissance, or a Civil War reenactor, or some just weirdo (the latter is probably the most truthful statement). Often I’m the only woman in 18th century clothing at these events, so I can’t fall back on other reenactors bolstering the 18th century theme. I have to come up with something super evocative of “ye olde coloniale period”, while staying as period correct as I can. It limits my wardrobe, but it helps the public – you don’t want confused guests. People get embarrassed enough when I explain that I’m wearing stays.

Okay, sidetrack’s over.

Solutions:

Skirt: remove the apron front and make it an open-front gown. Wider time period, more wardrobe options¬† … and this alteration is very easy. Also, since my shoes are Burnley & Trowbridge’s women’s red walking shoes, making the gown an open front will result in less than 98% red, which was kind of overkill. I mean, red’s awesome, but really.

Bodice: re-sew the front and take it in a little. Another simple fix.

Sleeves: I am going to take them off completely, trim them down, and put them back on. A little more complicated, but it’s going to be worth it. Then I’ll see about making a late 18th century chemise.

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I got to wear my new Goose Bay Workshops chatelaine to this event. I wore it with a large ivory notebook and a bodkin, also from Goose Bay Workshops, and a pair of scissors without a case … yeah, another upcoming project. They’re razor sharp and pointy so it was really kind of stupid to wear them without a case, but they’re so useful to have I just went with it. It was better carrying them on the chatelaine than throwing them in my pocket, which I have done before, and which was very stupid.

I also wore my new brass sleeve buttons with my chemise. I got those from Goose Bay Workshops as well. I have a pair in oval and octagonal, and though I love the octagonal ones, the ovals fit in the chemise buttonholes so that’s what I went with. They were really nice, much nicer than the old tape ties I had worn before. I want to see if I can get a pattern scratched or engraved into them, I just have to think of a design.

And yeah, I do work for Goose Bay Workshops. I’m the webmaster/helper extraordinaire. That would explain why I have so many of GBW’s items, and why the GBW table is behind me in the first picture. That being said, this blog isn’t the place for me to sell or advertise GBW items, and I won’t. I will be pointing out if I’m wearing a GBW piece, though, just as I’ll point out my Burnley & Trowbridge items, or the awesome, beautiful chatelaine I wore the second day of the Bedford show, made by the super talented David Hughes. Pictures to come. Eventually. You know me.


Eight Hours = Half A Gown!

I’ve begun work on my new linen gown. I’m making it out of a $5 linen tablecloth I picked up from Goodwill a while back. I had re-dyed it to get rid of the crazy neon watermelon color, and it turned out a sort of burgundy. After a lot of soul-searching (red is not an easy color to wear, when it’s a whole gown and I only have red shoes to go with it) I decided to go for it.

I’ve spoken with a self-taught expert in 18th century dyes, and I showed her a swatch of my burgundy linen. I asked her if this color was an easy thing to achieve with natural dyes, and she looked at me kind of funny, as if I had asked if we were living on Earth. So yeah, this color is something that would have been around. Whether it was commonly made into everyday clothing is another story – I still can’t answer that question.

This dress will be a 1780s everyday sort of thing. I’m making it in my super-simplified pattern, all handsewn with linen thread. I’m also timing myself for fun. Here’s what I got done in 8 hours.

* Everything got ironed (I think two hours went to this … oh the joys of ironing huge pieces of linen …)

* The mock-up is fitted. I actually made a real throwaway mock-up this time, but not intentionally. I meant to use some leftover white linen for my lining, but after I had cut my lining and tried it on, it fit horribly – so badly that I wouldn’t be able to reuse the linen. So I scrapped that (haha) and used my beautiful checked linen for the lining – not what I had wanted, but that fabric has such a nice feel, it made a perfect lining. Whatever.

* The exterior fabric pieces are all cut and most of them finished: sleeves are done but not set yet, and the front skirt is cut.

* The back pleats are laid and sewn down, and the back half of the skirt pleated to the body.

* Of course, I had to watch Scarlett O’Hara wear a dress made out of a curtain while I sewed a dress out of a tablecloth.

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My favorite part of sewing a gown. Before these pleats are laid, it looks like a jumble of scraps. After these are pleated and sewn, the dress is suddenly right there and I can almost see it finished. Also, these pleats have got to be the prettiest part of 18th century gowns. I love how they fall Рso graceful. 

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Hideous lighting, photography, etc. … but hey look, half a dress. You can see my huge mistake of cutting the neckline too low in the back.

What I have left to do:

* set the sleeves and finish the cuff (that will take a few fittings, but only a few minutes of actual sewing)

*Attach the front skirt and hem/flat fell all that crap (I believe a Godfather marathon is planned for those hours)

* fix something for the back of the neckline – I cut it too low accidentally, and wasn’t planning on putting a very large binding there, but it looks like I will have to now. That will take some putzing.

In sewing this gown, I figured out a cool way to do sleeves. I’m not sure if it’s correct as far as 18th century gown construction goes, but it does save time and uses very little thread, two things that seem to factor into 18th century sewing. Here’s my method.

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Cut sleeve and lining together. Fold under and iron/press the cuff edges and one of the edges for the seam that will run up the inside of the arm. For this sleeve I turned under and pressed the right vertical edge.

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Tack the cuff edges, starting at the corner of the two turned-in edges (shown).

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Roll the sleeve up as it will be when finished, and sandwich the un-pressed edges in between the pressed ones. You can leave your needle on the thread used to tack the cuff, and sew this whole thing with one piece of thread.

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Sew up the inside of the arm with running stitches or a back stitch, catching each piece of lining and exterior fabric with one row of stitches. All the selvedges will be facing the same direction inside the sleeve.

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Well, my camera isn’t good in the low light I have, so you’ll have to take my word for it: here’s the semi- finished sleeve! The front of the cuff will get tacked up to shape the elbow later. Somehow these sleeves look too wide at the lower end. Going to tackle that issue later, I guess …