Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Brief Discussion of Fancy Dress


My home group, the Living History Society of Minnesota, is planning a fancy dress party for the weekend before Halloween! I love a good fancy dress party! I was asked by a few people to share some information about fancy dress in the mid 19th century and so I hope this post can serve as an introduction to those who may be encountering the idea of fancy dress for the first time.

Fancy dress parties were a very popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Just as people today enjoy dressing up in costumes for fun, so did the Original Cast of the 19th century. Fancy-dress  was an opportunity for people to show off their creativity, loosen up social restraints, and put on a different persona. They were popular all the way from the courts of France and England to parties among soldiers and sailors.

Unlike earlier bal masques from the 18th century, fancy dress parties were less about complete disguise or anonymity. In images and descriptions masks are rarely shown or described. Instead, the emphasis seems to have been on how creative the wearer could be, rather than on how mysteriously they could disguise themselves.

Godey's Ladies Book October 1


This image shows a fashion plate of fancy dress costumes from Godey’s 1866. As shown in many illustrations, it was perfectly acceptable for ladies to wear shorter skirts for fancy dress parties – even as short as calf length! Some costumes call for the lady’s hair to be left down. Obviously, fancy dress was an opportunity to let one’s hair down, literally, and shake off some of the social constraints of the day-to-day.

Here are a few different types of costumes that are seen:
  • Historical costumes were very popular. These could be famous people, like Queen Anne, Mary Queen of Scots, George Washington, or Napoleon. Sometimes they were generic, such as “Tudor Gentleman” or “Lady of The Court of Versailles”.
  • Literary Characters, especially Shakespearean characters, are often found on lists – Portia, Juliet, Hamlet, and the like. Popular books, plays and operas provided inspiration, as well as mythology and nursery rhymes.
  • Allegorical Costumes: These strike the modern fancy and offer the opportunity to be creative! They are more often seen in ladies’ costumes. They often have to do with nature, such as different flowers, “Autumn Harvest”, “A Rainbow”, “The Night Sky”. Sometimes they are ideas or concepts, like “Photography”, “Art” or “Time”.
  • National Costume: It can be surprising how many different national costumes are shown and described – obscure ones like “Dalmatian” and “Alsatian”. Sometimes they are denoted as “peasant” costumes, such as “Italian peasant” and “Lombardy peasant”. Even Egyptian and Japanese costumes are mentioned.
  • Occupations: These are particularly popular for men’s costumes, such as “Chimney Sweep” , “Postboy”, and “Cook”.
A milkmaid and gardener "a la Watteau" [meaning pastoral 18th century], Godey's 1867


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Maybe you’re one of those people who shows up on Halloween with a “This Is My Costume” tee-shirt. The 19th century version is a “domino” – a cape-like garment which covered the whole body. They show up in lists of costumes in a variety of colors, even multicolored. These were considered unoriginal but obviously convenient.


Historical accuracy was a concern for them as it much as it is for us. Fancy Dresses Described and Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress advise that “it is best to avoid glaring inconsistencies” in historical and national dress. Explicit instructions are given for how to powder the hair for 18th century costumes, and what kind of facial hair should be worn by men in which time periods.


Turkish and Andalusian costumes, La Mode Illustre 1862


When considering reproducing a fancy dress costume for our party, look at original fashion plates and descriptions for ideas and inspiration. Utilize accurate construction methods to the 19th century, with appropriate fabrics and materials. The challenge of finding trimmings, flowers and accessories that are accurate to the 1860s is part of the fun challenge of fancy dress! Historical dress or characters should be accurate to their time period, and more creative costumes should follow fashions of the 1860s.

While fashion plates are fun inspiration, you don’t need to spend loads of money and make a brand new ensemble for our fancy dress party. Utilizing a dress you have as a base for a disguise is perfectly appropriate. Focus on how you can add small touches to invoke something allegorical – a blue dress can be accessorized with stars to become “The Night Sky”, a dress in pastels could have flowers added for a pastoral or spring-time theme. And don’t forget about dominos! The image below shows a sketch of a fancy dress costume party in New York, showing disguises both fantastically elaborate and some easily made from what one has in one's wardrobe.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, February 1860

To get you started, here’s a list of some of the resources I used to write this article. There are many resources out there – these are just a few. Enjoy researching for yourself and coming up with your own well-researched, clever fancy dress costumes!

  • Fancy Dress by Anthea Jarvis and Patricia Raine. This little booklet was published in the 1980s, but a lot of the research still stands and the illustrations are fantastic. Used copies are available on Amazon and eBay often.
  • A Metrical Description of a Fancy Dress Ball by John de Havilland, published in 1858. This little volume is a playful poem written about a fancy dress ball given in Washington. The poem itself is…rather silly, and I don’t have a ton of info on it (if anyone has more, please let me know!) but particularly of interest is the notes section at the back with the descriptions of various costumes worn, taken from a newspaper account of the ball.
  • Fancy Dresses Described, by Ardern Holt, can be found on Google Books and at Archive.org. This book was originally published in the 1880s, so the illustrations are well past the time period we will be portraying, but there are enough similarities between 1860s illustrations and descriptions and Holt’s descriptions that I think it is a good starter resource when combined with further research.
  • This Pinterest board (remember that Pinterest is a curated collection, NOT research – the images will give you some ideas, but it’s just a jumping-off point for research! /screed)
  • My own Pinterest board of fancy dress pictures and illustrations, with the same disclaimer.
  • This thread on The Sewing Academy showing Ginger’s journey in recreating a fancy dress costume from a fashion plate. Please go drool over her work at Scene in the Past.

And if you're interested in attending, our fancy dress party on October 26th in St. Paul is open to the public! Check the Facebook event and our website for more details as they are available!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Velvet Shoes

I have an object lesson for you, gentle reader. Sometimes you come across the best primary sources when you aren't even looking for them.

I'm not even sure what I was looking for when I stumbled across this adorable story several years ago. It definitely wasn't the story I ended up reading. It's called "My Velvet Shoes" and was published in Harper's Monthly Magazine in November 1860.

The story starts with Mr. and Mrs. Lambswool [can't decide if it's too sweet or just perfect] a young married couple in New York. Times are tough and Mr. Lambswool's job as a bookkeeper doesn't pay much money, but he has prospects of a better job. Mrs. Lambswool, darling housekeeper, is thrifty and somehow always finds a way to save up a little bit of extra money (as we are informed by Mr. Lambswool, Narrator). Mrs. Lambswool notices that Mr. Lambswool's shoes are just beyond repairing and probably an embarrassment to the whole Lambswool name, so she pulls out the money she has saved and tells Mr. Lambswool [I'm sick of typing Lambswool already] to go and buy himself some new shoes.

The next morning Mr. Lambswool wakes up first and notices his wife's cage crinoline, hanging on a nail on the wall. I'll let him take over from here:

I declare there wasn't a single rib in the whole apparatus that hadn't been broken somewhere! The circles were all changed to polygons, and at every angle was a neat slice of white cord, or a bandage of galloon, or a delicate suture of linen thread, and in one place where the break was particularly bad - a regular compound fracture, as the doctors would say - and the steel protruded through the skin, the dear woman had put it into splints of whalebone, and wound it round and round with bonnet-wire! I felt the tears come into my eyes as I looked at Mrs. Lambswool's hoops.

Mr. Lambswool continues:

When did she get that set? I calculated on my fingers that it must have been six months ago...I reflect that had Mrs. Lambswool married somebody besides a poor bookkeeper, she would have had at least two new sets since that was bought.

Of course, Mr. Lambswool takes the three dollars he was given and buys Mrs. Lambswool the nicest cage crinoline he can find - it has 30 rows of steel! He uses what remains to buy himself a cheap pair of velvet shoes. Mrs. Lambswool is delighted with the surprise, and declares that when they go to a party at their friends' house, she'll wear her nice lavender silk dress, which never looked right when she was wearing her old hoops.

There is so much more to the story, and so many wonderful little details about the daily life of a young married couple, and so much more saccharine to make you vomit (I mean seriously, there's an impoverished German family to be saved). But just from this little bit, we can glean the following information:


  • There is much to be discussed about the role of husband as provider and the role of wife as housekeeper, as depicted in an ideal mid-19th century family. Mr. L is ashamed not to be able to provide his wife with fashionable clothes, Mrs. L is thrifty and finds ways to keep her husband presentable and would rather he spend the money on himself than on a gift for her.
  • Mrs. L wore her cage crinoline right out, and in a short amount of time too - months, not years!
  • As her cage wore out, Mrs. L found clever ways to repair them and keep wearing them, which means my seen-better-days cage crinoline is accurate. Hooray!
  • Even though Mr. and Mrs. L are too poor to afford new shoes and a new cage at the same time, he has prospects for working his way up in the world at "the firm", and they are invited to society events like parties where a lady would wear a silk dress.
  • Even though she's got a busted-up cage, Mrs. L has a nice, presentable silk dress in a fashionable color.
None of these assumptions is a foregone conclusion; this is just one primary source, and a fictional one at that, and could have been written by someone who had no idea how long cage crinolines lasted. But I can use what I have read to look at other sources and find out how often ladies bought new cages, young married life, and more. And I found this source by accident, looking for something else.

So, I encourage you to stumble through a Harper's or Godey's or even a newspaper local to the place you interpret. You can find amazing sources where you least expect them, when you aren't looking for them.

And of course, if you want to find out more about the Lambswools, you can read their story here.

LATE BREAKING NEWS: The marvelous Jessamyn Reeves-Brown has kindly pointed out that she shared this story on The Sewing Academy two years ago! So that's where I learned about it. Credit where credit's due, and a mystery solved!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Review: The Mahaffie Sunbonnet

This past week had me down with the worst cold ever. I was laid up on the couch for two whole days. And I'm no good at sitting still, especially when I don't feel good. Other people might turn on music or the TV and just veg, but I want something to distract me.

Luckily, Elizabeth Stewart Clark of The Sewing Academy recently put out a new pattern for a sunbonnet, based on one in the collections of the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop. I decided to try it out as a distraction from feeling miserable, and to make sure I didn't get sunburned at an upcoming event.

Before I start discussing my experience, one thing you should know about me: I'm terrible at reading patterns before I dive into something. I'm really not great at spatial reasoning. Reading through a pattern and seeing the steps in my mind isn't part of my skill set. Keep that in mind.

Another thing to note: I have a big head. I mean, it's pretty big. It's hard to buy hats. I have to enlarge all my bonnet patterns from Timely Tresses. So, I walked into this with some trepidation, wondering whether I would have to enlarge the pattern or not, and how forgiving it would be to enlargement.

Review:

Let me start by saying this is not a pattern for rank beginners, and it's not pretending to be. It's a great complement to Liz's earlier slat bonnet in that way - it's a totally different, fitted look that requires a bit more time and has a couple more complicated steps. Whereas the one-piece slat bonnet on the Sewing Academy could easily be done in an afternoon, this one requires a few afternoons. So, not a huge time investment, but still a bit of time.

The biggest time investment was the ruffle. Holy cow, did that take forever to hem and gather! But it was easy, mindless sewing, easily done on a long car trip or during a sewing bee with friends. It could easily be left off, and I thought about leaving it off several times...but it's so cute, I'm glad I didn't.

I'm a details girl - I love the tiny little things that make a garment special and interesting, and this bonnet is just bursting with little details. The casing for the neck adjustment is both simple and really nifty. The ruffle is an opportunity to show off a really well-made rolled hem. And the construction of the ruffle with the brim facing and hem facing is super cool.

I really didn't appreciate the way the facings and the ruffle get attached until I was actually doing it. See the notice above about how I don't understand patterns when I read through them - I had to get to the very end of the pattern to see just how NIFTY it truly is. It was a real revelation, and made the end of the pattern really fun. The instructions are really easy as long as you read them, and be sure to read them as you go, but be willing to trust what they say.

Lest you just think I'm trying to be complimentary to Liz and garner brownie point...I do love brownie points, but take a look at just how cool it turned out:




I love that it's big enough to fit my head (I did make the brim 1" deeper) and that it's long enough to cover my shoulders, which is a period look that falls short on so many reproduction sunbonnets. I got tons of compliments on it, and best of all, it gave me tons of shade on a really bright sunny day. Considering my optometrist recently confirmed that my eyes are "pale" and more sensitive to the sun, this is a big relief.

The semi-sheer lawn fabric was a lucky find at the local fabric warehouse. I had two yards of it, which was plenty. It was 44" wide, so I instead cut it on the cross-grain. I'm usually a stickler for cutting fabric on grain, having had terrible experiences when I do otherwise, but for something like this I'm less concerned.

For the bias facing, I happened to have the exact same fabric in my stash, in a smaller check, just as called for in the pattern. Clearly, it was serendipity!

Conclusion: This is a really fun, very interesting variation on a sunbonnet. If you're looking for something fast and easy or a good beginner project, save this one for later, but do definitely give it a try at some point - you will really enjoy it, learn some skills in the process, and you'll wind up with a super cute sunbonnet.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Reader, I married him

It certainly has been a long time - so long, in fact, that my name has changed! The Gentleman Friend is, indeed, no longer the Gentleman Friend but is now the Gentleman Husband.

We had a gorgeous wedding on New Years Eve in St. Paul, at my home parish, where I was baptized. And then we had the best New Years Eve party ever with our family and friends!

It was not a historical wedding, for a variety of reasons, but my veil was made for me as a wonderful, wonderful gift by Elizabeth Stewart Clark (she of Sewing Academy fame, and obviously an amazing friend). I asked for 14 feet, a bit longer than a cathedral veil. She decided it should be twenty feet. I wasn't easy to manage moving it (it took a team to haul it around), but it was a dream come true and very much worth it.

It's not related to reenacting, but here's some pictures:






Now that the wedding craziness is done, I'm looking forward to reviving this blog. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

AAR: A Country Ramble

Three years ago, I discovered this adorable bed and breakfast in the Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin - a reproduction of an 1840s stagecoach inn, faithfully decorated with antique beds and furnishings (with all the modern conveniences of plumbing, electricity and HVAC). It seemed purpose-built for a semi-immersion event. My mind churned it over for a year and some change before I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. And last week, my dream event came true - portraying pleasure travelers at an inn, going "rambling" during the day and enjoying the lovely inn at night, with a small group of friends who were specially invited.

The Gentleman Friend (aka Mr. Watkins) and I set off on Thursday and arrived at the inn on Thursday evening. The event was to start on Friday afternoon, but we wanted to make sure we had everything set up logistically. We took the opportunity on Friday to go scout out trails - we'd never been in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, so we needed to make sure the trail was accessible to everyone in the group, was interesting enough to keep everyone entertained, and was manageable in cage crinolines and leather-soled shoes. We were lucky - we stopped at the forest headquarters to grab maps and pay for our permit, and we got a hot tip from the ranger about a likely option just down the road. It turned out to have everything we wanted. This was an auspicious beginning! We celebrated with a Tex Mex lunch.

Everyone arrived in the afternoon - a group of several friends from across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. We had a brief meeting, went out for dinner as a group, then settled into our comfortable rooms for the night.

We woke up in 1860. Walking downstairs to the first floor in my wrapper, I discovered Mr. W. already awake and reading in the tap room. He had seen some of the other guests coming down for coffee and tea, but no one was around yet. The morning paper had arrived with plenty of interesting news and advertisements. Slowly, the rest of the guests filtered down for breakfast - cinnamon toast with syrup and jam, berries and cream, and local sausages. The newspapers had arrived, and the innkeeper was full of her own local tidbits - the train was delayed, she informed us. Thankfully, none of us had planned to leave that day. Conversation at breakfast revolved around getting to know one other - who we were, where we had come from, and what our travel plans were. I told our fellow guests, Mr. and Mrs. Warren, that I was visiting with my friend, Mrs. Middleton, and my sister, Mrs. Chapin, on our way to the resorts further north. Mr. W. was there as our escort. The Warrens were in between visits to their two sons, one of whom resides in Madison and the other in Milwaukee.

After breakfast, we retired to our rooms to change for the day. Once we were dressed (several of us in sporting outfits, with walking staffs), we set out to see the countryside. There was a nearby rock outcrop, known to the locals as Brady's Rocks, which we wished to see. We began first by walking across some tall-grass prairies - the sun was warm, but there was a nice breeze to mitigate that. We climbed a hill to see the view over the countryside, with its ridges and "kettles". Some of us stayed at the overlook, and the rest valiantly pressed on into the woods, to see Brady's Rocks, which were quite picturesque tucked back in the woods.

Back at the inn, we had a leisurely lunch on the porch. Some of us retired to rest (as they were traveling for their health, after all) and some of us sat on the porch. Mrs. Pestel read several stories to us, and Mrs. Lucking filled us in on the latest story in Harper's, The Woman in White. The rest of us sewed, or simply lounged about and enjoyed the peaceful afternoon.

In the evening we all sat down for a rustic but hearty dinner, with a delicious custard and raspberry preserves for dessert. Major Lucking offered a few toasts during the dinner. Afterwards we retired to the parlor for a relaxed evening. Some of the ladies played cards, while others read or knitted. Mr. Ackeret, Mr. Watkins and Major Lucking played an old board game, Every Man To His Station, which left them, according to Mr. Ackeret, needing to reconsider their life choices. The moral of the game was, apparently, a bit hazy, since every action required a forfeit.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. The newspapers waiting in the parlor provided interesting conversation about the Democratic Convention and the unprecedented split in the party. As we finished our breakfast (a delicious egg pie), we discussed our departure and where we would be headed next - some of us were headed home, some on to other adventures.

All in all, it was a fabulous event, and everything I wanted. We were able to achieve some experiences that few people get to have, like 1860s hiking, and the opportunity to experience pleasure travel. This event encompassed so much of what I want to achieve in mid-19th century events - finding opportunities in our own backyard to focus on being civilians and discovering through experimentation just what it was like to live in the mid-19th century, separate from the military. For these types of events, all you need is friends who want the same thing and are willing to have fun and work toward an immersive environment.

Have some pictures! They're slightly less terrible than usual!


 







 





As a note: the inn where we stayed is Eagle Centre House in Eagle, Wisconsin, between Madison and Milwaukee. It's a really gorgeous place, with a lovely innkeeper who deserves every single shout out I can give.

It's me! With a new dress that miraculously got done and FIT!
The elusive Gentleman Friend, in his 1860s clothes. It was his first event, and we almost killed him, but he survived, despite pictorial evidence. Better yet - he said he'd do it again!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

There and Back Again (or, maybe I'm crazy)

It's that time of year when I re-emerge and give all sorts of excuses about where I've been! Here's a list of all the things that happened in the last year:


May: I went to the reenactment of President Lincoln's funeral in Springfield. It was a long drive to get there, and it was very warm, but I'm so glad I went. It was a meaningful experience that moved me to tears as I came to understand the grief experienced by the nation in 1865. I also became CSPAN-famous.


June/July: I got a new job! I switched from being an instructional designer for a retail corporation to a senior instructional designer for a healthcare organization. It's a step up and I really enjoy the company I work for and the team I work with. In the midst of all that, I was prepping and planning for...

August: Being civilian coordinator for a massive reenactment at Fort Snelling as we reenacted the return of the Second Minnesota to St. Paul in 1865. I spent the majority of my time in 2015 planning this thing, and it was absolutely worth it. The experience was incredible and one I won't forget any time soon.





It was also really hot out. My curlicues and glistening face prove it. It will become a theme during the rest of the year.

September: I moved! Just down the hall in the same apartment building, but moving is moving. I now have my own sewing space, and a greater appreciation for all the fabric I own. It takes up a lot of space and is heavy to lug, even if it's just down the hallway.

A week later...

October: I went to a small, private reenactment in Illinois. I might be crazy, but this event is important to me and I made it happen. It was also too hot, but it was a peaceful time hanging out with friends and sleeping in my home-away-from-home dogtrot.


November, December and January were the busy times at the new job, and the holidays, and getting ready for other stuff like...

February: My reenacting group's annual formal ball! Pictured elsewhere on this site in other years, it was a lovely time as usual. It was even more special because I brought The Gentleman Friend to the Friday night sociable. It was his first time dressing up, and he looked pretty snazzy if I do say so myself.


And there was an extra day in February, so we took advantage of that by getting engaged! It is very exciting and we're both very pleased with ourselves. We bought each other rings, and I am pretty much in love with mine - it is an antique from England, almandine garnet with seed pearls.


We will need to find a new pseudonym for him, because soon he won't just be The Gentleman Friend!

But, there was no time to rest, because the next day was...

March, and it was time for me to present at the Civilian Symposium in Harrisburg! It was truly an honor to be on this year's faculty, and to present with Jessica Craig on planning civilian-focused, history-heavy events. And of course, I got to make a dress - the tradition at the Symposium is that all the faculty get a length of the same fabric (dress length for women, vest length for men, usually two different fabrics) and told to make a garment from it. I decided to try something different and do 1840s. It was such a fun and unique experience, and I hope to be able to do it again soon!



And that, gentle readers, brings us up to date. I am currently working in Pittsburgh for the week (and sincerely, Pittsburgh is both a charming and a weird place, with its hills and its friendly people and its salads with french fries on top) but I am ready to get back home and start on some new adventures! I am hosting an immersion event in May, I have some commissions keeping me busy, and then there's this wedding coming up...but I hope to be able to tell you all about it here!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Ask Me Anything: First Round

I'm very busy getting ready to attend the Lincoln Funeral in Springfield this weekend - leaving town on Thursday means I'm working on a new bonnet right now! I'll have plenty of pictures to share when I get back, but to take a break from the stitching (because I've been going gangbusters for the last few weeks, guys), I'm answering a few questions from the Ask Me Anything I posted last week! You guys ask good questions, so I'm just picking them out as I am able to answer.

"Do you plan to branch out into bustle era any time?" - Elizabeth M.

You know, probably not. I have nothing against the bustle era at all. It's just not my jam. I think most people have a certain period that they're in love with, and mine stretches from about 1770 to 1864 (recent events having taught me that yup, the love stops right at 1864). That's sort of where my interests in history fall as well.

But then I see something like this, and all bets are off.



"Where do you do your research on the small elements that make your impression so awesome?" - Cheyney M.

Cheyney specifically mentioned the trim on the sleeves of this dress. Don't let small children see this picture, my chronic case of BRF might scar them for life.

I am really not crabby in reality! I swear!

It's less about research and more about developing The Eye. When I say "The Eye", I mean the instinctive knowledge of what just looks right, and what looks off. I think there's something innate to this; when you have a visual aptitude, you can just naturally look at something and know that it's "on" or "off". When I was a teenager, I had a covered hoop from a sutler, and I knew that something about it didn't give me the silhouette that I wanted, and when I figured out what it was (too big, too long, not enough of a dome shape), I redid the waist and adjusted the boning to make it smaller. However, I also think it can be learned by anyone willing to take the time to start training their eye and thinking visually.

 Whenever I get to researching something, I start by looking at as many examples as possible to develop my eye - print fabric, baskets, transferware china, you name it. I'll utilize a lot of different resources, but my favorite is just to dive into the digitized collections of museums - Kent State, the MFA, the V&A, the Met, Old Sturbridge Village, and so on. I'll also look at illustrations, images and fashion plates. I could write a whole treatise on what I look at, but I'll consider color, shape, size, how it compares to other examples, and what the majority of examples I find show. In the picture above, I got the inspiration for the trim from a dress at the Smithsonian (which I now can't find pictures of, naturally) and my main consideration was in getting the scale right. How big is the trim? How is it positioned? What is the scale of it going to look like on the sleeve I've created. (Insider tip: getting those chevrons angled just right on shaped coat sleeves took a long, long time, and many time trying the sleeves on before I got it exactly the way I wanted it).

If you're trying to recreate a specific look, Elizabeth Stewart Clark suggests a great idea: take a picture of yourself/the item/the dress you have created, and then take the image of the original you're trying to replicate, and put them side by side. And then ask yourself, "What do I need to do to make that look identical? Why doesn't this look like that? What's missing or different?"

So, to conclude what was probably a longer answer than necessary: look at as many things as you can possibly get your hands on, and think critically about what it takes in all aspects to make it look right.