Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"There are so few pieces left, how can we really know?"

There's an attitude that I've come across more than a couple of times in discussions centered on whether or not a certain costume in a certain film is accurate, or when someone asks about improving their own kit. It's not quite inevitable, but a good amount of the time someone else will come in and say, "Nobody really knows what they were wearing, because none of us were there." Or, "We have hardly any extant clothing, compared to the amount that existed at the time, so you don't actually know what's right and wrong." This is wrong on a few levels.

1) There are a lot more extant garments than you think.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when I search for 1600-1800 in the Costume Institute, there are 1,346 records. And that's just what's been photographed. The Victoria & Albert Museum, the Kyoto Costume Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museu do Traje in Lisbon, the Museo del Traje in Madrid - these are all immense repositories for historic clothing. Then you have collections that are smaller, but still focus on clothing, like certain National Trust properties in the UK, the Museum at FIT, the Fox Collection at Drexel. (I think it was the Symington's corset collection I saw photos of on Tumblr, with racks and racks of extant clothing going back to the mid-18th century.)

There are sites like Old Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg that have open-air museums and large collections of clothing and artifacts of daily life. There are state museums and state historical societies, and more local historical societies, and house museums. You would be amazed at the amount of clothing that's held by institutions that don't regularly put on exhibitions to display them, you really would. The amount that turns up on Pinterest is in no way representative of the amount of extant clothing out there. (Although a lot turns up on Pinterest, obvs.)

2) There is even more relevant two-dimensional art.

So much! Do I even need to list museums, really? There are court portraits, folk art portraits, satires, genre prints, fashion plates, all kinds of pictures that show all sorts of people, with all levels of detail. You will never run out of art to study for information about clothing, and it's even easier to find than extant garments because art's had a cachet for centuries that old clothing has only had for a few decades.

3) Everything out there is not "high fashion" or "for the very wealthy". It's true that few truly workaday outfits exist today. But there are some out there. For example, there are the Furr homespun dress from North Carolina and a similar gown worn by Elizabeth Williams in the same state 1993.137.1 in this collection) from the mid-19th century. And the Manchester Art Galleries have two servants' uniforms from the 1890s (the collections are down at the moment, unfortunately).

What there are a lot more of are middle-class pieces. That's what fills those smaller museums I talked about. Are they silk and wool? Yes. But when you take the entire idea of synthetic fabrics off the table, it's much easier to see why people felt it was worthwhile to spend more money on cloth that was finer than printed cotton for best dresses. Once you start to examine pieces, the differences between atelier-made couture and clothes from the dressmaker down the street become very obvious - so while the first impression of a wedding dress like this one might be, "wow, it's so fitted and has all those extra details!" with more experience you note how plain it is, and how very simply made. (It was sewn by the bride.) Middle-class might be significantly nicer than one person's intended impression at an event, but the clothing can tell us a lot about which details were seen as high fashion and which were simply "the way we make clothes".

I'm sorry this turned into a bit of a rant - when I began it, I seemed to be seeing comments around every corner on this subject. And what they relentlessly insinuate, even if the commenters don't intend it, are two unfortunate things. One is that fashion history is unstudiable, or is studiable only for the most wealthy people at any given time, which is annoying as it's inaccurate (see above). The other is that anybody who thinks they're studying fashion history is too stupid to realize the limitations of sources, which is annoying as it's insulting! Please give us some credit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Older Women and Fashion

There's a cliché that, historically, an eligible maiden would have been very fashionable, a married woman with children would fall behind the times, and an older matron would cling to the styles of years past. This has always bothered me, in part because it seems like an over-correlation to modern attitudes: teenagers and twenty-somethings today have the money and/or time to spend on being fashionable, not to mention the desire, and the ready-to-wear industry is built on catering to them - while women with children have less time and disposable income, and older women are not keen to follow trends like cargo pants, jumpsuits, neon pink, etc. and sometimes even keep getting the same haircuts as when they were younger, or wear similar clothes (which is easy, as fashion is constantly recycling itself). We can't assume that teenagers had the same wherewithal in dressing as today, or that the ability or desire to get new clothes in an old style was present in the same way that it is now.

I'm going to leave the younger women and young mothers for another time, but I'd like to examine this idea when it comes to mature women's habits of dress. Using my very thorough Pinterest boards, I did a survey of the (late) eighteenth, nineteenth, and (early) twentieth centuries, looking for images of either women depicted with children who look at least ten and women with grey hair, etc. When it came to portraiture, I tried to mainly consider paintings with solid dates and the name of the sitter, so I could be sure of how old she was and know that the portrait hadn't been dated just based on the style of dress, which could throw off my conclusions.

Portraits are not representative of a broad swath of society, but just the upper class and upper middle class - the flipside being that these are the women whose clothing tends to survive, which makes them very relevant to the question of dating extant clothing.

What did I find?

Middle-aged and older women whose portraits were painted were not dressed in the fashions of their youths.Their clothing ranged from current fashions worn with less trim (mainly in early middle age) to sober, dark (often brown, in the 18th century) gowns that could almost be called anti-fashion: they only follow the lead of fashion to a certain extent, but are mainly about an age-appropriate solemnity. I wouldn't call their clothing "in style" but it's also not "out of style" because it was never in style in the first place. For example, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, flat and concealing kerchiefs that covered the entire chest were very common for this age group.

There are various prints and genre paintings available from this period as well, which show older women in both current dress and somewhat old-fashioned dress. Neither option seems well confirmed by the sources: the genre paintings are often sentimental, depicting quaint country scenes that owe more to the artist than to strict realism, and the prints are overwhelmingly satires of "ewe drest lamb fashion", mocking older women for wearing tall wigs, clinging muslin, and/or cosmetics, and occasionally of old women who successfully imitate the young and trick men into finding them attractive. There is almost certainly some exaggeration involved - criticisms of women and their dress have always reeled from one extreme to the other, and are sometimes contradictory - but it shows the general feeling that older women should have a certain decorum and modesty in dress. However, for so many of these prints to exist, for the stereotype to be so well known, there must have been older women who did flaunt more current fashions.

Mary Harvey Champneys (at about 37) and Sarah Champneys (Tunno), Edward Savage, 1789; Gibbes Museum of Art 1937.2.2
Clearly, older and younger women were not supposed to dress in exactly the same way. But then as now, there was a difference between being in fashion and being at the extreme of fashion.. For example, Mrs. Noah Smith, about 40, is dressed in a gown with a high waistline and gathered front - a construction that's appropriate for anybody in 1798 - but it's made of a darker taffeta instead of white muslin, which might have been seen as too trendy for a proper matron.

What seems to be have been the case in the 18th century is that, like today, older women were supposed to avoid certain trends, such as very tall hair in the 1770s and white chemise gowns in the 1790s, that were high fashion and/or the province of the young, because to indulge in them was unseemly; at the same time, looking up-to-date was clearly a priority and being seriously behind the times was also cause for ridicule. An opaque chemisette or kerchief (or simply a higher neckline) and an enveloping cap were a distinctive older woman's style rather than a sign of being unfashionable.

Mme Félicité Longrois Riesener (1786-1847) (at age 49), Eugène Delacroix, 1835; MMA 1994.430
Moving forward into the mid and late nineteenth century, the number of sentimental genre scenes increase - but not all are bent on showing quaint women in old-fashioned dress. The older woman in Waiting for the Verdict (1857), for example, wears a bonnet that's very similar to the young woman's next to her. The grandmother of Grandmother's Birthday (1867) is dressed as well as her daughter, if in black and with a cap on. In portraiture, the general trend of dark and untrimmed gowns worn with opaque chemisettes or other tuckers continued: Jane Burton of Saltmarsh, Aged 77 (1846), Thomasine Blight (aged 63, 1856).

Jane Burton's clothes are hard to assess as representative or not of 1846, but the real question would be - do they strongly resemble the clothes of 1836, or 1826, or some other date? The little we can see are the V neckline (appropriate for the mid-1840s) and loose but not full sleeves (certainly not appropriate for the 1830s or later 1820s); her cap, while turned into a modest anti-fashion statement, does show shaping more reminiscent of the early 1830s. Similarly, Thomasine Blight's cap is five to ten years out of date, more characteristic of the late 1840s, with the emphasis down near the cheeks.

But this is the beginning of the era of the studio portrait, a medium in which many more details of clothing can be seen. There are photographs of older women in very fashionable - even "trendy" - dress, as in this 1861 portrait. This one of Amanda Langdon in 1884 is likewise an example of fashionable dress, with no frumpy cap and an appropriately fitted and decorated bodice. Lydia Lapham, at age 54 in 1891, wore her hair with curled fringe and her sleeves with puffs at the top. Not all women were quite so au courant: Eliza Pruyn, on her daughter's wedding day in 1901, looked more like a fashion plate from 1898; in this group portrait, the older woman's sleeves are not as inflated as the younger one's. This is a matter of only a few years, though, not a previous generation.

Wing family portrait, 1874; CHM 1978.3.2224
In all my searching, what I found can be boiled down into a few generalities. One is that middle-aged or older women tended to wear a toned-down version of fashionable dress - a more dignified version, if you will. Another is that and certain types of caps and neckwear were reserved specifically for older women long past the point where they could be considered something the wearers were holding onto.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Simplicity 1353

My most recent new garment is Simplicity 1353, a dress by Leanne Marshall, Project Runway winner. I picked up the pattern some time ago, before I'd made the decision to radically change my wardrobe habits - it just seemed pretty and impractical and good for some kind of fancy occasion.

Much more recently, I picked up Simplicity 1587, a 1940s reprint, along with two different cotton prints for quilting: a dark red-on-orange red geometric one for the long-sleeved version, and a flowered check for the short-sleeved one. Well, I made up the red (apart from hems) and realized that it was extremely unflattering on me and the fabric was too heavy for the cut, so there was no way I was throwing away the cute flowered check on it!

One of my resolutions is now to stop being seduced by better-quality heavy quilting cottons with great period prints, and to instead buy proper charmeuse, crêpe, or whatever type of fabric would actually work for the pattern I want to make up. This means shopping online at Fashion Fabrics Club instead of going to Joann's from now on, probably.

After making that decision, I sifted through my patterns to find one that could be a new summer dress in a heavier cotton. This one, with its princess-line bodice and circle skirt, would work! (Once I got to the neckline decoration and lining, I used a bit of off-white "German chintz" I bought at Mood for my thesis stays, which they didn't work well for, so it's good that I found something better to do with it.)

It's a very simple dress. I made no changes at all except in the placement of the straps - my more comfortable bras have adjustable ones that can be moved to either side of the hooks, so to cover them the dress straps had to be significantly moved as well. (I might make new straps, much wider than these, so I'm not restricted as to bra choices. To be honest, I think the pattern's intended for slender teenagers without bras.) After I wore it I realized that I could have done a bit more tweaking, like to make the front seams curve in a bit more at the top over my bust, but that's pretty minor and nobody but me's going to notice.

My favorite thing - apart from the huge circle skirt, which swooshes around really nicely - is the bands accentuating the sweetheart neckline. The clothes I've sewn for myself have all been very plain: no ruffles, no trim, nothing added beyond the pieces that fit together to cover my body. Sometimes it feels like I'm just putting together a puzzle, and when I think about the seamstresses of the past who  added all kinds of frills and flourishes I get a bit downhearted. This unnecessary bit of trim made me feel, for once, like a Real Dressmaker. (Even though they're wrinkly and a bit cockeyed.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Scaling Up Patterns: A Guide (HSM #6)

It was hard for me to figure out what to write for "Out of Your Comfort Zone". My comfort zone is pretty wide, and what's outside of it - the later twentieth century - is also outside of the limits of the Historical Sew Monthly. So I tried to think more broadly about what I'm comfortable with. What makes me uncomfortable? Tutorials, definitely, because I don't do that much when it comes to historical sewing, Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is self-promotion in anything other than short bursts, and this post is essentially shameless begging for you to buy my book - Regency Women's Dress, out this autumn! - even if you normally rely on individual, full-size patterns.

This can also be seen as helping other people move out of their comfort zones. Thinking OUTSIDE the box!

When it comes to making historical clothing, I prefer to use patterns taken from extant garments rather than full-size ones graded for different sizes. There are a number of benefits:
  1. The pieces are likely to fit together as they are, and I can check to make sure fairly easily since they're drawn to scale.
  2. There aren't any alterations made to adapt the pattern for sewing machines, modern methods, etc. that need to be reversed. (Though there are now patternmakers like Hallie Larkin and Kay Gnagey who are producing scaled-up patterns intended to be made up with period methods and/or based directly on specific garments.)
  3. It's much cheaper to buy a few books than a ton of patterns, plus it saves time when you want to make something new - no need to wait for the mail!
  4. The inevitable problems and efforts to fix them teach me a lot about the proper way to do things, and why the original seamstresses did them the way they did. Obviously, this doesn't sound like a shining endorsement, and it has the knock-on effect of making me feel useless at times, but I do also see enormous amounts of improvement between each related outfit. And each corset. Especially corsets.
It's cool to use whatever method you want to make your garb, but I've seen a lot of people say that they can't scale them up because they don't have a projector or giant copier, and they don't know how to do it by hand. Obviously it's to my benefit if you can not only look at the great pictures in Regency Women's Dress but use the patterns, but I also want to share my genuine enjoyment of messing around with graph paper and maybe open up the possibility of using Janet Arnold, Norah Waugh, Jean Hunisett, or myself (don't forget the patterns I took at the Chapman Historical Museum, which are online for free)

The most sensible way is to fully scale up the pattern as drawn, make a muslin, and fit it as you would fit any other muslin. However, sometimes - usually, when it comes to these patterns based on originals - you already know that it's going to be much too small in certain areas, and I often add in the extra width/height while scaling up. Both methods will be discussed!