Friday, November 27, 2015

The Hunger Games (Silver Screen - HSM #11)

Sorry that I missed October! I promise to get to "secrets" in December for the re-do challenge - there was a lot going on and that's a tricky one for writing.

The Hunger Games and its sequels are set in the far future, in an America ravaged by climate change and changed politically beyond recognition. However, there's so much influence from the 1930s and early 1940s in the costuming and design that I tend to spend a lot of my time watching for that. This is really an image-heavy post rather than a text-based one, because I want to highlight these design elements that your eye might have skated over.

Warning: there's a spoiler for the latest movie in here. It's from the book, but if you're a movie-only fan ...

Very little in the various districts would look out of place for rural Depression-era towns. The buildings are dilapidated shanties or abandoned factories, with nothing futuristic about them.

Two views of District 12.
Compare to this image of homes in Mobile, Alabama in 1937 taken for the Resettlement Administration. From Shorpy

Even their belongings are early 20th century, apart from the 1980s-looking radio up there. Note the ca. 1900 photograph!

We see clothes that also wouldn't be out of place in a movie set during the Depression on citizens in all the districts, but we see them in the greatest detail on the people of 12 during the first movie. On girls and women, this generally means high necklines with collars, puffed short sleeves/shoulder emphasis, narrow silhouettes, and bias cuts. For boys and men the effect is less pronounced - buttoning shirts with suspenders - but a short-back-and-sides haircut parted on the side is not common today.

Photo from the Rural Electrification Commission, ca. 1935; FDR Library

Poor children playing on sidewalk, Georgetown, D.C., 1935; Library of Congress

Even the china waiting for Katniss and Peeta on the train is styled very much like Art Deco tableware of the era.

The 1930s aesthetic turns up in the other districts, but the camera doesn't linger over them enough to notice. We get the most time with District 10 during the beginning of the Victory Tour:

Rue's family
District 10
Unemployed men in Scotts Run, WV, 1937; NARA
And our big SPOILER, which made me ridiculously happy in the theater: Annie Cresta's veil. That style, with the veil held close over the crown of the head, was so typical of the 1920s and 1930s that my immediate reaction was joy that they were still doing the Depression references for me.

Colorized wedding portrait, 1927; DeviantArt, perfect-n-poisonous
(More examples can be seen on this Pinterest board.)

Now what about the Capital? In most scenes, fashion in the Capital is completely wild, based on Alexander McQueen and avant-garde modern couture - but the 1930s still comes through here and there, especially in the first film.

Tailleur habillé, 1937; NYPL
Effie's first costume is highly reminiscent of the late 1890s and the 1930s at the same time. The term "the Gay Nineties" was coined in 1926, when the period was nostalgically harkened back to as a time of (northern American) wealth, stability, and values - similar to the way the 1950s are referenced today. The puffed sleeves of the later 1930s can be seen as historicism based on that period, and Effie's outfit here reflects both the '30s and the '90s at the same time.

In some of the earlier scenes set in the Capital, we have a huge amount of extras dressed relatively simply. The puffed sleeves seen on young women in District 12 are repeated, and shoulders are a huge focus. (Which can also be seen as a reference to the 1980s, but the '80s were repeating the '40s, so.) There are also a lot of hats like Effie's, brimless and placed toward the front of the head, as well as hats with a vertically-angled brim.

André fashion plate, 1939; NYPL

Even when Effie's in District 13, she arranges her headwrap into something resembling the turban styles of the early 1940s.

Just as the buildings in District 12 resemble the run-down rural homes of the Depression, the buildings of the Capital are historical references as well. Specifically, they embody the principles of 20th century Fascist architecture, which was based on hard-edged, massive buildings that inspired fear and awe in the viewer, reminding them of the power of Imperial Rome. Being CGI and/or a set means, of course, that they can be taken to an extreme that Mussolini could have only imagined.

Main grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld, designed by Albert Speer, taken by Stefan Wagner
Even the symbol of Panem, displayed prominently in the Capital, is essentially the United States seal redrawn in Art Deco style and given a subtle Roman flavor.

(The Presidential Palace, on the other hand, is designed on an 18th century theme inside and out. Perhaps referencing the ancien régime? That would be appropriate.)

 Thank you so much for putting up with this non-standard Historical Sew Monthly post!

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Bib-Front Gown Mystery

The bib-front gown is a very popular choice for Regency costumers because it fastens in the front, making it much easier to dress yourself. Once I started researching and patterning for Regency Women's Dress, I became convinced that the bib-front was something of an anachronism for most of the period - but then I took a closer look at the extant examples, and I realized that there are two distinct types of bib-front gowns.

One type, certainly the most common of the two, is undeniably early in the period. The ones on p.42-45 (dress 1) and p. 46-49 (dress 2) of Regency Women's Dress are excellent examples, as is the famous one on p. 48-49 (dress 3) of Patterns of Fashion I. These three share some characteristics that pin them to the early years, roughly contemporary with the gowns that fasten on drawstrings in the front. For example, they all have very narrow, trapezoidal center back pieces, with the rest of the bodice functioning as front and sides, just as in 18th century dress construction. Dresses 2 and 3 both have short over sleeves, with the cotton cut on the bias and the lining on grain, and detachable undersleeves. Dresses 1 and 3 have sizable trains, while 2 and 3 are both cut without any flare in the skirt. 1 and 3 also have the bibs cut on the bias. All are made of printed cotton, 1 and 2 in a dense, early period print, and all have the skirt gathering concentrated in the center back.

Bib-front gown, ca. 1800?; MMA 2009.300.2314 (OASC)
Here's another, from the Royal Ontario Museum, and here's one more at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

But then there's another style of bib-front gown, sometimes varied with a crossover neckline. It's not really as common as the early-period version, when it comes to extants, but is more frequently recreated.

How does it differ from the others? For one thing, the back - it's much wider, the side back seams sometimes coming almost to the sides. The waistline is also sometimes ever-so-slightly lower , and the skirt, instead of being gathered at the center back, is more loosely gathered or regularly knife-pleated all the way across from side to side.

Dress owned by Ann Pidsley Deane ca. 1812; National Museum of Australia
Here's one example of the crossover variety, originally listed on Vintage Textiles. Here is another, more traditional one, also originally from Vintage Textiles. Another in the National Museum of Australia.

The movement of the side-back seams is in line with changes in fashion around the beginning of the literal Regency (though generally more exaggerated), and gathering across the entire back is also seen at that time, which gives us a rationale for dating these gowns later than the first category. However, the slightly lowered waist - at the level of the bottom of the modern bra - is more of a holdover from earlier years, and knife pleats all across the back are rare outside of this category.

These unfashionable aspects remind me to an extent of several gowns with apron-front skirts (the bodices closing edge to edge in front) and known Quaker provenance. Here is one from the Missouri Historical Association; this is another at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and there is a third (are you surprised?) in Regency Women's Dress on p.66-69. These all have raised-but-not-high waistlines, front closures, and very even knife pleats across the back. They also have long sleeves, which is another key point that all or most of the second type of bib-front seem to have in common.

Quaker day dress, early 19th century, from the Shallcross family; Boston Museum of Fine Arts 52.1769
I wish that more of them had provenance, because I suspect that there's something that ties together these gowns, all of which are fairly plain and not highly fashionable. Is there a regional relationship? Class-based? Social group? Or is it all just coincidence, and this is simply the last gasp of a style that had left mainstream fashion, made with some attempt to follow it?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Choosing Fabric: Regency Edition

As a member of several historical-reenactment Facebook groups, I see a lot of people post a photo of cloth they've bought or are thinking of buying with a question about its suitability for a certain era. And so I thought I would write up a guide to give seamstresses more confidence in choosing a fabric, and perhaps help prevent people from buying something too modern and only discovering it once they get home.

Note: you can of course use anything you want. You can make a spencer and petticoat out of a Hello Kitty print, if you like, and actually that would be pretty fun. Please see this guide as a helpful aid for those aiming at accuracy, rather than a prescription.

White Cotton

Let's start with the easiest category: white cotton.  The simplest way to make sure that your fabric is accurate is to pick a white cotton at either end of the spectrum - very light and smooth, or completely solid and with some body. With the lighter, sheerer cottons, you can also use a woven check or stripe.

Moving a little more into the interpretive side of things, what about whiteworked cottons? You find gowns made of muslin that were embroidered on the bolt (as opposed to being embroidered after the dress was made up) fairly frequently, especially in the earlier years of the period. Sometimes the motifs are spread apart and sometimes they're very close together.

Detail of evening dress, ca. 1808; MMA CI.59.35.1 (OASC)
Non-white and multicolored embroidery were also used, but a) less frequently than whitework and b) mainly in the very beginning of the long Regency. Metallic embroidery is seen longer, but was also more expensive. All embroidery that's not whitework will draw the eye, so the machine factor is much more important.

Detail of bib-front gown, ca. 1797; MMA 1973.65.3 (OASC)
Cotton Prints

Cotton prints are very frequently used, but are really the hardest to get right. You can get them cheap, sometimes for just a few dollars a yard, so it seems like a good deal, but the fact is that very few quilting cottons are really correct. My recommendation is to go with a plain muslin or a silk: yes, taffeta costs more per yard, but if you get a 60" wide piece you don't need very much of it.

Still willing to look for really accurate prints? Okay!

Detail from an open robe, ca. 1793; NYSHA N212-62
The main thing to look for here is density. Single repeated motifs are small, without too much space between them (especially earlier in the period), and set into clear diagonal rows. More intricate patterns are often very dense; delicate ones still give the impression of covering the ground. What makes this difficult is that modern prints tend to be wrong on both counts: either larger motifs that are spaced farther apart, or more complex prints with too much space inside them.

Detail of morning dress, 1815-1819; MMA 1999.224 (OASC)
The other hard thing about choosing prints is that, when you get down to it, the motifs aren't easily categorized. No, the Art Deco movement didn't happen until the 20th century, but you do often see prints that are more stylized or geometric than naturalistic. The gut reaction that a print looks too modern to be from this period is not always useful.

Detail from a bib-front gown, ca. 1800, patterned in Regency Women's Dress; NYSHA N138-52
I'm being kind of vague here, in part because I don't consider myself a prints expert (due to the comparative lack of extant cotton gowns, you have to spend a lot of time studying quilts as well). There are very good books that can teach you the specifics of dating prints and knowing what exactly prints in a given period looked like - I recommend them if you're serious about trying to get authentic ones. Duran Fabrics makes perfect reproductions, which are expensive, and William Booth, Draper also sells them as well as other good repros. You can even use Spoonflower to reproduce an historic print yourself as well, although I'm not sure what's required there, tech-wise.

Detail of a morning dress, 1824-1827; LACMA M.2007.211.670
Other Cottons

Cotton bobbinet in a fine gauge with a fine thread, preferably in a color other than optic white, could be used for a sheer overdress. Silk net was more common in the period, but much less common today.

Regarding cottons dyed solid colors: I'm sorry, but they aren't a good choice. Logically, it seems to us that dyed cottons would have been easier to make and therefore more prevalent than prints, but it doesn't appear to be the case. Extant pieces and written records do not show solid-colored cottons being used unless they have an interesting weave structure.


Solid-colored silk taffeta, however, is a strong possibility and one of the safest choices. The only downside when it comes to choosing a taffeta is that modern taffetas are so often shot with black, which was not as common in the 19th century. (That is, they used shot silk, but black was not the most common second color.) They're also on the heavy side, and tend to be slubby. Even our good taffetas are often not as smooth as historical ones, though, so I would recommend avoiding the truly obvious shantung dupionis but not worrying too much over this otherwise.

Silk satin appears, from the magazines, to have been very fashionable, turning up especially frequently as a slip beneath a gauze, crape, or net overdress, or as a dress trim or bonnet. However, satin of the period is generally fairly light - somewhere between modern satin and charmeuse. So this is a tricky area. I would recommend either a very soft satin or a flatlined charmeuse.

Silk crape, as mentioned above, was often used for overdresses. It's also in a tricky area, being more translucent than modern crepe but less sheer than chiffon.

- Striped silk. This could be either subtle stripes made with different weaves (satin and taffeta are the most commonly found today), or actual colored stripes. Many examples can be seen here. Striped Regency gowns tend to have either narrow stripes alternating with wider ones or equal ones of a mid-sized or narrow width, although there are also more complex examples. There are few wrong answers when it comes to stripes, except that they shouldn't be too wide.

- Velvet. Velvet was most common in solid colors. Very simple.

- Figured silk, by which I mean silk (usually sarcenet) with small motifs woven into the fabric. The term was used for figuring of the same color as the silk, as well as brocading. The motifs generally follow the rules of prints. These are more frequently and affordably found today in synthetics.

Figured sarcenet on left, figured taffeta on right; Ackermann's Repository, March 1813
Using a synthetic fabric in general is up to you. They can melt when exposed to flame (but in an evening dress, you are less likely to come into contact with fire), and they can be hot, but sometimes there are weights or weaves of "silk" that can only be found reasonably in synthetics. I suggest steering clear of them, but that's because I love dancing.


If using wool, one must be sure to find a cloth that's light and smooth enough to drape well - not the heavy stuff. In terms of patterning, the same rules as cotton apply, but wools were produced in solid colors.

Merino is what's usually mentioned in fashion periodicals, but cashmere was also widely used. Yes, we do all know of the gowns made of cashmere shawls, with a border at the lower edge and sometimes around the neckline, but clothing was also made from bolts of cashmere.

There is also mention of wool crape for both evening and morning dress.

Now, this is by no means complete. A complete list would be a book, but this is hopefully enough to get you started, and help you figure out what to look for before you buy.

Did someone say "book"? I'm not sure if you heard, but my pattern book, Regency Women's Dress: Techniques and Patterns 1800-1830, is out on Amazon and at other retailers!

It's packed full of all the patterns you need to create a wardrobe spanning the full Long Regency period, taken from garments in museums that are off the beaten path.

If you have seen it, please consider reviewing it on Amazon!