Monday, November 15, 2010

A Costume Rant, Focusing on the Late 18th Century and Women's Clothing...

It never ceases to amaze me how a few wrong fabric choices, ill- fitting undergarments, and poor tailoring can take what could be a beautiful garment and throw it into the Crimes Against Historical Clothing category, aka Farb. Now, I have a few monstrosities buried in the depths of my closet never again to see the light of day. Every costumer does, it's all part of the learning experiences, the building blocks for learning how to create beautiful clothing. So hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes with a few tricks I have picked up along the way... Enjoy!

First and foremost, research, research, research. I cannot stress it enough. We are very blessed to have volumes of books written about historical clothing and how to recreate it accurately. Not to mention the scores of sites and blogs devoted to historical clothing and sewing techniques. We have the information right at our finger tips; use it and learn as much as you can from it. Also, ask questions, lots of questions. This is one thing that I still do with many of my projects. I seek out costumers who are more skilled and experienced and pick their brains. You will find that most people are more than happy to share what they have learned and know with you. 
18th Century Cartoon Showing the Female Shape with Stays 

Secondly, no matter what era of clothing you wish to recreate, you must remember that the female body was viewed very differently from the way we view it today. They believed the female body needed extra support. As a result women wore stays, or corsets depending on what time period you focus on. Not only were they the building blocks of the female wardrobe, their shape also defined the shape for the garments worn on top of them. Now, my era, which tends to be around 1795, was a time of great transition. Political upheaval changed the rules for fashion and for the first time, the smooth conical shape of previous eras was replaced by the high waisted, freer styles of the Regency and Empire eras. Now, unless you were one of the Merveilleuses running around the Champs de'lysses wetting down your thin white muslin gown, you would have still worn some sort of stays (yes, they did this). Thankfully, however, the transitional period allows for a choice as to which stays you prefer. You have your traditional long stays of the 1780's, which were still fashionable until the late, late 1790's, the ever popular, and my personal favorite, transitional stays, the later styled long stays of the 1800's, and, for those of you who are willowy, the bodiced petticoat. Now, for those of us, like me, who have a bit of fluff, the bodiced petticoat just does not provide enough support for the erm... girls. Anyway, any of these choices will work to create the desired silhouette for the late 18th century, early 19th century time period. However, as with any type of clothing, your choice of desired shape should flatter your figure and play up your assets. Also, you must chose your undergarments based on the outer garment you wish to make. For example, you would never wear transitional stays under a Robe l'Anglais, the shape will not work without long stays. Just as you would not wear 1780's style long stays under an 1810 dress. Each style must have the proper foundations to have a correct shape and look.

Thirdly, and just as important as the undergarments, is the choice of pattern. There are a very few good commercial patterns available for 18th century clothing, but they do exist. Stay away from the Simplicity, Butterick, and McCall patterns, if you can (although Butterick does have a nice 18th century undergarments pattern). If you do use them, please alter them to make them more accurate. Most of the commercial patterns have zipper closures, narrower skirts, overly puffed sleeves, or inaccurate neck lines. There is nothing worse than seeing a beautiful piece of silk made up into an inaccurate shape. One of the best ways to ensure your pattern is accurate is to use patterns taken from extant garments and scale them up. Janet Arnold, Cut of Women's Clothes, and Costume Close Up all contain diagrams taken directly from original pieces. You can also use them as a guide to alter a pattern that works for your size and make it more accurate.

Original Dress from 1795
Then there is fabric choice, fabric choice, fabric choice. There are some truly beautifully shaped garments out there that could have been spectacular if it were not for the obviously synthetic polyester rayon satin that was used. Synthetic fabrics, though some existed in the late Victorian Era, were not used heavily until the 20th century. So, it stands to reason that unless the synthetic fabric mimics the hand, drape, and feel better than a natural fiber will, it should not be used. Linen, cotton, wool, and silk should be the only fabrics that are used, especially if you are doing 18th century and Regency clothing. Now, I personally, will not use synthetic fabrics for my clothing. They do not breath as well as natural fibers, they have static, they tend to have that "I'm a polyester" shine in photographs, and they were not available in the 18th century. The second part of the fabric choice is the pattern of the fabric. Make sure your patterned fabrics, particularly cottons and brocades, were actually patterns that could have been available for clothing in your time period. I can't tell you the number of times I have seen a 100% cotton or linen gown in a pattern that was from a later period or even modern. Again, research is your friend, it will save a lot of tears in the end.

Mantua Maker's Shop
Probably my most important step in the sewing process, make a muslin first. 18th century clothing was created differently than modern clothing. The patterns were literally draped onto the person and made to fit their body. Commercial patterns, though helpful for general shapes, always need adjusting to get a correct fit. Also, you want to make sure everything looks good before cutting into your beautiful fashion fabric.This is especially important when you are dealing with an extant scaled up pattern. It is the only way to ensure a proper fit and look.

Then, it's all about the finishing touches. Hand stitching the visible seams, or the entire garment, using correct closures and using correct trims. Then, when you finally get to wear your creation, accessorizing it appropriately can make or break the ensemble. Cover any visible tattoos, particularly for the ladies. Nothing can ruin a historical look more than modern tattoos hanging out everywhere. Unless your character lived below deck in a ship and has only black ink period tattoos; in which case your character would have never been allowed into polite society. Take out the facial piercings, lip rings were not worn by ladies in the 18th century or even latter time periods. Modern eye wear is a pet peeve of mine, personally. I prefer period eye wear or no eye wear. After all glasses, though available in the 18th century, were still considered a bit of a fashion faux pas for ladies so many people just went without them. Then there are the hair pieces. If they are synthetic, try to get a synthetic piece that blends with your own hair and does not have that overtly synthetic sheen. If you are styling your own hair, then try to keep it as close to the fashion of the time period you are portraying. Again, research, research, research. 

Finally, the way you act, stand, speak, and carry yourself makes a huge difference in your overall appearance. Digging out your cell phone and talking about work at a historical event puts a damper on the willing suspension of disbelief. However, acting as one would have in the time period you are portraying not only creates a new dimension of realism, it's much more fun. What is the point of reenacting if you bring the modern world along, in my humble opinion.

Now, if all of this seems like too much work and you just want to create costumes then be my guest. But please, let's not categorize them in the Historically Accurate category. Call them what they are, costumes, not historical clothing.  

So, there is my rant for today! I hope you all have a lovely rest of your week. I will be starting on a new jacket for Mrs. Cartwright soon. I promise to document the progress :-)

God Bless!

Love Lauren


18 Witty Sentiments:

The Dreamstress said...

Wow! That is a heck of a rant! What inspired this?

Lauren said...

Hahaha, it is indeed. It's been brewing for a while. Just finally had the guts to post it :P

Hungarican Chick said...

Not that I claim to be the queen of accuracy; and I at least *try* to use natural fabrics and *try* to create a somewhat authentic silhouette (insofar as I can being a largish lady)... but I cannot agree more, because I understand how seriously you take costuming, and how passionate you are about it.

Anyone has to be committed when he/she makes the effort to stitch and line and drape by hand, making mockups and taking the time to create something to be proud of.

Anyone who sews her fingers bare to make sure her friends are outfitted appropriately is serious about what she does. It's admirable, and I'm quite proud of your for your declaration.

I don't expect perfection from everyone, I am happy when people at least try... of course, I will pick on people wearing the butterick pattern in private... but as long as they are moving away from the prom-dress and working towards something more authentic, then I am happy for them.

The people who choose to pursue authenticity have lovely examples to follow.

I think you and Aaron are like the poster-children for where costumes should be, and you both reflect very well on your group. You *should* hold onto your passion... I wouldn't call this a rant at all.



Lauren said...

Heheh, thanks Steph! Hugs!

Suzy said...

I think you are quite right. Things shouldn't be called something they're not. One thing is authentic and another thing is inspired by. Nothing wrong with either! Love your blog!

Beth said...

Out of curiousity, how do you deal with a camera at historical events? I'm not being facetious, I'm wondering how if you've come up with a way of handling it discreetly.

A lot of people think it's not as much fun to follow historical restrictions, but I think it's more fun to be a little limited in a given project (be it budget, period accuracy, etc.) It forces creativity, something you obviously have!

Lauren said...

Hi Beth,

Well, the camera is always a problem, lol. What we did at our Captain's dinner worked quite well. My husband tends to take the bulk of the photos. So, he set up the camera discretely in the corner on a tri pod and carried the small remote in his pocked. If he needed to move it around, he excused himself and adjusted it accordingly. We also asked the guests to leave their cameras at home that day, so our pictures weren't disturbed by numerous flashing cameras. Then we made disks for those that wanted them and loaded the rest online.

For out door events, my husband keeps the camera hidden in his frock coat and since most of our group prefers his pictures anyway, they typically don't bring their cameras along. :D

Historical Ken said...

We have the same problem in Civil War living history as well (i.e. folks chatting about movies, talking on their cell phones, etc.). We have meetings a couple times a year to help overcome this problem. In the units I belong to the meetings (and my rants in our newsletter) seems to be working.
And I also agree: please do not dress in period clothing but act 21st century. You're ruining it for the rest of us who take it seriously.

Sarah Jane said...

Very well said and I could not agree more!

One thing I've had to compromise on when I sew for others is fabric though. What to do? People ask me to make them clothes, and they provide the fabric. Usually it is a "ball gown" and the fabric is either a calico printed cotton or a poly satin. When I try to tell them silk or sheer cottons would work better, they claim they are too expensive. If I tell them I can't make them a gown, they go to another seamstress who will make up a Little Bo Peep ensemble with said fabric, or else buy a sleazy, cheap, horrid-fitting gown from the sutlers.

It's so hard sometimes to know how much I should try to tell/try to help others and when I should just sigh and leave them to their own devices.

I agree with everyone above, you guys do stand as a great example of authentic, dedicated historical costumers. I love so much what you do and am so inspired by you!

MrsC said...

What an interesting topic. I have often thought that ignorance WAS bliss, and the more I learn the harder it is not to wince at really awful costuming choices! I do most of my costuming for stage and the rules have to change - small sprigs, subtle prints and pastel colours often wash out under the lights and over distance and one must make bolder choices. But I learnt many years ago that a hand-sewn finish can be distinguished from a machine one even in a big theatre, so one must remain conscious at all times. Such restrictions only add to the satisfaction of course!
I AGREE so much about underpinnings - they are called foundation garments for a very good reason. The shape of a woman's bustline and waist are SO important for credibility. And cut. In Becoming Jane, Anne Hathoway wears a pale green dress at an evening event that has the worst dress I've ever seen, it was straight out of a Simplicity pattern, it was appalling. Had bell shaped puff sleeves, the bodice fitted like a modern sundress, the neckline was all wrong, *shudder*.
My husband is a lighting technician and he often says that people only notice lighting when it's wrong. I think sometimes really good costumes are like that. The eye takes them in and is pleased, and moves on. With a bad one, the eye comes up short against some ghastly detail, and frets upon it for hours.
Having said all of that, I know I have some kind of not entirely articulated internal rule book about what I can and cannot live with. I think we all do. It does change and evolve also - I have mellowed under the gentle encouragement of The Dreamstress, but also in some areas become better educated and more demanding of myself in the process. I like that. :)

Beth said...

A camera on a remote! I should have known that you would have a good solution. I'm a terrible photographer and more than happy to let someone else have the job and send me pictures later, so I think that having one person designated as photographer is a good idea. ;)

Kleidung um 1800 said...

This is not merely a rant, but the simple truth! Very well said!

Alisa said...

Well said, Lauren!

For me, the main point about the fabric is: If you spend hours and hours of your life sewing a garment, then you should use natural fibres. Otherwise, you might have just machine-sewn it anyway and put in velcro and zippers.
Most costumers end up raising their standards when their knowledge expands. A half-hearted garment will not satisfy you any more after two years, and you will have to make a new one. Which makes money and time spent on the other one a waste. Or the other way round: If you do buy expensive silk, having visible machine stitches defeats the purpose of buying accurate fabric in the first place...

With some things, of course, compromises are necessary: Whalebone, some furs, and laces (no modern replacement truly equals the old laces, and I refuse to use originals that are fragile). In my group, some people even use antique fans because no modern one comes close. That makes me wince. All the folding and unfolding surely damages the leaf.

MrsC's first line sums it up for me: "What an interesting topic. I have often thought that ignorance WAS bliss, and the more I learn the harder it is not to wince at really awful costuming choices!"
That is particularly bad for watching movies! My husband is an arms and armour expert, I love costumes, and watching any period movie is unberable with us.

The acting in person is a tricky subject, though. Technically, we will never reach the quality of dancing, riding, curtseying or speaking French that they had, when they were trained from childhood and we weren't. But at least we can aim for it - enough that we don't kill off the feeling of immersion for the others.

I like the speech standards in my group: We don't try to speak like in a novel or letter from the times - because people never spoke the way they wrote, and it would quickly become an exagerrated parody. (You know, the "Ye olde..." and "Thou hast" ren fair nonsense.) We try to stick to avoiding modern topics, words and phrases and only use the occasional ancient-sounding word, when it fits.For women, the conversation is particularly easy: No need to research period politics, just talk about your family, your children, your needlework projects and shahred friends. I feel sorry for the men on that one.

Lauren said...

Alisa: I couldn't agree more. There is a fine line between being accurate and scaring the living day lights out of new comers :-)

Hana - Marmota said...

It's not a rant, it's a guide! Very helpful, too!

Fichu1800 said...

Hear hear Lauren, your post is what I've been thinking for years and I couldn't agree more. In England you would be amazed by the amount of static created by synthetic fabrics at some of the Balls I've been to.

I think there are two points which annoy me the most. Modern glasses and sunglasses worn at events and people who have been in the hobby for many years and make no attempt to improve.

Thanks Lauren. Really great post!

Sarah said...

i am impressed! i am also embarassed though by using synthetics, and some pretty awful ones in the beginning. that being said, silk is expensive. very expensive. i'm a student and working part time. therefore, if i can find a good synthetic that isn't horridly shiny and has the weight and drape of a period fabric, i don't feel quite as guilty about using it.

that being said, i can't stand it when people think they're being historical when they really have no idea... in williamsburg with the homeschool group, a bunch of the girls thought it'd be fun to dress up. i've never seen so many eras in one place. we had the commercial pattern versions of the tudor, regency, and victorian eras, no period hairstyles, no appropriate support. i understand it was only for a few days, but if you're going to do something, do it right. my biggest complaints with the costume/reproductions i see are lack of research, having a non-period cut and fit, and labelling something as "victorian" or "colonial" just because it has a long skirt and lace.

Anonymous said...

Such valid points. And nothing compared to my rants on the dreadful sight that is American posture and their blatant lack of table manners! :)

Since finding your blog just a couple of days ago, I have omitted doing household chores and spent my days just reading about your fascinating adventures in the world of costuming and living the life of a lady in an era gone by.

(I grew up the granddaughter of a European noble house, and some traditions have never died in those circles, so some manners are simply second nature to me. Hearing anecdotal stories of ancestors and their life in days gone by ignited my passion for anything history).

I am legally blind without my glasses, and have yet to get my hands on an older (or seemingly older) pair of spectacles, but it seems I may end up inheriting my late great great grandmother's old spectacles, and those can likely be fitted with modern lenses for convenience, without damaging the artefact. If that is the case, I will be able to dress up and avoid squinting at the same time.

I loved costume dramas and anything BBC in my childhood and growing up, and thanks to those, my third language, English, is of the "upperclass toff" category, so speech is less difficult to emulate. I just drop off my newer, more American accent, which I lose every time I am upset anyway.

What I find amusing, is how people assume that a 17 inch waist would still be normal. They forget that although people's shapes are generally similar, they have grown a good foot in length since the eras they are trying to emulate. Apart from the young eligible ladies, few were in that waist range. The saying was that a lady's waist should be her age or less in inches. I look all slim in my Victorian era corset with a 26 inch waist when set to "cozy", which is not as tight as it could get. However, at nearly 6 feet tall, that is proportionally slim, and creates the same silhouette as my great great grandmother has in old portraits.

The area I grew up in has a strong history re-enactment and live action roleplaying community, and the RPG conventions can be a treasure trove of natural materials made into historically accurate, not so accurate, and close enough versions of nearly all eras. What an American guest of honour at the last convention I attended commented, was how compared to American historical costume, the materials and craftmanship are on an entirely different level, and the prices are downright cheap compared to the usual polyester nightmares he has seen.

My late grand-aunt, who was a seamstress at an Italian couturier for a large part of her life, taught me that if you have to cut corners or cheat (like machine stitching on historical garments), always do it where no-one else can see it. This is the principle I still follow.

It is hard for me to say what I like less, people who don the horrid polyester contraptions, or those, who have the gall to ask money for them.

Recently, I have been toying with the idea of creating some Steampunk-inspired costumes, so I will get a softer start back into the world of costuming after a long break. :)

- Penny