Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Frances Hodgson Burnett

I love reading, and like many of you my favorite genre is historical fiction. Studying history and historical fashion makes me want to read about people living during these periods, experiencing events we can only read about in hindsight. Unfortunately, I have to admit that a lot of historical fiction simply doesn't work for me - what I'm looking for is an insight into how actual people of the past thought, even or especially when their thought processes and viewpoints differ from ours. I've started a lot of books that I just take back to the library because the heroine seems like she's been transplanted from our era into the past (and usually because of too many accuracy issues re: clothing. It's a gift and a curse).

But the great thing about ereaders is that they facilitate reading classic/historic lit, because so many books have been digitized and are available for free, or for only a couple of dollars. I've downloaded quite a few, and whenever I feel like shopping I end up finding many more to try out. One ebook that I've been very happy with is the collected works of Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Burnett's extremely well known as the author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, two hugely popular pieces of children's literature that have both been adapted for film and stage many times. Some also remember that she wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy, once a smash hit that forced hundreds of little boys into velvet suits with lacy collars. But Burnett was primarily a writer of romantic fiction (in both senses of "romance") for an adult audience, and her bibliography is full of novels about older characters in more mature situations.

(I spoil all the novels reviewed in a sort of general way, but I don't give specifics.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fixing the Form

Dress forms are pretty important for sewing, so I wanted one for a long time. My first was an old, hollow adjustable form, the fabric peeling off, a hair smaller than me (and the pieces cockeyed) when fully extended - at times I thought about covering it with two layers of pantyhose and stuffing it with fabric, but just getting a better form made more sense, since it was all rusty and gross.

The Dritz Double looked like a nice replacement, but I have a big fit issue - I'm short and my waist is extremely high. The petite Dritz form is almost short enough, but far from robust, so I fixed my eyes on the Uniquely You form. Not only would it take on my dimensions and peculiarities, it would be soft enough to be fitted with my corsets and stays!

I was psyched when it finally came last year. Okay, the form to be covered was pretty big and had ludicrous breasts, but it's foam, it would squish down. My mother fitted the cover to me and everything was looking great. I took the cover home and sat down to put it on the form ...

Oh dear. As many of you know, that foam does not like to squish - it took me ages and ages, moving the zipper a centimeter at a time. The bust was very low and had to be forcibly pushed into place with only moderate success, at my waist the fabric was strained and at the form's waist it was loose, and everywhere there were horizontal wrinkles because each seam was under such stress. I don't have a before picture, so - basically imagine an overstuffed sausage with monster shoulders. (Oh, didn't I mention? Nothing I owned could be put over the shoulders because they were so big. The arm stubs shouldn't stand out straight like that.) There was no question of getting a corset on it, because it was already squished beyond what it could take.
Closest thing I have to a before picture. Using the form is why my white ca. 1780 gown has such a low waist!
I put up with it for a long time, barely using it or letting it just stand around. At one point, I thought they might have sent me the wrong size body, since I ordered the medium with the largest medium cover and it should theoretically have fit fairly easily. The company wasn't keen on that idea, wouldn't tell me about what base measurements it ought to have for comparison, and wanted me to pay for return shipping plus a restocking fee to exchange it, which I obviously didn't want to do if I wasn't totally sure that it was the wrong size in the first place.

Recently, I decided that the situation needed to be remedied. Julie fixed hers a little while ago, so I knew from her experience that kitchen knives were not the answer. Following my mother's suggestion, I got a boxcutter at the hardware store - you want the kind with a long, thin blade, 18 mm/7 point size - and pushed the blade all the way out. Carefully, I sawed off a thin flake of foam, then another, then another.

(I can't recommend this method enough. The blade does not get dull - I bought a pack of extras and used none of them. However, when doing broad and flat areas like the back it's difficult to get purchase for the blade because there's no room for your knuckles.)

It does take forever. You've got to keep trying the cover back on to see where there's stress, and you still want it to be kind of tight. I did start taking bigger chunks out when I got to the butt, because I knew it was way too low and too big, because of the shortness issue, and it's resulted in a very knobbly texture. It's worth it, though!


It's not hugely different from the way it was before, but the waist is higher, the bust isn't quite as low, and it doesn't look like it's going to burst out of the cover.

What I really could do is add a little bit of padding through the hips, because the foam body's waist being lower than mine means it's a little thin there ... but I don't tend to make anything ever, really that's fitted in the hips, so I don't know when I'll do it. I don't want to accidentally pad it out too much!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Les Costumes François, Plate 10

THE POOR
OF ONE AND THE OTHER SEX.

We have represented here the Poor with their torn clothing, such as they ordinarily wear in their state of humiliation. The Spaniard in speaking of poverty said that it is not a vice, but something approaching it. A good mind of this century (de Freny), outbidding this thought, claimed that it ruined things, and in effect poverty obscured the most brilliant virtues, extinguished the most beautiful thoughts, rendered the most beautiful soul contemptible, and in some way stunned those who had not enough strength to endure it patiently. The Pauper is always prey to bodily and mental pain. Can one find a situation more deplorable than beggary? However, among Paupers, how many are found who have the honesty to share, while roguery is more often the characteristic of certain rich men; but of all the estates which are exposed to beggary, it is that of the man of letters and even more that of the botanical Doctor: the great Homer was obliged to recite his Verses in the streets to get bread; the celebrated Plautus was forced to turn a Miller's Grindstone to keep his life. Xilander gave his writings for a little soup. The famous Agrippa was forced to finish his career in a hospital. Miguel de Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote, died of hunger in Seville. Aldovrandi was not left at his death enough to pay for his funeral. J. Ray, this so-renowned botanist, only subsisted on penalty fees that a mercenary hand gave him for his Works: is this not shameful, because of refusing to one who sacrificed his days to assert his rights, which were often accorded to people who did not merit his respects in any other fashion? Why is one more likely to help a poor blind-mute or cripple than a poor scholar? The reason is very simple, said an ancient philosopher: each one believes that he might one day become crippled, mute, or blind; but nobody waits and dies wise. For in a word, all those who have sought to enlighten their time with their works and who have wanted to publish works worth immortality for the scope of its content have always had the misfortune to drag a miserable life, and they have only been rendered justice a very long time after their deaths. Such is, among others, the Author of the religious ceremonies we would have never finished if we wanted to pay for all those who have tried a similar thing.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Perfection Salad

Library book sales are wonderful, and the one here in Greenwich is especially well-stocked. I'm always coming across books that I've been wanting to read but forgot to request from the library or seek out specifically. The two I found last month were Perfection Salad (by Laura Shapiro) and Good Wives (by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich).


Perfection Salad examines the rise and fall of the domestic science movement - how it went from the general idea of women's housekeeping and cooking skills being important to family morality and health, to an organized system of schools and degree programs in cooking/chemistry/biology/etc., to the ignominious home ec class you were forced to sit through in eighth grade.

WARNING: This post contains no talk of historical dress of any kind. You may, however, do like me and imagine all of the domestic scientists in the fashionable dress of their era(s).

You can't fit the domestic scientists neatly into or outside of the feminist/"women's movement" of the late Victorian and early Edwardian (as is elegantly pointed out in the introduction, but amply illustrated in the following chapters). The earliest figures Shapiro presents were independent, unmarried women who supported themselves through writing and/or education, yet they promoted the sentimental ideal of selfless motherhood and perfect domesticity. Later women, the actual scientists and reformers, tended to assert that women were absolutely capable of understanding and practicing their principles of nutrition ... once they overcame their natural tendencies towards illogic and so on. Their ranks were increased by women (yes, 19th century women) who'd gotten higher-level degrees in chemistry and other sciences but were overlooked in favor of male applicants to teaching positions; they encouraged women not to rely on servants, but to proactively take their family's care into their own hands. But as much as domestic science provided a professional and public role for women, it was still firmly in the same sphere it had always been, and the word "dainty" was used repeatedly in various food descriptions to emphasize the sweet womanliness of it all. And there was a strong thread of maternalism towards poor/immigrant women who wanted to cook their own culture's foods or just fling some meat in a pan and slap it on the table - they just don't know any better, the poor dears. They want to use garlic.

Because, you see, the food of the domestic science movement was a strange mixture of bland and bizarre. It began in Boston, where plain food was prized and enjoyment of eating was suspect, so much of the fare that the scientists promoted was influenced by that philosophy. It was of primary importance to treat cooking like chemistry, understand how different dishes in a meal interacted on digestion, and balance the eaters' nutritional intake exactly to prevent wastage - not to make things like pies, which seem to have been considered especially unhealthy, and - possibly more importantly - associated with rural women concentrating more on feeding lots of people than on giving farm workers the proper number of calories to work efficiently. But at the same time, many of the strange dishes I think of as quintessentially mid-20th century seem to have come out of this movement. The Perfection Salad of the title, as well as other vegetable and meat salads embedded in gelatin, was heralded as beautiful and delicious, as were things like orange halves scooped out of their peels, turned into jelly, and put back in them. I didn't find it hard to understand why so many women were resistant to these principles.
A 1973 Perfection Salad from McCall's, via Vintage Recipe Cards
However, they were still enormously influential. For one thing, they promoted understanding the places of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in the diet (vitamins were essentially unknown, although they did realize that there was some reason you needed to eat vegetables), and the notion of connecting calories eaten with calories burned by the body. They trained hundreds of women as professional cooks and housekeepers, and hundreds more as women who could efficiently take care of their own homes. Clearly some of their specific recipes lasted into the 1950s and '60s, and their general approach to recipe standardization certainly influenced modern cookbooks.

Perhaps their most lasting effect came from their endorsement of pre-made foods. The domestic scientists and reformers were forced to accept that the ready-made food available at the time was vastly less tasty than home-made, but half the point of the movement was to impart standardization to food. Being able to ensure that every woman had the same loaf of bread in her home, the same piece of beef, the same scalloped potatoes was the perfect end result. Canned fruits and vegetables were untouched by human hands and thus totally clean, potentially even better than fresh. They also took up the new product Crisco because, as a manufactured product, it was always the same and never spoiled (and had no flavor).

As a different kind of femininity rose in prominence after World War I, the movement and its ideals fell off sharply. Instead of dismissing the servant and taking the kitchen in hand, a woman was encouraged to hire a girl to do the cooking and cleaning so she could be a sweet little wife who could concentrate on her husband. Cooking started to involve more frozen, packaged foods, cans of soup, and makeshifts - "recipes" started to involve very few raw ingredients.

The most amazing thing about the book is the mirror it holds up to our present situation - and I mean "mirror" in as close to a literal sense as I can get while still being figurative, because it's entirely backwards. Shapiro recognized this in the mid-1980s, when the book was published, but it's so much more true now. Food reformers/activists today campaign against homogeneous, mechanized food purveyors and in favor of imaginative, non-structured cooking. Cookbooks are intended to help people branch out and try new things, rather than pull people back to the proper path. Locavores' enthusiasm for farmers' markets and personal gardens matches the earlier enthusiasm for purchased canned foods. The only way it's not reversed is that both the domestic scientists and modern food reformers scrutinized the unhealthy additives of unscrupulous manufacturers (and that some of the concern over what other people are eating - especially if they're on SNAP or WIC - still retains a class-bound condescension).

Perfection Salad isn't a fast read, but it's a good one. The domestic science movement is fascinating, and every other page brings something you have to quote to the person next to you. "The assumption that women were averse to meat - or ought to be - was widespread, and gave rise to a virtual epidemic of iron-deficiency anemia among adolescent girls, which lasted until after the turn of the century." "The Woman's Laboratory opened in 1876, ... and they trained dozens of women every year until 1884, when MIT agreed to incorporate women as regular students." It's a vastly different perspective on the era, and even though it has no relevance to fashion history, I loved it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Les Costumes François, Plate 9

THE GARDENER AND THE PEASANT.

Sages pretend that cultivating the ground is never an ordeal for a condemned man at work, but rather the joy and delight of a very happy one, also what there were greater among men had the taste for Agriculture and gardening. Solomon cultivated plants in his gardens, from hyssop, which grew in the walls, to Cedar of Lebanon; the Kings of the Orient found a real pleasure in cultivating their gardens. They used their own tools to move the earth with the same hands in which they held a Scepter. Scipio the African had a little field that he worked himself, and Q. Cincinnatus was holding the Plowshare at the same instant that a letter from the Senate came, which announced to him that he was just elected Dictator in the extreme need of the Republic. Finally, the cultivation of Vegetables is so agreeable that everyone hastens to have gardens; those who cannot have them in the Country try to have them in the City, and when neither one advantage nor the other can be enjoyed, one decorates with plants and flowers one's terraces, one's balconies, one's windows, and even one's rooms. Nothing in life outweighs the pleasure of an Agriculturist and a gardener. Admiring the sunrise every day, enjoying the agreeableness of beautiful days, following the order of Nature and being its cooperator, so to speak, sometimes gathering the most beautiful flowers, which are presented to us, sometimes grains, which nourish us, and exquisite fruits, which adorn our tables; seeing this produce die and seeing them at the same time reborn, as from their own ashes, such is the occupation of a gardener, an Agriculturist, a peasant man, a peasant woman. Their clothes respond to the simplicity of their estate.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Evening Dress, 1911-1913

Evening dress, 1911-1913; CHM 1975.95.28, pattern available at link
For the most part, I stuck to objects of definite provenance while working on the digitization project, but I had to make an exception for this one. The bright fuschia of the silk twill really stands out, and it's in spectacular condition.

As you can see from the pattern, it was made for a very small woman (the 25.5" waist measurement on the object page is actually for the underbust waistline) - but the pieces are so simple that it shouldn't be difficult to size up. With no set-in sleeves, there should also be no sleevil!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Les Costumes François, Plate 8

ARTISANS.
THE MASON AND THE LAUNDRESS.

By Artisans one means a Class of Men who devote their lives to mechanical Arts; one of the most essential to society is the Mason. He builds our homes and works to shelter us from the bad weather of the seasons; those who prepare our Foodstuffs for us are at least as useful, but there are others who only work to content our luxury, and those, whether the richest, are not the most necessary to an estate. The rank of Artisans in the Civil Order is after the Merchant, their dress hardly distinguishes them from the Bourgeois, they nevertheless prefer strong colors for their suits, such as a Chestnut-colored coat and a red vest. We have represented here the Mason in a worker's dress, he is in a cap, vest, and apron, working to stir his mortar.

Among the female Artisans, we have chosen by preference the Laundress. She is represented dressed following the people of her estate, carrying a basket loaded with linens and the beater in her hand. Laundresses are nearly the only ones who have united and formed in Paris a type of community, they celebrate Mi-Carême* among themselves with a party, they elect on this day a Queen and give her an Equerry; the Master of Ceremonies is usually a Water-bearer. The day of the party arrived, the Queen, supported by her Equerry, is taken into the Boat where Minstrels wait for her; there is dancing and it is she who opens the ball. The dance lasts up to 5 o'clock in the evening. The Knights rent a Carriage to come; the Queen gets in it with her Equerry and the whole gay band follows on foot. They go with her to a Tavern to reunite for the whole night.

* one of the celebrations of Carnaval, on the third Thursday of Lent