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!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Regency Women's Dress is available!

Finally, Regency Women's Dress is now actually available! If you preordered it over the last few months, it should be coming to you very soon. I'd love to hear what you think!

Last week, Joy Melcher sold the first copy of the book at the JASNA event in Kentucky ... and then sold out! I'm so excited. And a little worried that everyone's going to hate it. But mostly excited.

And, of course, thinking if the next book. As you may remember, I already wrote a book on the 18th century, but I've found some more collections in the meantime and look forward to adding to the patterns I took for it. Would being published give me enough cachet to be allowed to pattern the bizarre-silk early 18th century mantua at the Met? (Almost definitely not.) But maybe! (No.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Second Look at the Vox Victorians

Surely I've said everything I feel the need to? No, because I've continued conversations on the Historical Sew Monthly Facebook group and on Reddit, and Sarah Chrisman did a follow-up interview with SheKnows and then kindly sent me the full text of her answers, some of which were not used. Basically this is like an exclusive interview, in a way. If you see a quote here that's not on SheKnows, that's where it came from!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Brown (HSM #9)

Edit: I guess this is the last time I try to post on Blogger from a mobile device - this post was finished and up, and then when I came back to work on another one I realized that most of it had been eaten and it was set back to draft. Why? Who knows. Probably user error. Apologies!

This post is later in the month than I've usually been for the HSM. I just didn't know what to go with! But in the end, I've decided in the end is to give you a preview of Regency Women's Dress 1800-1830 (out sometime in October): the corset made out of brown cotton twill and its description.

Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY

Longer corsets of this type were taken up not long after the turn of the century, and were worn for several decades, not falling out of use until the 1850s, when the popularization of the split busk made it even easier for a woman to put on or remove her corset herself. The shape gave a smooth line to the body and bust support, but without the vertical channels for whalebone that had been a necessity in creating the eighteenth century silhouette. Very little seaming was required: as with this example, the entire body of the corset could be cut in one piece, with triangular gussets added at the bust and hips to create the garment's shaping, and straps added at the shoulders – a requirement for this type of corset, as the lack of boning (apart from the wooden busk running down the center front) meant that the bust needed the support of straps, like a modern bra. The gussets are all topstitched over the body of the corset on the outside, while the body is topstitched over the straps; the gussets in the lining are whipped over the body lining, and the straps under.

While earlier stays tended to be made either entirely from or on a foundation of linen canvas, corsets in this style were usually a cotton twill. This corset is made from brown cotton twill, and lined with a plain-woven white cotton.

Most early nineteenth century corsets make significant use of cording and/or quilting. This one is topstitched in white and brown silk thread in the zig-zagged pattern down the busk pocket (the lining is itself quilted with running stitches down the length of the pocket), in the angled lines across the midsection, spaced ¼" apart, and in the curved lines next to the row of eyelets in the back. As time went on and a narrower waist became more desirable, it became common for the corset to be more heavily reinforced with cording across the hips and around the waist.

The upper edge of the corset is turned down and piped, with the back edge of the busk pocket turned in separately to facilitate adding or removing the busk. The lower edges are turned between the layers and whipped together. The curved center back edge is corded in two rows next to the eyelets, all of which are sewn in brown silk thread.

At the Xs are sewn downward-pointing metal eyes. These were likely used to hold a petticoat fitted with matching hooks: the only other way to hold a petticoat up to the high waistline would be to attach straps to it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

P.S.: Happy Birthday to Me!

And what a great birthday it is! For this morning, as I came here to post a link to the Amazon US page for Regency Women's Dress, as it's now pre-orderable ...

... I noticed that I'm listed as the #1 new release in Textile & Costume! Based, I assume, on preorders from my Facebook announcements!

(Amazon UK)
(Amazon France)

What a really fantastic birthday present! I seriously grinned at the screen for a moment.

The sites all say October but I've been assured that the publishing date is September 17 everywhere. Exciting!! Who'd have thought the "grand project" (see post tags) would have really come to this!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

In Defense of Modern Victorian Life

There's a piece on Vox that's been going around Facebook - I Love the Victorian Era, So I Decided to Live in It - by Sarah Chrisman, who's probably familiar to many of you as a blogger and author, even if you haven't read blog or book. Sarah Chrisman is the more public face of a married couple who live in Port Townsend, WA - and as much in the Victorian Era as possible.

They very rarely use electricity. They have an icebox, mechanical clocks, fountain pens, oil lamps, etc. etc. etc. They wear pretty accurate historical clothing, which for Sarah includes a corset. (I don't know her measurements, but it looks like she skirts the edge of the period definition of tightlacing, and if she were wearing modern clothing she'd be classified as a tightlacer.)

The response has been astoundingly negative. (Although some responses have been thought-through and eloquent.)

I'm not totally surprised, because I know that a lot of people see the in-depth study of history as a waste of time, and think that reenacting is a bizarre practice. But it seems like the reaction to the article is more than just "lol this is dumb." So why is this getting such a negative response?

It seems like a lot of people are offended by a perceived tone of superiority in Chrisman's writing. Pretty much everyone who writes a comment or an op-ed piece feels the need to point out that she has a lot of advantages today that she wouldn't have had in the 19th century (modern medicine, education, etc.) and that as a Victorian she would have been better off than many other people - and of course the fact that she runs a blog and has published books means that she sometimes uses a computer, which is a huge source of amusement to the commentariat.

I don't think the superiority is actually in the text, though. It's just what people always seem to read into lifestyle pieces, if the subject/writer enjoys their lifestyle and expresses dissatisfaction with some aspects of mainstream modern life. Obviously, if a woman says, "the greatest gift we give each other is mutual support in moving forward with our dreams," or, "I'd always admired Victorian ideals and aesthetics," what she really means is, "the Victorian Era was the pinnacle of human achievement, and anyone who disagrees is deluded."

Look, I'm not a Mary Sunshine. I think disagreements among people who study history, whether as reenactors or scholars, are a good thing, and the field only suffers when you try to suppress them. But this isn't really an intra-discipline discussion, this is a nasty internet dogpile. It's really depressing to see so many people pile on someone who's only a couple of steps removed from all of us reenactors/living historians/costumers, especially when she's a frequent victim of sexist abuse in public.

What does Chrisman say about wearing Victorian clothes?
Wearing 19th-century clothes on a daily basis gave us insights into intimate life of the past, things so private and yet so commonplace they were never written down. Features of posture, movement, balance; things as subtle as the way my ankle-length skirts started to act like a cat's whiskers when I wore them every single day. I became so accustomed to the presence and movements of my skirts, they started to send me little signals about my proximity to the objects around myself, and about the winds that rustled their fabric — even the faint wind caused by the passage of a person or animal close by. I never had to analyze these signals, and after a while I stopped even thinking about them much; they became a peripheral sense, a natural part of myself.
Wow, that sounds exactly like what a lot of living historians say. Wearing historic clothes teaches us things that studying primary sources can't. We should still study primary sources, but there is something you simply. can't. get. without wearing the clothes or making the food or mock-fighting the battles or hammering the metalwork, or any of the other things we odd people do in our hobby.

What does a Slate writer say about that?
Chrisman may well have a better sense than you or I about how it feels to wear such a skirt. But donning antique clothing doesn’t transport the wearer to times past—it doesn’t even necessarily give you a great sense of what it was like to wear such clothes in the 1880s. Wearing a corset as an adult, out of choice, as Chrisman does, will come with a particular set of physical sensations. Wearing a corset from girlhood on; being told you must wear a corset or you won’t be womanly; or wearing a corset while you have tuberculosis—all of these Victorian relationships to this garment were particular to their time.
Did Chrisman claim that she had a better sense of the Victorian era as a whole than a professional historian just because of her clothes? No, of course she didn't. You can see right up there that she was talking about insights and physicality.

Here's another quote from Chrisman that the same Slate writer has a problem with:
There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game "telephone": One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.
This section really resonated with me, because it's so true. Scholarly works do tend to be fairly objective, but I have seen a misinterpretation of a primary source in one (on the subject of what do you think, corsets) be taken and made bigger by other people. Women's history is especially subject to being made to fit an agenda - and I say that as a committed feminist, but I mean, I wrote four long posts about corset myths - but the general narrative that people hated their lives in the past unless they were very well-off is also an agenda.

From Salon:
This is an unfair characterization of professional historians, who generally acknowledge the impossibility of total objectivity while trying hard to be as clear-minded and fair as possible. It also betrays a hopelessly naive understanding of the historical record, which is, itself, incomplete and “twisted” by the agendas of those who have produced, saved, and recirculated its texts. The primary sources the Chrismans choose to read made it to the present day because they held some kind of value for the intervening generations. The couple finds its period magazines on Google Books, that redoubtable Victorian technology. It seems not to have crossed their minds that a series of human decisions resulted in the digitization of those magazines and not others, and that those decisions are themselves a type of commentary.
For one thing, professional historians themselves rely on primary sources for their areas of specialization rather than secondary or tertiary ones, so it's not unfair to rely on primary sources oneself or to remark that tertiary sources aren't  highly accurate; for another, Chrisman's reference to tertiary sources and magazine articles indicates that she's talking about a much broader swath of people than professional historians. But that's at least excusable as a misunderstanding - I don't see where the idea that Chrisman understands nothing about interpreting sources comes from, except a desire to pander to an audience that's already decided Chrisman (and her husband, who nobody ever references except to make cracks about how Chrisman should be submitting to his authority if she really cares at all about living like a Victorian - gross) is an idiot who should be derided.

Very few of us might want to actually be living historians full-time like Sarah Chrisman, but if you like doing it at all, ever, it's kind of upsetting to realize that nearly everything the Salon writers and Twitter users are saying could be applied to you if you came to their attention.