Saturday, January 28, 2012

An Unseasonable Moment: Disturbing or Welcome?

Our snowdrops

Blooming on the eastward-facing front of our house. Blooming now, when they should wait a few more weeks. No snow this year, either, other than a sugar dusting a few weeks ago, and flurries in December.

What is your weather report?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

1790s Convertible Spencer: More Research on How "Bodies" Were Worn

London and Paris Fashions, May 1799
The sleeveless sort of spencer thingie was known, as mentioned in previous posts, by such names as the "body" and the "corset", and "sleeveless spencer". I start to see it popping up in 1796 and by the end of the decade it's pretty common in fashion plates.

In looking for documentation to go along with the sample Metropolitan spencer, I'd been all over Gallery of Fashion, hoping to find information on what sorts of garments were worn beneath, in words, not just plates. I wanted to make sure that my wearing this sort of thing over a dress was done.

It was discouraging to find that Gallery of Fashion, in 1796 anyhow, the date of my inspiration example, called for these items to be worn with petticoats and "sleeves". So it is for my inspiration garment, anyhow, and for other examples I reviewed.

Was this saying that the sleeves were actually attached to the body, and worn with a petticoat? Usually Gallery of Fashion tells us when a plate depicts a round gown (bodice+skirt together) or a robe+petticoat. Yet was this a new combination of clever little pieces? Or just imprecise wording naming the piece parts of the ensemble without attempting to tell what was attached to what. I do not know.

However, another subscription magazine, The Fashions of London and Paris, of which the Japanese Bunka Gakuen library has a copy, comes to our aid. It tends to tell us when items are dresses and when something else...expect in the cases of Parisian fashion, when often they give plates sans text. Ah well, something is better than nothing.

In May of 1799, in a page describing the latest in Paris headdresses (see illustration above), here is as much of the original description as applies:

Paris dresses.
Fig. 1. [not included here, since it only describes the headdress]
Fig. 2. Velvet toque, (cap) trimmed with lace, worked in gold. -- This is an imitation of the costume of a Venetian actress. Among the elegantes who brought it out, it is always worn with the Swiss, or half corset, of which the most common are white satin, trimmed with deep red velvet.
Fig. 3. [not included here, since it only describes the headdress]
Fig. 4. [not included here, since it only describes the headdress]
General Observations Relative to the Paris Dresses...White is the prevailing color,  the finest Indian muslins plain embroidered obtain the preference with those rich females denominated elegantes over all other manufactures.

The Espindor, which ladies of the above-mentioned class have lately shewn such partiality for, is a kind of spencer; of a deep color, not turned back, and with short sleeves; it is crossed in before, and edged with narrow slips of lace in gold and silver".

Note figures 3 and 4 are wearing little overgarments as well. From this image and description we learn that there were a variety of little garments (no surprise) and that they could have fanciful names (again no surprise). There is no image of the Espindor, but, remember the German crossed front, short-sleeved, pink spencer? Mmmm?

Plate 10.
Luxus und
der Moden.
April 1796.

Below, for August 1799, the description of figure 2, "...jacket and train of white muslin". Under General Observations, "The Jacket described in no. 2, is generally worn..."  No mention of anything under the jacket. I think this one is like the 18th century jacket, worn with a petticoat. I have never been certain what distinguishes a jacket from a spencer in contemporary texts. Danske dragter: moden 1790-1840 by E. Anderson, says that a feature of the spencer was that it was cut straight off at the waist, rather than allowed to have tails like the 18th century jacket. (p. 230.) Merriam-Webster defines the spencer as a "short, waist-length jacket".  However, many museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art included, include tailed specimens under the name "spencer". I wonder if jackets were worn, as they had been in the 18th century, with nothing under them (unless as riding dress), while spencers usually had dresses under them? If anyone is sure, please let me know.

London and Paris Fashions, August 1799.

In December 1799 after describing quite a number of dresses and their accessories in full, they write under General Observations:

Silk pelices are more prevalent than ever. Habits are much worn in the morning. Black velvet spencers or corsets; plain black velvet cloaks, and black velvet handkerchiefs, are general favorites...

Then, in the January number, they illustrate a Paris fashion (dated December 1799 because it could take a bit for the fashions to cross the channel), and they write:

Paris Figure (from the Costume Parisien)
Pointed turban, ornamented with an aigrette, or plume, and a myrtle garland. Spencer without sleeves, of purple satin or velvet, trimmed round with silver, and clasped in front. Scarlet shawl. Silver necklace and earrings.
London and Paris Fashions, December 1799
(but appearing in the January1800 number)
Image Bunka Gakuen Library.

So here we have a variety of interesting evidence, including the sleeveless spencer, so named, over a dress, described in print...we don't know if this is a full dress ensemble although given the fan, and the style of headdress, it's at least afternoon dress.

This small set of examples is a start and probably enough for me, who am not attempting to build a persona per se, but a costume.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

1790s Convertible Spencer: The Actual Project Begins

The shape.
Last fall I decided I needed a new spencer. Do you recall this series of posts? At the end, with your help, I decided on a simple "body" spencer, to which sleeves and different collars might be added or removed at will.

The Look

To the right you see the back of the design, from February 1796, Gallery of Fashion. The original description:

Afternoon dress
...Muslin petticoat, trimmed at the bottom with blue satin in vandyke scallops; short full sleeves of muslin, trimmed with blonde. Body of blue satin, trimmed round the neck with a double plaiting of blonde, and on the back with a chain; epaulettes of the same, looped with a spring chain and tassels of gold.

I will pleat net lace on to the body in lieu of a collar, and make the removeable epauletes to hold up the dress sleeves. However, I will also add a peplum.

I will wear this body in July, to this year's Jane Austen Festival at Locust Grove, as an afternoon ensemble. Hence no sleeves. It can be so hot there at that season! It will go over my existing wrapfront dress. I'd had difficulties with putting something round over something vee-necked, but think it now not an issue, as the spencer is low-necked and I can play with the dress closure.

The Extant Evidence: Inspiration Spencer from the Met

Recall this funny little garment, an apparent loving hands at home renovation of an earlier umlined garment, now at the Met? She's my inspiration garment, sans collar.

Creating the Cutting Diagram

I had already long figured out many of the details of little Met spencer's basic construction, but had not drawn myself a general diagram.

This morning I had two sunny hours, a doctor's appointment over, the boys at school, and after weeks of sickness and duties of all kinds, thought to play a little, and now was the perfect moment to make that diagram. Here they are.

Here is everything but the peplum.

I am not terribly good with a pencil, but perhaps you see how it is going. I used the original garment photos, looking at both the exterior and what I could make out of the interior to come up with the shapes. They are very simple indeed, except for that peplum.

The peplum caused some muddling around, looking in Costume Close Up for earlier jackets and how they patterned peplums, and a look through all the spencers in the Met's online collection. I came up with two scenarios for how the peplum might be constructed, and decided on the second, simpler version, based on the closest examination of that original that I could manage. My peplum is in two pieces, with points front and back, and in back, a small pleat at the side back seam to give it some puff.

The next step? To drape it in Swedish tracing paper, right over my actual dress so that I get the fitting right. Don't hold your breath: I may not get to that for a bit.

The scene of the planning. It was a pleasure.

Today I leave you with yesterday's news: the boys and I had an alphabet treasure hunt on a walk up the street. Every time we spotted something or some concept that agreed with the letter we were on, either boy or I photographed it. Here we are on "L": they are standing at the edge of a "lake" and floating a leaf boat in it. Two "L"s in one!

Very best to you all!

Friday, January 20, 2012

If I Were To Make This Titanic Tea Dress, Here's How I'd Do It

If I were to make a Titanic tea dress, this might be it. This is a House of Drécoll dress, circa 1912, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession no. 1998.253.3). Here is the high-waisted Empire look so very popular at this date, but rife with lots of other historic references.
Here are the references I see:
  • 1770s: the open robe, polonaised, and the tucks in the front of the petticoat. The full sleeve ruffles. the box-pleated ruching.
  • 1790s: the trained open robe, pulled back to the sides. The fluffy wrapfront dress underneath the robe. So is the wide lace trim edging the robe. The sash effect.
  • Late 1860s: the sash tied in a low bow at the back with the robe boufed up inside the bow. In 1868, for example, the Harper's Bazar Baschlik Mantilla wrap ties up the skirt in back in a very similar way. See Cornell's HEARTH site, Sept 5, 1868.

What historic references or ideas do you see?

Wouldn't it be a treat to wear?

How I Would Construct This Dress

Like many ornate Edwardian gowns of this date, the dress construction is layered and rather devilish. On this dress, it's not that the basic pieces are that oddly shaped, it's that there is just so much to think through and so much to sew and connect.

-----A Short Interjection To Rant-----

This era mastered draping and fit, but at the cost of flexibility. Here is a dress with clear references to earlier eras, but as with most backwards-looking designs, only superficial ones. Its construction is clearly of its time. Looking at it, I can nod in pleasure with the ingenious way it's made, but another part of me sighs that so much of the work is plain unncessary and that if the wearer were to grow or shrink, if something needed remodeling, or if the wearer loved part of the dress but hated the rest, she was pretty much stuck with the designer's entire ensemble or an expensive and potentially unsuccessful redo.

Step back a century or more and the landscape is very different. Not only do the customers rule (for the most part) on design, but the actual garments are cut and closed with methods that allow for changes in weight and even wearer, while the essential fit remains good, and the garments are made to layer and often can function as separates to be mixed and matched in fashionably appropriate ways.


-----End Rant-----

Here is how I might construct the dress. I am not saying that this is how the designer did it, but it's how I would use typical Edwardian shapes and methods to do it.

Let's start from the inside out. Refer to additional pictures at the bottom of the post for visual information.

A bodice ("waist") lining;
The Dressmaker, p. 90
This dress may look unfitted, but given how smoothly the lace wrap-front portion of the bodice lies, the layers you see likely are mounted onto a tightly fitted lining. That lining helps to ensure that the dress retains the draping wanted, and doesn't just hang heavily from the shoulders, even with an interior belt to help hold the ensemble up.
  • Using one of the resource books from the last post, especially Butterick's The Dressmaker (Chapter XVI, Lined Waists), I'd find a fitted front-closing low bodice lining pattern and draft and cut a toile from strong cotton. Given that I do not have a corset for this period, and not everyone wore them at this date anyhow, I'd tack multiple bones to it at front, sides, and back to create the shape. Then I'd adjust the seams and once it fit tightly, I'd stitch in the bones for real and attach hooks and eyes to the front center. If I had a proper corset, I might forgo all but a back bone or two, and depend on the interior belt (see below)to create the shape.
  • Next I'd create an interior petersham belt, 2.5" wide preferably, to which both bodice and skirts are stitched to. I'd close it at front side with large, heavy hooks and eyes. The belt was a super common construction aid. It helped high-waisted skirts have no visible waistband, allowed connection of bodice and skirt to a firm foundation, especially helpful with soft, tearable fabrics like net or heavy passementerie and beading. Follow the directions in the Butterick The Dressmaker book (see last post), and if it's unclear, you can refer to analagous directions in the other manuals. Make sure to set the belt above the natural waistline, perhaps two inches. It's really hard to find modern petersham in this width. You can butt narrower widths together and whip stitch them to approximate the width needed.
  • I'd stitch the tight lining to the belt.
An example of an interior belt on a dress in my collection.

  • I'd find a wrap-front kimono bodice pattern from the same list of books for the lace portion of the bodice. The kimono design was hotter than Louisville in July and featured no shoulder seam, and sleeves in one with the bodice. The lace portion of the bodice does not need sleeves, so those do not need to be included from the pattern.
  • To get the gentle wrapping motion of the lace on the front of the bodice, I'd toile it in lightweight, drapey cotton, then cut the lace for real. Make sure the waist short, for this dress is high-waisted. Give the back a gentle neckline point, pretty deep, to match the original.
  • Once the toile fit, I'd cut the real lace, preferably a net with a loose needlelace pattern on it, seam it with very narrow French seams, hem the armscyes, and gently mount it to the underbodice and to the belt. Closure? Multiple hooks and eyes at both sides, eyes attached to the lining. The Butterick book The Dressmaker details how to drape a bodice atop a fitted lining. This layer is tacked to the belt, too.
  • Then I would use the same kimono bodice pattern and toile the open robe bodice, this time in a crisp or starched cotton imitating the crisp silk taffeta. The sleeves are included this time. You will notice that when the sleeves are cut, the stripe will automatically run horizontally when worn! Make sure to allow for the deep cuff on the sleeve.
  • The front of the open robe has a dart, perhaps a two-ended dart, to the right and under the bust. This helps to pull the robe back in a curve from the bust. Make sure the back neckline curve is very deep to match the original, and that it has a few scant gathers.
  • Then I'd cut the silk, seam it with French seams or open seams finished with binding.
  • Cut the blue ribbon trim, mount to the underbodice up just near the bust, as in the original.
  • Mount the robe bodice to the underbodice, and right over those ribbons.
Section of The Dressmaker about draping the
outside bodice fabric to the lining. p. 93

  • Attach robe bodice to the belt, too. Again, refer to those manuals. They illustrate this, as do some originals. Sometimes the tacking is plain messy and can even be seen on the exterior of the dress! It was covered with a sash, hence the slapdash work.
  • Cut and tack the sleeve flounces. I'd want to toile the shapes.
  • Then I'd pattern the underskirt in interfacing. It's hard to tell on the original, but this looks like a one-piece skirt, so called. There are plenty of patterns for them in the books I have referenced in the previous post. If I could get net with an integral loose pattern, that would be great, as the pattern at the bottom was not only almost standard on nice dresses at this time, but is a reference to the 18th century habit of embroidering petticoat hems with deep bands of embroidery. Otherwise, plain Jane. Sigh.
  • I'd add the tucks.
  • Next, the skirt would be cut and sewn with narrow French seams, and tacked to the interior belt. Handy thing, that interior belt.
  • Now for the open robe skirt. This I would drape right on the dressform, from a single piece of fabric, gathering some at the sides and heavily in the back. I'd hem it and, yes, tack it to the belt!
  • Next, cut, scantly gather, and tack the lace flounce to the edges of the open robe.
  • Make box pleat trim and tack onto the open robe.
  • Now it's time to connect the underskirt to the robe. I'd use doubled thread and connect the two layers with long tacks that leave an inch or so loose inside, so that the robe can move. I'd tie the ribbon bow at this point to, and tack where necessary. This is a matter of playing. The complex Edwardian garments I own use a lot of these sorts of connections to preserve draping just so, even when the wearer was in motion. These are works of sculpture as much as they are dresses and even their overall movement is controlled.
  • Next, the sash. A single layer of the silk, pinked with a tiny pinker, and backed with cotton to help it cling to the silk. Hooks and eyes to attach it at the front.
  • Next, fun with high-quality vintage paper and silk flowers. The posy can be tacked to the front of the belt.

Whoo. That was a process, wasn't it?

What do you think? Is this something that you'd try?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Titanic Fever: 1912 Garment Construction Resources

From my collection: a damaged teens-era
lingerie dress with bretelles and interior
If you've been living under a rock, you may not be aware that a goodly proportion of the costuming world is bewitched, befevered and bebothered about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. There are so many circa 1912 ball, tea, and travel ensembles underway that I am sure the fabric stores have noticed an uptick in sales of chiffon, satin, handkerchief linen and seed beads.

I have not caught the disease and do not plan to; time's too precious this year. However, having spent a number of years in the Edwardian costume era, I've accumulated some construction resources that ought to help you when you start your designing and draping.

First, an extant garment, analyzed. I have an early teens era lingerie dress, in terrible condition, that I analyzed some years ago, specifically for the interior waist belt or waist band that is the linchpin of its construction, as are so many garments from this era. My post, Edwardian "Lingerie" Dress Diary, Part 6, contains an analysis, full of photos. It even shows how the bodice draping was attached to that waist belt!

Cutting Guides

Thornton's International System of Ladies' Garment Cutting. 1912. Here you go! A go-to place for the pattern basics for 1912. Excellent for suits. I've drafted from here and the drafts work fine. Thank you, Costumer's Manifesto, for making this treasure available.

The American garment cutter for women's garments. Gustav Engelmann. 1913. Pattern basics for 1913, but with some nice extras in the way of kimono cuts. From

The elements of dress pattern-making: Magyar dress-cutting for technical classes, home workers & professionals. Reeve, Amy J. 1912.  A rather different way to approach cutting. From Cornell's HEARTH site.

The Ladies Tailor, Vol. XXVII. No. 3. March 1911, London . Titanic-era suits! From the Costumer's Manifesto.

Sashes, from the American System of Dressmaking, 1912
Dressmaking Manuals

This was the heyday of Home Economics, and there was a massive proliferation of dressmaking manuals, especially for schools. Some of them are very well written and include the minutest of details on draping and seams and dealing with the all-important waist belt. You will notice that school manuals did not keep up with high fashion; it would not make sense. Therefore, the dates of some of those I include are later than the Titanic, but their advice will still be useful.

The American System of Dressmaking. Merwin, Pearl. 1912. If you read nothing else, read some of these 1000+ pages. This correspondence course includes draped bodices over fitted linings, kimono sleeve cuts, sashes, many of the details that you need. Lots of photographs and illustrations. The course was published in multiple editions, and some content dates to 1906 or so, but there is much that applies to 1912. From

Dressmaking in the school. Cooke, J. C., Kidd, H. M. 1913. Great for details on fitting and on applying trims.

What a newspaper can show you. Evening Standard, Ogden, Utah, 04/20/1912
The dressmaker: a complete book on all matters connected with sewing and dressmaking from the simplest stitches to the cutting, making altering, mending and caring for the clothes. Butterick. 1916. The classic kept being updated, year after year. There are still some early Edwardian images left in this 1916 edition, but it includes information on belting and hanging skirts, including circular skirts, that apply to the teens era.


The Sun. April 14, 1912. If you read
the article very carefully, there is construction
information included.
News reporting during the late Edwardian and teens era frequently included heavily illustrated, photo-rich "women's pages" with lengthy articles on fashions, millinery, hair dressing, ettiquette, and sometimes even tutorials. Chronicling America, from the Library of Congress, is STUFFED with such articles. I can't stress enough just how good a resource this is. You'd be nuts to miss it.

Take for example the article from the New York Sun, April 14, 1912, titled "Tucked Up Drapery Marks New Gowns". If you read it carefully, look at extant garments for comparison, and then use the pattern drafts for the basic dress or waist and skirt underneath the drapery, you can work out the fabrics, cuts, and additional drapings and trims on top.

Use the keywords "fashion", "drapery", or other specific words to find appropriate articles.


Dressmaker's Dictionary. Curtis, Homer S. 1916. Fabric names, explained :} From

Edwardian-era content on my blog. Hairstyle information and more, almost always including the research sources I included.

I wish you all the luck in the world!

The Epiphany Pageant

In the Episcopalian world, the Christmas season lasts 12 days and ends with Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus. Each year our church holds a pageant, in which the story is played out by the children. This year the boys took part for the first time. They took their roles as an angel and a shepherd very seriously, so much so that any smiles at all were only in evidence when they processed up the aisle to the "shed" of made of wood and magnolia branches, a moment when cameras are not appropriate, or this fond parent would have taken some!

A note on their costumes, constructed from stash materials. I used the age-old "pattern" for a T-garment for both the angel robe and the shepherd's robe. All that meant was folding the fabric longways, laying the boy down on it with his arms held out, and measuring for his height and arm length. Then I folded twice the needed length in half crossways so I had four layers, cut a hole for the head, and in Christopher's case, cut open the front. I used selvages where possible and hemmed the rest. I made 6-inch hems so that the boys can wear their robes for a few more years. Some belts, two ties to close Christopher's robe and a headdress for him and we were done...Noah's wings and halo were courtesy the church.

Noah tests his halo.

All shepherds, and one little angel who wants to be
next to his brother, line up for the