Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Progress on the Sleeveless Spencer / Bodice

For goodness' sake: we have some progress on the sleeveless spencer -- or bodice, as we learn it was often labeled in the day. Hooraybob. This project wants to be done in time for springtime. Although "springtime" is a dubious concept right now: it was snowing five minutes ago, as it has been for days, and the daffodils are despondent.

Sleeveless spencer or bodice, front.
Above you can see that I've about finished attaching the lining to the embroidered silk. You may remember that last spring -- golly, has it been a year already? -- I started the project by trying out silk filament embroidery, embellished with gold spangles, using an existing bodice at the Met as a model.

In my version, the seams and hems are topstitched with Au Ver a Soie (spun silk thread) in golden yellow for a little hint of extra color. All that's left as of today is the back neckline, the front closure, and the straps.
Here below is a detail of the top stitching. On the seams I used a combination stitch (several running stitches followed by a backstitch). On all hems it's actually made using the point a rabattre sous la main stitch, which is a sort of hem stich.

Sleeveless spencer, topstitching detail.
The inside. All seams are lapped, in the order they would have been in the 1790s. Three layers are stitched together, and then hem of the lining on the innermost layer is turned under and hemmed down.

Interior of the spencer body.

A detail. You can clearly see the back of the point a rabattre sous la main stitching at the armscye hem. On top, the stitch looks like a running stitch, but underneath it looks like a hemming stitch. You can see the hemming stitch, in linen thread, on the vertical seam.

What about the straps? Well, they make me laugh. I had recut them last spring such that they incorporated a hollow curve at the neckline. Well, in an effort to make sure I had enough fabric to work with, I made the cut pieces really wide, so that when the straps were fit to the body, they were too wide. No problem, just fold in a wider hem allowance, and trim off the excess. Silly error, but who's worrying, since this is a first go and it harms nothing?

They're just roughly fit for now. I will put on stays and dress to do the final fitting, baste the lining in place, cover it with the fashion fabric, and seam and hem them.

After that it's time to add a wee bit of boning at center front, two bones on each side of the closure, and then do up the eyelets. I have some Edwardian-era boning that I might use for this: it's very narrow, very thin steel, in short lengths. Add self box pleated trim around the neckline and at last, we're done.

The below picture is just for atmosphere. Our calamondin orange is blossoming and fruiting at once, and the orange of the fruits looked so pretty next to the lilac of the spencer that I had to take a picture.

Still life: work with oranges*.
 * "Work" used in the old sense of a sewing project in progress: a woman would take her work to the good light near a window and sew away.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Morning at Curtis A. Grace's Antique/Vintage Clothing and Flower Shop

Trying on a New Look black straw hat at Curtis' Grace's shop.
Where do I start? Curtis Grace is friend of mine who has a shop (Curtis A. Grace Design) which those of us who love fashion -- or gardening - or antiques - or vintage toys - find like visiting Ali Baba's cave, only far prettier. Where jewels of great price, like Schaparelli hats or Edwardian shirtwaists, or celluloid-handled butter knives, or antique ribbons, or vintage garden books, or 1940s paper dolls and their wardrobes, wait for intaken breaths, and in my case, anyhow, unquenchable squeals of excitement.

Curtis models a furry (!) pancake hat.
Where, whenever I enter, the air smells like fresh flowers and moss, because Curtis is a flower and party designer, along with running his shop, and I might find him conferring with a client about a Mad Hatter afternoon tea, or a knock-out, all-stops-pulled graduation party, with 5-foot high floral arrangements hung with lighted candles. Has he done parties? Oh my. Those of you who know how the Bluegrass loves a party, and Dressing Up -- think Kentucky Derby, and take it private and luxe -- will have some sense of just what he can do and has done.

So, two Mondays ago, longing to be Out, after months stuck inside, my feet found their way to his shop for a morning's browse and chat. I had a sudden thought to share the morning with you. So I asked him if he'd mind, and he said, please, go ahead! So out came the camera. Come along with me now, and have a look at what we found!

Here's a dream dress. It's from the 1930s, of very light and papery sea-green silk. A dinner gown, I would suppose. The design is exquisite, and clever. The front has vertical ruching; between them the front panel is tucked a bit allowing fabric to hang in a slight puff, at tummy height. Ick, you say, until you realize that this means your tummy is not outlined, skin tight, but just suggested. Ah, what smarts. The decolletage is not that low, but plunges in the back, and then there's that bow. That wonderful bow, both sculpurally sturdy and drooping. The dress is not lined, so one would wear a silk slip beneath. It's one of my recent favorites and were I small, it might have come home with me.

Do you see how the pink part of the bow is the only contrasting color in the dress. I think that's brilliant.

The skirt is somewhat full, but since it's cut on the bias, it clings, though not tightly, since the fabric is papery, not a crepe de chine. Another way that the dress helps the wearer avoid showing just a bit too much for comfort. Twenty-first century designers, the most of you could take some lessons from the construction of these older fashions. They're brilliant.

Hmm. What next. Oh, a giant Edwardian straw hat. Curtis, this picture is funny: you seem to be thinking your hat might take off any minute.

See how the rough, decorative weave of the strawe contrasts with the softness of the feathers. Then look closely at the feathers themselves. They're not fancy feathers, are they? They're just plain ones, but layered, they float and puff.

The inside of the hat is wired to strengthen it, but also to hold on the lining, which would protect the hair from catching on the straw. Perhaps the color, originally white, would keep the yellow color off the face as well.

The feathers, close up.

Curtis often has Victorian-era clothes in his collection, which isn't too common in shops. He sometimes finds them locally, so sometimes you can get things with provenance. How nifty is that?  Remember the early 1870s brown silk I have? He found it locally.

Here is a piece he's put in his shop that he's had almost since he started collecting as a teenager. Guess what, it's an 1870s polonaise morning ensemble. Yes, that's right...both polonaise bodice and the skirt. Eeeeeeeee!

Front of the polonaise ensemble: the skirt is mounted underneath. The front has
no buttons, and never did. It was meant to be this way, and the wearer would have a morning
blouse on underneath. Such an esnsemble would be worn at home only, never
appearing on the street.

When I came in he had a big smile and said I just had to see it, so we took it to the front of the shop, and took tons of photographs, and guess what, I am measuring it! Am only partway done, because there is lots of measure, but it's fascinating how it's put together. Yes, I promise, in another post I'll put both measurements and pictures. It's rare to come across something like this.

Back of the polonaise, with the skirt underneath. The polonaise is trimmed with scallops
at the bottom! The waistline has lost its symmetry: the bodice was taken in at one
point, and none too neatly.

Sleeve detailing. The strange green detailing as sleeve top was added when the piece
was used for fancy dress or the theater.

See how full the polonaise is!

The skirt: it's very full too, and was also taken in.

Somebody appears to have used it for the theater or a party costume, the bum: they roughly took in the skirt and the bodice, both, so the symmetry is messed up, but it's still lovely.

What's so cool is how economically it was made. The fabric is just a printed cotton. It would be a quilters cotton today. It's very tightly woven. The green trims, including the bias folds, match perfectly. It was pretty common for manufacturers to make coordinating fabrics available, then as now. Quilting fabrics by Moda, for instance, still do. We examined the insides carefully, looking for the evidence of thread and machine to understand its construction. Curtis went to Parsons in New York, so a good part of the time when I visit I am madly learning, taking in what we talk about. It's so good to have a friend who likes to talk shop and to share ideas.

Curtis had to show me a coat, a really special coat. This is one of those 1920s cocoon coats, and it's basically mint condition.

There is no other word for this garment than luscious. It was such an experience to put on. You'd think a cocoon would be, well, fattening. Oh no, not at all. It's very, very flattering.

Look at the interior, the extraordinary fabric, the fine finishing. This one was really special. Yes, past tense. A few days later, someone bought it...

At one point I made a beeline for the gloves, because he has a whole drawerful. A year or so ago I bought a pair of opera-length, tan kidskin gloves, that fit. You'll see them this year at the Jane Austen Festival. in the 1790s, tan-colored kidskin was all the rage...

Oh, and underneath the gloves, drawers and drawers of millinery trims and lace, even black beaded glass fringe (yards and yards). Oh, and in a baby carriage, and stacked in a trunk... Antique, vintage, all kinds. Lengths of insertion, flouncing, some of them yards long, some on the original rolls, and collars, and dress appliques, and horsehair, and feathers -- some single, some made up already into completed trims. Some could be used, I suppose, especially the lace, but most of them I prefer for study: they tend to be fragile, especially the feathers and ribbons. They are fascinating. I went through it all, as always, very methodically, so methodically that I forgot about the camera on that part. Oops.

Well, at least we have this: here is the wing from a hat -- this has got to be Edwardian or 19th century.

Notice how the back of the wing is padded to help it hold its shape.

Behind my hand is a whole slew of hat veiling, and a hat with decadent satin trim, stuck with a mean hatpin. Sometimes he has great long pieces of veiling, and always the short, already finished veilings used in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

We spent a lot of time with the hats. This one's a Schiaparelli; Curtis gets really good ones pretty frequently, and they usually don't stick around long, because he prices them reasonably. Okay, the fagotting on this one reminds him of a brain pan, and he has a point (thanks, dude, now I cannot get the idea out of my head), but it's a neat hat nonetheless.

The back.

Yes, it's a Schiaparelli. Beautiful construction.

I fell for this purple teens hat. It's a shame it doesn't look right on me, because it's a hummer. The velvet -- or is it velveteen -- has worn off in places, leaving the darker base, an effect I find neat.

Hot pink silk interior. Whoa. Normally I don't go for purple+hot pink. Too '80s. But here? It's wow! Note...no sweat bands on these earlier hats.

Then there's my favorite, a B. Altman fabric hat. It feels like it's lined with paper, but really it's probably a stiffish buckram. The fabric is prettily, modishly embroidered in trapunto, and the whole ornamented with an elegant self bow.

We played with tons more hats, and when my friend Polly and I returned this past weekend, she bought the cream straw trimmed with red. It's in mint condition and is fantastic on her.

"Paging" through the racks, Curtis picked out another unusual dress to show me. This '20s dress wraps, but we can't seem to find any front closure anywhere. It's in organdy, I think, still with a bit of stiffness, and all the seams are French.

That's not piping at the waist, it's bias tape. Odd, but it works.

Probably a home job: look at the rough gathering on the interior, and that bias tape. Yet once again, it works.

An example of the French seams, and the dress' hem.

As always, I checked the Edwardian whites rack. This shirtwaist caught me and so I walked it to the windows at the front of the shop, because it has the starch that it was last pressed with. Curtis didn't press it and I don't think the previous owner did, so, that's old starch?

Lastly, I sorted through, for a few minutes, the paper dolls. There are old ones, from the teens, for example, but many more are of the eras you see below...the 30s-50s. The models are so neat to look at, sweet, while at the same time, we might find their underthings a wee racy for little ones? And their clothes. Just neat.

Nuts, you didn't see the '50s shirtwaists or '60s wool skirts, or the mint-condition red "That Girl" hat that actually suited me (a rarity with hats), the butter knives, or the bone china tea cups, or the 1920s fine chia set, or the old advertising signs, or the photos, or books, or mens' things... It would've been too long a post anyway, I comfort myself.

So that was my morning. What fun, to chat, to peek, to sort, to try on, to ooh and ah, and to find a little something to bring home. Antique ribbons....I totally fall for those.

One last picture: here's his shop: don't you love the front? Chic, not overdone.

He's here in Lexington, KY. If you're in town, do visit if you get a chance. He's on Etsy, too, under curtisalad, but doesn't have anything listed right now. Curtis, please list!!


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Queen Charlotte's Hairstyling: Curling and Powdering

Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay. London: Henry Colburn, 1854.
Volume III is opened to the frontispiece, showing Queen Charlotte,
circa, from her dress, the 1770s.
The quality of paper these volumes is a joy to handle: no flimsy, yellowing
ground-wood paper here!
For Christmas my husband presented me with the 7 volumes of Fanny Burney's (Madame d'Arblay) letters and journals. Besides being fantastic reading -- what a master she is at painting character and motive through conversation! -- there are, here and there, hints about her daily life. Never a gourmand or modish, she rarely describes either food or dress in much detail, but when either are mentioned, we have insights worth remembering.

At one period of her long life, she reluctantly became Second Keeper of the Wardrobe to Queen Charlotte, a position of very little rest and almost no freedom that entered her into the most intimate details of royal living.

Since we've been talking about hair, here is some of what she has to say about the process: when it occurred and what it included, depending on the day.

On one of her first mornings of attendence on the queen at Windsor Castle, noon approached. She writes:

A malencholy portrait of Queen Charlotte, circa 1789-1790,
by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Painted not long after her husband, King George III,
began to suffer from what people think may have been a neurological
disease, that caused symptoms of mental illness.
Wikimedia Commons.
The Queen's hair is craped and curled and frizzed in the fashion
of the 1780s, but her dress otherwise harks back to the previous
decades: her open robe has a stomacher, for example.
See another portrait, in which the Queen wears long locks, by Benjamin
West, 1789, at the Royal Collection.
I called also at Madame La Fite's; but she was so urgent with me to prolong my stay, that I returned too late to dress for my noon attendance; and just as I was in the midst of my hair dishevelling, I was summoned.

I was obliged to slip on my morning gown, and a large morning cap, and run away as fast as possible. The Queen, who was only preparing for her own hair-dresser, was already en peignoir: she sat down, the man was called in, and then, looking at me with a smile, she said "Now, Miss Burney, you may go and finish your dress."

Away I galloped as fast as possible, to be ready against her hair-dresser departed: but when I came pretty near my own apartment, I was stopped in the gallery by a lady, who coming up to me, said "Miss Burney?"...

Fanny was stopped in her gallop to her own apartment in the Castle no less than three times, all, it turns out, by the members of a family eager to make her acquaintance.]

"...I was forced to let her go and run into my own room, and fly---to my toilette!---Not quite the sort of flight I have been used to making. However, it is all so new here that it makes but a part in the general change of system."

We learn here that towards noon people of quality (how that term bothers me, but it shows just how class-bound that society was) took off their morning dress -- always including a cap, or also a hat if one went outdoors, we learn -- and put on clothes, such as a little jacket and petticoat, that would withstand hairs, pomades, cosmetics, and hair powder. Then they would dress "for the day" -- the day, they called it, although it was just for the afternoon.

Poor Fanny was to have quite a time learning the minutae of Court ettiquette and procedure, and training herself to bells, clocks, and people forever tapping her on her door. (Vol. III, pp. 16-17.)

A last note: Madame la Fite was a friend who also lived at the palace.

The Three Eldest Princesses: Charlotte, Princess Royal, Augusta and Elizabeth.
Thomas Gainsborough, 1784. This is just two years before Fanny
Burney arrived at Court. Hair styles didn't change much in the interim.
Curling Time!

"The hour advanced on the Wednesdays and Saturdays is for curling and craping the hair, which it now requires twice a week."

A quarter before one is the usual time for the queen to begin dressing for the day [except on the curling days.] Mrs. Schwellenberg [First Keeper of the Robes]  then constantly attends; so do I; Mrs. Thielky [the wardrobe woman -- note, she is not called a lady], of course, at all times. We help her off with her gown, and on with her powdering things, and then the hair-dresser is admitted. She generally reads the newspaper during that operation.

When she observes that I have run to her but half dressed, she constantly gives me leave to return and finish as soon as she is seated. If she is grave, and reads steadily on, she dismisses me, whether I am dressed or not; but at all times she never forgets to send me away while she is powdering, with a consideration not to spoil my clothes, that one would not expect belonged to her high station.

When I return [to her own room], I finish, if anything is undone, my dress, and then take Baretti's Dialogues, my dearest Fredy's [her friend Mrs. Locke] Tablet of Memory, or some such disjointed matter, for the few minutes that elapse ere I am again summoned.

I find her then always removed to her state dressing-room, if any room in this private mansion can have the epithet of state. There, in a very short time, her dress is finished." (Vol 3, pp. 21-22).

Ordinarily Fanny had some morning time to herself: usually until a quarter til noon, but on Tuesdays and Saturdays, just until a quarter til eleven.

It's pretty clear then, that it took serious time for the hair-dresser to curl and crape the queen's hair.

During that time, by the way, Fanny merely stood by, never to speak unless addressed by the queen, and always standing, for no one, except the King, ever sat down in her presence, unless the Queen specifically requested it. Can you imagine how tired Fanny's back and legs could become, with so much standing? It's good she had her stays to at least give her some back support.

Court-Day Dress

The Queen wears full dress: hoops, triple sleeve ruffles, an abundance of bows, jewelry, and high-dressed hair. Again, this is the frontispiece to my Volume III of the Diary and Letter of Madame d'Arblay. The plate is after Gainsborough
This being a court-day, we went to town. The Queen dresses her head at Kew, and puts on her drawing-room apparel at St. James's. Her new attendant dresses all at Kew, except tippet and long ruffles, which she carries in paper, to save from the dusty roads. I forgot to tell you, I believe, that at St. James's I can never appear, even though I have nothing to do with the drawing-room, except in a sacque; 'tis the ettiquette of the place. [Vol. 3, p. 26].

Some explanation may be helpful here. Ever few weeks the King and Queen received visitors for an afternoon -- and sometimes into the evening -- in a drawing room at St. James's Palace in London. Only those who had previously been presented could attend. It appears to have been an occasion to see, be seen, and be perhaps taken notice of by a member of the royal family. It was very dressy. On the occasion her described, the family had been at their rural, informal Kew retreat.

I think that the tippet to which Fanny refers is a length of embroidered fabric or lace that goes round her neck and tucks into the center of her bodice, but I am just guessing. The long ruffles are the pretty embroidered or lace sleeve ruffles tacked or pinned to the edge of the bodice sleeves. Since she puts them on in London, I almost imagine that pinning would have been the more sensible option.

Oh, by the way, we learn a page later that the Queen's necklace is tied on. Ribbons still, folks!

Visitors During Hair-Dressing

"At her toilette, before dinner, Lady Effingham was admitted. The Queen had her newspapers as usual, and she read aloud, while her hair was dressing, several interesting articles concerning the attack..." (Vol. 3, p. 43)

It appears that the Queen, who really was a rather private person, didn't often have too many people in her room: it wasn't the social levée that we see sometimes in paintings, especially French ones, where men and women come in to the dressing room for a chat and a flirt.

The attack? Not long before, a mad-woman had attempted to stab the King in the street. She did not harm him.

Other Images of the Queen, and Her Hair

The Royal Collection Trust, of Great Britain, maintains an online database with lots of pictures of Queen Charlotte. They are fascinating. The images may not be copied, so I cannot show you any here.

Reading about her, I've begun to like and pity her; she had a rough road to travel, even with all of the advantages she enjoyed.

In Other News

I have new glasses and can see the eye of a needle at last. Little lilac spencer, you'll be finished yet.