Review of the Historical Fashion Flip-Up Book “Fashion Through the Ages: From Overcoats to Petticoats”

Subuculas, Stays, and Slips!

I like going to Half-Price Books. They have all sorts of out of print and hard to find books, plus a great antique/collectible section! Their Fashion selection, however, is sometimes seriously lacking. I spent one day frantically trying to find the Fashion section after they apparently moved it. I was looking for a copy of The Tudor Tailor, so I asked the front desk after searching through the Art section, the Craft section, the History section, and even the Collectibles section (where books like Fashion in Detail had appeared before) to no avail. Turns out they had no clue where to put fashion books, historical or otherwise, so they stuck them in the “Salf-Help” category! They had very few historical fashion books of any type, but just before I gave up hope, I found this book:

IMG_0457

“Fashion Through the Ages: From Overcoats to Petticoats”
by Margaret Knight with awesome illustrations by Kim Dalziel

Inside, there were stylish illustrations of historical fashions from ancient Rome to the 1960s, all with nifty flip-up clothing layers! At $5, I had to have it!

Inside, there are there are 28 thick cardstock pages that detail fashions for men, women, and male and female children in chronolgical order from earliest to latest fashion, starting with the Roman Empire (27 BC to 467 AD), then the Middle Ages (500-1500), the Fifteenth Century/Early Renaissance, Sixteenth Century/High Renaissance, Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, 1901-1920, the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s-50s (combined), and the 1960s.

IMG_0464

Besides the illustrations, each category included a generously-sized foldout describing the changes in fashion and society during the era. Along the edges of the pages are additional fashion tidbits, like hairstyles, hats, and other information not included on the main feature of the book: the flip-up clothing layers.

Each figure has at least one fancy flip up/open/down piece that reveals information about the layer. For example, the “1635” man’s doublet/coat folds open to reveal his shirt beneath and a brief description of it:

IMG_0466

And the “1750s” woman has a layer for her gown and a separate one for her petticoats which both lift to reveal her shift, stays, and panniers underneath:

IMG_0468

The adults clothing has more details than the children’s clothing, but the children’s clothing flip-ups do contain bits of information about popular children’s clothing colors and fabrics.

That’s the basic description of the book. Now, for the review!

This such a cool idea! I love the illustrations and the discovery with each turn of the page and lift of a flap. Children and adults alike are curious about the “weird” clothing our ancestors used to wear and this book is a fun way to explore the basics without feeling like an intruder (how many times have you as a reenactor, cosplayer, costumer, or vintage-lover faced that awkward question or unwelcome groping hand?). The basics are all contained in this book, so it acts as a jumping off point for multiple eras without the intimidating immensity of a fashion encyclopedia.

The illustrations are well-balanced with the double-sided flaps containing the detailed text portion so it’s neither too child-like nor too text-heavy. The colors are well-thought-out and suit the general mood of the chosen eras (lighter colors for Rococo, earthy colors for the Middle Ages, and, of course, bright primary colors for the 1960s).

IMG_0489

There are a few places where I was disappointed, however. The sections, especially for the earlier fashions, are very broad– some covering 500 years or more! I admit that I am not a scholar of the nuances of these earlier eras, so I am not as disgruntled as, say, an expert in the 1340s would be. For example, the Tudor era (1485-1558) is almost entirely skipped, save for Elizabeth I’s reign.

I can excuse some generalizations because this is designed as a children’s book meant to present the very basics of fashion history in an entertaining and quick manner. In a world when most folks know Medieval fashion only from the Lord of the Rings movies, learning even the most basic real Medieval fashion concepts can be confusing to a beginner. The layers and undergarments, which is the main purpose of this book’s illustrations, are all pretty well-covered (ha ha!) despite the broad time swathes. For the most part, petticoats, garters, stockings, stays, and shifts are introduced in the eras they should be.

There was one era, though, which I thought was done a huge disservice: the 19th Century.

IMG_0470

Since this is a book about layers and showcasing the mysterious underwear worn beneath them, it would seem natural to include the many different types of undergarments in the 19th century. It was, after all, probably the most exciting, underwear-centric time in history! There were the short Regency stays and slips, the long stays and crazy-huge sleeve-puffers of the 1830s, the steel-busked corsets and hoop skirts in the 1850s and 1860s, the advent of the bustle in the 1870s and its construction ingenuity in the 1880s!

bustle centaur

Were they centaurs? They must have been centaurs.

Yet, the book dedicates only one section to the entire century and only illustrates the 1810s at the very beginning and the 1850s in the middle– with no children’s outfits to boot! So many shapes that I was bewildered by as a curious child (and even as an adult) are skipped over. The bustle is relegated to a few notes in the top right corner. I would not be as disappointed if the 20th Century decades weren’t given their own sections and illustrations despite the relatively uneventful underwear and layers involved. The 20th Century pages have fewer flaps, and there is little change to the undergarments after the 1920s. The most exciting bit is probably the corset and bullet bra on the 1940s/50s woman:

IMG_0483

The copy of the book I bought was preowned, but despite that, many of the flaps in the later eras had never been touched even though the flaps of the earlier styles, particularly the Roman, Medieval, and Victorian eras, were more “worn in” from use. Whatever person(s) had the book before me was clearly less interested by the modern era! The underpinnings of the 1400s were far more mysterious than the 1940s, at least in this case. In a few decades, perhaps the 20th Century sections will seem more exciting since they will be more distant from the now.

With that said, this book is all about layers and undergarments, so you are literally undressing the illustrations layer by layer down to their skivvies. Some folks might not be particularly comfortable with this, especially since the Middle Ages allows you to see under the lady’s chemise to see her stockings and she’s nude (of course) underneath:

IMG_0476

The illustration is not heavily detailed, but she does have curves denoting her breasts, a little belly button, and the tiniest V where are thighs meet her trunk. Being nude under her shift is historically accurate, but you can easily paste down her shift to make her more modest if you are concerned about it. The children’s layers are not as detailed, so they don’t go down that far and neither do most of the men’s outfits, though the 1960s keeps the playing field even:

IMG_0488

The fashions are Euro/Anglocentric (the author worked for the Victoria and Albert Museum), some of the terms are out of date (the book was written in 1998), the corset/stays/bodies information retains a slightly sensationalized tone, and the 1590s woman is wearing inaccurate pantaloons, but at that point, I’m letting my current knowledge outpace the level this book is intended for.

According to Amazon, this book is for ages 5-7 years, but I believe that’s way too young for this book: not because of the revealing nature of it (the whole point of the book is to reveal the hidden parts of fashion), but because this book has a lot of text and details that a younger child might not appreciate. However, for a 7-14 year old, this book would be a really fun, informative introduction to the world of historical fashion! I would have loved a book like this as a tween and I still appreciate it even though I no longer need it. For $5 or even $15, this book would make a great gift to a budding historical fashionista. The quality of the book itself is very high (great paper, wonderful layout, etc.) and it will answer many questions, prompt new questions, and encourage further research.

Overall rating:

Great fun for a fashion history newbie!

Advertisements

Pinching your Nose, Helping Your Eyes: Pince Nez from the 15th-19th Century

I Can See You More Clearly Through the Glass
than Through the Air

So you costume in the Renaissance, but without your glasses, everything looks like you’re riding a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl. Congratulations! You and Henry VIII have something in common!

I do not know if that’s a compliment or not…

Besides being one of the most famous divorcees of all time, Henry VIII was exceptionally near-sighted. This is a problem for a king who likes to engage in numerous outdoor activities like archery or in Henry’s case, jousting. In fact, Henry VIII received this helmet as a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1514:

The Horned Helmet of Henry VIII, circa 1514

It is not exactly the most flattering helmet (in fact, many believe it was worn by the court fool, Will Somers), but it’s fascinating for one fact: the golden hinged glasses perched on the prominent nose. Whether this was good ol’ Max poking some major fun at Henry’s well-known nearsightedness, or just a portrait of the king, we may never know. If you watch the video, you can see that in motion, the helmet is actually quite impressive looking. Though Henry’s opponents might have giggled behind their hands while Henry wasn’t looking, imaging seeing this glinting, silver face rocking towards you above a charging warhorse.

The helmet’s eyeglasses look decorative and not functional, but eyeglasses of this hinged type had been in use for over 200 years before this helmet was made and magnifiers made from crystal had been in use since ancient times. Fuzzy eyesight is nothing new, especially considering how much electric lights have improved out viewing environment. We no longer have to squint at embroidery or manuscripts by the meager light of a candle past dark, but we do wear our eyes out squinting at luminescent screens. Medieval glasses did not have temple-to-ear stems as ours do. They consisted of two round lenses held in bone, horn, leather, or metal frames that were hinged in the center like a fan.

“Wildunger Altar” Detail by Conrad von Soest, circa 1403

The BOA Museum’s replica of the Trig Lane Spectacles, circa 1430-40 (replica circa 1976)

Bone Eyeglass Frames, circa 1400-1500

They pinched onto the nose or were held to the face like a 19th century pair of opera glasses. Some enterprising eyeglass wearers tied strings around their ears to hold their spectacles in place:

Luis de Velasco II, Marqués de Salinas, circa 1607

Glasses became quite widespread during the 15th and 16th centuries. Bone frames were made from the leg bones of oxen, which were wide enough to allow a frame to be cut in one piece. Leather frames made for a lightweight pair of spectacles at a low price. If the leather frame wore out, the lenses could be put into a new frame inexpensively and without too much trouble at the local spectacle merchant’s shop.

“The Ill-Matched Lovers” from the studio of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, late 15th century
Northern Europeans always enjoyed a good comical paintings with a touch of scandal. This work is no exception. While the young lady and older gentleman look at a selection of eyeglasses (ironically, of course!), the young husband and elderly wife get a little too cuddly in the background and he’s even so bold as to reach right into the money pot! Obviously the elderly man needs those spectacles quite badly. This was a popular motif, but what’s really fascinating is the box of glasses at hand. We do not think of spectacles as medieval/renaissance nor commonplace, yet here is a painting showing a good lot of eyeglasses ready for purchasing.

Eyeglasses with stems to sit on the ear were invented in the 18th century, but the simple, round-lens style without earstems remained popular into the early part 19th century until they evolved into reading glasses that hung from a chain pinned to the lapel, becoming the Victorian pince nez glasses we know and love.

Glasses 17th century

Spectacles and Carved Wood Case, circa 17th century

Spectacles and Mother of Pearl Case, circa 1685-1725
Another English king, James II, was rumored to have owned this fine pair of folding spectacles.

Pince Nez Glasses, circa 1900

More historical glasses info:

The Pince Nez Guide” – Multiple styles by date

Eyeglasses and Spectacles from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance” on Larsdatter – Super fantastic database from everything medieval and renaissance!

Chart of Heymann Collection Discovered at the Musée National de la Renaissance (The Eyeglass Cases, Part 1)” – Also, check out part 2!

How to Make Medieval Eyeglasses” – If you know how to weld, this guide tells you how to use an old pair of your own glasses to make a more period-correct pair. Eliminate the ear wires for 14th-17th century glasses.

Rivet Spectacles: The Earliest Style” – Lots of information on Medieval eyeglasses including a wonderful chart of known examples.

Recreation of Medieval Hinged Eyeglasses, made 2008
Made with wood, rivet, and twine with round glass lenses

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

But Where Should I Put It? Part I

15th-17th Century Purses

I don’t go anywhere without my cellphone, wallet, keys, lip balm, or mini Swiss Army knife. But where can I put it all when I’m in costume? Lugging around my modern purse while in historical costume looks beyond ridiculous and I can’t have Chris carrying everything…(that poor man, I always take advantage of the ample pockets in his cargo pants.  Why do boys get more/deeper pockets than girls anyways? Girls have so much more stuff to carry!)

The solution? A historically accurate purse! When I was looking for a purse solution, I was surprised to learn what a wide variety history has to offer! There are so many designs to choose from and you’re sure to find one that perfectly suits your taste in any era! For example, if you need a Renaissance purse, look no further than the four-sided drawstring pouch. Don’t want to carry around an annoying clutch purse or deal with a satchel that keeps slipping off your shoulder? Four-sided pouches are the way to go! They have had long strings to tie around your waist directly or to string around a belt or girdle. The purse above is a very fine heraldic piece made around 1540. This purse wasn’t your run-of-the-mill coin purse, but a ceremonial piece that would have been carefully treasured, perhaps used as a dowry. With 1,250 silk stitches per square inch, it surely is a masterpiece! It took a very skilled seamstress many hours to finish it. Here’s another example of the four-sided pouch:

Since this purse was not a ceremonial piece, but a well-used coin purse, it shows a lot more wear, but the basic shape is what’s important. The four sides allow for plenty of interior space, but the purse can be folded flat when empty.

Drawstring purses were, by far, the most popular style of purse from about 1590 onwards. By the turn of the 17th century, flat, square purses came into style. Many of these purses were not for coins, but were “swete-bags,” filled with scented herbs to sweeten the air during a time when bathing and sewage disposal weren’t priorities. The 17th century was the era of the Baroque, a style which delighted in excess of decoration and trims. The purses of the late Renaissance and Jacobean eras reflect this taste for trims and are often coated in gilded thread, tassels, appliques, spangles (sequins), and ribbons.

Almost every drawstring purse during this era had hanging pomanders or covered wooden beads at the end of their strings to help tie it shut without the need of knots (so you wouldn’t look a fool when you untied your pouch. Just imagine the embarrassment of knotting your purse so tight you can’t open it!). They were rarely used for carrying money, but served as elaborate gift bags or as utility kits to carry glasses, pens, and sewing kits.

Another type of drawstring purse is the gambling purse. These purses are flat-bottomed and round like a bowl, specifically shaped so that they can sit open on a table filled with coins, counters, or other game pieces.

Gambling was a popular, socially acceptable form of entertainment in the late 17th century– provided you were wealthy enough not to work for a living. Gaming purses were often decorated with the family crest or lucky symbols to help the player keep track of his purse and maybe win a few extra turns as well! These gaming purses are often elaborately decorated, advertising the wealth of the owner, however some are rather plain. It all depended on the player’s strategy: brazenly display your wealth with an ornate purse or keep your true worth private with a plainer purse.

Drawstring pouches are pretty simple in principle and do not require frames like many modern purses and clutches do. You would think that framed purses are a later 19th or 20th century invention, but framed purses actually date back to Da Vinci’s time and beyond!  The most beautiful and unusual historical purses actually come from the mid-Renaissance. Leonardo himself designed a purse around the turn of the 15th century:

The sketch is of an ornate handbag with a metal top. Two designers– Agnese Sabato and Alessandro Vezzosi– brought the bag to life,  creating a surprisingly modern-looking handbag:

This bag, while modern in construction, is actually ancient in design and, in comparison to other purses from the 1500s, rather simple in design (as per Leonardo’s personal taste). Perhaps the most amazing purses of all time can be found way back in the 15th century. They are breathtaking! Many Renaissance purses were architectural wonders. For example, here’s a purse with an entire castle perched on the frame:

This is definitely a fairytale purse! The towers remind me of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Unlike modern purse frames which are mostly invisible, Renaissance purse frames were miniature masterpieces, often in the shape of castles, cities, or cathedrals:

Just like the real-life strongholds, these clasped frames alerted thieves that while the treasure inside the purse may be great, he’ll have a devil of a time getting at the contents. Some of these large purse frames had locking mechanisms inside and required a key to open (click here to check out the back side of the red velvet purse where you can see a keyhole)– pretty elaborate for something over 600 years old! Here’s my favorite Renaissance purse of all time, dating back to about 1470-1550:

If Snow White owned a purse, it had to be this one! Just look at how detailed and thick the frame is! On the back are two iron loops so it could be threaded onto a belt, keeping your treasures close at hand. It’s like a 15th century fanny pack, only infinitely more fashionable!

Sadly, as time wore on, purse frames scaled back in size and grandeur until they resembled  modern purse frames:

Framed purses began to fall out of favor by the end of the 17th century and did not boom in popularity again until after the Industrial Revolution made manufacturing the metal frames much cheaper; however, all is not lost in the ornamentation department! While they’re not as architecturally impressive as the castle purses of the Renaissance, by 1680, purses were becoming as frilly and over-dressed as the courtiers that carried them!

The purse above features an adorable pair of Cupid-shot hearts along with glittery paste gems and loads of fluffy green tassels! There is no mistaking that rococo is hot on this purse’s heels! Purses weren’t just for the ladies either. If you were a gent back in 1690, you wouldn’t store your widgets in khaki cargo pants, but this naughty little purse, complete with a sexy 17th Century pin-up of a pretty lass showing off some leg!

After checking out all these incredible 15th-17th century purses, I have decided to add making one to my list. I know, I know, I’ve got a lot of projects to do already, but these little purses are seriously cool! And like shoes, no woman can have too many purses!

Click here to visit: Where Should I Put It? Part II

For those of us who costume between 1700 and 1800!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Update:

I found this 17th century fashion plate by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean entitled Recueil des modes de la cour de France, ‘Dame se Promenant a la Campaigne’, circa 1675-1677:

Doesn’t she look stunningly Victorian (and her shoes magnifique)? On her hip, you can see a large black bag which, on closer inspection, appears to have the shape and gathering pattern of a large velvet gaming purse, though I cannot be sure. It may be similar style, but would probably contain ladylike objects such as combs, needles, scissors, or handkerchiefs.

With Rings on Her Fingers

Rocking Renaissance Bling

I thought I’d give the Renaissance tradition of wearing as many of my rings as I could a try (Okay, so not all of them are SCA appropriate, but they look darn spiffy). Count ’em: 1..2..3..4..5! Nothing says overindulgence like squeezing 5 rings onto four fingers. Notice how I snuck in that fifth gem on my second knuckle. Wearing rings like this dates back to Roman times and spilled over well into the Renaissance. Wearable wealth was extremely important in a world with modern banking methods. Having a gold ring meant you had a handy bargaining chip to get you out of tough times (Wedding rings weren’t just a pledge of fidelity, but financial insurance as well). The fact that your insurance policy doubled as a flashy fashion statement was a bonus.

I’ve included a few examples of how Renaissance ladies and gentlemen wore their rings below. You’ll notice that there are a variety of rings worn in a variety of ways, including double rings, thumb rings, rings on necklaces, and special gloves with slits to show off the jewels beneath. Each image links to the full version of the portrait, so get clicking!









For more information about rings (and everything else) from the Middle Ages through the Elizabethan era, you can visit the amazing archive at the Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture website (this link leads to straight to more Renaissance rings). This website is sublime and if you haven’t visited it and clicked on every single link inside, you are missing out!

The rings I have aren’t all perfectly historically accurate at first glance, but most are pretty Renaissance in spirit (except for the ruby paste one, which is a Victorian piece I almost never go without!). Here are a few existent examples of the amazing array of ring designs created between 1475 and 1600:

There is such a wide variety of styles to choose from, I sometimes get dizzy! My favorite part of Renaissance Faire season (besides an excuse to buy a new bodice) is getting to empty out my jewelry drawers and wear everything at once! :)