Bonnets that Deserve Better: A Dozen Ugly Ducklings in the Met’s Headwear Collection

I love a good bonnet, even if badly photographed. <3

Museum photography has come a long way in the past decade. I remember when the only way to explore a museum’s collection was to physically travel to view an exhibit in person, be buddies with a curator, or read about them in textbooks, sometimes with a blessed-but-grainy black and white picture the size of a domino. Now museums around the world have their collections photographed and available for free online!

We have gone from this:

To this:

Bonnet, circa 1870

Huzzah! Hooray! Oh, happy day!

And believe me, I am infinitely grateful. But, I am also infinitely concerned with systematic forward progression and implementing improved standards of quality (i.e. I am demanding and persnickety). Today, I am picking on the Met because the Met is one of my favorite museums. They seem open and honest about their collections– even candidly blogging about some drawings in their collection were massively mis-attributed! You can even give them feedback about their website, rating it and saying what you liked and what you didn’t. I appreciate their openness and make full use of it. MMoA, you asked for it!

In my many invested hours of research (i.e. PINTEREST), I have discovered many beautiful Met Museum objects with hideous photos, in particular, 19th century bonnets and hats. Granted, there are plenty of hideous objects with lovely pictures as well. There is clearly a miracle-working photographer in the costume department because they made this clunky sunbonnet look so lovely I kind of want it…which is saying something because I LOATHE 19th-century sunbonnets!

Cotton Sunbonnet, circa 1860
This photo makes it look good enough to actually wear!

Now, compare that picture with this one:

Sunbonnet, circa 1838
Ah, there’s the warm, familiar hatred again. If Jedi had to wear sunbonnets, I would instantly become a Sith. No questions! Sunbonnet Crusher duty? SIGN ME UP!

Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating a little. You see, that second bonnet isn’t terrible at all! In fact, it’s actually way more adorable than the photo lets on. It’s made of a spotted calico that’s kind of polka-dotty from a distance, it’s got pinked trim, a nifty straw brim, and a sweet bow perched on top. But that photo just does not do it justice when you compare it to other bonnet photographs in the collection:

Snedden Designer Bonnet with Pearls, circa 1883
(another bonnet that has benefited from the leap in photography technology)

Velvet Evening Bonnet, 1802

Bonnet, circa 1887

“But, Liz! Those are all fashionable, fancy-lady bonnets! You can’t compare a daytime 1850s sunbonnet to a 1880s millioneress’s bonnet!”

True: there are many bonnets of vastly different styles, decades, price-points and occasions, but being fancier doesn’t make them any less likely to be photographed poorly. The Met does not discriminate based on social class! Case in point:

Which of these two photos looks like a million bucks to you?

I started making note of all the bonnets I found that were begging for a better photo. The list was quite long! However, I narrowed it down to just a few.

MOST of the bonnets are this list were not picked just because I thought they needed a prettier photo–though, confession: some are on the list because they are OMGorgeous! There are so many pretty-but-not-artistically-photographed bonnets in the Met’s collection, like this early 19th century bonnet. However, many of them, despite their flash-blasted, yellow-tinged photographs, still shine through with clear detail. Instead, I chose bonnets that I thought were actively hampered by their photo– those with great texture that was lost, fit that was hard to judge, or colors that weren’t properly portrayed, all details that are actively explored and sought after by costume and textile researchers.

THE TOP 10 BONNETS AT THE MET THAT DESERVE BETTER PHOTOS!

#10: “Ye Old Bonnet?!” circa 1799-1810

Originally #10 was this straw bonnet that I loved the shape of, but there is no view of the front. However, I stumbled upon this bonnet/headdress just before publishing my list. I was so intrigued, I knew it had to be on the list! There is no other “bonnet” like it in the Met’s collection and if that date is correct (question: has anyone seen something like this from the era?), it would make it one of the earliest pieces in the bonnet sub-category. I want to know more!

#9: “Happy Spring Day in a Dust Storm” Bonnet, circa 1860

This is one of those “It’s just so pretty it needs to be shown off!” bonnets. The layers of trimmings are so lovely, but the dingy, grainy photo does its richness a great disservice.

#8: “Black Velvet Mystery” Bonnet, circa 1850

This bonnet already has a beautifully lit, crisp new photo, yet, it’s impossible to tell how it fits! It’s listed as a bonnet, but the shape and fit isn’t obvious. Does it perch on the back of the head? Is it a child-sized cap? Or is it bigger than it looks? This is a piece that would really benefit from a display head.

#7: “Snow Princess” Lace Bonnet, circa 1885-90

Another stunner suffering from bad lighting and graininess! This bonnet is mummified in lovely lace, has a velvet edge, and a feather on top! The interplay of textures and true color are lost, though, and the angle of the two photos almost look like two different hats! Click here to see the second photo of the back. You’ll see what I mean. Also, this hat has a photo of the designer’s label, but it’s not listed in the description (J. Pendlebury / Wigan). This was a very expensive hat during its day! It would be so lovely for a bride.

#6: “Scarlet’s Envy” Promenade Bonnet, circa 1851-1862

The vast majority of the Met’s mid-19th century bonnet collection suffers from small, badly-lit photos. I imagine they must have been doing them all in a  swift batch in order to give us, the demanding costuming community, visual references. The Met has worked hard to get photos for every object’s online catalogue page! They are getting closer to achieving that goal. I am so thankful for their hard work. However, this gal is beautiful, but the silk gathers and layers upon layers of delicate trimming aren’t very well portrayed. I also think it’s later in date than listed. Any bonnet experts have a firmer date for it?

#5: “Autumnal Delight” Bonnet, circa 1864-1867

This bonnet is just fabulous! At first I thought that it was a lovely example of straw work, but then I read the description…can you believe this bonnet is made of horsehair?! I would have never guessed!  Once again, the small, grainy photos erase this bonnet’s main draw: the unique materials and lush interplay of textures. Just look at those woven plumes and tiny tassels! This is probably my personal favorite bonnet on the list. I would wear it in a heartbeat.

#4: “The WAT?!” Bonnet, circa 1800-1925

I’m calling this one that “WAT?!” bonnet not because I find it poorly designed (though the display certainly makes it look odd), but because it is in desperate need of a cleaning, some context, and a more accurate date. 125 YEARS, MET?! REALLY?! This bonnet/hat is from around 1900 and would have been paired with a Gibson Girl hairstyle, hence the shallow back (to fit around a chignon) and large forward swoop (to go over the puffy pompadour front). It even has a designer label inside that they photographed, but the cataloger failed to note in the description. It’s not a show-stopping hat by any means, but it certainly deserves better basic cataloguing in addition to a fresh photo!

#3: “Cinderella” Bonnet/Cap, circa 1845-50

Just look at that lace and ribbon! Wow! Even in that terrible lighting, it looks amazing. However, the image is small and grainy, so you can’t see all the wonderful details. This one is just too pretty not to have a better photo!

#2: “Faceplant” Poke Bonnet, circa 1840-69

This bonnet is so sad! It looks like a jellyfish washed up on the shore or a snail trying to crawl away. I suppose if you were a nice “Sunday’s best” bonnet that got labelled as a poke bonnet, you’d be sad, too. This bonnet would be so much happier if its beautiful silk satin shirring and lace were properly photographed on a stand or mannequin!

#1: “Moping Mop” Ribbon Bonnet, circa 1841

The last bonnet  looked sad, but this poor bonnet is actively trying to hide. Perhaps it’s in such poor shape that this is the only way to display it (like this crumbling 1830s straw bonnet), but it’s completely impossible to tell that it’s even a cap/bonnet. What’s even odder is that unlike many of the bonnets in the collection which suffer from dating swathes that range from a generalized 20 year period to the egregious 125 YEAR RANGE OMG MET WTF, this bonnet has been dated precisely to 1841. In addition, it was purchased with donation money in 1982, apparently by choice. Either it was part of a lot that had other pieces in it the Met wanted and the cap just came with, or they purposefully bought it, possibly with provenance granting it such a firm date, like a letter or label. And yet, here it is, just flopped on a table like a mound of seaweed.

The more I looked at these bonnets with less-than-ideal photos, the more I realized how shallow and callous it was to judge a bonnet by its photo. In our massively visual online culture, objects with the prettiest images often get sharing priority, meaning that many perfectly fabulous fashions get ignored! This affects not only personal research, but can affect the quality of conservation, too. Many objects that receive well-made professional photographs often receive special cleaning and repairs in order for them to display and photograph to the object’s best advantage. In a collection like the Met’s–with over 300+ bonnets alone– such a large undertaking would involve not only lots of time, equipment, and effort from the photographer(s), but a large investment from the conservation department– and let’s face it: we may love bonnets, but there are probably more pressing conservation projects than cleaning a common straw sunbonnet, no matter how cute it is.

Interested in seeing more awesome bonnets with horrific pictures?
Click here to view the Met’s bonnet collection online

Let me know which one is your favorite! Is it a delicate straw bonnet from the 1840s? A sky-high feathered stunner from the 1880s? A tubular Regency poke bonnet? Post a link below so I can see it!

Lovely Limbs: Modern Stockings with Historical Style

Completely Hosed on Hose

Some women are obsessed with shoes. I love them, too, but my love affair with shoes is more practical than fantastical. My love of stockings, however, has grown exponentially over the years. Not only are they fun, they completely alter the way shoes fit. A shoe that is too big or even too small becomes much more comfortable with the right stocking. Keeping you warm as the weather turns chilly is a huge bonus as well.

Kittens and tea also help greatly.

When I talk about stockings, I don’t mean our modern idea of stockings– the sheer, skin tone nylons or the cutesy sock-shapes we hang up at Christmastime. Though they are both rooted in historical stockings, they are like the two seperated halves of the stocking story. Stockings in the past were knit or sewn, and while silk can be made very sheer, our ancestors valued its ability to hide skin just as much as it reveals the shape of the leg. Stockings in the historical sense are more akin to what we consider modern dress socks, and they aren’t just for ladies. Even while men were busy showing off sexy gams in tight-fitting stockings it was unseemly to show leg skin, so stockings were a necessary part of everybody’s wardrobe. Historical stockings ranged from thin silk to heavy wool, midcalf to thigh high, and plain white to wildly patterned. They’re a great way to add extra personality to any historical outfit!

The most basic of historical stockings is plain white. They were worn by men and women alike and generally reached the knee or just above it. A good pair of modern knee-high trouser socks will work nicely for almost any era from 1600-1900. I wear a pair of finely knit knee-highs I found at Dollar Tree and I love them!

101_5193

Dressed for the 1960s…

???????????????????????????????

..and 100 years “earlier” with my 1850s slippers!

To fit larger feet and calves, like Christopher’s, I purchased some “thigh high” knit tube socks. Since his legs are so massive, the stockings only reach his knees, but they still work.

101_6230

I don’t remember his calf measurement, but his thighs are 27 inches around (same size as my waist in a corset!) and those are size 15 EEEE feet, if that’s any indication. In contrast, these stockings fit my scrawny legs at thigh level, as you can see in my garter tutorial. Our ancestors didn’t have the benefit of spandex, so they used garters to hold their stockings in place. If you use modern stockings, you don’t need to worry as much about “losing your legs,” but some tall stockings still work best with garters, plus they look so pretty!

Historical stockings also came in many solid, natural colors. My go-to historical stockings are O-Basics from Sock Dreams. They come in a variety of nice colors and are great for keeping warm in winter:

IMG_0072

BAM! My beloved O-Basics in Rust.

Colored stockings were fairly common, especially reds and blues. The color of your stockings can be an important clue to your historical persona. For example, the Blue Stockings Society was an 18th century organization that promoted women’s education and intellectual hobbies. While Bluestockings did not necessarily wear blue stockings, the name indicated the informality and progressiveness of the club. Proper, fashionable, rich folks at the time often wore black or other expensively-colored silk stockings. Worsted wool stockings, in this case blue stockings, were considered to be informal and unfashionable. The term “bluestocking” indicated that a woman (or man) was more concerned with personal intellectual pursuits than the whims of fashion, but it was also used pejoratively around the turn of the 19th century to mean an ugly, frumpy woman (much like the word “feminist” is twisted today, sadly. It’s amazing how little things have changed in 200 years).

  If you’re looking for stockings with character, there are plenty of stunning stocking options to consider! This isn’t a complete list of hosiery types by any means, just  some of my favorite styles of fancy historical stockings and a few modern options that closely match.

Open Work Stockings – 19th Century

For an extra pretty pair of stockings, consider the texture as well as color. Victorian stockings are often knitted with lacy openwork designs that stretched open, revealing tiny peeks at the flesh beneath. A tad scandalous? Maybe to the ultra-conservative, but during this era of long skirts and ladies’ boots, openwork stockings offered some cool relief during warmer months.

Kitted Cotton Stocking with Double Zigzag Pattern, circa 1830

These stockings in the MFA Boston collections are very similar to this pair, dated nearly 50 years later by the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Linen Stockings with Triple Zigzag Pattern, circa 1875-1900 (“last quarter the 19th century”)

While it’s possible that one or the other is mis-dated, the similarity is indicative of the popularity of this style throughout the era. This homemade pair of knitted socks from the middle of the century has a similar openwork style, but this time horizontally;

Cotton Stockings with Scallop Pattern, circa 1860-69
Mid-19th century stocking are often shorter than stockings found earlier and later in the century. These hit mid-calf rather than over the knee. Others hit right below the knee.

There are TONS of modern stockings that feature openwork knit patterns in every color of the rainbow! The most common colors during the mid-Victorian era were black and white. But don’t feel like you have to limit yourself. There were some pretty wild stockings out there! Colors like plum, navy, and mustard are the perfect accompaniment for a ballgown in the 1850s or a walking dress from the color-crazy 1890s . Dainty, repeating open work patterns that are more geometric and abstract rather than floral are perfect for just about any costume from 1825 to 1900!

Textured Cable Acrylic OTK Socks in Ivory by Sock Dreams
Another good option is the O-Chevrons, which come in a large assortment of colors.

Super Stripes! – 1850s to 1890s

The 1890s were the heyday of wild stockings!  Bold colors and bolder designs were in vogue, especially the iconic striped stockings we know and love.

Cotton Stockings, circa 1890-99

Silk Stockings, circa 1880-99
The 1970s…is that you?!

The fashion wasn’t just for can-can dancers and other “ladies of the night” (who are, in fact, depicted wearing plain black stockings more often than patterned ones). Fancy stockings went well with fancy opera boots, reflecting the indulgent, candid attitude of the era– the more fancy you could squeeze onto your person, the better!

Another era that might surprise you with its hosiery is the 1850s:

Cotton Stockings, circa 1850-70

While considered a somewhat dowdy era, the 1850s saw a whole plethora of underwear trends emerge. Indeed, you almost call it the Era of Underthings! Lots of revolutionary supporting garments emerged during the era, including the pin and loop busk which allowed women to easily put on and tighten their own corsets (and marked the beginning of modern corsetry) and the iconic hoop skirt. Alongside these fashion innovations were some entertaining undergarment trends, bright red petticoats and cheerfully colored socks among them! Children’s socks were commonly patterned, showing candy stripes from under adorable little dresses throughout the Victorian era:

sisters

Tintype of Two Children, circa 1880
Source: eBay

Modern horizontally striped stocking are easy to find anywhere, especially around Halloween. Many stores like Walmart carry them, though often they are toe socks. Athletic tube socks with a banded top are also a good option, plus they come in a wide variety of colors and heights, are easy to launder, and look ridiculously cute with a Victorian bathing or cycling outfit!

Back and White Over the Knee Striped Athletic Socks from Sock Broker

For classic vertical strips a la 1890s, there is a number of lovely options:

Cotton Inklined Knee Socks in Red and Black
These are almost exactly like these stocking from the Met.

S.D. Extraordinary Striped Cotton OTKs in Black and Green

Stockings with Contrasting Clocks – 1600 to 1820

One of the most iconic historical style of stocking is the clocked stocking. Clocked stockings have decorative bands and flourishes ascending from the heel or decorating the ankle. Earlier clocked stockings have a contrasting wedge shape that begins at the ankle and goes up the outside of the leg, sometimes nearly to the top of the stocking. Clocked stockings of this sort were in style for over 200 years until about 1820:

Silk, Silver Gilt, and Cotton Stockings, circa 1610

Spanish Embroidered Silk Stockings, circa 1750-70

Italian Silk Clocked Stockings, circa 1780-1825

If you are looking for a classic, upper-class 18th century or Regency stocking, American Duchess offers fine modern reproductions of classic contrast clocked stockings:

A.D. Clocked Stockings in White and Black

For a more rustic look, there’s this option from Sock Dreams. While not quite a historical clock design, it will mimic the look well under long skirts where just a quick glimpse of the ankles will be visible:

S.D. Floral Trail Socks in Blue

Victorian Floral Stockings, circa 1830-1900

From the wedge-shaped clocked design came the flourish of the Victorian years. Solid-color stockings often featured pretty woven or embroidered decoration on the front of the foot and ankle. Contrary to popular myth, ankles weren’t strictly taboo during the Victorian era, so long as they were covered with stockings. In fact, dancing and walking frequently provided glimpses of a lady’s ankles, especially when ladies wore slippers.

These fancifully embroidered stockings date from 1890-1910. Embellished stockings were worn for special occasions or by ladies of leisure. Everyday stockings were generally white or black for ease of laundering.

Cotton Stockings with Embroidered Embellishment, circa 1860
These stockings are dated to the 1860s, but are more 1870s in style.

Finding modern socks with the design localized like this at the ankle is a bit tough, but once again, American Duchess swoops to the rescue:

A.D. Edwardian Silk Stockings
Though dated as Edwardian, these stocking will work well for late 19th century, too. American Duchess also has other styles with flourishes at the ankle.

product_variety_big_12626_7763_4

These fancy Floral Chain over the knee socks are a new from Sock Dreams! I love all the rich color choices, but this pretty beige is my fave.

If you feeling super crafty, you can make your own pair of embellished Victorian stockings! For example, the Dreamstress made a pair of silk stockings then used a bit of applique to accent her ankles:

Click here for her blog post.

For all the pretty without having to sew your own stockings, you could applique, embroider, or paint your chosen design onto a pair of pre-made stockings of your choice. However, if you’re feeling REALLY sassy, you can use one of the many stocking knitting patterns available online. The Antique Pattern Library, for example, has numerous Victorian instruction booklets that detail how to knit your own pair of stockings, including several editions of the Nonotuck Silk Company’s “How to Use Florence Knitting Silk” booklets from the 1880s.

Early Patterned Stockings – 17th Century

While most portraits from the 17th century show people wearing solid-colored stocking (usually in white, black, or shades of red), there are surviving examples of livelier stockings, like these:

Knitted Silk and Silver Gilt Stockings, circa 1600-1670

Child’s Silk and Gilt Stockings, 17th century

These pretties are usually child sized, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a little inspiration from them! Combine the knitted design with the embroidered motif from these luxurious adult-sized stockings of the same era, and you get these gorgeous stockings:

S.D. Dreamer Jacquard Flowing Vine Stockings in Dijon and Navy

Can you imagine how fabulous these stockings would look with some American Duchess Stratfords or Virginias?!

O…M…G…Christmas wishes!

Find of the Month: Silver Croix de Saint Lô Pendant circa 1790-1830

October 2014

Lately, I’ve been slacking off when it comes to the blog, especially the “Find of the Month” posts. Frankly, it’s because I’m rather poor, so there hasn’t been much spare money to spend on historical lovelies. Also, I usually wait to the end of the month to post these so I make sure my find truly is THE FIND, but in this case, I don’t think I’ll find anything else this month to top this!

I’ve been on a silver and paste collecting binge the past year or so. By “collecting binge,” I mostly mean “drooling over museum jewelry I can’t have and adding them to Pinterest,” but I’ve had a nice streak of luck and have amassed a fairly neat little collection of Georgian silver jewelry. Most of the pieces so far have been pretty small and somewhat flawed, but I treasure them all.

???????????????????????????????

Clockwise from left: Paste shoe buckle, silver gilt button, Stuart crystal button/cufflink, foiled paste sash buckle

For the most part, the pieces in my collection are functional pieces that an 18th century person needed in order to be dressed properly, like buttons to keep clothes on and buckles to hold together the upper latchets on 18th century shoes or help secure sashes.

My buckles are missing the latch and prongs, but when they were whole, they held shoes together like this.
Image courtesy of American Duchess

“Just for pretty” jewelry is usually more expensive and out of my reach.

The late 18th century was a highpoint for silver jewelry. Gold and silver exist harmoniously throughout all eras, but the predominance of yellow or white metals fluctuates. The Renaissance period before and the Victorian period after were very gold-centric eras when yellow metal was very popular. Gold has a bight glow of its own that can actually mask the brightness of the diamonds set in it. When diamonds were just roughly cut chips, they lend the gold more glitter, functioning more as accents than focal points (which is why diamonds were often backed with black in order to highlight them against gold settings lest they be overwhelmed). In the 18th century, silver accented the bright whiteness of diamonds which exploded in popularity thanks to advances in gemstone acquisition and cutting technology. In the 18th century, silver was often laid over gold– the opposite of what we are accustomed to– in order to give diamonds and the pastes made to imitate them as much glitter as possible.

Diamond and Gold Bodice Ornament (Spanish), circa 1700
17th and early 18th century jewelry tends to be made of gold. Silver begins to appear, but gold is still the fashionable metal.

Chrysoberyl and Silver Bodice Ornament (Portugese), circa 1760
By the 1750s, silver settings are gaining popularity and by the 1770s, silver (and silver-topped gold) is in vogue. Silver is a very sturdy metal, so it could safely hold gemstones with less metal between them, allowing jewelers to create pavé-style jewelry. Many pieces of 18th century jewelry look like they are made of solid glass or diamond from a distance thanks to the close silver settings.

Gold, of course, was still the metal of the rich, so large, yellow gold settings didn’t fade from use. Silver, however, could cross more class boundaries and could be found just as frequently in the rising middle-class as it could in the coffer of a noblewoman. Since I am nowhere near noblewoman status, an 18th century gold and diamond pendant is far out of my reach. Honestly, even a silver pendant set with glass pastes seemed just as distant a dream. Heaven, however, sometimes lets stars fall:

IMG_1599

Croix de Saint Lô Silver and Paste Pendant, circa 1790-1830

???????????????????????????????

The pin back is a later addition, around 1870.

Okay, now I normally try to remain rather academic, but just for a moment:

AAAAAAAAAAAAAA! LOOKIE LOOKIE LOOKIE! A SILVER AND PASTE PENDANT OF MY OWN! IT’S ALL SILVERY AND GLITTERY AND CURLY AND AWESOME!

Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll compose myself and my prose.

I snapped this pendant up for $32 thanks to the large missing stone at the top as well as a few damaged spindly spangles around the edges. However, such “flaws” give us a glimpse inside the construction of the piece, something an intact piece locked away in a museum cannot normally give the average layperson. For example, the giant gaping hole where the first paste should be has retained its foil:

???????????????????????????????

It’s hard to see because it has tarnished black from exposure, but you can see the thin folded edge poking up at the top of the hole. Unlike modern rhinestones that have a gilded coating applied directly to their backs, pre-19th century stones were given extra glitter with thin pieces of silver foil (often colored to give natural gemstones, especially rubies and emeralds, deeper color or make a clear stone look colored). The foil in my pendant-turned-brooch is very delicate, but if I lift it with tweezers, I can tell the underside still has some shine. I have chosen not to mess with it, though, in the hopes of finding a replacement stone.

???????????????????????????????

Many of the small flourishes around the edges are missing, including this one, which reveals more of the under-foil of the stone. While ultimately not good for the shine and complicating cleaning (no water should go near foiled stones), again, it gives a wonderful glimpse into the construction of the piece.

Overall, the piece is in what I consider to be good shape for a 200 year old antique. Its rough appearance has a certain charm. I am especially enamored with the sawtooth edging around the conical, rubbed-bezel settings.

???????????????????????????????

Beautiful black-dot (sometimes called strass) pastes! They may be rock crystal, but it is difficult to tell through my loupe.

After waiting eagerly for MY PRECIOUS–er– my pendant to arrive in the mail and admiring it in-person, I decided to do a bit of research about it. I already knew that it was 18th century in shape and design and I’d seen similar crosses in museums and auctions throughout the years. At first, the design struck me as very Spanish. Spanish jewelry in the 18th century retained the chunky conical stone settings of the 17th century a bit longer before fully adopting the newer style of silver pavé, especially since large holdings in South America meant that Spain had access to gold and colored gemstones and they liked to flaunt it:

Gold and Emerald Pendant (Spanish), circa 1750

The chunky style and curly flourishes of my new acquisition looked plausibly Spanish, but the silver styling was a bit off. Another pendant in the V&A looked similar and was marked as “probably” German:

Rock Crystal, Glass Paste , and Silver Pendant (German?), circa 1750-1800

Would you look at that! The cross portion has spindly flourishes accented with pastes similar to my pendant. Germany was also famous for its white metalwork and exported many jewelry items and other findings, like purse frames, made of both real silver and “German silver,” an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel. (My pendant is real silver, not a nickel-based imitation.)

As I continued my search, I began to notice many of the cross pendants I was finding were from northern Europe. When I checked the Three Graces, one of my all-time favorite antique jewelry sites, I found a similar cross they had labelled a “Normandy Cross:”

Paste and Silver Normandy Cruciform Pendant (French), circa 1790

It had a similar configuration to mine, right down to the newer pin back! This cross was French and, according to the description, specific to Normandy. With this information in hand and some googling, I came across this fantastic website which details French traditional folk jewelry and costumes, many of which have roots in the 18th century. Normandy is known in particular for its tall, ornate coifs and headdresses, which vary by region. These fashion plates (as well as others available here) show the distinct fashions of the different parts of Normandy around the time my pendant would have been made:

Woman in the Dress of Rolleville, circa 1819
The cap and scarf styles developed during the 18th century, but as you can see, her dress and other accessories are Parisian style based and on-trend for the era.

Woman in the Dress of Bayeux, circa 1819
You may know this town already for its famous tapestry, but it is also known for its tall coif with the puff at the top. This lovely lady’s clothes show a heavier 18th century influence than other areas and she appears to be wearing a cross pendant of her own along with earrings.

The large, ornate silver crosses are traditional jewelry pieces and each region has its own forms. Even minor variances in the placement of stones and the techniques used to create them result in crosses of different names and origins. I wondered if my cross had a name. The form of my pendant is very distinctive: four large, round stones forming the top and arms of a cross with a teardrop shaped pendant stone suspended from a triangular loop forming the bottom.

IMG_1628

My Pendant

At first, I thought it might be a Croix de Pierres/drille design:

Copyright http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr 2012

Image: http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr

However, my pendant is silver, not gold, and has an arched bail located behind the pendant rather than a triangular sliding bail. These stylistic details mean that my cross is a Saint Lô cross. Les Bijoux des Français describes the Croix de Saint Lô style thus:

“The Saint Lô crosses were worn in other parts of Normandy than just Saint Lô and are made in silver set with strass or, for the older ones, with quartz from the granite mines of Alençon. Their name comes from their original site of production, (though they were also made in other regions), rather than their area of adoption.  They were worn mainly in the southern half of Normandy, which was less prosperous and where the gold crosses almost never took on. “

A every-woman’s cross with awesome giant paste stones? Just my style!

“View of the Town of Saint Lô” by Camille Corot, circa 1833

I also found another possible reason Saint Lô crosses are simpler and cruder in appearance than earlier crosses and those of neighboring towns. Saint Lô has a fascinating, but rough history, including being physically obliterated during World War II. However, the events affecting my cross are a little farther back in time. The Edict of Nantes, a sort of taxed permission for Protestants in the otherwise Catholic country of France to live peaceably, was revoked in 1685. Normandy and surrounding areas had been a haven for many skilled Protestant artisans and craftspeople due to its closeness to England. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes saw a spike in the persecution of Protestants and many skilled workers fled to nearby Protestant England and Germany, leaving Saint Lô with fewer metal smiths, gem cutters, and jewelers. The city also sided with the Revolutionaries during the French Revolution, which was raging around the same time my pendant was made. Religion weighs very heavy on the area and it was quite volatile. Wearing religious pendants of any sort could be as much a political statement as a spiritual one!

The style of my pendant dates it between 1790 and 1830, but the pin back dates to the 1870s. My pendant was likely passed down from mother to daughter, especially since these large cross pendants were traditionally given as wedding gifts. Cross pendants and other folk jewelry were passed down through the generations and show up in photographs taken 50 to 100 years after the crosses were made:

I cannot find a date the photo was taken, but the bodice is very 1840s-50s in style, so the image was taken no earlier than that. Many folk costumes were also made from clothing from previous decades. For example, many 1830s dresses show up as folk costumes in the 1890s (possibly due to or inspiring the 19th century’s second “big sleeve” era).

By the 1870s, regional folk costumes had become somewhat of a tourist attraction to more “modernized” Victorians who longed for simpler, romanticized escapes from the present. A resurgence in traditional garb and the emergence of cultural tourism lead to many old pieces of clothing and jewelry being worn once again.

French Bisque Doll in the Traditional Costume of Normandy by Gaultier, circa 1870
This doll, dressed in one version of Normandy’s folk costume, shows the heavy influence of the late 18th century on traditional garb and comes complete with a pretty cross pendant of her own.

Many of the silver Saint Lô crosses had pin backs added to them so they could be worn as collar pins, on sashes, or to trendy masquerades and fancy dress balls. Some crosses were sold as souvenirs and others made the journey across the Atlantic in the trunks of immigrants until, in the case of my pendant, they ended up in Vermont and now, Texas.

If this seems like a really long post for something as simple as a beat-up silver pendant, you might be right, but I get excited when something quite unassuming leads me down a rabbit hole and pops me out in a whole new world of fresh information and beautiful things! Today turns into yesterday just as fast as we get to tomorrow. What seems so obvious now is soon archaic and what is old now becomes obscure and even lost. Rediscovering the past is a pleasure, especially when you can hold it in your hand!

IMG_1607

One Dress Two Weddings: An 18th Century Gown Remade in the 1840s

Recycling Grandma’s Old Dress

There’s a large debate in the vintage community about whether we should wear vintage clothing or save it. It’s a tricky question.  What most people consider vintage clothing– clothing 80-20 years old– was usually mass produced. It’s fun to wear older clothing because it’s made differently and fits differently than modern mass produced clothing– so many different shapes, colors, and fabrics to explore! Even hand-sewn items are abundant because of population boom, especially after WWII, so there were more people to clothe and printed patterns became cheap and easier to use.

Wedding gowns are a favorite vintage item because they are often worn for only a day, then carefully preserved and passed down to the next generation. Little girls dream of one day wearing mommy’s or grandma’s dress to their wedding, and dresses from the 1930s to even the 1980s (yes, big, poofy sleeves coated in plastic pearls are coming back into vogue) are being re-worn by this generation’s brides or updated to suit modern tastes by shortening skirts, removing sleeves, or adding trims. Altering a wedding dress to suit changing fashion norms and different body types is a common practice that has been going on for ages.

For previous generations, however, vintage clothing wasn’t mass produced. For our grandmothers and even our mothers, vintage clothing stretched back into the era of home sewing. Go back even further and everything was not only home-made but hand-stitched as well. The investment of time, labor, and materials was much greater, and dresses were picked apart and re-fashioned much more frequently to squeeze every last iota of usefulness out of the fabric. In the 1840s and 50s, 18th century inspired fabric designs were all the rage and women began turning to their grandmothers’  old-fashioned, outdated 18th century gowns into then-modern designs.

Take, for example, this gown for Augusta Auctions:

AugustaAuctions18th19th AugustaAuctions18th19th2

It’s made of airy muslin decorated with small sprigs of flowers and trimmed with an elaborate hand-painted border:

AugustaAuctions18th19th3

They list it as a 1795 Wedding Gown, but just looking at it tells you that something is off. The fabric is right, as is the petticoat-overdress styling, but everything else is off. Perhaps it’s just the lack of panniers or a bum roll to support the trailing overdress? While the mannequin isn’t helping matters, it’s the pleated trimming at the bust, redone sleeves, back-closure, and waistline that are 100% 19th century.

AugustaAuctions18th19thbodice

AugustaAuctions18th19thback

The biggest giveaway that this dress is a remodel is the bodice. Indeed, it seams as though the Victorian seamstress might have turned the bodice backward! Everything about it screams late 1830s/early 1840s– from the wide, shallow neckline to the back closure (only children’s gowns in the 18th century closed in the back. Women’s 18th century gowns closed in front). It’s hard to tell what the original gown my have looked like, but while it looks closer to a Robe à l’Anglaise now, judging by the large amount of fabric that went into the remodel, it’s possible it was a Robe à la Polonaise with the overskirt let down.

Robe à l’Anglaise with Train, circa 1784-87

Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1780

The sheer amount of fabric that went into the remodel could also mean it was a Robe à la Française, but I’ve never seen a Robe à la Française made of muslin. In addition, if the 1795 date is indeed the originating date of the dress, the française-style back was pretty much out of fashion. My bet is that Grandmother wore a lovely trained Anglaise to her wedding in the 1780s-90s and her granddaughter wanted to wear it to her own wedding (remember, this dress was only about 50 years old when it was remade, the modern equivalent of remodeling a 1960s dress). Whatever its original form, this dress underwent a massive remodel sometime between 1838 and 1842. I have an 1840s fashion plate that’s a little later in date than this remodel appears to be, but it’s nonetheless similar. It shows the same style of bodice, and conveniently located next to it is another ball gown with an overskirt:

You’ll notice that the necklines in the fashion plate are much lower than on the Augusta Auction gown. The lady who remodeled the dress likely did so for her own nuptials since a low neckline would be considered very  immodest for a church wedding. The sleeves of the dress and likely much of the fabric used to raise the neckline and make the pleated trim came from the petticoat. That would also explain the excessive staining on the overskirt of the dress. Luxurious trains never go out of style, so once the fullness of the petticoat had been lessened and rounded out, the overskirt was re-fashioned into an opulent bridal train.

There are other dresses like this one that were made of 18th century fabric in the mid-19th century. Even Elizabethan and Stuart-era garments were not immune to the Victorians’ romantic obsession with ancestral fashion.  It was a common practice, much like wearing vintage or sewing with antique textiles today. Every generation looks back and laughs at how ridiculous their parents and grandparents dress, but they also admire them as well. 19th century fashion writers are constantly complaining about the poor quality of their current fabric selection compared to the rich, sturdy fabrics of their predecessors  (Doesn’t that sound familiar?). Just as costumers and vintage-wearers today turn to antique collars, yardage, and trims to get the look just right, so did our ancestors.

For some, it’s a crime to destroy rare and precious garments in this way because it means there will be fewer preserved for future generations. Others believe that garments are made to be used and enjoyed. Others, like myself, sit in the middle ground. There is a time to trash, a time to transform, and a time to treasure and it’s highly subjective. While it’s sad that we will never know what the 18th century incarnation of this gown looked like, it has a fascinating history that makes it unique among dresses. There are quite a few well-preserved 18th and 19th century dresses in museum collections around the world, but pieces like this are much more unusual!

Keeping Track of Time: Georgian Watch Chains, Equipages, Fobs, and Chatelaines

Timeless Tethers

“Portrait of King George III” by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1781
I love this portrait of King George. He has such a poor reputation, but if you had undiagnosed porphyria in an era when bleeding was supposed to cure all ills, you’d have a pretty rough time, too. Anyway, I love this portrait of him. In fact, it’s one of my favorite 18th century male portraits because he’s so simply dressed, but he’s wearing every piece of a true gentleman’s wardrobe, including the elusive fashion garter, pinky ring, and watch chain!

Though the watch emerged as the premier toy of the nobility in the 16th and 17th century, in the 18th century, watches became an indispensable accessory. Not only were they tiny marvels and works of art, they also denoted fashionable scientific enlightenment– the transition from the ancient sundial to the mathematical precision of a rapidly industrializing society. Early watches were heavily ornate and often only had an hour hand. Thanks in large part to advances in enameling techniques, by the 18th century, decoration became more refined: smooth enamel scenes and repoussé cases contrasted beautifully with clean, white watch faces. Minute and second hands were introduced and complex calendar watches with multiple faces became popular.

Double-faced Calendar Watch with Enamel Painting, circa 1770-80
Early watches often only had an hour hand. By the 18th century, minute hands had become standard and second hands began to show up on fancier models.

Watch with Pearls (front and back), circa 1790-1800

18th century gentlemen wore watch chains attached their timepieces because they helped make it easy to check the time without having to root inelegantly in a tiny pocket. Watch chains were long enough to show from under the waistcoat:

Watch Chain, circa 1800

Portrait of John Adams” by William Winstanley, circa 1798

Today, we call these kinds of chains fobs. However, the word “fob” originally referred not to the chain itself, but to the small pocket in which valuables, like a watch, were kept. Breeches in the 18th and early 19th century had wide waistbands with small pockets fitted into them, a tradition continued by many modern pairs of jeans:

The etymology for the word:  fob (n.) 1653, “small pocket for valuables,” probably related to Low Ger. fobke “pocket,” High Ger. fuppe “pocket.”

Suit, circa 1765-75
If you look closely at the waistband of the breeches, you will see the welt of the fob/pocket opening (you may have to expand the picture). This suit is missing its waistcoat, which would cover the waistband and conceal the pocket. It’s easy to slip a watch into a tiny pocket, but getting it out can be much harder! A watch could be tucked into this pocket and the attached chain would hang out of the pocket making it easy to remove.

Trousers with fob (pocket), circa 1810-20
The waistcoats of the 19th century were much shorter, so accessing the fob pocket was much less difficult. The watch chains of the era were much shorter, though the Merveilleuses kept the tradition of displaying lots of small watch charms popular. By the Victorian era, watch chains had become much simpler and remained so throughout the era.

Modern pair of jeans with a small fob pocket inside the larger front pocket.

So in the 18th century, the fob was the pocket and the watch chain was what you attached your watch to. However, many museums, especially American museums, label them (and even some equipages/chatelaines) as fobs. The confusion may stem from the fact that many earlier 18th century men’s watch chains are not chains at all, but watch strings made of ribbons, tassels and other passementerie:

Fob Design, circa 1780
Watch strings were more common than chains because they were less expensive and hardier.

fob2

Silk Watch Chain with Seal, circa 1770-90

fob3

Woven Hair Watch Chain with Watch Key, circa 1780-1800

fob

Braided Silk Watch Chain with Watch Key, circa 1770-1790
The image is terrible quality, but I love the fly fringe. Fly fringe for all!

Watch chains held more than just the watch. Dangling from the ends, you’ll notice small trinkets. This little “charms” were actually necessary to conducting 18th century business and no gentleman of means would be caught without them. The two most common men’s accessories were the watch key and seal.

Watch Chain with Seal and Key, circa 1800

Citrine Seal, circa 1815
The seal was used for sealing letters. In an age where paper correspondence was the only means of long-distance communication, letters were part of everyday life. Our current mail system is very sterilized compared to mail systems of the past. Letters were not handled by machines, but by people, some of whom might take an interest in what your private letter contained. A wax seal provided both proof of the sender (to avoid forgeries), but also added a tamper-evident seal. It wasn’t a perfect system, but adding seals to documents was an important part of law and etiquette.

Watch and Key, circa 1770
Watches often became separated from their keys over the years. Fortunately, unlike house keys, watch keys were fairly standardized, so you could buy another from a watch maker.

Thomas Jefferson’s Watch Key honoring his late wife, Martha
Since pocket watches run on springs, it was important to keep your watch carefully wound in order for it to continue keeping time. Stem-wind pocket watches (the ones still in use today) were not invented until the 1840s. Instead, watches were wound with small watch keys. You’ll notice many pre-1850 watches have small holes in the face with a pin inside. This is where the watch key would be inserted to wind the watch. Pocket watches must be wound daily to keep functioning properly, so it makes sense to keep your key close at hand on your watch chain, just in case you notice your watch running down!

Aside from his watch and these small business implements, perhaps a few tassels for good fun, a man’s watch chain might include small trinkets, like a portrait miniature or a charm for military service. Women, however, often carried much more than these basic accessories on shorter, heavily decorated pieces of jewelry called an equipage (later called a chatelaine). Women did not wear breeches with fob pockets, so while men hid their watches in a fob pocket and let the watch chain hang from it, women wore their watches at the hanging end of their equipages in full view:

Ulrike Sophie, Duchess of Mecklenburg,” circa 1765
There are multiple versions of this portrait and this dress (it must have been a favorite of hers). If you look under her elbow, you can see she is wearing a lovely watch and equipage.

Chatelaine with Watch, circa 1760
The word “chatelaine” is, like “fob,” a 19th century term. Most museums will list equipages as chatelaines in their collections.

Back of the chatelaine showing the hook

Equipages pinned or clipped to the waistband of a woman’s petticoat since she didn’t have a fob pocket. Others were designed to be worn hooked over a sash, like those worn over zone-front gowns. The weren’t just for watches, but could also include a multitude of accessories, grooming tools, sewing implements, or small vials of perfume  and did not necessarily have to include a watch–some were more like suspended sewing kits–but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus only on chatelaines with watches:

Chatelaine with Watch, Key, and Antique Pendant, circa 1750
Equipages and watches in the first half of the 18th century were incredibly ornate like their 17th century ancestors. This particular equipage includes a unique accessory: a Renaissance pendant from the 1580s that was already over 150 years old when this equipage was constructed!

Chatelaine with étuis (small containers), circa 1755
The small rectangle container from the left dates to about 1730 and was used for snuff which both ladies and gentlemen indulged in.

Chatelaine with watch and charms, circa 1760-70
High-fashion equipages like this functioned as a charm bracelet of sorts for ladies of the court. They were almost completely decorative in nature and might not even have a working watch.

Chatelaine, circa 1775
This equipage has the classic watch-key-seal combination dressed up with gold and a plethora of gemstones!

Wedgewood Chatelaine, circa 1790
Suspended from chains attached to the hook are three trinkets: an undecorated carnelian fob; a v-shaped container, possibly for snuff; and a swivel mirror in a case with an engraved hammer and anvil, symbols of force and labor. The missing pendant was in all likelihood the watch key.
The museum lists this as a gentleman’s chatelaine, but it was probably for a lady since the watch is suspended at the end of the chain.

During the 1780s, it became fashionable for women to wear long watch chains similar to men’s chains. Pairs of watch chains like these were worn with the wildly popular zone front gown or riding habits inspired by the swooped-back cut of a man’s coat and waistcoat. Even though they look very similar to men’s watch chains at the time, they probably clipped or pinned to the petticoat like chatelaines. An article from the Museum of London speculates that ladies may have tucked the watch into their waistband, unless women began including fob pockets in their waistbands or bodices (I haven’t found any evidence of such practice, but if anyone else has, please link to it in the comments below). In all likelihood, the chains were meant to be a display of cutting-edge fashion prowess and wealth rather than functional watch chains:

“Queen Marie Antoinette of France and two of her Children Walking in The Park of Trianon” by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, circa 1785

Detail of Marie’s watch chains. Notice how hers are full of charms, but not necessarily functional watch accessories. The ever-fabulous Aristocat made her own versions, this time including a watch, which you can see here.

Fashion Plate, circa 1787
Wealthy women of the 1780s were said to indulge in wearing two watches at once, a trend borrowed from (and subsequently abandoned by) gentlemen’s fashion. Many fashion plates of this trend show two chains of the same length, but with different configurations. Others, like this one, are perfectly matched and are only loosely “fob-like.”

Detail of Fashion Plate, March 1787
This look is directly inspired by menswear of the period. This is the only illustration I could find that shows this particular style being worn with an obvious watch– in this case, three of them! Some of them are likely fake. Just as precious jewels were imitated, so were expensive watches! As the original article suggests, this may have been a slightly satirical drawing of a female Macaroni, who were, much like the Incroyables and Merveilleuses of the 1800-10s, considered gaudy, outlandish dressers.

By the time the 1790s rolled around, the style of dress had completely changed. The heavily ornate gold equipages were replaced with longer watch chains for both sexes, though ladies’ watches generally remained daintier.

“The Five Positions of Dancing” Illustration, circa 1811
A charming print not just as a dancing reference, but also for all the wonderful watch chains!

Portrait of Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis

Detail of the “Portrait of Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis” by Merry-Joseph Blondel
His dress places this portrait close to his death in 1808. The thick, high cravat style (one of the signature marks of a dandy) was in vogue from about 1800-20, and large, showy watch accessories were favorite pieces of jewelry.

Merry-Joseph Blondel
Merry-Joseph Blondel

Men’s watch chains/fobs remained in fashion well into the 20th century, and ladies’ chatelaines remained popular through the 19th century until they were replaced with the lady’s handbag by the 1920s. However, wearing watches on a chain never left. Watch necklaces can still be found and were very popular during the mid-20th century, and continue to be worn today. Instead of watches, the smart phone has become the must-have accessory of the 2010s. Much like an equipage or watch string of old, they hold all of our tools in one place for us, complete with fancy cases, accessories, and charms.

For More Information on Georgian Watches, Accessories, and Fobs

On Wearing Two Watches by the Museum of London – Explores the late 18th century trend for wearing two watches at once by both men and women.

Equipages, Chatelaines, and Macaronis by the Museum of London – Explores ways ladies in the 1780s might have worn the double watch chains.

A Watch Fob for My Regency Gentleman by Romantic History – How to make a regency-style watch fob/chain.

My Mr. Knightly: Making Breeches by Tea in a Teacup – How to make historically appropriate breeches with Simplicity 4923 (including fob pocket) and a wonderful set of research links are included.

Cogs and Pieces: Antique Pocket Watches – An online collection of antique time pieces from the 18th century onward and all for sale.

How the Watch was Worn by Genevieve Cummins – A rather spendy book, but a thorough one! I don’t have the privilege of owning a copy, but it is considered the premiere guide to historical watch wearing.

Find of the Month: English Silver-Gilt Button

January 2014

I’m a little late posting this Find of the Month, so I thought about skipping January and just do one at the end of February. However, this little guy is super cute! I felt bad passing him over…

101_7432

I wouldn’t consider myself a button collector. In fact, I usually find myself short a few buttons! I’m a sucker for antique buttons, though. After the thrill of finding my own Stuart Crystal breeches button, I was hooked.

Trefoil Cypher

Breeches button, circa 1690-1715

Buttons are survivors! Since they’re made out of hardy materials and are always useful, they usually outlast the fashions they are attached to. They were frequently recycled into newer fashions, so you will find lots of Victorian bodices that have been robbed of their many front buttons. Buttons also tend to get lost easily. While that may seem like a terrible thing, in the long run, it means you have a treasure hunt on your hands!

Lots of people like to go metal detecting for such tiny lost objects. Buttons that popped off a coat years ago are common finds. I like to browse through antiquities, mostly out of curiosity rather than a want to buy. It’s exceptionally simple to fake antiquities by just burying things in damp soil for a few years and letting them gather a little age before selling them to less-informed buyers. I was always told that buying such trinkets from anyone but licensed dealers was a fool’s mistake. That’s sage advice, but when I stumbled across this particular button, my heart did a little jig in excitement:

Button

The seller cautiously dated it to the 18th century(?), and the shape looked right. Buttons hold their value well and even now, buttons are one of the biggest expenses in most of my projects. A button of this size and style made of metal can cost 6 or 7 dollars new, sometimes much more. As I waited for my button to journey across the Atlantic, I used that fact to comfort myself that, even if this button was the phoniest of phonies, I had only paid the fair, modern market value for the button itself.

I actually ordered this little fellow back in mid-December, but air post from Britain often takes a month or so to arrive, so it didn’t arrive until the first week of January, making excellent time, considering that it had to wriggle its way through the holiday mail rush. So even though I technically “found” it in December, I’m using it for January’s Find of the Month since I didn’t even get to hold it until King’s Day! It was well worth the wait: I was not disappointed! After some gentle cleaning and taking off much more dirt than it appeared to be coated with (I swear the back is actually a dust portal and that there is now a good-sized hole somewhere in the English countryside where it all ported from), I discovered that under all the grey was a light layer of silvery gilt:

101_7420 101_7424

I do not know if it is silver or silvery tin. It’s laid over a base made of a copper alloy (pewter, perhaps?) which is darker and rough, but responds to neither metal polish nor a magnet. Judging by the shape, it’s entirely possible that this button is from the 18th century–the golden age of buttons before the late Victorian period–but buttons in this style have been made since ancient times. It could very well be 19th century or 17th century, or an Indian-made button from a 1970s vest. I really cannot tell, but I love it nonetheless! I’m thinking it would go very well on a hat bow or maybe sewn to a velvet choker. I haven’t quite decided yet.

101_7428

The Three Shoes Every (Penniless) Historical Costumer Needs

For Every Cinderella Without a Fairy Godmother
A.k.a “Shoes for Stepsisters”

It may be impossible for a fashionable woman to have too many shoes, but what if your problem isn’t a lack of closet space, but a lack of funding? As lovely as it is to get a fresh pair of shoes for every new outfit, it’s not always feasible. Historically accurate shoes can be expensive. If you don’t like to tie yourself down to one specific stylistic decade, buying all the necessary historically accurate boots, slippers, and heels can really drain your bank account if you’re not careful. I love historical reproduction shoes, but between needing a new corset, buying sewing supplies, and having the annoying habit of needing food to survive, I don’t really have enough money to buy a new pair every time I change costuming eras. Instead, I have built up a core set of three shoe types that can mutitask across time periods.

101_7089

My Three Favorite Costuming Shoes

These shoes may not be historically accurate, but they are historically appropriate. There are only so many ways to shod the human foot, so while materials and decorations may have changed, there are a few basic shoe styles that have cycled through history in different incarnations. We are blessed that modern fashion is so all-encompassing: we have every imaginable shoe type available to us! It’s just a matter of finding the right one for the right price. With a little legwork and luck, you can squeak by in nearly any era with only three pairs of shoes!

I chose the following shoes for their comfort, simplicity, ease of availability, and ability to be worn as everyday modern shoes as well (Huzzah for raiding your own closet for historically appropriate shoes!).

–1–

Low-Heeled Mary Jane or T-Straps
Wear them for: Elizabethan and Stuart (1590-1630), Victorian (1860-1900), and Edwardian (1900+) Costumes

My pair:

101_7068

T-Strap Shoes by Angel Steps

My pair takes the Mary Jane style a bit further by being a t-strap, but both styles are workable. This is my favorite pair of shoes! Angel Steps brand is marketed by Amerimark and comes in many different variations and styles. The company, however, can be difficult to work with. You can read more about that adventure and see these shoes in action in “Halloween Thrifting Challenge: Early Stuart Era (1603-1625)

Mary Janes are shoes with a strap over the instep. They were popular in the Elizabethan era, and can be used for mid-Victorian shoes. The heyday of the strappy Mary Jane, however, was definitely the Edwardian era.
There are many variations of the Mary Jane style: wide straps, thin straps, t-straps, or multiple straps over the instep. For the most versatility, though, a single strap or thick t-strap is the easiest to blend into multiple eras. The key to the historical appropriateness, however, is the low heel. Modern women love towering high heels, but historically speaking, “high heels” weren’t very common and usually maxed out around 3 inches. For the most bang for your buck, choose a neutral color like black, white, or brown. These colors will work in all eras and are the most authentic, especially for earlier costumes.

Extant Examples:

Elizabethan/Stuart
Leather Shoe, circa 1600

Elizabethan shoes had a long tongue with straps over them that tied in place. This style of shoe is very hard to find (unless you buy recreations or find the miraculous modern incarnation), but you can modify a pair of modern Mary Janes to mimic the look by wearing a fabric rosette on top. Rosettes were super trendy during the early 1600s and were rather large. Simply slip a rosette onto the strap of your Mary Janes and you’re good to go! Both men and women in this era wore this style of shoe, so if you are a dainty-footed gentleman, take a peek into the ladies’ shoe department. Just remember that women’s shoes run smaller than men’s, so order up about two sizes (an 8 in men’s is about a 10 in women’s). Surprisingly, side buckles existed, but likely just on children’s shoes.

Victorian
Women’s Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1880-85

Mary Janes were known as “bar” or “strapped” shoes during the 19th century (Mary Jane was a patented shoe name in the 20th century) and were very popular, especially during the 1890s.

Edwardian, Flapper, and Beyond
Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1919

Once the 20th Century hit, Mary Janes and T-straps were all the rage! Multiple thin straps were especially popular and usually had long, pointy toes, but simple rounded toes were still used for utilitarian working and walking shoes.

–2–

Pointed-Toe Louis Heel
Wear them for: 18th century, Late Victorian (1870-1900), and 20th Century Costumes

My Pair:

101_7079

My Sexy Suede Heels!
I found these at the local Thrift Town second hand shop. They were $3 and are really REALLY worn in (they need new heel tips right now). Suede isn’t historically accurate for 18th century shoes, but unless you get really close, it doesn’t really matter. The shape is uncommon, but not unheard of.

The Louis heel is a curvy heel. Technically, a Louis heel has a very specific curve and other variations have other names. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call all appropriately curvy heels Louis heels because when you’re poor like me, there’s no point squabbling over details, especially since a good curvy heel is so hard to find anyway.
Louis heels are named after King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France. Both loved heels and show off their collections in many of their royal portraits. Many of the heels on Their Majesties’ shoes are blockier than later incarnations. The curvier heels seen on lady’s shoes has also been attributed to Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress. Once she started wearing curvy heels, so did every other 18th century lady of fashion!
Heels went out of style during the French Revolution, but were revived in the late Victorian era. The American Bicentennial in 1876 created a rococo revival. 18th century styling, including buckles, can be found on many shoes of the era. The Louis heel stayed fashionable into the 20th century, but other heel styles like the mid-century stiletto pushed it out of the limelight and into obscurity. However, finding a good curvy heel is still possible, especially at second hand shops and online. Pretty much any color or heel height under 4 inches will do, but choose a color and heel height that that you feel comfortable wearing often.

Extant Examples:

18th Century
Latchet Shoes, circa 1760-75
and
Mules, circa 1740

18th Century Louis heeled shoes had latchets–two straps that crossed over the top and were held in place with a buckle. Outside of reproductions, these criss-crossing latchets aren’t available on modern shoes. With a little bit of creativity and some pretty fabric, you can recover shoes to create latchets, but another option that requires no alteration is the mule (backless heels). Mules with pointy toes were very popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so there’s usually a good selection available second-hand.

Late Victorian
Rococo Revival Style Pumps, circa 1890

By about 1870, the modern pump was already beginning to be recognizable. Many evening shoes of the era were just like a pair of pumps you would find in your neighborhood shoe shop today. If you find a pair of leather pumps with a curvy Louis heel, you’ve struck Victorian gold!

–3–

Flats
Wear them for: Medieval (5-14th century), Renaissance to Stuart (14th century to 1630), Regency (1790-1832), and Victorian (1832-1860)

My Pair:

101_7075

Green Velvet Semi-Flats
My flats aren’t perfectly flat (they have a 1/2 inch heel), but they have a nice high vamp and rounded-point toe that works well with lots of different costumes. Plus, they are comfy. I bought them second-hand for $2 with Regency costuming in mind. You can see them in action (sort of) in “Transforming Edwardian Nightwear into Regency Daywear.”

Flats can be as basic or fancy as the occasion demands. Really, you could pretty much costume every era with flat shoes. There are small nuances for different eras– the Medieval poulaines, Tutor cowmouths, Regency’s knife-sharp pointed toes, and squared Victorian slippers— but a gently rounded toe will get you through almost every era without trouble. Flat shoes can also very easily be made at home if you’re feeling crafty! The only caveat for flats is that they shouldn’t show “toe cleavage” over the top of the vamp. Also, make sure they fit over stockings (stockings can help hide toe cleavage in a pinch as well!). Almost any color or decoration will work depending on your outfit, but a good leather or satin flat in a natural tone will work through more eras. Simple ankle boots made of leather or cloth can work for all of the eras listed above, too! In college, I had a pair of flat Rocket Dog ankle boots that worked well for medieval. It was heart rending when they wore out.

Extant Examples (too many to count, but here are a few):

Medieval
Saxon Shoe, 6th-9th century
and
Child’s Ankle Boot, circa 1350-1400

Besides flat slippers, flat-soled ankle boots were nearly universal. You can make reproductions of Medieval shoes from leather if you plan to do lots of medieval costuming.

Renaissance
Slashed Leather Shoe, circa 1500-1550
and
Slashed (finished with buttonhole edges) Velvet Shoes, circa 1550-1575

Slashed shoes matched the Renaissance trend for slashed sleeves and other garments. Just as a sleeve’s slashes allowed luxurious poufs of fabric to show through, slashed shoes allowed brightly colored stockings to peek out. All those slashes would fill your shoe with pebbles in no time! These slashed shoes were for the rich nobles who did not have to walk or work in the dust often. Lower-class shoes looked much as they had since ancient times.

Regency
Spangled Silk Shoes, circa 1793-98
and
Leather Walking Boots, circa 1795-1815

If you love wearing flats, this is your era! Heels (except the tiniest kitten heels) were out of fashion. Ankle boots were gaining popularity again after being completely out of fashion in the 17th and 18th century and now had front laces. Flat shoes of this era and the Victorian era could be made in leather or cloth by a craftsman or at home. In 1790-1810, pointed shoes were in style. They start transitioning to square toes around 1820.

134_3044

Early to Mid Victorian
Cotton and Silk Shoes, circa 1845-60
and
Silk Satin Boots, circa 1830-1850

Shoes during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign rarely had heels and were generally made with a very noticeable square toe. However, since many women made their shoes at home from patterns out of fashion magazines, middle and lower class shoes, especially for daytime wear, are usually more rounded.

—–

Going Beyond the 3 Shoes

While these three shoes will let me wiggle by in nearly every fashion from 1590 to now, it is a very limited shoe wardrobe. It’s better to think of these three shoes as three shoe types instead. I’ve collected a few variations of each shoe type for specific outfits, like this pair I plan to use when I finally get my Edwardian dress project off the ground:

101_7128

These 1990s Purple Pumps were $4 at Goodwill.
I think I may have a “thing” for suede shoes…

These pumps are a variation of the first type of shoe in this list–the Low-Heel Mary Jane–with a bit of the second type–Pointed-Toe Louis Heels–mixed in for a good dose of Edwardian spice! As soon as you learn to recognize the major characteristics of historical footwear, you won’t feel as overwhelmed when you’re digging through shelf after shelf of shoes because you’ll be able to instantly judge whether the shape is historically appropriate or not. After that, all the little nuances like materials, decoration, and color fall into place easily!