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:

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“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.

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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:

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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:

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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!

From Cup to Curl: How to Get Fabulous Historical Hair Using Straws

Big Hair was a Big Deal Long Before Dallas and Dolly Parton!

Those of you that browse my rambling frequently are well aware that I am hair illiterate. Indeed, I know next to nothing about taming my crispy, unruly mane. Yet, I am slowly teaching myself a few tricks here and there, and the internet has been a boon for my boring locks.

As a strong adherent to the old cliche that “every curly-haired girl wants straight hair and every straight-haired girl wants curls,” I have dreamed of lovely curls since childhood. When I was very young, my mother had tightly permed 1980s poodle hair (her words, not mine!), and I remember playing with her pink plastic hair pick, pretending I had a perm that needed fluffing, too. I am infinitely envious of those glamorous 1980s superstars like Bernadette Peters and Whitney Houston who had curls so luscious no scrunchie could contain them! A perm is still on my wish list (even though everyone who survived the 80s or who has naturally curly hair tries their best to talk me out of it).

Besides wanting crazy amounts of day-to-day curls, my historical costuming adventures have reenforced just how important curls have been throughout the ages. The 1980s do not hold the monopoly on excessive amounts of curl! Indeed, many eras require spiral curls to achieve the right look:

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An Unknown Nobelwoman painted by the wonderful Jacob Ferdinand Voet modelling a 1670s hairstyle.

This lovely Portrait of a Lady by François Henri Mulard displays the shorter spiral curls popular during the Regency era.

This mid-19th century teenage girl has possibly the most enviable set of sausage curls in the history of mankind! I found her photo (and the one below) while I was researching Victorian haircare and have been obsessed ever since!

This unknown beauty from the 1870s perfectly demonstrates the decade’s fashion for intricately curled and mounded hair.

Other eras benefit from the volume brushed-out curls can give, especially late 18th century and early 20th century hairstyles:

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, late 18th century, demonstrating the infamous “hedgehog” hairstyle.

Miss Carlyle and Miss Clarke enjoy tea Gibson Girl style while attempting to balance the hair piled fashionably high on their foreheads.

Many of these looks were achieved through wigs and hair extensions. Buying and selling human hair has been big business for centuries and one of the greatest criticisms of hair fashions was the fact that many styles often meant that the majority of the hair on a woman’s head was not her own, but that of a complete stranger! Much of the hair used to make switches and wigs came from peasant girls in rural areas, so a princess might literally have the hair of a pauper.

Fancy hairstyles and the hair switches required to complete them, circa 1867

 Unless you are lucky enough to be gifted by nature with thick, voluminous locks, hairpieces, rats, rolls, and wigs are all part of a modern historical costumer’s hair arsenal. There are plenty of awesome tutorials with tricks to boost the volume of your natural hair with socks and hair rats or make yourself a completely new hairdo using a wig. Jen of Festive Attyre always has beautiful big Georgian hair thanks to a combination of curling her own hair and adding in a hairpiece:

 I can barely handle my own hair, so rats and hairpieces escape me and wigs are a whole ‘nother beast entirely. I do have a squishy net doughnut that I use to help me make buns, but otherwise, I have very few hair-boosting tools (indeed, I didn’t have a hairdryer until my sister bought me one for my birthday this year). My go-to to get the volume I crave has long been braiding. I used a single braid to get fluffy 1890s “New Woman” hair:

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How to Get No-Fuss Fluff for the New Woman

I have been known to wander around the apartment complex looking like this:

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To get to 1890s/1980s worthy fluff, you must first re-live the 1990s.

If I braid my whole head like this, I am rewarded with glorious poofy hair that looks like it was crimped:

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Enjoying the irony as Mother Nature wearing faux foliage in the middle of a Taco Bell.

However, it’s not curls. I’d attempted pin curls a few times over the years, but I never got them to work satisfactorily, so for Georgian Picnic this year, I decided to try something new. I had been stumbling around Pinterest as one is wont to do at 3am when I started seeing all these pins about straw curlers and the photos made my jaw drop:

AAAAAAAAAAAAAA! SO GORGEOUS!

Most the the tutorials I found were for African American hair and I worried that my pale, limp locks wouldn’t be able to support the curls thanks to their lack of texture, but I decided to try it anyway. Anything for those spirals!

I found this tutorial and when I saw the curls she got at 6:06, I freaked out!
CURLS! SAUSAGE CURLS! JUST LIKE 1860s GIRL’S SAUSAGE CURLS!

 I think I would have fallen out of the chair if there wasn’t a cat in my lap digging her claws into my thigh for dear life. The day before Georgian Picnic, I bought a cheap pack of 100 straws for about $1.50 at Walmart and commenced experimenting. I was aiming for a hairstyle like this:

Portrait of Jane Horley by Rolinda Sharples, circa 1815-20

So I separated the front half of my hair and curled it, leaving the back uncurled (I put it up in a bun). I didn’t use any products in my hair before, during, or after. I did have slightly damp hair when I began.

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My hair in its natural state.

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I bent the straws and held them in place with bobbie pins, murdering quite a few in the process. Long metal hair clips would probably work better. You might even have some and not know it! Check your sewing kit. Fabric clips and hair clips are quite similar.

I will admit that I had a little trouble rolling the hair onto the straws. Most of that just springs from my inability to roll hair (hence why curlers, pin curls, and any other type of curl had thus far been unattainable). I rolled my hair over itself instead of all along the straw like in the video. This worked for my purposes in the end, however, because Regency curls are short anyway.

I slept on my straw-filled hair, but as I would later find out, the straws work their magic in only a few hours. When I took out all the straws, this is what I ended up with:

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My hair is much longer in front than a Regency woman’s would have been, so my curls hang lower than most portraits show.

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After phutzing with the ringlets a bit.

This is the hair I attended Georgian Picnic with. Since it was my first attempt, it was a bit messy, but it did suit the romantic aura of the era pretty well.

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Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

When I got home, I separated the ringlets with my fingers just to see what they looked like looser and I was rewarded with light, fluffy, fairly natural-looking curls:

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I lost about 1/2 of my hair’s length to the curls, mostly due to the way I wrapped them around the straws. If you wrap the hair more evenly over the straws, you won’t lose as much length.

The curls had good volume and made a nice Gibson Girl pouf pretty easy. I wish I’d taken a photo! Since I’d gone this far, might as well go the extra mile and brush everything out!

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Helloooooooooo giant hair of my dreams!

I’m only a few hairpins, some hair powder, and one fabulous hat away from this:

Portrait of Catherine Clemens by George Romney, circa 1788

I am so excited to have finally found a curling method that works for my hair! The curls held well until I had to wash my hair the next day, so they are perfect for long events. They survived wind, rain, and my hat in great condition. I tried them a second time for my dress photoshoot and only left the straws in my hair for about two hours. The final curls were a bit looser, but still held up to outdoor photography. Plus, I’d gotten a bit better at winding the hair around the straws, so the results were much smoother:

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I also did fewer curls to save time and ended up liking the look much better.

So  my straw curler experiment was a complete success! There are skinny wired-foam curlers that work similarly, but I never got them to work as well as these good ol’ Wally World drinking straws– a cheap and effective solution!