Fashion and Feminism: Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute and the Hunt for a Healthful Corset

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Portrait of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute in an article commenting on her corset research and practice (among other things), 1890s.

Before I proceed, I am going to ask that you read this post with the following disclaimer in mind:

I do not fluently read/speak French. Therefore the translations provided below are courtesy of Google Translate, which is not perfect. I tried to verify the translations through multiple dictionaries to ensure that I am not misinterpreting the author’s intent, but sometimes things can be lost in translation which is why I have provided the original French alongside the Google English translations.

 

le-corset

Wikimedia’s photograph archive from the book “Le Corset” written by Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute c. 1900 showcases a wide variety of body shapes in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period. The book has illustrations (photographs overtraced by hand) of women of many body types modelling the “old” corset style from the 19th century and the “new” corset style we call the S-bend or flat front corset, which was supposed to prevent lower tummy expansion and be healthier than the older style.

captureClick here to see all the illustrations.

As you go through the photos, notice all the women the have lower belly paunch that comes from age, childbirth, medical conditions, weight gain, gravity, and from wearing corsets which push belly fat and organs downwards– effects which Gaches-Sarraute wished to correct with her new corset design.

This revolutionary and controversial book is one of the most famous pieces of corset literature from the early 20th century.
(The other, also titled “Le Corset” but by a different author, contains the infamous corset x-rays)

You may already be familiar with some of the images from the book, if not the book itself:

Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute vehemently opposed the Victorian corset because of the health problems she observed–like hernias, constricted ribcages, displaced organs, and weakened muscles–in the women wearing them. At first glance, the book may seem decidedly anti-corset and has lent much to the modern hatred/fear of the garment. However, the author herself states that she is not anti-corset:

“I could not think propose the abolition of the corset, we have seen elsewhere that has its uses; it is towards the elimination of its main drawbacks I directed my efforts.
Original French: “Je ne pouvais songer à proposer la suppression du corset, nous avons vu d’ailleurs qu’il a son utilité; c’est vers la suppression de ses principaux inconvénients que j’ai dirigé mes efforts.”

In fact, she is pro-corset, but only if the garment was made to more healthful standards. Her goal was quite a noble one: to improve the overall health of women by changing what she saw as the root cause of many female health problems— bad corsets.
Thus she designed a new support of her own:

Fig. 7 – Corset Gaches-Sarraute

It is very similar to the girdles that we see later in the century and still wear. In many advertisements, the short, light-reduction version of the S-bend corsets closest to Gaches-Sarraute’s original design are called “girdle corsets.”

It was meant to support the organs from below, free the chest from compression, and encourage “proper” posture. She believed her new corset design not only helped women’s organs, but improved their beauty and mental health. This design became the basis for the S-bend or straight front corset that took the fashion world by storm during the first decade of the 20th century.

With an abdominal corset that supports and relaxes her, the woman has less drawn features, eyes less circled, she is more vivacious, more energetic…Many women, sick without the cause of their condition being well determined, condemned to an almost constant repose, are now vigorous, healthy, able to walk, and without exaggerating, are reborn to life. Did the simple change of corset produce such results? Yes, because to this day all corsets, constructed without rules or laws, acted in the opposite direction to natural indications, and thwarted all physiological functions.”
Original French: “Avec un corset abdominal qui la soutient et la repose, la femme a les traits moins tirés, les yeux moins cernés, elle est plus vivace, plus énergique…Bien des femmes, malades sans que la cause de leur état fût bien déterminée, condamnées à un repos presque constant, sont aujourd’hui vigoureuses, bien portantes, peuvent marcher et sans rien exagérer renaissent à la vie.Le simple changement de corset a-t-il pu donner de tels résultats? Oui, parce que jusqu’aujourd’hui tous les corsets, construits sans règles, ni lois, agissaient en sens inverse des indications naturelles et contrariaient toutes les fonctions physiologiques.”

As we know now, the S-bend was not the cure-all Gaches-Sarraute hoped for. It came with its own set of problems.
Though the distended lower stomach caused by the older style of corset was considered unsightly and unhealthy, it had the advantage of allowing viscera some means of expansion. The S-bend/straight front corset did indeed keep the organs from being distended downward, but instead, it pressed them up, much as pregnancy does. The long, rigid front of the S-bend corset could become very uncomfortable since pressure from meals, gas, urine, menstral/hormonal changes, etc. has nowhere to expand except up against the diaphragm. This was not directly the fault of Gaches-Sarraute’s medically-minded design, but the effect was exacerbated by fashion adaptations made by mass manufacturers (as is so often the case, isn’t it?). Many straight front corsets made for the mass market extended too high on the body to allow for expansion of the ribs and upwards movement of the organs.

W. H. K. & S. “Ascot” Straight Fronted Corset Ad, 1902
Notice how much higher it extends compared to Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute design.

Modern corsets suffer from similar problems as we value the straight front, but crave full coverage to avoid unsightly bulges. This hybridization contributes in large part to the corset’s uncomfortable reputation as mass-manufacturers focus on overall slimness rather than the comfort of their wares. Without room left at the top and bottom of the corset to allow for the expansion and movement of flesh, tubular fashion corsets press too much everywhere, leading to chafing, numbness, breathlessness, and constriction. Coupled with general ignorance of how corsets should fit and be worn, it’s no surprise that the garment has gained such a painful reputation.

Inès Gaches-Sarraute and corset-lovers everywhere are cringing so hard right now.

The size/looks-before-comfort method of corset wearing has always been a problem.
Yes, even Victorian and Edwardian women wore ill-fitting or improperly worn corsets, often purchased “off the rack” in shops or through catalogs.  It’s a common myth that everything was perfectly tailor-made to fit by the women themselves. By the mid-19th century, corsets were manufactured in large factories and purchased much as we purchase a pair of jeans today.
Victorian women were number-conscious just like us, too!

Women have heard from their friends about a corset that looks good, which makes a pretty size [waist] – that is the only fact that interests them: they want to wear it, hoping to benefit also from an aesthetic point of view; But as their physiological state and conformation differ, if the corset is applied under the same conditions it produces the contrary effect and hurts them.
Original French: “Elles ont entendu parler par leurs amies d’un corset dont on se trouve bien, qui fait une jolie taille — c’est le seul fait qui les intéresse: elles veulent le porter, espérant en bénéficier, elles aussi, au point de vue esthétique; mais comme leur état physiologique et leur conformation diffèrent, si le corset est appliqué dans les mêmes conditions il produit l’effet contraire et leur fait mal.”

On this point, Gaches-Sarraute and modern corsetiers absolutely agree: do not sacrifice fit for looks! Fortunately for modern corset makers, the corset’s recent rise in popularity has increased awareness of proper fit. Gaches-Sarraute’s principles play heavily into modern corset design, like reduction points closer to the hips, cupped ribs to allow room for comfortable breathing, and embracing the underbust cut for ease of movement.

Gaches-Sarraute’s underbust design was revolutionary. For the first time in over 300+ years of corset evolution, the female breast was not held within the corset. This was a big change. The low front leaves the bust unsupported and pulls weight from the abdomen upwards, creating a top-heavy apple shape with natural-state breasts, which didn’t suit the Victorian feminine ideal of defined hourglass curves. Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute saw this as an bothersome, but positive side effect:

There is therefore a reform to bring to the costume, tedious reform, but which is necessary. The woman who wishes to wear the abdominal corset must not allow herself to be stopped by this modification; She must not hesitate to subject her clothes to the radical transformations required by the apparatus.
Original French: “…il y a donc une réforme à apporter au costume, réforme ennuyeuse, mais qui s’impose. La femme qui veut porter le corset abdominal ne doit point se laisser arrêter par cette modification; il ne faut pas qu’elle hésite à faire subir à ses vêtements les transformations radicales exigées par l’appareil.”


This is the sort of loose, unrestrictive clothing Gaches-Sarraute was probably expecting.

Fashions did change, but not quite as Gaches-Sarraute might have hoped. To adapt to the new corset shape, the dresses of the early 1900s are different than any feminine fashion before them: the waist moves low to the pelvis, bodices hang full and loose, and women in fashion illustrations appear to be rushing forward so fast they are leaving their skirts behind them.

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1904

Les Modes, 1904

Because the new style of corset moved the point of reduction to the soft abdomen rather than over the floating ribs, women discovered they could achieve greater reductions than before, an effect Gaches-Sarraute obviously was not aiming to achieve originally. She notes with some amused befuddlement in her book:

Before ending the long enumeration of the modifications made by the Abdominal Corset , I must point out a curious phenomenon, which is difficult to explain; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.
Original French: “Avant de terminer l’énumération déjà bien longue des modifications apportées par le corsetabdominal, il me faut signaler un phénomène assez curieux, assez difficile à expliquer; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.

We would call this effect “waist training” in our modern vernacular. Gaches-Sarraute noticed that the shape and weight of her patients changed after they had worn the corset regularly. From her Observations section later in the book:

Madame. H, 48 years old. Obesity, heart palpitations, very bad condition, does not leave the couch, varicose veins. First corset, October 1898. Since then, a lot thinner: 40 cm of belly circumference [15.75 inches], Since then, has thinned a lot: 40 centimeters belly, circulatory disorders have decreased and general health is much better, the patient walks very well”
Original French: “
Mme H…, 48 ans. Obésité, palpitations de cœur, état général très mauvais, ne quitte pas la chaise longue, varices des membres inférieurs. 1er Corset, octobre 1898. Depuis lors, a beaucoup aminci : 40 centimètres de tour de ventre, les troubles circulatoires ont diminué et la santé générale est beaucoup meilleure, la malade marche très bien.”

It probably wasn’t just the cinching power responsible for Mme. H’s transformation. She might have been able to move around more due to the lower back support provided by her new corset, boosting her impressive weight loss results with increased physical activity.

Back support has long been one of the main functions of corsets and corset-like garments. To provide the back support which Gaches-Sarraute believed Victorian corsets lacked, her corset design was very sharply angled at the lower back. This created artificial lumbar hyperlordosis, commonly called swayback. Some people develop this naturally, but by modern medical standards, it is considered a form of bad posture because it places stress on the lower disks, hip joints, knees, and, with the added pressure from the corset, the kidneys. However, this sort of posture was considered both powerful and graceful– and quite masculine. It was the posture of well-pedigreed gentlemen and soldiers standing at attention with their chests puffed out in confidence.

Early 19th Century British Uniforms

German Soldiers, 1901

Dr. Gaches-Sarraute’s design gave women this same posture, and straight-front corsets were often advertised as “military front” for that reason:

Foster Hose Supporter Ad from 1901

Corset advertisement, circa 1901-1905

This hyper-extended ideal posture was adopted by models, fashionistas, socialites, and famous personalities like Camille Clifford and Edith Lambelle Langerfeld:

Camille Clifford is famous for the curvy figure and is known to many as the original Gibson Girl. She embodied the epitome of the new S-bend look: flat abdomen, swelling bust, and prominent derriere. Her extraordinary photos must be taken with a grain of salt: she is also one of the greatest examples of early photo retouching. The retouching is evident here by the unnatural smoothness of everything from her hips up where the wrinkles of fabric suddenly vanish.

Edith Langerfeild “La Sylphe” was an exotic dancer known her extreme flexibility and extreme forward-arching posture, though not for wearing corsets (she regularly danced semi-nude). She combined the fashionable swayback posture and her contortionist skills to create an exaggerated version of the look sans-corset. Her career– and signature style–extended the forward-leaning trend into the 1910s, though the waistline moved up from the hips to the just under the bust.

Outside fashion photographs and illustrations, the average woman did not usually adopt the exaggerated posture–as this informative article, “The S-bend in Context” by Marion McNealy, shows– and some created the illusion of the shape with padding rather than posture.

Women walking, circa 1902-1905
Edwardian women in day dresses going about their daily lives for comparison to the fashion images above.

Photograph of a working class woman walking, circa 1905-1908
A great example of how the underbust design affects the fit of the bodice over the bust compared to a Victorian corset.

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Padding options from the 1905 Sears Catalogue
They are still called bustles, though they are quite a bit smaller than those of the 1880s!

The S-bend posture ideal had lasting effects. In 1932, Elizabeth Arden released a newsreel urging women to abandon the now “old” swayback style of posture Gaches-Sarraute’s straight front corset encouraged:

Elizabeth Arden advises women to adopt the modern straight posture we still strive for today. This posture ideal has much to do with our focus on unisex athleticism and greatly slimmed-down fashions (athleisure, anyone?). It’s quite impossible to hide the edge of a rigid corset under a pair of yoga pants! Many women wear only one or two layers which hug the body and is often cut to reveal skin and structure. We no longer deal with the bulky layers and heavy skirts our female ancestors considered fashionable, which leads to another of Gaches-Sarraute’s reasons for not throwing out the notion of corsets entirely:

The main role of the corset should be to support the clothes and prevent constriction of ties around the waist, so as to prevent overflow of the viscera downward under the influence of this constriction.
Original French: “Le rôle principal du corset doit être de soutenir les vêtements et d’empêcher la constriction des liens autour de la taille, de façon à éviter le refoulement des viscères vers le bas sous l’influence de cette constriction.”

This same sentiment is shared by Robert L. Dickinson who wrote “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement” for The New York Medical Journal in 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets, the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction”

Just like the fashions of the Victorian era, the fashions of 1900 were all about layers that relied on a tight fit at the waist. Women sought to make these layers as lightweight and full as possible to avoid bulk, but there was still many hidden supports under those beautiful outer skirts:

I covered more about historical clothing layers in earlier posts: “With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes” and “Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?

A corset takes and distributes the weight of the skirts, supporting all the layers so they do not dig into the skin– the very definition of a “foundation garment!”
Gaches-Sarraute’s low-cut corset lead to the creation of a new  foundation garment: the brassiere, though not quite as we know it now. Gaches-Sarraute was emphatically against altering her corset design to provide breast support, devoting an entire chapter in her book to her argument against it. She believed that the new design provided enough support to the breasts by means of the expanded, upraised ribcage it created and that:

Trapping the breasts in an impermeable fabric promotes wilting and atrophy of the gland.
Original French: “Le fait d’emprisonner les seins dans un tissu imperméable favorise le flétrissement et l’atrophie de la glande.”

Gaches-Sarraute’s entire mission was to spare as many organs as possible from pressure, including the mammary glands. She even describes a problem many modern women who have worn an underbust corset with a modern bra have experienced: the dreaded pinch that happens to the flesh trapped between the corset and bra band.  Modern tastes and social mores press Western women today to wear bras, especially in conservative American culture: modern American women are expected to have high, round breasts that do not show nipples– a goal that mandates daily bra wearing under our relatively thin, sheer clothing. Edwardian women, in contrast, wore multiple layers of cloth over their breasts, so show-through wasn’t as much of a worry. Their concern with the lack of breast support was out of habit (used to old corsets) and practical (the need for support while working/exercising) which is why  some women found the underbust unsatisfactory. This meant that underbust corsets didn’t take over the world in a blink. Instead, Victorian styles and high, demi-bust versions of S-bend corsets were sold right along side the shorter style, much, I am sure, to Gaches-Sarraute’s chagrin:

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Corsets Department page from the 1905 Sears Catalogue. Left side shows older Victorian style corsets while the right side corsets are S-bend straight front corsets.

As any large-breasted woman–myself included– can attest, unsupported breasts have many painful complications of their own. Once they are past a certain size and age, they no longer are self-supporting, creating both comfort, health, and aesthetic issues. She brushes these notions aside, saying, “there are few women with breasts sufficiently large for it to be necessary to provide them with a support/il y a peu de femmes pourvues de seins assez volumineux pour qu’il soit indispensable de leur fournir un appui.” However, she begrudgingly acknowledges the criticism of her design and offers a solution. One of the most famous images from the book shows her brassiere design of choice:

She was far ahead of her time when it came to the design: fifty years later, women would be wearing a very similar look:

Formfit Ad, 1949

Spencer Ad, 1959

Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s corset design, whatever our personal opinions of it, undeniably revolutionized fashion even though the woman herself cared very little for any of the outside frills and fashion. She was concerned only with the internal workings of women, not that of their needles and thread. From her earliest design trials in the late 1890s (her first recorded recorded observation is dated 1895), she recorded the health improvements she saw in her patients after wearing her new corset design, claiming to have observed nearly 4,000 cases of successful recoveries ranging from healing incontinence to treating infertility.

When studying old texts like “Le Corset,” it is important to remember that medical practices and knowledge 120 years ago were very different than today. We cannot verify all of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s claims. Her writing must be viewed with some skepticism, as she is writing to promote both her work and designs as well as writing with the limitations of Victorian medical knowledge. As even she states, it was hard to find enough uncorseted women to form a control group, making it difficult to tell which medical conditions were caused by corsets, exacerbated by them, relieved by them, or completely unrelated. For example, many 21st century women have rounded, low bellies like those pictured in “Le Corset” even though they have never worn a corset in their life– it’s just how some bodies store fat and where loose skin forms after childbirth.

 One thing that is clear, however, is Gaches-Sarraute’s steadfast devotion to the healing and liberation of women’s bodies. She was determined to improve and advance women’s lives via her new corset design:

Woman has glimpsed the possibility of altering her way of life; she wants to take part in the work and physical exercise of men; On the other hand, she is incommoded by the present dress, she is ill, and, consequently, ready to accept its modifications. I appreciate this happy disposition, convinced that nothing can be done for women except with their own consent, and I shall be happy if my work, based on scientific and physiological data, is appreciated by the medical profession and by hygienists. It will be much easier for me to fight against fashion and prejudice, which take no account of the needs of our organism.
Original French: “La femme a entrevu la possibilité de modifier son genre de vie, elle veut prendre part aux travaux et aux exercices physiques des hommes; d’autre part, elle est incommodée par le vêtement actuel, elle est malade, et, par suite, prête à en accepter les modifications. Je saisis cette heureuse disposition, convaincue qu’on ne peut rien faire pour les femmes qu’avec leur propre assentiment, et je serai heureuse si mon travail, basé sur des données scientifiques et physiologiques, est apprécié du corps médical et des hygiénistes, car il me sera alors beaucoup plus aisé de lutter contre la mode et les préjugés qui ne tiennent aucun compte des besoins de notre organisme.”

Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute, as a female doctor, saw her unique opportunity to influence female freedom. As a medical doctor, she had the knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biology that seamstresses, fashion designers, and corset manufacturers at the time lacked. As a woman, she personally understood feminine needs and sensibilities in a way that her male medical colleagues could not. In addition to designing a new corset, she advocated for sensible dress, championed bicycle riding, and was even willing to let women wear pants if they agreed to stop wearing old-fashioned corsets.

Bike Riding with a Corset

Bicycling in lounge pants and and old-fashioned corset. Whoopsie! Sorry, Dr. Inès!

Her legacy continues today in the form of medical corsets/braces (which help thousands find relief from back pain/scoliosis, postnatal complications, hernias, and more), modern corsetry design principles, and, for better or worse, our cantankerous relationship with one of the most controversial garments ever made.

The full text of “Le Corset” is available in the original French on Wikimedia.
It is available in multiple formats, including a wonderful scanned PDF version.

When it comes to corsets–and clothes in general–everyone has different needs. Corsets are certainly not one-size-fits-all, and they aren’t all one-style-fits-all either! Some find the underbust S-bend corset suits their body and is just as pleasant to wear as Gaches-Sarraute hoped it would be. Other people find the flowing curves and high front of the Victorian corset more comfortable and supportive. Many more still have no want for any corset at all, and that is perfectly fine, too.
As for my tastes: Remember those too-tall S-Bends from earlier? Yeah, those work great for me if patterned right! I like the flexible demi-bust front of a Victorian corset for support, but the curve of my back and titled pelvis work best with the back and hips of the S-bend, so long as there is plenty of extra room in the ribs and hips for all my luscious lipids to move around in!
This sort of knowledge is not inherent or concrete. It is something you learn over time with experience. Remember: a corset is just a garment. It is the person filling it with that matters most!

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Animated Edwardian Stereograph by Thiophene_Guy

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Looking Ahead: 1870 Imagines the Fashions of the Future

I’ve not done much this past year, or at least it feels that way. I am looking forward to the New Year, making plans and imagining where life will take me.

I was going through old digitized Harper Bazaar magazines from 1870 when I found this gem in the March 19th issue:

harpers-1870s-does-1890

Text:
A LOOK AHEAD
Scene – A Costumer’s   Time – 1890
LADY. “I want a Costume for a Private Fancy Dress Party I am to attend. Something Absurd or Ridiculous.”
COSTUMER. “How do you like That One?”
LADY. “That will do. But is it possible that People ever made such Frights of Themselves!”

There’s nothing like poking fun at the now through the eyes of tomorrow! For the curious, here’s two decadent, fluffy, fashionable dresses and hairstyles…published by the very same magazine only a few days before and after the cartoon lampooning them:

harpers-bazaar-1870

Ball Gown, March 12th, 1870

april-2-1870-harpers-bazaar-house-dress

House Dress, April 2nd, 1870

Oh, the delicious, delicious irony! We still do it today (just look for “Trends we need to ditch in 2017” videos on YouTube posted by beauty gurus who were touting the same things only a few weeks ago to see what I mean). What’s really wonderful about this cartoon, though, isn’t the Punch-style biting commentary or even hypocrisy of it, but how close they got the fashion forecast! They were just a little early in their predictions, though. Here’s a dress from Harper’s Bazar/Bazaar in 1890:

harpers-1890-2

Harper’s Bazar, October 18th 1890harpers-october-1890

Harper’s Bazar, October 18th 1890

There’s a hint of a similarity, but these don’t really look much like the cartoon’s facetious forecast, does it?

But skip forward a bit into the 20th century and…

1903-harpers harpers-1903 harpers-1904Select plates from 1903 issues of Harper’s Bazar

Just to refresh our memory:

harpers-1870s-does-1890

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Tightly fitted, flared-bottom skirts?
Check!

Fashion Plate, 1902

How about some more exciting hemlines?
As you wish…

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1901

But those big, puffy cuffs? Surely nobody would…
Like meringues for your wrists!

Fashion Plate, 1902

Fashion Plate, 1903

Paired with cape-like Sailor collars?!
Mmmmmhmmmmm! Classic.

Fashion Plate 1902

Fashion Plate, 1903

Cute little empire waist jackets with asymmetrical detailing?
You know I could never deny you!

Fashion Plate, 1902

Mounds of hair topped with hats?
Oh, honey, that hat is FAR too tiny, but if you insist….

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1905

But what about the raised waist, short skirt, fluffy hemline, and cute little hats?
Well, I suppose you could wait another decade…

Fashion Plate, 1915

…of course, you’ll sacrifice the fantastic pastry puff sleeves, but, hey, we can’t all be as fabulous as an Edwardian lady fancy dress shopping for vintage 1870s clothes in 1890!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!

Find amazing FREE digitized copies of 19th and early 20th century Harper’s Bazar/Bazaar magazines here: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000641436/Home

Georgian Picnic 2016: Rainbow Regency and a Normandy Bonnet

I hardly got to attend any events this year since work is short-staffed and work weekends always seemed to fall on guild days. I am so thankful to Carol for covering for me so I could attend my favorite event: Georgian Picnic! It was the first event I ever attended with the DFW costumers Guild and it is still my favorite. It’s laid back and relaxing.

The costuming chaos leading up to it, however, is a different story. This year, as every year, was fraught with last-minute perils. On my plate this year was the ever-variable Texas weather (will it be 85° or 58°?), a new Regency tailcoat (remember how well that went last time?), and a Normandy Bonnet (Wha—???).

After the disappointment of making a costume last year for a friend only to have it languish when she was unable to attend, I was wary making costumes for anyone other than Chris and I. But while I was able to escape work on the 19th, he was not so lucky. So I laid aside my fear of rejection and asked our friend Jen to go with me. She had never worn a historical costume before, but was interested in sewing and was willing to go through multiple fittings. Regency menswear struck her fancy, so we settled on a tailcoat made from Butterick 3648:

Butterick 3648 used to be out of print, but is now available through McCall’s Cosplay website in the “Vault Collection” as M2021. I used the old Butterick version I purchased off of eBay. I didn’t use the trouser pattern, but the coat pattern was very easy to use, if a bit complex. Bag lining is always a bear! I just can’t wrap my head around the pseudo-topology of it sometimes, but I worked it out. I actually got the inside fairly neat and tidy! It’s a miracle! The jacket pattern itself is quite handsome, and I highly recommend it. Depending on the fabric choices and styling tweaks you make, it can work for 1970s to 1830s. Here are some of my inspiration images:

“Portrait of Nicolas-Pierre Tiolier” by French painter François-Édouard Picot, 1817

 

Men’s ensemble with piqué vest and nankeen pantaloons, 1813
This is one of my favorite Regency outfits ever.

Fashion plate, 1813

Fashion Plate, circa 1802

And here’s the final result:

Photo Courtesy of Festive Attyre

This pattern has a waist seam (not usually found before about 1820 for those concerned with HA) and uses modern techniques to put together–a boon since tailoring is not a skill I possess! I used the size XS for the jacket to get a close fit and it was still a little large even after alterations. I treated the coat as a Victorian bodice rather than a suit jacket for fitting. I learned a handy new alteration, too: forward-sloping shoulder. It is the total opposite of HA (most period coats have shoulder seams over the back of the shoulder, not at the top and definitely not in the front), but the fit and comfort level improved 100% with just that one change. Modern folks just sit more, leading to forward-leaning shoulders. If you struggle with shoulder fitting, this might solve a lot of heartache!

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You can’t see it in this picture, but I also raised the armpit, lengthened the sleeve and reduced the sleeve cap to increase movement. Modern suits have a very sharp sleeve drop-off whereas Regency coats have a more sloping line. The forward-shoulder adjustment was significant, almost an inch!

Since the last few picnics were on the cold side, we decided on a soft, warm cotton flannel in a light slate blue. Cotton flannel is great stuff to sew with, it’s fairly cheap, and it’s easy to find, making it a great option for outerwear if you can’t find/afford wool!

With the addition of some vintage pants, white shirt, gauzy scarf, and a tricket-filled fob, Jen was transformed into a proper, if slightly dandified, Regency gentleman!

Overall, the pattern was a good one, but there were two things I didn’t like. First was the bag lining. This is a personal hangup. I hate slogging through the method even if the results are nice. Trying to line the edges up and sew them crisply was a PITA! The little turn where the standing collar and revers/lapels meet turned out so wrinkled because the many think layers all bunch there despite trimming and notching the seam allowance. This is mostly on me, though. Like a always say, my sewing skills are harried at best, vicious at worst, so it’s no fault of the pattern, just a technique I don’t like/am not used to. The second problem, though, was the pattern’s use of iron-on interfacing for the jacket front. Many good, experienced seamstresses and tailors swear by interfacing to give a nice smooth, full appearance. The period correct method of interfacing/interlining is to pad stitch in horsehair canvas. Since this pattern is designed with modern techniques, the instructions recommend iron-on interfacing to make the front of the jacket, its collar, and revers lay smoothly. I’d never used iron-on interfacing before…NEVER AGAIN.

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IT LOOKED AND FELT SO BAD YOU GUYS. Like, maybe I chose the wrong type or weight or whatever, but…NO! It felt like damp paper towel and made the front of the coat look like it was made of craft foam. Thank heavens I had double the amount of the flannel yardage in my stash, otherwise I would have been in a world of hurt. So I had to re-cut and re-sew the entire front of the coat, but this time I used some vintage linen my Nana had given me. It wasn’t nearly as stiff as horsehair would be, but it got the job done and is still soft, more HA, and didn’t make Jen feel like she was being suffocated in a kitchen trash bag.

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You can see that the linen give the revers some oomph.

When given the choice between fabric-covered and metal buttons, Jen chose my favorite brass button from Walmart to give her coat some flash. They are the same type of button I used on my merchant gentleman’s coat. They are cheap and fabulous—I highly recommend them! Plus, they mimic the look of new gilt buttons from the era. Just a few weeks ago I found some original buttons at a local antique store. The Walmart ones are much lighter weight and way shinier, but look at how similar they are:

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Guess which ones are are the Whal-mert buttons!
…yeah, the ones on the right.
They’re not perfect dupes, but for their look and price-point, you can’t beat ’em!

The waistcoat I improvised from the coat pattern by omitting the tails, standing collar (though early Regency waitcoats had standing collars, too), and sleeves and cutting the back as one piece. The striped fabric is way too precious to use my usual slap-dash sewing methods. I’d never made a properly lined vest before, but it was waaaaay weirder than I had anticipated, yet with lots of help of Google and some awesome bloggers who took really helpful pictures, I succeeded.

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The vest has small white plastic buttons down the front because I didn’t have enough vintage mother of pearl buttons that match. I was so proud of myself: I finally gathered the gumption to use the buttonhole function on my machine to spare myself the embarrassment of making hideous hand-sewn buttonholes! Though now, I wonder if that contributed to the death of my sewing machine….

Yes. That happened, too.

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On Thursday, my Singer Simple ground to a halt. Despite all my best efforts oiling, faithfully de-linting, and changing needles, wrenching the flywheel forward felt like it is full of gravel, it sounded like death, and it would only sew at top speed, whumping like a thrash metal drumline with each stitch. And yes, I did try all the usual fixes. I took out the bobbin apparatus. I oiled every bit that could conceivably need oil. I took off the plastic cover and checked every part I could access. I am no sewing machine expert and while I was upset since the machine was a gift from my parents, I had no time to get it serviced before the event and it was more cost effective to buy a new machine. So I did.

I will confess that–and it’s a bit silly, I know– when I brought the new machine into the house, I made sure to box up the old machine and lay it quietly in the downstairs closet before I even took the new machine upstairs because–yes, it’s so ridiculous, but I didn’t want to hurt the old machine’s feelings….ya know? The last thing I need is the ghost of Sewing Machine Past haunting me in the middle of the night as I tossed and turned in my bed, tormented by a guilty conscious and the sound of grinding flywheels.

When I typed in “haunted sewing machine” into Google, this was one of the first results. Pearls Before Swine never fails me….unlike a certain sewing mach—nooooooooooo! It’s coming for meeeeeee!
Jokes aside, it was pretty emotionally traumatic and incredibly frustrating since it was so close to the deadline. It actually wasn’t actually the buttonholes that did it. My machine continued to sew well until I had finished my bonnet and started my dress mockup. There’s just something out of plumb in a place I can’t reach.

As soon as the new machine had ascended the throne, I launched right back into sewing. I’d been far too unproductive this year and I felt the burning need to finish something. One too many bowls of mac n cheese had piled up on my hips, so nothing fit anymore, so I had to sew or go plain-clothes! NOOOOOOO!

By slicing and dicing my old version of sliced-and-diced Simplicity 4055, I made a bodice that fit well enough to be wearable:

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That top left photo shows this alteration in progress. I also performed a FBA and changed the gown from a back closure to a front closure and only inserted a drawstring in the front instead of all the way around.

This was not Pragmatic, guys. I will be the first to admit it. It’s a ton of work to size up a pattern that much! It’s great alteration practice, though, so there is a bright side. For example, this pattern will now fit between a 40 and 46 inch bust, so even if current weight trends continue, this pattern will still fit for a while.

Speaking of bright sides, I used a possibly-poly-linen-blend from the Walmart value fabric section in yolk yellow for the fabric. Simplicity 4055 is a great pattern, but the sleeves can be obnoxious. The illustration and notches are kind of confusing. We’re so used to putting the sleeve seam at the back of the dress and the illustration appears to show that set-up, but when you set the sleeves that way this happens:

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The top photo shows the angled wrinkles as the sleeve fullness bunches at the front of the shoulder and you cannot reach forward. When I lift my arm backwards, the wrinkles follow the movement naturally. As I discovered in my previous striped version, the seam goes in the front, quite high up, too! Then you have a nice, full range of motion.

I also made an apron from a sheet, but I didn’t take any pictures. I just freehanded a top shape and used the front overskirt panel from Simplicity 4055 as a guide. I cheated and used the pre-hemmed edge of the sheet–one less thing to hem!

Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

As garish as the ketchup and mustard combo is, the dress and apron are not the stars of the show, though. That honor might go to my bonnet:

Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

It’s certainly not your average regency coif! Indeed, this isn’t like any Regency bonnet I’d ever seen before. (While Chris was helping me take pictures of my pattern draft, he asked me why I was making a chef hat out of coffee filters). It’s quite a statement!  So why did I choose this peculiar bonnet instead of, say, a classic turban or pokebonnet?

Depending on how much you’ve read on my blog, you may remember this particular Find of the Month:

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You can read all about it here, but the TL:DR version is that I bought this early 19th century Saint Lo paste cross on eBay. Much like my weird concern for my sewing machine’s feelings, one of my lovable eccentricities is the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I “reunite” something old with the fashions of it’s youth, for example, wearing an 1890s jacket in a Victorian house or pairing an 1850s book with a crinoline dress. I like to imagine their surprise at seeing something from their distant past after decades of watching modernity grow up around them. This battered old pendant has a particularly soft place in my heart. It’s not as eye-catching as my bonnet, but this is the true star of the show. It deserved to worn in the sunshine on a velvet ribbon once again! But what would it have been worn with?

I set about researching the costumes of Saint Lo in Marche in the Western part of Normandy, France, not expecting to find much about something so particular and obscure. You think I would have learned by now that if you ask the right questions long enough, the internet is full of surprising answers:

Embed from Getty Images

 There are two other images as well, but I do not have a license to post them directly. :(
One is here.
The other, which is my primary inspiration image, is here.

I never in my wildest dreams thought that’d I’d find one, much less three, original engravings of the traditional costume of Saint Lo and from the exact period my pendant was made! What an amazing time we live in!
The book they came from is “Costumes de femmes du pays de Caux, et de plusieurs autres parties de l’ancienne province de Normandie” by Louis-Marie Lante and Pierre de La Mésangère with engravings by Georges Jacques Gatine, first published in 1827. The book is full of full color engravings of the local costumes of the cities, villages,a and countryside in Normandy. There is even a digitized version from the New York Library you can see online! Sadly, not all of the plates were scanned in color and it seems to be missing some (and there a few doubles) so it may be an incomplete copy or some plates came out in a different edition.

Looking through the photos, I noticed that throughout the region there were lots of bright colors, pinned on aprons, and fichus/neckerchiefs/shawls. Oh, and bonnets!

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The shape of my bonnet ended up being a cross between Saint Lo and Lisieux.

Normandy is famous for its traditional costumes, especially extravagant bonnets/coifs/caps! The caps styles vary greatly from town to town, family to family, and woman to woman, but they are generally lacy and full or tall and frilled…sometimes both! I couldn’t find a pattern online, especially on my short deadline, and my drafting skills are rudimentary at best. So as much as I’d like to make an exact replica, I decided it’d be best to design my own take on a Normandy bonnet. I took the main elements of the Saint Lo Bonnet and broke it down into components:

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Tall body, accordion pleated frill, and puffed top.

I used Swedish sewing paper Becky had given me to draft the bonnet. It’s non-woven and stiff enough to stand on its own. A fabric bonnet would be more work to get it to look right. First, I needed a fabric that was thin, lightweight, but strong. Orgnady would be a good choice, but I already had this sheer white cotton shirt from Goodwill on hand:

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After cutting and assembling the main part of the cap, I starched it…A LOT. I used this recipe, but dunked the cap and un-pleated frill instead of spritzing them. To help hold the shape when it was drying, I made this highly professional hat block:

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Worked great, except the starchy water dissolved some of the paint, so the inside of my cap faintly reads “Taco Casa.”

The back frill was done in accordion pleats. Accordion pleats are tedious to iron, lemme tell you! This book has a great description of the process. Without a pleater board, you can’t get pleats much smaller than 1/2″ or so. One source even said that accordion pleats are best left to professionals only! You know how well that sort of challenge goes in my craft room.

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Accordion pleats stack up just like a handfan, so you are ironing on a tall, thin edge. I ended up having to pleat one half of the frill and then pleat the other half, meeting as close to the middle as possible, otherwise, it became too tall to iron! To keep the halves together as the pleats set, I whips stitched them. Heavily starching the fabric helped immesly because it gave the fabric the texture of paper, so it was similar to working with construction paper.

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 The fanned frill is a separate piece that I basted on to the back of the cap. The tips of the frill are held open using small straight pins (which I had to do without the benefit of a mirror at the picnic. The bonnet is too tall to wear in the car!).

The day of the picnic had just enough wind that I needed two bobby pins to secure it in front since it’s so tall and wide it acts like a sail!

Overall, the picnic was a success! We played a skittles/tenpins, took a few turns trying out the bandelore (yo-yo), and generally enjoyed the refreshing autumn air.

My friend Jen pointed out that we were Disney Princess colors!

I’m looking forward to next year!

Find more photos on Festive Attyre’s (Jen Thompson) Flickr Album:

2016 Georgian Picnic

And on my meager Flickr page:

Georgian Picnic 2016

Find of the Month: Gentleman’s Black Silk Stock Collar circa 1840-1844

July 2016

I always seem to write these “Find of the Month” posts when I have otherwise been highly neglectful of this poor blog! I have been working longer hours over the summer which has left little time for costume projects, but has given me a little extra money. For a weekend treat, Christopher took me to a new antique store we’d been trying to visit for a year now: Maine Barn and Attic Antiques on Highway 199 outside of Azle. The only catch is that Christopher and I both work on Saturdays — the only day the shop is open! We finally got to visit and it was WONDERFUL!

Inside is a dreamland. It’s the classic antique store I remember from my childhood before “antique stores” became expensive craft and clothing boutiques with a few overpriced knicknacks scattered about. I have nothing against craftshops or boutiques, but nothing beats a smorgasbord of true antique finds in the rough– dusty, weathered, and crammed in every corner! The Maine Barn and Attic is huge and is packed floor to ceiling with everything imaginable, even a not-so-shiny-but-very-romantic little surrey with the fringe on the top. I wish I’d gotten some interior pictures, but I was so engrossed, I forgot. The place is THAT GOOD. They do have a Facebook page.

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The prices were all very reasonable and the variety of goods endless. However, they only take cash or check– no credit cards! I did not know that, so I had amassed a small pile before I realized that I didn’t have a lick of cash on me. The proprietors kindly offered to hold my pile (“Happens all the time”) and I returned the following week to pick up treasures…and then some.

In the darkest corner of the shop, I was ecstatic to exhume one piece in particular: a black silk stock collar!

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I found it folded like this in a plastic bin filled with crumbling beaded trim and ric-rac. I literally “squeed” out loud and clutched it to my chest. 

Stocks are such a fascinating piece of clothing. Men had been wearing tall, stiff collars in various forms for centuries, but early 19th century stocks are a very distinctive garment. A brother of the cravat and jabot, stocks are high collars made in one piece, frequently stiffened with horsehair or boning to keep them standing tall. A stock accentuates a man’s neck’s length and *ahem* girth, swathing his face to the jaw and sometimes even to the cheeks! They were common in military uniforms, always a source of inspiration for civilian fashion, and were further popularized by King George the IV, the foremost dandy of the time:

Portrait Miniature of King George the IV by Johann Paul Georg Fischer, circa 1815

Some say that George wore them to distract from his chubby face (he was frequently lampooned for a being a larger fellow), but stock collars also helped military officers and civilians alike maintain a ramrod straight posture, projecting strength and control with a dash of mystique. Usually thought of as a Romantic Era (1825-1840) item, stocks were widely worn into the 1850s until fashions shifted to a more boxy, relaxed day look for men.
The stock I stumbled upon at Maine Barn and Attic Antiques is made of very lustrous black silk with a very stiffly starched linen collar basted inside.

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The stock is 15 inches long not including the tab and is 4 inches tall at the center, 5 inches if you include the linen collar.

The edges close with a three-pronged steel buckle. The prongs of the buckle are very sharp, designed to pierce directly through the fabric tab rather than to fit through pre-made eyelets.

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When I first saw the stock, I was struck by just how tall it is! I wouldn’t say I have a long neck, but I don’t have a stumpy one either. This collar would not fit me comfortably no matter how good my posture is! A gentleman would have to hold his chin tilted quite high in order to accommodate it.

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When you look at the stock laid out, it has a very definite taper. It is wider in the center and smaller at the buckled ends. It would seem, then, that for comfort and ease of dressing, a gentlemen would wear it buckled in front so that the narrower end would tuck under his chin, like this:

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However, this does not seem to be the case. Many extant stocks have both a buckle behind and a decorative bow to adorn the front:

Silk Wedding Stock, circa 1835

Black Silk Stock with long ties, circa 1820

While mine lacks the decorative tie in front, it is shaped the same and is probably designed to buckle in back like so:

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You can see the graceful curve in the center. It’s not boned, but the horsehair/canvas interlining is plenty stiff to keep the shape. The collar inside has what appear to be decorative pressed folds (though they may just be from how it was stored).

The stock forces the wearer to tilt his chin up in a rather proud posture, very different from the modern slumped posture we’ve adopted with our chins tucked back and down. Such tall stocks are usually found in paintings and fashion illustrations from the earlier decades of the 19th century, from about 1810 to 1835.

David Lyon by Thomas Lawrence, circa 1825

Men in Tailcoats and Top Hats (french), circa 1830-34
Cravats and stocks create similar looks. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell in drawings and early photos which is which, but they could be worn together as well.

Portrait Miniature of a Gentleman by John Wood Dodge, circa 1833
For a lovely collection of late Georgian fashion plates showcasing some impressive neckwear, click here.

 Stocks were considered one of the many accessories needed to be a well-dressed respectable gentleman, but the garment also features prominently in satirical cartoons poking fun at the ever-flamboyant dandy whose fashion faux pas often included preposterous proportions and pretentious postures aided by hyperbolic stocks long enough to make a giraffe uncomfortable:

“An Exquisite” Satirical Cartoon of a Dandy from around 1820

Thanks to its size and styling, I thought for certain I had a Georgian stock from around 1825-1835 in my possession. However, when I folded it open and took a closer look, I discovered some damning–albeit awesome–proof that my stock isn’t as old as I originally thought.

The inside is in rough, but not terrible, shape. The collar is still papery crisp from the last time it was starched all those years ago. It is mounted on a neckband that has a pointed dip in the center to somewhat follow the lines of the stock.

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Other than the large basting stitches holding the linen collar on (which are kind of sloppy even for basting. One basting stitch even nipped through the black outer silk. If you look close at the pics of the outside, you might see the tiny white blip) everything is hand sewn with absolutely beautiful, tiny stitches.
Here’s one of my cheap, slightly bent hand needles looking absolutely vulgar next to the dainty stitches that hold the silk lining to the leather piping along the top edge of the stock:

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19 stitches per inch– yes, I counted!

The tiny stitches, beautiful as they are, have split along the bottom edge, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the pad stitching inside! Once again, the stitches are dense and small enough to make a fairy cry:

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Compare the stitches to the tiny fashion magazine print on the left—each stitch is barely the height of an i!

Inked under the linen collar are a few odd markings, perhaps laundry or ownership marks? They are done in blue ink which has blotted a bit:

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I also discovered the greatest gift any random antique object can possibly give: The original maker’s stamp, clear as day, fabulously green, and perfect!

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“Ward Manufacturer. No. 116 North Fifth Street. Philadelphia. & No. 40 North 4th”

I HAD to look the company up! And I found…..a modern pipe fittings company that started in 1924. Hint: this stock is far older than that.
But the Wards Manufacturer that made my stock did me a huge favor: they included not one, but two addresses in their stamp! So, where would a gentleman need to go in order to buy this stock?
I looked up both addresses and quickly realized that this stock was going to push me down a deeper rabbit hole than I had anticipated.

As it turns out, the old part of North 5th street has been renamed Independence Mall East. You can search for the address in google maps, but it is now part of Independence Mall– mere blocks from Independence Hall and right across from the Philadelphia Mint! The shop is now a parking lot; the building was destroyed in the 1950s to clear the land for Independence Mall. 40 North 4th was also lost to time; it is now near a modern office building.

116 and 40 in the same picture modern day

Approximate Locations of 116 North 5th and 40 North 4th in the modern world. Neither of these addresses belong to buildings anymore, so Google only offers approximations.

I refused to resign myself to this unsatisfactory answer. Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network to the rescue! I found this amazing research website through this “How to Research the History of a House” packet. The GeoHistory Network website is chock-full of amazing features for anyone wanting to research historic Philadelphia.
The most fascinating tool is the Interactive Map Viewer which allows you to view, at full scale, antique maps overlayed over modern Google Maps, so you can find exactly where something was even if that street or building doesn’t exist anymore! And guess what: I found 116 North 5th street!

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The most detailed map is the 1875 Atlas map, which even has some lots and businesses labelled. Here, you can see 116 (labelled with only a 16) across from Appletree Alley/Lane, a street which once ran where the Philadelphia Mint is now.

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1858 Map of Philadelphia is the earliest map with clearly marked building numbers, proving that 116 N. 5th existed back to at least 1858 in the same location.

These maps don’t have “street view” like Google Maps, but I learned that William H. Rease, a Philadelphia lithographer, did a series of illustrations in the 1840s and 1850s of local businesses. He didn’t makes an illustration of Ward’s shops specifically (darn). However, he did do an illustration of the businesses mere steps away at the corner of N. 5th and Market Streets:

Detailed view of “Bennett & Company, Tower Hall Clothing Bazaar, Number 182 Market Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets, Philadelphia” circa 1853
There’s also a great vintage photograph of this same section taken in 1949. These buildings were also leveled in the Independence Mall project.

I also found 40 North 4th which, despite playing second fiddle, turned out to be the key to dating my silk stock! Here it is on the 1875 and 1858 maps:

40 north fourth street 40 north fourth street 1858

Unlike 116 N. 5th, the 4th street address is labeled with a name on nearly every map: It’s the Merchant’s Hotel!

“Merchant’s Hotel, Number 38, North Fourth Street, Philadelphia” circa 1838

The Merchant Hotel was built in 1837. On the bottom floor were spaces rented out for shops. It was not demolished in the  Independence Mall project, but burned in 1966, so it’s no longer with us either.
Street numbering in Philadelphia was changed a few times throughout its history. So the 1830s illustration above shows shop #38 on the right while the 1857 illustration below shows a different set of numbers:

40 N. 4th street was either in or right next to the hotel, depending on the street numbering that year. No one said doing research was easy!

Since the Merchant’s Hotel wasn’t built until 1837/38, my stock could be no older than that.

The GeoHistory website had another tool to share with me: a digital library of City Directories dating all the way back to 1785! City Directories were the phone book in an era before phones. It listed every tradesperson, their occupation, and their shop’s address. I dove into the directories starting at 1837 and I emerged triumphant!

Ward’s Manufacturing, as it turns out, was owned by one George W. Ward whose business life is chronicled by the annual city directories of the late 1830s to the 1850s:

1837 phil bis directory ward dry goods1837: His first appearance at the address listed on my stock, 116 N. 5th Street. He is listed as a general dry goods seller.

1839 phil bis directory ward stocks1839: George W. Ward decides to specialize in manufacturing gentleman’s stocks. Philadelphia had a large garment manufacturing industry and there were a few other stock makers/manufacturers in the area besides Mr. Ward. 116 North 5th Street placed him right in the midst of the bustling shopping district.

1840 phil bis directory ward stocks1840: He’s still there! Merrily manufacturing stocks on N. 5th Street.

1841 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1841: BINGO! Mr. Ward expands his stock manufacturing business to a shop in the Merchant’s Hotel. This is the first year that both addresses are listed in the directory as they appear in the stamp on my stock.

1842 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1842: Putting his stock in stocks!

1843 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1843: Ditto.

1844 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1844: Still merrily manufacturing stocks!

1845 phil bis directory ward gents furnishings1845: Mr. George W. Ward is no longer making stocks, but moves shop to #38 (from the engraving above!) and decides to go back to the dry goods he sold before, but this time with a specific, posh clientele in mind. “Furnishing” in this case is not furniture for a room, but men’s clothing and accessories. As a gentleman’s furnisher, he would have still sold stocks, but he likely outsourced production to a different stockmaker.

An advertisement for a Victorian furnishing store. Mr. Ward’s shop would have sold similar items.

George W. Ward was a very active man, constantly evolving and moving his business, even starting a short-lived weekly newspaper called the “Sunday Ledger” around 1850:

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 george w ward newspaper 1848

Mr. Ward certainly liked to stay busy!

From all this, I know that my stock must have been made between about 1840 and 1845. Less Mr. Darcy and more Charles Dickens, but still very exciting!

Charles Dickens by William Powell Frith, circa 1859

1840s Fashion Plate showing three fashionable gentlemen.

Black Silk Stock, circa 1840

Portrait of Michael Faraday by Antoine Claudet

Daguerreotype of the cutest 1840s couple ever!
If you love daguerreotypes or early Victorian fashion, you’ll love this site: Archive of Fine Daguerreotypes

Even though Mr. George W. Ward’s company only made stocks for about 5 years, the stocks they produced were very well designed. Ward Manufacturing’s stocks even earned a commendation for their quality in the Franklin Institute’s 13th Exhibition of American Manufactures in 1843:

Journal of The Franklin Institute 1843 ward stocks

You’ll notice there are a few other quality stock manufacturers in Philadelphia at the same time, so he might have run in to some fierce competition that prompted him to diversify.

I’m no expert on 19th century stocks, yet I can instantly feel how well-made mine is. I mean, it has survived for over 150 years in very good shape! I am so happy to have found it– and at $9.50, it was an excellent bargain!

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Though that stray little basting stitch is slowly driving me batty! :P

The Genteel Fashionista’s Dialogue: A Humorous Timeline of Fashion

In the Classic Style of Historical Fashion Satire and in the Spirit of Congenial Camaraderie, I Present to You the Product of an Overly-Active Brain in the Form of a Fashion Timeline in which there is much Over-Generalization, a Single Expletive, and a Dearth of Illustrations:

THE GENTEEL FASHIONISTA’S DIALOGUE

The Genteel Fashionista Dialog

1770s – Let’s flaunt how wealthy we are with lots of delicate, expensive fabric and wall-like skirts so wide we need special doors, furniture, and houses built just to accommodate them! Pass the hair powder and Pomeranians!

1780s – Thanks to new technological advances and the start of the Industrial Revolution, I am enjoying my emerging merchant-class lifestyle! However, panniers get in the way when I try to navigate city living. High hats and hair, though, I can do. Also, I am strangely beguiled by these cork rumps….

1790s – The peasants are pissed. Maybe big hair, big hats, and big butts weren’t the way to go. Plus, there’s a bunch of cool Greco-Roman stuff in style. Let’s ditch ridged stays and huge skirts for the more refined Empire look…YIKES! A PIKE!

1800s – What a mess that was! Now that the bloodshed is over, I can safely wear white again. These fine, diaphanous fabrics are really expensive and the white makes my spendy imported shawls really pop! I feel on top of the world again!

1810s – Slim sleeves and silhouettes make me look like every other belle at the ball. Some fancy hem trims and puffier sleeves will make me stand out!

1820s – MORE TRIMS! MORE SLEEVES!
Also, maybe some petticoats to help show off ALL THESE HEM TRIMS better.

1830s – F*ck yeah, giant sleeves! Also, I’ve got a pretty hot bod. Those old Regency sacks hide all my hotness, so let’s go back to natural waistlines and open up the neckline for some shoulder action. I am ready for some romancin’!

1840s – Hmmm…maybe I went a little too crazy with the sleeves, low necklines, and bonnets the size of a serving platter. But I like having a waistline again. Let’s see just how much waistline we can get. Longer! I NEED LOOOOONGER!

1850s – Thanks to my corset, my waist is looking better than ever! However, I’m beginning to miss big sleeves. Every belle needs bell sleeves. I could layer them, like those exotic Asian pagoda roofs I saw in a book once. Speaking of roofs, these stacks of petticoats are getting tough to walk in. Maybe I need some rafters…

1856 – HELLO STEEL HOOPED CAGED CRINOLINE, MY NEW BEST FRIEND.

1860s – These hoops are awesome! Now I can display yards and yards of expensive fabric easily again and everyone has to clear the sidewalk to let me through, like Moses parting the sea. Bonus points for getting the sofa all to myself! Let’s see just how big these hoops can go.

1870s – I’ll admit that I might have gone overboard with the hoops, but now that I’ve turned them into a bustle, I can hug people again and the sidewalks of town are cleaner than ever! The sewing machine makes adding trims to my trim’s trim so easy, too!

1875 – The bustle’s poofs and swags are hiding my hot bod again. :(

1878 – This princess line gown shows off my naturally-enhanced-by-a-corset form perfectly. I’ll never hide my glorious bum under a bustle again! What a folly!

1882 – Well, a little padding back there couldn’t hurt…

1885 – HELLO BUSTLES, MY OLD FRIEND.
I’m sorry I ever doubted you!

1890s – Okay, I’ll admit that the bustle thing got out of hand, but I have learned the error of my ways. Let’s go back to the classic combo of tons of petticoats and huge sleeves.

1900s – I have given up big sleeves in favor of something new: tons of lace and s-bend corsets! They say a puffy breast makes my waist look tinier, but in reality, it makes me look like I am careening forward towards social, industrial, and technological progress, just like a new-fangled motorcar draped in an heirloom tablecloth!

1910s – Rushing towards progress is hard to do in full skirts. A slimmer skirt line is in order. Should I go hobble skirt to display my fashion prowess or skirt suit to further the march towards women’s independence? Either way, it will need more decorative buttons.

1920s – Corsets and curves have been incumbent for too long! I vote for President Bob Haircut and Senator Cloche! Drop waists from the ballot and pass the mascara! The world is ready to finally revel in the glory of my knees!

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Here is 160 years worth of fashion plates!
See if you can spot the trends:

1770s fashion plates

1780s fashion plates

1790s fashion plates

1800s fashion plates

1810s fashion plates

1820s fashion plates

1830s fashion plates

1840s fashion plates

1850s fashion plates

1860s fashion plates

1870s fashion plates

1880s fashion plates

1890s fashion plates

1900s fashion plates

1910s fashion plates

1920s fashion plates

From Bed to Bodice: What to Look for When Using Sheets for Fabric

Goin’ Bat-Sheet Crazy!
I use second-hand sheets all the time for my costumes. They are perfect for mockups, linings, or even fashion fabric! Sheets are cheap and plentiful at second-hand shops, outlet stores, and garage sales. They are a great source of fabric for folks who live far from craft shops, need a costume to be inexpensive, or are just learning to sew. Ruining a $4 sheet is much less painful than ruining a $4-a-yard fabric!
Over the years, I have developed a few guidelines to help me wade through bins of sheets to choose the best ones for the task at hand.

sheets

General Sheet-Shopping Guidelines

  • Pick Queen or King size sheets.
  • 100% cotton is great for a more accurate costume.
  • You can never have too many white and solid colored sheets.
  • Test sheets like you would test any fabric at the store for drape, weight, and weave.
  • Buy a variety!
  • Wash all sheets before sewing with them, especially if they are purchased used.

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Choosing Sheets for Mockups

mockups

Mockup sheets are very basic: nearly any sheet will do! However, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Size: A King sized sheet has more yardage than a Twin or Full, meaning you can get more pattern pieces/larger pieces out of it. If you are testing a pattern with large pieces, a larger sheet will come in handy. Twin sheets, however, are perfect for mocking up smaller pieces, like bodices.

Fabric content: Since a mockup is usually just used to see the way a pattern fits together, the content of the sheet’s fabric isn’t usually an issue. However, keep in mind that different types of fabrics have different amounts of stretch and draping, so it is wise to consider what type of fabric you will be using in the final garment and choose a sheet with similar properties. A polyester fabric, for example, may have less give than a cotton one, for instance. This will affect how the garment fits later, so a sheet mockup may fit perfectly, but the final garment might be too tight if the final fabrics have a tighter weave. (PRO TIP: If your final garment is made of woven fabric, don’t use a jersey knit sheet for you mockup!)

Pattern: A mockup will likely be messy and won’t end up in the final garment (unless you choose to use your mockup as a lining or finish it, then see below), so the pattern and color do not matter that much. Bright purple with lime green flowers? Pink elephants? Sexy animal print? DO IT!

Choosing Sheets for Linings

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Sheets can be good linings. Since the lining goes into the final garment, however, it pays to be more judicious.

Fabric Content: Consider what you want your lining to do for your garment. Poly-cotton blends are readily available in a wide variety of textures and colors and are very easy to wash, but they can pill something fierce, become ragged-looking, and scratchy. 100% cotton is breathable, easy to sew and launder, and an excellent all-purpose lining fabric, but there are a few exceptions. For example, does the lining need to be smooth to glide over another garment, like for a coat? Cotton and cotton-blend sheets will cling to other cottons, velvets, and many other soft fabrics, so look for sheets that are slinky, silky, and slippery instead. Many will be polyester, so bear in mind that they might trap heat– a boon for a coat, but a possible curse in the summer!

Weight: Weight can mean two things– the thickness of the fabric and the actual physical weight of the fabric itself– and they aren’t necessarily related! A flannel sheet might be thick, but it may be lighter in physical weight than a densely-woven cotton sheet. I have made the mistake of choosing a thin cotton sheet that turned out to be much too heavy en masse, overwhelming the the light, silky fashion fabric, dragging the whole silhouette down with it. Sheets can be very heavy, so be prepared! Test the weight and drape of a sheet like you would test any fabric at the store!

Size: Check your pattern for the recommended amount of lining yardage to get an idea of what size sheet and how many you will need for your project. This is a handy chart of yardage equivalencies for all sizes of sheets to help you calculate:

Chart by Sew Much Ado

Color/Pattern: Linings and fashion fabrics work together. If there is a chance the lining may show, trying to match or compliment your fashion fabric is a must! If the fashion fabric is sheer or loosely woven, the lining may show trough it, especially in certain lighting. Choose a sheet of a similar shade for the lining or one near your flesh tone so the color of the fashion fabric is not affected, though you can get some interesting color effects if you choose alternate linings. For example, a white fashion fabric may look slightly warmer with an orange cotton lining or a loosely woven black fabric can be laid over a bright magenta lining to produce a changeable silk effect. You aren’t limited to plain colored sheets, either! Printed sheets can make excellent period-correct linings. Some Victorian bodices and skirts were lined with patterned cottons. If the lining won’t be seen at all, color or pattern may not even matter! Made a mock-up in that crazy animal print and want to use it as a lining for your Victorian bodice? DO IT!

It’ll be our little secret…

Choosing Sheets for Fashion Fabric

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This 1710s outfit is made from a sateen sheet, curtains, and a hacked-off pair of men’s slacks.

While cheap sheets aren’t as luxurious as duchess silk satin, they can make excellent fashion fabrics, especially for 19th and 20th century day dresses. They are also fabulous for undergarments, like petticoats and drawers. Many of the guidelines for choosing a good lining sheet also apply to choosing on for fashion purposes, but with a few more specifics:

Size: Size matters! If you are wanting one fabric for your whole dress, you may have to get creative with your pattern piece placement to maximize your fabric. King or even California King are ideal. For most dresses, a Queen sheet is the absolute minimum size I will buy. I was able to squeeze a Size 12 Regency dress out of a Twin sheet and an XL 18th century men’s coat out out of a Queen sheet, but both cases required some pretty creative pattern piece placement! Using a sheet set (flat sheet, fitted sheet, and pillowcases) are ideal for dresses that need more than 5-6 yards of fabric.

Color/Pattern: Sheets had a bad reputation in the costuming world because the print can make or break a costume, but now that many of us have access to the internet, it’s easier than ever to study original garments and fabrics. The best way to tell if a particular sheet will work? RESEARCH! Solid colored sheets are the simplest choice, since solid colors have always been in style. Stripes and plaids (woven or printed) are also great options if you find them! Just keep in mind that stripes and plaids are directional and will take extra fabric to pattern match (if that’s your thing). Sheets with printed patterns can make amazing dresses if you are discerning.  It can be a fine line between Laura Ingalls and Laura Ashley (though sometimes it’s the other way around…)! Browse museum collections, like the V&A, to see examples of original fabrics.

Texture/Shine: Basic cotton sheets are plainly woven and matte. They are great for day dresses! My striped Regency dress is made of a plainly woven polyester sheet with printed stripes:
dressSateen sheets are also fairly easy to find and, thanks to their weave, they have a warm luster to them that can be dressed up a little more than a plain woven sheet. They are also very soft and somewhat heavy. I admit I hoard sateen sheets! I’ve made costumes from sateen sheets in 3 different centuries: Chris’s 1710s coat, another 1810s day dress, Amelia’s 1910s dress!
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Regency Dress made of a Cotton Sateen Sheet

Edge Finish: This a small thing, but it really does make a huge difference! Sheets have one edge that is deeply hemmed, creating the top of the sheet, and a narrower hem at the bottom (where the tag is usually attached).  The sides of sheets can be finished in two ways: hemmed or plain selvedge. I frequently cheat and use the wide finished edge of the sheet for the bottom hem or sleeve openings of a dress (like on the blue regency dress above) to save time, but in order to use every inch of fabric, you must unpick or cut the hems which takes a lot of time! If you choose a sheet that has plain selvedge edges instead of hemmed, you save a lot of time. Plus, the selvedge edges don’t fray, so if you use it as your seam allowance, it will be hidden inside your garment and won’t need any finishing to keep it from fraying: WIN-WIN!

sheet types

Left: Sheet with plain selvedge sides
Right: Sheet with hemmed sides

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Dang! “Seams” like buying sheets is a real chore, huh? Well, when I write it all out like this, it certainly makes it sound tedious, but like anything, the more you practice, the faster it goes. Soon you’ll be judging all your sheets by how good they’d look as a 1770s petticoat or 1930s skirt. Heck, just the other day I found myself eyeballing my actual-factual bed sheets, noting that I should probably get some new ones because I wouldn’t even save them to sew something with! That’s how you know it’s time for new sheets….and that you’ve got too many sheets at the same time!

Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

Full, Exhaustive Title:
Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

found in Extant 19th Century Garments from Augusta Auctions

I enjoy poking around on internet auction sites for extant garments “in the rough.” Museums can’t hold every original piece of clothing. There are literal tons of antique clothing sitting in private homes and shops that no one has ever seen before! We are blessed in this age of internet commerce to see some of these treasures for a few brief days on websites like eBay, Etsy, or Ruby Lane before they disappear again into private collections. Many of these amazing private holdings posess design details and quirks that are often glossed over by sweeping generalizations about past fashions. Looking through these often less-than-perfect dresses in their wrinkled, as-found condition is a wellspring of fresh sewing inspiration!
Since I can’t buy every gorgeous gown that scrolls across my screen, I have taken to collecting them digitally on Pinterest, combing through online sales pages for pieces with unusual features or appealing designs. One of the many sites I try to check regularly is the Augusta Auctions page. They are an antique/vintage textile and clothing auction house that so kindly keeps pictures of previous auction lots long after the auction has ended (so many times auction sites remove photos soon after the sale is complete). They have garments of many types from the 1700s to modern, but my research recently has focused on the Victorian era (1837-1901). Many of their items are de-accessioned from public museums which means that the Augusta Auction website is often their last accessible record before disappearing from the public view. Rifling through the auction lots has yielded some unusual and strange pieces, but it also has brought to light a few simple, unique design elements that a modern costumer could easily adopt!

1. Mix-n-Match and Matchy-Matchy Accessories
(I guess that’s really two tips in one, so this list has 6!)

Morning Glory Cotton Sateen Day Dress, 1880s
“2-piece, maroon [looks brown in the photos, but it my be more reddish in person] cotton sateen w/ blue floral print, lace trim, cut steel buttons, matching fan.” – Augusta Auctions

I’m not generally a matching maven when it comes to my day-to-day modern clothes, but making my own historical outfits means I pay a lot more attention to color, pattern, and stylish shortcuts. This dress has a classic combination of dense print paired with a plain matching color. The printed bodice and bustled overskirt are separate from the simple tiered brown cotton underskirt, so they can be mixed and matched with other pieces. The solid colored skirt would be very easy to match other bodices with and it’s likely the dress’s original owner had one or two other pieces she could mix together to create a multitude of outfits with, especially since (unlike many bustle underskirts that have plain backs) this underskirt is decorated all the way around making it extra versatile:

A very simple bustle back suitable for an active woman on the job or on the go!

But sometimes you just wanna MATCH. Some women match their shoes to their purse. Others can’t leave the house unless everything from their underwear to their earrings are all the same shade. This day dress in particular comes with a unique matching accessory, especially for such an otherwise ordinary outfit: A custom matching fan!

It matches so well it’s nearly camouflaged!

If you are interested in making a matchy-matchy fan of your own, here’s a semi-tutorial posted on La Bricoleuse:

Making a Silk Folding Fan

As an added bonus, the fabric on the fan was protected from the sun when it was folded up, so it did not fade! It gives us a clue about how much brighter this dress used to be: just look at that pop of ultramarine and hint of crimson! It was a brilliant use of excess fabric. Other ways to use extra fabric scraps to create matchy-matchy accessories include small drawstring purses and coverings for hats and bonnets.

Lined Drawstring Bag Tutorial
By In Color Order

Cardboard and Duct Tape Victorian Bonnet Tutorial
by Darling and Dash

2. Ribbon Flowers
(may be combined with the matchy-matchy tip above for decorating pretty much everything)

Detail of a Silk Visiting Dress, 1860s
“Three-piece buff changeable ribbed taffeta, trimmed with bright coral satin bands, scallops, bows, rosettes and Van Dyke points: front buttoning boned bodice with high neckline; belt with attached back peplum; trained unlined skirt, gold stamped label “Louis Hille Tailleur Pour Dames 398 Rue St Honore Paris”[…] Featured in April 1998 ANTIQUES Magazine” – Augusta Auctions

It’s fairly common to see garments decorated with ribbon bows and cockades, but when I found this dress, the big pink satin flower caught my eye right away. It is extremely similar to modern ribbon flowers that can be found on everything from toddler headbands to coffee cup koozies!

There are hundreds of ribbon and fabric flower tutorials, but for this particular design, there are three methods that will produce similar results:

Ruched Ribbon Flower
Tutorial by Nikki in Stitches

Scrap Fabric Flower
Tutorial by Melissa of Until Wednesday Calls

Round Petal Kanzashi Flower
Tutorial by A Pumpkin & A Princess

In addition to how modern the flower looks, the placement also gives it unique charm. There’s one at a fairly standard location at the small of the back, but another is placed just off the hip and another midway down the skirt. So cute!

The seamstress really liked trimming in general. Just check out the amazing design created with matching pink ribbon/fabric applied in a multitude of ways!

Rosettes, stripes, binding, applique, scalloped edging, bows… the works!

3. Embroidered Accents

Embroidered Visiting Dress, 1870s
“2 main fabrics: black silk faille & black silk satin, satin w/ narrow velvet stripe embroidered w/ wine, brown & blue flowers, polonaise bodice, cut steel buttons & lace, blue satin modesty insert, trained bustle skirt, B 36″, W 30″, Skirt L 40″-59″, provenance, Homans family Washington, D.C.” – Augusta Auction

Victorian costumes often feature lovely embroidery work. They didn’t have access to fancy in-home digital embroidery machines like we do now, but there are so many beautiful modern fabrics and trims that come pre-embroidered today so even if you can’t embroider, you can have the look! Even now, embroidered fabric can be pretty expensive. A whole gown of the stuff might be out of the question for most. A yard or two, though, is enough to add a rich touch to a dress like in this sophisticated frock:

The seamstress who crafted this dress made judicious use of the fine striped satin with embroidered flora, placing it front and center on the bodice and cuffs, but leaving the back plain while edging and gores in the skirt tie the look together.

There was quite a heated discussion on a forum about the legitimacy of using pre-embroidered fabrics in historical costumes. While handwork is always period, pre-embroidered fabric is a fantastic way to mimic the look. The embroidery on this dress in particular features a small, repeating pattern that looks very much like many pre-embroidered fabric available today.

Bonus points for the pieced front and late 18th century revival styling!

4. Bold Buttons

Silk Brocade Jacket, 1880s
“Black silk ground w/ Persian inspired brocade, small rondels in metallic gold, sky blue, maroon & yellow, fitted torso, constructed in style of gent’s 18th C jacket, black velvet trim & back pockets, cream & gold embroidered lace trim, 24 magnificent gold metal buttons inset w/ cut steel faceted beads in silver, cobalt & wine, bright yellow silk satin lining, B 32″, W 24″, L 27-30″, excellent. [De-accessioned from the] Brooklyn Museum.” -Augusta Auctions

The last dress had some pretty nifty cut steel buttons, but this jacket certainly ups the ante! Victorians loved buttons of all types and there are as many colors and styles as you can imagine. The buttons on this jacket are something truly avant-garde and different, though. They look thoroughly modern. They would be right at home on a 1930s suit or a 1960s mod mini dress, but here they sit on an otherwise unassuming brocade jacket!

Like many buttons and pieces of jewelry from the 19th century, these buttons are made of faceted steel studs riveted together. These are unusual for their added color and abstract dot pattern.

As they were 150 years ago, buttons can be an expensive investment, but they can really add a pop of character to an otherwise plain dress! Many Victorian buttons are more “traditional” than these, but Victorians loved quirky buttons of all types– from colorful lions and garden insects to distant planets and birds on a telegraph wire!
Etsy is a great place to look for unique buttons, both antique and modern.

With all the wild figurative metal buttons out there, you could probably use these awesome steampunk mechanism buttons or these ancient glyph buttons and no Victorian would bat an eye (they might even compliment you on them, considering how fond they were of industrial progress and ancient cultures). After all, they were the ones putting spiders, ears or corn, and fighting children on buttons first!

Fashionable fisticuffs, anyone?

5. Stunning Studs

Taupe Silk Tea Dress
“2-piece silk crepe, boned bodice w/ overlay of chemical lace studded w/ cut steel beads, grey velvet trim, label “Jermyn W. 45th St.”, B 36″, W 28″, L 41″” -Augusta Auctions
(This dress would totally fit me! If only I had snatched it up. It sold for only $120!)

Augusta Auctions dates this to the 1910s, but the shape, construction, and styling all scream 1889-1892, so I’m including it here.

Ah, my angsty teenage self sure did love silver studs! I treasured my gnarly Hot Topic studded faux-leather bracelet because it made me feel like an invincible warrior. Surprisingly, it’s not just goths and neo-Victorians who enjoyed being studded with glittery steel. The dresses above had silvery cut steel buttons. This particular dress cut out the middle man and has cut steel applied directly to the lace!

Cut steel jewelry and accessories have been around for centuries as a bright, sparkly alternative to diamonds. In the late Victorian period, cut steel was mass manufactured and widely popular. Steel-encrusted miser purses, opera capes, and shoes were de rigueur. While individual studs were less common, they were popular for wearing indoors because they were excellent at glittering in low light.
Studs weren’t just made of rounded cut steel. Some were spiky enough to make even the hardest-core punk rocker happy! Here are two bonnets with pyramid studs that defy the supposedly frail and fragile femininity associated with the Victorian era:

H. O. Hanlon Bonnet, circa 1887
Metal (the Met doesn’t list if they are steel or something else) studs in action. My favorite 1880s bonnet!

House of Virot Bonnet, circa 1885
Black glass pyramid beads add some fierce glitter to this otherwise plush bonnet.

Victorians loved the interplay between hard and soft surfaces and playing with textures. Some combinations are truly unusual and funky, but if done in moderation and with a careful eye for the design, even supposedly “modern” fashion elements can work in the Victorian era!