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

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

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

We have gone from this:

To this:

Bonnet, circa 1870

Huzzah! Hooray! Oh, happy day!

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

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

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

Now, compare that picture with this one:

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

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

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

Velvet Evening Bonnet, 1802

Bonnet, circa 1887

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find of the Month: Victorian Quilt Blocks (Part 1)

April 2017

Once again, I found April’s FotM at Maine Barn and Attic Antiques! Seriously….I may have an addiction….

This month’s find is small, not exactly in size, but certainly in price: $8.

 I actually did the official “finding” the very first time I went, but the antique shop only takes cash or check, so when it comes time to decide what to buy and what to leave, I always left these in favor of other treasures. Do you ever leave something behind only to have that nagging feeling of remorse that you can’t shake hours or even weeks later? Boy did this month’s “find” haunt me when I left them behind, languishing in a dusty basket ion the floor in the darkest shop corner all those months ago.

Who knew quilt blocks could nag?!

Yes, I bought a bunch of 19th century quilt squares even though I don’t quilt. Why? Well, I like the bright, happy, wild fabrics– and these are bright like new! Most look like they date to the 1840s-1860s to me, but I am not a calico expert, so any help dating them is welcome.

I made a slide show below of each one, front and back so you can see all of them. There are some great patterns!

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There are also some interesting highlights, including…

An apparently fugitive dye:

This block has three squares of this same fabric. One has all the stripes left, this one is fading, and one has no stripes at all left, just the flowers!

Awesome hand sewing:

All of the blocks are handsewn together. They have tiny seam allowances and use a mix of thread colors, but mostly red.

Lots of creative piecing:

I know quilts are literally pieced, but this quilt is like quilt-ception: it’s got pieced pieces in it’s pieces. This is the most pieced piece of the lot: this little 2X2 square is made up of 4 seperate pieces!

Evidence of a mishap that occurred during a previous incarnation:

One of my favorite fabrics is the “alien flower on a book” print. It is the most stained however, but when I was looking at it, the stains are only on the white fabric, not the surrounding fabrics! So the fabric was stained before it was added to the quilt. I wonder if it was part of a ill-fated dress…and what it’s stained with…

As it turns out, this wasn’t going to be the last brush with quilt blocks I’d have this month. Stay tuned for more!
(If you’re a bit fabric-crazy like me)

Other Find of the Month posts you might like:

Find of the Month: English Silver-Gilt Button

Find of the Month: Stuart Crystal Breeches Button

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!

____

____

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

New Friends Do Not Replace Old Ones: Why I Still Wear My First OTR Corset

The average Victorian woman wore OTR corsets ordered from one of the many corset manufacturers operating at the time. Because corsets were pretty much universal in Western society, Victorian OTR corsets came in many different proportional variations to fit every body type. It is currently much more difficult to find this sort of variety in modern OTR corsets, but as the popularity of corsets grows, so does the selection.

In both the costuming and corsetry communities, there has been a debate brewing about off-the-rack (OTR) corsets vs. custom corsets. Here’s a link to an example of the OTR vs. custom debate on Lucy’s Tumblr page followed by her opinion on the matter. Both communities agree that a custom corset is the safest, most comfortable option, but OTR corsets are the most accessible to beginners who are still learning. I know I made mistakes with my first few corsets purchases. The learning curve is why OTR corsets are often recommended to beginners, but it is also why some corset wearers do not like OTR. Why risk wasting money on an ill-fitting corset that could potentially turn someone off of corseting? Going custom right out of the gate assures a better fit and often better materials. That’s very true, and an excellent point, but depending on the wearer and their goals, an OTR corset may be a good fit right out of the gate at a much lower price than going custom. It is also a good option for someone who doesn’t have the time, skill, or desire to sew their own corset.

—-*—-

Before I go much further, I want to identify, specify, and clarify that I am talking about corsets used for costuming, not modern waist-training. Waist-training is a form of body modification that takes dedication and time to achieve, as well as a different set of criteria for the corset itself. Waist-training corsets are usually underbusts and are designed to comfortably provide the maximum waist reduction possible. Historically speaking, underbusts weren’t really used until the late 1890s (though you can use them in a pinch for historical costuming, too). The majority of corsets used in historical costuming are mid/overbusts, which are not recommended for modern waist-training. Regularly wearing an overbust corset for costuming purposes may serendipitously cause your waist to train down (our Victorian ancestors wore theirs everyday, effectively waist training), but a corset used for costuming does not need to provide much waist reduction at all to be effective. For this reason, it is very important to identify your goal and purpose for wearing a corset before choosing one.

For information and advice about using corsets for waist training rather than costuming, please visit Lucy’s Corsetry or one of the many other corset community blogs/tumblrs/YouTube channels that deal specifically with waist training.

—-*—-

My first “real” corset was an OTR overbust. At the time, I had no idea that there was a debate raging or that there were online communities dedicated to corset wearing and buying. I approached the situation purely from a historical costuming perspective: I needed a historical-looking corset that would be hearty and give me the shape/support I needed to costume. That’s all. I made a wishlist, set price point, and got to shopping on the one website I knew I could find them: eBay (from “Glamorous-Corset-Boutique“) . And despite what many people assume are huge odds, I successfully acquired an OTR overbust that has lasted over two years now!

About 1 week after purchase.
You can read about that adventure here.

Two Year Old OTR Corset

Two years later: still cinchin’!

I made a few mistakes. For example, I bought a long line corset thinking I needed one since I have a long torso. While I do have a long torso, the majority of the length is above the bustline. I am actually short waisted, so the long waist-to-hip length of my first corset means that the bottom jabs into my thighs when I sit down. This is no fault of the corset itself, simply user error. It was a learning point, though, since I discovered that more measurements matter than just bust-waist-hip. Vertical numbers are important, too! Which is why I eventually saved up and bought a custom corset from Hourglass Attire that was drafted and fitted to my individual measurements.

Corset by Hourglass Attire

However, just because a corset is OTR does not mean that it can’t do its job and do it well. My white satin OTR corset, despite its flaws, still has many positive qualities. Indeed, the flaws in some cases are actually helpful which is why I continue to wear it even though I own other, “better” corsets.

— Materials/Construction —

Con: The fabric and sewing of the corset are of poor quality. The satin has stretched over time.
Pro: The satin is soft and forms well to the body without adding extra bulk.

My OTR corset is made of two layers: a very cheap, thin white satin with a cotton twill strength layer, all rather inelegantly sewn. It does have a waist tape, but over the years, the fabric has stretched, so it is about a half inch bigger (~24.5″ rather than 24″) than when I first got it. However, I have the smallest external measurement in this corset despite the fact that it has the largest waist measure of all my corsets because it lies so closely to my skin. Its thinness and rather lax rigidity molds to my soft body while still pulling in my waist. It’s lightweight to boot, and not too hot. I don’t think this corset is suited for daily wear, but it has lasted over 2 years of occasional (rather cruel, careless) wear. Because it’s not the finest quality or very expensive, I can use and abuse this corset without feeling guilty–okay, maybe a little guilty since it has served me so well!

IMG_2381

— Shaping —

Cons: Standardized shape does not fit my body exactly- Corset bust too small, length too long. Bland shape with minimal reduction.
Pros: Standardized shape creates a pleasant silhouette, smoothes, and makes fitting patterns easier. Reduces waist slightly comfortably and easily. It also more fully encases my torso, giving me good posture and alleviating my upper back pain as a bonus.

I’ve discussed this in a few other posts, but the shape of my OTR overbust is slim, long, and standardized. The corset is not overly hour-glassy and since it is made to fit about a B cup, it simultaneously tamps down and lifts my F cups. It basically transforms me from a short-waisted, low/big busted tube into a very average, moderately curvy figure all over. Surprisingly, it does so without being uncomfortable (lap-length aside). One of the big complaints about OTR corsets is that they are uncomfortable. I have worn uncomfortable OTR corsets, but this one is actually quite comfy aside from its excess length. In addition, the slim shape means I don’t need to perform as many pattern alterations to fit and people focus on/ask questions about my dress rather than gawking at the extremity of my figure. Make no mistake, I do like a very curvy shape, which is why I ordered a custom corset later. However, a corset doesn’t necessarily have to reduce your waist much or be a perfect match for your personal body shape to work. A corset can alter the natural shape depending on the wearer’s preference (lift/compress/enhance the breasts, nip in/elongate the waist, cup/shape the ribs, etc). So long as the size is carefully chosen and you aren’t trying to squeeze into a too-small corset, a little bit of body shifting can be a good thing. OTR corsets are not all created equal, so careful planning is need to make sure that the fit is going to be comfortable, even if it’s not perfect. The shapes may be similar between brands, but subtle style variance can make a world of difference!

differentcorsets

Top left: 1830-40
Top right: 1870s
Bottom left and right: 1890s

Corsets were not all the same shape or construction throughout the 19th century either. The ideal body shape varied by decade as did the construction of the corsets. While you don’t have to have an ideal body shape to wear a certain era of style, having different corsets with different shaping properties can help achieve a more accurate look. For example, my low-bosomed, short-waisted natural shape was in vogue during the 1860s and 1870s. My custom corset accents that shape even further, making it ideal for wearing under the fashions from those decades. However, other decades, like the 1840s, 1880s, and 1890s, favored longer waists. I still use my custom corset for these eras, too, but my OTR corset is perfect for giving my torso a longer look for these decades if I so choose.

—To Conclude —

There is nothing wrong with wearing an off-the-rack corset. If you find an OTR corset that works for your body and your costume, there is no reason to shun it. Wearing one does not mean you are lazy, poor, or somehow ill-educated about corsets, either. A corset’s main function is support and smoothing, so as long as yours does that comfortably, it will work just fine! You also don’t have to suspend all OTR corset purchases if you bought a custom. Once you get a custom corset, you may not find OTR as comfortable or satisfying as they once were, but that doesn’t mean that you have to stop buying them. Au contraire! Unless you have lots of money to spend on many different custom corsets (or the skill to sew them yourself), OTR corsets can offer you a wide variety of styles, fabrics, and trims and are a great way to test out different silhouettes.

—A Note on Corset Ethics—

Symington corset production line, circa 1895-1900
Most major corset manufacturers from the 19th century went out of business when corsets fell out of favor during the 20th century. Now that corsets are regaining mainstream popularity, new commercial corset manufacturers are popping up to fill in the gap.

There are some ethics-based arguments about OTR corsets to take into consideration.  Many OTR corsets are made in China, Pakistan, and India in less-than-ideal conditions. There is a reason many are so inexpensive, and it’s not always the materials. Cheap corset sellers import their corsets from overseas where fair labor laws are minimal if they exist at all, raising ethical concerns about supporting OTR corset companies that may be exploiting their workers. If you are concerned about the ethical origins of your corsets, many individual corset makers offer their own lines of OTR corsets made to a standard set of measurements for a lower price than their custom pieces. Many historical corset shapes aren’t manufactured OTR at all, so depending on your desire for accuracy, a semi-custom or custom corset may be your only option if you do not want to make one yourself. Plus, if you’d like to support your local economy and artists, Lucy has a corsetiere map to find a corsetiere near you! Other places to find fairly-crafted corsets include Etsy (though you must beware of resellers), Tumblr, artists’ personal websites, or through forums and Facebook groups.
(That’s not so say that people can’t take advantage of corsetieres as well. Even if people tell you that a corset can be put together easily with the right pattern and some time, the price of a corset also reflects the maker’s time invested in learning the skills necessary to design, pattern, and sew. Don’t expect to get a corset from an artist for the price of an outsourced corset from one of the big corset importers!)

Find of the Month: Child’s Blue and Brown Plaid Silk 1860s Dress

January 2015

I began researching children’s clothes a while back because I had a few peole ask me about them. I don’t have children, so I don’t consider myself a good source of info for those kinds of questions. I did, however, start a Pinterest board for 19th Century (and some Edwardian) children’s clothes for those of you who are curious about how children’s clothes compared to those of adults.

Not long after I began my new branch of research, I went to the Azle Antique Mall with Becky to browse while Chris and Billy did repairs on the truck. The Azle Antique Mall has escaped the recent trend of antique shops being filled with boutiques of antique-looking-but-completely-new stuff instead of real antiques. In Azle, there are still bargains and treasures to be found crammed in every aisle!

I don’t shop for clothing at antique shops, but there is one booth that has great vintage accessories as well. I usually ignore the clothing racks, but there is a rack at eye-level filled with smaller pieces like camisoles and tons of baby christening gowns. Mixed into the sea of white linen, a dark little patch of brown caught my eye.

Lo and behold, it was an antique silk child’s dress!

dress 1860s

A quick snap when I got it home. It looks sort of strange on a hanger since this dress is made to be gathered by the belt and worn off-the-shoulder.

It was only $30, which is a good chunk of change for me, but incredibly inexpensive for an adorable antique silk dress, so I had to have it!
It’s in remarkably good condition for its age and is 100% intact! However, the silk is very fragile and splits easily. I’ve decided to pack it away in acid free tissue along with the rest of my antique clothing collection to help preserve it. Before I packed it away, though, I decided to get a few pictures of it.

1860s Child's Dress

Child’s Dress, circa 1855-65
The silk is mildly slubby and has some areas where the weft threads are poorly woven. It is also stained throughout, though whether by a clumsy child or storage I cannot say.

IMG_2189

Side, showing the faux pocket flaps.

The dress is only very lightly stuffed with polyfill and a bit of batting to give you an idea of the shape, so it paunches and poofs rather than hangs as it would on a child. It’s not a professional display by any means, but it does give a better impression of fit than a hanger. I had purchased a tiny vintage mannequin a while ago to display antique jewelry on and I was excited that it might work for this dress, but the form is about a 2T and this dress is much larger. It is meant to fit loosely and the fullness controlled with the belt, bringing the waist measure to about 24.” It would sit off the shoulder which, without a dress form, is hard to show, but here are two pictures of little girls in similar-fitting dress paired with pantalettes:

This dress isn’t necessarily for a little girl. Little boys also wore dresses until they were about 5 or 6 years old. They even wore their hair longer and curled, but there are some clues you can look for in old photographs to tell the gender of a young child. Girl’s hair is generally parted in the middle (as you can see in the photos above) and their dresses are worn with lace-edged pantelettes. Boy’s hair was often parted to the side and their shorter dresses are sometimes paired with loose trousers/breeches, like in this photo:

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Young Boy, 1860s

Another hallmark of boy’s clothing is a front button closure rather than a back button closure. Historically, children’s clothing closed in the back. In the 1850s and 1860s, boy’s short dresses often buttoned in front instead. My child’s dress has a very decorative button closure:

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Back of the dress (taken laying flat since the picture of it supported turned out too blurry)

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The glass buttons imitate the popular agate jewelry in fashion at the time. They are 19mm in diameter and have gilt brass settings. This is also a good detail shot of the tiny lace edging.

The glass and gilt buttons on this dress are so fancy I wonder if they actually belong in front, like in this photograph of a young lad:

Young boy, 1860s

The fancy buttons on my dress are purely for show. Underneath them, the functional closure is made of a strip of twill tape sewn with buttonholes, 3 calico buttons, and a brass hook paired with a thread bar:

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The calico buttons appear to be style “124” according to the NBS’s Calico Button chart.

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The dress’s belt is attached at the side seams, and therefore always closes on the side with the buttons. It has one button to close it, but two placed in the center on the opposite side, which leads me to believe that it functioned as a girl’s dress. It’s very possible this dress served double duty for two generations: one male and one female. The construction of the dress is fairly symmetrical front and back, so it could easily be worn either way.
The front and back are each one piece and are jointed at the side only. The skirt is gathered under the pocket flaps at the sides under the sleeves. The dress is flatlined with plain brown polished cotton and is handsewn throughout with backstitching while the velvet ribbon trim is tacked with typical long running stitches:

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Inside back

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The pocket flap seam inside

I’m still learning about this area of costuming, so I’m not an expert. There may be some details I missed, so if you have more information or would like me to add more photos of certain construction details, just let me know!

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Self Fabric Piping on Sleeve

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!

One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 2)

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60

SO…

After much procrastination, consternation, and perspiration (the sewing room upstairs gets rather toasty), I finished assembling my modified-for-the-1850s Simplicity 3723 day dress!

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Hmmm….not so impressive.

While it looks pretty close to the envelope, if you think it looks a little “off” in that photo, you’d be right! This is a perfect example of how much undergarments matter. Simplicity 3723 is designed to be worn without a corset, but I fitted it over one for a more period look. However, since my corseted measurements and my uncorseted measurements happen to be exactly the same, I decided to take the opportunity to show how important proper undergarments can be. This is what the gown looks like without any petticoats, hoops, or a corset. It looks rather frumpy, doesn’t it?

You’ll also notice that even the pagoda sleeves, while lovely, look a little flat compared to what you’d expect. If you look at period photographs, you’ll notice that some ladies are wearing their wide sleeves alone, but most have fluffy while undersleeves filling out the cuff:

 

Daguerreotype portrait of a Woman, 1849-52
Worn sans undersleeves. Another later example here.

Handtinted Ambrotype of a Woman, circa 1855
Example of undersleeves from right around the time of my dress! Her undersleeves and collar are “Broderie Anglaise” (a type of homemade eyelet that was very fashionable in the 1850s). I like this photo a lot because she looks a bit like me. I even did my hair similarly. We’re history sisters!

Undersleeves, circa 1850-69
These are also decorated with broderie anglaise.

Undersleeves could vary from very fancy to extremely plain. For simplicity (Ha, ha! Jokes.), I chose to go with the latter. Making your own undersleeves is very simple! They are just two tubes of fabric gathered with drawstrings at the top and bottom. I used elastic cord for the drawstring because trying to tie drawstrings on yourself is impossible otherwise. Many undersleeves of the period had drawstring tops, but button cuffs for this very reason. However, I wanted something very quick and easy that anyone could make. By using elastic cord, I can dress myself.

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I just measured the length from above my elbow to my wrist and cut that much off a bolt of 45 inch fabric, which I then cut along the fold, giving me two rectangles of fabric 18″ x 22.5.” This is about as “skinny” of a sleeve you can make. The fuller your dress’ sleeves, the fuller your undersleeves should be.

By 1858, hoop skirts were in full swing. I really want hoops, but right now, I don’t have the cash. Instead, I fit my dress over a cheap bridal petticoat I found in Goodwill for $7, a modest bumroll, and my “post-haste” petticoat.

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Also: sock boobs!
I fitted the dress over a corset, but I didn’t put my corset on my mannequin because she is actually much longer waisted than I am and is nipped in and hard as steel in already!

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My “post-haste” petticoat is just 3 or 4 yards of fabric with a drawstring waistband. it’s post-haste because I made it 20 minutes before an event in a panic! Now it’s been worn with everything from an 18th century dress to 1880s bustles!

So now:

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Thanks in part to the heavy weight of the fabric, the final shape isn’t as defined and full as hoopskirts, but it’s still full enough to be period appropriate, especially for a common country woman. This fullness is actually perfect for 1840s, though! Now I know what to do for that decade when I get around to it.

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The collar is just some soft net lace I had originally bought to make 18th century engageantes. I really wanted to use an antique collar, but I couldn’t find one the right size. This works well enough, though. I am really proud of how the tassels turned out. So much fun!

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I notice a lot of pictures of museum workers standing by Victorian dresses, especially Queen Victoria herself, commenting about how tiny everything is. Well, it’s kind of an optical illusion. My dress looks pretty small compared to me, but that’s mostly thanks to modern clothes which aren’t fitted and cut across the body at the widest point. Also, you can really see just how much wide skirts make your waist look smaller by hiding your legs, which in my case are the skinniest part of my body. By hiding them, the eye re-focuses on the new skinniest place: your waist!

Before I could call my outfit complete, I needed a bonnet! No self-respecting 1850s lady, especially an ol’ married lady such as m’self, would be caught dead outdoors without proper headgear. Simplicity 3723 comes with a fabric sun bonnet pattern that’s pretty cute, but I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be petty, tailored, and stately in a modest-sized spoon bonnet that fit fairly close to my head. I also didn’t want to be too matchy-matchy. I had some dark blue ribbon that complimented the jewel tones of my dress and reminded me of this gorgeous bonnet in the National Trust Collections:

Bonnet, circa 1840-50
It’s dated a bit early, but simple enough that it could pass for almost any style between 1840 and 1860.

I used one of the many flower pot baskets out of my TV-intervention-worthy hoard as a base. As a few online tutorials suggested, I took off the top binding and soaked it in hot water for a few hours to try to remove some of the waviness in the brim. The basket straw is much thicker and brittle than hat straw, so I couldn’t get it as flat as I wanted, but slight waviness doesn’t seem to be a issue for these historical ladies:

Ladies of Davenport, Iowa,1863
My bonnet ended up being almost exactly the same shape as the one on the far left. Also: love that lady’s purse!

I rebound the edge with bias tape and in the process discovered that you never, EVER use “Amazing QuickHold” glue. Ever. It smells like skunk, makes the cat flee from the room in disgust, and causes the husband to ask many unflattering questions. It’s formulated to be thin, so it also soaks into fabric, leaving little frosted white patches when it dries. Do not recommend! I learned my lesson and went back to trusty old “craft” glue.

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I would have sewn everything on, but once again the thick straw got in the way– and perhaps no small amount of pure sloth. I really do love my hat baskets, though. They’re really cheap, easy to obtain, and highly entertaining. If I mess one up, I don’t feel as bad as if I had invested in an expensive reproduction bonnet form or even a straw hat. When I found the flower choices at the local craft stores to be rather uninspiring, I made some cockades using this tutorial and added a tassel cut from the dress trim scraps to tie it together without being overly matching:

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Bonnet cost breakdown:

2 yards navy ribbon – $4.75, eBay
2 yards mustard ribbon – $4.75, eBay
Hat basket – $1.59, Goodwill
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
2 yards pleated brown ribbon – $4.50, Walmart
Bias tape – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $19.57

Add some second-hand square-toed boots and I was ready to trundle everything out to my graciously obliging mother-in-law’s house for a photoshoot! Here’s everything being worn altogether:

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Dress cost breakdown

6 yards printed cotton – $17.82, Walmart
2 yards burgundy cotton – $5.94, Walmart
4 yards tassel trim – $15.96, Hobby Lobby
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
Cotton sheet for flat lining – $1, Thrift Town
Hooks and bars – $1.69, Hobby Lobby
Brown poly-cotton thread – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $46.39

Accessories

Bonnet – $19.57
Bridal Petticoat – $7, Goodwill
Flat, brown leather ankle boots – $29, eBay (Talbots brand)
Collar brooch – Personal collection

Total: $102.50
(a bit spendier than I would have liked, but still cheaper than purchasing one pre-made!)

Aside from the still-too-small petticoat circumference, I’d say my foray into the 1850s was a success!

I think the biggest reason the outfit came together so well stems from the way I approached the project. Sure, I wanted to be a bit ornery and prove you could make something passable out of the barest of materials, but I mostly made this dress for myself, approaching the project as though I was making clothes, not a “costume.” I chose fabric, colors, and trims that I thought looked best on me, not just because they were historically appropriate or pretty on their own and I made sure that I could generally exist in it comfortably without feeling suffocated or weird. A lot of costumes I’ve worn in the past have always felt costumey, so they projected as costumey, too. While taking on a different persona can be fun, if you are historically costuming in general, you are still you, even if you are an accountant in Alabama portraying a fisherman’s wife in 17th century Spain. Naturally, you would wear what “they” would have worn, but you are also the one wearing it, so wear what you would wear, too!

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Many thanks to Becky for allowing me to roam all over the back 40 and helping me take photos!

For construction details and the story behind this dress, check out Part 1.

 HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!