Call the Fashion Police! I’m Wearing an Illegal Hatpin!

To keep my hats jaunty but secure at Edwardian events, I use one of my antique, pre-ban hatpins. Pre-ban? What’s that? Well, as silly as it may sound to us, in the 1910s, cities around the globe passed laws outlawing certain sizes of hatpins! Why would governments and police departments waste valuable time outlawing fashion accessories?
Until about 1970, hats were a major part of a woman’s wardrobe. They have varied in size, material, and decor, but one of the primary problems with hats is that, if caught by a gust of wind, it can easily escape from you! Ladies have employed a variety of methods to avert this: making the hat deep enough that it sit snugly on the head or using ribbons to tie them down, wire loops that grasp your head (many 1950s hats use this method), or clips and combs that grab onto your hair. One of the most popular antique methods we no longer use was the hatpin. Hatpins hold your hat on securely by attaching your hat to your hairstyle. That way, as long as your bun is secure, your hat can’t fall off or blow away in the wind! It also helps perch the hat high on your head so it’s not smashing your hairdo or hiding your face. To wear one, you position your hat as desired, thrust the pin through one side of the crown, carefully sliding it under a portion of your hair, and then pushing the pin back out the other side of the hat.

Sort of like this…
The closer yo can get the pin to your scalp, the better. But watch out! You don’t want to jab yourself!

Hatpins  started out as wimple pins used to hold women’s veils in place as far back as Roman times. Those pins were fairly small. However, as women’s headwear changed, so did the pins. It was during the late 18th century– when outrageous large hats perched on outrageously large hairdos–that hatpins first began to appear. Hatpins didn’t truly become common until the mid-to-late 19th century when hats overtook bonnets as the most fashionable form of headwear. A hatpin became an indispensable part of a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe. Victorian hats were fairly small for the most part, but as the turn of the century drew near, the hats grew larger and more elaborate…not unlike the giant hats of 100 years earlier.

Mary Boteler by John Hoppner, 1786

Publicity photo of performer Rhonda Ray, circa 1903-1907

Les Modes Hats, circa 1907

Hats and hairstyles in the Edwardian era were enormous, requiring equally enormous hatpins– often so long and sharp that they could not only jab you, but anyone that got too close to you. Indeed, at over a foot long and made of rigid steel, an Edwardian hatpin makes a formidable weapon! There are even poems, books, and songs written about women defending themselves with hatpins! Mugger trying to get your purse? STAB ‘EM! Pervert “mashing” (harassing) you on the train? EN GARDE!

Poke me, eh? I’LL POKE YOU!

Newspapers published many stories about women defending themselves with their hatpins– including in Chicago, one of the first cities to institute  hatpin laws. In 1902 the Chicago Tribune published an article about Jaunite Bonneau– one of the first female couriers for Western Union– defending herself with “Fists and Hatpin” against a group of young male attackers– and being completely blamed for hurting the lads that attacked her.

You can find even more Chicago Tribune articles about hatpins being used as weapons in their searchable archives. Most have a rather negative view of hatpins and the women wielding them, but there are a few articles that mention their use in a more positive light, including this 1898 blurb about Barbara Stack who “routed street car robbers with a hatpin” or this 1907 horror story about a woman defending herself from a kidnapping rapist.

The uniquely feminine weapon did not sit too well with men used to submissive ladies, so beginning in 1908, they began passing laws limiting the length of hatpins, usually to no more than 7-9 inches. Other cities passed regulations requiring safety caps for hatpins rather than outright banning longer ones. This seemed like a much more practical approach to the problem of accidental stabbings– a naked pin point sticking out of a hat could accidentally injure people around you– though requiring a cap rendered the pin much harder to use for self-defense, too. Other cities allowed longer, uncapped pins, but they could stick out no more than 1/2″ or you could face a hefty fine— including paying reparations:

From the Boston Sacred Heart Review April 12, 1913.
It is probably not a coincidence that the notice about outlawing hatpins as weapons appears just below an article about militant suffragettes in England.

Male lawmakers weren’t just making idle threats, either. Women vehemently opposed the laws and some ladies were even arrested for wearing long or uncapped pins in their hats, especially suffragettes. Yes, policemen would actually stop women to inspect their hats for illegal hatpins. For example, here’s a clip from a newspaper article about arresting women with long hatpins. At a fierce 13 inches long, my hatpin could have landed me in the slammer if I wore it without a permit after 1908!

Pre-ban Hatpin on the left, 13″ long circa 1900
“Legal” hatpin on the right, 7″ long circa 1890-1915
Somewhat ironically, the shorter hatpin is sharper. You could definitely still defend yourself easily with it!

Hatpins do require extra attention in order to wear them safely. Truth be told, a properly worn hatpin should not be noticeable at all when worn. It should hide amid your hat trimmings, showing only the bejeweled end if it has one. The sharp end shouldn’t not stick out more than an inch (unless it also has a decorative cap as some 1910-1950 hatpins do).  If you are like me and have a hatpin a bit too long for your hat, you must be very careful when giving hugs or taking selfies with friends, not to mention being careful not to stab yourself! However,  hatpins are incredibly important if you want to wear historical hats properly…or defeat hooligans.

Post-ban newspaper articles take a decidedly dark view of women using hatpins. Many reference the violent protests of women’s rights activists as proof that women could not be trusted with sharp objects, no matter how prettily decorated:

Whether the hatpin ban made women adopt smaller hats or whether the natural flow of fashion made the edicts obsolete, it’s hard to say, but as the 1910s progressed, hats changed to sit lower on the head and slowly shrunk in scale. By 1920, a decade after the hatpin laws passed, women had adopted shorter hair, shorter skirts, and close-fitting cloches that didn’t need hatpins at all. American women also got the vote so we could fight to wear what we want!

A fight for fashion is a fight for freedom!

I actually don’t know when–or even if!– places like Chicago, New Orleans, and Melbourne repealed their hatpin bans…for all I know, it’s one of those weird laws left on the books after all these years and I’m technically a criminal in some municipalities!

COME AND GET ME, FASHION POLICE!

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.

 

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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

Valen-Teens Tea and My 4th Version of Butterick 6093

Butterick 6093 Redo..trois…quatre!

valenteen-tea-ii2017’s sewing projects got off to a rocky start, but I threw myself into planning for Valen-Teens Tea with the DFW Costumer’s Guild. We would be hosting a special guest: Laura, the creator and president of Shear Madness!

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Check out the Shear Madness Blog here.
And the Facebook community here.

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Photo courtesy of Barb Chancey

The event started off as informal and small, but soon grew to quite a full party! We met up at the Secret Garden Tea Room in the Montgomery Street Antique Mall in Fort Worth for an early lunch and, of course, tea:

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After tea, we browsed the antique mall for a little while and then went for a nice stroll in the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens next door.

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The event’s theme was 1910s, so Becky wore a thrifted Edwardian outfit she put together from the wonderland that is Goodwill, including her favorite lavender skirt, a pin-tucked floral blouse, and a vintage wool coat she got for a steal– $15! To top it off, she wore a rosey straw hat with a floral spray left over from my Edwardian Hat Hack.

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Becky’s outfit Breakdown:

Pink straw hat – $3.49, Goodwill
Floral Pin-tuck blouse – $4.49, Goodwill
Lavender formal skirt – $7.49, Goodwill
Vintage wool coat – $14.95, Goodwill
Total: $30.42
(Her stockings and shoes were from her daily wear clothes. Always check your own closet! you never know what will work perfectly for a costume!)

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Becky, 1915 style!

For my outfit, I dug Butterick 6093 out of the bottom of my pattern drawer. I’d made it a few years ago and had been less than impressed with the fit. However, I liked the general look and it goes together really fast, so I decided to give it another try.

Previous versions:

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Version 1, July 2015: “Straight” Size 12 made from cotton and a sari. It was a tad small.

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Version 2, August 2015: 1st attempt at a multi-sized dress made from a cotton sheet and a dupatta that Laura sent me. Made for my sister who was the same size I was at the time. It turned out a little too large.

So, I had Goldilock’s problem: the first dress was too small, the second dress was too big…I needed to find one that was just right!

Without the breaking and entering charges, of course.

I decided to make a wearable mockup first. That way, if I ran out of time to make the final dress, I would at least have a version that would work. A wearable mockup is a trial garment that is finished like a regular garment, but isn’t necessarily what you want the final garment to look like. It’s simplified and often made out of an inexpensive/not-so-important fabric. For mine, I had picked up some rolled up remnants of purple mystery fabric at Walmart years ago that had these nifty thick white and purple threads that made pin-tuck-like stripes in the fabric. I had never unrolled it to see what it was like. Turns out it’s cotton organdy! I almost saved it for a different project, but I had bought it with Edwardian specifically in mind, so I now-or-nevered it into a simple version of Butterick 6093:

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It’s sheer and unlined, so I used French seams for everything except the armscyes and waist seam.

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Of course, that means that I had to sew every seam twice, but it makes a really nice, neat finish on the inside of sheer fabrics.

Since I’m an entirely different size than I was in 2015, I decided to start Butterick 6093 from scratch. I had tried a new measurement method for my 1868 Monet outfit earlier in January, and while that outfit didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, the sizing method was actually really helpful: Instead of choosing on flat size, like 16, and then doing a whole bunch of alterations sizing it up and down in various places via mockups, you take a few extra body measurements and choose each pattern piece individually.

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My 1868 dress of failure.

Original photo by Festive Attyre
(one of the few pictures of this dress)

I got the idea from my Fashions of the Gilded Age by Francis Grimble. In the book, you have to take a lot of incremental measurements of your body in order to scale up the pattern pieces. In the case of Butterick 6093, instead of just measuring all the way around my bust or full bust, I broke it down into two separate measurements: 1) full front bust from side seam to side seam and 2) back from side seam to side seam at bust level. Then I laid out the tissue and measured the pattern pieces themselves instead of relying on Butterick’s suggested measurements.

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Minka “helped.”

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By using this method, I ended up with a size 14 back and a size 20 front! Sounds a bit crazy, right? But it works! Truly Victorian, the popular Victorian pattern brand, uses a similar method to select your pattern pieces. The method suits Butterick 6093 well because there are no darts or curved back seams to worry about.

I really love the purple organdy dress, but when I tried it on…

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Scientifically accurate rendering.

1910s dresses, like Regency dresses, can be problematic on certain body types. Indeed, the ice cream cone look was totally in from 1910-1913, but that isn’t a look I strive to recreate! The combo of the crisp fabric and the way I had gathered it made for a super-full front that would make a great Lumpy Space Princess cosplay, but not the most flattering tea gown.

Oh. My. Glob.

But when I put it on my dress form, it looked fab!

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I mean, it helps that my dress form is shaped like an ideal size 10 with the added bonus of having one of my old bras stuffed onto it like a giant Barbie voodoo doll that sulks in the corner of my sewing room:

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I expect things to look awesome the dress form, but if she’s very-near-to-literally having my exact bustline, why isn’t it a muffin-topped mess on her? It turns out that it’s got everything to do with my short waist.

My dress form is standardized to meet industry standards. That means she has an “average” torso length which happens to be about 2″ longer than mine! So the purple dress looked great on her because the very fitted skirt was the right length for her. On me, however, the top is about 1.5″ too tall causing the skirt to extend past where it should be, pushing the excess bodice length up and over the top, creating the unflattering droopy ice cream cone shape (Why do I end up describing all my sewing projects as desserts?!).
If you look at my previous versions, you will see a similar thing happening even at the smaller sizes.
I removed an inch off the top of the skirt pattern pieces for my final version.

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Image includes complimentary glob of cat hair for your viewing pleasure.

It was like the magic cure! No more ice cream cone!

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Of course, the final version doesn’t fit very well on my dress form, but that’s because it fits ME, not HER.

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Take that, Gertie!

The fabric I used for the final version is an amazing cotton shirting with woven swiss dots. Just like my failed 1868 dress, it is one of the last fabrics I purchased at Hancock’s before they went under. This time, however, I don’t feel like I wasted it! It was a dream to sew with. I used it “inside out” so the fuzzy side of the dots faced out. The cream fabric is a filmy cotton curtain I found at Goodwill that has a drawn threadwork look:

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Unlike the swiss dot, the curtain fabric was NOT a dream to sew with, so I didn’t make the long undersleeves I planned, but I did use it to make a contrasting rever! Thanks to my great experience with Butterick 3648, I am in love with revers! To turn 6093’s lapel into a rever, I simply taped it onto the bodice pattern piece on one side so when I cut it out, I ended up with this:

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I’ve grown to admire Butterick 6093’s versatile styling options. Even if you don’t want to do fancy stuff like make revers, it comes with a curved lapel that can be used alone or in a pair, a squared collar, and skirt panels that can be used alone or overlapped, or you can leave all those extra bits off, like I did for my purple dress! It also has two sleeve options, though I haven’t tried the long sleeves with the cuffs yet.

Pattern options include:

  • 3 skirt options: 1 drape, 2 drapes, none
  • 6 collar options: single lapel, double lapels, square collar, square collar+1 lapel, square collar +2 lapels, no collar
  • 2 sleeve options: short sleeves, long sleeves

There are over 30 combos you can make from the basic pieces alone!

And that number doesn’t even include things like changing the wrap direction of the bodice, adding extra embellishments, using more than one fabric, etc.

In fact–as a testament to the versatility of the pattern–we realized that three of us had used Butterick 6093 to make our tea dresses, but our dresses were all very different!

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While I opted for the asymmetrical collar and a double-draped skirt in light cotton, Jane used a textured wool blend and completely omitted the collar, and Laura chose the square collar and a printed cotton.

Instead of gathering the bottom of the bodice, I made two large box pleats. It’s definitely unusual, but it worked! I also box pleated the back in the same manner.

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I added a kick pleat in the back– the same solution Jane had come up with.

The dress is one piece and closes at the side seam with an invisible zipper. It’s not Historically Accurate, but it’s discreet.

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For those concerned with HA, the zipper can easily be swapped out for hooks and eyes.

Overall, I would say that this pattern is a good one if you are willing to figure out the sizing. It’s flattering on nearly all body types and is a quick dress to make. I made it in about 10-12 hours (most of that time was spent ironing, TBH).

To accessorize my dress, I wore the hat I made in my Edwardian Hat Hack, my sister’s little white purse (which goes to nearly every event!), an antique necklace, some thrifted shoes, and a very serendipitous vintage coat I found the day before.

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Photo courtesy of Mistress of Disguise

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My attempt at an autochrome.

Outfit Breakdown

4 yards of green cotton – $16, Hancock’s Fabric
1 cotton curtain – $1.49, Goodwill
1 invisible zipper – $3.50, Walmart
1 spool of thread – $1.95, Walmart
Shoes – $7.99, Goodwill
1960s coat – $18.95, Goodwill

Total – $49.88

Underneath, I’m wearing my beloved Rago 821. The way it fits me very closely mimics a Teens corset, but it’s stretchy and cheap! I got it for about $30 off Amazon. I highly recommend it for 1910s and later!

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My updated, more technical review of Butterick 6093 is posted on the Sewing Pattern Review website here.

Megan’s photos of the tea can be found on Flickr here.

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And my photos can be seen here.

True Vintage: An Edwardian Blouse I Found at Goodwill

It kind of pains me to title this post “true vintage” because that term has always struck me as both pretentious and meaningless, but in this case, it’s a really apt description.

You see, I go into Goodwill all the time looking for “Edwardian stuff,” but not the real deal. The local Goodwills mostly have things dating from the 1980s and onward. The “Edwardian stuff” I look for is costuming-grade things like secretary blouses, long pleated skirts, lacy camisoles, and the like that are perfect for Thrifted Edwardian outfits.

Stuff like this.

As for vintage things, every once in a blue moon I will find a homemade 1960s dress or, once, a chipped 1930s teapot, but nothing mind-blowing. Today I was combing the racks for some work shirts and maybe a nice lace top I could rob of its trimmings. The area where I live is “100 yards from rich” as Chris and I describe it, downwind of the wealthy suburbs, so our Goodwill is blessed with comparatively nice castoffs from the upper echelons of Fort Worth society. The “it” style for spring/summer for the local who’s-who was romantic boho chic with the usual dash of Western flavor Texas is known for.

Stuff like this.

There have been tons of peasant blouses and filmy tops with lace collars that were perfect for Thrifted Edwardian costumes, so I was already hauling an armful when I pulled this beauty off the rack.

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Labelled as a size “Medium” – HA!

 I confess that when I first caught sight of it, my first thought was “Oh! Another nice modern blouse that looks good enough to fake it,” so imagine my genuine surprise when I pulled the hanger out of the polyester sea to get a better view. This blouse was so good at “faking it” because it was real! There are enough similarly-styled modern blouses that no one noticed its age when it was tagged ($4.49), racked, rifled through, or rung up at the register.
I must say I feel quite proud: my “looks-Edwardian” radar is honed enough that it picked up on a real Edwardian/WWI blouse even though it only saw one sleeve smooshed between 10,000 others.

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It’s not a particularly fancy piece by any means, but it has some nice filet lace around the collar and a bit of embroidery at the front. I didn’t take many photos because I wasn’t even planning on writing about it, but I hadn’t posted in a while and, hey, cool 1910s blouse! Why not share? Just further proof that you never know what you’ll find lurking in the racks.

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

Easy (Post-) Edwardian: How to Put Together a Thrifted WWI Day Dress

Dressing Like Great-Grandma!

One of my favorite hobbies is scouring the local thrift stores for “no-sew” costume pieces that save me both time and money–plus recycling is good for the planet! One of the easiest eras to thrift shop for is 1910-1920 and I’ve written a few posts about taking advantage of 1970s maxi dresses, modern a-line skirts, and 1980s secretary blouses to create on-the-fly costumes. Imagine my delight when, a few weeks ago, I discovered a new thrift shop item to add to my hunt-for list: 1980s and 1990s dresses!

If you would believe it, late 1980s/early 1990s fashion is actually rather similar to late 1910s fashion.

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1990s

Now, before you spit tea all over your screen, let me clarify a few stipulations.

While the 1980s and 1990s were full of crazy bright color, oddly-placed cut-outs, and head-to-toe acid-wash denim, they also saw the rise of the more conservative ankle-length jumper dress or pinafore (depending on your local dialect):

Simplicity 9764, 1980s
(Now, by the way, better known as an actual historical costume pattern for hoopskirts!)

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Vogue 1584, 1980s

jumperdressMcCalls 7812

McCall’s 7812, 1990s

McCall’s 6782, 1990s

Add a baggy collared shirt and a few additional classic late 1980s/early 1990s accessories– lace-up heels and a round brim hat or raspberry beret (which, in 1915, had actual berries)–and you suddenly realize that much more than your boots look like granny’s:

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Fashion plate, April 1915

May 1918 fashion plate

Fashion plate, circa 1915

Fashion Plate, July 1915

Autochrome by Heinrich Kühn, circa 1912 (looks more 1914-1915 to me, though)
Seriously, this could be me and my sister hanging out with my mom and one of her friends at the park.

Loose fit, natural (or slightly dropped) waistline, ankle length skirts, funky straps, fun button placement…yup! Our great-grandmothers made it cool long before Molly Ringwald and Laura Ashley!

So while I was at Goodwill a few weeks back, I was very excited to find a promising jumper dress of my own:

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Ah, memories of my school days!

 Since I’m already addicted to secretary blouses and hats, I had a great (if slightly stained) collared shirt and straw sunhat ready to go!

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Don’t I look like I should be heading out to Sunday Meeting for a potluck? I feel very much like I should have a basket of eggs, but I didn’t trust myself to set the self timer, run into position, and avoid walking all over the cat while carrying fragile, goo-filled things.

To liven up my hat, I tied a vintage silk necktie around the brim:

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Since the polka-dot dress is just slightly too large and by WWI corsets were mostly tubular (as I already am below the bust), I’m not wearing any sort of corset or waistshaper underneath! My dress would benefit from being taken in for a slightly tighter fit at the waist just for flattery’s sake, but it works okay as-is. An outfit like this is a great option if you have an event but don’t want to wear a corset all day.

Also: POCKETS!

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Awesomeness x 1000!

1995 Does 1915 Outfit Breakdown

Jumper dress – $6.99, Goodwill
Silk Blouse – $4.59, Goodwill
Hat – $3.99, Thrift Town
Silk Tie – $1.25, Goodwill

Total: $16.82
(and not a lick of time spent sewing!)

The shoes are from Oak Tree Farms and are the most expensive pair of shoes I own! I think I paid around $120 for them on eBay. You could just as easily wear a pair of inexpensive mary jane shoes (like my favorite T-straps, Jean by Angel Steps), pointed-toe pumps, or some oxford-style heels.

If you follow my Facebook page, you know of my new addiction to BeFunky, a free photo editing website. It’s great for making your digital photos look “old fashioned” and artsy! I had fun trying to mimic the two main types of photography during the 1910s…

Classic Black and White…

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…and the dreamy early color photo process, Autochrome!

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 Not exact, but close enough! :)

If you make an Easy Edwardian outfit of your own, I’d love to see it! Send me pictures on Facebook either through private message or as a post on my wall.

—-More Edwardian Costume Adventures—-

Edwardian On a Budget – Original Post
Easy Edwardian for under $10 (1900-1910)
More Easy Edwardian (1913-1914)
Butterick 6093 (the 1912 dress)  Version #1 and Version #2

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.

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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

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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!