Overdressed at the Nudes Exhibit: My 1880s Flannel Bustle Dress goes to the Museum

Waaaaaay back in December of 2018, I went to Dickens on the Strand with my friend Megan (aka Mistress of Disguise / Clusterfrock). Since it had been frightfully chilly the week before, I made a flannel bustle dress using the “duct-tape dummy” method (mummify yourself in duct tape and cut the form into pattern pieces) in anticipation of promenading in the cold streets of Galveston (plus, there were many tales of the previous year being rained out). It was my first time ever using the duct tape method and even though it was very time consuming, I was absolutely thrilled with the outcome! I have since made multiple dresses using the original duct tape pattern and each time I have achieved a good fit much more quickly than my previous slopers.

This is the only in-progress shot of have of this dress because I was just trying to buzz through it like a bee in a windstorm in order to make the deadline! You can see the raw duct tape pattern at the top and the absolute wild shape of it to fit my body. It looks insane (3 darts?! Whatever works…), but the resulting fit is unbeatable.

However, in grand Texas style, the weather shifted from being partly cloudy in the 30s to being sunny, 80 degrees, and soppingly humid. Despite being ill-suited for the heat, I wore my flannel dress to a marvelous tea party and had a good time anyway.

Unlike the Victorians who wore their grand, heavy dresses in the midst of a mini ice age, current Texas weather patterns are far from ideal for 5 pounds of fluffy cotton flannel! I meant to write a blog post about my trip right after the event, but never got around to it. So the poor flannel dress hung in my closet, entombed in a plastic dust cover.

Most of 2019 was much the same: far too warm to wear anything long sleeved, much less made of flannel. I made costumes out of cool fabrics instead, like my linen-blend 1878 mourning dress with 3/4 sleeves to beat the heat (also made using the duct tape dummy pattern as the base). Even when December rolled around, we pretty consistently hit temps in the 70s and 80s. If the heat wasn’t going to wane in winter, I decided I was just going to make fresh accessories for my black dress, like I did for the Waxahachie Christmas House Tours:

When 2020 arrived, a new DFW Costumers Guild event was on the horizon: Renoir, the Body the Senses, at the Kimbell Art Museum. Again, I pulled some fabrics from my stash in anticipation of just making a new overskirt, cuffs, and collars for my black dress. But as the day drew near, time ran out!

Life got incredibly hectic: we had planned a nice long visit to my parents’ house, but on the 8 hour drive over, our car died in the desert! We spent vacation wrestling with the dead car and the rest of the week tying to find a new one. By the time the Saturday of the event rolled around, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to sew. I considered skipping it entirely. But Becky really wanted to go and the weather had chilled…the flannel dress called to me from the dark recesses of the closet: IT IS TIME!

I pulled out out and prayed it would still fit. And it did! Huzzah! I always thought the front was too plain, so I had just enough gumption and time to add some navy ribbon to it. Much better!

I have discovered that ribbon—LOTS of ribbon– is invaluable to costuming. Rosettes, belts, hat bands, ties, hairbows, jabots, edging, waist-tapes, binding, accents, purse strings…ribbon is infinitely useful. However, don’t be like me and underestimate how much ribbon you’ll need: I used about 3 yards of antique ribbon just to make these few accents and I didn’t have a scrap left!

So I donned my chemise, undies, corset, corset liner, under petticoat, bustle, over petticoat, underskirt, overskirt, bodice, and hat, tickled the entire time that I’m wearing all these extra layers to go see nudes!

You see, this particular museum exhibit was exclusively Renoir’s nude paintings through the years (with a smattering of nude portraits by other artists that inspired him).

Ooo, lala!

vs. Our Extra-Fully-Clothed Group

Photo courtesy of Christy

Honestly, I think our costumed group provided excellent historical context and contrast to the exhibit. There we were, dressed as the women in the portraits and patrons of the museums viewing the paintings would have dressed in their day-to-day lives– highlighting just how intimate and revealing Renoir’s realistic nudes are and how brave and daring his models were to pose nude in an era where women generally wore very modest clothing and while idealistic, “classically” painted nudes were widely revered, the models/actresses posing for them were still given the disapproving societal side-eye.

I wish I’d gotten some photos of us in costume next to the paintings to show the contrast, but there were lots of people and I always feel a bit rude taking photos in a full gallery when folks are there trying to appreciate the art. I did grab one of Becky and I outside in the lovely, pleasant, absolutely refreshing 50 degree Texas morning air:

10000000% more pleasant than the 80 degree days of December 2018 and 2019!

Afterwards, we went to La Madeline for lunch where I stuffed myself silly with strawberries and cream!

It was a good day, something I sorely needed to lift my mood after the stressful week scraping and scrambling after suddenly losing the car. I am very grateful to my family and friends for helping get us through it all!

Oh! I nearly forgot on of my favorite little details about this dress: the tiny Victorian pin that’s on the collar. I don’t know who it’s commemorating or what significance 1850 has, but I love the tiny mystery!

The Book That Started It All: A Review of SHOES by Linda O’Keeffe

WordPress notified me that my stocking article was my 199th post! That makes this one the 200th post on the Pragmatic Costumer blog! It so happens that today is Friday and I had a bit of a flashback, so here’s a bit of a “Flashback Friday.” :)

I just recently published a post about the glorious array of historical stocking choices available in the modern world. When I was searching for the perfect image of shoes paired with gorgeous antique stockings, there was only one image I wanted– a picture of three prettily shod turn-of-the-century feet with equally beautiful stockings, which you may recognize:

I didn’t discover this image in one of my frequent internet research binges. In fact, I was quite afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it at all. If I knew the perfect image, but never found on the internet before, how did I know of it?

Shoesandstockings

Right here, of course!

 When I was writing the piece, I was suddenly struck by the violent spasm of memory about this book:

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Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers, and More by Linda O’Keeffe (1996)  is the book that started it all. I know that it existed on our bookshelf while I was in high school; however, I don’t recall when or how the book came into our house. I just know that it belonged to my mother who, while interested in the history and pictures, isn’t exactly someone I consider “obsessed” with footwear by any stretch of the imagination, despite what the back of the book might proclaim.

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The book itself is simple. There are biographies of famous shoe makers and historical tidbits. There are some myths shared as though they were fact, but the book is 18 years old and books (and authors), though revered, are never infallible. The unusual shape is attractive, but stresses the spine. Mine’s held up fairly well despite all my abuses. It does flop a bit, though. If you are a shoe lover, history aficionado, or both, this book would be right at home in your library!

Even I cannot profess any love passionate love affair with shoes, but I can profess a love affair with this book. What first attracted me was the unusual size. Most books in our house were fairly stereotypical books. Their shapes were taller than it was was. This book is much wider than tall, plus it’s as thick as a cheap romance novel.

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Sensual encounters with handsome men not included, though there are some pretty risque shoes in there…

Naturally, I was drawn to its oddness being quite an odd book myself. I was also drawn to the large, bright images, especially of art shoes. Before this book came along, I had never considered shoes to be artistic. Sure, I lived near Santa Fe, the “City Different” and had seen a fair lot of fanciful dressers, but shoes until that point were a merely a nuisance. I preferred to tromp around barefoot if I could, and when shoes were necessary, a single pair of boots or sneakers was about the extent of my tastes. But, I am an artist by nature. Even if i am not a snappy dresser, I appreciate objects that are beautiful and the fantastical array of shoes that extended beyond the simple concept of shoes I had developed made me supremely happy. I had no desire to wear most of them, but they were so beautiful on their own, splashed broadly over the chunky pages like candy confections and 3D modernist paintings.

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Besides all the wild and wonderful modern shoes, there were pages and pages of antique shoes. My encounter with historical costume up until that point was fairly standard for a child. Pilgrims wore black dresses with wide, white paper collars cut out of paper plates in 1st grade, pioneers wore ill-fitting calicoes in colors and patterns I didn’t particularly care for, and colonial women somehow had white hair all the time. Everything else was a mystery. A lot of people my age did not have access to the internet when we were young to fill in the gaps, and when presented with what little costuming info we got, it all looked dull or hideous. The internet was still fairly young, so my only references were school textbooks (which, naturally, didn’t focus on fashion beyond satirical political cartoons of women wearing “ridiculous” clothing and stern-faced George Washington in his military uniform) and the books were had at home. I was very lucky that my parents are book and history lovers. I learned to love history quite early on, but fashion was still a realm I didn’t care for, nor really know existed. “Shoes” changed that. This is the book that introduced me to the glorious chopine– my one true shoe love and the bit of historical costume that sparked my interest in Elizabethan garb.

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Who wears these things? Why? What do they wear with it? When the curriculum (and Mrs. Heffner) dropped Shakespeare into our laps full-force in high school, my questions slowly started to be answered. Suddenly, I was irrationally angry that Juliet was not wearing chopines in any stage productions (it would be years before I got to see one on a foot).

“Shoes” opened up the world in many ways, making all the historical events I had read about seem much more poignant. I learned about Chinese Lotus shoes that were tiny enough to be printed life-size in a book that fit in my palm and suddenly understood why outlawing them in 1912 was so important. The WWII era shoes made from recycled materials during wartime rationing drove home just how hard people struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos. And then there were blush-inducing Victorian fetish shoes that unfolded like the centerfold of a men’s magazine:

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When I moved for college, I did not take the book with me. It was still my mother’s, after all, and my sister was also particularly fond of it. So for four hard, long years, I didn’t have my beloved reference with me. That long break did prompt me to look online where I discovered even more lovely shoes that the book never mentioned. But now, the book is mine!

Linda O’Keeffe has released a newer version of this book under the same title. I haven’t looked at the newer one (Honestly, I felt like I was cheating on my “book boyfriend” just looking it up on Amazon), so I cannot attest to its quality. However, it looks as though the content is pretty much the same with a few new additions. These books are definitely not designed for folks looking to do in-depth research. It is designed as an art book that happens to have interesting factoids scattered throughout. It’s a great jumping-off point, though, and you might even be able to squeeze it into a Christmas stocking if you try hard enough!

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If you can stand to part with it, that is.