Addams Family Outing: Natural Form 1878 Mourning Dress

I’ve been neglecting to fully blog my outfits lately for which I humbly apologize. Since I’ve gotten out of the swing of things, this post is going to be pretty perfunctory. I need to work on getting back into the groove!

My friend Megan (you may know her as Mistress of Disguise) found out early in the summer that the Granbury Opera house would be putting on the Addams Family Musical. Of course, we had to go and we invited the whole DFW Costumers Guild to go with us! Nothing would suit attending such a production better than a mourning gown, so I immediately began sewing….in my imagination, of course!

Mourning Ensemble, circa 1870 via the Met

A late 1870s mourning dress illustration

Victorian mourning clothes have some intricate rules depending on the decade, but for the average person, it boiled down to two things: Black and Not Shiny. Silk and wool bombazine or crepe are the hallmark fabrics of mourning, but I didn’t have the budget for those. I needed something affordable, matte, black, natural, and most importantly, cool and breathable to combat Texas’s infamous swelter (yes, even in October it reaches 100). Cotton, of course, first comes to mind. But I own a black and white feline that sheds like a hay wagon in a hurricane, and having experimented with black cotton before, I didn’t look forward to wearing a hair magnet. Instead, I had linen dreams and a polyester budget!

The Hair-icane and Great Destroyer of Tissue Patterns

But, lo! What’s this?! A sale at Fabrics.com? And look: Linen/rayon washer linen in black (it’s a bit more expensive now that the sale is over, but still worth it, I think)! I loathe to buy fabric online, especially in a case like this where weight and drape matter immensely. Yet the siren call of a superbly rated linen-rayon blend was just to tempting to pass up! So at 1:45am on the morning of July the 10th (as the email receipt so kindly reminds me), I grit my teeth and dropped $50 on 7 yards of fabric.

It hurt, fam. Not gonna lie. Oof! But when it arrived….holy bananas, was this stuff the REAL DEAL. Wow! It’s gorgeous. It does that smooth “fwump” thing that linen does with a touch of rayon slinkiness. It’s not matte matte, but has a subtle sheer similar to worn polished cotton. Plus, it’s pretty opaque. I was GIDDY….and terrified to cut it.

So I did that thing I do: set it on the ironing board and pet it occasionally for a few months.

To distract myself from the thought of ruining my precious fabric, I turned my attention to buttons. I knew I wanted black glass buttons, preferably antique. I spent 3 WHOLE DAYS in antiques stores looking for them and I found lots and lots of beautiful Victorian black glass buttons. I wasn’t even looking for a set—just something that spoke to me. But you know what? Victorian buttons are tiny and I’m not. I kept getting flashbacks to the giant 1970s Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing that had a section about proportion in choosing designs. As a stout-by-Victorian-standards gal, I decided 30 tiny buttons up my front was not only too much work, but also not entirely flattering/suitable for the very plain design I had in mind. I needed buttons with heft, yet a subtle demure quality and a sophisticated goth-girl edge for less than $20 for a set of 15. Tall order? Yes. But the Czech Republic doth provide!

I found these buttons in a few places, but this shop was the most inexpensive and had great service.

I highly recommend these buttons. Absolutely fantastic quality, scale, and design, plus extremely quick international shipping.

Buttons in hand, I continued to procrastinate–in my usual fashion– until the week before the event. So I grit my teeth once more, rolled out my fabric, laid down the ducktape dummy pattern I used for my Dickens on the Strand dress nearly a year before, and prayed that my corset could handle the extra ten pounds I’d shored up between then and now.

I picked up my shears.

I took a deep breath.

I cut the fabric.

I had no design in mind other than “Natural Form/Long and Smooth over the Hips.” I was going in blind. I just cut, sewed, and prayed it would fit. And at first, it didn’t.

It is not perfect, but it was wearable. I didn’t plan for a V neck, but the original high collar design did not work and a jewel neckline was unflattering, so I folded back the edges and tacked them down. I miscalculated with my new buttonhole foot and placed my buttons too far back, so they are off center and a tight squeeze.  I wasted a whole day trying trim ideas that were all for naught and the trim I did choose I ran out of halfway through.
But I made it work!

I wailed. I gnashed. I threw it on the floor in a fit of rage. But I had no time for a pity party, so, I pinned and hacked it into submission.

And realized it looked like a 1940s suit jacket in the process…

The little skelecorn is not HA…in this universe at least. ;)

The final trim design is a three/four layer design. I had a tiny length of antique moire ribbon with a white picot edge that was my inspiration. I had just enough for the collar. To fake the look for the cuffs and skirt panels, I cut strips from the cream-colored sari scraps leftover from making my Ren Faire dress and laid a plain black ribbon over it. The fluffy, pinked black sheer is leftover scrap from my Moonflower bustle dress. The fluffiness is both trendy for the 1870s and perfect for hiding my mile-a-minute machine sewing. The collar and cuffs are designed to be removable so I can just snip the giant basting stitches holding them to the dress and swap them out for other designs.

The skirt is my Midnight Madness Standard Skirt: two panels of the 54″ fabric pleated down to fit the waistband. The very modest “bustle” back is made by cutting the back panel extra long and pleating up the excess into the side seams (similarly to how I pleated the sides of the Croissant Dress). The waistband itself is merely a length of grosgrain ribbon. I ran out of time to finish trimming it. Hopefully I will find the motivation to make a row of pleats for the hem. I ran out of time to make a full overskirt. Instead, I slapped together the little side “petals” last-minute since I felt the skirt needed some white to tie it into the trim on the bodice.

I was still sewing things together when I went to Megan’s house to get ready and we barely made it into our seats at the theater as the curtain rose, but we did it! A few other DFWCG folks joined us as well. We had a good time watching the play, a pleasant walk around the unexpected bonus fall art fest outside, and tasty German food at the Schnitzel Haus! I would definitely go back again.

Plus there is an old hotel called the Nutt House!

And just a week later, I got to re-wear it for Halloween!

Now I have a “little black dress” that I can jazz up with fresh cuff and overskirts as the occasion demands. Super excited for the mix’n’match possibilities! With a few bustle-era events on the horizon, I’m hoping to wear it again quite soon, which should prove much more gentle on my wallet and sanity that scrambling to sew something from scratch each time an event pops up.

 

 

Reclaiming a Hat Icon: How to Turn a Trilby into a Victorian Lady’s Hat Tutorial

This post is a bit of a weird ride– from Charles Dickens to Trolls to Britney Spears. But you could get a great hat out of the deal!

I should have written this post almost a year ago when I went to Dickens on the Strand with Mistress of Disguise back in December of 2018, but I really fell off the blogging wagon and didn’t. So, finally, here’s a blog post about my costumes for Dickens on the Strand 2018– beginning with my thifty hat makeover:

While it’s not the most flattering hat on everyone, the trilby (commonly misidentified as a fedora) comes in a vast array of materials and sizes. In fact, after ballcaps, beanies, and cowboy hats (here in Texas at least), the trilby is the most readily available male hats. You can even buy them at Walmart for less than $10.

via Quora

I have a massive love of hats! I have at least 30 of them, some of them vintage, some new, and many modded for costuming. Some of them are also my husband’s hats, like his tricorn, cowboy hat, and numerous old fedoras/trilbies. However, both fedoras and trilbies have gotten a sour reputation recently because of their association with internet trolls and creepy pick-up “artists.” Due to these bad stereotypes, my husband hasn’t been wearing his old trilbies as much anymore, so they were just gathering dust in my closet.

But did you know that fedoras actually started as a popular unisex, feminist fashion in the 1880s and trilbies are perfect for transforming into Victorian lady’s hats? Yes, indeed! So when I needed a last minute hat to go with my flannel 1880s bustle dress, I decided to take the trilby back from the trolls and give one of those old hats a new life.

During the 1870s, bonnets began to be replaced by hats as the fashionable form of daytime headgear for ladies. The ancestor of the modern fedora was actually created in the 1880s as a hat worn by all-around badass Sarah Bernhardt, who wore the first fedora during a play called, well, Fedora!

I couldn’t find a photo of Sarah Bernhardt in her original Fedora, but here she is in a different cool hat. You can see how you could easily make a similar hat by modifying a modern fedora.

In 1894, The Trilby hat was invented and also got its name from the hat style worn in the theatrical production, but the trilby was worn by a male actor and has thus been a man’s hat from the start. However, the shape shows up in women’s hats of the previous decade, making all our currently-much-maligned trilbies the perfect base for last-minute-panic Victorian bustle hats!

Natural Form Era hats. The Vintage Dancer has an excellent article on 19th century ladies’ hats! Click the fashion plate above to visit.

Lady’s Hat, circa 1885 via the Met Museum

I took trimming inspiration for my last-minute trilby transformation from 1880s hats like the lady’s on the left.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any in-progess pics of my Dickens on the Strand hat because– in my usual fashion– I made it literally the night before Megan and I left for Galveston! However, I did absolutely nothing to the base hat, just trimmed it (haphazardly).

I used 1 roll of cream-colored ribbon from Walmart, a netting remnant, and pinned an antique silver dime brooch to the front.

Now, there is a secret to every successful hat…and I’m going to spill the beans just for you.

As I have stated before, this is just a plain old man’s store-bought trilby. Even under all the trimmings, it’s still very visibly a modern trilby…probably because it’s a good two sizes too big! It’s my husband’s, so it’s an XL hat made to fit a 6′ 2″ dude. If I just plop it down on my head, it’s so huge it engulfs half my noggin!

Yet, most modern hats– even ones sized correctly for your head– sit far too low on the face. If you’ve ever gotten photos back from an event only to discover your face is all shadowed over and hidden by your hat, it’s because modern hats have very wide, deep crowns to sit far enough down on your head to keep them in place at the expense of your forehead.

But don’t worry, you still look fabulous!

Historical women’s hats, however, were designed to perch on top of elaborate hairstyles, particularly buns. Often, they hardly touched you head at all, sitting entirely atop a nest of fluffy hair instead.

 

And instead of relying on a deep crown to stay in place, women used hat pins.

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

Even if a hat had a deep crown, it often had an interior fabric “cap” or drawstring ring that kept the crown from swallowing your head.

Some well-designed modern hats still use this feature. This is the inside of my favorite modern “church lady” hat that I wear for Edwardian costumes. You can see the drawstring ring inside that adjusts to fit your head so the enormously tall crown doesn’t eat your face.

Any of these things can be done to modify a modern hat to fit in a historical manner. In the case of my trilby-turned-Victorian hat, I didn’t have time to put in a fitting ring, but I did have plenty of hair to stuff into it. This kept it aloft.

In fact, the true secret to historical hat success isn’t just the hat itself: it’s the hair under it!

Properly styled hair– even if it’s the most simplistic version of a period style– instantly takes you from hat rookie to hat champion!

To demonstrate this better, here is a series of hasty, terrible bathroom selfies I took.

Let’s start with a modern trilby I have that actual fits me correctly:

If you want to use a trilby to make a Victorian hat, I recommend starting with one that actually fits, or one slightly too small.

As you can see, it fits much better than my big brown one! But with the deep hat crown and modern hairstyle, the farthest back in time this hat takes me is high school in the early 2000s. No thanks!

BRING IN THE HISTORICAL HAIR!

This is my go-to basic hairstyle. It’s my collarbone length hair pulled up in a simple bun and then my beloved “curl loaf” slapped on the front. Nothing fancy.

This style is perfect for the 1880s and 1890s, but it can carry you from the late 1870s to the 1910s if you really need to. Plus, it works especially well with hats! The bun gives you something to perch your hat on so it stays off your face, and it give you something to safely stab hat pins into to keep everything in place. The curls up front also help lift the crown of the hat away from your face and, if you’ve got strong features or a large face like me, the curls peek out from under the hat a bit to soften your face. Plus, the hairstyle looks good on its own, in case you have to remove your hat.

Now that you’ve got your hair in place, you can play with how you wear your hat! To instantly take a trilby from modern to old-fashioned, wear it on the back of your head for a more bonnet-like appearance:

A fashion plate from the late 1870s showing bonnet-like hats worn on the back of the head to take trimming inspiration from.

You can also wear the trilby backwards so that the curled part of the brim is at the top of your head to help disguise the modernness even more. Covered in trimmings like puffy bows and feathers or covered in fabric to match your dress will further transform it!

Covered in lace and fabric, a modern trilby could be used as a base for these 1870s bonnets! Notice how these bonnets/hats are sitting way up high on a giant mound of hair, as was fashionable in the 1870s. The hats aren’t even touching their faces or necks. Worried you don’t have enough hair? Don’t worry! Most Victorians used plenty of hairpieces to make such fab hairstyles.

Another way to wear it is perched up on your hair completely, tilted forward a tad. Rather than disguising the shape of the trilby, this angle shows off the full shape and works well for the more tailored looks of the 1880s:

Of course, wearing it this way also puts your hair on display more, so make sure the back is nice and neat (unlike mine, ha!).

So many trim options! From the 1870s to the 1880s.

No matter how you choose to wear it, however, you will want to trim it. Depending on your trilby’s material. you might be able to get away with a few ribbons or spray of flowers, but the Victorians loved trims and, as you can see in the fashion plate examples, the base hat is often buried under a mound of bows, lace, feathers, flowers, and other crazy-fun whatnots! So get creative and go wild with the trims!

For my 1880s dress, I wore my/my husband’s giant trilby perched on top of my head. It was so huge it still kind of ate my head, but it worked perfectly for a last-minute hat with not a lick of hat blocking required! Plus, it was inexpensive. Since I recycled an old hat, I only had to spend money on the ribbon, which was, like $3. I guess if you wanted to count it, the $10 brooch was the biggest expense, though I had that on-hand, too, or it could easily have been replaced with a big button. Is this method perfectly HA and the pinnacle of design? Ha, no! But all-in-all, it worked just as I needed it to!

HAPPY COSTUMING, M’LADIES! ;)

Support Garment Showdown: Options for Creating a Victorian Look With or Without a Corset

For this post, I am focusing mainly on the Mid to Late Victorian Era (1855-1901). However, there are tricks for all eras and I will be covering them soon!

corset_1880

Corsets are an essential part of almost any historical costume. For hundreds of years they have shaped and supported women and their clothing, creating otherwise inimitable silhouettes. However, corsets have long fallen out of the public’s good graces and only recently have they begun to make a widespread come back. Despite the revival, corseting remains one of the “hang-ups” for most new and casual costumers. We’ve already discovered that our ancestors came in many shapes and many different sizes, but what about their corsets? Many of us don’t corset on a regular basis; indeed, many of us have never even seen one in real life, much less put one on. Antique corset health myths and social stigma still hang around this staple garment, and many people are taught from grade school that corsets are enslaving, unhealthful, completely evil. It’s understandable, therefore, that some might be hesitant to give corsets a try. If the idea of a corset intimidates you, you are not alone! However, it’s worth trying and is the best way to get a proper Victorian shape.

Trying a Corset is Worth It!
(and easier than you think)

The biggest corset hang-up for many first time corset wearers is “the big squeeze:” the idea that the point of a corset is to squeeze you down to the smallest size possible regardless of comfort. While waist training and tight lacing were and are corseting practices to achieve greater size reductions, the average Victorian woman, working class women especially, used her corset mainly for supporting her breasts and the weight of her clothing (You can read more about the supporting properties of the corset here). When you first put on a corset, you need only lace as tightly as is comfortable. 2 inches is a good starting goal. If this sounds scary, measure your waist then suck in your stomach, pull your measuring tape tight and check the numbers again. You’ll likely discover that you can suck in your stomacher further than the 2 inches many costumers lace down in their corsets!

WaistMeasure

Light measurement: 29.75 inches
Tight measurement: 27.5 inches
“Natural” reduction: 2.25 inches
Ah, the unflattering pictures I suffer for costuming science!
Since weight and water retention fluctuates throughout the day, your measurements can vary quite a bit in only a few hours. A corset helps keep these measurements constant, which was great for Victorian women who could only afford one or two dresses at a time and didn’t have access to stretchy yoga pants!

bra

No Corset, Regular Bra: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

corset

Overbust Corset: Bust 36″, Waist 26″ (interior circumference)
This corset is being worn in this photo at a three inch reduction. You can see what a difference those three inches make! Even when I was younger and slimmer, I never had this much curve without a corset because I am naturally very tubular. Also, note the improved posture.

Historical silhouettes rely heavily on smooth curves to look correct. By putting on a corset and tightening it just an inch or so, you will notice a huge change in how your historical costumes look!

Before and After

Without a corset and with a corset.

There are many types of corsets/stays/”pairs of bodies” to choose from depending on what era you are looking at, but generally speaking, a classic overbust is a good place to start for a Victorian costumer. There are many modern corset options out there, but for a comprehensive list, I recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. Picking a corset can be a daunting task, so doing research is important. I have bought corsets from eBay (with plenty of scrutiny) and from Orchard Corset with good results. If you enjoy sewing, there are also historical corset patterns available from Simplicity, Butterick, Laughing Moon, Ageless Patterns, and many others.

It may take some getting used to the sensation of being constantly “hugged” by your corset at first, but a well-made corset will not hurt you. Most corset-related tales of broken bones and the inability to breathe are based on sensationalized misinformation, or, in the case of rib or hip pain, the result of an improperly fitted corset.

Dealing With Corset Fit Problems

For women who want to wear a corset, but don’t fit in standard sizes, I feel your pain! Not all bodies are created the same and while there is a wide range of standardized corsets to choose from, sometimes it’s hard to find one that fits right. Overbusts are especially tricky to fit. So, if you find your cups running over or your hips pinching uncomfortably, what’s a gal to do?

For ladies with large breasts, underbusts solve any top-fit problems by fitting under the breasts instead of over them. Though underbusts are more suited to Edwardian (1900s) costuming than Victorian costuming, to approximate the look of an overbust corset, pair your underbust corset with a firm control sports bra! For A-D Cups, a regular “pouch” sports bra with firm control is usually sufficient. For larger-breasted or augmented women, a cupped sports bra may be more comfortable (I have a Wacoal underwire sports bra that I absolutely adore). To hide the heavy outline and prevent your dress bodice from bowing between the breasts, wear your chemise, tank top, or whatever liner you choose over the bra to hide it. Since a corset would hold the breasts firmly in place, you’ll need a bra that will stop as much overt jiggle as possible. It is also okay if it flattens your breasts somewhat since, unlike modern bras, Victorians were more concerned about creating radical side curvature than enhancing forward projection. )( vs. P, so to speak! However, having big breasts in Victorian costuming is not incorrect. There were plenty of ladies out there with killer curves:

Portrait of a Couple, circa 1895 from Etsy

If you have large hips, finding a ready-made corset that fits them can be a challenge, too. If you already have a corset and find that it fits well, but is too small in the hips, consider adding hip gores or ties.  Lucy has a handy tutorial on adding hip gores to a pre-existing corset:

This method may also work for adding bust gores as well, but I haven’t tried it yet. Hip and bust gores are period correct and many Victorian corsets used them, so they are an option for both improving a current corset or drafting one of your own. Gores allow you to custom-fit your curve without having to make complexly-shaped pieces.

However, some people don’t fit in standard size corsets, don’t feel comfortable making their own, or can’t afford a custom corset. In addition, some women may find wearing a corset uncomfortable for many reasons– medical conditions, heat sensitivity, or general dislike of restrictive clothing.

Foregoing a Corset Altogether

While a corset will give you the best possible Victorian shape, if a corset just won’t work for you, you do have other options! One option is to wear a modern girdle or shapewear. I own a Rago waist nipper that gives my tubular body a delineated waist. While it is steel boned, it is stretchy and light, so I have more freedom of movement. It only reduces my waist an inch or so, but it does smooth and give me some curve.

bra

Regular Bra Only: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

cgirdle

Bra and Girdle: Bust 37″, Waist 28″

Boning isn’t just for undergarments, either. Many Victorian bodices had light boning built right in. This type of boning wasn’t made to reduce the waist. Instead, it served to support the garment, making sure it laid as smooth as possible over the corseted figure.

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Red Silk Bodice, circa 1890
The red channels around the waist have flat steel boning inside to help support it. While a corset allows you to fit clothes more closely, the bodice benefits from having its own support structure so it doesn’t twist, bow, or wrinkle.

Many modern costume patterns meant for theater or casual wear often have a few pieces of boning figured into the design for the same purpose. While thin, flat steel bones are the period correct way to support a garment, modern plastic boning is easier to find. I generally avoid the coiled “featherweight” boning found in fabrics shops and go for cable ties instead. Cable ties (also called zip ties) are flexible, but still firm enough to support things.

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Cable ties used as support boning in my 18th century embroidered stomacher.

Such boning will not give you the curves a corset or girdle will, but it will help prevent wrinkles.  In-garment boning also helps prevent the garment from riding up. If you have a well defined natural hourglass shape, adding a bit of boning to your bodice will instantly improve the way your dresses sit, show off your shape to its full advantage, and may be enough to give you a Victorian-esque look. Besides curves, a smooth fit makes any Victorian dress look much more authentic (though plenty of our ancestors still struggled with getting the fit just right).

The final option is to use visual tricks to create the illusion of a smaller waist. Many tricks Victorian women used are still in use today:

Belts and Sashes

Grace King Afternoon Dress with Belt/Sash, circa 1870-75

Sashes and belts varied in width from a thin, tasseled rope to 4 or 5 inches wide with a buckle the size of your hand! Some were made to match a particular dress while others were were mix-n-match.

Woman wearing a Belt and Buckle, circa 1855

In the Victorian era, belts were used to further highlight the corseted waist. However, sashes and belts can both help delineate the uncorseted waist as well and are especially helpful with placing the definitive waistline at the proper point for a particular style (1860s waists are high while 1880s waists are lower, etc.).

Swiss Waists

Woman in a Swiss Waist, circa 1860

A Swiss Waist is a type of belt/bodice that helped accentuate the waist. They may look like corsets, but they do not actually reduce the waist and were worn fitted over a corset. They were very popular during the 1860s. There are plenty of “corset style” modern belts out there that can mimic the look of a Swiss Waist:

While they aren’t suitable for waist reductions like a steel boned corset, many underbust “fashion corsets” with plastic bones can also be worn as a Swiss Waist or you can make your own.

Fabric, Color, and Trim Placement

Kate Winslet in her famous “optical illusion” dress.

Many modern dresses and theater dresses use contrasting colors like black and white to slim the figure. Adding black to the sides of the waist causes the eye to “ignore” the shadowed area, making the waist appear even slimmer. This beautiful purple gown is a perfect example:

Visiting Dress, circa 1863-65

The Victorians were adept at using visual tricks to emphasize curves, using striped fabrics, long lines of buttons, trim, and shaped inserts to draw the eye:

Day Dress, circa 1855-57
V-shaped trim placement on this heavily tasseled gown helps make the bust and shoulders look wider and the waist look smaller, creating an even more dramatic size difference. Other seamstresses would add trim to the bustline and shoulders only, leaving the waist plain so it would appear much smoother and smaller as a result.

Afternoon Dress, circa 1886
This dress combines three design elements to help elongate, slim, and accentuate curves. The first is the use of vertical stripes. This is case, the vertical movement is further emphasized by the row of bright, glittering buttons which draw the eye inward, enhancing the lengthening effect. Thirdly, the decorative, striped fabric insert in the center of the otherwise plain bodice creates a curving shape of its own, so the eye is drawn to its tailored outline. Lots of 1880s dresses have a contrasting insert in an hourglass shape because it adds interest, texture, and highlights (or creates the illusion of) those ever-important curves.

Much like color and print, another important factor is the sheen of your fabric. Generally speaking, shiny fabrics, polysatins, for example, have lots of forward presence while matte fabrics, like wools and cottons, tend to recede. So, if you are making an 1880s dress like the one below, putting a shiny fabric in the center and a matte fabric on the outside will draw the eye to the shinier center shape:

Walking Dress, circa 1885

Getting the Rest of the Shape Correct

Proper support garments like bustles, crinolines, hoops, and other skirt supports are also key to the Victorian silhouette, depending on which period you are attempting! All those big, fluffy skirts helped increase the illusion of a small, defined waist, so if you’ve foregone a corset, having good skirt  shaping becomes paramount. Online bridal suppliers offer many inexpensive hoops, pads, and petticoats that you can rent or buy if you do not wish to craft your own.

Basic Dress Silhouettes
This chart is a good timeline of fashionable shapes.
1850s: Layers of petticoats/crinoline and hoops
1860s: Full and elliptical hoops
1870s: Elliptical hoops and the bustle
1880s: Bustles
1890s: Layers of petticoats
It’s amazing how cyclical fashion can be…

Costuming isn’t just about looking good; it’s about feeling good, too! Whether you are designing for yourself or an entire theater troupe, it’s important to take comfort into account as well as accuracy. Our modern clothing is very different from 19th century clothing, so the layering, fluffy skirts, and tight fit take some getting used to. After some practice, you will be able to move as elegantly as you are dressed! Enjoy yourself and never stop experimenting with new techniques, eras, or (in this case) undergarments!

Helpful Links

Lucy’s Corsetry – Lucy is considered the internet corset guru! She has reviewed many styles and brands of corsets, makes her own corsets (and provides tutorials), and covered the health effects, myths, and modern evolution of history’s most controversial garment. Almost any question you may have is probably answered on her blog, Tumblr, or YouTube channel.

Historical Sewing – Jennifer is a very knowledgeable seamstress who is well-versed in Victorian fashion and sewing techniques. If you are seeking to make your Victorian ensembles more authentic or have a burning question about how to put a garment together, she’s probably got a blog post that answers it!

Foundations Revealed – This website truly is “The Corset Maker’s Companion!” This all-inclusive database is supported by subscription, which gives you access to a huge library of corset articles ranging from how to construct and S-bend corset to what sort of cording is best for bust support to how to draft the perfect corset for any figure and more. There are also many helpful articles about basic corset construction and history available for free!

Most of the pictures in this article are linked to their source page so you can get more information about them. There are also multiple links to other helpful articles or sources scattered throughout the text (links will appear as a slightly lighter color of text). Please feel free to click and explore! There is much more information available on this subject than I could fit in one blog post!

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UPDATE:

Lucy of Lucy’s Corsetry recently did a video on almost this exact subject! She shows how to layer Swiss Waists/Belts over your corset and how to wear a fashion corset over a real corset:

If Disney Went Victorian

Costuming Dreams
Belle, Jasmine, Aurora, Cinderella, Ariel, and Rapunzel

There’s a fun project making waves on the interwebs involving Disney princesses and their historical make-overs. That got me thinking: “What would the princesses wear if they were Victorian?”

We might find Belle in a bustle:

Evening Dress Attributed to Liberty & Co., circa 1880s

Heavenly fancy dress harem pants for Jasmine:

House of Worth Fancy Dress Costume, circa 1870

Soft pink silk velvet for Aurora, a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty:

Rouff Evening Dress, circa 1897

No cinder-dust here! Just a beautiful blue ball gown for Cinderella:

Ball Gown, circa 1860

This sumptuous leg o’ mutton sleeved confection for Ariel:

House of Worth Wedding Dress, circa 1896
Not only is it a great match for her movie dress, it happens to be my favorite Worth wedding ensemble!

Rapunzel was a tricky gal to pick for. If any dress is perfect for her, it’s this girly 1820s evening dress:

American Silk Ball Gown, circa 1820

But it’s about 10 years to early to qualify as Victorian, so we’ll stick with this lovely lilac bustle dress with a gold train that mimics her long blonde hair:

Wexler & Abraham Evening Dress, circa 1880

I know didn’t cover all the princesses, but these particular extant dresses matched too perfectly to ignore!

Va-Va-Voom Victorians: Historical Costuming in the XL

Beauty Comes in More Sizes than Zero

Photograph of a Group of Sisters, circa 1900 from VintageJunkDrawerToo on Etsy

I had a student ask me yesterday about my Victorian costume obsession. I explained to her the basics, the ins-and-outs of the eras, the various delights of fabric and forms, and the events to attend to display your creations/acquisitions. She seemed intensely interested and expressed her growing love of costuming, “But,” she said, “only thin people can really wear those kinds of things.”

Photograph of Victorian Couple, circa 1880 from  NiepceGallery on Etsy
A very classic Victorian couple.

At first, I was a little taken aback, but I can see where her skepticism about Victorian costuming might spring from. Thanks to plenty of myth and media, we associate the Victorian era with one major thing: itty-bitty waists. When you say Victorian to anyone, they picture big skirts and corsets that will kill you if you so much as pick one up. It’s like one of those campy horror stories, only instead of a giant snake strangling our scantily-clad damsel in distress, it’s a giant, vise-like corset hell-bent on squeezing the ever-living daylights out of the poor girl.

Illustrated Police News, June 25, 1870

To put it frankly, yes. Victorians were thinner on average than we are now, but they were also shorter and smaller all around. “On average” is the key term. Just because there’s a perceived average does not mean everyone meets it. On the contraire! An average is made up of a multitude of factors (in this case dress sizes) that are all added together and divided into one number near-ish the middle of the lot. All that measuring and math adds up to a gross generalization about society.

“The Diamond Sisters,” circa 1900-1910 from thecedarchest on Etsy

Time for a word problem!

There are five friends—Nanette, Sybil, Gabrielle, Mary, and Florence. One of the friends, Nanette, was a tad late to the photoshoot and didn’t get her picture taken. Of the remaining four, the youngest, Sybil, is the smallest of the bunch with a 22 inch corseted waist (it’s important to note whether the measurement is with or without their corset which I will explain in a moment). Gabrielle and Mary both measure 24 inches in their corsets. Florence measures in at a lady-like 26 inches, corseted. Now, judging by her friends, what size is Nanette?

We can add all the known measurements together: 22 + 24 + 24 + 26 = 96 inches
Then divide the total by the number of present factors, in this case, the four pictured ladies: 94 ÷ 4 = 24 inches

So, if we are judging Nanette’s waist size by that of her friends’, she should have about a 24 inch waist, corseted. But that doesn’t really work in real life. Humans come in all shapes and sizes—even within a single family—and to narrow expectations with an “average” is unfair to everyone. Even in this particular scenario, the only limiting factor is that Sybil has the tiniest corseted waist at 22 inches. Maybe Nanette has a 22.1 inch waist or a 26 inch waist like Florence or perhaps she is perfectly average at 23.5 or nicely rounded at 34 inches…we may never know. Humans just don’t average out well on an individual scale, especially when it comes to measurements (which is why one-size-fits-all never really fits anyone). Size is determined by so many factors like undergarments, diet, genetics, and medical conditions like thyroid imbalances. These sort of factors are not new, modern additions to life. Even if unrecognized, these factors have always created variety in society, Victorians included.

Maison Léoty Corset, circa 1891

But what about those terribly terrifying corsets? Wasn’t everyone squeezing themselves down to 15 inch waists? Well, first of all, you should not be buying a corset to squeeze yourself down to an “acceptable” size. A corset’s main function is split between shaping and support. The goal is to mold the figure into the right proportions, rather than the right size. That distinction is key to understanding the Victorian aesthetic. Even the skinniest of gals will look strangely disheveled in any Victorian style if the proportions aren’t right. Victorian fashions from corsets, crinolines, and bustles to Mutton sleeves and Edwardian pigeon-fronts all shared a common goal: to make the waist look as small as possible no matter what the actual waist size.

Charles Worth Fashion Sketch, circa 1870
The wide, dropped neckline, puff sleeves, and enormous skirt all contrast with the carefully fitted, unadorned waist to make it appear even tinier. Top-heavy gals like me may want to avoid too much sleeve-poof, but wide or V necklines, plain bodices, and ornate skirts all help make the waist look smaller.

Since clothing was not bought completely “off the rack” until the 20th century, seamstresses and designers could mix and match elements to best suit each individual’s body proportions. The circumference of your waist, bust, bottom, or thighs is important only to make sure your dress fits you in the most flattering, proportional way possible! There were some pretty bodacious ladies back in the day, all looking fab in their Victorian (and Edwardian) gowns. Here’s just a small sampling:

Photograph of Couple, circa 1890 from EphemeraObscura on Etsy

1860s Ebay

Photograph of a Woman, circa 1860-1870

Cabinet Photo, circa 1885-90 from NiepceGallery on Etsy

Cabinet Photo, circa 1890 from  AlaskaVintage on Etsy

Cabinet Card, late 19th Century from PainterPoetMuse on Etsy

Wedding Photograph, circa 1889 from AlaskaVintage on Etsy

They all look just as Victorian as the next lady! They wore the same styles as everyone else with little tweaks to balance proportions out: most are wearing carefully fitted tops with minimal decoration, plus the era’s heavy skirts make a booty an asset, not a setback! Even larger Victorian ladies appear to have tiny, roll-free waists thanks to their corsets, which everyone, regardless of size, wore. In fact, a larger woman with a softer body could achieve comparatively more of a reduction than a muscular or skinny woman because a corset more easily molds softer bodies. Many of the gals in the previous photo montage would be modern US size 16-20+ without their corsets on. Corsets push up the bust and push the belly down to the hips, making for an exceptionally pronounced, attractive hourglass shape. In spite of their corsets, you’ll notice each woman has her own shape–some very rounded, others straight with minimal waist reduction. It’s all a matter of comfort and taste. That same rule applies to modern gals who love to costume: do what feels right to you!

Good Sense Corset Ad, circa 1886
While women wore corsets everyday, they didn’t all tightlace. In fact, tightlacing had been discouraged since the 1860s and wasn’t practiced by most women. Children did wear support garments at a young age and young girls were put into their first corsets in their early teens. Properly worn, corsets help ease back pain by improving posture and supporting heavy breasts. Health corsets like these became popular after 1890 as sports and exercise became popular pastimes.

However, there is one major argument about Victorian sizing that often gets overlooked: we are not Victorians. We are the products of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the 19th. Our lives and bodies are different and it’s not our duty to hold ourselves to norms that are over 100 years behind us. I can barely hope to match my own grandmother’s 23 inch waist from 1955, much less a young, high-society model’s 19 inch waist from 1895. There was a time when I tried—and golly, I may still wish I could—but my body is two generations different from my grandmother’s, with a different mix of genes, diet, and cultural norms. I enjoy corseting and girdles both as occasional and daily support, but any girdles or corsets I wear are relatively new to my life. Most earlier generations were introduced to shapewear much earlier in life and wore it much more frequently, training their waists since their teenage years. That experience is something we can’t and aren’t obligated to share.
However, historical shaping is something we can all take an interest in an explore without feeling societal pressure to do so (another big change from other eras where shaping garments were considered necessary for any decent public appearances).

And example for a modern Black Underbust Corset, from Hellmade Corsets on Etsy Corsets and cinchers, when carefully chosen and worn, can transport you from everyday to yesterday! Feel a little nervous about trying a corset? There is plenty of information on the internet about how to achieve the right look with or without a corset. Here’s my eBay corset buying experience and what really happens when you slip into a corset for the first time.

The point of costuming is to express something within yourself. Lots of us have “born in the wrong era” syndrome, so a hoop skirt here and a button boot there makes us giddy. Size doesn’t matter if you are a painter, wood carver, perfumer, knitter, or any other type of craftsman. Why should size matter in the costuming community? It’s an art just like anything else–an especially grand and fun one at that! Sure, body measurements matter when it comes to making patterns, but clothes should fit bodies, not vice versa.
So if you are a big woman with big dreams, don’t think you have to squeeze your hopes (or yourself!) down to size just because you don’t match the “normal” historical stereotype. It’s the 21st century! Resolve to costume bravely!

As with all of my articles, the pictures are linked to larger versions, helpful websites, and other informative resources, so feel free to click on them and explore!
For more info on costuming for a full figure, check out these amazing websites:

“Supporting a Large Bust” by Isabelle Mekel – How to corset for DD and larger

“Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction” by Christine Bayles Kortsch – Delves deeper into perception vs. reality (I also linked to it earlier in this article)

 

Historic Color Combos: Orange and Cream

Orange and White Clothing

Open Front Robe, circa 1735-40

Robe à la Française, circa 1770

American Cotton Dress, circa 1810

Dinner Dress, circa 1878

Dinner Dress, circa 1880

Corset, circa 1880

Court Dress, circa 1892

House of Worth Bridesmaid Dress, circa 1896

House of Worth Walking Suit, circa 1898

House of Worth Afternoon Dress, circa 1905

Orange and White Accessories

Nessus Abducting Deianira Cameo, circa 1815-25

Evening Turban, circa 1823

Silk and Ivory Parasol, circa 1868

Child’s Shoes, circa 1875

Pearl and Citrine Ring, circa 1890

Orange and cream is a beautiful combination reminiscent of gold and pearls (also, tasty Dreamsicles!). It’s both adventurous and refined at the same time. Orange is a volatile color with so many shades and variations from tawny gold to soft rust to deep burnt umber; some like it, some don’t, but when paired with cream, any orange suddenly becomes exceptionally elegant! The combination has appeared throughout history, becoming especially popular from the late Victorian period well into the 1970s.

Please note that it’s often difficult to tell from pictures–and even the historical garments themselves– what the true, original colors of the fabric were due to changes in lighting and how time has affected the quality of the dyes. What might look orange today might have been a bright red, or a beautiful white might have yellowed with age. I have tried to judge each piece fairly, making sure that it is either close to the original color or at least fabulous looking as-is! :)

Click here to discover more Historical Color Combos!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

From Conventions to Curators: Period Steampunk Fashions

A.K.A. My Museum Shopping List!

(If you read my blog regularly, this first part may sound familiar…)

Steampunk is a modern fashion movements that reinvents certain aspects and fashion facets of Victorian culture, putting a twist on the old style. Seeing beautiful fashions revived in new ways makes me excited, both as a historian and as an avid fan of dressing up! I am, however, terribly picky and pragmatic and I like to be able to make that if I’m going to invest in a dress, I’ll be able to wear it as much as possible–museum-wise and convention-wise.

In my years of costume-image collecting, I’ve discovered that there are hundreds of extant, real Victorian gowns that look modern enough they could have been made yesterday!

Steampunk

Here’s just a brief overview of Steampunk for those of you who aren’t familiar with the style. Steampunk is an alternate reality where Victorians developed advanced technologies revolving around steam-power and clockwork– think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells— though the movement has begun to develop a more futuristic, post-apocalyptic theme. That’s a really brief overview just so you get the fundamentals. Steampunk, like any fashion movement, has infinite variations! Steampunk can range from bionic men dressed as Abraham Lincoln (a favorite!) and ladies in clockwork fairy wings all the way to straight-laced aristocrats in impeccably detailed 1890s evening attire.

The hallmarks of steampunk fashion are:

Favorite time period: 1660-1750 (for fancy watches) and 1870-1910
Bustles
Corsets
Dusters, vests, and military Jackets
Utility belts, pouches, and satchels
Edwardian “active wear” like pantaloons, riding jackets, etc.
Hats, especially top hats (often tiny)
Big boots
Flying things and travel
Gears, clocks/watches, and keys everywhere
Gadgets, gizmos, and props galore
Goggles  and tinted glasses
Heavy ornamentation and layers
Often used colors include brown, burgundy, and army green
Often used materials include leather, brass, and  a mix of structured/draped fabrics

*

Period Fashions and Accessories with Steampunk Flair!

Bicycling Suit, circa 1896

Accordion, circa 1860
(Not really a fashion, but imagine how awesome you would be if you took an accordion to Steamcon!)

Evening Dress, circa 1893

Straw Top Hat, circa 1820

Riding Ensemble, circa 1896

Carpetbag, circa 1860

Bonnet, circa 1887
(Complete with spiked studs along the rim!)

Pelisse, circa 1820

Wool Boots, circa 1860-1869

Day Dress, circa 1881
(I love the “gauntlets”)

Motoring Goggles, circa 1910

Dinner Dress, circa 1894

Steampunk’s other major theme is clockwork and watches, especially ornate ones. The wildly detailed watches are more of a hallmark of the 17th and 18th centuries rather than the 19th century, when the majority of the Steampunk mythos takes place. 19th century watches are rather plain comparatively. I just pretend that I invented a time machine, went back to 18th century Switzerland, and stole all their watches!

Antique Steampunk Watches

Watch, circa 1660-1670

Watch, circa 1710

Snuff Box with Watch, circa 1766-1772

Watch, circa 1753

Watch Mechanism, circa 1750-1760

Watch, Fob, and Chain, circa 1786

Steampunk is unbelievably fun to costume! You can be a pirate, a queen, a mad scientist, Darth Vader, a robot, or just a regular citizen that happens to carry around a oscilloscope laser cannon tucked quietly in your garter! The best part? You can be as historically accurate or inaccurate as you like and no one will bat an eye.

Bonus:

AWESOME CORSET!

Corset, circa 1890

A perfect hourglass!

29″-19″-29″

(Bust-Waist-Hips)

(71-48-71 cm)

Just in case the size is shocking, keep in mind that this corset was probably made for a teenage girl and some folks are naturally thin! :)