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

April 2017

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

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

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

Who knew quilt blocks could nag?!

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

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

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There are also some interesting highlights, including…

An apparently fugitive dye:

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

Awesome hand sewing:

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

Lots of creative piecing:

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

Evidence of a mishap that occurred during a previous incarnation:

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

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

Other Find of the Month posts you might like:

Find of the Month: English Silver-Gilt Button

Find of the Month: Stuart Crystal Breeches Button

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

January 2015

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

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

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

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

dress 1860s

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

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

1860s Child's Dress

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

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Side, showing the faux pocket flaps.

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

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

Young boy 1860s

Young Boy, 1860s

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

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

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

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

Young boy, 1860s

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

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

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

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Inside back

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The pocket flap seam inside

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

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Self Fabric Piping on Sleeve

My Ugly Step Sister Shoes: Making 1850s Shoes for Not-So-Petite Modern Feet

Keeping Your Sole on the Straight and Narrow…Mostly

Finding proper shoes for 1830s-1860s costumes is hard, mostly because square toes are completely unfashionable at the moment on anything other than cowboy boots. In addition, ideally, early Victorian shoes should be flat. Heels had been out of vogue since the early 1800s and didn’t full circle back around until the late 1850s. Tiny heels (under 1 inch) can be found on walking shoes and boots, though.

Evening Slippers, circa 1830-45

Leather Slippers, circa 1855-65

Walking boots, circa 1845-65

There are modern square-toed flats available, but the toes always seem to be just a little “off” (usually too chunky) or are way too expensive. Square toes are pretty plentiful on vintage shoes thanks to the 1960s and 1980s, but the square toes are often accompanied by a massive, chunky high heel set at the oddest, most unhistorical angle possible:

Yay! …. NOOOOOOOO!

Since I’ve spent months of thrift shop lurking with no success (everything in the right size is the wrong style and everything the right shape is a size 4!), I’ve been saving up my money for a good pair of mid-century shoes. That’s a far and away dream, so I decided to look into making my own pair of slippers based on the many patterns you can find floating around the web.

Slipper tops like this one were popular housewife handicrafts and were usually embroidered and attached to leather soles to be worn as house slippers for both men and women. They were popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century (this pattern is from 1912). The overall shape changed little throughout the era, mostly because square toes on men’s slippers and shoes stayed in vogue. I’m the worst embroiderer ever, but the shape was simple enough and needed only a sole to go along with it. Victorian shoes are notoriously narrow. Thin, delicate feet were considered the mark of a refined lady. I have a pair of evening boots from around 1840-50 that are only 2.25 inches wide (for comparison, one of my modern flats is 3.5 inches wide).

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Since our modern sensibilities drive us to comfortable shoes for everyday wear like sandals and tennis shoes, our feet are much wider than many of our ancestors. I’ve noticed that after I stopped wearing solid dress shoes on a regular basis, my feet spread a bit. Other factors like weight, how much time you spend on your feet, and pregnancy also change how your feet are shaped. Also: genetics. My entire family has large, wide feet.

After a bit of trial and error (and three mock-ups), I’d found a sole shape that was “straight-lasted” and still wide enough that I could just wedge my modern foot into it.

The two pieces are sewn together using tiny 1/8th inch seams.

Lots of extant shoes are made with extra length for a slimming effect, but since my shoes are so soft, any extra length just made the shoe fit sloppily. I used brown cotton duck left over from the Merchant Gentleman’s Coat. It’s stiff, but it stretches– a blessing because it molds quickly to your foot, but a curse because it doesn’t hold the shoe’s shape very well on its own.

I wanted a pair of very basic square toed flats, like these:

Leather Slippers, circa 1850
These were constructed using a two or three piece top rather than a one piece top, but the effect is the same, just with side seams.

For the final shoe, I decided to use a layered approach. I didn’t have leather for the sole, so I used a double layer of duck topped with a “insole” of cotton sheeting. The tops I made from a terrible synthetic fabric that is actually freakishly good at mimicking the look of both leather and silk. The tops are interlined with more cotton duck and then lined with cotton sheeting.

Not bad for a first time sewing together a shoe! I was a terrible person and machine-stitched everything together using a heavy weight quilter’s thread instead of hand sewing, but once everything was patterned and cut, the assembly only took about an hour. I also left the seams inside exposed instead of doing a proper “seamless” lining, but I can always flip the shoes inside out and use bias tape to cover everything if I start feeling ambitious. As they are, though, the seams aren’t much of an issue since I wear stockings with them.

Since I didn’t have leather for soles, these are truly house slippers. They can survive a short jaunt over the pavement, though. The delicately thin slippers of the era were well-known for being too flimsy to withstand more than a few wears anyway, so I’m historically accurate on that count, but so far my slippers seem to be holding up valiantly as I dither around the house in them.

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I made the opening a little too rounded. Next time I will make it squared to emphasize the shape of the toe.

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I drafted the slippers to be tight at the sides the toe in order to get a flattering shape. Victorian women would have been wearing tight shoes like this since they were young, so their feet would have molded a bit to the shape. Tight shoes got almost as much vitriol flung at them as corsets, but they were necessary to get the proper silhouette.

Everyone always wonders how on earth our ancestors could stand having straight-lasted shoes. We’re used to obvious left/right lasting, but for straight lasted shoes, especially soft slippers like these, wearing them a few times is enough to mold the shoes into a subtle left/right shape. My feet are wide with an distinct left/right shape that quickly left their imprints on my slippers. I wish I had narrower feet so they would look more like the delicate feet of an 1850s Cinderella, but alas! Even making the shoe tight on the sides can only do so much. Because of that, the square toe isn’t as pronounced and ends up looking more like a matador or Chinese slipper than an 1850s lady’s slipper (though I did find this pair that has the same width and shape as mine).
Duck foot strikes again!

The color helps. Even on your feet, black is slimming!

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HSF Details

The Challenge: Under $10

Fabric: Cotton duck, cotton sheeting, and synthetic-whatever

Pattern: Self drafted, based on fashion journal patterns from the era

Year: 1840-1860

Notions: Heavy duty quilter’s thread

How historically accurate is it? Hmm…50%? The pattern is spot on as is the fitting method and shape. The soles should be leather, though, and the uppers should be silk, leather, or embroidered.

Hours to complete: 3 hours to gather the gumption and figure out the fitting, and 1 to actually sew the final shoes, so 4 hours total.

First worn: Laundry time!

Total cost: The cotton duck was technically a scrap, but I used about 1/3 yard, so about $2 worth; the cotton sheeting was scraps from lining my 1890s dress, so free; the black synthetic-whatever was $1 yard from Walmart and I used 1/4 yard, so 25 cents; and the most expensive of the bunch was the thread, which was a gift (thanks, mom!), but new would cost about $2.95. Total: $5.20

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These were tons of fun to make! Quick and easy with lots of room to experiment and play with materials. The same pattern works for Regency slippers, too. Just make a pointy toe instead of a square one. Butterick makes a historical shoe pattern that has a pair of medieval shoes that can easily be modified if you prefer to work with a pre-made pattern rather than drafting your own from scratch (though, honestly, drafting this pattern is the easiest drafting project you could do). If you can get ahold of leather for soles, they would do very well for ball shoes, but the method will need some changes to account for the leather sole.

Tutorials from Around the Web:

Miss Charlotte’s Shoe TutorialThe tutorial is for Regency shoes, but the final shape is more 1830s. This is pretty much the method I used for my slippers.

Making Mid 19th Century ShoesA slide-lacing boot tutorial that has a leather sole and requires no last. Anna’s shoes are almost perfect reproductions and she shows you how to work with the leather soles since they require a few more steps to apply properly.

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UPDATE

Here’s a basic sketch of the process:

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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!

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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!

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

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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.

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Regular Bra Only: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

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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:

The Three Shoes Every (Penniless) Historical Costumer Needs

For Every Cinderella Without a Fairy Godmother
A.k.a “Shoes for Stepsisters”

It may be impossible for a fashionable woman to have too many shoes, but what if your problem isn’t a lack of closet space, but a lack of funding? As lovely as it is to get a fresh pair of shoes for every new outfit, it’s not always feasible. Historically accurate shoes can be expensive. If you don’t like to tie yourself down to one specific stylistic decade, buying all the necessary historically accurate boots, slippers, and heels can really drain your bank account if you’re not careful. I love historical reproduction shoes, but between needing a new corset, buying sewing supplies, and having the annoying habit of needing food to survive, I don’t really have enough money to buy a new pair every time I change costuming eras. Instead, I have built up a core set of three shoe types that can mutitask across time periods.

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My Three Favorite Costuming Shoes

These shoes may not be historically accurate, but they are historically appropriate. There are only so many ways to shod the human foot, so while materials and decorations may have changed, there are a few basic shoe styles that have cycled through history in different incarnations. We are blessed that modern fashion is so all-encompassing: we have every imaginable shoe type available to us! It’s just a matter of finding the right one for the right price. With a little legwork and luck, you can squeak by in nearly any era with only three pairs of shoes!

I chose the following shoes for their comfort, simplicity, ease of availability, and ability to be worn as everyday modern shoes as well (Huzzah for raiding your own closet for historically appropriate shoes!).

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Low-Heeled Mary Jane or T-Straps
Wear them for: Elizabethan and Stuart (1590-1630), Victorian (1860-1900), and Edwardian (1900+) Costumes

My pair:

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T-Strap Shoes by Angel Steps

My pair takes the Mary Jane style a bit further by being a t-strap, but both styles are workable. This is my favorite pair of shoes! Angel Steps brand is marketed by Amerimark and comes in many different variations and styles. The company, however, can be difficult to work with. You can read more about that adventure and see these shoes in action in “Halloween Thrifting Challenge: Early Stuart Era (1603-1625)

Mary Janes are shoes with a strap over the instep. They were popular in the Elizabethan era, and can be used for mid-Victorian shoes. The heyday of the strappy Mary Jane, however, was definitely the Edwardian era.
There are many variations of the Mary Jane style: wide straps, thin straps, t-straps, or multiple straps over the instep. For the most versatility, though, a single strap or thick t-strap is the easiest to blend into multiple eras. The key to the historical appropriateness, however, is the low heel. Modern women love towering high heels, but historically speaking, “high heels” weren’t very common and usually maxed out around 3 inches. For the most bang for your buck, choose a neutral color like black, white, or brown. These colors will work in all eras and are the most authentic, especially for earlier costumes.

Extant Examples:

Elizabethan/Stuart
Leather Shoe, circa 1600

Elizabethan shoes had a long tongue with straps over them that tied in place. This style of shoe is very hard to find (unless you buy recreations or find the miraculous modern incarnation), but you can modify a pair of modern Mary Janes to mimic the look by wearing a fabric rosette on top. Rosettes were super trendy during the early 1600s and were rather large. Simply slip a rosette onto the strap of your Mary Janes and you’re good to go! Both men and women in this era wore this style of shoe, so if you are a dainty-footed gentleman, take a peek into the ladies’ shoe department. Just remember that women’s shoes run smaller than men’s, so order up about two sizes (an 8 in men’s is about a 10 in women’s). Surprisingly, side buckles existed, but likely just on children’s shoes.

Victorian
Women’s Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1880-85

Mary Janes were known as “bar” or “strapped” shoes during the 19th century (Mary Jane was a patented shoe name in the 20th century) and were very popular, especially during the 1890s.

Edwardian, Flapper, and Beyond
Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1919

Once the 20th Century hit, Mary Janes and T-straps were all the rage! Multiple thin straps were especially popular and usually had long, pointy toes, but simple rounded toes were still used for utilitarian working and walking shoes.

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Pointed-Toe Louis Heel
Wear them for: 18th century, Late Victorian (1870-1900), and 20th Century Costumes

My Pair:

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My Sexy Suede Heels!
I found these at the local Thrift Town second hand shop. They were $3 and are really REALLY worn in (they need new heel tips right now). Suede isn’t historically accurate for 18th century shoes, but unless you get really close, it doesn’t really matter. The shape is uncommon, but not unheard of.

The Louis heel is a curvy heel. Technically, a Louis heel has a very specific curve and other variations have other names. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call all appropriately curvy heels Louis heels because when you’re poor like me, there’s no point squabbling over details, especially since a good curvy heel is so hard to find anyway.
Louis heels are named after King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France. Both loved heels and show off their collections in many of their royal portraits. Many of the heels on Their Majesties’ shoes are blockier than later incarnations. The curvier heels seen on lady’s shoes has also been attributed to Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress. Once she started wearing curvy heels, so did every other 18th century lady of fashion!
Heels went out of style during the French Revolution, but were revived in the late Victorian era. The American Bicentennial in 1876 created a rococo revival. 18th century styling, including buckles, can be found on many shoes of the era. The Louis heel stayed fashionable into the 20th century, but other heel styles like the mid-century stiletto pushed it out of the limelight and into obscurity. However, finding a good curvy heel is still possible, especially at second hand shops and online. Pretty much any color or heel height under 4 inches will do, but choose a color and heel height that that you feel comfortable wearing often.

Extant Examples:

18th Century
Latchet Shoes, circa 1760-75
and
Mules, circa 1740

18th Century Louis heeled shoes had latchets–two straps that crossed over the top and were held in place with a buckle. Outside of reproductions, these criss-crossing latchets aren’t available on modern shoes. With a little bit of creativity and some pretty fabric, you can recover shoes to create latchets, but another option that requires no alteration is the mule (backless heels). Mules with pointy toes were very popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so there’s usually a good selection available second-hand.

Late Victorian
Rococo Revival Style Pumps, circa 1890

By about 1870, the modern pump was already beginning to be recognizable. Many evening shoes of the era were just like a pair of pumps you would find in your neighborhood shoe shop today. If you find a pair of leather pumps with a curvy Louis heel, you’ve struck Victorian gold!

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Flats
Wear them for: Medieval (5-14th century), Renaissance to Stuart (14th century to 1630), Regency (1790-1832), and Victorian (1832-1860)

My Pair:

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Green Velvet Semi-Flats
My flats aren’t perfectly flat (they have a 1/2 inch heel), but they have a nice high vamp and rounded-point toe that works well with lots of different costumes. Plus, they are comfy. I bought them second-hand for $2 with Regency costuming in mind. You can see them in action (sort of) in “Transforming Edwardian Nightwear into Regency Daywear.”

Flats can be as basic or fancy as the occasion demands. Really, you could pretty much costume every era with flat shoes. There are small nuances for different eras– the Medieval poulaines, Tutor cowmouths, Regency’s knife-sharp pointed toes, and squared Victorian slippers— but a gently rounded toe will get you through almost every era without trouble. Flat shoes can also very easily be made at home if you’re feeling crafty! The only caveat for flats is that they shouldn’t show “toe cleavage” over the top of the vamp. Also, make sure they fit over stockings (stockings can help hide toe cleavage in a pinch as well!). Almost any color or decoration will work depending on your outfit, but a good leather or satin flat in a natural tone will work through more eras. Simple ankle boots made of leather or cloth can work for all of the eras listed above, too! In college, I had a pair of flat Rocket Dog ankle boots that worked well for medieval. It was heart rending when they wore out.

Extant Examples (too many to count, but here are a few):

Medieval
Saxon Shoe, 6th-9th century
and
Child’s Ankle Boot, circa 1350-1400

Besides flat slippers, flat-soled ankle boots were nearly universal. You can make reproductions of Medieval shoes from leather if you plan to do lots of medieval costuming.

Renaissance
Slashed Leather Shoe, circa 1500-1550
and
Slashed (finished with buttonhole edges) Velvet Shoes, circa 1550-1575

Slashed shoes matched the Renaissance trend for slashed sleeves and other garments. Just as a sleeve’s slashes allowed luxurious poufs of fabric to show through, slashed shoes allowed brightly colored stockings to peek out. All those slashes would fill your shoe with pebbles in no time! These slashed shoes were for the rich nobles who did not have to walk or work in the dust often. Lower-class shoes looked much as they had since ancient times.

Regency
Spangled Silk Shoes, circa 1793-98
and
Leather Walking Boots, circa 1795-1815

If you love wearing flats, this is your era! Heels (except the tiniest kitten heels) were out of fashion. Ankle boots were gaining popularity again after being completely out of fashion in the 17th and 18th century and now had front laces. Flat shoes of this era and the Victorian era could be made in leather or cloth by a craftsman or at home. In 1790-1810, pointed shoes were in style. They start transitioning to square toes around 1820.

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Early to Mid Victorian
Cotton and Silk Shoes, circa 1845-60
and
Silk Satin Boots, circa 1830-1850

Shoes during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign rarely had heels and were generally made with a very noticeable square toe. However, since many women made their shoes at home from patterns out of fashion magazines, middle and lower class shoes, especially for daytime wear, are usually more rounded.

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Going Beyond the 3 Shoes

While these three shoes will let me wiggle by in nearly every fashion from 1590 to now, it is a very limited shoe wardrobe. It’s better to think of these three shoes as three shoe types instead. I’ve collected a few variations of each shoe type for specific outfits, like this pair I plan to use when I finally get my Edwardian dress project off the ground:

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These 1990s Purple Pumps were $4 at Goodwill.
I think I may have a “thing” for suede shoes…

These pumps are a variation of the first type of shoe in this list–the Low-Heel Mary Jane–with a bit of the second type–Pointed-Toe Louis Heels–mixed in for a good dose of Edwardian spice! As soon as you learn to recognize the major characteristics of historical footwear, you won’t feel as overwhelmed when you’re digging through shelf after shelf of shoes because you’ll be able to instantly judge whether the shape is historically appropriate or not. After that, all the little nuances like materials, decoration, and color fall into place easily!

Portraits for Your Pockets: More Handpainted Portrait Miniatures

What Have I Been Doing? Painting and Procrastinating.

I am so excited! Perhaps you remember this little fellow, my second attempt at portrait miniaturism:

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Well, someone loved him enough to give him a new home! I am so giddy for both him and his new owner!

I have another handpainted portrait miniature in my shop now, this time a young lady:

“Portrait of a Young Lady” is available in my Etsy store.

She’s another imaginary character, but her attire has a mix of historical elements from different locales: her red and black gown is decidedly Italian while her plumed hat was inspired by the wild German hats in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portraits (her hat ornament was inspired by one found in the Museum of London). I’d place her style at mid-16th century, but she could pass easily with garb anywhere between 1550 and 1610.

I have been more motivated to paint than sew recently, so I made a few more little portraits to fill the time. I even bit the bullet and began painting portraits of real folks!

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The first portrait is of my sister, a gift for her graduation (Sorry, Minnie, if you are reading this. Just act surprised when you see it!).

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Staring contest with Mr. Roosevelt!

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“Portrait of Amelia” in its pendant frame.

I based her portrait off of a photo I took for the 1840s headdress tutorial, but I changed the flowers and added details to her dress for an 1840s-1860s look.

The next two portraits were a gift to Becky, my mother-in-law, for her wedding anniversary:

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A not-so-pretty-penny and a very pretty lady!

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I did this portrait in an 18th century style for fun. I didn’t have a reference photo, so I made it up as I went along. I really want that hat now, though!

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Becky’s husband, Billy, is in his modern black pearl-snap shirt. There are three things you don’t mess with: rattlesnakes, Texas, and pearl snaps!

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Blue backgrounds have been common in miniatures from the very beginning of the art. Blue compliments most skin tones, helping the facial features stand out. In this case, it also helped highlight Billy’s eyes.

Though these were done as gifts for people I knew would love me even if I botched their likenesses, they have given me a little more confidence to work on more direct likenesses in the near future. They are much more work than imaginary people, though!

I haven’t felt motivated to sew at all recently even though I have a stack of new patterns (99 cent sale at Hobby Lobby!) and plenty of new fabric. Nothing seems to “click” right now. I have great patterns, but none of my fabrics seem right for them, while I have tons of great fabrics, but no patterns I feel match them. In reality, I’m probably just a little too perfectionist, but it does put a damper on costume production. So instead, I will continue to focus on painting miniatures, re-stocking my Etsy shop, and dreaming/scheming up the next big project!

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More of My Portrait Miniatures:

Portraits for Your Pockets: Handpainted Portrait Miniatures

Popular Historic Clothing Motifs: Stripes

Striped Clothing

Robe à la Française, circa 1775-80

Robe à la Française, circa 1778-85

Waistcoat, circa 1785

Visiting Dress, circa 1822

Ball Gown, circa 1828

Morning Dress, circa 1837

Smoking jacket, circa 1837

Visiting Dress, 1865

Depret Dress, circa 1867-69

Afternoon Dress, circa 1878-80

House of Worth Walking Dress, circa 1885

Striped Accessories

Pair of Man’s Hose, circa 1640

French Silk Slippers, circa 1835-1850

Silk Velvet Scarf, circa 1840-50

Stockings, circa 1880-90

Hat, circa 1890

Parasol, circa 1900-1910

Faberge Cigarette Case, circa 1899-1908

Another timeless design, stripes can be anything from the boldest black and white, to gentle white ribbons woven into a cream background. High-contrast stripes alone or embellished with florals were exceptionally popular in the 18th century and surged again in popularity beginning in the 1860s. By the turn of the 20th century, black and white stripes had become almost an obsession, appearing on everything from evening gowns to picture frames. I have chosen pieces here that display stripes as the key element of the design, but small doses of stripes are found on many pieces, often as repeating bands of trim around a hem or woven into ribbons on bonnets.