Estranged Strange Stays: A Curious eBay Find

A brief post spurred by the discovery of this odd garment:

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I found them in this auction listing on eBay. All the eBay seller has to say about them is this perfunctory description: “Circa 18THC, a cream silk brocade corset or stays with polychrome florals and ties. In mainly  strong condition, there is wear and splitting, but overall good and strong. All items we list need to be cleaned.”

The maddeningly menial mishmash of adjectives gives no clue as to the history of the piece, so we are left with the pictures to be our sole diviners.

This looks like a fairly standard set of 18th Century stays. However, a second glance and you will notice that something is “off” about them, particularly the back lacing:

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Yup. It’s sewn on decorative ribbon– not actual spiral lacing!

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When you turn the stays over, it reveals a secret: a second pair of stays!

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The darker linen with all of the boning channels is the original stays. You can still see the original sets of eyelets in both the front and back!

The inside set of stays is fully boned and much smaller than the newer pair. It originally had front and back lacing, perhaps designed to be worn with a boned stomacher like these:

Stays with Stomacher, circa 1750 (French, FIT)

Stays with Stomacher, circa 1770 (Italian, The Met)

This style of stays is from the early 18th century, about 1720-50, though in some countries the style is found as late as 1770. It may even have been a fully boned bodice with matching tie-on sleeves, like this:

Stays with Sleeves, circa 1770 (European, FIT)

However, this particular set of stays was repackaged into its current form somewhere in time. The back was sewn up, the outside recovered with the floral silk, tabs and the faux lacing were added, and the front opening enlarged with unboned (except the front edges) lacing extensions. Why this was done is a mystery, but there are a few possibilities: it could be a refashion in the later 18th century to extend the stays for a larger woman, turn an old pair of stays (possibly bought second-hand from the booming resale clothing market) into a bodice, or, and I believe more likely, the stays were refashioned in the 19th century for wearing to a Victorian fancy dress ball. That would explain the faux lacing and unboned front (since a Victorian lady would likely be wearing her usual corset underneath, so the antique “stays” would not have to support her breasts), and 18th century “shepherdess” costumes were all the rage:

“A Shepherdess Costume” from Thomas Hailes Lacy’s Female Costumes Historical, National and Dramatic in 200 Plates, circa 1865

“Shepherdess” by Leon Sault from L’Art du Travestissement (The Art of Fancy Dress), circa 1880

The stays at the time would have already been over 100 years old, if that’s the case. I wonder if it drove any Victorian historians (the best set of rhyming words ever) mad with frustration the way modern costume historians rage over Edwardian dresses that were turned into Halloween costumes by adding a zipper up the back?

More frustrating still is that the photos from the eBay listing aren’t the only pictures of this intriguing garment! Another photo of them can be found floating around in the blogosphere and archived on Pinterest:

Each photo, however, leads to a dead link–at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! Once upon a time, these stays might have had a collections page (and therefore all the juicy, delicious information about era, provenance, etc. we historical costumers crave) on the Met’s website, but they were decommissioned and the archive page (and all that tasty data) was deleted! Even the controversial “Way Back Machine,” which serves as an archive for websites, does not save copies of museum collection webpages. I know that even if a page did once exist, the Met’s archive pages aren’t always the fount of knowledge we’d like them to be, but perhaps you or someone you know may know more about this unusual piece of history, some other pictures, maybe? I have been combing the web looking for more info, but all I have gathered is this welcome pittance from In Pretty Finery’s Pinterest board:

“18th century, Italy – Stays – Silk, linen”

That is the only extra shred of info I could dredge up about them.  If you have an image of this pair of stays on your Pinterest board or blog and perhaps you had the foresight to copy down the information about them, please add a bit of a description to the image so that others can use the information, as scant as it is. If you have a blog containing an image of this enigmatic garment, feel free to share a link below. This might be the last time we see this object before it disappears back into a private collection!

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I often find objects just like this all over the web. I try to archive many of them by saving them to Pinterest boards as part of my ongoing project, The Ephemeral Museum. I have Pinterest boards about some of these objects here and here. There are other websites that do similar work, like All the Pretty Dresses, if you are interested in seeing more extant antique garments “in the raw.”

Easy Edwardian: Thrifted Turn of the 20th Century Costume for under $10

Practicing What You Preach

Eons and eons ago, I wrote “Costuming on a Budget: Edwardian Edition,” a post about how to put together an Edwardian outfit using existing garments like 1970s maxi dresses and blouses. It’s one of the most popular posts on my blog, so I thought I’d revisit the concept and show an example.

Vintage from the late 1900s is a boon for cash-strapped costumers everywhere looking to costume the early 1900s! I’m a HUGE fan of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s as sources for clothing and costumes. Garments from those eras are usually made of synthetic materials, specifically polyester, which works well from a costumer’s standpoint. It’s not always the best texture or particularly comfortable, but it can mimic nearly every type of fabric weave and finish you can imagine cheaply. Its also fairly colorfast, easy to care for, and best of all, mass-produced, so there’s a wide variety to choose from.

Late 1970s and 1980s clothing is especially wonderful because of the diverse fashion trends (from hippies to disco to power suits) and resurgence of long-ignored historical shapes (ah, balloon sleeves!). It’s usually pretty easy to find 80s stuff among the crowded racks at local thrift stores. I am addicted to thrifting old secretary blouses! They are infinitely useful for 1890 to modern day costuming. You can be anything from a Titanic passenger to a 1930s reporter and beyond with a good secretary blouse!

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One of my favorite 1980s blouses done up Edwardian working-class style.

Recently, I discovered another wonderful costuming source in my local charity shop. Finding blouses is simple. Finding suitable skirts, however, can be a challenge, especially for the 1890s-1910. Full, ankle-to-floor length skirts haven’t been in style for over 100 years…except in formal wear. While browsing the dresses rack, I discovered the joy of two-piece prom, bridesmaid, and mother-of-the-bride dresses. Two piece prom dresses were more of a 1990s and 2000s thing and most current formals are gauzy one-pieces. What’s considered old-fashioned, though, shows up in thrift stores in droves.

This is a lovely Watters mother-of-the-bride gown, in case you are curious.

The perfect skirt is a full-length, a-line, with fitted hips and full hem in a satin fabric that isn’t overtly shiny. With that list of must-haves, finding the perfect skirt would seem nigh impossible, but lo and behold I came across a lonely formal skirt that perfectly fit that description!

skirt

Now, add in one of my (many) secretary blouses, and voilà, a middle-class Edwardian lady’s outfit!

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Marion the Librarian!

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I always end up looking so shrewd in all my photos…

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The blouse and skirt are both polyester, but they look pretty nice, even close up. I can also wad them up and stash them without them getting too wrinkly!

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To get the skirt to fit around my corseted waist, I had to take it in. Not wanting to dismantle the whole thing or disturb the lovely invisible zipper, I just folded under an inch on each side of the closure to create a fat box pleat. Then a tacked it down by hand (it was too thick for the machine). If you find a skirt in your size, this project is completely no-sew!

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Easy Edwardian Overview

1980s secretary blouse – $4.19, Goodwill
1990s formal skirt – $5.49, Goodwill

Total: $9.68

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This photo also reveals the extent of my expansive professional photo studio, complete with  fuzzy cat toy!

Under everything, I wore my underbust corset, a sports bra, a nude stretchy top (the blouse is quite sheer), my multi-tasking t-strap shoes, and a petticoat I made from a sheet for my 1890s dresses. While this look can be achieved easily without a corset and petticoats, wearing both instantly improves the look. I could further enhance my looks with a hat and gloves for outdoor wear. I’d like a nice, long strand of coral beads for a necklace to compliment the skirt. However, how plain or complex you want your look to be is up to you and your means!

An Appetite for Fashion Decadence: A Brief History of Stomachers

Just Let me Pin on My Flat, Frilly, Fancy Abs…

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Stomacher and matching Gown, mid 18th century

Stomachers were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe beginning with a rise of pairs of bodies and stays (the ancestors of the corset). There is evidence that stomachers have been in use since the 16th century, but stomachers became a fashion staple between 1590 during the brief reign of the French wheel farthingale and the trend continued well into the 18th century. Bodices were made with open fronts and the stomacher was used to cover the stays and chemise behind the opening. The stomacher would be pinned to the lady’s stays or to the inside of the bodice to hold it in place. Some stomachers also have ties and silk tabs to help keep the stomacher in place. While many stomachers were made to blend seamlessly with a dress, other stomachers were made to compliment the dress with a contrasting patterns or color. Early stomachers were decorated with blackwork, polychrome silk embroidery, redwork, metal lace, and scads of jewels if you were rich enough to afford them.

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“Portrait of a Woman” by Giovanni Cariani, early 16th century

“Anne of Denmark” by Isaac Oliver, circa 1595
The complex fashions of the nobility in the late 16th century involved a lot of work on the part of a lady and her maids. Here, Anne shows of her status with a delicate linen collar (made of linen so fine it could be passed through the eye of a large darning needle), an embroidered velvet bodice, and peeking out from behind her gigantic diamond pendant, a bejeweled blackwork stomacher. Wealthy ladies would contract out such embroidery work to a skilled embroiderer or tailor, though some still took pleasure in creating their own decorations.

“Portrait of a Lady, probably Elizabeth Southwell née Howard,” circa 1600

“Portrait of Lucy Hutchinson” by John Souch of Chester, circa 1643

Bodice, circa 1630-40
This punched-silk bodice was made to be worn with a long stomacher. 17th century stomachers were longer than 18th century stomachers and were often done in contrasting rather than matching designs.

Polychrome Stomacher, circa 1600-1615
You can’t tell from this black and white photo, but this wide stomacher is actually embroidered with bright, colorful silks. It would have covered the entire front of a lady’s stays and is basically half of a bodice. The curved corners at the top are for armhole allowance. It would have allowed plenty of flexibility for different bodice styles and sizes.

Having an open-front bodice was quite practical. It gave the lady multiple options for outfits by mixing the open bodice with different stomachers and petticoats. It also allowed for changing body shapes, like weight gain or loss and pregnancy. All a lady had to do was change the width of her stomacher to accommodate her changing body. Purchasing or making a fresh stomacher was much easier and less expensive than replacing a whole gown.

Because 17th and 18th century stays were cone-shaped with smoothed fronts, stomachers are usually triangular in shape as well. In the early 18th century, heavily embroidered stomachers blooming with polychrome flowers came into fashion, as did faux lacing and frilly bows.

Stomacher with Applied Faux Lacing, circa 1720

Stomacher, early to mid 18th century

Sacque Gown with Embroidered Stomacher, circa 1735-40

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Caraco Jacket with Stomacher and Embroidered Petticoat, circa 1750/altered 1780

Since they were worn as a piece of outer clothing, stomachers were often highly decorated with embroidery, spangles/sequins, metallic braid, bows, ribbons, and more! A popular decoration for upper class courtesans was a large, long brooch or jewel that covered the whole front of her stomacher or over a closed-front gown to mimic the look of an ornate stomacher.  These bodice jewels were also called “stomachers,” so it can get a little confusing.

Stomacher Jewel, circa 1750

 These huge, long brooches stayed popular throughout the centuries, and Queen Mary, consort of King George V (1910-1936), had quite a collection of stomacher jewels she wore over her Edwardian dresses.

Anyway, back to cloth stomachers!

The open-robe gowns of the 18th century, just like their 17th century forebears, required a stomacher to close them. Dresses from 1700 to the 1730s often had stomachers that did not directly match the fabric of the dress, but rather complimentary stomachers made to match a variety of colors were popular. By the mid-18th century, stomachers began to match the dresses and jackets more directly, using the same fabrics and trims as decoration. Many court dresses had stomachers that were heavily boned and layered with decorations.

“Portrait of a Noblewoman” by Donat Nonotte, circa 1760

“Portrait of a Lady” by a student of Alexander Roslin, circa 1760

 “Maria Josefa de Lorena, Archduchess of Austria” by Anton Raphael Mengs
Anton Raphael Mengs is one of the premier painters of the 18th century. His soft, pale ladies swathed in rich, sculptural dresses. He perfectly captures texture and light. His images have inspired many modern artists in the Neo-Rococo movement.
In this particular portrait, a resplendent Maria Josefa de Lorena is dressed in a gown of royal blue velvet decorated with gilded ribbon and lace. You can catch a glimpse of the pannier’s form under her gown. Her stomacher is heavily boned to achieve a perfectly smooth conical shape.

 “Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples” by Anton Rafael Mengs, circa 1768
On court gowns, a richly decorated stomacher contrasted beautifully with the wide, smooth walls of fabric draped over a noblewoman’s panniers.

Stomachers could be boned for more support or left unboned for a more rounded silhouette. Adding a lace ruffle to the top or a row of faux buttons down the front of the stomacher became popular mid-century. Stomachers could have rounded, pointed, or squared bottoms, depending on what shape was most flattering to the style of the gown and the body shape of the woman wearing it.

“Infanta Maria Luisa de Borbon, gran duquesa de Toscana” by Anton Rafael Mengs, circa 1770
This is portrait the epitome of an 18th century lady. She’s got it all: the huge lace cuffs, the pearl choker, the powdered beehive, the fan, the mitts, the ruffles, the bows! Her luscious gown in ice blue even has a perfectly matched stomacher edged with lace.

Gown with matching Stomacher and Petticoat, circa 1770-79

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Jacket with Matching Stomacher, mid-to-late 18th century

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Closed front gowns and open-front gowns had co-existed together for over a century, but the reign of the stomacher was waning. By the 1790s, the fashionable elite had moved on to chemises a la reine and slim, neo-classical gowns (the Regency silhouette), but some ladies, mostly older generations and peasants,  held on to cone-shaped stays and stomachers even into the earliest years of the 19th century.

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“The Rabbit Seller” by William Henry Pyne, circa 1805
This British peasant woman is selling wild game. While her wealthy clients have adopted the fashionable new Empire silhouette, she is still dressed in the manner of the previous decades. Though her bodice may not necessarily be a stomacher bodice, the style was still present in the peasant class. Her outfit is made of cast-off clothes from the upper classes. There was a huge market for cast-off clothes that had been going on since the 17th century. After wearing a dress a few times, court women would sell their now-passe gowns to lesser nobles who would in turn sell the clothes after more wear, and so on down the line until the clothes passed to the poorest of the poor. It was not uncommon to see a flower merchant or candy seller wearing a velvet skirt, though it would be in quite rough condition after being worn and re-worn for many years.

Check out these resources to learn more about stomachers:

18th Century Stomachers” – A thorough database on larsdatter.com, the best research site for early history!
“Making a Stomacher, Start to Finish”
on Fushia’s 18th Century Dress Project
The Costume Historian
– Information on early 17th and 18th century stomachers
Multiple Pinterest boards here (gowns and examples), here (stomacher jewels), and here (many eras/styles)
The Stomacher Wikipedia Page
Daily Life in Elizabethan England” – Not really a stomacher resource per se, but a really interesting excerpt nonetheless!

UPDATE: This amazing picture from “Before the Automobile” (aka The Artistocat) answer a few questions about how pinning a stomacher together works:

How a stomacher is pinned to a (beautiful!) dress.

Transforming Edwardian Nightwear into Regency Daywear

Recycling Fashion:
My Multi-Tasking 1812/1912 Dress

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 I found this beautiful Edwardian nightgown for $20 in a second hand shop and my first thought was: Wow! This looks just like a Regency-style dress!

The dress itself is early 20th century, not early 19th century, but the lines, lace, and silhouette look incredibly similar to these 1812-1813 fashion plates:

Fashion Plate, circa 1813

Fashion Plate, circa 1812

Of course I resist the opportunity to play dress-up, so here’s the gown, styled a la 1812:

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Nightgown – $20, thrift shop
Woven shawl – $5, Walmart
Vintage Gloves – $5, eBay
Hat (made from a flower pot and silk ribbon) – $1, thrift shop
Shoes – $3, thrift shop

Under layers:
White slip – $8, Walmart
Rago Waist Cincher (helps boost the girls up to ridiculously high, Regency-approved levels) – $30, Amazon
Balconette bra – $12, Hanes

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The dress is really beautiful and must have been even more so when it was new. It has cotton lace inserts threaded with peach silk ribbon around the collar, waistline, and cuffs. The hem has a dainty, pin-tucked ruffle bottom.

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Of course, the best picture of the outfit had to have me blinking…

1812 - Regency Wedgies are Sexy!

This one is for Little Miss Snippet. It took quite a bit of convincing to get Chris to take the picture like this. “It looks like you’ve got a wedgie!” he kept saying. Little did he know…

Fashion plate, circa 1813

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This shawl was a super steal at Wally World. Who cares if it’s polyester?! It looks amazing with all sorts of styles, from 1810 to 1860 to today.

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Since my mim was so kind as to get me a curling iron for Christmas, I attempted to curl my hair this time around. It held curl perfectly…for about 4 minutes. By the time I got outside, it had mostly come uncurled, so I did the period-appropriate thing and poked the ornery bits back up into my poke bonnet!

The dress was in pretty rough shape: mildew stains, set-in wrinkles, and a complete lack of any closures (it’s open from collar to hem and had 1/2 of a snap left, so I replaced and added vintage ones to hold it closed properly. I don’t want any wardrobe malfunctions!). I gently soaked and sun-dried the cotton, which whitened it perfectly. I also gently un-twisted the peach silk ribbon. There are plenty of lovely, under-appreciated Victorian and Edwardian nightgowns out there and many make beautiful Regency gowns with the right tweaks! Also, since ladies either wore light corsets or went corset-less to bed (also just by the nature of sleepwear), nightgowns are usually looser fitting and in more naturalistic sizes that fit modern body types more readily than you expect!

My method of under support for this dress isn’t historically accurate, but it is historically inspired. During the 1810s, corsets were beginning to fully morph out of the stays and half-stays of the previous decades and into full-torso pieces with cording or wooden busks for the main support mechanisms with minimal boning. My Rago Cincher/balconette bra combo mimics the shape that a corset like this would have provided:

Corset, circa 1815-25

Fashion Plate showing a Gusseted Corset, circa 1813

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

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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! :)

Historic Color Combos: Black and Yellow

Black and Yellow Clothing

Court Coat, circa 1750-90

Evening Dress, circa 1818

British Silk Dress, circa 1836

Evening Dress, circa 1867

Fancy Dress (for a Costume Ball), circa 1880

Corset, circa 1880

Corset, circa 1890

Black and Yellow Accessories

Purse, 18th century

Mourning Ring, circa 1820

Fan, circa 1870

Stockings, circa 1882

Brooch, circa 1880

Gloves, circa 1920

The wild combination of yellow and back wasn’t always just for bumblebees! The pairing sprung from the luxurious combination of black and gold, a favorite for centuries. Substituting brilliant saffron for the more subdued glimmer of gold turns ordinary evening gowns into graphic, comic-book heroine style outfits! The effect is undeniably seductive and bold, traits that helped boost the combination’s prevalence during the late Victorian period, a time of can-cans, night life, and high hopes! Lighter, less shocking colors replaced such brash combinations around 1900. The color combo became rather unfashionable until the late 1960s and 1970s when mod and disco lovers picked it up.

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!