Find of the Month: Early 19th Century Gilt Buttons

October 2016

My new favorite antique store, Maine Barn and Attic Antiques, has oodles of raw, dusty crusty buttons for 10¢ to $2 each, depending on the bin you dig them out of. Usually I paw through the enormous 10¢ button bin, but this past weekend, I ventured over to the smaller more expensive bins (50¢ each. Living the high life!) and was excited to find what I thoughts were 18th century buttons:

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All of them are smooth and plain except for this gaudy little guy.

They are very weighty! These would definitely have to be attached using the taped method used on men’s coats during the 18th and early 19th century. Taped buttons are attached to the coat by making an eyelet where the button sits, poking the shank through to the back of the garment, and threading a narrow ribbon or woven tape through the shanks to hold them down. American Duchess has an awesome guide for this handy technique here.

This is the best illustrated guide to the technique ever! Thanks, Lauren!

Attching buttons that way makes sure they stay flat, flush and firm instead of flopping around. That’s how all those enormous, ornate buttons you see on 18th century coats stay so neatly in place despite being so heavy!


They have large, round “omega” style shanks.
Button Shanks Guide by Button Country
Guide to dating buttons by shank style: DAACS Cataloging Manual for Buttons

All of them have detailed stamps on the back with interesting sayings like “Orange Colour” and “Treble Gilt London.”


In reality, they are not quite as old as I first believed. Research led me to lots of metal detecting and mudlarking websites where I learned that these buttons are commonly dug up across the English and New England countryside. My buttons date from about 1810 to 1840. The English discovered a process for gilding buttons in the late 18th century and by the 19th century the manufacture of gilded buttons was in full swing. For a more detailed account, I’ll direct you to this short, well-written PDF on the subject.

I tried to do a bit more detailed research on the individual button back stamps, but haven’t delved too deep yet (too busy prepping for Georgian Picnic!). Still, I took pictures of each button back so if anyone else finds one, we can compare notes. :)


“B & BURNHAM – TREBLE GILT” with a chain design around the shank


“—-GE (Probably “ORANGE”) COLOUR” with dotted borders
This is the back of the smaller engraved button.


“TREBLE GILT – STAND (D) COLOUR” with dotted borders


“STAND (D) TREBLE GILT – LONDON) with stamped sun design around shank.


“WARRENTED – FINE GOLD SURFACE” with dots and sunburst/starburst design around the shank


“BEST QUALITY” with eagle
I think this button may be later, closer to 1850-1860, judging by the font and styling. It is also the thinnest and lightest of the bunch.


“LONDON GILT” with a laurel/leaf design and two rings of dots around the shank

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

Like the Dark Side of the Moon: Rear Views of 17th Century Fashion

Bodice Backs and Bumrolls

We are accustomed to seeing antique fashion from the front. It is presented to us that way in museums and paintings. Unless there is a notable feature (usually a train) in the back of a gown, the flip side of fashion is rarely put on display.

In 1643, Wenceslaus Hollar published a series of prints detailing the fashions of Europe at the time. He didn’t just focus on nobility or a single country, but rather spread his focus to multiple countries and classes (though they are still relatively privileged). His works are great references for national costumes of the period and reveal just how varied fashion was.

Roughly translates to: The Different Types of Dress from the Nations of Europe Common at the Present Time, etc.

The etchings display the usual front views of fashion from various nations, showing the vast number of trends Europeans were following at the time:

A Woman of Basil (Basel), circa 1643
When you remove the artificial Latin ending from “Basilienis,” We are left with Basilien. Basiliens were a religious order of monks. Rather, this lady hails from Basel/Basle, a city in what is now Switzerland. Her outfit is quite common for this area during the mid 17th century, especially her round fur hat.

Merchant’s Wife of Parisr, circa 1643
In contrast, this merchant’s wife wears an interesting blend of French and English fashion at the time, which makes sense considering that her husband works in trade.

What makes this book of prints really wonderful– besides the variety of costumes– is how many are drawn from the rear rather than just the front. While fashion usually puts its best face forward, the backs of garments are often more utilitarian. However, these reverse portraits give wonderful clues to construction, how layers were worn, and how hair was styled. They also reveal where old trends hung on and what silhouette was rolling in or out of fashion:

A Noblewoman of Brabant, circa 1643

This wealthy lady probably hails from what is now the Duchy of Brabant in the Netherlands. Her dress is richly trimmed with lace and bands of metallic trim on her bodice. She wears a medium-sized bumroll (about 7 inches deep) and there is still enough fabric to drape onto the floor. Notice how her huge sleeves are set extremely far back on the bodice, creating a fashionably tiny back. Stays during this period were made to push the arms far back for a straight, column-like torso.

Noblewoman of England, circa 1643

This lady is less ostentatious than her Brabrant counterpart (she is likely a lesser noble or a modest one), but her fur muff, well-fitted bodice, and artfully drawn-back petticoat still give her an air of privilege. She wears a softer bumroll and there are fewer pleats across the back of her petticoat. We can glimpse the center-back seam of her bodice under her large, peaked collar. Her hat/cap is difficult to discern, but it is fitted over a large bun. Notice how dark it is, probably indicating it is black; however, her clothing is drawn in a lighter shade and was probably made of a more lively color with a contrasting petticoat. (Not all 17th century clothes were black.)

Noblewoman of Spain, circa 1643

The Spanish, however, adored black for its severity, richness, and luster. This noblewoman wears a fashion that was popular a few decades earlier during the 1610s and 20s. Clearly its imposing beauty has not diminished, but it is far different from her neighbors in France! She is probably an older woman, but she may be a lady who just loves older fashion. Rich clothes were not wasted and were thus reworn many times, so this may be the robe of a mother, sister, or higher-up noble that was passed down. Yet another possibility is the time it took to publish Hollar’s book. Making plates for printing took a lot of time to do. If he had spend enough time working on this project, it is quite likely that this is actually a fashion from an earlier time, perhaps by years! Still, the Spanish nobility was famous for treasuring their ornate style longer than their contemporaries (as this painting of Isabel de Borbón from 1632 reveals) and the heavy style from the turn of the century lingered on the Iberian Peninsula longer than in other parts of the continent.
The rear view of this gown reveals the decorative cut of her hanging sleeves and the pickadil/supportasse which props up her tall lace collar. We are also treated to a rare glimpse of what goes on behind those high hair rolls: artfully arranged braids accented with either jeweled ornaments or flowers.

The Dutch Navigator’s Wife, circa 1643

I cannot tell from the image, but the German translation in the top corner appears to say “Shiffer,” an alternate spelling of Schiffer, which may be translated as “boatman.” This assumption meshes well with the faux Latin “Navigatoris” (aka Navigator). Since this lady hails from Amsterdam, it would make sense that she would be married to a boatman.
Her outfit consists of fantastic layers. She wears a jacket with a jaunty tail or peplum over an ankle-length petticoat with an apron, a very practical choice for a busy woman! Her bumroll is of a noticeable size, though that may be due to wearing multiple petticoats over it. She sports not just a fur collar, but also a wide starched ruff.
Her hair, drawn back in a crowned bun, is covered with a coif under her cone-shaped straw hat, similar to the Vietnamese nón lá. These sorts of hats are actually common to the northern European region as well, and examples of a similar shape can be found from the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these examples have colorful embroidery around the brim, but this lady’s appears to be plain and utilitarian. The coif would keep her hair out of the way and her wide hat would protect her skin from the damaging effects of the sun.
My favorite feature, however, is her stout mules. These shoes were common during the 17th century, worn by all classes of women. They have short wooden heels and decorated uppers (much like these).

And finally, here’s my favorite print of the lot:

A Dutch Woman in her Household Dress, circa 1643

It’s not an etching done from behind, but this is my favorite picture of the lot. This lady is not dressed for shopping or promenading. She’s dressed in the 17th century equivalent to your favorite pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. While we might venture forth freely in these lax clothes, a 17th century lady of standing would not venture far from her house in such simplistic dress. Dutch masters like Vermeer put this sort of “undress” in their cherished, intimate scenes of 17th century home life.
She is dressed practically, with a full-length apron and a capelet to keep out the chill. Her pretty jacket just peeps out from under her cape, giving us a glimpse of what is most likely a intricate blackwork embroidery design, like this jacket. We are treated to another wonderful view of a pair of mules, revealing the banded decoration on the uppers. This may well be the same Dutch navigator’s wife from the previous print, though this style was prevalent across Europe and fairly standard, so it is hard to say.

The 17th century is my favorite century to study. I always enjoy finding prints, paintings, and extant clothing to admire and share!

—– Bonus Look! —–

Here is a stunning photo of the back of Merja’s (of Aristocat fame) Baroque gown, taken by Lauren from American Duchess:

More lovely photos of the dress from all angles are available on Merja’s blog.

This dress is an excellent recreation of a mid-17th century dress. Doesn’t lit look similar to the other northern European noblewomen’s gowns? Here, the gown is styled for an indoor party. If she were going out, she would wear a collar or cape and cover her hair. Notice the beautiful deep-set sleeves and how smoothly it is fitted. It is a Cinderella-worthy gown, to be sure!

Through the Keyhole: A Peek into a 17th Century Lady’s Wardrobe

Rare Examples of Extant 17th Century Clothing

For most of us, paintings are as close as we get to seeing what 17th century fashion was like. They’re a wonderful medium, but like fashion magazines today, most professional portraits aren’t nessisarily the be-all end-all holy grail of fashion. We only see a lady’s best clothing, and usually only the outer layer. Lighting, paint aging, pigment fading, artistic liberties, and angles all affect how the clothing looks vs. what the clothing actually was.

The most famous evidence of the trickery of relying solely on paintings is our vision of the 17th century Puritans wearing black and white. There are so many paintings of 17th century ladies in black gowns with white collars that it must have been very common. The Spanish especially loved the color for its lustrous richness, so much so that heavy black velvet became a hallmark of Spanish wealth and influence.


Portrait of Jeronimo de Cevallos, 1613

Black was a common color; however, there’s a twist (isn’t there always?). Black was super-duper expensive to dye correctly. On any fabric other than leather, it was unstable and faded easily–usually to a horrible white-orange or bruised blue. Black was reserved for Sunday best and court clothing.

So if black wasn’t all that common everyday, why is it in so many paintings? Well, people generally wear their nicest clothes to have their portraits painted and if they use black fabric to make their nicest clothes, there are going to be a disproportionate number of paintings full of people wearing black. Think of your prom photos. Did everybody wear fluffy chiffon and match their date’s tuxedo everyday?

Finding extant clothing from 400 years ago is a genuine challenge, but there are a few pieces left. Thank heavens for museums (especially the V&A)! Here’s a collection of genuine items that have miraculously survived. Some of the artifacts are classic, a few strange, and many a surprise. So if 17th century ladies didn’t wear black all day everyday, what did they wear?

Inside the Wardrobe

Overgown, circa 1610-1615

O……. M…….G……..

The amazingness of this gown reduces me to blasphemous abbreviations! Look at how lovely, yet simple it is. The pleating and tabbed wings at the shoulders are heavenly! It is too bad there is no front photo so we can see how it closes. What you can see, however, is the beautiful hand-woven fabric from Italy and the decorative slashes that were punched by an English tailor. This beautiful wrapper has two small holes at the collar to attach a ruff and supportasse.

Ruff Edging, circa 1620-1629

Ruffs were worn until the 1620s. After that, the ruffs became looser and wider, eventually morphing into the gigantic collars the 17th century is known for. Ruffs came in all sizes and styles, some thin and flat, others cone-like and dense. This ruff is a reconstruction made to display the period lace.  Ruffs were generally made of linen and could be left plain or decorated with lace trim like this. It was made during the transitional period between the voluminous ruff and the draping collar.

Pickadil /Supportasse, circa 1600-1625

This tractor-seat-shaped item is actually called a  supportasse, though I’ve always heard them called pickadils (Supportasse is a French term, but if you mispronounce it, it sounds like it should be supporting something else! So, I’ll stick with pickadil). Ruffs, especially ornate large ones, needed support to stand up fashionably and frame the face. They are usually made of card covered in a pleasant fabric to match a dress. If you look at the picture of the overgown again, you can see that there is a pickadil attached to the collar. Pickadils were threaded onto gowns or robes through small holes in the back or tied in front if it needed to support a full-circle ruff. There is a street in London named after this 17th century contraption; you may have heard of it: it’s called Piccadilly!

Falling Collar, circa 1630

You really need to click on the picture to see just how huge this thing really is. It is 89 cm long and 32.5 cm wide. That’s over 1 yard long and a foot wide! This particular collar is actually a man’s collar. A woman’s collar would have a rounder fit about the neck. The squareness of this one makes it stand up and drape handsomely over a man’s doublet or coat (there is a lovely mannequin modelling the look in the archive). A woman would have worn hers over a bodice or jacket.


The Margaret Layton Jacket, circa 1600-1620

This jacket/bodice is possibly the most famous non-royal fashion artifact from the 17th century. It was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum along with a painting of Margaret Layton in which she wears this very piece!

Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1620

If this isn’t a great opportunity to revisit the “portrait vs. reality” debate, nothing is! When you look at the bodice in the picture, you can tell that it is very much like the extant piece, but there are obvious differences. The pattern is enlarged in the painting and the flower colors and types vary. However, the artist did an amazing job. You can definitely see the resemblance between the two pieces! Here’s a tidbit from the archive record:

“The portrait of Margaret Layton, purchased with the bodice, is an intriguing example of early seventeenth-century English portraiture, as well as a unique example of a sitter shown wearing an extant garment. Comparison with the bodice shows that the artist has painted its distinguishing features with great care, undoubtedly reflecting the value that it held for the sitter. He has paid particular attention to its embroidery, reproducing in detail the individual motifs of birds, insects and flowers, while exercising a degree of artistic license in terms of their specific arrangement.”

“X-radiographs of the painting reveal that the artist produced two versions of the face. Beneath the visible likeness is an older-looking, slightly heavier image of Margaret Layton’s face. It would thus appear that the artist repainted her in a more youthful and idealized way, perhaps at her request, or that of her husband who was most likely to have commissioned and paid for the work. This alteration raises interesting questions, at present unanswerable, about the exact date of the painting and the occasion for which it was commissioned.”

 This bodice is beautiful. The embroidery is absolutely superb and took many many hours to complete. Amazingly, the Plimoth Plantation’s Historical Clothing and Textiles Department reproduced this jacket almost exactly, down to the materials, techniques, and smallest flower!


The Plimoth Jacket “Faith,” circa 2009

The curling vine and flower motif on the Margaret Layton Jacket was popular in Britain at the start of the 1600s.

Jacket, circa 1600-1625

Here is another jacket with a similar motif. It is looser fitting, but was made around the same time. This much simpler jacket would be worn to less formal occasions or during pregnancy.It is made from linen sewn with colored silk thread. I love the bows closing up the front. Ladies in the 17th century adored the jacket. It was their favorite accessory after lace. Many Dutch paintings in particular show ladies in all manner of jackets: house jackets, bed jackets, fur jackets, satin, jackets..really, if there was a place to wear one, a lady would wear a jacket!

Jacket, circa 1600-1625

This jacket is different. Obviously, it is simpler than the others, but it’s method of decor consists of silver cording woven into the fabric itself. It also has two holes at the back to support a Pickadil and ruff. Again, this jacket is much looser than most from the 17th century, but its simplicity and fit might mean that this was a house jacket and would not have been worn in public.

Bodice, circa 1630-1639

This may look like a jacket, but don’t be fooled! Until the Regency era, jackets closed all the way in front and bodices were open, quite the opposite of what we’re used to today! Well, the bodices weren’t open open. 17th century bodices would be closed with a stomacher that pinned in place, a practice that continued through the 18th century. This bodice would have been worn with a decorated stomacher, wide lace cuffs, and a ruff or collar. It has pinked edges inside the punched slashes. Stays may be worn under the bodice, but they were not tight or conical like the stays of the Renaissance or Rococo eras. Stays in the 17th century were shorter and less restricting, emphasizing the full, rounded female form so admired at the time.

Petticoat Panel, circa 1600

Multiple petticoats were the daily norm. Today, petticoat has come to mean an undergarment, usually Victorian, but petticoats were worn like skirts in the 17th century. A poor woman might wear only one or two petticoats, while a wealthy woman would wear many more! This decorative panel would have been sewn onto the topmost petticoat which would have shown through the split front of the dress.

Apron, circa 1580-1600

Aprons are a necessity for any lady of the 17th century. Everyone from bakers wives to courtiers wore them, though the rich wore them only around the house. Aprons were ankle-to-floor length and were usually made of linen. Decorated aprons like this one were not meant to be used for protective reasons. They were a wonderful opportunity to add pizzazz to an otherwise plain outfit and showed off the fine sewing skills of the ladies that wore them. This example in the V&A is decorated with cutwork (a.k.a. holes), so you can tell that it was meant as a showpiece, not a work piece!

Spanish Chopines, circa 1580-1620

Mules, circa 1600-1625

Chopines had become overwhelmingly gaudy by the end of the 16th century, but this Spanish pair recalls how the chopine began: as a way to elevate ladies’ skirts above the filthy streets. They are not shoes themselves, usually, but are overshoes for delicate slippers and mules. While I’d love to have some crazy-tall, fancy chopines, this simple green pair is my favorite pair.

Shoes in the 17th century saw the development of the heel instead of the traditional platform, but until 1620 or so, mules and chopines shared equal footing in the fashion world. After 1630, however, heels rapidly grew in popularity and height. Mules with wooden soles were standard house shoes for all classes.

Walking Shoe, circa 1640

This everyday walking shoe is made of leather and is much sturdier than its silk counterparts. A middle class woman would have worn these whenever she went out of the house. Shoes were prized and often passed down through generations until they fell to bits. It’s unbelievable how well preserved this shoe is! Most became horribly cracked and misshapen over the years, if they survived at all.


Coif, circa 1610

During the first half of the 17th century, ladies still wore coifs to cover their hair. This coif is the creme de la creme of coifs! It’s bursting with silver and gilt threads that would have glittered brilliantly when they were new! Be sure to click the picture to check out the museum page. There, you can zoom in and see just how heavily embroidered this masterpiece is! It’s splashed with shimmering spangles (sequins) as well, even on the handmade silver lace. The matching forehead cloth would have covered the front of a lady’s hair if the coif did not extend as far as she needed, for example, under a hat with a thin brim.

Felt Hat, circa 1600-1625

I’m going to end this tour with this hat. Why? Because…well…look at it! Is it not the most amazing hat you you have ever seen?! I have seen hundreds upon thousands of illustrations of these steeple-crowned hats but never knew there was a real one still floating around! Hats like this were popular for everybody– rich, poor, Puritan, Royalist, man, or woman. When it comes down to it, anyone in Britain might have worn this. Maybe a gentleman walking the streets of London, or a lady out for a stroll in the country, or an old woman who scolds everyone for being frivolous but secretly adores sweetmeats….anybody!

The world the the 17th century woman is a mystery to many people, even avid historians and costumers. The 1600s really are a skipped-over era in history even though so many wonderful, terrifying, and history-making things happened. We are extremely lucky that there are still pieces left from that time!

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!

Fashions for America’s Forgotten War

The War of 1812

I was wafting around the house in my newly thrifted Edwardian outfit when my father (who normally takes no interest whatsoever in my costuming endeavors) looked up from his book and asked, “Are you doing something special for the War of 1812?”

I had been so excited for all the Civil War and Titanic events that the Bicentennial for the War of 1812 had completely slipped my mind! It seems that much of the country has forgotten about it as well, jumping straight from Revolution into Civil War, but what about the 50 years in between? That’s a huge gap of time to be glossing over, especially considering that the War of 1812 was a continuation of the war for an independent American nation.

Three important facts about the War of 1812:

1. Americans were still fighting the British for rights and territory. It was hailed as the “Second war for Independence.”

2. It took place from the very north in Canada all the way south to New Orleans and lasted until 1815. This is the war in which the British burned Washington, destroying the newly built White House and Capitol.

3. Every time you sing the National Anthem of the United States, The Star Spangled Banner, you are singing about the Battle of Fort McHenry which happened in September of 1814.

All of these things transformed the United States from a bunch of rebellious former territories glommed together to a Nation. Why have we forgotten all of this? Maybe it’s because the War of 1812 isn’t as clear-cut as the Revolution or the Civil War. Both the US and Canada claimed victory and Britain was too preoccupied with the looming shadow of Napoleon.

The Canadians, in fact, are quite excited about the whole affair and have been having reenactments and events all year (insert enormous amounts of jealousy here)! During the War of 1812, the US fought against British bullying, but we also invaded Canada in an attempt to take valuable land. Canada fought the land grab attempt and pushed the invading American forces back.
In addition to multiple battle-lines and boundary disputes, the war was plagued also by poor communication, muddling the reputation of soldiers and politicians. The Battle of New Orleans, for example, happened after the US and Britain had made a peace agreement. The War of 1812 was generally a very riotous ride!

Maybe the war wasn’t as crazy and alligator-filled as Jimmy Driftwood and Johnny Horton make it sound, but 1812 and the years that followed are really interesting. Since I am top-heavy, finding a Regency dress that flatters me is somewhat of a challenge. I’ve never really costumed this era except for the occasional “Jane Austen-esque” tea party dress. However, I want something a little more hardy than a ballgown. Here are a few 1810-1815 outfits that I’ve pulled up for possible inspirations:

I love the military inspirations on this pelisse/redingote. It’s perfect for remembering the war. The large fur muff and hat are beyond fabulous, but it’d be a little hot in the fall.

I really love the white gown with the little pink ruffles around the bottom. Towards the end of the Regency era, gowns when from being relatively simple to having more decoration around the hems. These are English dresses, too, so would they be considered traitorous? : )

Something other than white! This is a beautiful silk dress from about 1810 (according to the Met), but it has a lot of characteristics of later 1814-15 fashions. The slate-blue is gorgeous as is the ribboned trim around the sheer puffs. Plus, it’s American made, meaning it actually existed on US soil as the battles raged, which is amazing.

A fashionable seaside walking dress with the most adorable ruffled pantaloons I have ever seen! She looks quite comfy in it as well. Even if I don’t live by the sea, I could certainly wear this to the lakeshore. Also: no defining empire waistband.

An English fashion on the left and a French fashion to the right. It’s nice to see that even though the two countries were fighting, they could still peaceably share fashions. I am nowhere near good enough with a needle and thread to dream of sewing anything this nice just yet, but I love the scalloped hem and slashed puff sleeves. These are later in the era, toward the tail end of the war, but I really adore the colors and fit! Also, look at their tiny shoes peeking out from under their skirts.

It’s a little late for the actual bicentennial event (June 1st); however, there is still plenty of time to pull together an outfit, if not to wear to an event, at least to accompany my father out shooting with one of his treasured flintlock rifles in remembrance of the forgotten War of 1812!

Find of the Month!

June 2012

I visited an amazing antique store north of El Paso, TX. I wanted to buy everything inside, but I’m on a budget, so I restrained myself. However, I could not resist these “instant relatives.” I have a huge soft spot for old Victorian photographs, especially small cards and tintypes. My favorite aspect of old photographs is that they are infinitely magnifiable! Digital pictures eventually get down to a pixelated blur, but the zoom-in factor of traditional film prints is limited only by the texture of the paper. I like to use a jewelry loupe to get a closer look.

I chose four photographs out of the hundreds that were in the mangled box: three cartes de visite and one tintype. Judging by the clothing styles, the time period of my assortment ranges from 1855 to 1890. I tried to get some photos through the loupe for you, so you can see a few of the more interesting details, the results are kind of mixed because my camera skills are a tad out of practice, but in reality, looking at photographs through a loupe opens up a whole new world of details!

Photograph #1: Sad Tintype Child, a.k.a. “Little Poppet”
Dates to about 1855-1865, sized about 1/4 of a plate (3.5″ x 4.125″)

Photographs of children are some of my favorites! This one is so bittersweet. If you can take your eyes off of that chubby-cheeked little face for a moment, you’ll notice mum’s or dad’s hand peeking in on the left. Another thing I found interesting is how worn the prop chair on the right is. It looks like it has already been through 100 years of wear; the velvet is quite torn. I tried to get a good picture of the lace on the hem of the child’s dress, but tintypes are wicked reflective and I could not get the shot. Under 10x magnification, though, you can see that the wide lace is meshed and the trim lace is crocheted.

Photograph #2: London Beauty, a.k.a. “Clara or Chloe”
Dates to about 1860-1865, carte de visite

She looks so saucy! I know a lot of old photos have scowling folk in them because wait times were atrocious, but this young lady is arching that eyebrow like she means business! The silhouette and styling of her dress dates this photo to about 1864.  Her simple gown is accented by thin horizontal stripes woven into the fabric and a dark bolero jacket pinned shut with a lover’s knot brooch much like this one:

 One of the reasons why I picked this photograph is that she’s wearing jewelry. Often, I find Victorian or vintage jewelry and say “Oh! How beautiful,” but I am at a loss to how to wear it fashionably. Old photographs are perfect for providing answers!

Photograph #3: Another English Beauty, a.k.a. “Sarah”
Dates to about 1865-1870, carte de visite

I love finding cards with a photographer’s information on the back. Sometimes I get the itch to send off for more prints, just because they say “Copies can always be had!” But I refrain….

This carte de visite dates from just after Clara/Chloe’s photo. You’ll notice how Sarah’s gown is beginning to sweep back and a little bustle is beginning to peak that back of the skirt. I’ve always had difficulty with this transitional period for some odd reason because it always seems that costumers skip this stage and go straight to shelf-bustles. This more swooping, softer style of dress was only popular between 1866 and 1868. The beauty of this photograph (besides pretty Sarah herself) is the puckered seams on her skirts. You can almost hear the fabric rustling!

This was taken through my loupe, creating that vignette-look around the edges. This lovely young lady did her hair very nicely for her photo. You can see that she not only curled and shaped it, but also added in a string of big beads and a tiny, flat bow!

Photograph #4: The Fashionista, a.k.a. “Miss Jewel-ia”
Dates to about 1878-1882, carte de visite

This is Julia, or rather “Jewel-ia” as my sister and I have decided to call her. Look at all her pretties! These days we still follow the tradition of dressing up in our best for a professional portrait, a tradition as old as portraits themselves. Julia did the same thing, raiding her jewelry box for her favorite bobbles and gems! Besides her huge pearly necklace, small earrings, multiple finger rings, and a punched-design scatter pin, she’s wearing the holy grail of my historical jewelry research: matching bracelets.

I have seen them in boxes, in paintings and fashion drawings, not to mention written about in papers, but I have never found a photograph that so clearly shows a matching pair of bracelets being worn! Golly, I was so excited when I first found her! I think I frightened a few nearby shoppers with my squeal of triumph…

I’m going to make Find of the Month a regular thing from now on, but I haven’t decided if I want to put it here on the blog or on the Facebook page. I don’t know which way is more suitable. What do you think?

But Where Should I Put It? Part II

18th Century Purses

Let’s face it: girls carry around a ton of stuff. We have combs, keys, credit cards, cell phones, lipstick, band-aids, tissues, pens, and much more crammed into our purses at any given moment. Modern purses come in plenty of shapes, sizes, and materials to hold all our stuff, but what if you’re a modern girl with modern stuff costuming for a historical world? Where can I hide all my now-a-days necessities? The answer is, of course, historical purses! Since I already covered some of the chic purse possibilities for the 15th to 17th centuries, it’s time to cover the fun and filly period between 1700 and 1800!

The first option is pockets. Huzzah for pockets! In the 18th century, they became all the rage. The wide, structured skirts of the period allowed plenty of room for a lady to stash her detash! Pockets are especially handy because they are both hidden and held in place under the skirt, so you don’t have to worry about setting them down and forgetting about them (but do make sure you tie them securely)!

You would never guess how many candied figs you could pocket under this pretty green petticoat without anyone being the wiser! Pockets, whether singles or in pairs, weren’t sewn into clothes like modern ones. 18th century pockets were separate pieces that were worn around a lady’s waist and were accessed through slits in the skirt. Along with an apron and cap, a pocket was an essential piece of every 18th century housewife’s wardrobe. Pockets were almost always decorated, sometimes with just a touch of embroidery or ribbon near the opening, but often full-on blazing with silks or crazy-quilting. They were akin to samplers and were popular items for young ladies to make, showing off their skill with a needle and that they were mature enough to start keeping track of their own possessions.

Pockets not your style? Sometimes they just won’t do and you need something fancier. Most purses during the 18th century were frameless and soft, making them fun to make and decorate. Since they didn’t close with a clasped frame, purses and bags in the 1700s employed a variety of tying and wrapping methods to keep all your widgets from falling out willy-nilly– chasing after chapstick and loose change in a petticoat on a windy day is no picnic!

The first type of purse is a carry-over from the 17th century: the drawstring purse. Bowl-like gaming purses remained popular into the early 1790s, both for men and women (the first purse in this post is a beautiful gaming purse from about 1690-1710). Other drawstring pouches were used as formal wear for parties and court functions. These beaded bags were worn on the wrist or at the waist, so they were very visible and had to look amazing!

If they weren’t filled with a lady’s essentials– scissors, needles, thread, maybe a little packet of rouge if she was a bit of a flirt– these little bags were used as “swete bags,” filled with sweetly perfumed herbs or handkerchiefs to blot out any unsavory smells. Absolutely gorgeous beading became one of the most popular decoration techniques for these small bags. Here’s one covered with courtly motifs like a crown and a pair of cupid-shot hearts:

The small drawstring pouch below was made at the very, very end of the 18th century and was made to match one of those new-fangled ball gowns with the high waists, the beginning of the Regency style. It’s decorated with cut steel beads and gilded filigree spheres.

The next type of purse is the wrap purse, fashionable during the mid-to-late 18th century. Wrap purses function exactly like they sound: you use a long piece of ribbon to wrap your purse shut. These purses are rectangular with a flap that folds over the top.

Pocketbook purses (also called envelope cases) were made in a similar fashion, but didn’t have a wide swathe of ribbon to wind them shut. Some of these purses have button closures, but most merely folded closed.

While wrap purses were considered more feminine and pocketbooks more masculine, both were fairly unisex, depending on the decoration. Wrap and pocketbook purses are very simple to sew and there are so many ways to decorate them!

Floral Embroidery:

Florals are THE motif of the 18th century! Mums, roses, and fruits were the favorites. You can’t go wrong with an 18th century floral.


This is a very classy purse from an unusual place. This purse isn’t Italian or French or English, but Mexican/Spanish. The 18th century was the colonial period in Mexico as well as the US. Wealthy Spanish hacienda owners made sure to keep up with Spain’s latest trends, but since they were more isolated than their European sisters, ladies in New Spain put their own twist on European fashions at the time. Spanish colonial is very, well, Spanish: robust, ornate, and often geometric thanks to Moorish influence. All of these mixed cultures make for a very unique wrap purse!

Figural Embroidery:

Figures are tough to embroider, let me tell you! No matter how well you draw or sew, they offer a special challenge. This pretty pastel purse is fantastic! Whoever embroidered it took plenty of time to get it “just right.” Doesn’t it have the perfect amount of charm? Love it!

Ikat-like Flame Stitch Embroidery:

Ikat fabric is made using an ancient  resist-dyeing technique on the threads before the fabric is woven. Since the fabric is pre-colored, when it is woven, the pattern is much softer around the edges than a fabric that is printed after it is woven. The watercolor effect of ikat fabric contrasts with it’s other famous quality: bold color and abstract patterns. Ikat fabric became very popular during the 18th century because the exotic patterns really wowed whenever they were draped over the wide panniers and long coats that were all the rage at court. The ikat patterns and colors of the 18th century are much more subdued and natural than modern prints, but look entirely different from the rococo pinks, blues, and yellows associated with the court in the 1700s. If you think this gown is wild:

Can you imagine if it was made of this:

You would stand out, that’s for certain! Since an entire gown made of the expensive, Indian fabric wasn’t an option for most women, bold flame stitch patterns that mimicked the look began popping up in embroidery manuals and accessories everywhere. I find flame stitch embroidery purses almost as often as floral patterns! You can even make Mrs. Manners proud and match your wild purse to your shoes:

Love these shoes!

The final type of purse during the 1700s is the case/chatelaine. Cases are less like purses and more like tailored boxes or jewelry. Most cases were made for wealthy nobles from precious materials. They are specially tailored to hold specific items, usually household tools, tobacco, etc.

This unbelievably fine agate, gold, and diamond case was, reportedly, “a gift from Queen Anne (1702-1714) to Abigail Masham…who was appointed as a personal maid to the queen about 1700” (The V&A Museum). Inside the hardstone shell is the fanciest set of lady’s tools I have seen! The case contains scissors, bodkin needle, fruit knife, and a combined pen and pencil, all made to match (except the scissors which may be a 1750s replacement):

So jealous! No doubt the pencil alone is worth more than a few months of my salary and I’m a writer…oh the irony! Cases are the sisters to chatelaines: pins or clips with watches, pencils, sachets and the like tethered to the top by loops or chains.

Often lavishly bejeweled because they were worn even in court, chatelaines were a purse without a purse. Anything you could possibly need was dangling near your hip within easy reach…no need to fiddle around in the deep, yawning chasm of a tote bag looking for your keys!

Lovely as they are, chatelaines alone aren’t very practical for most costumers since you can’t easily hang your iPhone out in the open and still look like an 1760s gentlewoman, though with some ingenuity you might be able to make a semi-period-looking case for it and all your other small things.

Oh! And one tiny last note about stashing stuff: if you carry a fan, don’t ever tuck in into your purse, bodice, or skirts– worst of all setting it on the shelf of your panniers (although it was quite acceptable to rest your arms on them)! It was considered exceptionally uncouth to carry your fan anywhere but in your hand or dangling from your wrist.

Click here to visit: Where Should I Put It? Part I

For those of us who costume between 1400 and 1700!

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!


The Black Market Trade in…Waistcoats?!

You are looking at one of the greatest threats to British sovereignty in the 18th Century: a French silk waistcoat. Indeed, this nefarious forefather of the vest was charged with threatening the great British silk industry and was heavy taxed, often beyond the waistcoat’s actual worth, in an attempt smother the French monopoly on fashionable, embroidered accessories. Much like America’s ill-advised attempt to ban alcohol during Prohibition, Britain attempted to stamp out French imports by taxing them at customs, but like flappers and bathtub gin, when Brits couldn’t get their French embroidery fix legally, they turned to smuggling.

“Customs Officer, sir, I swear I did not know I had six French waist shapes hidden in my trunk!”

The unfinished waistcoat above is called a waistcoat shape or a waist shape. They are the shape of the waistcoat beautifully embroidered on a full panel of silk, often with matching accessories like pocket flaps and button covers that could be pieced together by your local tailor. Since they were on a whole fabric sheet, the waistcoat could be tailored to fit, adding an inch here or removing one there without having to alter the embroidery. It’s much easier to embroider on flat, square fabric than an already cut piece of cloth anyway!  It was common for thrifty embroiderers to place the lower left pocket detached from the rest of the design in order to make the most of a single piece of cloth.

I always puzzled over why some waist shapes had the decorative pocket flap embroidered in place since it would have to be cut out, leaving a large hole to patch. If you check out the back side of this waistcoat, you’ll see that the decorative flap is actually a separate piece that has been basted into place– less cutting for the tailor later! You’ll notice the example above has the whole package: a smattering of little round buttons,decorative pocket flaps, and matching collar (click the here to see every angle). Such fully matched sets where everything is carefully engineered to match are called a “habit à la disposition.” When complete, the waist shape above would have made a waistcoat similar to this one:

Deluxe! Notice the pocket flap, collar, and buttons– all of which would have been sewn on the waist shape before being tailored.

These waist shapes don’t look very scary, do they? They don’t look like assassins or narcotics or anything else that might threaten an empire as powerful as Britain, so why would the British government heavily regulate something simple like an embroidered sheet of silk? The answer is two fold: money and pride.

This lovely floral waist shape was carefully embroidered by a skilled French craftsman or craftswoman. The roses are so detailed! Each petal is shaded with a richer shade of pink and the bright green leaves contrast perfectly. It’s hard to think that this is actually an antique piece of contraband. This waist shape bears the stamp of British Customs, not as an approved, taxed item, but as illegal, smuggled goods!

The stamp seen on the inside of the lower right edge reads ‘Custom House / SEIZED DOVER / GR II’, indicating that this is contraband – a French waistcoat shape apprehended during an attempt to smuggle it into England during the reign of George II (V&A).

French embroidered waistcoats were very popular in England and the Exchequer Records in the Public Records Office refer to many instances of French waistcoat panels being smuggled across the Channel to avoid paying duty (V&A). Someone risked severe penalties for this rose-covered waistcoat: fines, jail time, even physical punishment. What is most amazing is that this waist shape–once evidence in a black market case–was not destroyed. Just like confiscated drugs or counterfeit money today, collected smuggled items were routinely burned.

“I will burn all your bloody French waist shapes, you barbarous traitor.

Silk was big business. In fact, much of the French economy depended on its silk production prowess, especially the Lyons Fabric company. The trade was carefully monitored, certain maritime routes were dedicated entirely to the movement of silk products, and trade secrets were protected under pain of death by not only manufacturers, but the state. By the time the 17th century rolled over into the 18th, France was at the top of the fashion pantheon. Silk was the fabric to wear in court and everything–gloves, hats, ribbons, skirts, fans, stomachers– was made with it, including giant mantuas like this:

The English had set up their own silk industry and were trying to catch up with French production. After all, seeing English aristocracy clothed entirely in the fabric made by one of your biggest military rivals is pretty aggravating, if not downright unpatriotic. So what could England do about it? Banning French fashion was out of the question (after all, almost all of the gentry was obsessed with French fashion), but taxing it seemed like the perfect solution. Make the import more expensive than the domestic product and Sha-zam! The British silk industry suddenly has control of the British fashion market! At least that was the idea…

“We shall employ waistcoat-sniffing dogs who can detect an untaxed French waistcoat at a quarter league!”

Waist shapes were quite easy to smuggle, much more so than a giant swathe of yardage for a mantua or a bulky ivory-handled fan. Since they were flat and relatively modest in size, you could easily tuck one away under the papered top of your trunk or roll it up inside a shirt, or even sew it into the lining of your coat or dress. It’s amazing how far people would go just to enjoy their favorite forbidden fashion!