Keeping Track of Time: Georgian Watch Chains, Equipages, Fobs, and Chatelaines

Timeless Tethers

“Portrait of King George III” by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1781
I love this portrait of King George. He has such a poor reputation, but if you had undiagnosed porphyria in an era when bleeding was supposed to cure all ills, you’d have a pretty rough time, too. Anyway, I love this portrait of him. In fact, it’s one of my favorite 18th century male portraits because he’s so simply dressed, but he’s wearing every piece of a true gentleman’s wardrobe, including the elusive fashion garter, pinky ring, and watch chain!

Though the watch emerged as the premier toy of the nobility in the 16th and 17th century, in the 18th century, watches became an indispensable accessory. Not only were they tiny marvels and works of art, they also denoted fashionable scientific enlightenment– the transition from the ancient sundial to the mathematical precision of a rapidly industrializing society. Early watches were heavily ornate and often only had an hour hand. Thanks in large part to advances in enameling techniques, by the 18th century, decoration became more refined: smooth enamel scenes and repoussé cases contrasted beautifully with clean, white watch faces. Minute and second hands were introduced and complex calendar watches with multiple faces became popular.

Double-faced Calendar Watch with Enamel Painting, circa 1770-80
Early watches often only had an hour hand. By the 18th century, minute hands had become standard and second hands began to show up on fancier models.

Watch with Pearls (front and back), circa 1790-1800

18th century gentlemen wore watch chains attached their timepieces because they helped make it easy to check the time without having to root inelegantly in a tiny pocket. Watch chains were long enough to show from under the waistcoat:

Watch Chain, circa 1800

Portrait of John Adams” by William Winstanley, circa 1798

Today, we call these kinds of chains fobs. However, the word “fob” originally referred not to the chain itself, but to the small pocket in which valuables, like a watch, were kept. Breeches in the 18th and early 19th century had wide waistbands with small pockets fitted into them, a tradition continued by many modern pairs of jeans:

The etymology for the word:  fob (n.) 1653, “small pocket for valuables,” probably related to Low Ger. fobke “pocket,” High Ger. fuppe “pocket.”

Suit, circa 1765-75
If you look closely at the waistband of the breeches, you will see the welt of the fob/pocket opening (you may have to expand the picture). This suit is missing its waistcoat, which would cover the waistband and conceal the pocket. It’s easy to slip a watch into a tiny pocket, but getting it out can be much harder! A watch could be tucked into this pocket and the attached chain would hang out of the pocket making it easy to remove.

Trousers with fob (pocket), circa 1810-20
The waistcoats of the 19th century were much shorter, so accessing the fob pocket was much less difficult. The watch chains of the era were much shorter, though the Merveilleuses kept the tradition of displaying lots of small watch charms popular. By the Victorian era, watch chains had become much simpler and remained so throughout the era.

Modern pair of jeans with a small fob pocket inside the larger front pocket.

So in the 18th century, the fob was the pocket and the watch chain was what you attached your watch to. However, many museums, especially American museums, label them (and even some equipages/chatelaines) as fobs. The confusion may stem from the fact that many earlier 18th century men’s watch chains are not chains at all, but watch strings made of ribbons, tassels and other passementerie:

Fob Design, circa 1780
Watch strings were more common than chains because they were less expensive and hardier.

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Silk Watch Chain with Seal, circa 1770-90

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Woven Hair Watch Chain with Watch Key, circa 1780-1800

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Braided Silk Watch Chain with Watch Key, circa 1770-1790
The image is terrible quality, but I love the fly fringe. Fly fringe for all!

Watch chains held more than just the watch. Dangling from the ends, you’ll notice small trinkets. This little “charms” were actually necessary to conducting 18th century business and no gentleman of means would be caught without them. The two most common men’s accessories were the watch key and seal.

Watch Chain with Seal and Key, circa 1800

Citrine Seal, circa 1815
The seal was used for sealing letters. In an age where paper correspondence was the only means of long-distance communication, letters were part of everyday life. Our current mail system is very sterilized compared to mail systems of the past. Letters were not handled by machines, but by people, some of whom might take an interest in what your private letter contained. A wax seal provided both proof of the sender (to avoid forgeries), but also added a tamper-evident seal. It wasn’t a perfect system, but adding seals to documents was an important part of law and etiquette.

Watch and Key, circa 1770
Watches often became separated from their keys over the years. Fortunately, unlike house keys, watch keys were fairly standardized, so you could buy another from a watch maker.

Thomas Jefferson’s Watch Key honoring his late wife, Martha
Since pocket watches run on springs, it was important to keep your watch carefully wound in order for it to continue keeping time. Stem-wind pocket watches (the ones still in use today) were not invented until the 1840s. Instead, watches were wound with small watch keys. You’ll notice many pre-1850 watches have small holes in the face with a pin inside. This is where the watch key would be inserted to wind the watch. Pocket watches must be wound daily to keep functioning properly, so it makes sense to keep your key close at hand on your watch chain, just in case you notice your watch running down!

Aside from his watch and these small business implements, perhaps a few tassels for good fun, a man’s watch chain might include small trinkets, like a portrait miniature or a charm for military service. Women, however, often carried much more than these basic accessories on shorter, heavily decorated pieces of jewelry called an equipage (later called a chatelaine). Women did not wear breeches with fob pockets, so while men hid their watches in a fob pocket and let the watch chain hang from it, women wore their watches at the hanging end of their equipages in full view:

Ulrike Sophie, Duchess of Mecklenburg,” circa 1765
There are multiple versions of this portrait and this dress (it must have been a favorite of hers). If you look under her elbow, you can see she is wearing a lovely watch and equipage.

Chatelaine with Watch, circa 1760
The word “chatelaine” is, like “fob,” a 19th century term. Most museums will list equipages as chatelaines in their collections.

Back of the chatelaine showing the hook

Equipages pinned or clipped to the waistband of a woman’s petticoat since she didn’t have a fob pocket. Others were designed to be worn hooked over a sash, like those worn over zone-front gowns. The weren’t just for watches, but could also include a multitude of accessories, grooming tools, sewing implements, or small vials of perfume  and did not necessarily have to include a watch–some were more like suspended sewing kits–but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus only on chatelaines with watches:

Chatelaine with Watch, Key, and Antique Pendant, circa 1750
Equipages and watches in the first half of the 18th century were incredibly ornate like their 17th century ancestors. This particular equipage includes a unique accessory: a Renaissance pendant from the 1580s that was already over 150 years old when this equipage was constructed!

Chatelaine with étuis (small containers), circa 1755
The small rectangle container from the left dates to about 1730 and was used for snuff which both ladies and gentlemen indulged in.

Chatelaine with watch and charms, circa 1760-70
High-fashion equipages like this functioned as a charm bracelet of sorts for ladies of the court. They were almost completely decorative in nature and might not even have a working watch.

Chatelaine, circa 1775
This equipage has the classic watch-key-seal combination dressed up with gold and a plethora of gemstones!

Wedgewood Chatelaine, circa 1790
Suspended from chains attached to the hook are three trinkets: an undecorated carnelian fob; a v-shaped container, possibly for snuff; and a swivel mirror in a case with an engraved hammer and anvil, symbols of force and labor. The missing pendant was in all likelihood the watch key.
The museum lists this as a gentleman’s chatelaine, but it was probably for a lady since the watch is suspended at the end of the chain.

During the 1780s, it became fashionable for women to wear long watch chains similar to men’s chains. Pairs of watch chains like these were worn with the wildly popular zone front gown or riding habits inspired by the swooped-back cut of a man’s coat and waistcoat. Even though they look very similar to men’s watch chains at the time, they probably clipped or pinned to the petticoat like chatelaines. An article from the Museum of London speculates that ladies may have tucked the watch into their waistband, unless women began including fob pockets in their waistbands or bodices (I haven’t found any evidence of such practice, but if anyone else has, please link to it in the comments below). In all likelihood, the chains were meant to be a display of cutting-edge fashion prowess and wealth rather than functional watch chains:

“Queen Marie Antoinette of France and two of her Children Walking in The Park of Trianon” by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, circa 1785

Detail of Marie’s watch chains. Notice how hers are full of charms, but not necessarily functional watch accessories. The ever-fabulous Aristocat made her own versions, this time including a watch, which you can see here.

Fashion Plate, circa 1787
Wealthy women of the 1780s were said to indulge in wearing two watches at once, a trend borrowed from (and subsequently abandoned by) gentlemen’s fashion. Many fashion plates of this trend show two chains of the same length, but with different configurations. Others, like this one, are perfectly matched and are only loosely “fob-like.”

Detail of Fashion Plate, March 1787
This look is directly inspired by menswear of the period. This is the only illustration I could find that shows this particular style being worn with an obvious watch– in this case, three of them! Some of them are likely fake. Just as precious jewels were imitated, so were expensive watches! As the original article suggests, this may have been a slightly satirical drawing of a female Macaroni, who were, much like the Incroyables and Merveilleuses of the 1800-10s, considered gaudy, outlandish dressers.

By the time the 1790s rolled around, the style of dress had completely changed. The heavily ornate gold equipages were replaced with longer watch chains for both sexes, though ladies’ watches generally remained daintier.

“The Five Positions of Dancing” Illustration, circa 1811
A charming print not just as a dancing reference, but also for all the wonderful watch chains!

Portrait of Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis

Detail of the “Portrait of Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis” by Merry-Joseph Blondel
His dress places this portrait close to his death in 1808. The thick, high cravat style (one of the signature marks of a dandy) was in vogue from about 1800-20, and large, showy watch accessories were favorite pieces of jewelry.

Merry-Joseph Blondel
Merry-Joseph Blondel

Men’s watch chains/fobs remained in fashion well into the 20th century, and ladies’ chatelaines remained popular through the 19th century until they were replaced with the lady’s handbag by the 1920s. However, wearing watches on a chain never left. Watch necklaces can still be found and were very popular during the mid-20th century, and continue to be worn today. Instead of watches, the smart phone has become the must-have accessory of the 2010s. Much like an equipage or watch string of old, they hold all of our tools in one place for us, complete with fancy cases, accessories, and charms.

For More Information on Georgian Watches, Accessories, and Fobs

On Wearing Two Watches by the Museum of London – Explores the late 18th century trend for wearing two watches at once by both men and women.

Equipages, Chatelaines, and Macaronis by the Museum of London – Explores ways ladies in the 1780s might have worn the double watch chains.

A Watch Fob for My Regency Gentleman by Romantic History – How to make a regency-style watch fob/chain.

My Mr. Knightly: Making Breeches by Tea in a Teacup – How to make historically appropriate breeches with Simplicity 4923 (including fob pocket) and a wonderful set of research links are included.

Cogs and Pieces: Antique Pocket Watches – An online collection of antique time pieces from the 18th century onward and all for sale.

How the Watch was Worn by Genevieve Cummins – A rather spendy book, but a thorough one! I don’t have the privilege of owning a copy, but it is considered the premiere guide to historical watch wearing.

The Mysterious “19th Century” Velvet Sacque-Back Dress

NERD RAGE and a Happy New Year to You!

I hope everyone had a merry Christmas! Today’s New Year’s Eve, so I thought I’d share a pretty party dress with you–or at least a very unusual one!

I knew that they existed, but I never thought I’d find a extant silk velvet robe á la française– listed in the 19th century portion of the Met Museum’s archives of all places!

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It actually dates to the early part of the 18th century (the Met says second half, but it just doesn’t look post-1750 to me).

Velvet Robe á la Française, 18th century (listed as late, probably early)

Back view of the Velvet Sacque Back with Glimpses of the Silver Cuff Trim and Lace

It’s worn through, but it must have really been grand back when it was new! I really wish there were close-ups of the silver trim on the cuffs and that the gown was displayed in the appropriate shape, but it may be to fragile to handle much. It almost looks like a man’s banyan as it hangs, but the sacque back and round hem (instead of having excess fabric on the sides to accommodate panniers) suggest that it’s an earlier dress. In fact, I don’t think it is a Francaise at all, at least when it was first sewn. The lines look much more like a Robe Battante, a style of loose dress popular during the 1730s. There are even paintings showing battantes made of velvet, like this one:

”Reading from Molière” by Jean François de Troy, circa 1728
For more info on battante and volante gowns, this post by Curse Words and Crinolines is a good one.

I have so many questions about this dress, but the online collections entry is severely lacking. That’s one of my main struggles with the Metropolitan Museum of Art: they have such interesting objects, but rarely write more than a cut and paste blurb about them, if at all!

PB Table Flip Gif

WHY IS THERE NOT MORE INFORMATION?!

Anyway, I hope you guys all have a fabulous New Year! I’ve pledged to do more much more sewing. I’ve got a whole box full of brand new patterns and lots of Walmart value fabric that needs to be put to good use! I’m going to keep up my mission to continue making historical costuming more accessible for the average folks like me: more research, more tricks, more tutorials.

See you in 2014!

–> UPDATE! <—

This post inspired a new Pinterest board: Mishaps at the Museum!
Check it out and let me know on Facebook if you find any cringe-worthy museum records to add to it!

Hat Trick: Turn a Placemat into an 18th Century Hat in Three Steps

Alternate Title:
Le Chapeau Rusé – Using Bad French to Disguise Excellent Hat Trickery

To complement my Robe pas Cher and to ensure that I was suitably dressed for an outdoor excursion, I needed a hat to wear for Georgian Picnic. In addition, I had sorely neglected the past, oh, ten or so Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges and I wanted a good stepping stone project to get back on track.

Enter Le Chapeau Rusé!

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I had plunged myself so deeply into making a suitable costume for Christopher that by the time I got around to my own costume, I was a little burnt out and very very far behind schedule. I managed to eek out a wearable muslin from my test pattern, but I always feel under-dressed without accessories, so I decided I needed a hat. I didn’t have time to order one and I had foolishly missed out on all the post-Halloween sale merchandise. However, there was no need to worry because I had long ago discovered this post about placemat hats by the Thread-Headed Snippet:

threadheaded

With a title like that, how could I resist?

Inspired by Miss Snippet’s thrifty, simple solution to my problem, I set out to make my own version.

What follows is the three basic steps to making a super-cheap 18th century “Chapeau Rusé” out of an old placemat.

1. Pick a Proper Placemat

15 inches is a good, easy-to-find placemat size, but if you can find larger rounds, they’ll work as well. Hats were rather sizable during the 18th century, so don’t be shy!

If you can find genuine straw placemats, more power to you! Mine was a completely fake polypropylene straw placemat I found for $1 at Garden Ridge (the picture is the same brand on Amazon). Fake straw placemats have the advantage of being very springy and forgiving, but they are not historically accurate in the least. Real grass or straw mats are more period appropriate, but straw can be brittle and crack, so how you plan to wear the placemat/hat dictates which material is more suitable. While a natural, tawny straw color is a safe choice for both materials, almost any color of placemat will work as long as it matches your outfit (though I’d avoid brighter colors if you want an authentic look). Also, if it has bands of decorative braiding or a little extra color woven in, that’s perfectly fine for an 18th century hat.

2. Settle on a Shape

18th century hats for ladies come in many shapes and sizes, but the quintessential mid-century hat is the bergère, a wide brimmed hat with a low crown:

“Portrait of Eleanor Frances Dixie” by Henry Pickering, circa 1753

This is the type of hat the Thread Headed Snippet made her placemat into; it is also the shape I chose for Becky’s hat. Originally, I was planning on making another bergère hat for myself, but I was horrendously jealous of Christopher’s tricorne, so I decided to make a folded straw hat which, while more uncommon, was not unheard of:

“Portrait of a Lady in a Straw Hat” by by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, mid-18th century

Another option is a giant D-shaped hat, like these:

“Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster” by Angelika Kauffmann, circa 1785

D shaped Hat

D-Shaped Dutch Straw Hat, 18th century

If you can find a big enough straw mat or if you want to make a smaller version, just carefully cut off one edge of your placemat and finish it with glue, or when you decorate your hat, place the “crown” closer to one edge.

If you were lucky enough to find a real straw mat, you can even reshape it to have a crown. My fake straw placemat, however, wasn’t malleable in the manner traditional straw is, but it folded beautifully. To figure out the shape I wanted, I held the folds in place with pins so I could adjust the placement and size as needed before I tacked everything into place with sturdy stitches. You will find that pliers are exceptionally helpful to get a needle through all that plastic!

Once you settled on a shape, add ties so your hat won’t fall off. Most 18th century straw hats had ribbon ties that were secured to the underside of hat near the place where the brim and the crown connect:

Hat Ribbons

Bergère Hat, 18th century

I used 48 inches of 7/8″ grosgrain ribbon for mine, but most ribbon between 1/2″ and 3″ wide will work:

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 For flat hats, the farther from the center of the hat you sew your ribbon, the more bowed downward and bonnet-shaped your hat will become. If you want the hat to lie fairly flat on your head, I recommend tacking the ribbon down 3-4 inches from the center on each side. Use pins to hold the ribbon in place before you sew it on so you can fiddle with how the hat will sit on your head.

3. Decorate!

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Real straw placemats pretty much become suitable hats the instant you apply the ribbon in Step 2, but without decorations, a synthetic straw placemat hat will look like you’re wearing..well..a placemat, so don’t be too miserly when it comes to trimming.  There are infinite ways to decorate your hat. Popular trims include:

Poufs of fabric or ribbon
Bows
Flowers and wheat
Feathers and plumes
Embroidery/appliques
Fabric and Coverings

I chose to use fabric scraps left over from my dress to create ruffled white trim and two types of bows from pinked purple fabric (I love saying “pinked purple” out loud, no matter how many weird looks it earns me!).

I used a large bow called a Double Ruffle to trim the back:

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I found the free tutorial on the wonderful Ribbon Retreat website which has plenty of other tutorials for different styles of bows. I was also inspired by the Flower Loop bow because it reminded me of 18th century cockades, so I made two for each side of my hat and put a silvery button in the center of each for a little textural contrast (all the fabric and ruffles gets a little too fluffy for me sometimes and I need to balance it out with a harder edge).

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To turn a placemat into a bergère, add a small circle of puffed ribbon to create the illusion of a minute crown. Otherwise, trim, trim, trim until you can’t see the straw anymore or leave it fairly plain with only a bit of ribbon or a light net veil— it’s up to you!

More 18th Century Lady’s Hat Resources

18th Century Women’s Hats” research collection at Larsdatter – Great for inspiring your creativity. This site is downright amazing!
How to make an 18th century hat. A tutorial in pictures.” by Dressed in Time – Sew your own hat from scratch.
An 18th Century Hat” by The Fashionable Past – How to cover a straw hat with pleated silk.
Tutorial: How to turn a straw sunhat into an 18th century bergére” by The Dreamstress – Exactly what the title says!
The Amazing Crafthat Pt. Deux : Finishing!” by American Duchess – How add a stylish, floppy fabric crown to a straw hat.

..and this.

HSF Stats

“Le Chapeau Rusé” – 18th Century Folded Straw Hat

The Challenge: #23 Gratitude
Fabric: White cotton and purple polysatin scraps
Pattern: None
Year: 1760-1780
Notions: Poly cotton thread, buttons, grosgrain ribbon, and I guess the placemat would count as a notion???
How historically accurate is it? 40% It is entirely handsewn and trimmed with appropriate trimmings inspired by extant examples, but it’s made from a faux straw (read: plastic) placemat.

I am grateful to: The Thread Headed Snippet for sharing her placemat hat (http://threadheaded.blogspot.com/2012/08/so-you-want-hat-but-you-have-will-power.html) and Ribbon Retreat for their free bow tutorials (http://www.theribbonretreat.com/Catalog/free-hairbow-instructions.aspx)

Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: In my bathroom for fitting, but officially at Georgian Picnic in the park
Total cost: $1 for the placemat, 50 cents for the buttons, $2.50 for the ribbon

I must disclaim that my French is limited to what I remember from an old library book I read in 6th grade and what Google translate can help me piece together. Many 18th century fashions came from France and thus had French names, so in that tradition, I decided to play around a bit with giving my cheeky 18th century creations equally cheeky French names (unless you are fluent in French; then you are council to all my poorly-translated secrets)!

How to Make Cheap and Easy Rococo Ruffled Self-Fabric Trim

No fancy equipment needed!

Ruffled fabric or ribbon trim is a hallmark of 18th century fashion. It was often made of the same fabric as the rest of the dress or in a contrasting color. The ruffles could be wide or thin, and were really popular from about 1770-1790.

Robe à la Polonaise with Self-Fabric Trim, circa 1775-80

What I love about self-trim is that it is perfect for using up scraps, and it’s really REALLY easy to do.

I had the toughest time finding a simple tutorial online to make a very basic ruffle trim. There are plenty of fancy folds and pleats you can do to dress up your trim, but I wanted something casual and quick. I found a tutorial by Gail on “Art, Beauty, and Well-Ordered Chaos” which was exceptionally simple and required no sewing machines, so I ran with it!

This is a modern pinking punch for leather. 18th century fabric pinking punches were similar. The Bluestocking costumer used one on her 18th century gown.

First, I cut strips of fabric using my pinking shears. Pinking in the 18th century was done with fancy punches that were hammered along the edge of the fabric, but modern pinking shears work just fine. Pinking makes a zig-zag edge that helps stop fraying, so you don’t have to finish the edges of your strips by sewing. As you work with it, the edges may fuzz a bit and get softer. Ribbons are also good for ruching because the edges are already finished. Polyester ribbon will give you lots of loft and natural ribbons will perform more like the 18th century originals.

The amount of fabric you’ll need will depend on the amount of trim you want to do and how deeply ruffled you make your trim. I ended up cutting strips 3-5 times longer than I wanted the finished trim to be.

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I had two projects requiring ruffled trim, so I will be switching between picture of the white and purple fabrics. However, the method stays the same. The white fabric I cut about 2 inches wide while the purple dress trim I cut 1 inch wide.

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The next step is to use a loose running stitch to pleat the trim. I recommend making the gathering stitches about 1/8 – 1/2 inch long depending on how tightly pleated you want your ruffle. Experiment until you find a ruffle you like! To better mimic box pleats, a looser gather is more appropriate. Do a row of five to seven stitches then gather and backstitch once to help hold your gathers in place. That little backstitch is the key to easy-peasy ruffled trim! If you just blast through in one straight running stitch without making the little backstitch every so often, it’s difficult to control the gathers. Thinner fabrics will gather much more tightly than thicker ones.
Repeat the process for the length of the trim.

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If you like super-fluffy ruffles, you can just apply your trim right after you finish ruching it. However, most extant garments have pleated trim that isn’t so fluffy. Setting the folds by ironing your ruffle really makes your trim look much more polished and period!

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Ironed trim on the left, un-ironed trim on the right.
Notice how the un-ironed trim is curled and doesn’t lay flat. Ironing the trim makes it lie much more elegantly.

The last step is to sew the trim onto whatever dress or hat needs it. As you sew down the center over your gathering stitches, the trim will fluff up a little and hide your stitches, especially if you hand-tack it down in the folds.

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Added bonus, it hides any little gaps around my hooks and eyes!

Here’s a neat trick! Ruffle a piece of pinked fabric about 24 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. You’ll end up with a ruched section about 6 inches long. Sew the two loose ends together into a wreath.

Voilà! You’ve just made a carnation!

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The top flower has been left “au natural” while the flower on the bottom has been ironed. These make great accents for hats or shoes.

Here’s the handy “cheat sheet” I made myself:

instructions

I mislabeled the stitch length. It should say 1/8″ to 1/2″.

The backstitch step was the piece of the puzzle I had been missing in all my other attempts. I found that if I do a small, sloppy little backstitch, it will hold the gathers but it won’t completely stop movement. With a little tugging, I can readjust my gathers as I go along if I need to.

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This is my “Faux Chapeau” decorated with some very tightly gathered trim.

Commercial Colonial Undergarments: Supporting a Slightly-More-Historical Simplicity 3723 – Part 3

18th Century Sewing Adventure #2 – Part 3

Undergarments and Accessories

In my latest project, I attempted to turn the less-than-flattering Simplicity 3723 pattern into something more obviously 18th century. By following the pattern directions (for the most part), you get this:

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It’s not terrible, but…well…okay, so it is terrible.

The silhouette is too round and the front molds around the breasts, fitting more like a mid-20th century dress than a mid-18th century dress. Ideally, the dress should be flared out at the hips and the bodice should be a smooth cone shape (thanks to the lady’s stays):

“A lady showing a bracelet miniature to her suitor” by Jean-François De Troy circa 1734 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

I was aiming for a middle-class maid’s look for the 1740s, when panniers were in full swing. So to turn my gown into something presentable, I needed to get rid of the rounded skirt and smooth out my girlies. An 18th century woman would have worn a pair of custom-fitted stays, usually made of cane or whalebone sandwiched between layers of fabric. In the 18th century, the fashionable silhouette was a coned-shaped torso with ample cleavage. There were many styles of stays throughout the 18th century– some were one piece, some were two, some had stomachers–but they all achieved a triangular look:

Stays with Stomacher (reproduction), circa 1750

Mid-18th Century Taffeta Stays by the Staymaker

I do not own 18th century stays, at least not any that are finished. I have started many a pair, but I am not apt at fitting and I’ve pretty much abandoned the project after ruining two pairs and gaining 15 pounds. Not all of us can be stay makers or afford to invest in a pair, especially if you only costume occasionally, but there is a pragmatic solution in a surprising place.

Cheap corsets are the bane of many a professional costumer or corsettiere, but they offer a surprising benefit to casual costumers. Cost effective and easy to find, lower-end corsets often do not have the sumptuous curves of a Victorian or vintage-inspired corset. This is frustrating if you want an hourglass shape, but for 18th century costuming, a straightened silhouette is encouraged. The stiff foundation is what’s most important and the smoothed rather than enhanced bust is a plus. I bought an inexpensive, all purpose, steel-boned corset from eBay which has become my go-to for costuming (for everyday wear, however, I recommend a more sturdy corset):

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It has 20 steel bones and can reduce my waist  3 or 4 inches, but for my Simplicity 3723 project, I laced it so that it only reduced my waist one inch (from 29″ to 28″). This particular style of corset (and many others like it) does not take a naturally large breast-to-waist ratio into account, so if you are top heavy like I am, the corset does an excellent job of flattening my front and giving me some stunning cleavage. The tubular shape of many low-to-mid range corsets is just fine for 18th century costuming. I’d advise getting a corset with plastic bones, however. Stick to one with steel boning, even if it’s only 10 or 12 bones. You do not have to lace tightly at all! In fact, unless you are making a huge fancy court gown, 18th century stays were worn for shaping and support, not drastic reductions.

A corset alone, however, is not enough to achieve the flouncy look of the mid-18th century. I need some hips, and at 35 measly inches, my tiny natural one fall far too short of glory.

Cane and Ribbon Pannier, late 18th century

Panniers and bum-rolls were widely used to fluff up a woman’s curves. Some panniers were more like squared walls than curves and could be made from a variety materials including metal, cane, or stuffed pillows. The higher up in society you were, the more extravagant the width of your pannier! I wasn’t going for a court gown, so I took American Duchess’s handy pannier guide into account and made myself some cheap-o pannier pillows out of leftover flannel and some bias tape.

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Boom! Hips, baby!

These panniers are rather small compared to court panniers, but it would be unseemly for a lady’s maid to outdo her mistress’s bodacious hips, so my little bump-outs are just dandy. I read somewhere that these comparatively small hip pads were called considerations (i.e. I considered wearing panniers, but then…) and were proper for morning wear. But since I can’t find the source, don’t quote me on it. Anyways, panniers alone, especially cane ones, would show through the gown rather inelegantly, so wearing at least one petticoat helps soften the lines. I used my favorite old standby, a thrifted button-front skirt from Goodwill:

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This skirt was probably the most useful thing I’ve even found at a charity shop. It looks great with modern clothes, dressed up to look vintage, or used under my costumes as fluff. In this case, a longer petticoat would have yielded a better shape at the bottom of the skirt, but being what it is, this old skirt does admirably!

As soon as that was done: voila! Instant improvement:

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Silhouette is the most important feature of historical costuming. Even with the craziest, most inaccurate fabrics, a properly (or semi-properly) supported silhouette can make a dress look 100% improved!

With the silhouette fixed, the dress part of this experiment is complete! However, I may cheap out on method and material, but I at least attempting a full outfit. A finished dress is fabulous, but without at least some accessorizing, even the grandest dress is incomplete. There are a few basic necessities like shoes, hair, and make-up which cannot be ignored. One of the biggest components to a complete toilet is a lady’s shoes:

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These are my American Duchess Pompadours (version 1.0) that I dyed and decorated. They are the biggest costume splurge I have ever made, but they look so swanky, even the miser in me considers them well worth the money! Another reason why shoes are important: your hemline. These shoes add a full two and a half inches to my height. The first time I sewed the hem of the Simplicity 3723 dress, I completely forgot to take this added height into account and made the hem too short! I had to let it out and re-hem the whole thing, a step I could have avoided if I’d just remembered the heels.

Accompanying my Pompadours are my bright red knit stockings, which are O Basics in “Rust,” from the addictive website, Sock Dreams. If you could tear your eyes away from my magnificent hips, you can see the entirety of my stockings in the picture of my panniers. The socks reach over the knee and are quite warm– a boon in the winter, but right now in the summer heat, they can be a little trying. I have another version of these stockings in rayon and flax, which I absolutely adore as well. I highly recommend these over-the-knee socks, and at $7, they’re a great buy! They have stretch and stay up well on their own, but you can wear garters over them easily. I’d be wearing my ten-minute garters, if they weren’t packed away for moving.

Another essential outfit component is hair. I’m terrible at hair. Curling, braiding, ribbons, nets, clips, extension, and all that jazz have never worked for me. I can do most of it on someone else, but on me? Forget it. I was going to try something more elaborate this time around, but I got frustrated and ended up enlisting my sister to give me a simple bun. It’s not flamboyant, but it gets the job done and is quite fitting for a lady’s maid.

To dress it up, I wanted a little coif like this:

“Laundress” by Henry Robert Morland

But Amelia found this adorable vintage baby’s bonnet in the box of linens and–surprise!– it fit my bun perfectly.

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With my adorably bonnet-ed hair finished enough to be passable, I decided that I needed to properly tart myself up, 18th-century style. A good lady should be pale, but with cheerfully pink cheeks and lips. So I powdered my face lightly and used a freshly sliced beet as a kissing companion to give myself a naturally unnatural rosy glow:

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This photo was taken at the end of the day, after I’d taken all the other photos, hence the un-bonnet-ed, messy bun. I literally sliced the root-end off a beet and applied it directly to my face. It’s a red beet and has surprisingly little sugar in it despite its sweet taste, so it is not sticky. It is a semi-permanent stain. It will last very well, especially on your lips, even if you nibble on a snack or talk way too much too loudly.

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And…done! At least done enough to be presentable. The only other accessories I used were my sleeve ruffles and a strand of faux pearls I borrowed from Amelia for a few pictures. I’d like an apron and a better fichu; my current fichu is too long to tuck nicely, especially since this dress’s neckline is too high. There are so many other accessories to add to an 18th century gown: hats, chatelaines, wallets, brooches, chokers, earrings, face patches, wigs, fans…the list goes on!

You can read more about my Simplicity 3723 project in these posts:

— Commercial Colonial: Part 1—

— Commercial Colonial: Part 2—

Commercial Colonial: Making a Slightly-More-Historical Rococo Gown out of Simplicity 3723 – Part 1

18th Century Sewing Adventure #2 – Part 1

(I enjoy historical costuming, but be warned: I’m no stickler for historical construction techniques! If you are looking for more accurate methods for 18th century gowns, I recommend this pictorial guide or one of the many other beautiful creations in the blogs listed in my blogroll.)

I’ve never sewn anything Rococo before. I usually stick to thrifting and heavy modifications to existing clothing for most of my costumes, but mid-18th century lady’s clothes are a little tricky.

Robe à la Polonaise, circa 1775

Because of the unique fit of 18th century gowns, it’s hard to get the right look without sewing your own from a well-documented historical pattern. I wanted to make a mid-18th century gown, but I have neither the skill nor resources to make a historically-accurate recreation at the moment. Instead, I decided to go for a Rococo creation more accessible to the common costume crafter, a.k.a. Simplicity 3723:

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View “D” is totally happening….minus that wild rose print…

Why 3723? Well, it was on sale at Hobby Lobby for 99 cents, that’s why.

This pattern is trying be historical (Andrea Schewe actually designs some really nice historical patterns), but it falls short of glory– I’d give this pattern a D+ in history class.
It’s truly a theatrical pattern meant to convey stereotypical historical flavor blended with modern comfort. We used View A for a production of The Miracle Worker in high school and it worked beautifully for quick costume changes thanks to the zipper in the back and the one-piece construction.

However, the qualities that make 3723 perfect for theater are what condemn it for historical inaccuracy. But there is hope!

I like to make something historical-looking from modern items, so I decided that this pattern was perfect for a “How to Tweak a Modern Pattern to Make it Look More Historical” project! I will follow the majority of pattern instructions, but make tweaks both small and large to make it appear more like a historical garment.

I decided to go for a house-maid look: a mix of rich and economic fabrics as well as styles, just like a thrifty maid would cobble together from a mistress’s cast-offs.

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I used Photoshop to add color to see how the dress might look upon completion.

I posted this sketch earlier. It had been languishing on a small corner of my sketch book forever, and I noticed that it could work with Simplicity 3723’s construction, plus a few modifications, of course. For example, the Simplicity pattern’s skirt design was too round and full, creating a cone-shape rather than a pannier shape. The pattern’s sleeves are a little long, and the giant fabric ruffle is ungainly. I would need to tweak these things to make the pattern a tad more “acceptable.”

Here’s where I’m at as of now:

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Front: Looks pretty much like the front of the pattern envelope. It may not be done, but I can still be proud it’s wearable! I opted to leave the sleeve flounce off and eventually trim the sleeves with lace. You can tell the sleeves are still too long to be flattering…and that’s AFTER I shorted them a whole inch!

I chose a mix of fabrics so the stomacher, over-dress, and petticoat would look like individual pieces even though they are sewn together as one dress.  The dress is actually fitted over a pair of pseudo-stays (in reality, it’s a corset. I can’t really call a steel-boned corset “stays” with good conscience), but I opted to take some photos to show how the dress hangs on the body as it is displayed on the cover models: no underpinnings except a bra and panties! Scandalous!

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Ah, yes, that zipper…

This is only my second commercial pattern-sewing experience, the first being my 1713 gentleman’s coat for Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #1. Most of my sewing experience is mending or modifying garments, not starting from scratch. Thanks to my irrational fear of the sewing machine, I hand sewed the entire dress except the giant seams in the skirt hem, back, and front edges. I love hand sewing, but those long seams are no picnic!

I’ve completed the dress as far as the pattern directions are concerned, but I’m currently only at the half-way point in the whole project. Even though it looks fairly similar to the envelope, I made a few modifications to the pattern to make it look more like a true 18th century dress:

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Instead of sewing the skirt onto the bottom of the stomacher piece, I opted to bind the bottom and leave it free-floating to enhance the illusion that the dress is made up of more than one part. I bound the top of the petticoat panel with bias tape and stitched in the ditch to attach it to the bodice seams. The stomacher is made from vintage wool crewel-work embroidery on a cotton/linen blend, mimicking the floral embroidered stomachers of the early 18th century.

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I also bound the top of the stomacher to match the bottom. I also plan to edge it with some cotton lace as well.

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Ignore that stray weft thread. It has since been snipped!

I finished the front of the skirt side panels. The “petticoat” panel is merely basted in, so I could actually remove it and wear the dress over a separate, true petticoat. I had only a half-yard of the floral decorator fabric, which is half the width specified by the pattern for a front panel. The thinner panel actually works much better than the full panel would have! A full, pleated panel would make the silhouette too round.

Every fabric used so far has come from my stash. I rarely buy fabrics with a particular project in mind, but I do meticulously catalog prices and yardage thanks to the miser genes passed down through my mother’s side of the family (we’re all teachers, antique lovers, and tight-fisted!):

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever was $1 a yard at Walmart
1/2 yard printed floral “petticoat” snatched up as a remnant from Hobby Lobby for $10.64
A crewel embroidery “stomacher” was a freebie included in a package of other sample fabrics

The bodice and sleeves are flat-lined in cotton sheeting from my old college dorm dressings.

I ran into a few fit problems with this pattern. The shoulders are very wide even for 17-inch shouldered me, so I extended the darts up the entire length of the back, solving some of the problem:

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This photo was taken on my dress form, which is shaped like no human I’ve ever known.

I opted to retain the zipper just for the practice. I’ve never sewn a zipper this long before and I am unabashedly pleased that it turned out decently. You could choose to cut the bodice back as one piece, sewing hooks and eyes along one of the stomacher seams to create a front closure instead of using a zipper, but if you like the functionality of a zipper for comfort or theater use, I have a sneaky plan to help hide it!

The fit of this dress straight from the envelope is ridiculously frumpy. I wish I had set the stomacher lower for more of that infamous 18th century cleavage, but with my pseudo-stays, the girls are much perkier. In fact, the addition of (mostly) correct undergarments does wonders for this dress! But for now, I leave you with my anachronistic self perched on a rock in my “pirate wench” pose.

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Toenail polish is sooooo 18th century!

So far, not bad, but I will admit to almost completely decimating my Paypal account for some quality trims.

Next up: How to make this pattern less terrible!

— Commercial Colonial: Part 2—

I’ve been Scent from the Past: 17th and 18th Century Perfumes

How to Smell like Kings and Queens

Have you ever been stuck next to someone who had put on too much perfume? The experience can be either highly pleasant or highly intolerable depending on how the scent works. Modern perfumes are categorized by their “notes,” or scent types mixed together to create a full-bodied scent:

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Source

  • Top/Head notes: The scents that are perceived immediately on application of a perfume. Top notes consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly. They form a person’s initial impression of a perfume and thus are very important in the selling of a perfume.
  • Middle/Heart notes: The scent of a perfume that emerges just prior to when the top notes dissipate. The middle note compounds form the “heart” or main body of a perfume and act to mask the often unpleasant initial impression of base notes, which become more pleasant with time.
  • Base notes: The scent of a perfume that develops as the other scents dissipate. The base and middle notes together are the main theme of a perfume. Base notes bring depth and solidity to a perfume. Compounds of this class of scents are typically rich and “deep.”

17th and 18th century perfumes fell into two general categories: floral and musky. Floral scents of the time were made from flower oils or waters distilled from blooms such as roses, orange flowers, and jasmine. These scents float near the top of the modern note range. Musks are base notes– heavy yet subtle at the same time. They are often animal-based and were favored by both sexes because they blend well with the natural human scent, itself a musky note. In an age of inconsistent bathing practices (some bathed often, other did not), perfume served as a popular odor equalizer in the merchant and noble classes. During the 17th and 18th century, there was very little difference between men’s and women’s perfumes. A man might wear a wash of rose water to fresh his skin while a lady might don a heady amber toilet for a candle-lit dance.

He: “My, don’t you smell heavenly, dearest! Like orange flowers and vanilla”
She: “And, you smell, too…of leather and spiced liqueur.”
He: “Ah, so you’ve caught me stealing your perfume again, then…”

Perfume was important and perfumers guarded their secrets well, but today we have access to some of their revered recipes. Some perfumes were as simple as distilling the scent of popular flowers. Rose water, popular since ancient times as both a scent and beauty treatment, was wildly popular in the 17th and 18th century. You can actually make your own rose water at home, if you are up for a little perfuming experimentation!

Rose Water being Distilled

Other 17th and 18th century perfumes are much more complex. Take, for example, this recipe for “Aqua-Mellis, or The King’s Honeywater,” which, as Madame Isis points out, contains not a drop of honey!

  1. Coriander seeds An herb, with a citrusy flavor.
  2. Marjoram An herb with a citrus and pine flavor.
  3. Calamus Aromaticus A water plant used as a substitute for ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg
  4. Yellow sandalwood Aromatic tree. A common ingredient in scents.
  5. Orange and Lemon peels
  6. Nutmeg Spice
  7. Clove
  8. Cinnamon
  9. Pimento Can mean a red pepper, but usually Allspice, the dried fruits of the of the Pimenta dioica plant
  10. Cassia Sometimes called Bastard cinnamon. Has less taste and rougher texture than true cinnamon and is therefore cheaper.
  11. Storax the resin of the oriental sweetgum (amber)
  12. Gum Benjamin or Benzoin resin
  13. Labdanum A resin
  14. Venellios Tonka bean A substitute for vanilla
  15. Spirit of Musk Derived from the glands from various animals, like musk deer. Today synthetic musk is almost exclusively used. Probably the most common base note in perfumes.
  16. Spirit of Ambergris A waxy substance that comes from the digestive tracks of Sperm whales. Prepared, it smells wonderful and has been used as fixative and base note in perfume for a long time.
  17. Lavender oil
  18. Bergamot essence From Bergamot orange. Used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
  19. Rhodium oil or Rosewood oil
  20. Orange flower water
  21. Rose water
  22. Milk

What an exhaustive list, and all for one perfume! The process combining them is just as exhaustive and well worth the read. Such complex perfumes were popular amongst rich nobles. Nearly every lady received a toilet/vanity set as a wedding gift and with it, a few large flasks for precious, ostentatious perfumes such as the one mentioned above.

Pair of Silver Perfume Flasks, circa 1671-72
“Toilet services were traditionally given as wedding presents by a wealthy husband to his new wife for use in her bedchamber. They usually included a mirror, boxes for ornaments, jewellery and cosmetics and perfume bottles. These flasks were dug up in Parliament Hill Fields (between Hampstead and Highgate) in 1892 by an inquisitive child and sold to the V&A for a modest sum by his father.” – V&A Museum

Perfume came in a variety of consistencies: alcohol-based (perhaps the most familiar to modern audiences), oil-based, water-based, and wax-based. Alcohol and oil bases are what we traditionally consider perfume and would have been applied from a bottle using a dauber or a fingertip. Water-based fragrances were usually floral and used as face tonics. Wax-based perfumes are solidified and easy to carry in pomanders. Scent pendants were very popular, especially considering the putrid reek of muck in the streets that a fine lady had to contend with! A little scent in a handkerchief or on a locket at the end of a chain was invaluable. On that note, perfumes were not just applied to the body. Anything and everything that could hold a scent was perfumed, from gloves and rouge to garters and hair powder! In fact, gloves and perfume went so hand in hand (pardon the pun!) that in 1656, the Guild of Glove and Perfumers was formed. Perfumed gloves weren’t just worn on the hands, but could be tucked into waist sashes and hatbands. A lady might send her beloved a delicate glove soaked in her perfume just like we might send a perfumed love letter.

Lady’s Glove, circa 1610-20
Always a welcome gift, unless they are laced with poison!

If you are a lover of perfume, by all means indulge yourself even when in costume! Finding a modern equivalent for a 17th or 18th century scent can be difficult, unless you know what to look for. Stick with natural scents or even make your own! A good, oil-based organic perfume can be quite expensive (just like back in the day). For the scent scientist, there are plenty of authentic historical recipes online that you can experiment with.

There was as much scent variety in the past as there are today. People could choose floral, citrus, sweet, spicy, or milky fragrances. My favorite modern-made-ancient perfumes are base notes. They work best with my natural chemistry and fit my taste. 17th century perfumes tend to contain more musky base notes, so my preferences fit right in with my favorite era! I have two modern favorites that I like to wear when in character:

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Shanghai Rose Solid Perfume in Amber

This amazing little fragrance tin (10g) is warm, earthy, slightly sour, and very musky. It mellows as you wear it, blending with your own scent. It smells very similar to a sample of 18th century cologne I had a chance to savor at the a museum presentation. The slight sour note may sound off-putting, but it keeps the perfume grounded. Many modern ambers are just too sweet smelling. I would equate it with the sourness of an unripe plum. Another fragrance in this line, Marine, is equally pleasant, but on the higher end of the note scale with a hint of ambergris and blossoms. I would call Amber androgynous and Marine a feminine perfume by modern standards. For historical presentations, however, they are perfect for either gender. The tins are more widely available in the UK, but I found mine stateside in World Market for the bargain price of $5! Since this is a fairly solid wax perfume, it is best applied directly to the skin. The best place for it? The bosoms. No court lady is complete with out a lovely, scented chest!

Chiaroscuro by Illuminated Perfume on Etsy

I recieved a tiny vial of this as a gift. It’s quite magical! I have only worn it twice because it is so precious to me, but the scent is beautiful– I enjoy smelling it from the bottle. The ingredients remind me of many of the perfume recipes I have read from the 18th century. The seller’s description speaks better than I can:
“Chiaroscuro as a liquid perfume begins quite dark and indolic laced with notes of roots and camphor. As you journey through the night in the deep moist woods a clearing of jasmine is illuminated with the light of myrtle. The robust fragrance features a very unusual scent evolution by moving from dark to light with deep, warm notes that linger like a dreamy lover. The perfume is sweet and dark, naughty and nice. The sweetness of the jasmine is amplified by myrtle and spice contrasting against patchouli and jatamansi (spikenard).
True perfumes such as this one react with your natural body chemistry and while they have a “basic” scent profile, your own body transforms it. On me, the floral is a little too heady, but on my sister, it smells like blossoms and warm autumn. I wore a dab on my neck the first time, but I like the scent much better on fabric. I dabbed a bit onto my neckline and it kept truer to the scent out of the bottle, which I love!

For more information about historical perfume and cosmetic recipes:

Madame Isis’ Toilette” – A wonderful blog dedicated to exploring the world of historical beauty from perfumes to hair powder!

How to Make Your Own Rose Water” – I linked to this earlier in the article, but making rosewater, while challenging, is more fun than just buying a bottle!

Traces of Marie Antoinette, Caught in a Phial of Perfume” on The Washington Post – Creating a perfume France’s most infamous queen would approve of