Hat Trick: Instant Edwardian Glamour Using a Wreath and Wide Straw Hat

The title of this post says it all! This is the easiest way to decorate a hat ever—it’s so simple I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it sooner!

I love hats, but for whatever reason, I struggle to decorate them. I can never seem to get the feathers to fluff, flowers to sit just so, or bows to stand properly. However, I was wandering the cavernous aisle of the the local “At Home” (“The-Home-Store-Formerly-Known-as-Garden-Ridge”) looking at Christmas ornaments…in August…during a 105°F heat wave…

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Like Hobby Lobby, At Home always goes Christmas Crazy early. This photo is from an article written in August of last year.

I was looking at the Christmas ornaments and vulturing around the Halloween merch hoping to catch an earlybird sale of some type. Alas, no sales on clip-on Christmas birds yet! I got a whole flock a few years ago and now I always keep my eye out for them. They are perfect for perching on late Victorian hats:

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Deprived of a deep discount on feathery friends, I was about to leave the store when I saw two giant displays of faux flowers. At Home is full of fake greenery, so I had ignored these displays on my way in. However, planted beside the plastic potted petunias was the most glorious seasonal bloom in the whole of the store: the RED LINE CLEARANCE SIGN!

A photo of a treasured red blossom of the 50% off variety.

Redline Clearance in At Home usually means either 20% or 50% off the tag price, but thanks to the brazen commercial exploitation of one of the most beloved holidays of the year and the need to fill the shelves with glitter-crusted burlap Santas before school’s even started, all summer floral was a whopping 75% off! And while I was high on the rush of sudden sales and the heady smell of ten-thousand different air freshener packets from the next display over, I was suddenly struck by the need to buy wreaths wreaths wreaths because FLOWER CROWNS:

I probably could have bought all the wreaths in the world— heaven knows my heart was screaming YAAAS GURL! YAAAS! as I thrust my arms elbow-deep into a glorious pile of polyester roses—but I am strapped for cash and really don’t have any more room to store stuff. So, I settled on a few choice pieces:

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I spent less than $20! It’s a miracle!

I found two wreaths in light, more spring-like colors, and while I was loading them into the cart, I was struck by another sudden epiphany: IF A WREATH FITS ON MY HEAD, IT WILL FIT ON A HAT!

Edwardian hats are huge, drowning in waterfalls of curled ostrich plumes, cascades of silk ribbon, and sprays of flowers. They are opulent to the maximum and, up until my fateful faux flower find, they were well beyond my hat-decorating comfort zone.

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My style is usually a bit more restrained, but looking at the piles of bargain wreaths mounded up like a magical hillside from a fairytale, I knew what needed to be done!

You see, I have this wonderfully wild 1980s straw hat:

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It’s perfectly shaped for 1900-1910, but that zebra crown isn’t the most period-looking finish. So I took one of the wreaths I’d bought on clearance…

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When choosing a wreath, it’s wise to pick one on the fuller side. The more dense/bigger the blooms, the more lush your hat will look (and the better it will hide any *ahem* idiosyncrasies).

…plopped it over the brim to hide the the crown…

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Sushi-roll hat!

…and voilà! An instant Edwardian hat, no millinery skill required!

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There was no agonizing over color scheme, no tedious arranging and rearranging of every single flower, and no waiting! It’s like the Jiffy mix of hats!

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My attempt at an autochrome-esque photo.

Another bonus? Instant restyling options! If you have only one hat, you can just switch the wreath instead of having to get a new hat base. The original full price of the wreath was $15, which is still a bargain if you consider the number of flowers you get for one price and the fact that it came pre-color coordinated!
If you are dedicated to decorating a particular hat, I recommend taking it with you so you can fit the wreath over the crown before buying it. The wreath I fell in love with as a tad too small, but by clipping the wire holding it together, I was able to resize it to fit.

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I used nail clippers and re-tied the ends in place with a stripped twist tie.

If you need to spread the wreath more than an inch or two, you can fill in the gap with a big ribbon bow or a matching bloom. My wreath fits snugly enough that it stays on securely, but if you are happy with your hat and want to keep it just as it is, hot gluing or sewing the wreath in place will keep it from falling off in the wind or when you bend over.

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Edwardian Hat Trick Cost Breakdown:

Wide brimmed straw hat – $4.99, Thrift Town
Floral Wreath – $3.75, At Home (Huzzah for clearance sales!)

Total – $8.74

—– Other Hat Posts ——

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

Darn string!

Flower Pots and Romanticism: The 10 Second Poke Bonnet

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Update!

Look what I found!

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Her hat looks just like mine!

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Calculating the “Cost” in Costuming

Investing in the Hobby: Is it worth it?

Dress made of £50k for a promotional.

When you begin a costume, there are a few major determining factors that dictate how your project will proceed. You must have in mind an era or character that you want to recreate, like a 1942 army nurse,  Jessica Rabbit, a Civil War widow, Zelda, an 1570s Italian, etc. While this might seem like the greatest determining factor of a costume, in reality, nothing looms over a project so largely as a budget.

My grandmother and I had a phone conversation a while back, and I mentioned my latest sewing projects and plans. She admitted to not having sewn anything in a few decades. She asked how much fabric cost.
“I usually buy cheap fabric that costs between $1.50 and $6.00 a yard,” I told her, “but a quilting cotton could easily run $8-14 dollars.”
I could imagine her shaking her head as she told me, “I used to get patterns and yardage for about 50 cents. Now, it’s often so much cheaper to buy things already made than it is to make it at home.”

In 1959 (when this pattern was published), 50¢ had the modern purchasing power of approximately $4.10 today.

That brief–but informative–moment on the telephone prompted me think a little harder about the actual cost of my hobby. Granted, the vintage price of a pattern or fabric wasn’t subject to modern inflation, but fewer people sew their own clothes these days than ever before, turning fabrics and patterns into luxury hobby goods rather than household staples. A firm project budget is a must!

There is big difference between a set budget and the actual cost of a costume. Budgets should be set before the costume is even begun. Ideally, a budget should be a fixed number, but sometimes you go over, but often you might find yourself happily slipping by under budget! Cost, however, is ultimately a fixed number. It is the amount you spend making your masterpiece (or novicepiece, as is often my case). The concept seems pretty straight forward, but after costuming for a few years, cost can become a fuzzy grey area.

I’ll use perhaps my “cheapest” costume, my 18th century maid’s outfit, as an example.

Calculating the Cost of an Individual Costume

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1. Fabric

Usually when you calculate the cost of a costume project, the most natural thing to do is figure how much you spent on fabric bought specifically for that project. For example, my Simplicity 3723 dress involved the following materials:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – STASH!
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – STASH!
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Total: $6.00

I was fortunate (or unfortunate, as the stuff turned out to be a wrinkly nightmare) to find some faux-linen-whatever at Walmart for only a dollar a yard, and the floral decor remnant was from my stash, as was the cotton sheet. The cewel-work sample that became the stomacher was sent along as a free gift with another sample I bought. When it comes to fabric calculations alone…HOLY COW! A DRESS FOR $6?!

Yes!

Well, sort of.

You see, I am a miser–or perhaps, more aptly, an accountant– when it comes to my purchases. For example, while the crewelwork and sheets were genuinely free (my parents had purchased the sheets for me five years ago as a college gift and I had worn them out), the floral remnant I could remember paying $10.64 at Hobby Lobby about a year prior, thanks to the paper label I had kept it wrapped in. Even though it wasn’t purchased exclusively for this dress, it was still an integral part in the costume.

Pictured: Not my stash.
My stash is nowhere near this organized.

Stash and scrap fabrics are an interesting case because so often we forget how much they cost.  Does it need to be included in the “cost” of my costume if I use it even though I purchased the fabric so long ago? Obviously I spent money on my stash fabrics at some point and even my penny-pinching side can’t remember the cost of every fabric in my stash. Could I count four yards of expensive embroidered silk taffeta as “free” if it’s been sitting so long in my closet that I can’t remember what I paid for it? That’s a tricky question. Basically, if I think the stash fabric would cost under $5 to buy new, I ignore the cost just for the sake of my sanity. Otherwise, I try to list a fair price.

There are also trims to consider, like the lace engageantes sleeves I made which, though removable, are basted to the dress and an important piece to complete the look. So my cost calculation should look more like this:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
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Total: $26.64

2. Notions

Paper box with linen measuring tape, circa 1790-1810

All these fabrics and trims aren’t held together by angel dreams and unicorn tears. Sewing requires notions. I have a large collection of threads, bias tapes, and other sundry items, but do I include them in my calculation of cost? Notions are just like stash fabric. Often, we have collected them over a long period of time and can no longer remember their cost. Some, like spools of thread, can be used across multiple projects. However, notions (especially if you consider buttons or ribbon to be notions) and other structural materials like boning can add up fast, not to mention the cost of the pattern itself!

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
Size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE!*
Thread – $1.55
Simplicity 3723 pattern – 99 cents*
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Total: $34.70

*As a general rule, if I calculate that I spent under 50 cents for the individual item, I do not count it, but I had to purchase a whole pack in order to get just this one 1/2 inch wide zip tie. If I never use the rest of them for other projects, I basically just spent $6 to buy boning for this one costume.  Also, the pattern was on sale at Hobby Lobby. On a regular day, Simplicity 3723 costs $10-17, depending on the store.

This is the money that I personally invested in this particular dress. It’s not the $6 dress from earlier, but it’s still plenty cheaper than buying one pre-made. You can’t find a mass-produced costume for that cheap, especially not one custom made just for you.

2.5 Equipment

This category is tricky and I’m only going to briefly go over it. Hence the “2.5” designation.

Almost any hobby requires you to invest in a few basic tools. The most basic tool for sewing is a needle. A good, sharp pair of scissors is another, as is a lot of pins and a flexible measuring tape (or 5). All other sewing equipment is just a variation of those three tools. These basic tools can be purchased for only a few dollars: needles are a dollar or two a packet of 10 or more, a box of pins might cost another dollar or two and a flexible measuring tape costs about the same. The most expensive is the scissors for $8-10. So for a handsewer’s start-up, the initial equipment investment can be less than $15!

However, most folks who sew will want to invest in a sewing machine. I sew on a Singer Simple machine. It was a gift, but would cost about $100 to buy new. Machines require special machine needles which, ideally, must be changed at least once a project and purchased to suit the type of fabric being sewn. Some people like also having a serger to finish edges for them or an embroidery machine. Those can run into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Others, like myself, content themselves with investing in lot of excellent pairs of fabric scissors. I have pinking shears ($20), regular fabric-only shears ($15), and two or three sets of thread-snips scattered around the craft room ($10 each). Some folks prefer cutting their fabric with a fancy rotary cutter instead of scissors. A good seam ripper is another must-have tool ($3). I probably spend more time ripping apart seams than sewing them!

My basic sewing equipment arsenal adds up like this:

Singer Simple – FREE-ish! (gift, but $120 new)
3 bobbins, button hole foot, needle threader, lint brush included with machine
Invisible zipper foot (a recent acquisition) $11
Sewing machine needles, pack of 5 – $6
3 boxes of pins – $6 ($2 each)
Fiskars fabric shears – $15
Fiskars pinking shears – $20
Fiskars thread snips – $30 ($10 seach)
3 flex measuring tapes – $3
Innumerable hand-sewing needles of various sizes – $5 (rough estimate)

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Total: about $220 if I had to buy it all over again

While the start-up can be initially expensive, these tools are used for every project, so their per-use cost rapidly decreases the more projects you do with them. I have used my scissors so many hundreds of thousands of times that I don’t even consider them as a cost for a costume. At most, the per-costume use cost would be a few cents. But if you are just starting out in the hobby or starting a costuming business, the cost of your sewing equipment is an important budget consideration.

3. Time

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Sewing at 2am is standard practice.

Material costs are one thing, but the time required to turn those materials into a piece of wearable clothing makes a custom costume more expensive. My costume took lots of hard work to make. I handsewed 90% and it took me over a week. I sewed about 4 hours a night for 8 days, so about 32 hours. That’s like working an average day job! At my current day job, I made about $12 and hour. If I carry that value over to all my time, by working 32 hours, I have have done $384 worth of work!  If you sell the costumes you create, keeping track of the time invested in your items becomes especially important. While you may not get the equivalent of $12 an hour, you don’t want to undervalue your time either! This is why custom clothing items are so expensive compared to the mass-produced clothing you buy in Walmart or even department stores. A home crafter or even a small co-op cannot match the production costs of a giant factory filled with specialized machines staffed by workers paid pennies by the hour.

I don’t think “paying myself” for something I do as a hobby applies to this dress because I made it for myself, but putting a price on the physical labor does make you appreciate your own handiwork infinitely more.

However, even if I put aside the hours of work involved in making my dress, I still haven’t reached the actual cost of my costume!

SAY WHAT?!

4. Support Garments

I’m not just wearing the dress I made, I’m wearing undergarments as well:

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Though I did not sew my undergarments myself, my costume wouldn’t be the same without them! My costuming undergarments include a corset, tank top, and button-front skirt. Even though I wear them with everything and don’t include them in any costume’s cost calculation, I technically did pay for them at one point:

Corset – $75
Tank top: $3
Second-hand skirt: $3

I wear these so often that if I apply the “divide the cost by number of times worn” rule, the cost of the most expensive item, my corset, comes out to only about $1 a day. But if someone else wanted to recreate my look from scratch, they would have to invest the whole $75. The same goes for homemade stays. To buy fabric and boning to make them also costs money. Even my stash-made pillow panniers are made of material I once had to purchase.

5. Accessories

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Accessories are another sneaky cost, but they can elevate a costume from cute to full-on fabulous! For this particular costume, I splurged on my beloved American Duchess Pompadours. I dyed and trimmed them for pizzazz. I have a favorite pair of stockings to wear with them as well. Up top, I used vintage baby bonnet to cover my bun. Even though my grandmother gave it to me in a box of linens, it was still marked with a $4 price tag. I also threw on some vintage faux pearls for charm; these belonged to my sister and were promptly returned. So to me, they were free!

American Duchess shoes – $92
Shoe dye – $12
Antique metallic ribbon – $18
O Basics stockings – $8
Vintage bonnet – FREE! / $4
Vintage necklace – FREE! (or $5 if you hit up Walmart)

Total it up!

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So here is the new calculation based on every single item in this outfit:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE! *sent along with another I paid $24 for
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
Size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE! *$6 for the pack
Thread – $1.55
Simplicity 3723 pattern – 99 cents*
Corset – $75
Tank top: $3
Second-hand skirt: $3
American Duchess shoes – $92
Shoe dye – $12
Antique metallic ribbon – $18
O Basics stockings – $8
Vintage bonnet – FREE! / $4
Vintage necklace – FREE!
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Total: $249.70
OR
if you include the $384 time investment:
$633.70

I’m not going to lie: that’s a lot of money. Looking at the breakdown now, my dress seems like a poor showing for $250, much less $634! Would I pay that price for it? No. But remember, the actual dress only cost me $34.70! Everything else is an investment. My corset, stockings, shoes, and all the other separate bits are reusable. There may be thread left on the spool, the rest of the zip ties get used up the way they were intended (did you know that zip ties can actually be used to tie things together? Who’d have thought?!), and the leftover bits of fabric get added back into the stash. That is why when a costumer lists the “cost” of their final outfit, they do not include those sorts of items in the math.

While keeping costs down is the goal of many home costumers, you will ultimately spend money and, more importantly, time. There’s just no way around it. That’s why setting a budget and making smart investments is so important. Even a $35 dollar historically accurate pattern is justifiable if you have the skills to make it properly and/or make multiple pieces from it. Use a $10 dress pattern once and you paid $10; use it twice, and now it was only $5 per dress! The more you make, the better you will get and the cheaper the pattern will become. Find pieces that multitask or that you can refashion later when you get tired of the old version. Borrow and share pieces amongst your (trustworthy) friends. Recycle as often as you can!

The most important thing to remember about cost is that you are investing in your hobby. Keeping yourself busy with something you enjoy is the best therapy in the world, even if you get so frustrated with your machine you want to smash it with a hammer and throw it down the stairs after it gets all tangled up with an impossible amount of red thread in impossible places…

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Experience speaks!

I costume not because I’m particularly talented at it, but because I love a challenge just as much as I love pretty clothes. To me, making costumes is like earning a series of giant, wearable achievement badges. More than once I have turned down a beautiful fabric because I couldn’t afford it or my current skills would not do the fabric justice. I may miss out on the perfect print, but I don’t think it’s a huge sacrifice to go with a cheaper fabric that I feel comfortable making a mistake with. You name the mistake, I’ve probably done it! However, I usually don’t stress too much if I purchased plenty of fabric at a good price. I could buy a $10 box of chocolates that will disappear in a few hours and mysteriously reappear around by waist a few weeks later, or I can buy $10 worth of fabric and puzzle a dress out of it. Even though I love candy (and dessert in general. Oh, the cheesecake!), investing $10 towards a new dress much better than spending $10 towards growing out of one.

Is costuming worth it? Yes.
Is it for everyone? Well, it could be. :)

Whether you make or buy your own costumes, what matters most is that they make you happy!

Pinterest Alert: Have You Pinned These? Double Check Your Sources!

There’s a Tear in the Fabric of Time!

This is an FYI for all my fellow Renaissance researchers, costumers, and most importantly, Pinterest pinners!

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“EUROPE’S BRIDE Margaretha von Valois” from The Lost Gallery on Flickr

There is a series of portraits making the Pinterest rounds labelled “Marguerite de Valois” or “Margaretha von Valois, 1572” that, though they may bear a resemblance to other portraits of Margaret of Valois, are actually modern Photoshop artworks by The Lost Gallery and others. They are NOT genuine 16th century portraits, but you may recognize bits and pieces of them taken from other real, period portraits that make them very convincing at first glance. For example, in many of the modern images, the pose and dress are from the iconic “Portrait of a Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena von Snakenborg:”

The portrait above is a genuine portrait from the 16th century.

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This is another clever Photoshop piece entitled “DEGAGEZ! Marguerite de Valois” from the Lost Gallery. You can see that the bodice was taken directly from the previous portrait.

A seasoned Photoshop artist or research veteran who’s stared at hundred if not thousands of period portraits will notice telltale flaws after a moment of looking. Yet, for the general layperson or even an avid history lover, some of these “paintings” are well done enough to sneak their way onto historical portrait Pinterest boards and Facebook posts. These are just two variations of the portrait; there are many others!
They are actually quite creative, but they are not good for use as historical sources. Indeed, they are quite fun as an exercise in historical plausibility. They are clearly convincing enough even with some obvious incongruities, and prove that, if you are not looking for a strict reenactment outfit and directly copying a particular portrait isn’t your cup of tea, you could take the sleeves off of one dress, the hat off another, and put it all together with still another bodice and produce a very rich, pleasing outfit (kind of like Steampunk taking bits of different Victorian styles and mashing it up with modern or all the Elizabethan-fantasy mash-ups worn to renaissance faires. Tudorgoth/Ruffpunk, anyone?).
Still, always double-check your sources for things you find on the internet, especially Facebook and Pinterest where false information can spread more quickly than the truth!

These modern Photoshop portraits aren’t the only pin masquerading as authentic.

Another mis-pin is this stunning art piece by Rozanne Hawksley, which is often mislabeled and subsequently re-pinned as one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gloves:

Et ne non inducas (And lead us not) by Rozanne Hawksley, created 1987 – 1989

In reality, it’s a beautiful piece of modern art made to imitate gloves of the Elizabethan era with a touch of dark imagery in the form of memento mori symbolism. The artist certainly succeeded in creating the look and feel of a true antique masterpiece!
Artwork seems to be a common source of misidentification, usually because people re-pin pictures without checking the source or giving an artist credit. Another art piece that often appears on Renaissance-era boards is this modern chopine by Susan Taber Avila:

“Pink Chopine” by Susan Taber Avila, circa 2006

To a researcher’s eye, it’s obviously a modern re-imagining of a 16th century Venetian chopine, but since most of the pins of this image do not link back to the artist’s website or even the original image url, the source is completely missing from most pins. Somewhere along the way, this art piece was tagged 1600s 1700s chopine (likely noting the style influence of the piece). After that, people searched for 1600s chopine, this image popped up, and it was repinned without a second thought. Pinterest’s page is a screen full of many small photos surrounded by many other similar photos, making it very easy to simply re-pin something and move on without expanding the file or double-checking the source. In addition, the Pinterest search function only scans keywords in the description and tags, not the source material for the image, so even if you are interested in this artwork as a fiber arts piece, you will have a tough time finding the artist! Clicking on an image never guarantees that you will be taken to the primary source of the image. Pictures can be pinned from anywhere on the web and often have been filtered through two or three websites prior to being added to Pinterest’s archives. It can be a wild goose chase to track the original information down!

Movie costumes are another source of confusion, including this spectacular Rengecy dress that has been making the rounds as the real deal, but is actually a costume from the film “Immortal Beloved,” a period drama with many beautiful costumes:

“Immortal Beloved” costume design by Maurizio Millenotti, circa 1994

Immortal-Beloved-25466_3The dress being worn by Valeria Golino as Giulietta Guicciardi during the film.

Fashion works in cycles: what’s old eventually becomes new again! In the case of this dress by George Halley, the opposite happened. I don’t know who first found this pinned as a Regency dress, but it took off. Though it has a high waist and square neck like a classic Regency gown, is actually from 1967!

George Halley Evening dress (nylon, silk, glass, metallic thread, plastic), circa 1967

There are lots of 1960s dresses that are great a mimicking a Regency silhouette (there are also 1960s gowns that look like they are from 1906 and even some gowns from 1906 that look like they came from 1806, so always check the source and your garments carefully). Once again, spreading misinformation is bad, but there is some good to be had out of it. If you happen to have a 1960s dress that happens to look like a Regency dress, voila! Instant costume!

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GUILTY!

The Costumer’s Code

Seven things I wish people had told me when I was first starting out

  • You are a costumer!

Do you wear clothes? Congratulations! You are a costumer. The role of costumes in our everyday lives may not be as exciting as, say, wearing a Civil War era ball gown, but being a costumer is more than just wearing historical clothing. “Costumes” as we know them were once boring everyday clothes to someone in the past. When you look at old portraits and photographs, you will notice that not everyone dressed the same across the board. Some people are better at accessorizing, some better at hair, and some make really neat pin tucks that everyone with a 100 mile radius is jealous of. There is bound to be some part of costuming you are good at. For example, I am terrible at patterning. Machine sewing scares me more than a midnight slasher flick when I’m home alone. However, I am the queen of thrifting. I can take a $6 dress from Goodwill and attach it to a curtain from Ross to make a 1915 dress. The key to costuming success is finding what your talents or interests are and using them.

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  • You have to start somewhere and you can only get better.

My first “real” costume (outside of the theater) was less than ideal. That photo up there is a really bad picture of it taken in my mother’s bright yellow kitchen at after a long night of handing out Halloween candy. The Renaissance style outfit was a second-hand bargain buy from Ebay purchased three days before Halloween. When it arrived it turned out to be entirely the wrong shape and size (I am 5′ 6″ with 17 inch shoulders, which I thought were huge. Turns out this dress was made for someone about 5′ 3″ tall with 19 inch shoulders). I did some quick and dirty alterations, so the dress didn’t slip and slide everywhere, but it never fit quite right. Your first few costumes will probably have some flaws, too. Heck, even some of your later ones will still have hang-ups. Keep going! Switch up your methods, check YouTube DIY videos for help, or browse the myriad of blogs and websites dedicated to the art of costuming. Chances are someone had similar problems and found a fix. Costuming, like any part of life, is constant evolution. So long as you are learning and experimenting, you will get better.

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  • It takes work.

Once you’ve found your costuming self, you need to exercise your costuming muscles! Have you ever had an event that required special clothes like a date, a dinner party, or most notoriously, a wedding? Recall how much thought and time went into making sure every little piece of your outfit was just right. All that fussing can be exhausting! Developing your costuming muscles takes work. Unless you are a costuming prodigy and were born with an innate knowledge of all time periods, sewing techniques, accessory styles, and wherewithal, you will have to do research, learn basic skills, and develop you own set of tricks. It’s like being in school all over again! If you plan on doing historical reenactments, you will have to go to the library or Google late into night to find what you need. If you want to do events, theater work, or attend conventions, you will need to network, make plans, and work with deadlines. You will get frustrated. You will hit walls. You will remake the collar six times and it still won’t lay right. No one said costuming was easy! Nonetheless, it is great fun and can be very rewarding. There’s nothing more satisfying than showing off your hard work to others who appreciate everything you’ve done to get there.

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  • People are judgmental. Don’t let them faze you!

There’s one in every crowd, every group, even lurking within ourselves: the “Critics” and the “Experts.” No matter how hard you work on a costume, someone wants to rain on your parade. Critics are opinionated and enjoy finding what’s wrong with something rather than applauding what’s right. They will point out a lopsided seam or laugh at your choice of colors. They may not even now what era you chose or why you are all dressed up. Experts, other other hand, will point out your use of a hoop skirt instead of a crinoline or your use of “damask” instead of “brocade” when describing that lovely upholstery fabric you used to make your “Victorian” dress (which, BTW, has polyester content and is sooooo not period correct. Didn’t you know they used natural fibers and didn’t have zippers?). Such advice can be really helpful if you desire critiques and historical accuracy, but the tone can make or break the educational value of a comment. Keep in mind that many experts have been exercising their costuming selves a bit longer or differently than you—for example you costume for the quick-change-between scenes in theater and they’re working the museum circuit—and may have developed a deep sense of orthodoxy (“right” vs. “wrong”).

Presenting your costumes to the public is kind of like going to the gym. You work out and feel a great sense of accomplishment, but then someone with more toned legs and a perfect tan walks over and points out how your methods are all wrong. The advice they give can be helpful or hurtful, depending almost 100% on their presentation. Critiques are good. They help you evolve and you will costume all the better for it. If you are trying to be historically accurate and someone points out that metal eyelets don’t belong on your Georgian corset, you can use that info to make your costume better next time. Criticism, on the other hand, is sneering and unhelpful, often stemming from a “holier than thou” mindset (and insecurity). Don’t let one bad review smash your costuming dreams flat!

The hardest criticism to put up with, however, is often your own. The clothes look great laying out on the bed, but then you put it on and it’s just all….wrong! Ugh! Everyone else’s looks soooo awesome, but mine is sooooo gross! STOP! Turn your self-criticism into critiques instead. You can fix your mistakes the next go-round. Remember that no one is perfect straight out of the gate or even later on, so stop worrying so much about what’s “wrong” with your costume and enjoy what you did “right.”

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glitter-hot-pink-pirate-costume

  • No costume is a failure.

Okay, so I might argue with this one sometimes. I mean, seriously? Sexy pirate costume with bright pink arm… kidney… thingies…

But, in reality, if you’re going to a club party, a pink sexy pirate will fit in much better than a genuine 17th century pirate. The point of being a sexy pirate isn’t to re-live the past, anyway. No matter how much we try, we are living in the now and our costumes are made to  be enjoyed in the present in many different situations. My first “real” costume that fit all wrong was not a failure. I handed out candy to tons of little kids that night who thought my costume was awesome and a few parents even complimented it. The truth is, all your costumes are valuable. They can teach you things, set you apart, and make people happy.

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gallery_renaissance_festivals_tennessee_renaissance_festival_2005_having_fun_tnrf05-set3-072

  • Design and wear costumes that make you happy.

If you like yards of soft, plushy green velvet, use soft, plushy green velvet. Making a swiss dot dress from every decade since 1820 your fantasy? Do it. Want to add buckles to your corset instead of a boring busk? Heck yes! Costumes and clothes in general are an extension of who you are. If you look in the mirror and don’t wink at yourself, something’s wrong. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so don’t exclude something just because at first glance it looks hideous. A garish orange plaid might make an extraordinary 1840s dress. I saw a woman in a period perfect Tudor dress made from hot pink and blue tie-dye! She was the most beautiful Tatiana at the faire. When you have to costume for an event, on commission, or for a group, you will have to work to meet other people’s needs and tastes, yet there should always be something in it that makes you proud. Dip into your imagination and find ways to meld what needs to get done with what you want to get done. You are limited only by your means, and even then there are ways to sneak around obstacles to create an outfit you love!

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  • Keep learning! Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Fresh ideas and experimentation are the key to becoming a great costumer. It sounds so easy, but it can be so hard! Living under the dark “gotta be first!” cloud is no fun, then again, neither is making the same thing over and over. Escape from both by trying new things in small doses or bash all expectations to bits by going in a radical new direction. Sometimes new doesn’t necessarily mean you have to invent something no one’s ever done before. What’s important is that you’ve never done it before. Never used a buttonhole attachment on your sewing machine? Never made rouge from an 18th century recipe? Never heard of dieselpunk? Never seen a 14th century Vietnamese dress? Never tried making a French hood from a Bisquick box and an old throw pillow? Knock those atrocious “Nevers” into oblivion as much as possible. You’ll be amazed at how much fun you’ll have and what you discover!

Happy Costuming!

Inspired by “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko

For more information on how to handle criticism and bullying in the reenactment community, check out “Ask A Reenactor: Bullying in the Hobby” by Kelsey at Historically Speaking and Nina Brand’s article “Historical Re-enactments” which discusses women in military re-enacting circles.

For more information about historical accuracy issues in costuming, visit Jennifer’s Historical Sewing articles, “Why You Can’t be 100% Historically Accurate” and (for a little pick-me-up) “Costuming Keeps Us Dreaming.”

Buying an eBay Corset Part II: Historically Accurate and Off-the-Rack

Finding a Historical Victorian Corset on eBay

This article is a continuation of Part I, so check out that article first for more information.

Let’s start this off by saying I make just enough to get life done and I don’t really have time to attend tons of events anymore, so I feel guilty investing $500 in a custom corset that I will wear in public, at most, 2 times a year. For that much, I could pay rent and buy two-weeks worth of food! I am also impatient, lazy, and incredibly miserly. I don’t live in a place where corsets can be bought from a shop or ordered from a tailor. All I have right now is myself, my cats, the desert, and an internet connection. So, as every penny-pinching lady in my family has done before me, I used what I had on hand: DSL and hours of mad scrolling.

Okay, to begin, here’s what I was after:

Athletic Corset, circa 1885

“Ball’s corset company specialized in creating healthful corsets and those appropriate for active wear. This particular type of corset was flexible, made possible by the shirred elastic sections over the interior coiled wire spring system. It was designed for women to wear while participating in athletic activities such as horseback riding, while still maintaining the acceptable silhouette of the period. According to Ball’s advertising, incorporating the coiled springs into the corsets was a ‘revolution in corsets.'” -The Met

The 1880s produced the “classic” corset shape, so it is the easiest to find. I wanted a corset that was simple and functional. Ribbons, lace, and brocade are all gorgeous, but a corset is like a bra: pretty things look great alone, but can sometimes be a nuisance under clothes. I wanted something I could wear under anything without worrying about strange bumps or bright blue brocade showing through a thin gown. I stumbled across this corset in the Met and I immediately knew that this was the corset I needed. The side springs I knew I probably wouldn’t find, but most modern corsets have spiral steel boning which is more flexible and comfortable than other types of bones, including plastic. I wanted something that would give me a more period-appropriate size and shape without suffocating or stabbing me.

Criteria for my Cheap eBay Historical Corset:

Budget of $75 (including shipping)
White or cream
Satin or Cotton
Back lacing
Spiral steel bones
Overbust
Capable of reducing waist 2-3 inches
1880s in shape

LET THE SEARCH BEGIN!

Here are four tips I learned when shopping for a corset:

PICTURES LIE. It applies in life and it applies to corset buying. Live models are especially deceiving because they make the corset look like it will make you smaller and hourglassed. However, Photoshop exists and these ladies are naturally tiny. Look for photos of the corset itself if you can. The worst listings are the ones where they’ve stretched or warped the picture so you can’t even tell what shape the corset is! GAAAAAA! Also, be on the lookout for fakes.

Make sure the corset has all steel bones. Many sellers will list “steel bones,” but the piece itself will actually only have a few while the rest are plastic. Some even list steel bones, but are all plastic with a steel busk.

When you find a corset with all steel bones, make sure the listing says how many. Many are all steel boned, but only have 8 or 10 bones. If you just want the support so your gowns sit right, these are fine for that, but they will not effectively reduce your waist or give you an hourglass. A really good corset will have 16-24 spiral steel bones with a few flat steel ones in the back by the laces. You can find corsets with even more bones (up to 60!), but most are from professional corset makers…far out of my price range.

Laces should always be in the back. Check out the picture of the laces to determine if it is properly laced or not. First, check what it’s laced with. Shoestring laces are generally stronger and more discreet than ribbon laces. Second, check how it is laced. If it ties with a bow at the top or bottom, either the manufacturer knows nothing about how a corset functions or it’s just for looks. Either way, skip it. Look for laces that are knotted at the bottom and have long tying loops in the middle of the back. Why the middle? Well, if you want your waist to be smallest, it makes sense to have the pulling ends where you want to pull in the most!

After a few hours of searching and a few days of arguing with my wallet, here’s the one I settled on:

Satin Corset, circa 2012

It’s satin, fully boned with 20 spirals, 6 flats, and has a steel busk and grommets in the back. It is cotton lined as well with sturdy cotton waist tape and a modesty panel (I removed it). Most corsets advertise a 4 inch reduction in waist size, but fall short. This one actually gets you down 3 inches– more on that later! The size charts you find in most listings will list natural waist sizes next to the corset size, for example a 22 inch corset will fit a natural waist between 26 and 27 inches (usually considered a size s-xs). Measurements, however, vary from seller to seller, so check those charts closely! For example, the chart for this particular corset listing looks like this:

I have a 28 inch waist. Do you see the quandary? According to their chart, I would fit in anything from a medium to an xsmall! I decided to go with the average, a small. If you are looking to reduce your waist at all, make sure your natural waist measurement falls in the middle or top of your size bracket. For example if you have a 30 inch natural waist and they suggest a large for 30 inch to 34 inch waists, go down a size.  However, trouble again arose when I tried to select a size from the drop-down menu:

According to this new menu, a 28 inch waist was actually the very upper limit of the small’s capacity! This is the hardest part of buying an off-the-rack corset online: measurements. However, I opted to go with the small. I paid $59.95 for my corset, well under my budget. I was a little miffed that I found a similar one at a Chinese wholesaler later, but Glamorous Corset Boutique on eBay was stateside so I didn’t have to mess with customs, plus they shipped super fast and free so I received it in the mail in just 4 days! Would I buy from them again? Yes.

After getting my new corset in the mail,  it was time for the moment of truth: the initial try-on. Prior experience in theater had educated me that the first time you try on a fresh corset, you will need help lacing it because the garment has not yet molded to your body. My sister agreed to help me and much stereotypical tugging and pulling occurred.

You can lace yourself up by tightening the consecutive “rungs” of your corset from top to middle then bottom to middle, but it’s fun to have someone else to giggle with as you hold onto a doorway! For those of you who have never laced before, it’s important that you don’t try to lace your corset as tight as you can right away. If you lace too tight too quickly, you’ll experience all the problems we’ve come to associate with corsets: shortness of breath, back pain, bruises, chafing, and sore ribs. If you lace slowly, however, your corset will bother you no more than your bra– sometimes less! For example, we laced 28 inch me down only to 27.5 inches. That may not seem like much, but remember a corset and a liner/chemise adds thickness over your body, so my waist was actually down to about 27 inches. That’s quite enough for the first fitting. I pranced around the house freely in it. Here I am after three days of wearing it at 26 inches:

I know, I know, tied at the front, but the strings get really long and I have a rambunctious small kitten that kept following me around attacking my corset strings as they slithered behind me! Also, you can see how the hips are a little too big.

It’s important to wear your corset for a few hours a day to get used to it before tightening it further. How tightly you can lace your corset depends on your body type, especially your fat-to-muscle ratio. I highly recommend reading the Dreamstress article “What Size Should Your Corset Be and How Tightly Should You Lace It?” for more information. It’s an amazing post and answers almost all the questions you might have about the general function and fitting of corsets!

Click to visit the Dreamstress blog

Eventually, I got this corset to close fully at 25 inches: the perfect waist size for wearing extant or reproduction Victorian pieces. I am rather “squishy,” so wearing a corset actually feels great!

My waist at 25 inches. That makes my measurements 36-25-35.

I love how this particular corset draws you into a gentle hourglass without jabbing you– praise the corset gods for flexible, spiral steel bones! For historical waist reduction, aim to reduce your waist about 2-3 inches. Keep in mind that as you wear your corset, it will stretch and mold to your individual body, so you shouldn’t share corsets with someone else.

No matter how many pictures of bare-skinned models you see, if you corset without a liner, you will get rope burns on your back.

Corset Burn. It doesn’t hurt during, but afterwards…..yikes!

I use a regular $3 cotton tank from Walmart as my liner/chemise. Many corsets come with a “modesty panel” flap sewn on one side to protect your back, but I remove mine. Unless they are also boned and floating (not sewn in), these flaps will crumple and get in your way. It is much, much better to wear a separate garment underneath you corset instead. I like modern cotton tank tops with some Spandex in them. These will hug your body and not wrinkle up. Wrinkles are the worst! I also like full-stretch tanks from Rue21 and the like for the same reason. They bunch even less than cotton, but you will sweat more. Which brings me to the next reason to always wear a liner: hygiene. Corsets should never be washed in a machine and shouldn’t even be hand washed if you can avoid it. Water will corrode the steel bones. A liner is easy to change and wash. Wear one!

The biggest challenge for me is “the Girls.” I am very top heavy and they are not…well, I hate to admit it, but they are neither firm nor perky. Victorian gowns (and many modern clothes) have a higher bust level than mine, so it’s impossible to fill out a dress properly without extra support. In addition to my new overbust corset, I like to wear a bra underneath. It’s not very historically accurate, but it’s in the spirit of these:

Bust Enhancers and Cover, circa 1890

The only issue with the corset I chose is that it’s made for someone with a B cup, so my 34 DDs runneth over at times, but a tight chemise/shirt or a bra keeps them in check. The hips also wrinkle a little because my 35 inch hips are Barbie-tiny, but 1870s-1890s gowns have full skirts fluffed out with petticoats anyways, so you cannot tell. Also, it means that I have no problems sitting or even riding a bike, which, by the way, I totally did:

1 hour after that first photo of me: Sweatier, but very pleased. Proof that a good liner will save your day (and your corset)!

It’s good to exercise if you plan on wearing a corset for long periods of time. Since the bones in the corset are doing all the work fighting gravity, your abs go on vacation.

In addition to being exciting, relatively simple, and cheap, buying an off-the-rack, mail order corset is super historically accurate!

This corset advertisement is from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. mail order catalog. I have a Sears catalog from 1902 that still has the same kind of listing, just different styles of corsets since the fashionable shape began to change. Both catalogs feature a whole section of corsets ladies can send for by mail. At the top of the section is always a fitting guide that offers the same advice we follow today! Most Victorian ladies were on a budget, so buying the best, most fitted corset was out of their reach. It’s quite historically accurate for your corset to be a little wrinkled in spots, or even for the top edge to be visible under your dress if you are wearing everyday clothes, so don’t worry if your eBay corset doesn’t fit like a glove. For example, this photograph from my collection shows a young lady with the same fit problem I have:

I am very happy with my current corset! I’m giving up my press-on nail habit for the next year to save for my next corseting adventure.

Goodbye, perfect nails. Hello, perfect waist!

I’m going to finish my “Teacher Dress” soon, so you can see the corset in action. :)

Here’s a handy-dandy list of things to look for in a good corset and why.

16-24 Spiral Steel Bones
A steel-boned corset is weighty and will pull you in comfortably.
Cotton Lining
Helps keep you comfortable and strengthens the corset.
Waist Tape
Keeps the seams from pulling and helps compress the waist.
Center-back Cinching
You want to tie your corset at the waist, not the top or bottom.
Strong Busk
A wide busk will not deform or twist. Always loosen your corset as much as possible when clasping and unclasping the busk.
4 to 5 inches smaller than your natural waist
Allow extra space to lace it tighter than your natural waist.

Happy Corsetting!

Unflattering Fashion Plates

A Brief History of Political and Satirical Fashion Cartoons

1760-1820

Fashion prints are a staple for costumers. They’re the Vogue magazines of the past– maybe a bit high-brow and out of reach for most people, but definitely beautiful examples of how trends developed and morphed. Though they don’t necessarily portray the everyday fashions being worn at the time, fashion plates are invaluable. I love collecting them, and just like fashion-conscious ladies before me, I dream of owning all those fabulous gowns and accessories!

Usually when I think of fashion plates, I think about something like the plate above: an illustration from a Victorian women’s magazine. Though the fashion plate reached it’s heyday in the 19th century, they are much older than that! Fashion plates traditionally depict fashion extremes or popular delights among the wealthy– both focuses of heavy scrutiny during the revolutionary 18th century– and the plates developed into a political tool of sorts.

This is a Rose Bertin fashion plate. Rose Bertin, “The Minister of Fashion” brokered Marie Antoinette’s fashions to the rest of France and Europe. She had the queen’s ear on all matters of fashion and collaborated with the extravagant monarch to create some of the late 18th century’s most iconic fashions. By using fashion plates, Rose Bertin accomplished two things: She made sure Marie Antoinette stayed the queen of fashion and Rose made sure that her fashion prowess remained indispensable. You can read more about Madame Bertin by clicking on the picture which is linked to a wonderful article by Ingrid Mira.

The fashion plates of the 18th century are often rooted in satire and social commentary as much as they are rooted in style.  Some fashion plates began their lives as a means to broadcast new fashions, but their excessive, sometimes ridiculous, and often radical depictions of upper-class life opened them to the scorn of political cartoonists and disgruntled masses. Considering how grand rococo fashion became by the middle of the century, many fashion plates gained political scorn with no cartoonist or scathingly twisted illustration necessary. No doubt you remember this infamous plate, which is one of the most widely recognized images from the 1700s:

I think it’s gorgeous, but then again, I am not a starving peasant forced to fight my way through life wondering when my next meal would be while the aristocracy floated around in rafts of silk satin and lace. Wigs bore a huge chunk of the ridicule and were the favorite subject of fashion satirists in England, France, and America.

It’s rather ironic that after the French revolution, the satire turned from condemning 18th century fashion as frivolous and unbelievably vain to considering them frumpy and overwrought while the Neoclassical Regency fashions took a beating for being far too see-through and revealing, especially for those blustery, cold European winters!

It’s quite entertaining when you realize that “kids these days” aren’t dressing any more ridiculously than before, they just have a different kind of rediculous. It’s all about culture and perception. What is popular one year is passe ten years later. Think of your old 1970s pointed collars, 1980s bangs, or your 1990s prom outfit. Would you wear them again anywhere except to a costume party?

We’re making fashion history right now, so who knows how we’ll be viewed 50 or 100 years down the road. We love to make fun of avant garde people like Lady Gaga, but wasn’t Marie Antoinette made fun of in her time? Guess who has a whole fan-base 250 years later wearing panniers, bows and her much-ridiculed wigs!

Fashion is the Eternal Masquerade

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!