Georgian Picnic 2016: Rainbow Regency and a Normandy Bonnet

I hardly got to attend any events this year since work is short-staffed and work weekends always seemed to fall on guild days. I am so thankful to Carol for covering for me so I could attend my favorite event: Georgian Picnic! It was the first event I ever attended with the DFW costumers Guild and it is still my favorite. It’s laid back and relaxing.

The costuming chaos leading up to it, however, is a different story. This year, as every year, was fraught with last-minute perils. On my plate this year was the ever-variable Texas weather (will it be 85° or 58°?), a new Regency tailcoat (remember how well that went last time?), and a Normandy Bonnet (Wha—???).

After the disappointment of making a costume last year for a friend only to have it languish when she was unable to attend, I was wary making costumes for anyone other than Chris and I. But while I was able to escape work on the 19th, he was not so lucky. So I laid aside my fear of rejection and asked our friend Jen to go with me. She had never worn a historical costume before, but was interested in sewing and was willing to go through multiple fittings. Regency menswear struck her fancy, so we settled on a tailcoat made from Butterick 3648:

Butterick 3648 used to be out of print, but is now available through McCall’s Cosplay website in the “Vault Collection” as M2021. I used the old Butterick version I purchased off of eBay. I didn’t use the trouser pattern, but the coat pattern was very easy to use, if a bit complex. Bag lining is always a bear! I just can’t wrap my head around the pseudo-topology of it sometimes, but I worked it out. I actually got the inside fairly neat and tidy! It’s a miracle! The jacket pattern itself is quite handsome, and I highly recommend it. Depending on the fabric choices and styling tweaks you make, it can work for 1970s to 1830s. Here are some of my inspiration images:

“Portrait of Nicolas-Pierre Tiolier” by French painter François-Édouard Picot, 1817

 

Men’s ensemble with piqué vest and nankeen pantaloons, 1813
This is one of my favorite Regency outfits ever.

Fashion plate, 1813

Fashion Plate, circa 1802

And here’s the final result:

Photo Courtesy of Festive Attyre

This pattern has a waist seam (not usually found before about 1820 for those concerned with HA) and uses modern techniques to put together–a boon since tailoring is not a skill I possess! I used the size XS for the jacket to get a close fit and it was still a little large even after alterations. I treated the coat as a Victorian bodice rather than a suit jacket for fitting. I learned a handy new alteration, too: forward-sloping shoulder. It is the total opposite of HA (most period coats have shoulder seams over the back of the shoulder, not at the top and definitely not in the front), but the fit and comfort level improved 100% with just that one change. Modern folks just sit more, leading to forward-leaning shoulders. If you struggle with shoulder fitting, this might solve a lot of heartache!

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You can’t see it in this picture, but I also raised the armpit, lengthened the sleeve and reduced the sleeve cap to increase movement. Modern suits have a very sharp sleeve drop-off whereas Regency coats have a more sloping line. The forward-shoulder adjustment was significant, almost an inch!

Since the last few picnics were on the cold side, we decided on a soft, warm cotton flannel in a light slate blue. Cotton flannel is great stuff to sew with, it’s fairly cheap, and it’s easy to find, making it a great option for outerwear if you can’t find/afford wool!

With the addition of some vintage pants, white shirt, gauzy scarf, and a tricket-filled fob, Jen was transformed into a proper, if slightly dandified, Regency gentleman!

Overall, the pattern was a good one, but there were two things I didn’t like. First was the bag lining. This is a personal hangup. I hate slogging through the method even if the results are nice. Trying to line the edges up and sew them crisply was a PITA! The little turn where the standing collar and revers/lapels meet turned out so wrinkled because the many think layers all bunch there despite trimming and notching the seam allowance. This is mostly on me, though. Like a always say, my sewing skills are harried at best, vicious at worst, so it’s no fault of the pattern, just a technique I don’t like/am not used to. The second problem, though, was the pattern’s use of iron-on interfacing for the jacket front. Many good, experienced seamstresses and tailors swear by interfacing to give a nice smooth, full appearance. The period correct method of interfacing/interlining is to pad stitch in horsehair canvas. Since this pattern is designed with modern techniques, the instructions recommend iron-on interfacing to make the front of the jacket, its collar, and revers lay smoothly. I’d never used iron-on interfacing before…NEVER AGAIN.

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IT LOOKED AND FELT SO BAD YOU GUYS. Like, maybe I chose the wrong type or weight or whatever, but…NO! It felt like damp paper towel and made the front of the coat look like it was made of craft foam. Thank heavens I had double the amount of the flannel yardage in my stash, otherwise I would have been in a world of hurt. So I had to re-cut and re-sew the entire front of the coat, but this time I used some vintage linen my Nana had given me. It wasn’t nearly as stiff as horsehair would be, but it got the job done and is still soft, more HA, and didn’t make Jen feel like she was being suffocated in a kitchen trash bag.

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You can see that the linen give the revers some oomph.

When given the choice between fabric-covered and metal buttons, Jen chose my favorite brass button from Walmart to give her coat some flash. They are the same type of button I used on my merchant gentleman’s coat. They are cheap and fabulous—I highly recommend them! Plus, they mimic the look of new gilt buttons from the era. Just a few weeks ago I found some original buttons at a local antique store. The Walmart ones are much lighter weight and way shinier, but look at how similar they are:

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Guess which ones are are the Whal-mert buttons!
…yeah, the ones on the right.
They’re not perfect dupes, but for their look and price-point, you can’t beat ’em!

The waistcoat I improvised from the coat pattern by omitting the tails, standing collar (though early Regency waitcoats had standing collars, too), and sleeves and cutting the back as one piece. The striped fabric is way too precious to use my usual slap-dash sewing methods. I’d never made a properly lined vest before, but it was waaaaay weirder than I had anticipated, yet with lots of help of Google and some awesome bloggers who took really helpful pictures, I succeeded.

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The vest has small white plastic buttons down the front because I didn’t have enough vintage mother of pearl buttons that match. I was so proud of myself: I finally gathered the gumption to use the buttonhole function on my machine to spare myself the embarrassment of making hideous hand-sewn buttonholes! Though now, I wonder if that contributed to the death of my sewing machine….

Yes. That happened, too.

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On Thursday, my Singer Simple ground to a halt. Despite all my best efforts oiling, faithfully de-linting, and changing needles, wrenching the flywheel forward felt like it is full of gravel, it sounded like death, and it would only sew at top speed, whumping like a thrash metal drumline with each stitch. And yes, I did try all the usual fixes. I took out the bobbin apparatus. I oiled every bit that could conceivably need oil. I took off the plastic cover and checked every part I could access. I am no sewing machine expert and while I was upset since the machine was a gift from my parents, I had no time to get it serviced before the event and it was more cost effective to buy a new machine. So I did.

I will confess that–and it’s a bit silly, I know– when I brought the new machine into the house, I made sure to box up the old machine and lay it quietly in the downstairs closet before I even took the new machine upstairs because–yes, it’s so ridiculous, but I didn’t want to hurt the old machine’s feelings….ya know? The last thing I need is the ghost of Sewing Machine Past haunting me in the middle of the night as I tossed and turned in my bed, tormented by a guilty conscious and the sound of grinding flywheels.

When I typed in “haunted sewing machine” into Google, this was one of the first results. Pearls Before Swine never fails me….unlike a certain sewing mach—nooooooooooo! It’s coming for meeeeeee!
Jokes aside, it was pretty emotionally traumatic and incredibly frustrating since it was so close to the deadline. It actually wasn’t actually the buttonholes that did it. My machine continued to sew well until I had finished my bonnet and started my dress mockup. There’s just something out of plumb in a place I can’t reach.

As soon as the new machine had ascended the throne, I launched right back into sewing. I’d been far too unproductive this year and I felt the burning need to finish something. One too many bowls of mac n cheese had piled up on my hips, so nothing fit anymore, so I had to sew or go plain-clothes! NOOOOOOO!

By slicing and dicing my old version of sliced-and-diced Simplicity 4055, I made a bodice that fit well enough to be wearable:

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That top left photo shows this alteration in progress. I also performed a FBA and changed the gown from a back closure to a front closure and only inserted a drawstring in the front instead of all the way around.

This was not Pragmatic, guys. I will be the first to admit it. It’s a ton of work to size up a pattern that much! It’s great alteration practice, though, so there is a bright side. For example, this pattern will now fit between a 40 and 46 inch bust, so even if current weight trends continue, this pattern will still fit for a while.

Speaking of bright sides, I used a possibly-poly-linen-blend from the Walmart value fabric section in yolk yellow for the fabric. Simplicity 4055 is a great pattern, but the sleeves can be obnoxious. The illustration and notches are kind of confusing. We’re so used to putting the sleeve seam at the back of the dress and the illustration appears to show that set-up, but when you set the sleeves that way this happens:

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The top photo shows the angled wrinkles as the sleeve fullness bunches at the front of the shoulder and you cannot reach forward. When I lift my arm backwards, the wrinkles follow the movement naturally. As I discovered in my previous striped version, the seam goes in the front, quite high up, too! Then you have a nice, full range of motion.

I also made an apron from a sheet, but I didn’t take any pictures. I just freehanded a top shape and used the front overskirt panel from Simplicity 4055 as a guide. I cheated and used the pre-hemmed edge of the sheet–one less thing to hem!

Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

As garish as the ketchup and mustard combo is, the dress and apron are not the stars of the show, though. That honor might go to my bonnet:

Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

It’s certainly not your average regency coif! Indeed, this isn’t like any Regency bonnet I’d ever seen before. (While Chris was helping me take pictures of my pattern draft, he asked me why I was making a chef hat out of coffee filters). It’s quite a statement!  So why did I choose this peculiar bonnet instead of, say, a classic turban or pokebonnet?

Depending on how much you’ve read on my blog, you may remember this particular Find of the Month:

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You can read all about it here, but the TL:DR version is that I bought this early 19th century Saint Lo paste cross on eBay. Much like my weird concern for my sewing machine’s feelings, one of my lovable eccentricities is the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I “reunite” something old with the fashions of it’s youth, for example, wearing an 1890s jacket in a Victorian house or pairing an 1850s book with a crinoline dress. I like to imagine their surprise at seeing something from their distant past after decades of watching modernity grow up around them. This battered old pendant has a particularly soft place in my heart. It’s not as eye-catching as my bonnet, but this is the true star of the show. It deserved to worn in the sunshine on a velvet ribbon once again! But what would it have been worn with?

I set about researching the costumes of Saint Lo in Marche in the Western part of Normandy, France, not expecting to find much about something so particular and obscure. You think I would have learned by now that if you ask the right questions long enough, the internet is full of surprising answers:

Embed from Getty Images

 There are two other images as well, but I do not have a license to post them directly. :(
One is here.
The other, which is my primary inspiration image, is here.

I never in my wildest dreams thought that’d I’d find one, much less three, original engravings of the traditional costume of Saint Lo and from the exact period my pendant was made! What an amazing time we live in!
The book they came from is “Costumes de femmes du pays de Caux, et de plusieurs autres parties de l’ancienne province de Normandie” by Louis-Marie Lante and Pierre de La Mésangère with engravings by Georges Jacques Gatine, first published in 1827. The book is full of full color engravings of the local costumes of the cities, villages,a and countryside in Normandy. There is even a digitized version from the New York Library you can see online! Sadly, not all of the plates were scanned in color and it seems to be missing some (and there a few doubles) so it may be an incomplete copy or some plates came out in a different edition.

Looking through the photos, I noticed that throughout the region there were lots of bright colors, pinned on aprons, and fichus/neckerchiefs/shawls. Oh, and bonnets!

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The shape of my bonnet ended up being a cross between Saint Lo and Lisieux.

Normandy is famous for its traditional costumes, especially extravagant bonnets/coifs/caps! The caps styles vary greatly from town to town, family to family, and woman to woman, but they are generally lacy and full or tall and frilled…sometimes both! I couldn’t find a pattern online, especially on my short deadline, and my drafting skills are rudimentary at best. So as much as I’d like to make an exact replica, I decided it’d be best to design my own take on a Normandy bonnet. I took the main elements of the Saint Lo Bonnet and broke it down into components:

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Tall body, accordion pleated frill, and puffed top.

I used Swedish sewing paper Becky had given me to draft the bonnet. It’s non-woven and stiff enough to stand on its own. A fabric bonnet would be more work to get it to look right. First, I needed a fabric that was thin, lightweight, but strong. Orgnady would be a good choice, but I already had this sheer white cotton shirt from Goodwill on hand:

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After cutting and assembling the main part of the cap, I starched it…A LOT. I used this recipe, but dunked the cap and un-pleated frill instead of spritzing them. To help hold the shape when it was drying, I made this highly professional hat block:

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Worked great, except the starchy water dissolved some of the paint, so the inside of my cap faintly reads “Taco Casa.”

The back frill was done in accordion pleats. Accordion pleats are tedious to iron, lemme tell you! This book has a great description of the process. Without a pleater board, you can’t get pleats much smaller than 1/2″ or so. One source even said that accordion pleats are best left to professionals only! You know how well that sort of challenge goes in my craft room.

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Accordion pleats stack up just like a handfan, so you are ironing on a tall, thin edge. I ended up having to pleat one half of the frill and then pleat the other half, meeting as close to the middle as possible, otherwise, it became too tall to iron! To keep the halves together as the pleats set, I whips stitched them. Heavily starching the fabric helped immesly because it gave the fabric the texture of paper, so it was similar to working with construction paper.

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 The fanned frill is a separate piece that I basted on to the back of the cap. The tips of the frill are held open using small straight pins (which I had to do without the benefit of a mirror at the picnic. The bonnet is too tall to wear in the car!).

The day of the picnic had just enough wind that I needed two bobby pins to secure it in front since it’s so tall and wide it acts like a sail!

Overall, the picnic was a success! We played a skittles/tenpins, took a few turns trying out the bandelore (yo-yo), and generally enjoyed the refreshing autumn air.

My friend Jen pointed out that we were Disney Princess colors!

I’m looking forward to next year!

Find more photos on Festive Attyre’s (Jen Thompson) Flickr Album:

2016 Georgian Picnic

And on my meager Flickr page:

Georgian Picnic 2016

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Find of the Month: Early 19th Century Gilt Buttons

October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Find of the Month posts you might like:

Find of the Month: English Silver-Gilt Button

Find of the Month: Stuart Crystal Breeches Button

Find of the Month: Gentleman’s Black Silk Stock Collar circa 1840-1844

July 2016

I always seem to write these “Find of the Month” posts when I have otherwise been highly neglectful of this poor blog! I have been working longer hours over the summer which has left little time for costume projects, but has given me a little extra money. For a weekend treat, Christopher took me to a new antique store we’d been trying to visit for a year now: Maine Barn and Attic Antiques on Highway 199 outside of Azle. The only catch is that Christopher and I both work on Saturdays — the only day the shop is open! We finally got to visit and it was WONDERFUL!

Inside is a dreamland. It’s the classic antique store I remember from my childhood before “antique stores” became expensive craft and clothing boutiques with a few overpriced knicknacks scattered about. I have nothing against craftshops or boutiques, but nothing beats a smorgasbord of true antique finds in the rough– dusty, weathered, and crammed in every corner! The Maine Barn and Attic is huge and is packed floor to ceiling with everything imaginable, even a not-so-shiny-but-very-romantic little surrey with the fringe on the top. I wish I’d gotten some interior pictures, but I was so engrossed, I forgot. The place is THAT GOOD. They do have a Facebook page.

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The prices were all very reasonable and the variety of goods endless. However, they only take cash or check– no credit cards! I did not know that, so I had amassed a small pile before I realized that I didn’t have a lick of cash on me. The proprietors kindly offered to hold my pile (“Happens all the time”) and I returned the following week to pick up treasures…and then some.

In the darkest corner of the shop, I was ecstatic to exhume one piece in particular: a black silk stock collar!

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I found it folded like this in a plastic bin filled with crumbling beaded trim and ric-rac. I literally “squeed” out loud and clutched it to my chest. 

Stocks are such a fascinating piece of clothing. Men had been wearing tall, stiff collars in various forms for centuries, but early 19th century stocks are a very distinctive garment. A brother of the cravat and jabot, stocks are high collars made in one piece, frequently stiffened with horsehair or boning to keep them standing tall. A stock accentuates a man’s neck’s length and *ahem* girth, swathing his face to the jaw and sometimes even to the cheeks! They were common in military uniforms, always a source of inspiration for civilian fashion, and were further popularized by King George the IV, the foremost dandy of the time:

Portrait Miniature of King George the IV by Johann Paul Georg Fischer, circa 1815

Some say that George wore them to distract from his chubby face (he was frequently lampooned for a being a larger fellow), but stock collars also helped military officers and civilians alike maintain a ramrod straight posture, projecting strength and control with a dash of mystique. Usually thought of as a Romantic Era (1825-1840) item, stocks were widely worn into the 1850s until fashions shifted to a more boxy, relaxed day look for men.
The stock I stumbled upon at Maine Barn and Attic Antiques is made of very lustrous black silk with a very stiffly starched linen collar basted inside.

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The stock is 15 inches long not including the tab and is 4 inches tall at the center, 5 inches if you include the linen collar.

The edges close with a three-pronged steel buckle. The prongs of the buckle are very sharp, designed to pierce directly through the fabric tab rather than to fit through pre-made eyelets.

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When I first saw the stock, I was struck by just how tall it is! I wouldn’t say I have a long neck, but I don’t have a stumpy one either. This collar would not fit me comfortably no matter how good my posture is! A gentleman would have to hold his chin tilted quite high in order to accommodate it.

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When you look at the stock laid out, it has a very definite taper. It is wider in the center and smaller at the buckled ends. It would seem, then, that for comfort and ease of dressing, a gentlemen would wear it buckled in front so that the narrower end would tuck under his chin, like this:

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However, this does not seem to be the case. Many extant stocks have both a buckle behind and a decorative bow to adorn the front:

Silk Wedding Stock, circa 1835

Black Silk Stock with long ties, circa 1820

While mine lacks the decorative tie in front, it is shaped the same and is probably designed to buckle in back like so:

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You can see the graceful curve in the center. It’s not boned, but the horsehair/canvas interlining is plenty stiff to keep the shape. The collar inside has what appear to be decorative pressed folds (though they may just be from how it was stored).

The stock forces the wearer to tilt his chin up in a rather proud posture, very different from the modern slumped posture we’ve adopted with our chins tucked back and down. Such tall stocks are usually found in paintings and fashion illustrations from the earlier decades of the 19th century, from about 1810 to 1835.

David Lyon by Thomas Lawrence, circa 1825

Men in Tailcoats and Top Hats (french), circa 1830-34
Cravats and stocks create similar looks. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell in drawings and early photos which is which, but they could be worn together as well.

Portrait Miniature of a Gentleman by John Wood Dodge, circa 1833
For a lovely collection of late Georgian fashion plates showcasing some impressive neckwear, click here.

 Stocks were considered one of the many accessories needed to be a well-dressed respectable gentleman, but the garment also features prominently in satirical cartoons poking fun at the ever-flamboyant dandy whose fashion faux pas often included preposterous proportions and pretentious postures aided by hyperbolic stocks long enough to make a giraffe uncomfortable:

“An Exquisite” Satirical Cartoon of a Dandy from around 1820

Thanks to its size and styling, I thought for certain I had a Georgian stock from around 1825-1835 in my possession. However, when I folded it open and took a closer look, I discovered some damning–albeit awesome–proof that my stock isn’t as old as I originally thought.

The inside is in rough, but not terrible, shape. The collar is still papery crisp from the last time it was starched all those years ago. It is mounted on a neckband that has a pointed dip in the center to somewhat follow the lines of the stock.

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Other than the large basting stitches holding the linen collar on (which are kind of sloppy even for basting. One basting stitch even nipped through the black outer silk. If you look close at the pics of the outside, you might see the tiny white blip) everything is hand sewn with absolutely beautiful, tiny stitches.
Here’s one of my cheap, slightly bent hand needles looking absolutely vulgar next to the dainty stitches that hold the silk lining to the leather piping along the top edge of the stock:

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19 stitches per inch– yes, I counted!

The tiny stitches, beautiful as they are, have split along the bottom edge, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the pad stitching inside! Once again, the stitches are dense and small enough to make a fairy cry:

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Compare the stitches to the tiny fashion magazine print on the left—each stitch is barely the height of an i!

Inked under the linen collar are a few odd markings, perhaps laundry or ownership marks? They are done in blue ink which has blotted a bit:

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I also discovered the greatest gift any random antique object can possibly give: The original maker’s stamp, clear as day, fabulously green, and perfect!

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“Ward Manufacturer. No. 116 North Fifth Street. Philadelphia. & No. 40 North 4th”

I HAD to look the company up! And I found…..a modern pipe fittings company that started in 1924. Hint: this stock is far older than that.
But the Wards Manufacturer that made my stock did me a huge favor: they included not one, but two addresses in their stamp! So, where would a gentleman need to go in order to buy this stock?
I looked up both addresses and quickly realized that this stock was going to push me down a deeper rabbit hole than I had anticipated.

As it turns out, the old part of North 5th street has been renamed Independence Mall East. You can search for the address in google maps, but it is now part of Independence Mall– mere blocks from Independence Hall and right across from the Philadelphia Mint! The shop is now a parking lot; the building was destroyed in the 1950s to clear the land for Independence Mall. 40 North 4th was also lost to time; it is now near a modern office building.

116 and 40 in the same picture modern day

Approximate Locations of 116 North 5th and 40 North 4th in the modern world. Neither of these addresses belong to buildings anymore, so Google only offers approximations.

I refused to resign myself to this unsatisfactory answer. Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network to the rescue! I found this amazing research website through this “How to Research the History of a House” packet. The GeoHistory Network website is chock-full of amazing features for anyone wanting to research historic Philadelphia.
The most fascinating tool is the Interactive Map Viewer which allows you to view, at full scale, antique maps overlayed over modern Google Maps, so you can find exactly where something was even if that street or building doesn’t exist anymore! And guess what: I found 116 North 5th street!

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The most detailed map is the 1875 Atlas map, which even has some lots and businesses labelled. Here, you can see 116 (labelled with only a 16) across from Appletree Alley/Lane, a street which once ran where the Philadelphia Mint is now.

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1858 Map of Philadelphia is the earliest map with clearly marked building numbers, proving that 116 N. 5th existed back to at least 1858 in the same location.

These maps don’t have “street view” like Google Maps, but I learned that William H. Rease, a Philadelphia lithographer, did a series of illustrations in the 1840s and 1850s of local businesses. He didn’t makes an illustration of Ward’s shops specifically (darn). However, he did do an illustration of the businesses mere steps away at the corner of N. 5th and Market Streets:

Detailed view of “Bennett & Company, Tower Hall Clothing Bazaar, Number 182 Market Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets, Philadelphia” circa 1853
There’s also a great vintage photograph of this same section taken in 1949. These buildings were also leveled in the Independence Mall project.

I also found 40 North 4th which, despite playing second fiddle, turned out to be the key to dating my silk stock! Here it is on the 1875 and 1858 maps:

40 north fourth street 40 north fourth street 1858

Unlike 116 N. 5th, the 4th street address is labeled with a name on nearly every map: It’s the Merchant’s Hotel!

“Merchant’s Hotel, Number 38, North Fourth Street, Philadelphia” circa 1838

The Merchant Hotel was built in 1837. On the bottom floor were spaces rented out for shops. It was not demolished in the  Independence Mall project, but burned in 1966, so it’s no longer with us either.
Street numbering in Philadelphia was changed a few times throughout its history. So the 1830s illustration above shows shop #38 on the right while the 1857 illustration below shows a different set of numbers:

40 N. 4th street was either in or right next to the hotel, depending on the street numbering that year. No one said doing research was easy!

Since the Merchant’s Hotel wasn’t built until 1837/38, my stock could be no older than that.

The GeoHistory website had another tool to share with me: a digital library of City Directories dating all the way back to 1785! City Directories were the phone book in an era before phones. It listed every tradesperson, their occupation, and their shop’s address. I dove into the directories starting at 1837 and I emerged triumphant!

Ward’s Manufacturing, as it turns out, was owned by one George W. Ward whose business life is chronicled by the annual city directories of the late 1830s to the 1850s:

1837 phil bis directory ward dry goods1837: His first appearance at the address listed on my stock, 116 N. 5th Street. He is listed as a general dry goods seller.

1839 phil bis directory ward stocks1839: George W. Ward decides to specialize in manufacturing gentleman’s stocks. Philadelphia had a large garment manufacturing industry and there were a few other stock makers/manufacturers in the area besides Mr. Ward. 116 North 5th Street placed him right in the midst of the bustling shopping district.

1840 phil bis directory ward stocks1840: He’s still there! Merrily manufacturing stocks on N. 5th Street.

1841 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1841: BINGO! Mr. Ward expands his stock manufacturing business to a shop in the Merchant’s Hotel. This is the first year that both addresses are listed in the directory as they appear in the stamp on my stock.

1842 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1842: Putting his stock in stocks!

1843 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1843: Ditto.

1844 phil bis directory ward stocks both addresses1844: Still merrily manufacturing stocks!

1845 phil bis directory ward gents furnishings1845: Mr. George W. Ward is no longer making stocks, but moves shop to #38 (from the engraving above!) and decides to go back to the dry goods he sold before, but this time with a specific, posh clientele in mind. “Furnishing” in this case is not furniture for a room, but men’s clothing and accessories. As a gentleman’s furnisher, he would have still sold stocks, but he likely outsourced production to a different stockmaker.

An advertisement for a Victorian furnishing store. Mr. Ward’s shop would have sold similar items.

George W. Ward was a very active man, constantly evolving and moving his business, even starting a short-lived weekly newspaper called the “Sunday Ledger” around 1850:

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 george w ward newspaper 1848

Mr. Ward certainly liked to stay busy!

From all this, I know that my stock must have been made between about 1840 and 1845. Less Mr. Darcy and more Charles Dickens, but still very exciting!

Charles Dickens by William Powell Frith, circa 1859

1840s Fashion Plate showing three fashionable gentlemen.

Black Silk Stock, circa 1840

Portrait of Michael Faraday by Antoine Claudet

Daguerreotype of the cutest 1840s couple ever!
If you love daguerreotypes or early Victorian fashion, you’ll love this site: Archive of Fine Daguerreotypes

Even though Mr. George W. Ward’s company only made stocks for about 5 years, the stocks they produced were very well designed. Ward Manufacturing’s stocks even earned a commendation for their quality in the Franklin Institute’s 13th Exhibition of American Manufactures in 1843:

Journal of The Franklin Institute 1843 ward stocks

You’ll notice there are a few other quality stock manufacturers in Philadelphia at the same time, so he might have run in to some fierce competition that prompted him to diversify.

I’m no expert on 19th century stocks, yet I can instantly feel how well-made mine is. I mean, it has survived for over 150 years in very good shape! I am so happy to have found it– and at $9.50, it was an excellent bargain!

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Though that stray little basting stitch is slowly driving me batty! :P

The Genteel Fashionista’s Dialogue: A Humorous Timeline of Fashion

In the Classic Style of Historical Fashion Satire and in the Spirit of Congenial Camaraderie, I Present to You the Product of an Overly-Active Brain in the Form of a Fashion Timeline in which there is much Over-Generalization, a Single Expletive, and a Dearth of Illustrations:

THE GENTEEL FASHIONISTA’S DIALOGUE

The Genteel Fashionista Dialog

1770s – Let’s flaunt how wealthy we are with lots of delicate, expensive fabric and wall-like skirts so wide we need special doors, furniture, and houses built just to accommodate them! Pass the hair powder and Pomeranians!

1780s – Thanks to new technological advances and the start of the Industrial Revolution, I am enjoying my emerging merchant-class lifestyle! However, panniers get in the way when I try to navigate city living. High hats and hair, though, I can do. Also, I am strangely beguiled by these cork rumps….

1790s – The peasants are pissed. Maybe big hair, big hats, and big butts weren’t the way to go. Plus, there’s a bunch of cool Greco-Roman stuff in style. Let’s ditch ridged stays and huge skirts for the more refined Empire look…YIKES! A PIKE!

1800s – What a mess that was! Now that the bloodshed is over, I can safely wear white again. These fine, diaphanous fabrics are really expensive and the white makes my spendy imported shawls really pop! I feel on top of the world again!

1810s – Slim sleeves and silhouettes make me look like every other belle at the ball. Some fancy hem trims and puffier sleeves will make me stand out!

1820s – MORE TRIMS! MORE SLEEVES!
Also, maybe some petticoats to help show off ALL THESE HEM TRIMS better.

1830s – F*ck yeah, giant sleeves! Also, I’ve got a pretty hot bod. Those old Regency sacks hide all my hotness, so let’s go back to natural waistlines and open up the neckline for some shoulder action. I am ready for some romancin’!

1840s – Hmmm…maybe I went a little too crazy with the sleeves, low necklines, and bonnets the size of a serving platter. But I like having a waistline again. Let’s see just how much waistline we can get. Longer! I NEED LOOOOONGER!

1850s – Thanks to my corset, my waist is looking better than ever! However, I’m beginning to miss big sleeves. Every belle needs bell sleeves. I could layer them, like those exotic Asian pagoda roofs I saw in a book once. Speaking of roofs, these stacks of petticoats are getting tough to walk in. Maybe I need some rafters…

1856 – HELLO STEEL HOOPED CAGED CRINOLINE, MY NEW BEST FRIEND.

1860s – These hoops are awesome! Now I can display yards and yards of expensive fabric easily again and everyone has to clear the sidewalk to let me through, like Moses parting the sea. Bonus points for getting the sofa all to myself! Let’s see just how big these hoops can go.

1870s – I’ll admit that I might have gone overboard with the hoops, but now that I’ve turned them into a bustle, I can hug people again and the sidewalks of town are cleaner than ever! The sewing machine makes adding trims to my trim’s trim so easy, too!

1875 – The bustle’s poofs and swags are hiding my hot bod again. :(

1878 – This princess line gown shows off my naturally-enhanced-by-a-corset form perfectly. I’ll never hide my glorious bum under a bustle again! What a folly!

1882 – Well, a little padding back there couldn’t hurt…

1885 – HELLO BUSTLES, MY OLD FRIEND.
I’m sorry I ever doubted you!

1890s – Okay, I’ll admit that the bustle thing got out of hand, but I have learned the error of my ways. Let’s go back to the classic combo of tons of petticoats and huge sleeves.

1900s – I have given up big sleeves in favor of something new: tons of lace and s-bend corsets! They say a puffy breast makes my waist look tinier, but in reality, it makes me look like I am careening forward towards social, industrial, and technological progress, just like a new-fangled motorcar draped in an heirloom tablecloth!

1910s – Rushing towards progress is hard to do in full skirts. A slimmer skirt line is in order. Should I go hobble skirt to display my fashion prowess or skirt suit to further the march towards women’s independence? Either way, it will need more decorative buttons.

1920s – Corsets and curves have been incumbent for too long! I vote for President Bob Haircut and Senator Cloche! Drop waists from the ballot and pass the mascara! The world is ready to finally revel in the glory of my knees!

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Here is 160 years worth of fashion plates!
See if you can spot the trends:

1770s fashion plates

1780s fashion plates

1790s fashion plates

1800s fashion plates

1810s fashion plates

1820s fashion plates

1830s fashion plates

1840s fashion plates

1850s fashion plates

1860s fashion plates

1870s fashion plates

1880s fashion plates

1890s fashion plates

1900s fashion plates

1910s fashion plates

1920s fashion plates

From Bed to Bodice: What to Look for When Using Sheets for Fabric

Goin’ Bat-Sheet Crazy!
I use second-hand sheets all the time for my costumes. They are perfect for mockups, linings, or even fashion fabric! Sheets are cheap and plentiful at second-hand shops, outlet stores, and garage sales. They are a great source of fabric for folks who live far from craft shops, need a costume to be inexpensive, or are just learning to sew. Ruining a $4 sheet is much less painful than ruining a $4-a-yard fabric!
Over the years, I have developed a few guidelines to help me wade through bins of sheets to choose the best ones for the task at hand.

sheets

General Sheet-Shopping Guidelines

  • Pick Queen or King size sheets.
  • 100% cotton is great for a more accurate costume.
  • You can never have too many white and solid colored sheets.
  • Test sheets like you would test any fabric at the store for drape, weight, and weave.
  • Buy a variety!
  • Wash all sheets before sewing with them, especially if they are purchased used.

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Choosing Sheets for Mockups

mockups

Mockup sheets are very basic: nearly any sheet will do! However, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Size: A King sized sheet has more yardage than a Twin or Full, meaning you can get more pattern pieces/larger pieces out of it. If you are testing a pattern with large pieces, a larger sheet will come in handy. Twin sheets, however, are perfect for mocking up smaller pieces, like bodices.

Fabric content: Since a mockup is usually just used to see the way a pattern fits together, the content of the sheet’s fabric isn’t usually an issue. However, keep in mind that different types of fabrics have different amounts of stretch and draping, so it is wise to consider what type of fabric you will be using in the final garment and choose a sheet with similar properties. A polyester fabric, for example, may have less give than a cotton one, for instance. This will affect how the garment fits later, so a sheet mockup may fit perfectly, but the final garment might be too tight if the final fabrics have a tighter weave. (PRO TIP: If your final garment is made of woven fabric, don’t use a jersey knit sheet for you mockup!)

Pattern: A mockup will likely be messy and won’t end up in the final garment (unless you choose to use your mockup as a lining or finish it, then see below), so the pattern and color do not matter that much. Bright purple with lime green flowers? Pink elephants? Sexy animal print? DO IT!

Choosing Sheets for Linings

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Sheets can be good linings. Since the lining goes into the final garment, however, it pays to be more judicious.

Fabric Content: Consider what you want your lining to do for your garment. Poly-cotton blends are readily available in a wide variety of textures and colors and are very easy to wash, but they can pill something fierce, become ragged-looking, and scratchy. 100% cotton is breathable, easy to sew and launder, and an excellent all-purpose lining fabric, but there are a few exceptions. For example, does the lining need to be smooth to glide over another garment, like for a coat? Cotton and cotton-blend sheets will cling to other cottons, velvets, and many other soft fabrics, so look for sheets that are slinky, silky, and slippery instead. Many will be polyester, so bear in mind that they might trap heat– a boon for a coat, but a possible curse in the summer!

Weight: Weight can mean two things– the thickness of the fabric and the actual physical weight of the fabric itself– and they aren’t necessarily related! A flannel sheet might be thick, but it may be lighter in physical weight than a densely-woven cotton sheet. I have made the mistake of choosing a thin cotton sheet that turned out to be much too heavy en masse, overwhelming the the light, silky fashion fabric, dragging the whole silhouette down with it. Sheets can be very heavy, so be prepared! Test the weight and drape of a sheet like you would test any fabric at the store!

Size: Check your pattern for the recommended amount of lining yardage to get an idea of what size sheet and how many you will need for your project. This is a handy chart of yardage equivalencies for all sizes of sheets to help you calculate:

Chart by Sew Much Ado

Color/Pattern: Linings and fashion fabrics work together. If there is a chance the lining may show, trying to match or compliment your fashion fabric is a must! If the fashion fabric is sheer or loosely woven, the lining may show trough it, especially in certain lighting. Choose a sheet of a similar shade for the lining or one near your flesh tone so the color of the fashion fabric is not affected, though you can get some interesting color effects if you choose alternate linings. For example, a white fashion fabric may look slightly warmer with an orange cotton lining or a loosely woven black fabric can be laid over a bright magenta lining to produce a changeable silk effect. You aren’t limited to plain colored sheets, either! Printed sheets can make excellent period-correct linings. Some Victorian bodices and skirts were lined with patterned cottons. If the lining won’t be seen at all, color or pattern may not even matter! Made a mock-up in that crazy animal print and want to use it as a lining for your Victorian bodice? DO IT!

It’ll be our little secret…

Choosing Sheets for Fashion Fabric

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This 1710s outfit is made from a sateen sheet, curtains, and a hacked-off pair of men’s slacks.

While cheap sheets aren’t as luxurious as duchess silk satin, they can make excellent fashion fabrics, especially for 19th and 20th century day dresses. They are also fabulous for undergarments, like petticoats and drawers. Many of the guidelines for choosing a good lining sheet also apply to choosing on for fashion purposes, but with a few more specifics:

Size: Size matters! If you are wanting one fabric for your whole dress, you may have to get creative with your pattern piece placement to maximize your fabric. King or even California King are ideal. For most dresses, a Queen sheet is the absolute minimum size I will buy. I was able to squeeze a Size 12 Regency dress out of a Twin sheet and an XL 18th century men’s coat out out of a Queen sheet, but both cases required some pretty creative pattern piece placement! Using a sheet set (flat sheet, fitted sheet, and pillowcases) are ideal for dresses that need more than 5-6 yards of fabric.

Color/Pattern: Sheets had a bad reputation in the costuming world because the print can make or break a costume, but now that many of us have access to the internet, it’s easier than ever to study original garments and fabrics. The best way to tell if a particular sheet will work? RESEARCH! Solid colored sheets are the simplest choice, since solid colors have always been in style. Stripes and plaids (woven or printed) are also great options if you find them! Just keep in mind that stripes and plaids are directional and will take extra fabric to pattern match (if that’s your thing). Sheets with printed patterns can make amazing dresses if you are discerning.  It can be a fine line between Laura Ingalls and Laura Ashley (though sometimes it’s the other way around…)! Browse museum collections, like the V&A, to see examples of original fabrics.

Texture/Shine: Basic cotton sheets are plainly woven and matte. They are great for day dresses! My striped Regency dress is made of a plainly woven polyester sheet with printed stripes:
dressSateen sheets are also fairly easy to find and, thanks to their weave, they have a warm luster to them that can be dressed up a little more than a plain woven sheet. They are also very soft and somewhat heavy. I admit I hoard sateen sheets! I’ve made costumes from sateen sheets in 3 different centuries: Chris’s 1710s coat, another 1810s day dress, Amelia’s 1910s dress!
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Regency Dress made of a Cotton Sateen Sheet

Edge Finish: This a small thing, but it really does make a huge difference! Sheets have one edge that is deeply hemmed, creating the top of the sheet, and a narrower hem at the bottom (where the tag is usually attached).  The sides of sheets can be finished in two ways: hemmed or plain selvedge. I frequently cheat and use the wide finished edge of the sheet for the bottom hem or sleeve openings of a dress (like on the blue regency dress above) to save time, but in order to use every inch of fabric, you must unpick or cut the hems which takes a lot of time! If you choose a sheet that has plain selvedge edges instead of hemmed, you save a lot of time. Plus, the selvedge edges don’t fray, so if you use it as your seam allowance, it will be hidden inside your garment and won’t need any finishing to keep it from fraying: WIN-WIN!

sheet types

Left: Sheet with plain selvedge sides
Right: Sheet with hemmed sides

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Dang! “Seams” like buying sheets is a real chore, huh? Well, when I write it all out like this, it certainly makes it sound tedious, but like anything, the more you practice, the faster it goes. Soon you’ll be judging all your sheets by how good they’d look as a 1770s petticoat or 1930s skirt. Heck, just the other day I found myself eyeballing my actual-factual bed sheets, noting that I should probably get some new ones because I wouldn’t even save them to sew something with! That’s how you know it’s time for new sheets….and that you’ve got too many sheets at the same time!

Lords of Lapels: Flamboyant Tailcoats and Frock Coats of the Early 19th Century

Reveling in Revers
The 1970s only dreamed of being this flamboyant!

I love lapels and collars. The bigger they are, the better! Toss in some velvet or fur and I will swoon!

hermes

Trompe l’oeil lapels by Hermes?
Yes please!

And this one?
We’ll call this the “Margarita collar” because I’d wear it, but it might take a few margaritas to get me there!

Ladies have a large variety of fabulous lapels to choose from, but most men usually only wear lapels on business or formal suits. Apparel prior to the late 18th century was also seriously lacking in the lapel department. The 1780s decided that this lack of lapels was a crime and by the 1790s, men were wearing lapels so large they dwarfed the coat they were attached to! Not satisfied with just a single magnificent lapel, gentlemen and dandies layered lapels. A coat might have double lapels, resting over a waistcoat (or even two), also with lapels! Incroyables, fashion-obsessed youth with a flair for the outrageous, wore the largest and most ostentatious lapels of all:

Tailcoat, circa 1795-1800

“Ha! Those lapels are so puny and insignificant I need an eyeglass to see them!”
A close up of an Incroyable sporting a jaw-dropping set of revers/lapels in an original engraving by Carle Vernet
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Thus began a golden age of menswear–the Age of Lapels!

Silk Tailcoat, circa 1790-95

“Portrait of General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix de Veygoux” by Andrea Appiani, circa 1800
While teh lapels themselves are rather tame, the layering makes them pop.

Wool and Silk Velvet Frock Coat, circa 1820-30

Man’s Dressing Gown, circa 1820
Even at home wear in the 1820s had lapels! How sexy is this toile dressing gown?!

Wool and Silk Velvet Frock Coat, circa 1830-38

Modern menswear is all about making a man look as angular as possible, boxy, even. In the early 19th century, men’s fashion was all about the inverted triangle. Layers of high collars on coats, waistcoats, and shirts –not to mention the massively wide stocks and cravats– combined with tight-fitting boots, breeches, and trousers further enhanced the top-heavy shape, which, admittedly, is not unlike an old-fashioned Barbie doll. Indeed, by the 1830s, you might even say the ideal male shape matched that of his female counterparts:

Fashion plate, circa 1829

Pouf sleeves made the shoulders look larger and nipped-in waists look even smaller. King George IV was rather barrel shaped, so he relied on a belt-like waist cincher to help firm up his middle for a more fashionable appearance. For other fashionable men, even wide lapels and pouf sleeves were not enough, so they, too, turned to corsetry to get the popular pigeon-breasted look. Many cartoonists enjoyed lampooning dandies, poking fun at how similar a man’s dressing routine was to a lady’s. Indeed, a fashionable man during the 1820s wore just as many layers as his female counterpart and put equal effort into his hairstyle, accessories, and cosmetics:

“Dandy’s Toilette: Stays” by an English Satirist, circa 1818
I don’t think a dandy would put his stays over the top of his trousers since it would make unbuttoning them impossible and block access to his fob pocket. However, he was quite wise to put on his boots before lacing up!

“Dandy’s Toilette” by an English Satirist, circa 1818
The final look, though sadly lacking in lapel eye-candy. Still, he cuts a figure anybody, man or woman, might envy! The tailor/manservant is brushing down the tailcoat with a garment brush to remove any loose hairs or dust. Until sticky lint rollers were invented in the 1950s, no wardrobe was complete without a good garment brush (as this 1940s video will tell you).

The ultimate Lord of Lapels was none other than the dashing young Napoleon Bonaparte. Besides sporting large lapels, Regency, Napoleonic, and Romantic era coats were usually coated (Ha ha ha! Coated.) in buttons. A gentleman could decide for himself just how much lapel he thought was appropriate for the occasion. For example, Napoleon’s coats were often worn buttoned to the neck for formality and warmth, but most were also decorated on the inside so he could fold back the lapels for some extra pizzazz!

“Bonaparte, First Consul” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (based on a portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros), circa 1804
This painting has an interesting history (which you can read here).

BAM!
“Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, full-length, as First Consul” either by or copied from Antoine-Jean Gros, circa 1803

He must have really loved this particular coat/style because he is frequently painted wearing it in various states of un-buttoned-ness. Coat fronts designed to fold back into lapels displaying a fancy lining like this are called “revers.” Wikipedia credits the term to the 1860s, but the technique was used long before then. The fanciest revers were worn by the French officers in the Napoleonic wars. Military fashion has always influenced civilian fashion trends and the luscious lapels of the upper military echelons made their way into the formal wear for non-military personnel soon enough. After all, who wouldn’t want lapels/revers like these?

“Portrait of François Paul de Brueys d’Aigaliers” by an unknown artist

From the 1790s to the 1820s, the tailcoat was the go-to men’s garment. Frock coats became fashionable in the 1820s and 30s. They are called frock coats because they have a full skirt around the bottom, unlike a tailcoat which is cut away at the front. “Frock” was originally a general term for loose outerwear for both men and women, but over the years, it developed feminine connotations. Indeed, many modern women’s coats look identical to early 19th century menswear! Modern men’s frock coats are still available, but they are more columnar than their 1830s predecessors.  If you are a slim-shouldered gentleman, you might be able to find the perfect Georgian frock coat in the lady’s section of your local department store!

 coat

Lady’s Fit and Flare Coat by Next
The 1820s and 1830s style of frock coat is now known as a “fit and flare peacoat” and if you find one with buttons that end at/above the waist and big, bold lapels–JACKPOT!

Many modern coats can be quickly modified to look more antique by “down-dating” the lapels. For example, a coat styled like the one above can be left unbuttoned at the top just like Napoleon’s uniform. Add some decorative braid or velvet to the inside edges for glorious Napoleonic-style revers! A stunning fur shawl collar is another easy way to dress up a frock coat for late-Georgian costumes. You can simply tack a crescent-shaped piece of faux fur or a vintage fur collar to an existing coat to mimic the look of an elegant Georgian frock coat:

Winter Frock Coat with Fur Shawl Collar, circa 1828-30

Men weren’t relegated to dark colors, either! While the most popular 19th century colors for men’s coats were blue, brown, and black, there were exciting coats out there, too:

Silk Dress Coat, circa 1825-30
Day coats were generally subdued, but evening wear and dressing gowns were frequently bright and colorful.

By the time Queen Victoria inherited the throne in 1837, lapels had calmed down considerably. Large shawl collars stuck around, but the true golden age of ostentatious lapel tailoring lasted from about 1790 to 1835. If you aren’t as enamored with giant lapels as I or an Incroyable might be, don’t fret. There were many styles and sizes of lapels to choose from and many modern coats will work just fine as-is. For example, for Christopher’s Georgian Picnic outfit, he just wore his everyday modern wool coat:

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Large, full-length coats like this were called “great coats.” They were often worn over tailcoats during the late 18th and early 19th century for extra warmth until frock coats came into fashion. You can read more about Chris’s 1820s outfit here.

Honestly, a coat, waistcoat (vest), pair of slacks or trousers, and dress shirt is all a gentleman needs to start putting together a handsome Regency outfit. So go big, go small, or wild but don’t go home because, seriously, ladies love a man in costume! Fancy lapels are just a bonus.

:)

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Aaaaannnd….bonus picture of Alison’s awesome Marat cosplay/costume with the most redonk set of leopard print lapels!

There are no words…
Check out her tumblr and deviantart pages to check out her fantastic cosplays, historical costumes, and more!

Also, here’s a great suit-coat-to-tail-coat tutorial.

From Cup to Curl: How to Get Fabulous Historical Hair Using Straws

Big Hair was a Big Deal Long Before Dallas and Dolly Parton!

Those of you that browse my rambling frequently are well aware that I am hair illiterate. Indeed, I know next to nothing about taming my crispy, unruly mane. Yet, I am slowly teaching myself a few tricks here and there, and the internet has been a boon for my boring locks.

As a strong adherent to the old cliche that “every curly-haired girl wants straight hair and every straight-haired girl wants curls,” I have dreamed of lovely curls since childhood. When I was very young, my mother had tightly permed 1980s poodle hair (her words, not mine!), and I remember playing with her pink plastic hair pick, pretending I had a perm that needed fluffing, too. I am infinitely envious of those glamorous 1980s superstars like Bernadette Peters and Whitney Houston who had curls so luscious no scrunchie could contain them! A perm is still on my wish list (even though everyone who survived the 80s or who has naturally curly hair tries their best to talk me out of it).

Besides wanting crazy amounts of day-to-day curls, my historical costuming adventures have reenforced just how important curls have been throughout the ages. The 1980s do not hold the monopoly on excessive amounts of curl! Indeed, many eras require spiral curls to achieve the right look:

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An Unknown Nobelwoman painted by the wonderful Jacob Ferdinand Voet modelling a 1670s hairstyle.

This lovely Portrait of a Lady by François Henri Mulard displays the shorter spiral curls popular during the Regency era.

This mid-19th century teenage girl has possibly the most enviable set of sausage curls in the history of mankind! I found her photo (and the one below) while I was researching Victorian haircare and have been obsessed ever since!

This unknown beauty from the 1870s perfectly demonstrates the decade’s fashion for intricately curled and mounded hair.

Other eras benefit from the volume brushed-out curls can give, especially late 18th century and early 20th century hairstyles:

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, late 18th century, demonstrating the infamous “hedgehog” hairstyle.

Miss Carlyle and Miss Clarke enjoy tea Gibson Girl style while attempting to balance the hair piled fashionably high on their foreheads.

Many of these looks were achieved through wigs and hair extensions. Buying and selling human hair has been big business for centuries and one of the greatest criticisms of hair fashions was the fact that many styles often meant that the majority of the hair on a woman’s head was not her own, but that of a complete stranger! Much of the hair used to make switches and wigs came from peasant girls in rural areas, so a princess might literally have the hair of a pauper.

Fancy hairstyles and the hair switches required to complete them, circa 1867

 Unless you are lucky enough to be gifted by nature with thick, voluminous locks, hairpieces, rats, rolls, and wigs are all part of a modern historical costumer’s hair arsenal. There are plenty of awesome tutorials with tricks to boost the volume of your natural hair with socks and hair rats or make yourself a completely new hairdo using a wig. Jen of Festive Attyre always has beautiful big Georgian hair thanks to a combination of curling her own hair and adding in a hairpiece:

 I can barely handle my own hair, so rats and hairpieces escape me and wigs are a whole ‘nother beast entirely. I do have a squishy net doughnut that I use to help me make buns, but otherwise, I have very few hair-boosting tools (indeed, I didn’t have a hairdryer until my sister bought me one for my birthday this year). My go-to to get the volume I crave has long been braiding. I used a single braid to get fluffy 1890s “New Woman” hair:

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How to Get No-Fuss Fluff for the New Woman

I have been known to wander around the apartment complex looking like this:

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To get to 1890s/1980s worthy fluff, you must first re-live the 1990s.

If I braid my whole head like this, I am rewarded with glorious poofy hair that looks like it was crimped:

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Enjoying the irony as Mother Nature wearing faux foliage in the middle of a Taco Bell.

However, it’s not curls. I’d attempted pin curls a few times over the years, but I never got them to work satisfactorily, so for Georgian Picnic this year, I decided to try something new. I had been stumbling around Pinterest as one is wont to do at 3am when I started seeing all these pins about straw curlers and the photos made my jaw drop:

AAAAAAAAAAAAAA! SO GORGEOUS!

Most the the tutorials I found were for African American hair and I worried that my pale, limp locks wouldn’t be able to support the curls thanks to their lack of texture, but I decided to try it anyway. Anything for those spirals!

I found this tutorial and when I saw the curls she got at 6:06, I freaked out!
CURLS! SAUSAGE CURLS! JUST LIKE 1860s GIRL’S SAUSAGE CURLS!

 I think I would have fallen out of the chair if there wasn’t a cat in my lap digging her claws into my thigh for dear life. The day before Georgian Picnic, I bought a cheap pack of 100 straws for about $1.50 at Walmart and commenced experimenting. I was aiming for a hairstyle like this:

Portrait of Jane Horley by Rolinda Sharples, circa 1815-20

So I separated the front half of my hair and curled it, leaving the back uncurled (I put it up in a bun). I didn’t use any products in my hair before, during, or after. I did have slightly damp hair when I began.

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My hair in its natural state.

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I bent the straws and held them in place with bobbie pins, murdering quite a few in the process. Long metal hair clips would probably work better. You might even have some and not know it! Check your sewing kit. Fabric clips and hair clips are quite similar.

I will admit that I had a little trouble rolling the hair onto the straws. Most of that just springs from my inability to roll hair (hence why curlers, pin curls, and any other type of curl had thus far been unattainable). I rolled my hair over itself instead of all along the straw like in the video. This worked for my purposes in the end, however, because Regency curls are short anyway.

I slept on my straw-filled hair, but as I would later find out, the straws work their magic in only a few hours. When I took out all the straws, this is what I ended up with:

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My hair is much longer in front than a Regency woman’s would have been, so my curls hang lower than most portraits show.

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After phutzing with the ringlets a bit.

This is the hair I attended Georgian Picnic with. Since it was my first attempt, it was a bit messy, but it did suit the romantic aura of the era pretty well.

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Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

When I got home, I separated the ringlets with my fingers just to see what they looked like looser and I was rewarded with light, fluffy, fairly natural-looking curls:

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I lost about 1/2 of my hair’s length to the curls, mostly due to the way I wrapped them around the straws. If you wrap the hair more evenly over the straws, you won’t lose as much length.

The curls had good volume and made a nice Gibson Girl pouf pretty easy. I wish I’d taken a photo! Since I’d gone this far, might as well go the extra mile and brush everything out!

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Helloooooooooo giant hair of my dreams!

I’m only a few hairpins, some hair powder, and one fabulous hat away from this:

Portrait of Catherine Clemens by George Romney, circa 1788

I am so excited to have finally found a curling method that works for my hair! The curls held well until I had to wash my hair the next day, so they are perfect for long events. They survived wind, rain, and my hat in great condition. I tried them a second time for my dress photoshoot and only left the straws in my hair for about two hours. The final curls were a bit looser, but still held up to outdoor photography. Plus, I’d gotten a bit better at winding the hair around the straws, so the results were much smoother:

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I also did fewer curls to save time and ended up liking the look much better.

So  my straw curler experiment was a complete success! There are skinny wired-foam curlers that work similarly, but I never got them to work as well as these good ol’ Wally World drinking straws– a cheap and effective solution!