I have photos of the dress being worn forth-coming and they are really amazing. Stay posted.
I have worn the ensemble in public twice for durations longer than 4 hours. I find myself explaining to my company that the dress is a dress, and can be worn, moved in, and sat in. I do not need to stand up in it, I can get up by myself, I can walk and even run, and, yes, I can breathe just like everyone else. I just breathe, stand and walk differently.
WEARING THE CORSET
(everyone’s favorite reading material)
I tight-laced the corset on Saturday night and was uncomfortable after about four hours. It was rather pointless, since I fit the bodice without the tight-lacing so any further reduction in the size of my waist would not have shown. The well-deserved deep breath I took when it was taken off felt fantastic. I would imagine that Victorian women would do what we would call ‘tight-lacing’ for short durations only, sticking to a looser lacing for daily social occasions.
Remember, the corset was their version of our bra. It was just as common, and not reserved for special occasions. But just as the modern woman will have underwear for the gym, for school or work, with a formal gown, or on a special date or event, so would a Victorian woman own a number of corsets in differing magnitudes/powers. They manufactured nursing corsets, corsets for young girls with poor posture, and more relaxed versions with limited boning.
The modern concept of the corset being an item for the naughty and deviant is an evolution of its meaning. Since I am taking a class on Beowulf, I will call to mind an example from Old English. The word deor in old English means beast or monster and can be applied to a vigorous fighter. The word evolved to simply mean animal, and finally, came to rest at it’s current translation: deer. So when one translates a sentence describing Beowulf as a ‘deor’ it means he is a fighting man of monstrous powers in melee, not Bambi.
The corset used to be an clothing item that would smooth a woman’s lines, show no unseemly bulges, prevent sweat from coming through the clothes in a time of no deodorant, and keep her posture long to present her as a member of the non-labor class and in good health. It was a functional tool. The corset has evolved with links now to Bettie Page, bondage, subversion and victimization. When I made and wore my corset, it was for the former purpose, not the later.
Today, I wore the corset for about four hours with it not tight-laced, and it was actually comfortable. Unlike popular conceptions of Victorian corsets, it does not hurt your back. In fact, I have read that tight-lacing corsets is easier if you have no stomach muscles, since stomach muscles are less squishy than fat. The back-supporting stays of the corset can hold your back straight on its own, no stomach muscles necessary. Upper class women in the Victorian period, who would be trained with corsets from an early age developed a dependency on the corset since most of them were relatively inactive and had no encouragement – either physical or social – to develop chiseled abs. They had outstanding posture, however, and their years of tight-lacing can’t have been that much worse for them than years chained to a computer desk with no attempts to improve and maintain good posture.
For some unexplained reason, it makes me stiff in my upper back where the corset does not cover. But perhaps that is because I was trying to hold my neck very straight. The Edwardian S-curve corset may be different, but that is the topic for another post and project.
WEARING THE GOWN
It is a dress, and can be worn like any other dress. It is hemmed correctly for me, so I don’t need to hold it up in front when I walk. Due to the cut of the panels and the twill tape piece that holds it in back, the train and skirt stays where it should without any adjustments needed after wearing. The bodice is cut properly, so I can move in it naturally. When I don’t want the train to trail, I bend over (without help) and pick it up without letting the bustle petticoat show. It’s not hard.
Sitting is easy as well. To keep the bustle looking even, one must perch on the edge of the chair. The bustle naturally sticks out a little in the back, showing off the skirt beautifully. I used to wonder why women in fashion plates were shown perching on chairs with their skirts falling into place perfectly. It happens naturally due to the construction of the dress, and explains why so many of the parlor chairs were small, low, and armless. It also explains why in a parlor set the ‘man’s chair has constrictive arms, and the womens’ were smaller scale and armless. If a woman were to sit in a chair with arms, her bustle wires would have no where to go. I have lounged on a sofa in the gown. In the bustle that I made, which is more hoop-like, it sticks out a bit at the hemline. It’s not very graceful, but still doable. I would imagine that a woman would have another bustle for relaxed days, which would be less hoop-like. The bustle I made was rather formal.
In summation, the hardest thing about moving in the gown was actually walking my tall boots, which were modern, and I’m not saying this for effect.
DRIVING IN THE GOWN
Not so easy, but doable once the fear subsides. This was the most interesting part of my experiment, since I often suspected that many of the fashion changes in the twentieth century developed after the shift from carriage to automobile.
The hardest aspect of the bustle-automobile relationship is getting in it. It would have been easier had I not had a hairstyle where my hair was combed over rolls and a hat. The rolls in my hair and the hat would hit the top of the door opening. Correspondingly, my mind would be hit with a rush of fear: did my hat fall off and take my combed and padded hair with it? Did I break any feathers or lose a silk flower? But there was no damage. Acctually, the hat/hair matrix were the greatest inhibitors of mobility: turning your head to look at traffic while being afraid you would break a feather. But as soon as I realized I wouldn’t break a feather it was easy.
It is hard to sit in a car in a bustle in a demure fashion. The skirt and hoop need to be pulled past the knees with the bottom bone floating above your lap. But even with that, I was covered up more than most women in my age bracket.
If I wanted to be very scientific and empirical, I could set up situations in which some data could be gained. Since we have no data regarding dressing and undressing and locomotion of women in 1875, we are unable to compare and contrast. But I could while wearing the dress time how long it took me to pick of the skirt, what percentage of my bottom sat on a chair, my lung capacity while wearing the corset, or how long it took me to drive from point A to point B and compare and contrast with, say, 21st Century expectations taken from a sample of thirty or more. But since that’s a lot of work and so on and so forth, I will not be specific about my own observations.
I am pleased that the ensemble I created is wearable. The originals must have been wearable since they were worn by women in circumstances just as physically trying if not more so than ours today, so I am satisfied that the gown was authentic in that respect. Appearance wise, it looks very authentic (pictures coming soon). So it passes the look and feel test in flying colors. As to the construction, I know that I used, where ever possible period materials: silk, cotton, steel bones instead of plastic, no polyester, etc.
Since the whole look must be period, I looked at old fashion hairstyle plates for the period. I combed the back of my hair over two rolls to get a nice ‘bustled,’ shelf-like hairstyle, atop which I perched a shrunken, tiny hat which I made myself out of the gown fabric. From the rolls, I had cascades of ringlets, both my own and fake, which I pinned in place. The effect was really good, and isn’t as hard as it sounds. I did my hair with a corset on if that says anything.
As I previously mentioned, there are some breath-taking photos forthcoming taken in Mount Hope Cemetary.