Archive for November, 2008

In case you are unfamiliar, Edwin Abbot wrote what was considered by some to be the first Science Fiction Novel, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, in 1884.

Abbot’s metaphysical novel uses dimensionality and abstract characters to instruct and enlight. ‘Flatland’ is a two-dimensional universe, inhabited by geometric characters. Our hero is a ‘Mr. Square,’ with all of the implied associations. His novel tracks the progress of Mr. Square as he visits ‘Lineland,’ and later when he is visited by a sphere from ‘Spaceland.’

Flatland has a hierarchical social structure. The lowest classes are triangles, and the more irregular the triangles – or any shape for that matter – the lower the class. Since physical harm on our geometrical characters is made by contact with the point of another shape, the lower classes are capable of inflicting the most harm since they have the sharpest angles.

An equilateral triangle is a respectable tradesman. Professional Men or Gentlemen are Squares, or Pentagons. There on up are the nobility. After careful breeding, one reaches ‘polygon’ status and becomes a priest. The closer one is to a perfect circle, the higher the status. No perfect circle exists in Flatland, however, just individuals with many, many sides, until eventually their lines die out.

A Respectable House in Flatland

A Respectable House in Flatland

Advancing on the socio-economic ladder has its pitfalls: the higher the class, the lower the fertility rate. Lower classes, such as the sharply angled Warriors or, even worse, the criminals, will have households of many sons, whereas a member of the priestly class will be lucky to have one. To further decrease the population of the elites, the nobility and polygonal classes will enroll their sons into a dangerous physical regime where additional sides are ‘trained’ in. Many a polygon boy is lost in the attempt to increase his sides.

Though fertility may decrease with the added number of sides, the number of sides gained per generation increases exponentially. It may take generations for a Isoceles Triangle line to make the jump to an equilateral triangle, but a polygon, say with 200 sides, may produce and offspring with 250.

An elaborate social code is upheld in flatland, where the number of sides an individual has dictates class, profession, and mental capacity. Since the eye of your average flatlander can be deceived into mistaking the class of an individual he is viewing, rules for social introduction were developed. Painting and Shading were banned after a social revolt, and democracy quashed when the highest priest illustrated to the equilateral triangles and above the cost of allowing the irregular triangle classes such a large vote. Our author takes a moment to delve into a bit of Flatland’s history. The irregular triangles, with their sharp points, rose in a revolt, and many of those with numerous sides were lost. The revolt was suppressed when the women became involved in the battle, turning the tide and preventing anarchy.

Women are far more dreaded than any man in Flatland. They have two sides only, regardless of parentage, an attribute they claim makes them most similar to a perfect circle with its single side (male polygons or ‘circles’ disavow the similarity on this basis). Being a line with tiny ends, they are the most deadly. A woman is “all point,” capable of “practically making herself invisible at will” and therefore, “a Female, in Flatland, is a creature by no means to be trifled with.” A “run in” with a woman’s sting produces “absolute and immediate destruction.” Femme Fatale attributes are a naturally occurring characteristic of a woman’s physiology in Flatland.

To prevent the weaker sex from inflicting too much oblique harm, the priests of flatland devised a set of laws to prevent accidents and social and ‘domestic’ violence:

1. A woman has her own entrance

2. A woman must make her presence known with chatter on penalty of death

3. An woman taken with any kind of illness that involves convulsions (seizures, chronic colds with violent sneezing, etc.) shall be put to death.

In addition – and here is where the bustle comes into our 1884 story – women must always move “their backs constantly from right to left so as to indicate their presence to those behind them.” Since viewing her from the side makes her almost invisible, she must shift her bottom constantly to avoid anyone from accidentally impaling themselves. Likewise, this way women must always be conscious of their capacity to inflict a penetrative, Freudian-style death, the exercise of which will result in a civilly ordained execution.

Women are to men, therefore, necessary but highly feared, separated out of this fear, and the shaking of their exaggerated backsides serves men as a warning of their approach and of their fatal powers. By that logic, it would be the naked, unaffected female that would be the greatest threat. This certainly gives a whole new picture to go along with courtship and, for that matter, the ‘alone and palely loitering,’ self-destructive male seeking his la belle dame sans merci! Hah!

Of this description of women in Flatland, A.K. Dewdney from the University of Western Ontario writes: “here is the clearest possible expression of the stereotyped female Victorian behavior: the bustle with its amplication of the feminine anatomy, with the continual chatter… [makes the woman] something to be avoided.” I suppose than, that if for fun we were to take the rules Flatland at face value and apply them to the era in which they were written, we would owe our survival as a race to the bustle. For who knows how many would have perished had it not been for that padded and poufed piece of garment architecture, whose rustle and shake warned men to be alert to the feminine sting.

But seriously (and going beyond the bustle), Flatland is a very quick read and a wonderful, witty book so long as it is read with a sense of humor. I read it ages and ages ago, and a revisit still entertains. I highly recommend.


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It’s National Historical Costumer Appreciation Day!*

People are nuts about Tolkien. They love the empowerment of the individual, the watermark of his tales. No hero embarks of a quest whose outcome he or she knows. But they fight anyway, willing to stare into the abyss, and with the ever present jugdement and threat of self-death above their heads. Their determination is glorifying and magnificent. Their heroism and actions are not made after a favorable calculated risk of return or conversely out of recklessness. They are made in transcendental hopefulness, assigning a greater value to individual power than to mere existence and treasure . It is self affirming, when one fearlessly affirms that the quality of their life is more important than mere living and glittering treasure.

It is relieving and uplifting to unquestionably assign importance and power to something greater. Our spirits lift as Aragorn places his lineage above his life, or Frodo the shire, or when Boromir dies honorably. We seethe at the sight of the Denethors and Wormtongues, who cause only harm in their self-interested, animal-like pursuits.

Historical Costuming – bear with me here – is something like that. When you make a gown or costume, you impart into it your beliefs and knowledge about an age, an ideal you have in your head, that you make tangible to the best of your ability. It’s the progress towards the ideal that really matters.

Art is heroic, and heroism can not exist without a belief in an ideal. Though there may be mistakes and accidents made in a hero’s epic, a painting or a costume, they are forgivable so long as the artist does not become disenchanted with the original ideal. A hero who sticks to the cause is admired. A painting that most closely resembles ‘the style’ if an artist is most valued. If a historical costume does not turn out perfectly, a historical costumer must remember that it is the process of self-discovery that really created the transformation, and not the gown itself.

A work of art is a magical item. And just as Sauron transferred his power into his ring, so a painting or a costume is a power transfer, where both the craftsman and the item are enhanced and empowered by the craft. Appreciating great works or art – or great heroism- requires faith. One can only see the immortal beauty when one understands and believes and conceive that immortal beauty exists. This is what separates man from beasts (though I think my cats can know what’s beautiful…), the heroes from the villains.

This is why we associate such a great value to antiques and originals. A antique gown is perceived to be the closest to the platonic ideal we have in our heads for the era it represents. This is somewhat of a fallacy, for an age is highly dependent on context. Logically, it would seem that we could understand the past better by recreating it, not putting old, unrelated objects in a room together and calling it an era. And most of those objects are old. Their chemical compositions have changed. Their smells and appearances are different.

This is not an attempt to poo-poo antiques and antique collectors. On the contrary, I have plenty of them myself. This is attempt to explain the source of their power and value. They are unique and they are old. They seem a better investment than something mass produced. But I am making the argument that creation is far more heroic. And by this logic, a historical costumer is just as heroic as Indiana Jones.

Time to go to sleep.

*There really is no such thing as a National Historical Costumer Appreciation Day.

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I’m going to bite the bullet and start posting past work. It’s a daunting task because there is a lot of it. This one comes first because it was the easiest to grab.

The Venetian Courtesan gown has a heroic background similar both to the 1875 bustle gown and to the character who would have worn it: obscure, outcast beginnings, made from orphaned fabrics. I bought this yellowy amber silk shot with indigo on e-bay. I had just bought my house, and my color scheme was not yet solidified. As my house progressed, the bright, rich yellow silk looked garish, and it lay homeless and unwanted in a closet for quite sometime.





Come last year, I revisited it, and was determined to turn it into something. And here is the result.

The main components of the outfit are as follows:

1. 16th century corset, which I had from a previous project

2. Ivory Silk Chemise that goes down to the knees.

3. Embroidered red satin underskirt.

4. Bumroll I had made from a previous project

5. Bodice with hanging sleeves lined in the red embroidered satin, interlined in a linen-cotton blend, and lined with the yellow silk

6. The standing collar.


Chemise, underskirt and bumroll

Here is the chemise, underskirt, and bumroll. In the 16th century, underskirts would usually just have the front panel done in the expensive fabric to save money. But since I didn’t have such restrictions, I made the entire skirt out of the satin embroidery.

The red satin embroidered is rayon, I believe. I allowed myself this lapse into the synthetic fabrics realm because it matched the yellow silk so well. Some of the flowers in the embroidery are the same color. I bought quite a bit of it; I think it was about 6 or 7 yards, but didn;t know where I would use it yet.

The skirt is very easily made. Since late 16th century skirts were meant to go over a French Farthingale or sizeable bumroll, the corners of their panels were almost right angles. The idea was for the skirt to look something like a cilander.

Overskirt Waist Hooks

Overskirt Waist Hooks

The overskirt is unlined. It is made out of the yellow silk. I attached hooks to the top of the waistband of the overskirt so that they could be attached to the inside of the bodice.


To the left is an inside shot of the bodice. The holes are finished off with whipstitching. The eyes that hold the waistband hooks are along the back of the bodice along the waist.

The bodice is cut in 8 pieces with an interliner. All of the exterior bodice pieces are cut on a bias, and I can’t stress how important that is. The interlined bodice was sewn to the liner along the front and neckline, then turned through the bottom. The bottom is finished off with hand whipstitching.

The bottom has graduated waist tabs, where the back are longer than those towards the front. Along the armholes, I sewed some scallops, and then sewed the hanging sleeves into the arms. The arms are finished off beautifully with whipstitching.

The interliner is boned. I used steel boning for the front bones, and plastic for the rest. I inserted the bones into channels made with twill tape or ribbon, I think. I was trying to use materials I had lying around when I made the costume, so I know I was doing some interesting things. I can imagine how the artisans who crafted the final resting places of the pharoahs or who buried King Rædwald at Sutton Hoo felt when they began to fill the tomb with earth. I feel something like that when I finish up a bodice and seal up the work, and leaving it for a better purpose. What you had imagined and constructed is finished. As you can tell from the photos of the interior, you can see nothing of the structure, but that’s the point.



For lacing, I did something a little different. I wanted the bodice to front to taper – being open at the top, and then taper to a point at the bottom – and close with lacing. So I bought some cotton trim with loops, and used it for the lacing. I loved the result. The bodice seems to stay on the torso by magic, and the open fronts float from the breast/torso.


Laced bodice front

And then there is the lace and the beadwork, which was very labor intensive. The lace had a flat top, loose gold leaves attached to the flat top. I sewed the lace around the neckline, and then down the outsides of the hanging sleeves. I used the machine to sew the flat portion, and then basted the leaves by hand so that they wouldn’t fly around and get caught on things, or catch fire or something.



For the beadwork, I used Swarovski Crystal beads in differeing sizes in red, green and amber. Acctually, this may have been the most expensive part of the gown. The pearls are two different sizes. I don’t remember the exact measurements, but you can see in the photograph that every other one was consistently sized.

I used red crystals between the base of each leaf, and then a small green cyrstal was used to hold down each leaf at the tip. On the hanging sleeves, I alternated between red and amber Swarovski crystals between each leaf. They were all sewn on very sturdily by hand, and continued all the way down the hanging sleeves. In dim light, they looked fantastic.

I had originally planned to do a feather collar, but ran out of time. So I used left over silk from the chemise for the collar. There are two layers of silk, and the lace that trims the top is sewn on between the two layers. It attaches to the neckline with pins, which is very authentic. There is a buckram panel sewn at the base. It’s about an in and a half wide.

I inserted stiff wire into channels I stitched, then gathered the silk around the wires. At the top, I ran another wire that was just barely visible along the top, which held the whole thing in place and kept the wires from shifting. It had to finish the collar rather quickly, and it was a learning experience.

I had a few photos of me wearing it with a period hairstyle. I’ll get those up soon.

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First, this post is about the ballet, Giselle, not the supermodel. Second, I can’t believe I forgot to mention Giselle in the context of the 1840s!

Let me start by saying that I love Giselle. It’s a beautiful ballet. But, I love Giselle the same way I love foie gras: it’s something of a forbidden pleasure, with much aesthetic (or culinary) merits. I would hate to eat/watch/perform it everyday because of its rich depth, and when I do experience it I feel a bit guilty and confused about the whole thing.

Though the score, costumes, and choreography don’t help, it has something to do with the plot: peasant girl, ditched by aristocrat dies of heartbreak and becomes a ‘wili,’ the ghost of a dead virgin bride. In the end she proves the worthiness of her lower class love, by 1. dying for the Duke 2. saving him from the vengeful wraith of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Honestly, when I’m not in the mindset of the Romantic Ballet and at a safe distance from its siren-y luring, I would let the Duke die. It would make an example to the rest of the Dukes who get it in their head to mess around with peasant girls. But, hey, that would take all that lovely whistfulness from the White Ballet of the Willis.


Carlotta Grisi in Giselle, 1841, in a corset and with that awful 1840s languor

I am squeezing some ballet history into my blog on Historical Costuming. But, as they say, an argument has legs so long as you are capable of describing them. And here are its turned-out legs:

Before the development of recordable motion, such as in movies, we had no way to keep track of how people moved in the past (and, yes, they moved differently as clothes, aesthetics, and social class demanded). In ballet, we have a living history of the aesthetics of motion, as the discipline has kept alive old technique rather faithfully in the form of choreography and passed it down from generation to generation of dancers. Though fashions may change the quality of movement of the romantic ‘white ballets’ – such as with Balanchine’s broken wrists or higher, flashier extensions – the choreography has amazingly survived remarkably unscaithed.

But (now I get to the fun part) what have changed the most since the premiere of Giselle in 1841, are the clothes and the fashionable female silhouette that affected the clothes. Ballet provides an excellent example of fashion, clothes, and technology, influencing the aesthetics of movement, and all historical costumers can learn from it. If you an historical costumer has followed all the directions and created a viable recreation but it ‘doesn’t feel or move right,’ perhaps you need to adjust how you move to have the sensory aspects fall into place.

Modern Giselle, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Higehr extensions, straight back, freer arms

Modern Giselle, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Higher extensions, arched lower back, straight upper back, freer arms, torso straight forward

There have been two very noticeable changes in fashion and technology that have adjusted the performance of the choreographies of the ‘white ballets’: point shoes, and (more important for my blog) the lack of corsets. I am assuming that many of my readers are not former ballet dancers, and likely will not understand the subtle changes in pointe shoe technology. In a nutshell, the point shoes of Carlotta Grisi were little more than reinforced slippers. All steps she did en pointe were controlled by the strength of her legs and feet only, making the modern “roll through” very difficult.

But the removal of the corset from the equation of ballet transformed the art, and it was a shift that occurred in the twentieth century. If you are curious to know what effect the corset (or more accurately, its removal) had on ballet, try one sometime. Dancing Giselle choreography in a 19th century corset is a whole new experience, where the dynamics of the pelvis are drastically changed. Whatever you thought of the difficulty of the White Ballets, with their wilting uninspiring scores, staid costumes, long-held panches, and the required self-less expressions, the corset will indeed make the whole thing a new experience.

Now that I have provided evidence that corsets, ballet, and historical costuming are all very good companions, let me move on to explain how Giselle was further proof that the 1840s were a lousy decade. First of all, there is the subject matter. The heroine’s progression is something like this: modest happiness with her suitor, then frantic sadness resulting from her suitors rejection and denial, and finally, selfless oblivion when she becomes the lost soul of a dead virgin bride in a white sea of lost souls of dead virgin brides. And the most fun those dead virgin brides get to have comes from the passive power of rejection: when a mortal man enters their haunted forest, they have the power to reject his pleas for his life while their Queen makes him dance to death.

And the male role is just as dissatisfying. Our Duke is not admirable or likable, being a powerless, hopeless, and passive fop, like a fat pet bunny rabbit trapped in the snares of his class. The audience is meant to forgive him for meddling with the heart of a peasant girl – while he was in disguise – and then marrying another woman because – get this – he was good enough to place flowers on Giselle’s grave. That’s pretty depressing.

Although La Sylphide (1832?) predated it, it was Giselle that put the genre on the map. It institutionalized pointe dancing, taking it from a base, weird trick to the heights of feminine artistry. It was heralded as the best ballet ever. Where ballet in the past had been more of a formless frivolous endeavor, Giselle gave it’s plotline a copyable code. Many companies feel compelled to re-translate Giselle (the same as with Beowulf). I believe its the irreconcilable, hero-less ending that makes it such a great canvas for reinterpretation. It was another one of those innovations that sprung from the problematic 1840s, and one that is still alive and practiced to this day.

There are plenty of videos on Youtube of the Giselle Ballet. Watching them is akin to watching a cultural reenactment, and it can be very exciting. Even if you are not a die-hard ballet fan, have a look at when Giselle saves her lover from the vindictive Wili Queen and see 1840s courtship aesthetics come to life. If you watch the video, remember that Giselle and all the ladies in white are supposed to be dead.

Nikiya, the heroine of La Bayadere, 1877

La Bayadere Costume from the 1877 opening

The ‘White Ballet’ was alive and well in the age of the bustle. Here is La Bayadere (1877), where the ‘wilis’ become ‘shades’ and the heroine uses props (a veil) to dance with her thwarted lover in the afterlife. The plot is modernized. The heroine, an Indian Priestess (adding an exotic element), is poisoned by a rival (instead of dying from grief), and then her lover during an opium binge, dreams of her shade and them living happily together (instead of placing flowers on her grave and meeting her ghost). When the hero marries the rival, the displeased Gods destroy the temple, killing all of its inhabitants. The plot is far more satisfying and the choreography arguably better.

The comparison of the two ballets proves that the aesthetics of the 1840s were downright self-punishing. Giselle is far more famous than La Bayadere, and likely because it grabs a hold of that subconscious death wish, feeds it, strokes it, tenderizes it, and bestows upon it a noble-seeming purpose.

I could run with this theme, but I have a paper to do. Enough procrastinating.

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1840s silhouette

1840s silhouette

After consuming a significant number of books on scientific advances in the 1840s, I wonder why, in such a highly charged atmosphere of innovation and energy, their clothes and hairstyles were so dreadful.As much as I enjoy championing the champion-less, I would take up the cause of this decade begrudgingly, and only out of a desire to understand the physical aspects in which all these advancements took place. For fashion-wise, the decade was invidiously dowdy.

Scientifically and philosophically it yielded an extraordinary number of innovations and divergences in thought:

  • John Stuart Mill writes, Principles of Political Economy, in 1844
  • Start of the Computer Revolution with Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace
  • First Publication of The Economist, 1843
  • Marx & Engels write the Communist Manifesto, in 1848
  • First convention for Women’s Rights held in 1848
  • First use of general anesthesia in an operation in 1844
  • First telegraph sent, starting a Communication Revolution
  • The Political ‘Revolution of 1848’
  • Darwin’s preparation of his theory of Natural Selection

But the women’s clothes were awful. The fashions of this decade were the prudes of the prudish nineteenth century. Alison Gernsheim writes: “Never before or since has Western women’s costume expressed respectability, acquiescence and dependence to such a degree as in the 1840s, the most static decade of nineteenth century fashion.” And, I am inclined to agree with her. One would need to go back to the fifteenth century – and very arguably not even then – to find a decade of fashion so hell-bent of stifling what our genetic disposition would urge us to find attractive.

Sick faces encased in poke bonnets or drooping, plastered hair

Perhaps, besides the Europe-wide famine, this was one of the reasons for the explosion in thought. It is difficult to imagine the female visage inspiring contentment and distraction for mankind when framed by such severely parted, drooping hair and visible only when her view is straight-forward on due to her deep-brimmed poke bonnet. Those wretched bonnets made the sideways glance in the park or the passing look on the street impossible. The sullen, sick faces of the fashion plates, stuffed into stovepipe-like contraptions or sad, plastered hair were little improved by a lame spattering of dinky lace and fake flowers. And the bodices! Their cut made the youthful and sinewy matronly, the tall and willowy gangly and angular, and the well-busted top heavy and immobile. The constriction of the skirts, pancake-like flattening and dropping of the bosom, all-over covering of the skin, and face-blocking unflattering hair emphasized that idea that women were indeed forbidden fruit, but not in a good way. Mystery was abandoned for sanctimonious righteousness, boring rigidity, and the stifling doctrinal tightness of fear and disapproval.

The fashions of the 1840s were a blight upon the eyes of men and an encasement for the expression of women. In 1839, the year before the plunge into this mirthless decade, Honore de Balzac bent minds into viewing fashion as “sort of a symbolic language,” and that “to be proficient in the science, every woman walks about with a placard on which her leading qualities are advertised.” It is sad to imagine that the language of fashion would be one so without poetry and voiced with a clipped, monotone lack of ingenuity and spirit. Clothing can be not only a sounding board, as Honore suggested, it can also be an entombment. Is it any wonder that George Sand dressed like a man?!

1847 Portrait of Lola Montez painted for the King of Bavaria

1847 Portrait of Lola Montez painted for the King of Bavaria

It is easy to imagine the lascivious and romantic beauties of their days, the Josephines in high waisted Empire clothes, lounging on chaises and eating strawberries, or the Marie d’Agoults attracting the young Liszts in their exaggerated puffed-sleeved of the 1830s showing off their little waist and luminescent faces with dangly earrings in the candlelight. Or perhaps the era of the hoop that was to follow in the 1850s and 60s. Though it is not my favorite period, it had more redeeming qualities than the 40s. It was when below the waist was just too large and festooned to be ignored and the bosom generously framed and available for visual consumption.

But the 1840s? Even Lola Montez – the courtesan who was rumored to have seduced the King of Bavaria by wrestling her way into his study, sliding her hips onto his desk, and cutting her bodice open with a rough pair of scissors without so much of an introduction – looks dowdy and prudish in the fashion of the time. Though the particulars of the story are exaggerated, Ms. Montez’s quick temper and overpowering lustiness were infamous. But in her high-necked black gown with her flat conical bodice, It is hard to imagine her irreverential gall and hedonism inspiring the discontent among the masses that led to the downfall of her royal lover and the end of her career as a mistress of state. Though to her credit, the decision of Ms. Montez to not rely on her fashionable clothes to capture the Wittelsbach King – and eventually a title – was a demonstration of good strategy.

The western world of the 1840s must have been a rather detestable place: cold weather, potato famines, cranky men and bad clothes. Is it any wonder that so many were disenchanted with their institutions?

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I wanted to post an 1885 photograph showing a group of tourists – including women with bustles – crossing the Mer de Glace. I don’t have a scanner, so I was hoping to find something like it online. But instead, I found this: a wonderful article on a team of intrepid climbers who chose to trace many of the famous hikes of the Alps in nineteenth century costume – and with period equipment – in order to demonstrate and bring awareness to how hiking technology has changed.


How could a post be better than one on glorious Alpine expeditions in historical costume! The only way I could have made this combination any more thrilling would be if the hike were accompanied by a dance done by Alessandra Ferri wearing Guerlain perfume and a narrative by Shadowfax in old English. Though I suppose that having Ms. Ferri and the Lord of the Maeras dancing around the hikers like Robin’s Minstrels would grow awkward and cumbersome. But for the few moments these aspects were able to harmonize, the sensory stimulation would be intense, probably overwhelming.

I will post the 1885 tourists photo when I find a scanner.

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I decided to re-examine the back of the gown today. If there were a detachable train, I thought, there would need to be a method to attach it’s sides to the dress so the train didn’t fly up like a superman cape. Lo and behold, I found the method. There are a series of small thread loops going down the side directly below the last button.

It’s absolutely maddening to have in one’s mind how the train was constructed, but not have it exist anymore. I can make a pretty good guess as to what it looked like:

  • made of the olive silk and lined in the base fabric
  • trimmed at the hem with the three rows of pleating
  • attached to the dress at the top with rather large button holes. The holes would have been cut out of some rather stiff material, and it would have been buttoned onto the holes on the right side of the fabric
  • had a series of metal hooks down the sides that attached to our thread loops

The train option would have made this gown for a wealthy woman who received guests ceremoniously. When I get around to it, I will post a drawing of what the dress probably looked like avec train.

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