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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.

IN SUMMATION

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.

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Here is the finished gown.

Gown Front

Gown Front

I trimmed with bodice neckline with some antique black lace taken from a turn-of-the-century gown. It closes in front with hooks and eyes, and I attached faked buttons which are period.

I put a costume choker on the mannequin. I might wear it.

Bodice Front

Bodice Front

Gown Side

Gown Side

Gown Back

Gown Back

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The skirt is 99.5% done. All that remains to sew are the hooks to close the waistband and I need to sew two bows to the sides (last minute addition). Also, it should probably be steam pressed.

Now, I am on to the bodice. I made a mock-up in black muslin, which I fitted onto my torso while wearing the corset. The bodice fabric will be black velvet with an interliner and a liner in black muslin. The jacket portion of the bodice is made up of 7 pieces (sans sleeves), which I have cut and flatlined with the interliner fabric (black muslin). Interliners hold the fabric in place, preventing it was stretching or warping. They are essential to making bodices that need to hold their shape. As an aside, Elizabethans were very fond of them and would sometimes use two or three on one bodice in addition to the regular lining.

The pictures show the bodice pieces without the fronts just laid on the dummy with no sewing or folding. But these photos are useful to show the eventual silhouette.

Here is the finished skirt with half the bodice pieces pinned.

Some of the bodice pieces are pinned to the dummy. The flash shows the detail, but misinterpretes the colors.

A faithful representation of the colors of the gown.

A faithful representation of the colors of the gown.

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Do you like rich vivid colors? Lots of bows and bustles? Rigging on ships? Distant and unreachable beautiful woman who became to you the embodiment of spirituality? Then Tissot is for you. Who can write about the bustle without mentioning Tissot?!

The lack of costume updates can be explained by the lack of a person to effectively lace me up in the corset. Without the corset laced, I can’t fit the skirt or do preliminary bodice fitting. Whilst I wait for the Olive gown photos and for a good lacer, I will post photos of paintings of Tissot, the master painter of late nineteenth century dress. He is the king of the painters of the bustle. In fact, a common misconception is that he liked the dresses more than the women. He kept several dresses on hand in his studio, all outrageously complex. The hard to read patterns on the gowns distort the lines of the paintings, making them characters within the story.

Kathleen Newton

Kathleen Newton

He had a long-term mistress La Belle Irlandaise, a red-headed beauty who’s stunning skin showed up lovely even in the unforgiving black and while photographs of the time. She was Tissot’s ideal heroine: a beautiful, fashionable woman living on the fringes of society after her husband divorced her when she confessed her love for a man she had met on the ship that was taking her to her wedding. She had two known illegitimate children, one of whom may have been Tissot’s. Due to her scandalous past, Tissot did not publicly recognize their relationship. He was his beautiful ‘kept woman,’ who domesticated his life whilst she slowly faded away from consumption and died at the age of 27 at her own hands in a Bohemian effort to cheat the illness that was taking over her body. Perhaps had she not been so ill, she may not have been so docile.

women on ships amongst men

Tissot loved to paint women on ships amongst men with lots of rigging. His models would be dressed in white & black stipes that echoed the rigging.

But it is not Kathleen Newton that makes the paintings so marvelous. She is merely the idol of Tissot’s adoration: the beautiful woman of the 1870s and 1880s. Tissot heroine is not aggressive or angsty, ambitious or conniving, nor suffering from insanity or violent deaths. She is not naked and bold. But neither is she caged, but domestic, lounging, peaceful and absolutely fascinating. Though Tissot’s painting is not abstract, his idea of woman is.

Tissot enjoyed painting portraits of women in circumstances we would consider now to be the height of moral filth in the Victorian Age, that is, in context of a man. In “The Captain’s Daughter,” a Captain and a young sailor of promise are clearly discussing a marriage between the young man and his daughter. The daughter is distant and disinterested, as if looking away to a far away place beyond the daily world. They were often daughters, such as in “The Warrior’s Daughter,” or widows or orphans.

What all of Tissot’s paintings of women have in common is they rarely look their pining lovers in the eyes. Even “October” and “Young Lady in a Boat,” where his subject faces the viewer, she seems to be looking at you only by chance, like as if you just happened to be there. His women never impose themselves upon you aggressively, but rather passively and totally, like fascination itself.

"The Letter" - I love the dress

“The Letter” – The outfit is beautiful

Tissot, like the bustle, has a reputation for Victorian and intellectual mediocrity, partially, perhaps because the woman, her clothes, and social circumstances were his favorite subjects. But his work is subtle. His subjects (almost always female until his religious period after the death of Ms. Newton) could be doing something borderline inappropriate, not enough to cause an overt scandal, but something that clearly states her individuality and suggests something compromising. In the domestic scene of “the widow” she looks vaguely content and not at all grieving for her unseen husband. In “The rifle range” the heroine, decked out in enough frills and puffs to sink a battleship, is shooting a pistol. A young woman in Paris is being helped to a carriage by some glad gentleman in “The Bridesmaid.” “In the London Visitors,” she stares at the viewer, not at her older male companion who struggles with a map and guidebook. I could go on.

When Tissot painted all of the frills and buttons and complexities of the bustle, I believe that he regarded them as a metaphor for the complexities of women. He was grasping to understand them, not subjugate them, and it was through his obsession with the details of the clothes, the ‘rigging’ of rules of society that both protected, clothed them, and held them in place. The clothes are not his women. Nor are they gilded prisons in which his women are kept. They are the outwards manifestations of how they approach the world of the late nineteenth century, with complexity, distraction and decoration, and subterfuge, whilst the women themselves are the distant seeing faces, who seem oblivious and distantanced to and from the plannings of men. They inhabit another world, the only glimpse thereof being their festooned clothes and far-off faces.

*DISCLAIMERS BY THE AUTHOR

1. I would not advise any man, women or child to attempt to emulate Tissot’s views on male-female relationships. They invariably end in consumption/suicide (for the women unless you are Chopin) and depression (generally for the men).

2. Please feel free to correct me if some of facts are incorrect. Most of what I wrote about Newton and the bit about Tissot’s studio I read in a book about the painter over ten years ago. I tried to verify much over the internet, but not everything you read on the internet is, well, true.

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Here is the skirt to date:

Skirt Rigging. The skirt is turned inside out.

Here is a lovely shot of the rigging. The rigging is made out of black twill tape. The skirt in this photo is turned inside out. I have sewn the skirt to the waistband, but the waistband is not yet turned. The rigging is sewn to the inside of the waistband. When I turn the waistband, the joins will not be visible.

Skirt Front

The front of the skirt is to the right. I have basted the side panels between the apron and the skirt back. You can see part of them here.

The skirt is still relatively far from being completed. It is not hemmed. The hem is untrimmed, and the poufs still need to be basted to the rigging.

Skirt Side with Side Panels

Here is a side view of the side panels. It gives a nice shot of the hand pleating, which I did on the side panels while watching “Employee of the Month.” It made the film much more bearable. The side pleating shows up much better in person.

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I had 8 yards of black velvet and 8 years of red-black dupioni silk in storage. In addition, my mom gave me 5 inch red bullion fringe. They coordinated remarkably well.

I am not yet finished with the skirt and will post updates, but here is what I have for pictures so far.

Here is the bustle front apron made of red-black dupioni silk, and sewn to the front panels of the black velvet base skirt. The bottom is trimmed with red fringe and hand pleating.

Hand Pleating

To the right is a very poor picture of the pleating trimming the base of the skirt. When possible, I try to hide straight, boring stitches, and the hand pleating hides the stitching that attached the fringe to the apron. I sewed it on by hand while watching a scary ghost movie, and it made the movie far more tolerable.

Here is the bustle back before the waist band and rigging (I will get to the rigging later). I lined the scalloped ruffle on the bottom. The fringe was sewn on between the right fabric and the lining, so there is no visible stitching. The poufy red skirt part is flat-lined in black tulle. I will be stitching the poufs into place once I have sewn the rigging (stay tuned). The red silk is gathered onto a strip of black twill tape, and then the black velvet train is gathered into that as well. There is a lot of black fabric gathered into the train, and its very heavy.

Since the rigging hasn’t been made yet, I have pinned the black twill tape (not visible) to the bustle underneath. Otherwise, it would just sag down.

Here is a side view, showing the length of the black train. It is not finished. I will be making two draped, fringed, and pleated side panels to go between the apron and the skirt back where that black panel is in the middle of the picture. As of this writing, it is already finished, and will be in the next post.

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The Bustle is not complex. It’s a hump-backed skirt with 7 bones, and a back brace. I used a not so cheap white cotton fabric. It is absolutely worth it to not be cheap about the fabric. It took about a day to complete. Here is the result.

I gathered the flounces by hand, and trimmed them with white cotton cluny lace. I am very careful about not using modern, man-made fabrics, because they really do affect the feel of the clothes. There are seven bones: 4 straight across the back, 2 bones at the hem that cover the complete diameter, and one that arches between bones 1 and 2 at the top. I nicknamed that one the “gothic arch.” That bone adds a great deal of stability.

The flounces are sewn into the side seams.

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