Posts Tagged ‘Costuming’

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have so much in common with historical costuming: the breed is a reproduction of an extinct breed based solely on portraits and accounts written by people long dead.

Mary I and Philip of Spain and their spaniel. They were popular in the 16th century. In the 17th, they were the epitome of aristocratic companionship. King Charles never went anywhere without his spaniels.

Both fashion and dogs have geneaologies, as they are born from lineages and mutations. No dog breed, or fashion can exist without a history and origin of it’s components. Dog breeding, like fashion and clothes, has it’s roots in the quest for human delight, pleasure, and comfort. Genetic analysis of dog breeds has determined that humanity originally bred dogs with the purpose of companionship in mind, which is not really what one would have guessed. One can imagine that the life span of working dogs in the early stages of mankind was pretty short, so numbers – not quality – would have been most important. If they did breed their working dogs, geneticists have been unable to find any modern evidence of the fact. But there is evidence that when mankind started breeding dogs it was temperament, not strength or work-capacity. And a Cavalier King Charles is a perfect example of a dog meant solely for companionship.

Non contemporaneous depiction of King Charles`French Queen. She is depicted as maternal: floating in an idyllic existence with her children and a beloved spaniel.

Yet, my purpose here is not to discuss the merits of this docile, non-aggressive, loving breed, or it’s eager quest to find a warm friendly lap on which to relax. What does interest me about the breed, and what it shares with historical costuming, are the origins of it’s modern form.

Two lovely 17th Century King Charles Spaniels

The original King Charles Spaniel was an early modern creation. Brought to England from the continent, they were made intensely popular by King Charles I before he lost his head in the Civil War. In the restoration era, they were still inhabiting the neoclassical halls of the English aristocracy but their population substantially decreased over the next century. In a sense, they did disappear eventually, as by the Victorian era the King Charles Spaniel looked very different from what we have in portraits. In 1845, William Youatt commented “The King Charles’s breed of the present day is materially altered for the worse. The muzzle is almost as short, and the forehead as ugly and prominent as the veriest bull-dog. The eye is increased to double its former size, and has an expression of stupidity with which the character of the dog too accurately corresponds.”

A small pup on the lap of a lady. Numerous portraits with King Charles Spaniels exist, and served as part of the basis for the 20th Century reconstruction of the breed.

In the early 20th century, an eccentric millionaire offered a sizable sum to any dog breeder who could reproduce the King Charles Spaniel from the 17th Century. Dog breeder associations had a good laugh at this amateur, rather pointless (to their minds) effort to recreate a dead aesthetic. Sadly, the gentleman who started the project died before it reached its completion, a completion it almost didn’t reach. During World War II, the quest for the 17th century spaniel of the decapitated king was nearly lost yet again. The leading kennel which was making the effort found their 60-dog kennel cut back to 5 or 6 dogs as a result of war rationing, general lack of resources, and waning support for an whimsical project to breed a toy dog belonging to an absolutist king. It is from this small surviving population that all modern Cavalier King Charles Spaniels descend.

Last of the long-nosed King Charles Spaniels (early 19th Century) before crosses with the fashionable Victorian pug turned their noses up forever.

Historical Costuming and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a great deal in common, therefore. They were both reproduced from beautiful period portraits, drawings, and written accounts of people long dead. They were both endeavors born from eccentricity and nostalgia. And both are very friendly, very non-threatening, beautiful to look at, and they keep you nice and warm.

Why am I writing about these dogs? Because I just got one. She is a beautiful, Blenheim blue blood and such a lover!


Read Full Post »

So far.

So far.

The Polonaise is far from finished. But the components are slowly taking form. It will be so satisfying when I can breathlessly sew them all together. That’s the easy part.

The picture is not so good. But, what is shown in the photo is polonaise back train with it’s fronts turned back with little tassels, the finished side panels, and the unfinished back pouf. The back-top ouf still needs plum trim and tassels. Also, I might sew little lilac or plum bows above the tassels. Still haven’s decided. And also, the way it is turned back isn’t quite right in the photo. Why did I bother to post one at all?! I guess because I’m trying to show the progress.

The back pouf, or top layer, will have a sash that falls just above the points. I will probably tie it in a bow.

When you get to this stage in projects, you start to have doubts. Will people notice my little plum tassels? Should I redo that part I’m not happy with or leave it alone? Will it all matter anyway? I’m sure we’ve all experienced this. Then I remind myself, this is a Victorian bustle dress. Try your best, and see what happens.

Read Full Post »

I have a lot more fabric than I thought I did. I wasn’t sure if I would need to use the plum to line the polonaise. If such was the case, then I would need to be rather stingy with the design and would have less froth.

Yesterday I broke down and went to the local Joann’s. I found lilac silk for the polonaise lining. Mind you, the quality is AWFUL! For $16 a yard you get silk that is probably half the weight of what you can pick up on e-bay or on-line for between $9 and $14 a yard. Of course, there is the added benefit that you get to see the silk in person, but the lights in Joann’s can be just as misleading as any internet picture.

There was a time when Rochester had a number of fabric source choices. I remember the paradise that was Fabrics & Findings as a girl. Four, expansive floors filled with fabric in a down and dirty Victorian warehouse setting. The wooden floor boards creaked. Light streamed through the factory windows. It was all dusty and disorderly, with stacks of bolts piled on top of one another. Looking for fabric was like digging for treasure, and you had to throw your back into it. It was fantastic! Even though they cut back on inventory by the time I moved to Rochester a few years ago, the fabrics they still had were rare and wonderful. One would buy them out of appreciation, not just because one needed them.

I moved to an apartment within blocks of Fabrics & Findings. Perhaps I associated the neighborhood with expression and inspirational tactility. When the store closed, I felt surprisingly guilty. I should have given them more business, engaged in more projects for the sake of those projects. I had forgotten what joy the process gave.

Now, all us in Rochester must live with Joann’s. It’s the atmosphere that’s so uninspiring. It’s sterile. The fabric is organized and laid out for you like as if you are an idiot and have no idea what you came there to buy. Everything is clean and bureaucratic. The cutting of the fabric is too perfect, and the prices to rigid. It does not satisfy the hunter-gatherer instinct, give any of the triumph of selection, or the glory of individual intention.

One is capable of ignoring these details. But one can not ignore the music. I tried to make some sense out of the selection to determine what market were they appealing to. While I was feeling fabrics and analyzing their contents, I tried to organize the music selection by era. Didn’t work. I tried to organize by stylistic genre. That didn’t work either. I was in the upholstery section trying to figure out the best deal on aubergine beaded tassels when, from all the stupor and vagueness, the common denominator of the music selection started to emerge from the mist: all the music would appeal to relationship-distracted women without any artistic fervor, the type who would stupidly pay $10 for the cheesiest polyester I have ever felt because they can’t afford the flimsy, crappy lilac $16 a yard silk! Talk about a racket!

How did I come to this conclusion? Now, I know nothing about pop, mainstream music. For me, the more classical and/or avant garde the better, so long as it is psychologically healthy stuff. But, it didn’t take a genius to put it all together. I could hear the lyrics:

1st song: Sung by a man. He is very sorry. He wants her back. He says he is flawed, but wants her back

2nd song: Sung by a woman to her friend. She tells her friend that she gives him everything, and he gives nothing back. He manipulates her.

3rd song: Sung by a woman. Saying she deserves better.

And so on.

Oh, God, it was awful! I felt slimed!

I was overcome with sympathy for the other customers. Poor women, I thought. Not only do they overpay for crappy polyester, but they probably have unfufilling relationships, which is why they overpay for crappy polyester. Or is it the other way around? I don’t know.

I became overly kind, complimented them on their lousy fabric choices, called their kids cute, and so forth. It paid off. The cashier magnanimously snuck me in a discount on my overly priced silk because, she said “that is just too much to pay.”

The reality is that there is no Fabrics & Findings anymore in Rochester, and this is a sad thing. We all have to go to Joann’s now, unless we want to drive long distances or shop on line. The risk I took in going to Joann’s – braving that gothic evil – paid off. I have lots and lots of fabric, and my polonaise will have lots and lots of layers, panels and froth. I’m cutting the pieces now, and it’s quite satisfying.

See. Costuming is very adventurous.

Read Full Post »

The Back

The Back

Here are drawings of what I plan to do. The drawings were quickly done, but they get the point across. It will look like a purple plaid frothy puff with lots of bows! What would be better for spring?

The Front

The Front

I wrestled for a while with my plans for the seaming. The plaid poses some curious problems, foremost being that the lightest colored, lilac stripes – which I want to be vertical – run horizontal across the bolt. Where I had expected no problems with creating a long train, as I had planned to do, I realize that to cut the back panel all in one piece I would need to make the white stripe horizontal, and this draw the eye wide. So, I came up with a solution and can now proceed.
The sashes are a recent addition. First, they will cover up some of the seaming I’ll need to do. Second, I think they are so Tissot. Third, they add froth. I am shooting for as much froth as possible, without making the waist and body disappear. When it comes to making a purple plaid silk dress, the more froth the better.

I hemmed the skirt and turned the waist band today, which didn’t take very long. In fact, it was almost nothing, so I’m not bothering with pictures.

Read Full Post »

Front Panel

I started cutting into the gown fabric today after making the pattern pieces and a mock up of muslin. I will document here how to construct a dress. I couldn’t work on it too intensely today, so everything is all basic.

Here is a shot of the front panel pinned to the dummy.  Understand, this is the base skirt. It will be adnored with puffs, pleats, scallops, and an apron that is also adorned. I’ll get to the apron later.

Front panel with wedge-shaped side panels

Side Panels attached to the front panel

There will be an attached back train of modest size.  It is made up of three panels of the silk, sewn together. I gathered the train into a piece of sturdy cotton tape. Right now, it’s just pinned to the tape. The train is not yet sewn to the front panels for reasons that will become clear later. Basically, it’s being held on the dummy by friction.

Keep in mind, that the three train panels are something like 7 feet across, all of which needed to be gathered into the 19″ piece of cotton tape. There is a lot of stuff going on there, and things are not as simple as they appear.

Back train attached pinned to front panels

A rather wide apron will be attached going across the three front panels and sewn into the seams above the train. The cotton tape that holds the train will be held to the waistband with rigging, and two purple panels that cover the rigging.

The Brown dress in the middle is the inspiration for my Polonaise design. Coming soon.

The Brown dress in the middle is the inspiration for my Polonaise design. Coming soon.

To the right is the 1874 Godey fashion print that is the closest thing to what I have in mind for the back of the polonaise. Of course, it’s brown and not plaid. 

The proposed underskirt will be much more elaborate than the one shown on the brown Polonaise in the 1874 print. Also, the front of the Polonaise will be shorter, which will allow for a lovely apron. But I really liked the long train effect on the brown polonaise.

I am already in love with my grape-popsicle colored silk. It’s so soft, so sturdy, an so easy to work with. It rustles and drapes like a dream, and the color is just so Victorian.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »