A Tale of Gujarat

Every August I observe in spirit with India celebrating its Independence on the 15th.  I use the clothing that I make for the day reflect my understanding, respect, and wish to be united with them in pondering on their past, commemorating 1947, and hopeful for their future.  My first Indian influenced garment for August 15th was this dress I made back in 2017.  I unfortunately had to skip repeating that last year, so I am making up for it by sewing a handful more vintage-influenced Indian fashion this year!

The first one I’d like to present this August is a different kind of garment – a Rajput inspired Sherwani-style summer coat – to honor the traditions of India that I know through some close friends. 

One of the reasons why India is my favorite culture not expressly my own is on account of some “adopted family”, long-time friends of my husband that are as close as blood relatives.  Their primary tradition hails from the Gujarat territory of India, with family from and still in Kutch.

The Gujarat region history is intertwined with that of the Rajput dynasty.  The last Hindu ruler of Gujarat was in 1297!  “For the best part of two centuries (at the end of the 14th century until the 16th century) the independent Rajupt, Sultanate of Gujarat, was the center of attention to its neighbors on account of its wealth and prosperity, which had long made the Gujarati merchant a familiar figure in the ports of the Indian ocean.”  Why was it important that the Gujarat trader was proficient at spreading their wares, and what did they have to offer? Among other things, it was mostly textiles…and this is what peaks my interest.  As our adopted family has showed me, Kutch has mind-blowingly beautiful, region-specific ways of dying silk sarees, but Gujarat had an empire in cotton and are still India’s largest producer of the fiber.

According to Dr. Ruth Barnes (“Indian Cotton for Cairo”, 2017), fragments of printed cotton made in Gujarat, India were discovered in Egypt, which provides evidence for medieval trade in the western Indian Ocean. These fragments represent the Indian cotton traded to Egypt during the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries.  Similar types of Gujarati cotton was traded as far East as Indonesia.  Their local art has been in high demand over the centuries, and all you have to do is see the real thing (watch out for modern imposters or look-alikes from other regions!) to understand why.

I must confess though – the block printed border print cotton I used is hand-stamped from a company in Mumbai (old Bombay).  Gujarat was under the authority of the Bombay Presidency since the 1800s and later, after India’s Independence in ’47, the Bombay State was enlarged to include Kutch.  The mother of our adopted family knows how to speak the official language of Mumbai.  It wasn’t until May of 1960 that there was a split in the Bombay State along the Gujarat-speaking north.  So my fabric is a sort of a hybrid, a close relative by association.  It was the closest thing I could find in both colors and print pattern to my original inspiration as well as something that would set the occasion for this coat.  More on this further down!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  all-cotton, with the print from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy and the lining a bleached muslin

PATTERN:  a Mail Order pattern A526, designed by Dalani, with its envelope stamped with the date of January 1976.

NOTIONS:  I had everything I needed on hand – lots of thread, heavy canvas sew-in interfacing, and true vintage wooden toggles from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother’s notions box.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This jacket was whipped up in the matter of two afternoons just before a trip to visit our Indian friends out of town.  It was finished on June 17, 2019, in about 10 to 15 hours.

THE INSIDES:  What inside edges? This coat is fully lined.

TOTAL COST:  I ordered 4 yards of the Indian cotton (you need to always be on the generous side with a border print) at a sale price of $5 a yard – so $20.  The plain cotton lining was from JoAnn on sale at about $1.50 a yard. As everything else was on hand my total cost is just under $30.

A Sherwani is a knee-length coat buttoning at the neck worn by primarily men of the Indian subcontinent, for the shortest and most basic definition.  “Originally associated with Muslim aristocracy during the period of British rule, it is worn over a kurta (tunic)” and several other combinations of clothing (from Wikipedia).  There are other coats and jackets in the Indian tradition, such as the Achkan or Nehru, and both are related to the Sherwani in style details and history.  However, the qualities of a Sherwani are a flared shape from the waist down (where it opens up to reveal the layers underneath), a straight cut (not as fitted), a longer length, stiffer (heavier weight), more formal in special fabrics, and fully lined.  Yup – I’ve got all those boxes checked off!

Thus, even though I am using a vintage pattern as my starting point, I hope that my coat has a timeless, cultural aura about it.  Nevertheless, let’s not ignore I am wearing here a customary men’s garment!  Together with the fact this Sherwani is asymmetric, this is a much updated type of twist on a custom yet still reflecting the modern India of today without losing its past traditions.  In modern India, women are wearing Sherwanis and there is more variety of expression in materials and decorations used.  (For more info and visual candy on this subject, see this page here.)  My husband has tried my coat on, and with a man’s propensity to stronger shoulders and lack of hip curves, this coat actually looks better on a guy than on myself, in my opinion.  It is a truly unisex garment here the way either of us can wear this in a culturally sensitive manner and also fit in its forgiving cut.  What a rare bird my Sherwani is in so many ways among all the sewing I have done.  A summer coat in the strongest Indian tradition I have channeled yet that can be worn by men or women alike?  Yes, please.  I’m more than happy to welcome it into my wardrobe.

My preliminary inspiration was this 1970 woman’s wedding coat from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  It was designed by Richard Cawley under Bellville Sassoon, hand-painted by Andrew Whittle and named “Rajputana” for the marriage of an Englishwoman (see her full outfit here).  The “Rajputana” coat even had its own feature in the November 1970 issue of Vogue magazine! Wedding garments in India are normally inclusive of gold and red, but as the Rajput princes followed the religion of Mohammed, they did not necessarily follow the region’s traditions.  White and lighter colored garments to the rest of India (especially saris) are reserved for formal wear, ritual occasion, and upper castes, and even for mourning in the Hindu religion.  The Jain sect of Gujarat wear more white than elsewhere in India, as far as I can tell.  Thus, my coat further reflects Gujarat, Rajput and the thriving textile trade the region was excelled at.  My interpretation also stays true to the 70’s, coming only six years later than my inspiration.  The top I wore under my jacket was a past 70s make of mine as well (see it here) and rather than trousers to match (which I don’t have) I went for a basic A-line rust linen skirt.

The original pattern shows this as a wrap dress, and sadly I have not been able to find anything about its designer, “Dalani”.  Besides finding a few more mail order patterns (from the 70’s and 80’s) and a few dresses credited to a “Dalani II”, I feel like digging into the source for this design is a sad dead end.  Dalani’s trend seems to be for loose and simple cut dresses and wrap-on robes.  Yet to me, there was no way such an overwhelming amount of fabric was going to look good as anything other than a coat, in my opinion.  It was so easy to adapt this to becoming a Sherwani.

Wooden buttons are traditional to India, and the fabric company generously sent a baker’s dozen along with my fabric, but a Sherwani only closes at the neck.  So, to avoid disrupting the lovely border with buttonholes, I used two wooden toggles on the asymmetric flap and orange loops on the left shoulder.  This method closes the jacket yet leaves it loose to flare open below the waist like a proper Sherwani.  Following grainlines, I laid the jacket out so that the border just ran along the bottom hem.  A separately cut border strip had to be mitered, redirected around the bottom corner and up the front, for it to be as you see it.  I blended my adaptation so seamlessly you’d think it was printed like that, right!?  Happily I found the exact color thread to match the orange along the border and I hid my tiny top-stitching in the stripes.   My sleeve hems also had a pared down version of the border applied in the same manner.  This border print was only on one selvedge edge and luckily I only had literally 5 inches to spare by time I was done…my ‘overbuying’ of 4 yards was apparently just enough to squeeze by

As I mentioned in “The Facts” above, actual construction was easy and the main body of the jacket came together in only two afternoons.  The sleeves are cut on with the main body so there were only 3 pattern pieces here.  One gi-normous back piece is laid on the fold and ends up looking like the capitol T, and two front pieces like an upside down L – a properly squared off body for a Sherwani except for the flared sleeve cuffs which give it a subtle nod to its 1970s origin.  It was all the attention to detail that took at least half of the total time spent to finish.

The highlight of the details to me is the most understated one – the quilted border to the lining.  This is what makes this all-cotton coat closer to a real Sherwani.  Such soft cottons could make this feel like a housecoat without some body.  Neither did I want to entirely stiffen the silhouette – it is boxy enough!  Thus, one layer of lightweight cotton canvas sew-in interfacing is “quilted”, in rows ½ inch parallel, to the muslin lining’s underside.  The quilted interfacing was stitched before sewing the lining inside.  It is as wide as the border is on both sides of the asymmetric front edges and also was cut to form a stable “collar” that extends out from the neck to the shoulder.  This way the main body of the jacket is loose enough but it still keeps its shape and feels so much more substantial, besides having an understated detail that I have come to expect of Indian clothing.

I have seen similar interfaced line stitching on Anarkali dresses but, goodness, it is a lot harder to do than it looks.  My machine heated up enough from the rows of long stitching that I needed to turn it off and give it a break halfway though.  It was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a while.  But can I remotely find a way to have my effort show up well in a picture?  No – it’s white stitching on white cloth.  Oh well, art is sometimes made for the sake of art…and this Gujarati tribute was worth it when I saw our adopted family appreciate the details I included in this Sherwani.

India has such a beautiful richness of culture and tradition.  There is so much, in so many varying facets, to learn about.  The way what people wear in that country speaks for their state and caste in life, their region of the land, the occasion of the moment, their religion…is something so admirable, besides being any fashion historian’s dream.  Quality that we expect out of couture garments is a normal part of Indian fashion and their strong ethnic pride is what I admire the more I get to know of the country and its citizens, both ones who live in my country now and those who still live there.  The trip to see our ‘adopted family’ included a stay at their home and my first visit to see her parents, so my coat was appropriate for an important few days of meeting people for the first time and catching up with others.  It was also quite comfy in the southern heat outside and absolutely perfect for cold indoor air conditioned inside!  My sewing feels so worthwhile when I can use it as a means of respect to our friends and their culture.  Look for more India inspired fashion to come here on my blog!

Hubby’s Vintage “Non-Smoking” Jacket

With Fathers’ Day here today, let’s address something relevant which is in my craw.  Menswear seems so ‘bleh’ nowadays, in my opinion.  They do not get fantastic creations from off of the red carpet (when they do, it sure never makes headlines).  Their fashions relatively stay the same (most guys probably like it that way, though), which is not bad in itself, but the scales are disproportionately tipped between the sexes.  As style is so casual for pretty much all occasions (at least where we live) there is no real variety of clothing to give men an opportunity to express themselves…beyond printed tees.  Ah, men deserve better.  I believe it’s time to bring back a garment that always used to embody masculinity, giving men a sense of personal ownership of their own leisure time, and my hubby is happy with the creative result of my sentiment because he now has a wonderful, custom-made 1940s ‘Smoking Jacket’.

A smoking jacket doesn’t necessarily have to do with practicing the habit of smoking cigarettes or a pipe (it does as far as history is concerned, but more on that in a minute).  My husband doesn’t even smoke, hence my post’s title.  Neither does it imply a compliment to a man degree of hotness.  What we women know as a housecoat or lounging robe, men have had for the last several centuries termed as a loose informal jacket, donned after dinner to enjoy leisure activities, to cover up one’s nice clothes in between stages of undressing, or to receive guests in the privacy of one’s abode.  This type of garment is luxurious in materials and decoration, and is not as private as women’s lingerie, but have been immortalized by popular, public pictures of many famous men in history being seen wearing their smoking jackets.  The poet and playwright Oscar Wilde is THE man to have brought the smoking jacket to both popular and public consciousness, but even in our modern times, the great Martin Luther King wore a satin smoking jacket for press pictures during his recovery in the hospital in 1958, after being stabbed by a letter opener during a book signing in Harlem.  My hubby’s smoking jacket always comes with him on our travels, and the Art Deco halls of a 1920s hotel became the perfect setting for some blog photos.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit this smoking jacket is glaringly made from the wrong (traditionally speaking) materials.  Smoking jackets are supposed to be make of posh, deluxe fabrics like satin, velvet, and brocade for some examples.  However, as this was going to be all his own – and a very useful, around-the-house item at that – I let him pick out all the fabrics, materials, and color scheme himself to perfectly accommodate his taste.  He is quite good at the preliminary creative process to garment crafting, although he doesn’t want to admit it!  I believe presents should be personalized to the recipient’s wants, after all, and what better way to do that than having them involved.  Besides, I figure this very basic version of a smoking jacket can be my uber-useful test run for learning how I want to approach the next one…a truly proper and over-the-top fancy smoking jacket.  I have some quilted burgundy velvet, and some black satin cording, so his next smoking jacket will be more in the style of the Victorian times, the height of the garment’s popularity as a status symbol.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a brushed all-cotton flannel lined in a crepe finish polyester lining with faux suede collar and pocket detail

PATTERN:  Simplicity #2172, year 1947

NOTIONS:  I needed lots and lots of thread, plenty of interfacing, one button, and lots of macramé cord (I’ll explain why below)

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This took me about 40 plus hours to make and was finished on September 6, 2017

THE INSIDES:  What insides?  This is fully lined

TOTAL COST:  Well, my Mr. Cheapskate picked out everything for his smoking jacket from the clearance section at our local JoAnn store, so the total must have been reasonable although neither of us was really counting too much as this was his present!

At-home Robe (Banyan) with Matching Waistcoat France, 1720s

It is very telling that this pattern is from 1947.  The Second World War was over and men could again reclaim their right to rest and relaxation, and take time to building up their household and adding to their bank account with a job less life-or-death related.  The post war period of the 40’s was reclaiming the feelings that created the smoking jacket in the first place.  Sure, the trend for the popularity of Turkish tobacco and the Egyptian cigarette, adopted by the British, French, and Russian soldiers of the Crimea War (1853 to 56), had to do with the creation of men’s lounging rooms for them to enjoy their new found habits in a social setting that celebrated leisure time and stereotypical masculine pastimes, such as newspaper reading.  By 1903, Turkish cigarettes accounted for 25% of the American market, and smoking was considered an expected masculine activity all the way into the mid-century.

At-home Robe (Banyan) England, circa 1880

However, beyond the tobacco portion of the smoking jacket’s history, the idea of a robe for personal leisure time began all the way back with (again) Turkish and also Oriental influence of international trade and political climates in Europe of the late 17th century.  Foreign textiles, and the fashions which inspired them, were being highly sought after as imports, and a form of the Japanese kimono called a “banyan” began being worn by men of the elite classes for informal home time, such as non-physical games, fireside discussions, or letter writing.  “Caftans” – a full length, long sleeved loose jacket-like garment traditional to parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe – were also popular because of their textiles which were often used for the popular fancy, floral, frilly waistcoats which men, especially those deemed as “dandies”, were wearing, particularly in France, during the 18th century.

In the mid—19th century, the Industrial Revolution was adapting traditional Kashmiri shawls’ traditional motifs into a commercialized paisley print and this influenced a change in the ethnic influence of the smoking jackets.  They became more Turkish (again) and even India-inspired as the tobacco influence of the Crimean War settled into many various cultures as the soldiers settled into their respective homes.  Satin smoking jackets are a slight carry-over from the more Oriental influence, but after World War I, the smoking jacket of the 1920s and later seemed to lose any obvious cultural significance and become a sexy and intimate part of a man’s home life, if looking at advertisements and silver-screen movies is telling the truth of the times.  At least post-WWI eras equalized the smoking jacket for all men of all classes.  Only then in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent confused the traditions of the smoking jacket with the release of his tuxedo-inspired collection for women in 1966, calling it “Le Smoking”.

Whew!  As exhausting and complicated as the history of the smoking jacket is – and believe me when I say I just gave you a general overview here – making a proper one is equally arduous and time consuming!  Every detail counts on a smoking jacket.  This one has full body lining.  There are several belt carriers around the waist to hold the belt tie.  The sleeves are the two panel construction similar to a suit jacket.  The solo closing button is vintage and came from the notions stash of hubby’s grandmother, so it is very appropriately on something for him.  I wanted to add some fringe or a tassel to the ends of the ties, but he hasn’t been keen on the idea quite yet.

Whenever I let my man choose how he wants his garment to be made, he tends to choose materials which make construction a challenge.  Luckily, I convinced him that a shawl collar, and not pointed lapels, were the only, true smoking jacket version of the pattern to go with, or else my work would have been much more challenging than it already was.  At least he now has an item that he loves to wear the heck out of, something he never knew how he did without before.  Those kinds of makes are the best kind!

For this, he wanted piping to match the creamy tan lines in the printed flannel, and I agreed that doing so was necessary to ‘the look’.  It’s only that fact that the perfect pre-made piping was not to be found!  I had to make myself all the 5 yards which were necessary, using macramé cord and extra of the same material I used for the full body lining.  Granted, my custom made piping was so much better than the pre-made stuff, but it was an exhausting effort that ultimately paid off since I think makes the smoking jacket overall fantastic.  I personally think this has been my best installed piping to date (it was so hard to make a complete circle around the cuffs, finishing the ends smoothly) so of course I am biased.  It is always nice to see going the extra mile was worth it, though!

What really made me question my offer to make this for my hubby was ultimately working with the fake suede he chose.  It was more than a micro-suede, it was every bit as think and stiff as a real leather with all the problems of being a polyester…horrible stuff to work with that appears remarkably nice to touch and see.  Wherever the faux leather met up with the piping was hard on my machine, my hands, and my nerves but I eventually wrestled it into proper submission to be exactly what it was supposed to be.  The faux suede was not interfaced, it was troublesome enough, and it is on the contrast pocket top edge as well as the whole length of the collar-facing piece which goes from hem end to hem end wrapping around the back of the neck in the process.  Most of the corners were hand-stitched to give my machine a break, but even still, the darn faux suede was too thick for my regular leather thimble and poked my fingers too many times.  Not too many of my own projects do I bleed over just to make, so either my hubby is a lucky man or I was crazy to keep going!  I really don’t want an answer to that…

Just because you are comfortable doesn’t mean one has to quit being stylish, and oppositely, sophistication doesn’t mean an end to ease.  I like Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic ideals behind adopting the smoking jacket as a visual and material manifestation to his creativity.  He wanted “to exist beautifully”.  There is something very uplifting about lounging around your own domicile in something nice, by which I mean something other than your lowest grade clothing.  I do believe that clothing for your relaxation should be something we look forward to putting on in a way that makes us appreciate the beauty of the little things around us.

Luckily there have been some luxury brands bringing back versions of a smoking jacket in the forms of velvet of brocade lounge suit – looking at you, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2005, in particular, but Tom Ford deserves some credit, too, as well as Alexander McQueen’s 2013 Fall collection…ah, the classiness of the old-style lounging man.  See this page for some serious eye candy.  The jackets all are something like a cross between a sumptuous robe and a casual tuxedo.  Let’s re-claim those personal hours (or minutes, if that’s all you have) of recharging and personal enjoyment as a continuation of our individual beauty.  No one needs help in this area more than men, since they rarely care for any extra fuss and nonsense on their own.

A picture from the exhibit “Reigning Men”, with (from left to right) a May’s Co. Dept. Store short jacket from 1948, a Victorian-era engraving, and a Smoking suit in satin from ca. 1880

Celebrating Memorial Day with a 1940s Recipe

Time for something a little different to remember and honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country on this Memorial Day!  I will share yet another recipe from the “Modern Family Cookbook”, by Meta Given, that it had belonged to hubby’s Grandmother.  (More recipes at this post here, and also here.)  This book is from 1942, and seems from wear on the book, to have been quite useful to his Grandmother, whose husband was away in the Army during WWII. She no doubt found a simple but tasty treat like the recipe included for this post great for herself during those times!

I’ve made this recipe as a light lunch or a snack, and it was great – easy, interesting, and a great base for further fancy experimental flavors (but great as-is, too).  I want to try these cheese puff toasts as a sandwich, with tomatoes and pesto in between, for one example.  If you try this, I hope you enjoy it as I have!

Even though this holiday is about thoughtful respect for the fallen, let’s honor those who have fought and survived as well.  Please remember to thank a veteran today (or any day, really!) and never forget the freedoms of today are built from the courage and bravery of others.

Undomiel and her Numedor Knight

Fantasy worlds can be quite lifelike and believable.  Fiction can seem more convincing than reality, especially when – in book form – the writing is realistically superb.  Then the reader’s imagination is traveled through space and time by the magic of the written page.  This can be especially true of stories which have make-believe creatures that have been known for centuries, such as dragons, elves, dwarves, and wizards to name a few.  The stories of the great J.R. Tolkien stand high as a remarkable, memorable tale of very credible and well-crafted fantasy, even rising to the likes of a cult classic.  To tell you the truth I am more of a C.S. Lewis Narnia gal, but I am almost as equally ‘into’ the Lord of the Rings world, as well as my husband.

I have been wanting to recreate something from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies ever since all three were out, thus this project is very fulfilling as it has been so long in coming!  Even better yet, I was extremely happy to have my son want to jump on board with my costume and match me for yet another themed Halloween!  Recently, the film trilogy had been out again to re-watch in the big theater near us and my son has now seen snippets of them, as well, so the fire for these films were renewed for us.  With a medieval and renaissance themed event going on at our local Science Center, too, and everything I needed for my own outfit on hand (thanks to having everything ready to whip the dress up for the last 14 years), I felt now was the time to make good of an extended sewing project plan!

Besides the fact I saw the films again now, why am I just writing about our Halloween outfits when it’s almost Christmas, you may be wondering (guess if you weren’t thinking about it before, you are now).  Well, as other detailed oriented Lord of the Rings movie fan will understand it is around the middle of December that the trilogy films were always released.  Everyone who has seen our outfits always guesses my son and I are supposed to be Guinevere and King Arthur (kind of a gross pairing for us when you think about it), so I’m wondering how many die-hard fans of Lord of the Rings are out there today.  Unfortunately, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy most likely killed off a good part of the fandom (those movies are SO bad, it’s no wonder).  Yet, I merely remember that the enduring beauty of the original written tales still remain and there are many more of Tolkien’s stories yet for me to read and many more costumes yet to be remade for myself, he he!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  My dress – crushed panne polyester velvet, red hammered-finish crepe-back satin, and a golden small mesh netting; My son’s ‘chain mail’ tunic – silver oversized mesh netting

PATTERNS:  My dress – Simplicity #4940, year 2004; My son’s tunic – no pattern but my own…self-drafted!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress took about 20 hours to make and my son’s tunic took about 3 hours both were finished at the end of July 2018.

THE INSIDES:  all clean from serged (overlocked) seam edges

TOTAL COST:  Having all the materials on hand for my dress since over a decade cut down on costs, and the grommet setting machine (more on this later) was paid for with a birthday gift certificate, so the only costs were on my son’s ‘chain mail’ – about $10 or less.

These outfits were incredibly fun to make, they turned out great (better than expected, actually), and were much easier coming together than envisioned.  I actually can’t wait to dive into more medieval and renaissance garments, because these time periods are my favorite specialty to study and research in non-fashion related fields.  I’m contemplating a 14th century low class woman’s set and a 16th century noblewoman’s gown, besides more Lord of the Rings costumes that are still tantalizing me.  My son would look so cute in a jerkin and doublet, I think, and I’d love to turn my hubby into a 14th century pilgrim on the El Camino de Santiago.  There’s too many ideas in my head and too little time!  Luckily, my hometown is actually a small hub for what we call “Medievalism studies” and “Creative Anachronism” so we would definitely have places to wear such old historical fashions and reasons to study them if I want to wear and sew more! Yay!

I realize that there are many historical inaccuracies to both of our outfits.  But hey – these are costumes based on a fantasy movie, and made with the purpose to go out and have fun, so I love the fact that the craving to do thorough research beforehand, like my other historical creations, as abated and I could merely sew our outfits to completely please ourselves and have them finished sooner than later.  This is my first dive into a new era of clothing and I couldn’t be happier!  If both me and my son don’t want to have to take our outfits off once they are on, but continue to swirl around and pretend play, than that is the best sign of success I could hope for.

It might be selfish of me, but can I just start by addressing my Arwen gown?  It was the more involved to make anyway.  This was inspired by her famous “Death dress”, worn when her strength was fading away as she is becoming less elf and more human in “Return of the King”.  “I wish I could have seen him (Aragorn) one…last…time…” she says in this dress as her Evenstar falls and shatters.  That scene was so emotional in the movie.  There is a large influence of early medieval Celtic in the swirling detailing of the Rivendell elves and so I incorporated much of that into my version as well.

However, I could not reconcile myself with (nor achieve) the long and perfectly shiny and wavy tresses like Arwen, so I choose a more historical, half fictional (Star Wars, anyone?) hairstyle option of braided side buns option I liked better on myself, anyway.  The chiffon headcovering was left off for some pictures so you can see the gown better or just to make this outfit easier to play in, but a medieval woman would not have went without one!  My simple ‘crown’ (as my son calls it) is a brass sheeting strip from my father-in-law toolbox of scraps leftover from old jobs.  We folded it into thirds and rounded into a headband ring.  I have a faux leather strip taped to the inside otherwise the brass turns my forehead green.

The main body of the dress has some a-mazing shaping (see this Instagram post of mine), especially for the upper body, thanks to the multiple princess seams (which are a big ‘historical’ no-no for medieval gowns, but whatever).  I sized down so I would have a snug fit since I knew my fabric, the panne velvet, was very stretchy.  Choosing this sizing was a good idea here.  There is over 4 yards of material just for the dress body and most of it is the full, flare of the dress’ panels below the hips.  This makes this such as elegant dress with lovely, princess-like swing as I walk, but the dress is very heavy.  I had to raise the shoulders by just over an inch to accommodate the dress being pulled down by the skirt portion.  I am secretly wearing my 1905 Gibson Girl era petticoat under this dress.  “Kind of weird” you might say, but the dress looked like an awkward, limp, wet rag of a thing hanging on me without the mid-calf fullness the 1905 slip provides.  With the slip, there is a much better silhouette overall plus it keeps the back train from tangling up under my feet!

Now onto the dramatic sleeves!  It took some training while wearing to figure out how to move, think ahead, and overall deal with these kinds of sleeves, but once you learn how not to clear a table mistakenly, get your arm stuck in a door, or drop them in a toilet (all of which I’ve done), they are so poetic.  I loved finding ways of doing fight scene moves so that the hanging sleeve would swirl around and look awesome, like what the actress Bridget Reagan did in the tv series “Legend of the Seeker”.  My ultimate sleeve action inspiration is from the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and what she was able to do (playing a blind girl) in the beginning action scene to the “House of the Flying Daggers” 2004 martial arts movie (watch it here).  I know it sounds silly to play-act with your sleeves but movies have a strong influence and with all this odd amount of extra fabric, you have to admit that sounds entertaining, right?!

The fashion folds that are holding the top forearm extra sleeve length out of the way of my hands were directly inspired by both Olivia De Havilland’s costumes in the year 1940 “Robin Hood” movie and this Balenciaga coat from the fall of 1950.  It was a simple matter of tacking the sleeves down at regular intervals to a stable runner (like ribbon) underneath.  I think this is much, much nicer than a tie gathered casing (as the pattern calls for) and much better not having a sleeve top seam (I cut on the fold, instead).  I did make the sleeves a lot longer (by about 12 inches) than the pattern calls for, too, in order to do this pleating.  I also lengthened the hang of the sleeve bottom so it would end closer to the floor and could come to more of a point than a rounded curve as the pattern dictated.  The inner seam through the bottom sleeve drape was flat felled as it is visible.  I guess you can tell already, but I chose the satin shine for the outside and the crepe for the inside.

My sleeve’s upper half (bicep portion) has so many layers to it!  The first layer is the panne velvet, the same as my dress.  Then it is layered over with a golden mesh material.  Finally, my fancy ribbon (expounded on the next paragraph) was stitched along just on the other side of the seam allowances at my shoulder top and lower sleeve seams.  Next to the neckline – which has multiple layers of fabric with the facing, interfacing, and woven golden trim stitched along it – the upper sleeves are the thickest and most complex to finish parts to the dress.  I needed to add little snap-closed ribbon lingerie straps inside the tiny shoulder seams of this dress just to keep the sleeves from slipping off.

The ribbon I used for both my belt and sleeve trimming is the pride and joy of my whole outfit.  It looks like a reproduction of the margin decorations from the Book of Kells (800 A.D.) combined with the saturated tones of a 16th century Safavid manuscript and is amazing…quite heavy, rich in color, and detailed…woven like a tapestry.  I had about 6 yards of it stashed away since about 2004, and I must have found it at an incredible deal or else my mom would not have let me buy it (she never liked me spending a lot towards something I liked without an immediate plan to use it).  Its swirling designs are just like the crowns worn by Arwen or Galadriel.  This ribbon is subtle enough to not overpower, yet detailed enough to add a touch of complexity and finery suited (so I feel) to an Arwen inspired dress.  There is actually a heavy nail sewn to the bottom hang of my belt to weigh it down.  A snap connects the elbow of the Y around my waist.  I know a belt is not part of Arwen outfit, but just like my hair, it is a bit more of a historical touch that helps my version please me better than an exact copy.

There were no corsets but a natural look for women of 14th century dressing, and the lacing to their clothing closings were just that…closures.  From what I have seen, back then eyelets would have been hand worked or (later) metal rings sewn on along the edge for the lacings to go through.  I needed to make about two dozen eyelets and wanted the flashy prettiness of golden metal modern ones.  Only, I was not going to hammer each one of them in by hand, but that was the only way I had available.  Thus, I put a birthday gift certificate to good use, did a last minute run to the fabric store, and splurged on a mechanical hand pressed hole punch and eyelet setter.  It looks like a pliers on steroids!  I chose the “Crop-A-Dile” by “We R Memory Keepers” brand tool and it is so ridiculously easy, makes very uniform eyelets which are sturdy, and it has so many useful function options (it can even do snaps!), I love it.  In 30 minutes I did all two dozen eyelets cut and set through four layers of fabric with interfacing in between.  It was so fun to have such a helpful tool that takes any stress out of a complicated technique.  I have been disappointed by fancy tools before but this might be the one that has worked so much better than expected – best gift ever, even if I did pick it out.

Now, for my son’s mock chain mail tunic!  From close-up, the mesh material reminds me of tiny backyard fencing.  I had been looking for something for a while beforehand and this was the best, the most reasonable, and most available material we found.  I do believe it conveys the jist of a chain mail tunic well enough though, and when it gets wet (it rained Halloween evening) it only becomes all the more sparkly!  He loved his tunic, most importantly, but I’m glad the medieval event we attended in our outfits had examples of the real deal armor, weapons, and chain mail both on display and on re-enactors so he could get a hands-on realization of the genuine thing!

I traced a pattern for a two-piece kimono sleeve tunic off of an existing t-shirt that currently was a tad roomy.  This had to be a pullover so I added a bit extra room around the t-shirt, besides seam allowance.  The shoulders and side seams were the only thing I stitched (the edges don’t fray) and I’m glad because sewing such a stiff metallic material that was mostly open was a pain.  I used mesh seam tape to give the stitches something to hold onto.  Next, his hood was drafted using the proportions of and existing hood, and then changing the shape so it would cover his neck and fall over and around his shoulders and chest.  The hood was lined in black cotton to keep the mesh from scratching his face and keep the texture of the material in the spotlight.  He wore a black turtleneck top under the tunic, and quilted black pants which kind of reminded me of a fencer’s padded practice gear.

His serious face cracks me up. Anyone recognize the Monty Python reference?

His armor is admittedly cheap plastic but it really added a lot to the tunic and it makes him feel oh-so-tough.  For my dream outfit (which are quite extra sometimes!), I was really tempted to find some fake bird wings in white to add on the sides of his helmet or even a black capelet so he could be more clearly a Numedor knighted guard of Gondor (the White City).  Yet, I realized that no one would “get it” and the extra fuss would be make his costume more complicated…meaning less fun for him.  For example, when we came home Halloween evening after trick-or-treating, hubby was trying to get decent pictures and our dachshund was incredibly curious and acting hurt at being left out, so our son, with his armor on, only began using his imagination.  It’s the tale of when our “killer” dachshund came with “vicious plans” to lick to the death (ha!) and my brave 6 year old knight threatened with his sword and shield to rescue the fair maiden. My hero…

Fiction is very much intermingled with the truth when it comes to history, for better or for worse, and the older you go (like medieval) it is even harder to separate the two.  Sometimes you have to accept them both when it comes to manuscripts because some legends, whether true or false, were part of those time’s belief system and culture.  To take such fanciful understanding away would leave a blank spot in our modern understanding of ancient pictures and thought processes.  A large percent of manuscript illuminators and textual writers were monks who never left their monastery walls, after all, while the rest were mostly young students with an extremely fanciful and active imaginations (margin doodles are sometimes quite shocking!).  The difference between fact and fiction is something we still have to define and process even today with all the information availability we have at every turn.  Perhaps our modern medieval mish-mash costumes are seriously more perfect than if we had be wearing veritable real thing.  I still open up wardrobes with a playful curiosity which makes me feel I’m in Lucy Pevensie’s shoes and can clearly picture the mischievous, animated face of Bilbo Baggins!