Ice Skating in Victorian Style!

Before wintertime is officially displaced by spring for my region of the world, I would like to share my grand outing on a snowy day last month.  It was then that my newest historical costume made for a very memorable time ice skating.  This classic winter sport was immensely popular and accessible leisure activity for ladies of Victorian times.  I had to test how that actually worked out along with other like-minded women of the St. Louis Historical Sewing Society, of which I am a member.  My Victorian skirt from December of 2021 acquired a matching bodice and bustle adornment which I stitched together for the occasion.  Along with some new additional accessories, my original skirt had a quite different look that is more mid-1880s this time around…and I am ecstatic.  I was warm in the cold being a fashionable Victorian lady for an afternoon having fun wearing what I had sewn – what could be better?!  We skated at our city’s Steinberg rink, the largest outdoor ice rink in the Midwest (United States).

I did not expect to make a bodice to go with the skirt when I bought its herringbone flannel fabric last year, so this project was a surprise for me, too.  After cutting out the Victorian bustled skirt in an unconventional pattern layout to save material, there was a ¾ yard panel leftover plus some generous sized scraps.  “Why not try something out”, I thought a month before the date of the event.  My silk velvet blouse from my first Victorian outfit was too fancy and fragile to be trusted for ice skating, and neither was it warm enough.  I had nothing to lose aiming for a matching set.  If you know me, it will be no surprise that every scrap was utilized to maximum potential, and now I am pleased to no end that I have a set! 

As much as I liked my first attempt at a Victorian outfit, I am only now fully in love with dressing the “Industrial era” after this my most recent, ascetically coordinated 1880s outfit.  A fully me-made outfit was the proper dive headfirst that I needed to get a good feel for wearing the fashions from Victorian times.  Yet, doing so has left me itching to make a full-out fancy, sleeveless, trained evening ensemble out of moiré fabric…but I am getting ahead of myself.  Please enjoy a small portion of my joy through the photos of my wonderful day out skating in my Victorian outfit!

In case you are wondering, I will clarify that I had absolutely no problem ice skating in this and did not find it difficult, cumbersome, or restrictive at all.  Even though bodices of the Victorian era had little ease and wear close to the body, a garment that is properly fitted and tailored should not be restrictive.  I altered and especially redrafted the existing sleeve pattern to have better upper arm fullness, higher armscye, and more forgiveness by cutting on the bias.  Looking at old Victorian pictures, this doesn’t seem to be the ‘normal’ snug fit, but I am costuming for the 21st century.  While I do aim for historical accuracy, I am going to make my clothes real-world conscious so they work for me the way I want them to, otherwise the best benefit to sewing for myself is negated.   

In contrast, the bodice is more true to the Victorian times than the way I set in my sleeves.  I fitted it perfectly like a snug body double to stay put on me no matter how I moved.  It was always poised and wrinkle free due to its 8 vertical channels of lightweight boning wrapping around my torso from the bust down.  The full range of movement in my arms makes sure to more than make up for the tight fitting bodice, and I was free to dance, throw snow, save myself from falling, or do whatever tickled my fancy.  Achieving this balance of a structured fit that still retains body freedom has similarities to the tailoring practices of couture fashion – something I will address further down in my post. 

I’m skating here with the fabulous Alyssa who blogs at “The Sewing Goatherd”

The short pannier undergarment I was wearing to bustle out my skirt behind me kept it from under my legs and gave a fantastic, impressive swish when I’d move around on the ice.  The ankle length of my sensible, unadorned walking skirt along with my simple, plaid apron drape was unfussy so there was nothing for my skate blades (or other people around me) to catch onto. As an 1889 edition of the Ladies’ Home Journal explains, “First of all, a skating costume needs to be short, and next it should be simple.”   I did not fall down once!  I even ran through the snow in this outfit.  Remember – just because my clothes may look old-fashioned doesn’t mean that I am that way personally, nor does modest clothing mean a woman can’t move around enough to still have fun.  Do not read a book by its cover. 

To complete my ensemble, I used several eclectic items from on hand.  First of all I am very proud of tweaking a vintage 1950s hat in my wardrobe to make it passable Victorian.  Bright colors, especially in velvet (if not fur), were encouraged and popular for at least some portion of a Victorian lady’s skating ensemble, as can be read in many publications of the times.  I took off the hat’s original netting and added on a matching red velvet ribbon from my existing notions stash (shocking how well it matches).  This way I could tie it under my chin like a traditional Victorian hat but it also would stay on well without needing a hat pin.  To further decorate the open crown, I pinned on another little bow up at the top.  A lace-trimmed satin pocket square (bought from my trip to Italy so many years back and worn as my neck cravat in my first Victorian outfit) went over my head’s crown under the velvet 1950s hat.  A 1930s era lace collar with an attached descending lace dickey filled in my Victorian bodice’s open neckline over my blouse (again, something I wore with my first Victorian outfit).  I used a reproduction brooch that I have had since I was a teenager to keep that lace collar in place. 

Finally, the most special accessory of all is my beaver fur collar – it had been my paternal Grandmother’s piece.  It gave me a little extra warmth, a bit a rich-looking luxury, and a touch of something extra special.  I was wearing her earrings, too!  I almost never go without wearing something from one of my ancestors at this point – no matter if I am dressing historical, vintage, or modern.  Fur seems to be one of the list commonly seen staples for trimming to a proper Victorian ice skating outfit.  I was so happy to give Grandma’s accessory an outing with me, even if it did cover up my neckline details which took me so long to complete.  In hindsight, I rather wish I would have had my fur muff (posted here) with me, too, but it did not match my overall darker, warmer brown tones very well.  I also did not want to run the risk of losing or staining it.  Oh well – I was plenty warm as things were and had a great time without it.  Other of my fellow Victorian skaters did bring their furs, though, as well as one Sewing Society member even wearing a pair of true Victorian skates!   

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  A dark brown herringbone printed cotton flannel was used for the skirt, a 100% wool twill for the neckline and cuff contrast (leftover from this Victorian apron drapery), and an all-cotton broadcloth in brown for the bodice lining.  A 1 ½ yard cut of rayon white plaid shirting was the front apron drape.

PATTERN:  Simplicity #5457, from Andrea Schewe, labelled as ‘Victorian 1880s’, from year 2003

NOTIONS:  lots of thread, lots of mid-weight interfacing, three packs of buttons for the bodice front, several yards of cotton covered feather-lite boning, 6 yards of rolled braid upholstery trimming, and lots of hook-n-eyes

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The bodice alone took me about 50 hours to do – most of it was all the finishing and details which I primarily did by hand.  The bustle adornment took about 5 hours to make. Everything I needed was happily finished on February 3, 2022 a few days ahead of the event.

THE INSIDES:  both bodice and bustle adornment are bag lined for a completely clean and tidy coverage of all raw edges.

TOTAL COST:  The flannel and contrast wool were leftover from my last project.  The broadcloth lining, boning and all other notions besides buttons were all on hand already from a rummage sale purchase last year, so I am not counting the costs for them either as it was negligible.  The 6 yards of upholstery trim cost me about $12, the buttons were about $6 for three cards of four, and the plaid shirting was $13 – all bought at my local JoAnn Fabric store.  In total just over $30!

Charles James, designer Evening gown, circa 1955, from the RISD museum, famously worn by the socialite Babe Paley

This project was not just a desire to improve upon my existing Victorian skirt but also a search for validation as well as answers after making my end-of-the year Charles James inspired bodice.  As I mentioned in my post, it is often said that his creations are inspired and loosely based on Victorian styles.  The more you look at the gowns he made in the 50s decade particularly, it is plainly obvious in the bodice shape and fit, as well as in the skirt drapery.  However, I said this as one who was quoting well-respected fashion historians.  I was also associating the two from the perspective of merely observing construction and design line similarities.  Even still, both come from something other than a hands-on means.  I have studied some X-ray scans and interior detail images of Charles James’ gowns to get as close as possible to personally inspecting such high couture pieces for comparison sake.  Then, constructing and wearing my very own 1880s bodice has given me that in-person confirmation that Charles James’ bodices are indeed very Victorian.  I feel so validated.  I am still so elated over this discovery! 

They are both very stable (can stand on their own apart from a body), multi-layered (composed of an exterior, interfacing, interlining, and lining), boned in many channels, close-fitting, and tapered low in the front but high in the back along the waistline.  Being an experiment, I wanted to try on the finished main body with my Charles James inspired 50s shantung skirt before the sleeves and any details were added.  I wanted an even better idea of how much a Victorian bodice could look like part of a Charles James gown.  I installed a separating sport zipper down the center front because I wanted a secure fit that wasn’t fiddly to close (which would be the case with hook and eyes) but also to help me be able to try this on properly as soon as possible because I was so excited.  The first try on for every single thing I make for myself or others is always so filled with nerves and anticipation.  I knew it would fit on account of my measuring at the pattern stage, it was just being able to finally see this bodice on me that blew me away.

I knew from the get-go that I was not going to be a die-hard for 100% true authentic construction methods as long as it is something not seen to anyone but me, anyway.  I did do clean, structural tailoring techniques that were more 21st century than true Victorian (which often had quite messy interior finishing) and so very much hand stitching.  The inside looks so perfectly finished for my taste and achieves the ‘proper’ look in the end.  Thus, ignore the zipper and you can see that this is indeed what Charles James based his gowns on, especially the Babe Paley one I was inspired by (see picture of red dress above) when making my Tulip bodice (post here).  Look at how great it looks!  The fit feels similar to how a well-constructed 50s evening gown would be (I have tried a few on before).  This is an 1880s pattern, though, remember!  Sewing this bodice was the best tactile research project ever.

Now that I have sewn more than one item from Simplicity #5457, I can heartily recommend it.  The sizing is great and has a fit true to the charts.  I made no other tweaks besides lengthening the hem to the sleeves and adding in ‘reach room’, as I mentioned above “The Facts”.  I love how economical it is, too.  A whole Victorian set – bodice, skirt, and bustle decoration – out of 3 ½ yards (of main fabric) is impressive.  It comes together as easily as possible.  Even still, with all the tailoring, fitting, and finishing this is time consuming nevertheless so be prepared with a lot of patience, free time, and some sore fingertips.  This pattern is super versatile, as well, but that is the good thing about a simple design – you have a base for whatever strikes your fancy.  It is highly probable will be using this pattern again.

All of the detailing finishes were my own idea and design.  This includes the bustle adornment that is the trio of hanging tabs and not the little pleated rump peplum, which is attached to the bodice.  These were not part of the Simplicity pattern I was using for the main body of the bodice, but self-drafted or at least my own addition.  I drew up a frontispiece to cover the zipper and make it appear as if I have some sort of faux button placket.  It is tacked down to the bodice on the right side of the zipper and hooks closed on the left side.  One dozen decorative buttons decorated the frontispiece because Victorian fashions were opulent and extravagant, after all!  Then, the neckline and cuffs received the rope trim and then a thin, visible overlap of the same woolen which went towards my first Victorian apron drape (posted here).  Pieced together, I had just enough woolen scraps to make this idea work. 

I felt these additions added depth, interest, and complexity appropriate for the era.  Yet, as this was meant to be a basic and practical set, these decorative elements add the right touch of finery without any gold work, beading, or embroidery so common for the era – these were all too fancy for my intention.  The rope and woolen trimming were sandwiched in with every other seam’s construction except for on the bodice neckline and cuff hems, where it is hand tacked in place after the edges were fully finished.  I could not commit myself to what I wanted to add until after I could have to opportunity to try it on together with the skirt.

The bustle decoration is all I could make out of a few rectangles of material that were left from the bodice.  I think it is cute and different – totally my design while still convincingly Victorian inspired.  I didn’t want to overwhelm the simple apron drape with a draped booty bustle.  However, I was too short on fabric for that to be an option.  I have seen a few fashion images or extant garments which have basic bustle adornments that are similar to what I crafted for myself.  I lined the underside with matching fabric to cover up the raw edges so the tabs look just as good no matter which way they flap. I added more of the rope trimming (used on the bodice) into all the edges of the three hanging tabs to help them to be more decorative and seemingly intentional.  They were something I just cobbled together, after all!  In lieu of closures, I merely attached all three tabs to a length of brown satin ribbon (on hand, used to stabilize the inner waistline of my skirt) so I can tie it to my waist before I dress in my bodice…easy peasy and versatile!  

Just like for my first Victorian outfit, I was here again inspired by the brown and white dual tones worn by the woman on the far left in an original Godey Lady’s book original hand-tinted fashion page from April 1874 that is framed in my bedroom.  Besides my one book page print, however, I have found a plethora of fashion plates and extant 1880s garments which are in a variation of brown tones, contrasted by gold and/or white. Along that vein, I specifically wanted to complement the white of my blouse peeking out from under my bodice’s open neckline and ¾ sleeves.  My first apron drape was too bulky under the close fitting bodice, also seeming too fussy and drab when the skirt and bodice were matching.  I therefore merely hand draped a plain cut of yardage in a soft rayon to be my new skirt apron.  The plaid weave brightens up my overall brown tones and adds a level of simple sophistication with a touch of bright white, as I had wanted.  The plaid easily adds to the impression that there is more going on than there is (as it was super simple to incorporate it into my ensemble) yet keeps my set relatable.  Plaid was quite popular to use in women’s fashions of Victorian times throughout many countries.

My Indian sari pleating skills came in handy to “make” my skirt’s new apron drape…no stitching required other than to hem the fabric’s cut ends.  First, I asymmetrically tucked in the top half (most of one corner) to the plaid fabric panel into my waistline starting from my left side seam over to the other side of the center front.  Then, I hand pleated the free end, much like is done on a pallu (the decorative end) of a sari to drape it over the shoulder.  Finally, I brought it around to tuck the pleated end into my waist at the center back.  This process is so much easier to do in real life than to describe but it is really that simple – no pattern or sewing needed! 

I see many of such asymmetric apron drapes from the early to later half of the 1880s decade.  I love any asymmetric fashion and I feel that I can relate to Victorian styles better when I see them elegantly, artistically askew than perfectly uniform and proportionate.  The benefit to costuming in the 21st century is here again (as I mentioned above previously) the ability to customize a historical style to my own taste, ability, and budget.  I don’t know for sure if such asymmetric apron fronts were historically sewn or draped, or even something that would have been paired with such an outfit as this.  Yet, whatever seems to work for me and achieves my own interpretation of the 1880s works for me. 

I recognize I have a LOT to still learn about the nuances of Victorian fashion.  Thus, I ask those of you who know what you are doing more than I to go easy on me here.  I love my newest historical set and am proud of my progress in interpreting this era, especially since – up until recently – it has been something I never remotely figured I would ever be sewing or wearing.  Victorian dressing was something I have long been content to admire from a distance.  It seems to be very complicated to understand.  The styles adapted every year or two, especially between the 1870s and 1880s…bustle sitting high, bustle sitting low, elevated hairstyles, cascading hairstyles, short waistlines, long bodices – and all these in different combinations!  Things must have been confusing for women of those times who wanted to stay “on trend”.  At least tailors and seamstresses or even home sewists were probably very busy tweaking hemlines, adding extension panels, and making accessories to keep up. 

This newest Victorian set is a big step further into exploring that well of knowledge which is fashion history but I have a feeling this era will be much more challenging for me to get a hold of fully in my mind than anything from the 20th century.  I will keep trying, though!  I guarantee you this will not be my last Victorian project.  I just hope my next Victorian creation has such a fun time out as this one!  Ice skating in full Victorian garb is an event that will be hard to beat!

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!

A 1917 Fairy-Tale

For some reason, circa 1917 garment styles for women are so dreamy, artistic, and fantastical, to me it’s like something out of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, the First World War version.  Fashion was art, and art presented fashion in a way that is unrivaled, so that its appeal has not waned these past 100 years.  Women’s faces were drawn as delicate as a porcelain doll and their hands as graceful as a Goddess.  Their clothes are full of vivid and interesting color pairings.  Their silhouettes might be oddly inhuman in their attire, but somehow they appear harmonious, comfortable, with an entrancing complexity in design.  The background settings seem peaceful, idyllic, and dreamy.  It’s no wonder some teens’ era details are making subtle appearances on some modern runway clothes this year (see Chanel’s Haute Couture Collection, numbers 35, 38, 61, 63) and recently (Oscar de la Renta Spring 2012 dress or Gattinoni’s Spring/Summer 2012 couture).  The aura surrounding those old styles certainly were not a reflection of the reality of the times, however.

It is now the anniversary of Armistice, today November 11th.  This year’s Veteran’s Day is special as we are celebrating a benchmark century since a pact was signed for a cessation of the fighting of the Great War.  Thus, this year was high time that I figured out for myself the late 19-teens’ incredible niche in historical fashion, and an event this summer at the National World War I Memorial (in Kansas City, Missouri) had given me an excuse to do it, tangibly, in a glorious, flowing and feminine style.

Caught in between the 1920s and the late Titanic era, 1917 (1916 and 18, as well) clothes for women was neither the long lean lines of the era before nor was it the barreled torso silhouette of the one after.  Circa 1917 women’s fashion did take one thing to the extreme – the below the bust, almost Empire waistline, an interesting fad compared to the moderately high waist seen about 1914 and the almost hip length waist of the early 1920s.  Late WWI style was a beautiful middle ground that disappeared very quickly and only lasted a few years.  There was an overabundance of details, textures, interesting colors, and unusual features…many times in the same garment.  It was like an over-the-top display of quality, creative, and hand-crafted fashion before the clutches of mass-market RTW or the practicality following the post-stock market crash 10 years later would take over.

Now, let’s put a few things into perspective for a broader view of circa 1917 in my country.  By the late teens, the US had about 2,000 amusement parks.  As the culture of leisure carried over from the Gilded Age, and people seemed to be seeking thrills and adrenaline pumped delights with their free time, it was the beginning of the golden age of roller coasters (ca. 1919) due to the innovations of entrepreneur John Miller.  Menswear was beginning to break free of its Edwardian appearance and accepting the idea of “sportswear”, while women’s fashions were becoming more open to an independent woman, free to move through life without a full-length corset or a man to marry out of necessity.  The first Jazz music recording was commercially released to help usher in a whole new popular genre of listening pleasure and matching that with new active styles of dancing.  The United States officially acquired both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  Things were looking up.

Yet, for a darker perspective, there were also three to five percent of the world’s population dead from the Spanish Influenza epidemic (1918 to 1920).  WWI’s fighting was announced as begun for America in 1917 then hastily over in 1918, with about 13 major battles fought and counting about one man out of every thousand dead. President Wilson seemed to be wrapping it up for the nations, and the world was dealing with the aftereffects of the first Great War very unsuccessfully in my opinion.  On our own turf there were ‘problems’, as we had sixteen Americans executed by Pancho Villa and the southwest region in danger as part of our involvement in taking sides for the Mexican Revolution.  Dissatisfied workers in several unions in Seattle, Washington, seeking higher wages after toiling hard producing ships for WWI, went on America’s first general strike, where over 65,000 workers protested for 5 days.  Supposedly the strikers were under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, leading to a “Red Scare”.

So – as much as the fashions of the late teens were dreamy, artistic, and evocative of ethereal beauty, the world of the mid to late 1910s was anything but a fairy-tale.  Face value can sometimes be just that…a dream, a wish for something better, visual trickery.  This is why the only modern item you will see on my 1917 dress is perhaps the most important one – an enamel red poppy flower pin from the National World War I Memorial.  We need to remember, respect, and learn of the sacrifices and the stories of the Forgotten Generation to make sure the Great War is not disregarded.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Cotton print (aqua background with a very Art Deco geometric design in purple) for the base layer of the dress, with a sheer lavender poly chiffon as the overlay for both dress and hat.  Basic white cotton sateen for the dress’ collar and ‘bib’ front panel.

PATTERN:  a Past Patterns Company reprint of a McCall #8159, from November 1917

NOTIONS:  Many prized notions went onto this dress to give it its necessary finishing touches – some are true vintage, some are special coming from family, and others are uniquely hard to find.  More about them in the body of my post.  Only the best…and I believe it shows!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  I worked on this dress on and off for a few months and finally finished it on June 28, 2018 after 50 plus hours.  The hat took only 2 hours to refashion.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound with the sheer sleeves, over skirt, and bodice armscye French finished

TOTAL COST:  All my fabric was bought at my local JoAnn’s Fabric Store, with all the finishing trims and notions already on hand (free), I spent around $40.

Fashion was very important to women of the time and magazines of the latest modes of dressing even more so.  “A reaction of the emergence of fashion photography, an annual subscription to an exquisitely illustrated fashion and lifestyle publications could cost as much as a car in 1914”.  During World War I, Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s Magazine alone had over a million subscribers each. No wonder the best artists were hired for illustrations – for one case in point, the great couturier Mainbocher started off as a fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue after serving in WWI.  Erté and George Barbier are more examples.

However, for one who wants to sew a ‘copy’ of such fashions, these drawings are important only so far as to figuring out what colors, what details, what silhouette to achieve to look authentic.  Construction and closing methods are a mystery.  That is why I started with a copy of a true original pattern…because nothing beats the real thing, right?  So, I had a good starting point but not much to go on because if you think vintage a la 1930s or 40’s patterns are lacking in instruction thoroughness, well, you’ve never seen an antique pattern.  I literally had only two small paragraphs and one tiny layout diagram to go by as my guide.  This is why my next resource was both textual research and sourcing old 100 year old garments for sale online to see physical specifics.

It wasn’t until the 1930s (pretty much) that the way a garment closed on the body was visible and buttons were more than just a means of decoration or display of wealth.  The mid to late teens era kept the closures well hidden in seams or under more fabric and therefore a bit mysterious.  This dress has the very common (for 1916 to ‘18) ‘bib’ front bodice vest piece that does the double duty of both covering the front closures and completing the waist by continuing on as a cummerbund-sash to be tied in a fancy bow behind.  It’s sort of hard to show, but underneath the bib panel, hook-and-eye tape closes the center front, with a few more single hooks for the small side seam opening (covered by the cummerbund wrap around).

On its own, the front covering is a large T-shaped piece.  It has every edge self-enclosed in a facing double and was the last thing directed to be added on to the dress.  Even then it is only lightly tacked on at the right top edge while it hook-and-loops closed at the left corner.  I have seen some of these ‘bib’ frontispieces for sale separately and so I can conclude that some of these were meant to be removable.  This is quite smart, really!  They could easily be cleaned gently by hand this way, without needing to launder the whole dress, too, and most of the prettiest decorations and precious haberdashery could be added on the frontispiece with no fear of being beat up by a general washing.  Most of the antique original ‘bib’ pieces that I have seen have been in the finest linen or silk, since (at that time) most of the wool was going to soldiers’ uniforms and the cotton was making canvas gaiters, satchels, and tents for the war.  Mine is sateen so it has a slight shine that the camera images aren’t really picking up, but I more than made up for the basic material with lots of detail and meticulous hand work.

First of all, plain whites need something extra to make them look fancy and not, well…plain.  This is a dress from the teens, anyway and more subdued excess (within reason) the better was the rule!  My primary add-on was the buttons on the bib front, I knew these were a definite choice.  They are true teens era buttons, in glass, painted in a rich purple over the nubby top texture (see a closer picture on this Instagram post).  They look like fresh tiny mulberries to me – mmm!  To prevent the paint from chipping, as it was starting to do already, I applied a light painting of clear top coat, such as is used on fingernail lacquer.

Then came the lace!  This is a heavy cotton lace which my husband bought for me over a year ago in Italy when he went on a business trip to Milan.  As much as it pained me to use it and not stash it, the Belgium-style lace was just what I had in mind and looks like embroidery from afar.  If I could have come up with a shortcut way to tack it on I would have, but instead it took me several extra hours of hand stitching to tack it down along the bib top along the neckline, along the bib front waistline bottom, and the bottom end of the sash just above the tassels.  Do the sash end tassels make it look like I have servant call pulls?  Maybe, but crazy things work in teens fashion and not only do the tassels weigh the ties down but add color and interest from behind.

Finally, to connect the aqua in the under (base) layer of the dress, which you don’t see much of above the knees, I added matching colored feather stitching along the collar edge. Let’s briefly address some good, old-fashioned, quality hand-stitching – it used to be much more than just straight and basic. Until about the teens and no later than the mid-1920’s, hand sewing, even if was just necessary for top-stitching, was detailed, incredibly tiny, precise, and very understated for the time and high quality it shows. It is a skill too lovely to only admire, with feather stitching in particular as my new fascination for hand stitching. This stitch is an embroidery technique which can be ornamental sewing when worked with single threads and it uses loops caught and pulled to make a vine design.  My favorite tutorial to learn feather stitching from can be found here if you want to learn too.  It’s not hard, but the challenge is to be uniform and consistent with spacing.  My collar needed top-stitching and it needed something to give it pizazz while being authentic – feather stitching took care of all of that at once.

Other than the detailing, the dress was really pretty simple to make and the fit was spot on.  After all the skirt was just a basic gathered skirt.  Every pattern piece was pretty much basic geometrics – no darts or fancy shaping, either.  Once the front closing mystery was understood the bodice was simple, too, as were the sleeves…very modern with their flared shape known as “angel” style.  (Look closely and you will see the small fishing weight on the inner sleeve end to make the chiffon hang!)  I must add, the dress while in progress did look like a total piece of trash all the way up until it was almost done.  I just kept hoping for the better as it was being assembled and plugging through the project.  Now I’m so very glad I persevered.

The pattern was my size technically, but I don’t like the lack of a “mistake cushion” that tiny 3/8 inch seam allowances provide so I added an extra inch all along every seam allowance to make them bigger and also “just in case” the fit was wrong.  I remembered that the 1920 blouse pattern which I used before had small shoulders – and I have big arms – so I slashed and spread this pattern’s sleeve tops before cutting out in the chiffon.  With my little changes, this pattern fits perfectly and turned out just like a 1917 dress from a fashion magazine, so I think!

The hem ran very long, again similar to both the 1920 and 1914 skirt patterns I have already used, but this is meant to be for a wide hem.  These wide and deep hems in early 20th century historical fashions really help to shape them, kind of like a stiffening, and need to hand pick-stitched down.  This dress’ hem has a slight “Hobble skirt” reference by the way is tapers in slightly slimmer for the last 8 inches above the hemline.  To emphasize the widening of the upper half of the skirt, the sheer overlay was cut in a high-low hem.  The more fashion images you see in the 1916 to 1918 range, the more it seems that every skirt overlay (and they were popular) had either a hem decoration and/or a curiously shaped hemline.  I went with both because it struck me as working well for this dress.  The arching sheer skirt compliments the arching bodice panel and the purple flower trim I added along this edge brings an overall harmony to the dress with the same trim being used on the sleeves.

With slightly shorter hemlines making it easier for women during the War to move around, it was also the opportunity to show off one’s pretty ankles in fabulous decorated stockings!  I have been holding onto these flocked, floral, vine-patterned, ivory stockings for a very long time just because I knew they were unusual, and now they were just what I needed.  Highly decorative embroidered or painted stockings, “clocked” hosiery as it’s called, had been immensely popular in the 18th century, but had a very strong comeback in the mid to late teens as soon as the skirts were slimmer and shorter.  Many 1910s and 20’s stockings enjoyed the “new” aspect of fashion even to the point of being very fantastical – see this post for snake and bird hosiery!  To say ‘Clocked’ stockings means they have an added design up the ankle, where traditionally a ‘gusset’/wedge has been added to give it shape – very racy considering it wasn’t until the later 1920’s that hosiery was considered as something other than underwear!

Of course, none of this outfit would have the proper look and feel without a good foundation.  Happily, I already had my under layers already me-made and available.  The late teens was in a weird position with regards to underwear.  Things were starting to change over to the looser, more modern two-piece “bra and bloomers”.  The corsetry that was around no longer had such long, lean lines and full body coverage (like what I wore under my 1914 ensemble).  I do not have a shorter late teens corset (like what the blogger “The Dreamstress” has put together).  The main idea is to have no bust support (keep the girls flat!) and volume around the knees with your slips and knickers, so I opted for the early 20’s underwear set I did have…envisioning myself as a very fashion-forward woman doing so!  Over the underwear went a reproduction sleeveless slip which was identical in style lines to this earlier teens era slip which I blogged about here.  The front is a lovely eyelet and the lack of sleeves was perfect for the sheer arms of my dress.

After all my efforts invested in the dress, there was no way I was starting from scratch for my headgear, too.  Thus, the hat is a refashion of a dated 80s or 90’s piece which became a very plausible authentic match.  I made use of something from my wardrobe I never really wear and not only beautified it, but turned it into something I needed anyway – win-win, right!?  Many summer hats in the teens had wide but sheer brims, whether it was made of lace in a wire frame, rows of ribbon, chiffon, or an open mesh.  The last kind was exactly what I had in my dated hat, it only needed a rounder, mushroom-style crown that needed to be much fancier before being closer to authentic.  In order to totally match with the dress, I used the small remnants left of the purple chiffon to loosely wrap (and gently, invisibly hand tack) around the crown, finished off with an intricate burgundy and purple ribbon remnant to match the colors of the buttons and the tassels.

My accessories are all some sort of vintage, except for the waist watch hanging from a chain at the waist of my ‘bib’ front bodice panel.  That was bought new because it looked like a hanging watch I have from my Great Grandmother, only I wouldn’t dare use that one out and about so this is a memory-free and guilt-free replacement.  However, I did have no qualms about using and bringing the umbrella you see.  This is a treasured find, though.  It is a true 1910s (or early 1920s at the latest) piece I found for a deal in perfect condition.  The fabric is dyed silk, and so is the tassel to match, with the handle is covered in leather.  My necklace is vintage 1930s I believe, and carved mother of pearl, actually.  The earrings are of the 1940s from my Grandmother.  The purse is something I actually made for my 1920 outfit, but luckily the colors and the style pairs up perfectly here, too, I believe.  I did find some vintage 1960s leather heels to match, since strappy shoes, and especially French heels, too, were what was popular back then.

Our photo location is an appropriate backdrop as this building was originally built after the turn of the 20th century as a publication headquarters for a women’s’ fashion magazine mogul, Edward Gardner Lewis.  It was constructed in the fancy French neo-classical “Beaux-Arts” style, and acres of the surrounding area were bought up by Lewis to build an equally beautiful upper middle class neighborhood.  Luckily, most of this area of University City is well preserved and the homes look every bit as beautiful as it probably did in the teens and twenties.  They just don’t make architecture like they used to.

There is something so inherently satisfying to spending such excess in time, materials, and personal investment on something beautiful, worthwhile, and creative weather it’s a building or on a dress. I can attest that in the sewing sphere, it is addictive. It hails back to a time when sewing was a true art using one’s hands, when making clothes was more about crafting beauty than just getting clothes for one’s back, and before commercial-fast fashion had its full stranglehold on the garment industry. Quality in the small details is sorely needed today…only our world today needs to understand that it doesn’t come quickly or in bulk quantities.

When you think about WWI in terms of this, though, society needed bulk quantities of lasting quality in order to supply the troops, and yet somehow the world stepped up to provide.  What wool moths and decay have left behind, luckily many of these uniforms are still in great condition and fully wearable today.  It is heartening to see the amount of extant WWI items that are being worn and displayed with pride and a spirit open to seeing and learning from the past anew!  Even though this great centennial will now be over, I hope this era of history keeps being understood and remembered.  My next Great War project will be a women’s military uniform.

“WWI is a romantic war, in all senses of the word. An entire generation of men and women left the comforts of Edwardian life to travel bravely, and sometimes even jauntily, to almost certain death. At the very least, any story or novel about WWI is about innocence shattered in the face of experience.” quote from Anita Shreve.  I hope my dreamy, fairy tale style dress outfit tells one small part of the great story.  Let us commemorate the fallen yet celebrate what peace we have today.

Colonial Days at Fort de Chartres

Our family’s annual weekend event of 18th century re-enacting has come and gone by as of the weekend before, but I added some advancements and additions to our outfits worthy to share.  My set is barely different – I wore a lightweight boned vest-style corset underneath this time and remembered my embroidered pocket.  Hubby’s outfit is pretty much the same as last year too, except this time he remembered to wear the tricorne hat I made oh so many years back. The main addition this year is my creation of a vest, with some re-fashioned pants, worn by our little man so he could look like a half-size colonial gentleman.  As I did last year for his shirt (which he thankfully still fit into this year), the rest of the pieces you’ll see for our son where whipped up by me in one afternoon, using only scraps of what was on hand.  I am so proud of him in this!  Time for an old-fashioned family photo.

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It was a lovely day, and happily a dry one, too, but a tad on the warm side for all the layers 18th century re-enacting requires.  As happy as my son is to wear what mommy makes, he was almost too warm to appreciate it as much as he might have otherwise.  Nevertheless, once he saw the fife and drummers and the bagpipe playing Scottish Highlanders, he forgot to worry about anything else!  Please visit my Instagram page to see some video clips of the wonderful Grand Parade at the end of the day.

I know my hubby’s waistcoat is more working class in its heavy canvas, but we had extra cotton tapestry, nice and thick, on hand for seat cushion covers.  Why not go dressy with my son’s vest if I can?  He does look so good being spiffy!

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Basically, I roughly drafted our son’s vest off of an existing modern vest and tweaked the cut to make it closer to my husband’s vest.  Looking at the pattern cover image of this boy’s set from Jas Townsends helped me immensely, too.  I cut the fronts so they would have a full coverage enough to overlap down the center, with the overall vest having a long past the hips length.  The vest is backed in Kona cotton and fully lined so a double DSC_0485-comp,wwas then cut off of the tapestry pieces, as well. After the shoulders and half of the side seams were sewn on both lining and tapestry, I sewed the entire outer edges together (right sides in) halfway up at the side seams for the vents, and leaving a hole at the center back bottom to turn it inside out.  Then the raw armhole edges were turned in and I hand sewed the edges together.  This ‘lining-used-as-a-whole-body-facing’ makes for such a pristine and clean finished look.

I self-drafted the pocket flaps, lined them as for the body of the vest, and sewed them down without having real working storage available there…only confusing to my son.  Well, this was a quickie project and I’m not doing welt openings again anytime soon unless I have to.  I didn’t even bother to do buttons and buttonholes all the way down like I really would have preferred, only sewing two pewter buttons on the pocket flaps.DSC_0487-comp,w  Rather than button closing front, I opted for a simple internal ribbon tie to keep the vest front closed.  Am I sneaky cheating on a historical garment?  Probably.  However, doing so on a child’s garment is reasonable to me.  If it was for me, that would be another story.  At this point in his life, he grows out of things so quickly.  I wanted something believably accurate (historical-wise), good looking, simple to make, easy to dress our son in, and smartly economical by using up stuff on hand.  I think I found what I was looking for here, and boy do I think it looks awesome on him.  I’m hoping I made it generous enough so that he can get another year’s wear out of the vest.

Screenshot_2017-06-03, cropped,p,wThe breeches started out as some modern, heavy twill pants which were rather high-water on him.  I merely turned the hem up and under into the body of the pants, tacked that in place, then made a tuck at the outer end of the new ‘hem’ to taper in under the knees.  This is again not as authentic as I would like, but easy and passable.  These breeches even make for nice looking 1930’s knickers.  Luckily, the long vest covered the modern zipper fly to his pants!

I’m looking forward to fine tuning these outfits each event, especially those for our son since boy’s historical clothes are hard to come by.  Until next time!