Tag Archives: project intro posts

Intro: Cheshire Cat costume

It wasn’t historical, but it was fun! I made a Cheshire Cat costume for my friend Claire for Halloween in 2010, during my first semester of Div III. I used one of the standard animal costume patterns, I think from Simplicity, and made it out of cotton quilter’s flannel in royal blue and in grape purple. Most of the body was purple, with a blue belly and blue stripes on the back. I made a nice long tail and put wire in so it bounced in cat-like fashion when she moved. The costume is finished off with striped paws and a pair of big blue ears with purple centers, set onto a purchased headband covered with the blue fabric. Complete with drawn on nose and whiskers, she was ready for Halloween – along with friends dressed as Alice and the Mad Hatter, no less.

Intro: 1950s vintage coats

(Written May 1, 2011)

I have in my possession two vintage coats in the mid-twentieth century New Look style. Rather than reproduction garments I’ve made, these are original vintage pieces. I’ve done some work on both of them, but in very different ways.

First of all, I should say that I think it’s important to think carefully before changing a vintage garment, especially in a way that can’t be reversed. In very old, very special, very rare, or very high quality garments, I don’t think that “just because” changes are usually a responsible choice. However, for mid-twentieth century and more recent garments, I personally think that it can be reasonable to alter or restyle and use them, when they aren’t special or rare or otherwise museum-quality garments. Naturally, this type of choice is always complicated, especially with older garments, but not everything is going to be saved as a collector’s piece, and while I believe in saving objects for the historical record, I also believe in using things, and in avoiding waste.

The first 1950s coat that I acquired was given to my by my great-aunt, after her mother, my great-grandmother, passed away in 2008. It is a 1950s or early 1960s coat with a fairly wide, mostly straight but slightly flaring silhouette, made of a highly textured wool and synthetic blend, with a dramatic attached fur collar in beige and cream tones. The coat’s label indicates that it is from Kearney, Nebraska, which is where my great-grandparents had a farm, before moving to California. I find it very interesting that the coat has such a lovely, and substantial, fur collar, considering that the quality of the wool-blend fabric is not high. The lining fabric, which I think is probably acetate, is likewise not a very high-quality material. I haven’t been able to identify what sort of fur is on the collar. The coat has three large buttons down the front, as well as a snap at the top of the overlap, and two hooks on the fur collar, which attach to loops on the opposite side. The sleeves are I think intended to be around bracelet length on a smaller framed person than I am (which my great-grandmother was).

(A note about using fur: Personally, I believe that since any animal(s) whose fur went into this collar obviously died upwards of 50 years ago, long before I was born, it would simply be absurd to have a moral quandary about wearing fur. I don’t buy new fur, but I have some secondhand and vintage pieces. Additionally, I would not personally consider it morally reprehensible to use fur that came from a source that raised/hunted the animals responsibly, and was not wasteful of any parts of the animal. However, since that kind of knowledge isn’t readily available, in practice I simply don’t buy new fur. When it’s already on the market, and especially when it’s old, I don’t fret much; I don’t see how it would be any more respectful or responsible to leave furs sitting around unused. Additionally, I feel that if someone does not object morally to using leather or other animal products, it is somewhat silly to object to fur on principle. In conclusion, please do not throw buckets of paint on me; I am not contributing to the deaths of any small, fuzzy animals. Except for that time I ate rabbit stew.)

I didn’t want to leave the coat just sitting neglected somewhere, especially since it had clearly been used and the lining already had some damage (acetate linings are notoriously unstable), so it seemed worth it to make use of the garment instead of saving it for some vague future. The first change I made was to remove the buttons – which resembled reddish-brown plastic crullers and were impressively hideous – and replace them with simple black vintage buttons. I would prefer beige or cream buttons, but the coat requires very large buttons, and finding even those three black ones was difficult enough. For a while, I wore the coat with only the buttons changed out, but the sleeves were an awkward length on me, and highly impractical for a winter coat, because they left my wrists exposed to the cold. I also found the texture of the fabric unpleasant anywhere it rubbed against my skin.

Fast forward to fall semester of my Div III. I was doing a lot of sewing, and a lot of clothing related research, and I found myself increasingly impatient with clothes that didn’t work right. So I pulled out the coat out of my mending box and, over a couple of days, made a couple of changes that made a significant difference in its functionality and my comfort when wearing it. First of all, I did the mending that had put it out of circulation in the first place: I reattached the fur-and-fabric collar piece, which had come un-stitched along much of its length. While I was doing that, I also shifted its front placement, and the placement of the snap, slightly, so as to open up the neckline slightly. This made is a much better fit for my larger frame.

Then I found some cream-colored synthetic satin (probably polyester, if I recall correctly) in my stash of fabric, which matched the lighter shades of the fur collar nicely, and coordinated with the brown of the coating fabric well. I hand-stitched a bias binding of the cream satin around the neckline edge – the collar is a separate, very three-dimensional piece, which is attached away from the neckline edge. It hardly shows when the coat is being worn, and not at all when the collar is fastened, and makes it far more comfortable to have the coat around my neck.

Next I completely picked apart the seams around the cuffs, which were turned about two inches to the inside. Very carefully, I used a steam iron to erase the creases from the wrist edges, and reapplied the stiff blue cotton fabric, which had been used as interlining for the cuff edges, even with the cut edge of the sleeves, which were now two inches longer. I then added new lining sections to the sleeves of the cream satin, which then became a binding around the raw sleeve edges. The cream satin linings show, but the appearance is – in my opinion – quite decorative. And now the sleeves are much better at keeping me warm! I wore this coat through most of a Massachusetts winter, quite snugly, so I consider my alterations to be very successful. They gave the coat a new lease on life – and giving old thing a lease on life is an inherently sustainable, and practical, thing to do. It’s also a very historically accurate approach, for almost any time period but our own.

The next step for this coat, probably before the next winter, will be to completely remove the lining, take it apart, and use it to cut out and construct a new lining, because the (probably) acetate lining is shattering badly, and needs to be replaced. However, it still looks perfectly fine from the outside.

The second coat is a new acquisition. I bought it from a charming little thrift store in Amherst this past March. I spent $50 on it, which I couldn’t really afford (broke college student, etc.), but it was too perfect to pass up. It’s a gorgeous black 1950s evening coat, a full-cut “swing” coat with pleats at the shoulders, and 3/4 length kimono sleeves with big, dramatic cuffs. It has lovely crisp lapels which turn back gracefully, and no closures at all. The material is a black ribbed synthetic or acetate (acetate is technically a man-made cellulosic fiber, like rayon), perhaps a faille. It has a synthetic or acetate lining, in changeable black and dark red. A black swing coat with a red lining! Naturally, I loved it from the moment I set eyes on it. When I put it on and it actually fit, I really couldn’t resist. Being tall and built like a Germanic peasant, it’s very rare that I can find vintage clothes which fit me – especially in anything resembling my budget.

The evening coat is in excellent condition. The lining is, shockingly, in perfect condition. I suspect that the main fabric of the coat is acetate, because it has some of the odd damage at stress points and areas that get abrasion, which are common with acetate, especially vintage acetate. However, the damage is hard to see, and really very minimal. Because this coat is such a fine piece and in such good condition, I would not feel comfortable altering it. I also wouldn’t want to! It’s lovely in its current form.

However, there were a few places where the stitching was coming apart quite badly, especially on one shoulder seam and at the back of the collar, where the two overlapping pieces had been sewn together. In these places, I did careful mending by hand. For the shoulder seam, I picked apart the seam far enough to square knot the loose ends of the threads at each side of the opening. Then I used a doubled length of black cotton thread to execute a very tiny ladder stitch along the opening, overlapping with the still-stitched parts on either side. It was time consuming, but it made for a strong, invisible mend, without requiring that I take the lining apart in order to get at the seam. I also added an additional thread tack, connecting the fabric of the coat to the fabric of the lining, at the center back seam near the hem. There were existing thread tacks connecting the outer fabric and lining fabric at the side seams, and it seemed strange that the center back seam lacked one.

I took different approaches to the two coats, based on my perception of the importance/significance of the garment (whether or not it ought to be preserved intact), its condition, and its potential value as a practical item. In regards to the brown wool blend coat, this was a garment of middling quality, without any real historical significance, and not in wonderful condition as an artifact, but quite usable as a practical garment. Whereas the black evening coat is in excellent condition and is not a workhorse practical garment, so I don’t need to take issues of warmth into consideration; fortunately, it is entirely usable as-is, with only the minimal mending that I did, so I don’t need to consider whether or not to make larger changes.

Ultimately, I think that the repairing and the refashioning or restyling of vintage pieces should be considered carefully, especially for older pieces. On the one hand, finding ways to re-use old things is both sustainable and practical, but on the other hand, even very ordinary garments can be an important part of the historical record, and it is very unfortunate when intact pieces, especially rare ones, are damaged (even with the best of intentions or plenty of artistic merit).

For comparison, here are pictures of vintage coats with similar styling, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Coats similar to my brown wool blend coat:

A red wool coat with a black fur collar, dated “1955,” by American designer Charles James, accession number 2009.300.537. This collar is similar to mine, though mine is larger.

A black or charcoal gray wool coat with a brown fur collar, dated “1952-1956,” also by Charles James, accession number 1995.117.

A while silk evening coat, dated “1966,” from the House of Givenchy, by French designer Hubert de Givenchy, accession number C.I.68.78.7. This coat has very similar shaping to mine.

A pumpkin-colored wool swing coat, dated “spring/summer 1958,” from the House of Dior, by French designer Yves St. Laurent, accession number C.I.65.14.19. This coat also has similar shaping to mine, though it is fuller cut. The deep front overlap with oversized buttons is very similar, though mine has three buttons rather than four.

Coats similar to my black evening coat:

A silver or white textured silk evening coat and gown, dated “fall/winter 1953-54,” from the House of Dior, by French designer Christian Dior, accession number 1970.280. This coat has a similar length and similar sleeve cut to mine, though the collar and lapels are different, these sleeves do not have cuffs, and obviously the material is very different.

An emerald green silk evening coat with notched collar, dated “1950,” from American designer Bonnie Cashin, accession number 2009.300.898a–c. This collar and lapel design is fairly similar to mine.

Intro: 1950s inspired full skirts with side button closures

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Intro: 1950s style net petticoats

An ongoing goal of mine is trying to achieve full 1950s floofy skirts. I love the full-skirted Dior New Look style, and I’ve always found it very interesting, in part because it so clearly hearkens back to fashions of around a century earlier, with the dropped shoulder, nipped in waist, and full skirts. There are some interesting social and cultural components that go along with that, but as much as I enjoy looking at such things in an analytical way, I also just really enjoy fluffy skirts.

And to have fluffy skirts, 1950s style, one needs petticoats. So I have been experimenting with petticoats! My first petticoat, the 1950s style petticoat of soft ivory netting, wasn’t as fluffy as I would have liked, so my second attempt, the 1950s style petticoat of stiff white netting trimmed with bows, used stiffer netting and lots more of it. I still have further adventures in petticoat-fluff planned, but I’m quite happy with the second petticoat, and the first has its uses as well (including layering with the second for Extra Fluff). Using the stiff net (as opposed to the softer netting available from JoAnn’s) definitely works well, and I’d like to experiment with a crisp synthetic organza as well – and, of course, silk organza would be lovely, but prohibitively expensive.

I gleaned information from a variety of sources in devising how to cut out and put together my petticoats. These are the sources I consulted:

Vintage Petticoats Online:

  • A very expansive black synthetic net petticoat, dated “circa 1955,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It appears to be made of a seriously impressive quantity of very fine netting, with stripes around the hem. I want one.

Intro: Traditional Western style man’s shirt

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Intro: 19th century work box

(and now for a placeholder with a couples tidbits of information…)

Print resources:

Photograph of an extant needlework box, page 201.

Photograph of an extant “Retracting tape measure hand painted in nails and inches on glazed linen tape in bone case. Early 19th century,” page 58.

Intro: 1870s inspired butterfly masquerade costume

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Intro: 1860-64 plaid dress and ensemble

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Intro: 1837-1839 fashion plate ensemble

(Updated May 2, 2011.)

Back during my first semester at Hampshire, in fall 2009, I went on a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village, and while dawdling in the clothing exhibit, I rather fell in love with the late 1830s styles displayed in the fashion plates on the walls. It’s a very interesting transitional style, without the absurdly enormous sleeves of earlier 1830s fashion, or the stiff gothic lines of the 1840s. Waistlines were briefly hovering around the natural waist, and sleeve shapes were neither huge nor tight, with an interesting variety in shapes and details.

I parlayed my fascination with late 1830s fashion into an independent study in spring 2010, and really dove into the period. I had never studied the romantic period in particular, but I had a substantial background in mid-19th century clothing (specifically 1860s), which gave me somewhere to start. There are two interesting technological differences that make studying and reproducing clothing of the 1830s more difficult than clothing of the 1860s: the lack of photography, which leaves a significant gap in the materials to study, and the lack of sewing machines, which renders a great deal of hand-sewing necessary for true authenticity. For the independent study, I hand-stitched all of the pieces I made. For the 1830s pieces that I am making now, in the portion of my Div III that is a continuation of that project, I am fully hand-stitching three pieces–the shift, the stays, and the bonnet–and using a combination of machine-stitching and hand-stitching on the other pieces. On the gown, all visible stitches will be done by hand. But for the sake of time, I’m using the machine for portions of the project.

My big goal with this project is to be able to wear a full ensemble of 1830s clothing to Commencement (otherwise known as graduation) on May 21st. I’ll need a gown and a bonnet, a chemisette to full in the neckline of the gown, a pair of gloves (I have some I can use), some sort of shoes (I plan to buy a simple pair of ballet flats), and stockings (I have some that will work) – and those are just the parts that show! Under all that, I’ll need a shift, probably a pair of drawers, a set of stays, a corded petticoat to create base fluff, another petticoat for additional fluff, a bodiced petticoat to cover all the other layers tidily since my gown fabric is semi-sheer, and probably the ruffled bustle from the independent study, so as to achieve the proper silhouette.  I’ll most likely use the pockets from my independent study as well. I probably won’t worry about making cuffs just yet. All told, there is still much to do, but it’s coming along. The most alarming part is that I have not yet been able to dye the fabric for my gown.

From a February 1838 Fashion Plate in Godey's Lady's Book

The gown at left is the one I originally chose as my inspiration piece, during the independent study. I love the crossover bodice style, especially with the stripes cut on the bias. I also love the bias stripes on the skirt ruffle, set against the vertical stripes of the skirt. However, I’ve never been entirely enamored of the sleeves, I don’t like how the ruffle is set to leave a gap of plain skirt at the hem, and I find myself getting distracted by the astonishingly hideous headdress whenever I look at the picture. So, at this point, I’m not planning to do an exact copy of the fashion plate, but rather to combine elements of several fashion plates, along with details from extant gowns, to create a just-right late 1830s gown style for me.

The bodice for my gown will be cut like the February 1838 fashion plate at left, which seems to have been a popular style. The Workwoman’s Guide even has instructions for the style. I may have to adapt the bodice design slightly, because I think that with my rather well-endowed figure, I’ll probably need darts at the waistline to control the fullness of the fabric needed to go around my bosom, even with the stretch of the bias cut. Fortunately, I’ve seen various examples of just such a bodice style, including the left figure in the following fashion plate at right. I’m also partial to the sleeve shape in the following fashion plate – but not the precise way that the fullness is fixed down at the top. I think I’d rather use little controlled pleats than bands with buttons.

Pretty Gowns from an April 1840 Fashion Plate in Godey's Lady's Book

I’m also rather partial to the plethora of ruffles at the hem. I might do that, but I think more likely I’ll just do one ruffle, only set so that it goes all the way to the hem, or possibly two ruffles, the lower one deeper than the upper, as in the pink dress in the fashion plate below center.  The fabric I’m using for the gown would most likely be termed a muslin in 19th century terminology. It’s a smooth, long-staple cotton fabric that is semi-sheer, but with opaque stripes of satin-weave, which have a bit of openwork stitching along either side of each stripe. It’s absolutely beautiful, and perfect for the period. I bought it at Delectable Mountain Cloth in Brattleboro, Vermont – a wonderful little shop that’s well worth an excursion. I believe that the owner said that my fabric was of Italisn manufacture. The only difficulty is that solid white dresses, especially in cotton, do not seem to have been very common by the late 1830s. I am solving this problem with a few bottles of cerulean blue dye, and the help of a friend who has a lot of experience dyeing cotton.

I think that my bonnet will probably give a similar impression to those in the plate above at right – large but not too terribly ridiculous, and really rather pretty, in that slightly silly way. A chemisette will definitely be needed in order to keep things suitably modest, and by the same token, I’ll also need a bodiced petticoat like this extant one to provide a tidy, opaque underlay for the somewhat see-through dress. I just hope I can find the time and the patience to sew enough cords into my corded petticoat, and then track down down enough starch, in order to achieve satisfactory fluffiness. I’m also concerned that a mere three petticoats (over a long chemise, with a ruffled bustle) might not really be enough fluff, but for the time being, I’ll just have to live with whatever level of fluff those combined garments can achieve.

A figure from a November 1838 Godey's Lady's Book Fashion Plate

Here is the full list of garments involved in this ensemble:

For details and resources, click on individual garment links to go to the introductory base posts for those garments.

Intro: 1830s Independent Study Spring 2010

In the spring of 2010, during my second of four semesters at Hampshire, I did an independent study for credit, essentially a pilot study for the research and work I wanted to do for my thesis project. I focused on clothing of a very specific time period, the late 1830s, which had a very distinct aesthetic, transitioning between the Romantic Era 1820s-30s, and the Crinoline Era 1840s-1860s. This is the very beginning of the era of photography, on the cusp of it, really, so the difference in evidence between researching this period and researching even a decade or two later is incredible – more guesswork and extrapolation is required.

But, as I found during my independent study, there is a great deal of information available about the period, it just requires sifting and evaluation and analysis to use. During the independent study, I created the annotated bibliography which grew into the many-tentacled beast currently residing on this site, and I spent a lot of time looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of various kinds of primary and secondary sources, discussing how to use those various sources together to create a full and nuanced picture of a particular period of clothing.

In addition to writing a paper for that independent study, I also sewed several garments and sewing kit tools, constructing everything by hand and as accurately as possible, using natural fibers and primary source instructions. I made a quilted petticoat, a ruffled bustle, a pair of pockets, and for my work box, a velvet pincushion and needle book.