Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Dressed Up

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, because it is practically the only day of the year when I am not the person on the subway wearing wacky clothes.  Hooray! Today I spotted a bumble-bee, a butterfly, and a cat riding the red line with me.
While Halloween as we know if today is unique, dressing up and dancing the night away is certainly nothing new.  In fact, I would love to attend a fancy dress ball!  Here is a description of one from Local Records: or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events, which have Occurred in Northumberland and Durham, Newcastle Upon Tyne, and Burwick Upon Tweed, published in 1833:

"A Subscription Fancy Ball took place in the assembly room Newcastle. The company formed a splendid many of them being very fancifully dressed and without masks They began to assemble about half past nine o clock, at ten the ball was led off...and was kept up with great until one when the company were ushered into the small room where an abundant and elegant cold collation was out...The viands confectionary and jellies were excellent, particularly latter which were most beautifully transparent. ...After supper dancing was resumed and kept up until a hour in the morning There were 212 ladies and gentlemen."

This entry is followed by a list of prominent locals and their costumes.  I've selected a few favorites:
Mr. Durham, a dalmatian
Miss Werge, a Scots girl (very neat)
Mr. Jackson, an old gentleman, from the time of Charles the First
Miss Ellison, Variella, in the Weathercock

Doesn't that sound like fun?  Something that I love about fancy dress costumes are also the way they maintain current fashions while giving the impression of the selected character or object.  While it's a little late to use these this year, in honor of the night here are some fabulous fancy dress ensembles.

Fancy Dress, 1911, at the Met

"cherry girl." a souvenir child's photo from a fancy-dress ball, 1880
"New Woman" fancy dress, 1896 from Fancy Dresses Described by Arden Holt
"The Hornet," from Fancy Dresses Described 1887

Spanish Fancy Dress, 1819, from La Belle Assemblee
"Photography," 1865, in the Musee Mccord
couples costume! Vikings, 1898 at the Musee Mccord
Fancy dress in Godey's, 1866
I could keep going, but I'll end here.  Enjoy, and have a wonderful day of dressing up!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


One of the items on my wish list for the next few months is a pelisse, or long coat for Regency.  Another item I hadn't given a lot of thought to but would serve the same purpose is a walking dress, which would also be warm and good for winter wear.  The warmth is the important thing, because I plan to wear this ice skating!

After my successful spencer completion I've been in a Regency mood again.  While I haven't yet found wool that makes me happy for a pelisse, I've recently come across a number of fashion plates that caught my eye. They are all pelisses and walking dresses from throughout the early 1800s, trimmed in ermine.  I am totally in love with ermine as a lining/trim now--which would be so much better if it weren't practically impossible to find (as a fake version, that is)!

What we think of as ermine--white fur with black bits throughout--is actually fur from a Stoat (a breed of weasel).  Stoats are brown in color for most of the year, but in winter it has a thick, short white coat with only a black tip on the tail.  This is the fur that has long been prized for clothing.

a Stoat Weasel, in summer coat
As you might imagine, something made out of real fur takes a lot of these little guys.  If the piece is going to include the tail, the skins are combined such that the black tips appear at regular intervals throughout the finished product, giving it the distinctive ermine look we've all seen in royal portraits.

detail from a portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay, 1761-2.  His robe is lined in ermine fur.
  Ermine has been used in clothing for centuries, but is particularly associated with royalty.  In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the "royal fur."  In particular it has been historically part of ceremonial garments in Russia (for the coronation of Czars) and Great Britain (a House of Hanover favorite).  It is also a traditional lining for the academic robes at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (they mostly fake it with rabbit fur now).  However, though hugely expensive, ermine was available to the fashionable laypeople of the 19th century.  I didn't find many extant garments featuring my weasel friend, but I did find several fashion plates.

I'll share them with you with a bit of commentary...I'm still hoping that I'll come up with a good way to fake this and make my own for skating!

Ermine trimmed (and lining the hood) redingote, Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1812
I would need so much fur, but this one is perhaps my favorite. From the same source as above, 1811
Another hooded redingote, fully lined in ermine. From the same source, 1809
A little late, but so fabulously stylish. Walking dress with ermine trim, 1822
Accessories are always important, and this is a whole set! Carriage costume with ermine lining, trim, muff, and hat. January 1817
Hooray for extant garments! I just want to cuddle into that ermine collar...pelisse, 1813-1817
I like the yellows quite a bit.  Also, this one is interesting because it appears to be trimmed with a brown fur on top of the ermine lining. super warm?  Pelisse, Ackerman's 1811
Well, this ended up with a lot of images, but aren't they lovely?  I'm not sure why this appeals to me so much, but a wool or velvet pelisse lined in (faux) fur sounds like an incredibly soft, scrumptious, and practical thing to make. I will be so warm! I will be able to ice skate all the time!

(But only in the Regency.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Plum Velvet Spencer

It has certainly felt like summer is over, with chilly mornings and beautiful trees (fall foliage might be one of my favorite things about New England), so it seemed only natural to start work in earnest on projects for the upcoming cooler months.  As CVD has been doing a lot of Regency lately (and hopefully we'll keep it up!), I am learning to love Regency clothing; and hopefully starting a quest to build a solid Regency wardrobe.  Someday, I would love to be at a point where I have several mix-and-patch options for all the periods I need on a regular basis, but as Regency is getting a lot of wear right now--and uses very little fabric, compared to say 1860s--I'm starting there.
When I bought the fabric and trim for my purple tassel dress last winter, I also picked up some absolutely lovely plum velvet for a coordinating spencer.  This fall, with a lot of help, I finally made it!

wearing my plum spencer at the Jackson Homestead, built in 1809, run by the Newton Historical Society
The pattern is based on the jacket from the turn of the century riding habit in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion.  I really like the "masculine" details of the notched collar and cuffs from this pattern, so I adapted it to fit a later time frame--closer to 1812--by changing the opening to center front and removing the back peplum.

Spencers were short jackets popular at the beginning of the 19th century, covering just the bodice of the dress.

a pretty lemon-yellow spencer, c.1815
Source: via L.R. on Pinterest

As with anything else styles ranged and changed quite a bit over the years, but many have very militaristic trim, which I quite like.  Eventually I will trim my spencer, and will almost certainly go in that direction.

spencer trimmed in looped braid, 1813
Source: via L.R. on Pinterest

right: fashion plate of a green spencer, 1812.  I also love her striped hat!

Spencers are a great way to change up an outfit, but they are also quite practical!  In addition to being velvet, my spencer is lined with wool, so it is extra warm and cozy.  Of course, it was 75 degrees yesterday!  Oh, fall in New England...

I didn't get very many pictures yesterday, which is probably for the best because I wasn't feeling very smiley.  Oh, well.  It was a lovely day, and I am quite pleased with my spencer.  Someday soon it will be cold enough that I will actually need it!

with the Jackson Homestead behind me

pretty colored leaves!
with the group, from the CVD facebook page

One last thing: I'm trying a new picture system.  Quinn recently introduced me to Pinterest, so I'm going to try embedding all of my research images via the site instead of uploading them from my computer.  The only difference is that now you will see a link to the source for each one.  I hope this is helpful!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Costumed Adventures, Issue #2: More Pictures from Comic-Con

I really failed at taking pictures at Comic-Con, but I was totally overwhelmed. According to the news there were over 116,000 attendees! Next year I promise to be better.  Here are the few pictures I did manage, however, just to give you a taste of the crazy-awesome!

Antonia and Julia as Batman-girl and Robinette (both outfits made by Julia, who you can find here)

a private joke moment.  My "Marvel Girl X-Mansion" bakcpack...or my SLC alumni bakcpack? Are they the same place?

the Mystery Mobile from the live-action Scooby Doo movies

a station where you could be turned into a zombie by makeup artists

I didn't end up going as Merida, but a bunch of other people did!

the view coming down into one of the main hallways--just a flood of people. It was this crowded everywhere.

signs on the way to Artists' Alley

yep. Accurate.

one of the artists paints a car

Antonia's favorite superhero, Hawkeye

massive dork moment: a kid dressed as Link from Legend of Zelda playing an Occarina

at the comic-con backdrop...not a great picture but you can see my X symbol

Batman villains

a pretty fab weeping angel

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Costumed Adventures, Issue #1: New York Comic-Con

This weekend I took a rather ridiculous adventure to Manhattan with Antonia and Julia for New York Comic-Con.  I've always wanted to go to comic-con (and maybe someday I will make it to San Diego!), because CC is known for its large media presence--this year, that meant getting to see a pretty hilarious and charming 10th anniversary Firefly panel, among many other things.  Some of my favorites were the Smell Like an Avenger cologne booth (spoilers: Thor smells like sweat), game demos for Tomb Raider Archery and a Kinect dance game, the cars from the live-action Scooby Doo movies and the 1960s Batman series, and cat ears that move based on electrical signals from your brain.  Those were super cool, and we got to try them on!

Of course, there were also comics.  I will admit that before the idea of attending comic-con arose, it had been years since I picked up a comic book.  When I was younger I read X-Men and a few collections (like Women of Marvel) that my brother had in the house, but that was about it.  When Julia and Antonia invited me to accompany them to NYCC, I started looking into some of my favorite mutants to decide who I might want to dress up as--and rediscovered Jean Gray.

Jean Gray is introduced in X-Men #1, 1963
I've always really liked Jean, but now that I study the brain I like her even more, because she is an adorable 1960s scientist who uses her brain (literally-she's telekinetic) to fight crime.  So I started reading some of the original 1960s X-Men comics and researching Jean's costume.

For that period I had two choices: her black and yellow uniform, or the green dress and yellow mask she gets a bit later on.  I decided I wasn't brave enough for spandex, and decided on the green dress.

A collage of Marvel Girl, aka Jean Gray
Marvel Girl is super '60s, from her flipped hair, a-line dress, and hip belt, to her yellow boots.  However, in some images her skirt appears to have a bit more swish--it looks better when she's fighting crime.  Her sleeves also appear in both full-length and short versions.

on the cover of X-Men #48 with long sleeves

in an early comic with short sleeves
I wanted to capture the fuller crime-fighting swish of Jean's skirt, so I ended up basing my pattern on athletic dresses for girls from the 1960s.

image from a sportswear pattern, 1960s
Source: via L.R. on Pinterest

This worked out pretty well.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get everything the way I wanted it--there is a serious lack of accessories, and I think if I want my hair to flip I'm better off with a wig--but in general it was fun to feel like a crime-fighting super scientist girl, and people recognized me.  I took that as a sign of success.

goofing off at Comic-Con--my badge blocks the X symbol I whipped up last minute in place of the belt

trying to use brain power for good...I think...
I plan to keep working on this costume, because it was actually really fun, and comic-con was EPIC.  It also got me interested in reading more comics, and so far I am loving the new reboot of Birds of Prey as well as Avengers 1959 and Secret Avengers.  Hopefully we'll be heading back next year!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Brief Introduction to My Tartan Obsession

After making my tartan silk 1860s ballgown and tartan drawers, I thought I had gotten the obsession out of my system.  I haven't.  Instead I am just embracing the fact that as this rate I will have at least one or two plaid things from every period of the 19th century that I sew.

Why do I say I will have plaid things and not tartan? Budget, mostly.  While all tartans are plaids, not all plaids are tartans.  As I mentioned in my Princess Merida post, the term "plaid" originally referred to a large piece of woven fabric (like a blanket) that could be worn in several ways by men and women--its most famous use, as a "belted plaid," evolved into what we now know as a kilt.  For the purpose of this post, though, when I use the word plaid I mean the pattern of interlocking stripes common in the modern vernacular.

According to Wikipedia (somewhere every history teacher I've ever had is shuddering at this citation), the term plaid (to describe a pattern) can refer to:
and Madras
in addition to tartans.  I don't know enough about any of those fabrics to say much more about them, but we would refer to all of them as plaid patterns.  Modern tartan (by which I mean 19th century and on) has a particular significance based on its thread count and colors.  Tartan is a woven fabric with interlocking stripes in both the warp and weft of the cloth, meaning there are lines that run both vertically and horizontally through the fabric; the particular pattern of lines is known as the sett.  Tartan as a particular pattern originated in Scotland, and was so associated with the Jacobite uprising that after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden the wearing of Highland dress (including tartan) was made illegal by the British government.

John Drummond, 4th titular Duke of Perth, 1714-1747. Jacobite. 1739, via Scottish National Gallery

detail of the Jacobite forces from the painting An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 by David Morier, 1746
The act was repealed in 1782 and around the same time was the rise of the first commercial tartan weavers.  Wilsons of Bannockburn, one of these 'early weavers,' is an important resource due to their publication of the 1819 Key Pattern Book, which includes approximately 200-250 tartans in production in the first two decades of the 19th century.

sett for the Baillie (William Wilson) tartan, as recorded in the 1819 Key Pattern Book
 At this point under half (about 100) of the tartan setts listed in the Key Pattern Book were named--the rest were just numbered.  While this does not mean that there was no association with the patterns and various groups (the Royal Company of Archers wore a specific tartan as early as the 17-teens), it wasn't as structured as it is today, and those associations were not recorded in the weavers' specifications.

recorded in the 1819 KPB as "No.2/64 or Aberc." and named for Sir Abercrombie in the early 19th c.
Today, the short answer to "what makes something a tartan rather than a plaid?" is that tartans are registered with The Scottish Register of Tartans, a governmental body responsible for registering new tartans and maintaining a database and archive "to protect, promote, and preserve tartan."  While there are many plaid patterns--and some even look like tartan--it isn't really a tartan if it isn't registered...right?

Sort of.  Whether or not someone has gone through the registration process and paid the fee, the Register has specifications for what makes a plaid a tartan.  According to the website:

The basis of any tartan is a simple two-colour check to which the designer adds over-checks, bands and stripes in contrasting colours. These should be arranged to result in a balanced and harmonious pattern. 

Where two stripes of the same colour cross, a block of solid colour is formed. Where different colours cross, the two colours are mixed in equal proportions to create a new colour. Ideally, neither colour should 'swamp' the other. The two together should make a new intermediate shade. 

A tartan pattern is a geometric design, made up of blocks of solid colour which join on the diagonal, radiating across the fabric like spokes, and with each block of colour surrounded by blocks of mixed colours. The blocks form a pattern, reflected or repeated many times across both the warp and weft of the cloth.

The total number of colours in a tartan (including mixtures) increases rapidly as the number of colours increases: two colours make a total of three colours including mixtures; six base colours make a total of twenty-one including mixtures. The more colours that are used therefore, the more complicated the pattern becomes.

Traditionally a maximum of six colours were used in tartan - and many professional designers still stick to this limit to avoid over-complicating the design.

So there you have it.  Beginning in about the 1820s and reaching its height during the mid 19th century, the concept of a clan tartan (or a tartan associated with other specific things) became quite popular.  Today you can search the Scottish Registry of Tartans website to see clan tartans, and many others--did you know that many US states have tartans?  While created in 2003 and therefore a pattern I could never actually use (unless I have a limitless budget and can custom order a mini-kilt), I quite like the Massachusetts "Bay State" tartan.

the MA tartan: blue for the Atlantic Ocean, green for Boston, Worcester, and Berkshire hills/mountains, tan for the beaches on the North Shore and Cape Cod/the islands, red for the apple and cranberry harvests
Part of the reason I am so interested in tartan as a fashion trend in the 19th century is that there is so much history associated with it.  When I look at fashion plates from various periods with plaid dresses, I want to know what tartans they might have used--even if I will probably have to settle for something in the right color family that is easily available.  

While this post brushed over a lot of important aspects of tartan, hopefully it will be a helpful reference as I continue posting!  If you'd like to learn more, here are a few sites I recommend: