Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Nathaniel Gow Bicentennial Ball

As I mentioned in my previous post about my dress for the occasion, I was very privileged to attend the Nathaniel Gow Bicentennial Ball held in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms 200 years (to the day!) after the original event. It was a wonderful experience!

(A Note: All photographs in this post are courtesy of the official event photographer, Juliette Lichman. Please to not copy.)

The Edinburgh Assembly Rooms were built in the 1780s in Edinburgh's New Town and renovated in 1796 to add crystal chandeliers and other decorative touches to the interior. The upstairs ballroom is lovely and light, and stands today much as it would have in the early 19th century. As historian Colin Ross explains in his podcast about the building, the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms are quite special because any changes over time were only additions, retaining the existing spaces as they were. This means that while there are more modern touches in other parts of the building, the ballroom still feels like the Regency era. This includes the original musicians' gallery, a raised alcove in the wall where the musicians (and our dancing master) sat throughout the night. The acoustics in the room are incredible, and the music could be heard throughout the ballroom without any amplification! Quite impressive given the size of the room.

the musicians' gallery
During the early 19th century, the ballroom in the Assembly Rooms saw many balls, celebrations, political gatherings, and readings and banquets hosted by authors like Sir Walter Scott and W.M. Thackeray. A few years after the ball we were recreating, the ballroom hosted King George IV during his first visit to Scotland in 1822. A book written about this trip gives a glimpse into what the Assembly Rooms would have looked like quite near 1817, so I thought I'd share a bit:

"The principle ballroom is of magnificent dimensions and fine proportions, being 92 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 40 feet high; and its decorations, which are characterized by simplicity, lightness, and elegance, rather than by richness, consist of handsome fluted pilasters, of the Corinthian order, resting on the floor and supporting the cornice of the room; the centre of the south side is enriched with Corinthian columns of smaller dimensions, forming the decorations of the entrance, and supporting a balcony for the orchestra...and the elegance of the whole is summed up in the rich cut crystal lustres suspended from the ceiling."

Mudie's illustration of the Assembly Rooms-G is the main ballroom. Also interesting to note that S, the second ballroom, was "on this occasion appropriated to quadrilles." Other rooms connected to the ballroom were for playing cards and taking refreshments. 
In addition to the room, I greatly enjoyed the amount of tartan in the ballroom! And because I cannot beat his description, Mudie writes of the 1822 event:
"At nine o'clock, the room was completely full by nearly all the rank, beauty, and fashion of Scotland...The Duke of Argyll was conspicuous in the dark-green plaid of the clan Diarmid; and other noblemen and gentlemen gayly disported themselves in the mountain garb*. The scene was one of such extraordinary splendor as almost to entrance, at least to bewilder, the faculties in contemplation of it. The surpassing beauty of the ladies-their plumage, in constant undulation, appearing to the eye like an ocean of foam;-the glitter reflected from a profusion of jewels;-...the room itself;-altogether presented a scene which more than realized all previous conceptions of grandeur and magnificence."

  The ball itself was quite special beyond just being held in a magnificent space, as we were dancing the same program as the original ball in 1817. In 1817, the ball was played and called by Nathaniel Gow and his band. Nathaniel Gow, son a of a famous Scottish musician, was himself a violinist and composer sought after throughout Scotland to play at fashionable gatherings (actually he was also present during the 1822 visit Mudie describes, and received particular compliments from the king). Gow was also in demand in London, and thus saw many popular dances that may not have made it to Scotland yet. Quadrilles were a particular fad in the late 1810s and early 1820s, and Gow is credited with introducing many of them to fashionable Edinburgh society. It was some of these "favorite French quadrilles" of Mr. Gow that we were recreating at the ball.

standing up for a quadrille
Dancing at this ball was an interesting experience for me. I was very glad to attend the workshop earlier in the day, because historical dance is subject to variation based on the particular reconstruction of the source material. Dance manuals and music with instructions are amazing resources, but there's still room for interpretation (not least of which being the cultural lens of the historian) that can lead to differences between what I would do at home in Boston and what Stuart Marsden, our instructor for the evening, would teach. And there were differences! Most notably, Mr. Marsden instructed in French for the French quadrilles. While we do use French terms for some steps and figures, most of our calling at home is done in English--so having to remember the French terms took some getting used to!

our dancing master in the musicians' gallery
Many of the figures were also new to me. I know one of the earliest sets of quadrilles published in the UK, known as the "First Set"**, and some of these figures appeared in Nathaniel Gow's set as well-but with a few changes. According to Mr. Marsden, these changes were made by Gow to help the Edinburgh audience learn the figures when they were first introduced. So similar to what I know, but a little different! This was quite fascinating to see and hear discussed.

ladies hands round while men circle outside, part of a quadrille figure
I also really enjoyed the quadrilles that were totally new! My favorite was called "La Caprice" and included a mix of typical quadrille figures with waltz--the music changed to waltz time (3/4) for just that section of the dance each time it was repeated. So cute! This also makes sense as a novel figure for 1817, when quadrilles were still the dances of the young and energetic, "resisted by others, such as the 'old fashioned respectables'...[at] parties in Edinburgh" (Stapleton, see below) and the waltz was still newish and more accepted by young people as well.

in lines for a country dance
During one of the breaks there was also a performance of a traditional Scottish dance with music by the event's organizer, Talitha. I enjoyed watching this, and it was an interesting call-back to some of the tension in fashionable dancing of the period, when dances had a more national associated (French Quadrilles, Scotch reels and strasthpeys, German and French waltz). Many UK dancing masters call out the particularities of Scottish dancing in relation to quadrilles, and encourage the preservation of reels and strasthpeys--while bemoaning the attempt of Edinburgh musicians to play quadrilles to reel music: "If Ladies and Gentlemen wish to have their music played in such a ridiculous manner, they only, by so doing, show their ignorance of the refined delicacy of the Quadrille." Ha!

performance of a traditional dance
In general I greatly enjoyed the dancing, although it was certainly a marathon of complex steps and a rapid pace. This was also the first ball with a full supper (two breaks in fact-one for the main meal and one for dessert!) I have attended, and that was a neat, historical experience as well. I'm very grateful I was able to attend with a dance friend, so that I had a partner who I could totally nerd out with about historical dance reconstructions--the gossip is always the best part!

chatting before a country dance

*From a tartan history perspective, I can't resist pointing out that Mudie notes the tartan ensembles as "mountain garb" here--tartan is still more of a highland thing (and the ball was in the lowlands)--something separate from the "elegant dress [and] usual court dress" worn by most of the attendees. This is changing by the mid-century, with Victoria and Albert in Balmoral.

**Payne's First Set, published 1814-15 or Paine's First Set, published 1815-1816; they're the same figures, but Paine adds another. (Those were two separate dancing masters, not different spellings of the same person's name.)

For more on the 1822 royal visit, check out Mudie's book, A Historical Account of His Majesty's Visit to Scotland

For more on Nathaniel Gow and Regency dance in Scotland:
Regency Dances site
Stapleton, A.M. (2014). Pointed Encounters: Dance in Post-Culloden Scottish Literature. Google Books.

And Regency dance in General:
Capering and Kickery
Mr. Marsden's site

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dressed for a Ball, 1817

Every now and then the stars align rather perfectly, and that happened this past Saturday for me. Many months ago, I found out my grad school endeavors would be taking me to Scotland for 10 days; mostly in the rural highlands where the class would be working, but with a final day in Edinburgh before heading back to the States. I wrote to a dear friend (and now rather long-distance partner in historical adventuring) who lives there to make sure I'd be able to see her...and found out that I'd be in town on the day of a rare event: a Regency ball! Obviously, we'd have to go.

And I'd need a dress.

I'll write a post dedicated to the event itself, which was held in honor of the bicentennial anniversary of a ball held in the Edinburgh assembly rooms on the same date in 1817. Once I get pictures of the ball from the official event photographer (the utterly awesome Juliette), I'll write more about it. In the meantime, dress!

the Edinburgh assembly rooms before the ball
I struggle with Regency, and as a result I've never had clothes for the period that fit me well. Eventually I just sort of halted on making anything new until I had stays that fit, because I had a feeling my lack of acceptable structure was a large part of the problem. Now that I finally do have stays I like (not made by me), I was excited to make some new things to go over them...and this ball was a perfect opportunity!

yes this is a picture of me, but seriously-the tartan behind me is the important part!
Having fallen in love with this 1823 fashion plate, I had my inspiration. Of my existing dresses I have always liked the fit of my first-ever Regency dress best, which I made using one of the dresses in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion. So back to the source I went, and started with Arnold again for this dress.

sleeve and bodice detail
After getting the pattern right (which included many tears...ugh), the construction itself was pretty straightforward. The embroidered net and silk for the main bodice pieces were sewn as one with the lining, and then attached to the bands that form the neckline. The sleeves are similarly assembled (with a lot of piecing, because I was running out of embroidered net!), but unlined. The vertical gathers were totally wung (winged?), but I'm really really pleased with the way they came out! The sleeves are actually long rectangles that I gathered horizontally/normally into the armscyes and plain silk bands as well as gathering vertically in four places. The net and silk skirt layers were sewn separately but attached together to the waist, which is a teensy bit wider/lower because I was aiming for the later part of the period given the 1817 anniversary.

the full effect (sorry this one's a bit blurry)
 Given the lovely gilded details of the room, I gave in to temptation and blinged out, although given I'd had very limited packing space I think it was still pretty restrained. I pin-curled my hairline using LBCC lavender pomatum and then just pinned the rest of it up at the crown of my head. I didn't get any great pictures of the silver floral bit on the front of my bun/curl pile, but the idea was inspired by this painting:
portrait by Johann Peter-Krafft, 1817
And of course, I couldn't possibly go to a ball in Scotland without at least a little bit of tartan! Since I wasn't making a tartan ballgown, I settled for tartan shoes.

tartan shoes and silver and pearl hair branch
I joked that the gathered sleeves were my "pretty pretty princess" sleeves, but I definitely felt elegant and princess-like dancing in the assembly rooms! You'd never know that just an hour before I'd been frantically hemming like the wind. (Some things never change.)

making new friends...

and cherishing a good gossip with old ones
I'm already looking forward to wearing this again for the Regency Weekend in April!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On a Positive Note: Sleeves!

Well, after a very long and stressful half-week, I can say that my new regency ballgown is done except for some handwork (interior finishing, hem, closures). What relief! This has been one of those projects where nothing seemed to go right. All said, though, I think it's going to work out in the end (but as I haven't had a final try-on yet, I shouldn't say that too loudly!). After my slight internet-public meltdown the other day, I thought I'd share my favorite part of this dress as a happier note to leave you with.

Several months ago, I happened upon this 1823 fashion plate from LACMA:

I loved the simple silhouette dressed up by the embroidered over-layer, and the contrasting/plain bands on the waist and sleeves. I was also drawn to the vertically-gathered sleeves, which are just a hint of Renaissance revivalism. (I've been on a Renaissance-inspired poofy-sleeve kick I think-the Rgency day dress I'm planning is similarly princessy.)

I've never made sleeves with vertical poofs like this, and after the hellish assembly process for the rest of the dress I'll admit I had a moment where I almost bailed. But the sleeves were my favorite part! I couldn't give up! So I didn't, and I'm glad.

Of course, because this is dress is trying to drive me mad*, I didn't actually have enough embroidered net left to cut sleeves. After a lot of fussing I ended up piecing the scraps I had into something usable, which worked quite well-plan B was to use leftover tulle from my 1830s dress.

the layers of one sleeve pinned for basting--you can see the piecing seams here
 Given my precious little fabric, I should certainly have made a mockup first...but I didn't. Dangerous living! Although to be fair, I used the same basic strategy I always use (measure the armscye and double it) for a basic puff sleeve, so I was pretty sure I'd be ok. To each basted rectangle I added four vertical lines of gathering stitches while it was still flat so it would be easier to sew.
gathering stitches
Then I made the rectangles into tubes, added gathering stitches to the top and bottom openings, and started pulling the verticals.

scrunchy poofy tube!
Finally I gathered it into the armscye as usual. At some point I decided I didn't like the pointed edge after all (I am weirdly not one for ruffles in this period), so I cut the very edge of the net off and added a solid band of silk.

The jury's still out on how these will wear, but all in all I'm quite pleased with them. So that's one thing to feel good about as I pack this up and pray to all the travel deities that my luggage isn't lost!

 *I've started mentally referring to this dress as Elsa, because it reminds me of icicles and is a little bit evil without meaning to be. I'll get over it once I wear the thing...or should I say, I'll Let It Go?