Thursday, February 16, 2017

Write, Write, Write, OMG

Printed Cotton (detail) - Gown, 1796. The Met. C.I.55.50.4
This week we are wrapping up the manuscript for the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.

It's been intense and this is only the beginning. It's amazing how complacent one can feel until just before the deadline. Then it's chaos! Our eyeballs are melting and our brains are mush, but we are also filled with excitement, trepidation, joy, fear, and a sense of accomplishment.

I can't share more with you right now - oh how we wish we could! - but Abby and I are both looking forward to the processes that come next as we work with our editor and designer to sculpt all these words and pictures in a colorful and hopefully useful work for everyone.

We are also looking forward to working on our 2017 "public" projects after the book projects are done. We are attending Jane Austen Festival in July as well as Costume College at the beginning of August and need gowns for both events. We look forward to sharing the new ideas with you soon.

"The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking" is set to release at the end of the year. We'll have more information for you soon!

Much Love,

Lauren and Abby

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Research: We See What We Want to See; We See What We Know

Dress research is one of the great pleasures of the historical costuming hobby, and it's also a necessity. We all start off along this interest in old clothes knowing nothing, then slowly and diligently compiling and refining and adjusting our knowledge over time.

In my nigh 15 years of historical costuming, the overarching lesson I have learned concerning dress research and knowledge is that it is constantly shifting. The more I learn and study and look and dig and discuss, the more my pre-conceived ideas are turned upside down. New information is coming to light every day; it is the obligation of historical dress students to update and include the new knowledge in their projects, papers, and presentations. This does not mean that we know everything all at once, or need to, only that whatever new tidbit you pick up should add to or adjust your trough of truths moving forward.

Recently in researching for The Book and working with Abby Cox, I've had a couple big shifts in my dress knowledge that got me thinking about confirmation bias. These shifts scared me not because it was new information come to light but because it was information that had always been there, right in front of my eyes, that I simply failed to see.

Look closely at every small detail of this portrait. What do you see? Make notes of it. Did you notice the small frill of lace around the neckline (the tucker)? This small detail is so important yet is the most commonly missed part of historical costume recreations.
What a silly idea, that we just simply don't see what's right before us, and yet it happens all the time! When researching, we tend to look for something specific that will confirm an idea we already have. I find myself so focused on looking at one part of a painting, print, or extant gown that I totally miss other aspects of it.

For instance, the first project we made for The Book was an under-petticoat. This simple, short petticoat serves multiple purposes and is worn under the stays and under the skirt supports too. I originally questioned this - wait, I thought petticoats were worn over the stays...? As it turns out, in myriad primary sources showing women dressing, there it was, the under-petticoat under the stay tabs and beneath the hoops or bum pads.

There's a lot to see in this image - take a good close look and make note of each detail. "Restoration Dressing Room" print, published in London by S.W. Fores, 24th April 1789. V and A S.1803-2009
Now this may seem obvious to you, but it wasn't to me. Why did I not know this? It was not for lack of looking at images but lack of seeing this detail. It was because my concept of how to get dressed was formed early on in my costuming career and then hardened. Ouch.

I bump into these things all the time now. What are we really seeing when we look at original references? Are we thinking about historic construction, design, materials, and dressing through a modern lens or that of a mantua maker, milliner, seamstress, or couturier of that unique time?

At first glance this just looks like a short sacque but with a closer look the cut away front breaks some "rules." It's a polonaise sacque - yup, front of a Polonaise, back of a sacque. The problem is not this garment; the problem is our modern "rules."
It's a fascinating brain melt to grill up for breakfast! I encourage everyone (myself included) to crack open the very first historical costuming book you bought and really look at the images again. Notice every small detail and think about the "why" behind its depiction. You'll be amazed at what you missed and also what you now understand better with the experience you've gained in making your own costumes.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Disconnect Between Modern Sewing and Modern Clothing

Reader, have you ever noticed that there is a disconnect between what we wear and what we sew? Why is this?

For instance, why do we wear so much knitwear? T-shirts, sweatshirts, stretchy fabrics galore. It wasn't the case in the past, but today SO much of mainstream fashion is based on knits and stretch. Here is a brain-dump of why I think this might be...

  • Knits don't need to be accurately patterned or sewn. Minimal seams, fairly straight cutting. Some t-shirts don't even have side seams anymore.
  • Knits don't need to be patterned to fit well - the fitment is in the stretch. It's as easy as S M L XL +
  • Invention and widespread use of the washing machine and tumble dryer. Clothes had to stand up to this abuse. Clothing is washed significantly more often and much more harshly today (believe it or not).
  • Invention of cars and changes in automotive interior design - ever try to get in or drive a car in a full Victorian or Edwardian outfit? Cars have a lot to do with the changes in our clothing over the 20th century, whether it's the disappearance of large hats, the narrowness and length of skirts (or phasing out of skirts completely), or the increasing comfort and stretch factor of all clothing.
1950s Constructa washing machine. This changed everything.
  • We wear fewer items of clothing than ever before, but our clothing is washed significantly more often. No longer do we rely on linen underclothes to keep our outer clothes clean - just sweat on through, then throw it in the washer.
  • Expectations of clothing - cheap, good, and lasts long enough. Doesn't shrink, doesn't wear too much when washed.
  • Active lifestyles - stretch equals mobility (right?)
  • Speed of dressing - who has time to put on all those layers? Who has time for underpinnings, for laces and buttons and hooks, for even doing your hair?
  • Changing bodies - comfort is king, whether active or not. Nobody wants to be squeezed or pinched (understandably!).
  • Overly sexualized clothing.

Hip hugger jeans of the 1970s, but look at the length of those zippers - nothing like the 2 inch zippers of today's low-rise jeans
  • Defying the laws of physics with Lycra/Elastane, first woven into denim in the late 1970s.  In the 1970s, we had hip-huggers but they didn't intentionally display what became known as the "whale tail" at the dawn of the 21st century. (Please note, as well, that 1960s and 1970s non-denim pants were often made out of tricot and bottomweight knits) Circa 2000 ultra-low-rise pants could never stay up without stretch. The waistline moves from the natural waist to the pelvic bone and then below. There's low....then there's LOW.
  • Overly sexualized clothing - everything has a tight fit. Tight t-shirts, tight pants, for both men and women. Clothes don't hang, they cling. Lycra makes it possible.
This may seem like, "no way," but this is modern club wear.
Sewing with knits

For the first time since the 1970s, the Big Two (Simplicity and McCalls) are producing a variety of patterns for sewing with knits: entire dedicated sections in the pattern catalog. The problem is that the major fabric stores haven't caught up with this - selection of jersey is small; no ribbing available whatsoever. Why?

  • Lack of skill/learning in sewing with knits? It *is* totally different.
  • Lack of interest in sewing with knits - cheap t-shirts and sweaters are plentiful, so why bother?
  • Limited availability/access to knits - a self-perpetuating loop between big fabric chains and pattern companies. If sewists can't get the materials, the patterns won't sell, so will be dropped, and fabric stores won't ever notice a demand for knit fabrics.
  • Design of modern machines doesn't favor knits - sewing machine arms are short and fat, making it very difficult if not impossible to get a ribbed cuff under the needle.
Reader, what do you think? These are just my ideas, but why do you think there is a disconnect between what we sew and what mainstream fashion makes for us to wear?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Simplicity Pattern Catalog, June 1946

Simplicity Pattern Catalog, June 1946

I promised I would show snaps from the other 1940s Simplicity pattern catalog I recently purchased, so here we go!

Last time, I shared with you my favorites from the Simplicity 1940, and ended up talking quite a lot about the contrast between the 1940 and 1946 catalogs. Most notably, the 1940s designs are much more complex than those from 1946, with all kinds of pleats, gathers, ruches, and paneling. The 1946 designs are surprisingly simple, most made from the same general bodice and skirt shape, omitting trickier techniques like setting sleeves or insets or shirred panels.

Simplicity 1343, a very simple dress with stitched pleats at the shoulder and applied pockets.

The wedge-shaped shoulder-sleeve combo was big in '46

One of the more complex designs - Simplicity 1289
Also, I have not found any patterns in the 1946 catalog that date back to the 1940, which is actually a little unusual for pattern books. The 1940 catalog had a good number of much older 1930s patterns, but the 1946 book appears to have wiped the slate clean. World War II may have had something to do with that......

Other senses of WWII shadow the pages of the 1946 catalog. The dresses are remarkably simple and economic in fabric cutting. Hem widths are listed on every dress design. The entire book has the undertone of "how to make the most of it," and although I like very few designs in this catalog, I love the can-do-make-do attitude of it all.

The color-block dress is pretty fly - Simplicity 1524

Interesting sleeve seam detail and a paneled A-line skirt. Simplicity 1557

More color blocking and the appearance of a major batwing! Simplicity 1515 and 1447

OK, so this jacket is pretty fabulous!

Smocking and embroidery - embellishments for otherwise simple blouses. These details made them unique.

Bomber jackets are always in style.

I like to track the evolution of underpinnings through the vintage decades. The bra here is more structured than the earlier 1940 design, but the tap pants are basically the same.

I love this illustration because it's pretty racy! Simplicity 1627 negligees.