A Time-Travelling Ballerina

When I was a child I was given Tom Tierney’s ‘Ballet Stars of the Romantic Era‘ paper doll book.  Though I enjoyed the occasional girls ballet book, I wasn’t ballet obsessed.  This was mostly because ballet was simply such an abstract concept for me – in Hawaii little girls learn hula, not ballet.  I read about ballet, but the scenes they were described were as remote and exotic as Heidi’s Alps.

Although I couldn’t grasp the idea of a modern person being a ballerina, I loved the paper dolls.  The beautiful costumes (of course) and the stories of the ballerina’s lives (affairs with mad kings and all) appealed to me.

Marie Taglioni as Flora in Didelot's Zéphire et Flore. London, 1831, Lithograph by Chalon and Lane.  Victoria and Albert Museum, Sergeyev Collection

Marie Taglioni as Flora in Didelot’s Zéphire et Flore. London, 1831, Lithograph by Chalon and Lane. Victoria and Albert Museum, Sergeyev Collection

Later on, when I finally saw ballets at the San Francisco Ballet and the Royal New Zealand Ballet, I was hugely disappointed by the costumes.  They were beautiful and striking, but in my mind I’d always imagined the soft, floating swish of romantic-era skirts of silk tulle.  The stiff nylon platters of the modern ballerina just didn’t live up to my expectations.  If I was going to design a ballet outfit, it would look like something Taglioni, Grisi, or Essler would wear.

Carlotta Grisi in the tite role of Adam's Giselle, Paris, 1841, lithograph by an unknown artist

Carlotta Grisi in the tite role of Adam’s Giselle, Paris, 1841, lithograph by an unknown artist

Somewhere in a scrapbook I have a picture of Selma Blair in the dress she wore to the 2003 Met Costume Gala.  She said of the dress something to the effect that she never got to be a ballerina as a little girl, so the dress was her ballerina moment.

For some reason that quote has always stuck with me (although I’d forgotten all the details of the dress except that it was vaguely ballerina-y), and I’ve thought, ‘yes, every girl should have a ballerina moment’.

The closest I’ve ever come to a ballerina moment was the outfit I wore to the Fairies & Dinosaurs party, but it wasn’t quite the vision I had.

This year I’m becoming aware, as the wrinkles don’t quite go away and I get too many grey hairs to honestly claim that they are all sports, that my time to have a ballerina moment is going to run out.  I should do it now!

This year I have the perfect excuse – the Windy Lindy ball theme is ‘Enchantment Under the Sea’ (a la Back to the Future), and a Romantic era ballet costume is close enough to a ’50s prom dress, right?

I also have the perfect fabric: 5 yards of vintage silk organza in pink with three-dimensional organza ribbon roses that my Grandmother brought back from a trip to Japan in the late ’50s.

A romantic-era ballerina meets 1950s dress thedreamstress.com

The clock is definitely ticking on me in that much pink organza too!

So, inspiration for a romantic-era ballerina, meeting 1950s full-skirted romanticism:

Marie Taglioni dancing the title role in La Sylphide, 1832

Marie Taglioni dancing the title role in La Sylphide, 1832

I love the simple fitted bodices, pointed waists, and the soft, swooshing fullness of the skirts.

Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito surround Marie Taglioni in Jules Perrot's Pas de Quatre, Lithograph by T. H. Maguire from a drawing by A. E. Chalon, London, 1845

Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito surround Marie Taglioni in Jules Perrot’s Pas de Quatre, Lithograph by T. H. Maguire from a drawing by A. E. Chalon, London, 1845

I went looking for 50’s dress with the same elements, and assembled a pinterest inspiration board.

Then I went browsing in my pattern stash, and unearthed my Grandmother’s copy of Butterick 6485 from the early 1950s.

It’s got a fitted bodice, pointed waist, a full circle skirt with gathers (circles for that extra swish, and to maximise my fabric) and is perfect!

Butterick for a ballerina dress thedreamstress.com

When I opened it up, I discovered that my Grandmother had definitely made it, and even created two new pieces to add a peplum.

For a moment I was back with her, mixing and matching pattern pieces and drafting new ones to create the ideal gown.

As I looked at the longer view, and the peplum pieces, I suddenly realised that not only did I know what her gown would have looked like, I own it!

This is me, aged 20, in one of the three items of my grandmother’s finished sewing that I own:

My grandmother's altered version of Butterick 6485 thedreamstress.com

It’s the pattern, with some alterations!

Oh, happiness!

And, as further proof that the dress was meant to be, my toile fit perfectly straight off the pattern!  (or, at least it does with the correct bra under it).

Butterick 6485 for a ballerina dress thedreamstress.com

Now, to be brave and cut into that organza…

A romantic-era ballerina meets 1950s dress thedreamstress.com

Rate the Dress: Brown Wool & Paisley

Last week I showed you Barrocci’s young man in doublet and ruff, and the print of the doublet and the size of the ruff were just a bit too much for some of you, so the young man only managed a 6.8 out of 10.  While I feel a bit sorry for the poor young man who had tried so hard, I was pleased that no-one seemed to be swayed by the fact that I’d raved about his outfit in a post only a week earlier!

This week I’ve picked an outfit that looks like it could have been from an alternative universe.  Somewhere a bit steampunk-y perhaps….

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

This ensemble / dress in two parts of brown wool with paisley ‘blouse’ features trim in the paisley, and in a plush camel fabric.

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

The dress is typical of the fashions from between 1902-05, both in its silhouette, with slim sleeves, narrow shoulders, and an elegant skirt with suppltle drapes, and in its use of adventurous and inventive detailing.

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

The detailing is particularly adventurous in the bodice, with it’s faux half-over jacket.  It’s made even more unusual in its choice of fabrics: dead muppet is not a fabric I usually associate with the Edwardian era.

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

Ensemble (dress in two parts) in brown wool and paisley silk, ca. 1900, sold via Antique Dress.com

What do you think?  It is, admittedly, a rather strange and peculiar outfit.  But strange and peculiar can be a good thing for a lady who wants to stand out as being distinctive, rather than generically pretty.  So, for a sartorially adventurous lady, whether or not she was a lady adventurer, does this cut it?  Or is it just too wacky for anyone to pull off?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.

An inspired swimsuit

The HSF Challenge #19 was Inspiration: be inspired by the wonderful things other HSF sewers have made for previous challenges.  I was super excited about this challenge, but it was also really hard, because there are so many amazing pieces of inspiration that have been created!

I really, really wanted to make 18th century gauntlets, but there was another thing that I really wanted to make, that I’d never considered a possibility until I saw other Fortnightliers do it: a 19th century swimsuit.

Now, I don’t know why I put swimsuits in the ‘not-possible’ basket – after all, I’ve (often foolishly) waded into MUCH more complicated projects.  But still, they just seemed way too complicated and esoteric in my mind.

Then Cation Designs made an Edwardian swimsuit dress (using a ’70s pattern as a base), and Loran made an 1860s swimsuit from a fashion plate I’d posted by frankensteining Colette’s Laurel dress and the Folkwear 1900s swimsuit pattern, and they were both fabulous, and suddenly I realised – “Hey, I can do this!  A swimsuit is just a period blouse top joined to either a short period skirt or bloomers, with a skirt or bloomers under or over.  I can just combine patterns and I’ve got this thing!”

So I did.  And I have!

1900s swimsuit thedreamstress.com
I’ve never been able to inspect a 1900s swimsuit in person, and the only period pattern I could find is from the 1870s (and now I can’t find the book I found it in, I’ll get back to you as soon as I remember), so I did have to guess a bit with the pattern.

I used Wearing History’s Edwardian blouse for the bodice – it’s a great base for lots of period sewing.  The bodice was basically un-altered, but I drafted my own petal sleeves.  I wanted the dress to look cute, but still VERY prim.

After studying all the images of period examples in museums I could find, I decided that both attached bloomers/separate skirt and attached skirt/separate bloomers with perfectly accurate, but that I wanted a separate skirt, just in case I ever wanted to wear it on its own.  The bloomers are based on a combination of ladies drawers patterns and mens knickerbocker patterns from a late 19th century tailors guide.

The skirt is just a shortened ca. 1900 flared skirt pattern, with a little extension in the waist so that it would gather in.

I first cut the swimsuit in black woolen fabric (hoping to make it for the Great Outdoors challenge), but as soon as I started sewing it I realised the massive error I had made: swimsuits would always have been made in worsted wool, not woolen, because woolen fabrics absorb far more water and would get too heavy.  So I set it aside, and then (oh happy day!), Fabric Warehouse had two lengths of darkest blue wool serge in their $5 bin.  What was the most recommended fabric for swimsuits in the late 19th century?  Blue serge!

So I recut.  And then it was easy:  Take bodice, attach to bloomers with waistband, make skirt, trim all.  Boom.  Swimsuit!

1900s swimsuit thedreamstress.com

Oh, and the best part?  I was really worried that it was going to be horrible and frumpy and un-wearable.  Instead, it’s super comfortable and incredibly fun to wear.  I kept putting it on for fittings and then bouncing around the house singing the happy pumpkin swimsuit song (Happy pumpkin.  Happy pumpkin.  Happy happy pumpkin in a swiiiiiiiimmmmsuit!).

Because I was a very happy pumpkin, and this is a really cute swimsuit!

1900s swimsuit thedreamstress.com

It was particularly cute on Chiara (who is my favouritest model ever, as she well knows) at the Katherine Mansfield talk, and she really worked that suit, showing off the bloomers and flouncing.  I made her a little scarf out of red striped voile for her head (because seriously, the bathing hats that were worn in the 1900s?  Not good.  Mansfield didn’t think so either!), and it was just the bit of brightness the swimsuit needed.

(and many, many thanks to Sarah, who took the three fabulous photos featured above!)

In addition to the HSF sewers, I was inspired by these fashion plates, photographs, and extent pieces:

Bathing suit, Wanamaker's  (American), ca. 1900, American, silk, wool, cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.368a-b

Bathing suit, Wanamaker’s (American), ca. 1900, American, silk, wool, cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.368a-b

Sea Bathing, Avalon, Santa Catalina, Calif. (1903-1904), NYPL MFY 95-29

Sea Bathing, Avalon, Santa Catalina, Calif. (1903-1904), NYPL MFY 95-29

And most of all my 1906 Girls Own Magazine fashion illustration, from whence I took my petal sleeves and contrast sleeve and bloomer hem binding:

What to wear by the sea, 1906, Girls Own Paper

What to wear by the sea, 1906, Girls Own Paper

Plus there are lots of other pieces I looked at on my nautical pinterest board.

The Challenge: #19 HSF Inspiration

My Inspiration: Cation Designs’ 1900s swimsuit for the HSF ’13 ‘By the Sea’ challenge, Loran’s 1870s swimsuit for the same challenge, and Lauren of Wearing History and her Edwardian blouse pattern, which can be adapted to be the basis for so many 1900s things, including, as it turns out, swimsuits!

Fabric: 3 metres of darkest blue wool serge, in two lengths ($5 each from the Fabric Warehouse $5 bins, wooohoo!)

Pattern: My own, based on period examples, with a little help from Wearing History’s Edwardian Blouse

Year: 1895-1910

Notions: cotton thread, bias tape (tons and tons of it, from Fabric-a-Brac), vintage buttons that I’ve had since I was about 12 (like the fabric, actually dark blue, not black), elastic (yes, that was used ca. 1900!)

How historically accurate is it?: Pretty good actually. Correct fabric, construction matches period garments (though I’ve never actually examined a swimsuit of this period, so I had to guess at some bits). Only thing I’m not sure about is binding the sleeves and pantlegs with bias binding. 80%

Hours to complete: 7 or more. Not a particularly fast sew!

First worn: On a model for ‘Clothing the World of Katherine Mansfield’, Sat 4 Oct (but just you wait until we have another warm weekend and I can model it myself – on the beach!)

Total cost: Under $15.

1900s swimsuit thedreamstress.com
Oh, and I like this swimsuit SO MUCH that as soon as I find suitable fabric, I’m making it again in cotton with a slightly different cut and different trims.  This one might get a bit more trim too…

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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