The Historical Sew Fortnightly ‘Flora and Fauna’ challenge fortnight starts on Tuesday, and I’m SO excited about it.
I love using the natural world as inspiration: I’ve done it with the Juno Gown (melding Greek/Roman mythology and nature with the peacock motif) and with the Luna Moth gown, plus the Laurel Gown, which also used natural motifs and classical inspiration. I also do it with not-so-historical garments, like Carolyn’s wedding gown, which borrowed from both butterflies and fish, and with Shell’s wedding dress, which borrowed from native New Zealand birds.
There are so many different ways to interpret ‘Flora and Fauna’ – you can simply use fabrics that depict flora or fauna, or fabrics made from flora or fauna, or can add in flora and fauna based motif, or you could create a garment that is inspired by the aesthetic of a particular bit of flora or fauna. The last bit brings to mind the yellow and black Regency dress that I posted a few months back that many people felt had been inspired by a bee. That’s pure conjecture, but we do know there were historical garments inspired by the natural world. Louisa May Alcott described married Meg as wearing a grey dress that made her look like a little dove, and Emily spends the entire payment for a story on a dress that reminds her of a specific summer evening.
I had the most exciting project planned for the Flora and Fauna challenge: a replica of an embroidered 1920s dress in my collection that combines a very traditional feminine nature motif (a butterfly) with the exciting colours and broken lines of Fauvism, Futurism and Cubism. Alas, while I located half the fabrics and embroidery threads needed, a reasonable match to the fabric I would be embroidering on has eluded me, so I’ve put the project on hold until I can find the right fabric. There is no point in spending a hundred hours embroidering on a less than ideal fabric.
Instead, I’ll be making one delicious 18th century accessory, and a 1930s capelet for a dear friend for the challenge. Not what I’d intended, but wonderful none-the-less.
Here are a few of my favourite flora and fauna inspired garments:
First, you have to look closely, but Lady Arabella’s skirt is spiderweb patterned. I am SO in love. SO IN LOVE. My wedding veil was a piece of 1910s metal lace with spider webs. I like spiders, and I LOVE spiderweb motifs.
Lady Arabella Stuart by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, Ca, ca. 1605-10
I adore this workbag. I’m sure the embroidery is meant to be flowers, but it’s so delicious and juicy looking that I like imagining it as berries.
Workbag, 1701, linen with wool crewel embroidery, V&A
Look at this fichu worked with lace bees! How sweet is that! (though, of course, it was actually a political statement at the time, as the bee was a Napoleonic symbol).
Fichu, Alençon, France, ca. 1805-1810, Needle lace worked in linen thread on a net ground, V&A
There are all sorts of divine Regency items with flora and fauna motifs. This dress, with its hem garland of oak leaves, just makes me swoon.
Clearly I’m not expecting anyone to make one of these, but I still can’t help showing you one of those tiaras that I love so much:
Tiara, 1850, V&A
These shoes are a great example of how simple floral inspiration can be. And the whole silhouette of these shoes is just divine. I’m keeping an eye out for modern shoes with this look that I could re-make to be more historical.
1870′s shoes of brown leather with double button strap, stacked wooden heel, the toe having a cutout scalloped oval inset with floral embroidered blue silk faille, Whitaker Auctions
In general, I don’t like 20th century vintage cherry motifs, but I love these 1870s stockings. If I ever find nice silk or cotton knit with a cherry pattern I’m going to make my own!
I think this butterfly inspired cape is just fantastic. It’s just another piece of proof that garments really can literally be flora or fauna inspired.
Pingat Jet Beaded Butterfly Evening Cape (back), 1890′s, sold through Whitaker Auctions
Isn’t the fabric on this ’20s dress just fabulous? Its also a great inspiration piece for Eastern Influence.
1924 Redfern of London dress, Hillwood Estate
Ah, so many pretty inspiration pieces, so little time to sew! If you want to see more, check out my Flora and Fauna pinterest page.
One of the drawbacks to becoming relatively popular as a blogger is that suddenly what I say and write actually gets noticed, and affects people. When I started this blog I never imagined I’d have more than a couple dozen readers: I just wanted to document my costumes.
Then, gradually, more and more people started reading, and now I meet all sorts of people in real life who say “Oh, I read your blog”, and I thought “Eeek!” People now have an impression of me without ever meeting me, and (very occasionally) quote my research and opinions.
My first reaction to this was to feel I couldn’t write anything controversial, because I hate arguments and controversy. Lately though I’m beginning to feel that I have an obligation to say what I believe in, and write what matters to me. I’ve done it a bit in the past, with my post on ‘real women’ and ‘universally flattering’ looks (that aren’t), and the sky didn’t fall in, and I didn’t get too many virulent comments (oddly, my post on sewing with acrylic, which I thought was quite innocuous, resulted in far more angry emails), and most of you actually agreed with me and thanked me for saying what I was saying. And if I lost some readers, that’s OK. I’d rather have the ones that will at least consider my opinion, even if they don’t agree with me (and of course the ones that do agree with me are also awesome!).
So here is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time, and have been attacked for even hinting at in some circles in Wellington, but have finally decided is too important not to say.
I don’t like burlesque.
In fact, I don’t just not like burlesque, I think burlesque is just stripping with better clothes, and that it is horribly detrimental to the ongoing struggle to achieve true gender equality and justice, and to women’s status as a whole.
Before those of you who are burlesque fans start telling me I am wrong, and that I don’t really understand what burlesque is, I think that you should know that my initial introduction to it was quite positive. I watched a girl who had discovered burlesque go from being quite insecure to quite self confident, and I thought “that’s awesome”. And friends who taught and took it told me all about how it was about developing poise, and subverting the usual ideas of feminine objectification, and I thought “those are excellent things.” And, for as much as I knew of it or was exposed to it, I approved of it and thought it was quite worthy.
Unfortunately, the more I saw of burlesque, the less I was able to find these supposed ideals. Instead, I saw the same old objectification of women: the same old treating women purely as items to be looked at.
The burlesque poses and performances were all the same tropes that you see in Victorian peep-shows and 1950s pin-ups (and, from what I gather, modern lightly-clothed magazines). You have your choice of A) the child-like female who is surprised and astonished to be caught with her skirt blowing up to reveal her knickers (the big-eyed “Oh!” face), B) the confident, sexually aggressive woman (usually in black or animal print, sometimes with a whip) who enjoys taking off her bits for the sake of the audience, or C) the girl who find that playing with other girls is just a bit more fun than she though (but only if men are looking on).
Yes, the audience at many burlesque shows is mainly women, but I don’t think that women objectifying other women is all that much better (if at all) than men objectifying women.
Finally, after a long and difficult struggle with myself (I have friends who I respect in all other matters who are very involved with burlesque). I decided that no matter how it was phrased, and how it was dressed up, anything that was primarily about presenting women primarily as objects to be viewed, and to be judged based on their physical attractiveness (even if it allows for a broader range of physical attractiveness) isn’t OK with me.
So I have to say it. I don’t like burlesque. Yes, there are the occasional burlesque routines that are witty and clever and not about objectification and do subvert the usual stripping paradigms. These, however, definitely seem to be more the exception than the rule. I do acknowledge that there are women who have gained a lot of confidence, and to be comfortable with their own body, because of burlesque, and that’s great. However, I maintain that there are other ways these women could have gained this confidence, and that on balance, burlesque is hurting women more than it is helping them.
I am appalled that the world is holding up Dita von Teese as an inspiration to girls, and I certainly don’t think she should be a role model. Sure, she overcame a drug addiction and went on to have a ‘productive’ life, but plenty of other women have overcome drug addictions and gone on to really help the world. Sure, she’s built up a successful life, but if you want a female business model, there are many better choices. When it comes down to it, there is only one big thing that I respect the grande dame of burlesque for, and that is for saying that when it comes down to it, she’s just a stripper. I respect honesty.
On the same hand, because I dislike burlesque because I see it as objectifying women, and reducing us to primarily physical roles, where we are judged on looks, I dislike extreme modestly, like the all-enveloping ‘wholesome’ swimsuits that Elise posted a few weeks back. It may be on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it also reduces women to physical objects, with bodies so tempting they must be covered up lest they lead men astray. They are two sides of the same coin, and neither gives women space to be interacted with as people, not just viewed as objects of desire.
As a woman, as a person, I want to be judged as a person, for my personality and my thoughts. I may be a woman who thinks a lot about bodies and clothes, but I want the people who I interact with to realise that I really am thinking about bodies and clothes (just as I might think about cars, were I a mechanic, or policy, if I worked for the government, or programming, if I were a computer scientist), not just being a body with clothes that should be shown off or hidden, at the whim of the current (usually male) powers that be.
So, as an occasional seamstress and corseteer for hire, and the someone with friends who do burlesque, what am I actually going to do about it as a person?
Well, I’m not going to take any burlesque commissions, because that involved me in it, but in the end, I do think morality has to be a personal choice. I’ve chosen not to drink, and to be vegetarian, but those were my personal choices. I don’t sit at dinner with friends who eat meat and have a glass of wine and condemn them for their choices (but I also won’t buy their alcohol). I chose to be chaste until marriage, but I don’t look at my unmarried friends and their partners and think “you slut” – that’s not what morality is about.
I firmly believe people have to choose what their own actions are, and what actions they are happy with, and as long as their actions don’t overly impact on others who can’t agree to it, that’s fine (sleeping with whoever you choose, as long as they can reasonably consent = fine, your choice, private. Sleeping with someone who can’t properly consent because of age, state of inebriation, species = not fine. Drinking a reasonable amount = fine, your choice, private. Drinking and driving, or drinking enough that you loose control and might attack someone = not fine).
So I choose not to be involved with or condone burlesque, but if you do, that’s your choice. However, I do need to speak up. I just can’t nod and smile and pretend to be OK with it any longer, because in the end, I think it is making it that much harder for me, and for all women, to be judged primarily as a person, for their intellect and personality, rather than as an ornament or a temptation, to be enjoyed or avoided for my body and looks. If you need to stop reading this blog, or move on from me as a friend, because of this, that’s OK.
But, if like me, you felt that you couldn’t really say “Hey, I don’t think this is so great after all”, please feel its OK to do so.
The East has had a profound influence on Western fashions for millenia, from the Chinese silks that were worn in Ancient Rome (much to the dismay of the government, who hired notable writers to create anti-silk propaganda in order to discourage people from wearing it), through Vionnet, Lanvin, Chanel, and Schiapparelli: all the great designers of the 20s and 30s borrowed from the East.
There isn’t a single period that hasn’t borrowed from the East, and there isn’t a single Eastern culture that hasn’t been borrowed from. Islamic geometricism influenced Medieval and Renaissance textiles through the Crusades and the Venetian trade. Indian influence began in the 17th century when chintzes began to make their way to Europe, and florished again from the end of the 18th century when Kashmiri shawls introduced the paisley motif. The 18th century saw the fad for Chinoiserie, and the Turkish influence, and the late 19th century the rage for Japonisme.
Early 20th century fashion was influenced by every possible Eastern culture, from Poiret’s kimono inspired cocoon coats, to Orientalism of the Ballet Russes, to the Egyptomania that culminated around the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
In the Historical Sew Fortnighly challenge #14 (due July 15) make a historical garment that shows Eastern influence.
Orientalism is one of my favourite areas of historical costuming. I’ve made a 1780s Indian chintz inspired pet-en-l’aire, the 1813 Kashmiri dress, an 1850s paisley gown, an 1880s Japonisme gown, 1920s dresses and 1930s beach pajama tops from re-purposed kimono, and yet there are so many more Eastern inspired items I want to sew! Here are some of my favourite examples of Orientalism to get you started.
This 1740s robe à la française of Chinese silk which has been hand-painted in exotic flora just makes me swoon with delight. Finding a way to recreate it is high on my historical costuming bucket list!
Not just dresses showed the influence of chinoiserie in the 18th century, as this delicate Dutch fan attests:
Cut or découpé fan, Dutch, About 1760–75, MFA Boston
And how can you not love this amazing blue and yellow parasol with chinoiserie handle?
I think my love of paisley and Kashmiri shawls is pretty well known! My latest favourite of the trend is this ensemble with a pale blue paisley shawl. And, of course, the dress itself might have been made of Indian muslin.
Ackermann’s fashion plate 4, Seaside walking Dress, 1815
In addition to the more typical paisley shawls, and paisley patterned cotton dresses, paisley also met traditional Western techniques, like broderie anglaise.
While paisley was the most common Orientalist influence in the mid-19th century, there were exceptions. This simple dress with tone-on-tone Chinese roundels is both subtle and spectacular:
One of the influences that 19th century fashion borrowed from Japan is the colours used in traditional kimono and ukiyo-e prints. The combination of muted blues and vivid vermillion in this furisode inspired dressing gown is a particularly spectacular example.
Furisode Kimono-Style Dressing Gown, c. 1885, Silk, FIDM Museum
Look at this amazing battenberg lace jacket, with the lace arranged in Japanese inspired designs. It’s such a beautiful and unusual interpretation of Japonisme.
The most common form of Japonisme in the early 20th century, embraced by Poiret and a host of other designers, is the kimono based cocoon silhouette, seen in coats and dresses alike.
Opera coat House of Paquin (French, 1891–1956) Designer- Mme. Jeanne Paquin (French, 1869–1936), 1912, French, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Paisley wasn’t the most common Eastern-inspired motif in the 1920s and 30s, but it wasn’t completely unknown. I own one length of 1930s paisley patterned cotton, and have seen two examples of ’30s paisley rayon. This paisley evening bag is just gorgeous:
Evening bag House of Lanvin (French, founded 1889) Designer- Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946), 1925–35, French, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Finally, I’m in love with this 1930s dress, with its nod to ukiyo-e aesthetic:
Day Dress, probably 1930s, bias cut with bird appliques along skirt, lesliehindman.com
For more inspiration, I’ve got a whole pinterest page of Orientalist fashions, and another of paisley in fashion.