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Rate the Dress: 1860s embroidery & steel

Last week I showed you a late 17th century ‘seamstress’ in pink petticoat and golden brown mantua, her dress covered by her sewing apron.  Her sewing apron received a lot of flack for being so little, which I didn’t understand – it’s not like you really get dirty sewing!  You just want something big enough to have a few pockets to hold things and a place to catch any little threads you cut off!

In addition to the apron, very few of you liked the colours, or the overall proportions, or the headgear, dragging the score down to 6.4 out of 10

One of the criticisms about the fashion plate was that you can’t see the details, so this week we’re looking at a dress that while simple in silhouette, is all about the details.  This dress from the Victoria & Albert Museum features black embroidery with geometric and floral motifs, highlighted with steel beading, and is further trimmed with black silk and steel beading.

The silhouette of the dress is very typical of the mid 1860s, as is the teal green and black colour combination.  Though achievable with natural dyes, the teal green is quite possible a new aniline dye, and may have faded with time.

Though much of the dress is quite standard for its timeperiod, there are a few unusual elements.  The floral embroidery, though not unknown, is fairly uncommon in the 1860s, when dress patterning tended to be either woven in or printed on, while applied decorations were confined to more bold, geometric shapes, such as the twisted ribbon patterning the florals are paired with.

The sleeves of the dress are also rather unique, pairing the standard 1860s curved sleeves with a touch of Renaissance inspired slashing in the upper sleeves – a bit of historicism rarely seen in the 1860s.

What do you think? Does the combination of unexpected and unusual elements elevate the dress from a standard 1860s gown, or just create a weird mish-mash of disparate elements?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

Making a 13thc medieval inspired belt

Making a medieval inspired belt

I first wore my ca. 1369 medieval dress to a historical banquet, so I felt it needed fancier, glitzier accessories than I will usually wear it with.

Enter the silk veil, gold circlet, and embellished gold leather belt:

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My belt was primarily inspired by the effigy of Katherine, Countess of Warwick.  Her narrow belt sits at the hips, fastens at the front with a small buckle, features raised floral motifs, and has no hanging end.

Effigy of Katherine, Countess of Warwick, died 1369

Effigy of Katherine, Countess of Warwick, died 1369

The belt I ended up with isn’t historically accurate, but it’s attractive, gives the effect, and was quick, cheap, easy and fun to make!

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To make my costume take on Katherine’s belt, I started with a cheap belt with an embossed floral pattern:

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Using an Elmers Painters Metallic pen, I coloured it gold.  The TRG the One Colour Dye & Preparer I recommend for my dyeing leather shoes and bags tutorial comes in gold and works even better, but I didn’t have the right shade on hand when I did this belt.  I didn’t worry too much about getting my colour even, because I just wanted a hint of gold.

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Then I measured the belt holes that were already punched in the belt, and marked spots for holes the same distance apart (it happened to be 1″, which is standard for belts) along the whole length of the belt.

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I decided on a embellishment pattern of one gold bead, one pearl:

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I poked a hole in my first mark on the belt using an awl.

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Using strong linen thread in the smallest needle that would carry it, I tied a large knot in one end, and threaded the needle through the first hole, and then through a pearl bead, and then back down through the hole

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Up through the next hole and a gold bead, back down again, and so forth, until my thread got short-ish, or I reached the end of my marks, and needed to tie off my thread.

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To do this I carried the thread back to the last hole, and through it:

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Then I poked my needle through the bead at that hole, and back through to the wrong side of my belt:

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I carried the thread under and through the thread:

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Forming a knot, which I pulled tight to secure the thread:

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Simple, basic, easy, not period, but effective!

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For a more elaborate effect, and to be even closer to Katherine’s belt, you could even sew in a rosette pattern, which is what I did for my circlet.  The circlet is made from a strip of soft leather, coloured gold with the TRG leather dye, and decorated using the same technique.

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Let’s talk about toilets

Let’s talk about toilets.

An indoor toilet just off one of the downstairs reception rooms, 'Iolani Palace

An 1880s toilet just off one of the downstairs reception rooms, ‘Iolani Palace

Yep. Actual toilets.  Not toilettes.

Toilets are actually pretty interesting from a historical sense, and they are something that I get asked about a lot when I give talks about historical costuming.  One of the most common questions people ask, for many different periods, is “How did they go to the bathroom in that?”

The answer, of course, depends on the dress, and the period, but it does give me an opportunity to talk about the lack of any sort of under-pants in earlier periods, and the benefits of divided drawers, and the range of period toilets, depending on era and status.

My toilet experience is a bit unusual (almost, you might say, historical) in the Western world, so I thought you might find my perspective on them interesting.

I was raised predominantly with outhouses (or, as they would be called in NZ, long drops).

An outhouse on my parent's farm

An outhouse on my parent’s farm

When I was about 9 or 10, my parents got rid of the only normal flush toilet on the farm, and to this day there are nothing but long drops on the property.

As a kid, it was terribly embarrassing to explain to my peers that we only had outhouses, but as an adult, now that I live predominantly with indoor toilets, my feelings towards outhouses have changed a lot.  I’ve come to respect, admire my parent’s choice to have outhouses, and I even envy them.

Yes. I wish I could have an outhouse.


Well, living in another country, and interacting with lots of immigrants, and reading, and simply thinking about it have taught me how much our perceptions around toilets and cleanliness are shaped by culture.

In New Zealand, especially in older houses, it’s common for the toilet and bath to be in separate rooms.  This was something I had rarely encountered living in the US.  For many older Kiwis, and for most Maori & Pacific Islanders, having the toilet and bath/shower in the same room is disgusting.

If you think about it, it makes total sense: the toilet is where you do the most un-clean, gross thing that you do in a day, and the bath/shower is where you get clean.  Why would you put those in the same room?

I quite agree with the ‘baths and toilets should be in separate rooms’ philosophy, but there is an aspect to it that is a bit gross to many North American immigrants to NZ (and many younger Kiwis).  In many older houses (including, sadly, ours), there is no sink in the toilet room, so you have to go out of it into the bathroom to wash your hands – and that means the possibility of touching handles.

And yeah, that’s gross.  Putting a sink in the toilet room is top of my list for big changes to the house, so much so that I’ve even looked at the plumbing and said “You know…I’m pretty sure I could plumb in a sink here myself” while Mr D looks alarmed and says things about permits and regulations.

Western toilets as a whole can be a bit gross to other cultures, and the more I think about it, and the more I compare it to the outhouses I grew up with, indoor toilets ARE gross.

What you put in an indoor toilet is carried  to the entire inside of the toilet by the water, and is sent up into the air as a fine spray when you flush (which is why the answer to ‘lid up or down’ should always be down, even in an all-male house!).  Even if you put the lid down when flushing, the bacteria from flushing  is over the lid when you open it up again, and gets on to anything that touches the underside of the lid, like your shirt, or hair.   Since what goes in the toilet gets all over the inside of it, you have to clean the toilets, and then that brush is sitting around the house…

I think ewwww covers the whole situation quite nicely…

Plus, from an environmental perspective, mixing human waste with water is just about the most un-sustainable thing you can do.  It uses tons of water, it’s really hard to clean and sanitise that water, and really hard to do anything useful with the waste.

With an outhouse, all the waste goes straight to its final destination.  It doesn’t have to travel and get spread around.  No water needed.  No waste touching anything.  No spray.  No need to clean anything but the lid and seat.

For those of you who are thinking about the smell, there really doesn’t have to be any.  A reasonable diet (outhouses aren’t great if you are eating a ton of saturated fat, chemicals and super processed food), the judicious addition of woodchips or other cellulose material, lots of ventilation, and there is no smell at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are huge advantages to indoor toilets, and the more I live in a temperate (hah.  Wellington, temperate?) climate the more I understand them.  An outhouse is perfectly nice in Hawaii, where 15 degrees Celcius is such a shockingly low temperature that we took a photograph of the thermometer because we were that excited (true story), but it would be horrible in the middle of a Wellington winter, and it doesn’t even get down to freezing here.  It would be really horrible somewhere with snow and ice.

So I wouldn’t only want an outhouse in Wellington.


If council by-laws and our property space allowed it, I would have an outhouse to use any time the weather permitted it in a heartbeat.  So much cleaner, so much better for the environment.

An outhouse and a flock of ducks fertilising a banana grove.

An outhouse and a flock of ducks fertilising a banana grove.

If you’re wondering about my parent’s outhouses, they are very simple and rustic.  Here is one being used as a tool-shed when it is not in use:

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They switch between outhouses, giving them a few months in use and then a few months on break, which also helps with smells.

Yep, they could be poshed up, with tiled floors and fancy seats, but basically, they are great.  You don’t have to touch anything but the toilet paper, you can go straight from them to an outdoor sink with soap to wash your hands.  Great for the environment, clean in the most important sense (but not so clean that it doesn’t matter if you are wearing your muddy farm boots), and eminently practical.

The outhouses on the farm are situated in groves of banana trees.  You cannot safely use human waste to fertilise field crops like lettuce and carrots, but fruit orchards are the perfect place to put outhouses,  The waste will ultimately end up fertilising the fruit trees, without any chance whatsoever of passing on harmful bacteria.

A stalk of ripening bananas near the outhouse

A stalk of ripening bananas near the outhouse

There are many, many things about the past that I am SO glad I don’t have to worry about, or live with.  But outhouses?  Maybe we need to re-think our stance on them.  In many ways outhouses are actually better than the modern alternative.

At least if you live in Hawaii or it is summer!