So this fortnight’s theme on the Historical Sew Fortnightly is Literature, and, of course, I’m using it as an excuse to finish (finally) my Polly/Oliver outfit (inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment).
It’s been so long since I worked on the outfit, or thought about it, and my skills have improved since then, and my image of the details has shifted somewhat, though I’m still going with the basic concept of 1880s Victorian does Georgian riding habit/military.
I bounced out of bed on Tuesday and thought “Right! I’m going to make massive progress on this today!” I had a rummage through my fabric stash, found a big bolt of blue rayon faille, and thought…”Oooh…what a great shade of military blue…and so practical and late Victorian.” Sure, rayon isn’t entirely accurate, but it the fabric does a reasonable approximation of silk, and the hand is perfect.
So I unrolled a length of the faille, spread it out on the floor, went at it with chalk and measuring tapes and scissors and quickly drafted and cut out a basic late Victorian five gored skirt. Then I did the same with a white cotton lining.
An hour later, I was sewing: stitching long skirt seams, and turning and pressing big panels. In record time the basic body was put together, and I sewing in a placket, and pleating the skirt into a waistband. A bit of hand finishing on the waistband, and I moved on to a hem: a slightly anachronistic but very effective bias-turned hem, which would be further protected with a dust ruffle.
A quick measure, a try on to mark the placement of the hooks, and I sewed on the hooks, feeling immensely proud of myself as hooks are often something I leave until the last minute, or end up skipping altogether for the first wearing.
Six hours of steady sewing later, I put the skirt on Isabelle (without a bustle, which is was made to go over) and stood back to admire it.
And this is when I realised that I am a complete, utter, and total idiot.
Sure, the blue is a good military colour, and very practical, but Polly/Oliver is a Borogravian. The Borogravian uniform is a red jacket with white pants. It’s explicitly mentioned in the book! Heck, it’s on the front cover of the book, which was right next to me as I sewed. Borogravia is (usually) fighting against Zlobenia, and the Zlobenians wear blue uniforms. Polly’s uniform is never, no matter how girlie and dressy they make it, going to involve a blue skirt!
I can’t believe I was so dumb. This is what you get when you don’t stop to plan and consider a project, and just try to sew as fast as possible.
So now I have a beautifully made dark blue rayon faille skirt that, depending on how I trim, and what I put it over, I could use for anything from 1880 to 1905.
But I can’t use it for Polly/Oliver, which means that for now it is a wardrobe orphan, and it was kind of a waste of a full sewing day. It makes me blue.
At least someone appreciates it:
Where’s Fiss gone?
“G’way. My skirt now”
Working in museums, one of the things we often talk about is the disparity in what ends up in a museum costume collection compared to what people actually wear. Collections are full of wedding gowns and ballgowns: memories of the grandest moments of our lives. On a day to day basis though, people wear much simpler clothes: practical, interchangeable items. Today this is jeans and t-shirts, but throughout history even the wealthiest have worn simple separates for the less momentous occasions.
The Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #16 is all about Separates: items that can be paired with other pieces in your wardrobe to extend a look.
My favourite anecdote about separates involves Queen Victoria and her future daughter-in-law Alexandra. On being introduced the Alexandra, the Queen noticed that she wore a skirt with one jacket one day, and the same skirt, with a different jacket, the next day. Victoria was delighted. To her, this indicated a frugal and practical nature: just the thing to balance the son that she and Albert had viewed as overly frivolous and wayward. As it happened, Alexandra’s practicality in dress was just a sign or her family’s poverty. Rather than stabilizing Edward, the Crown Prince, denied any real responsibility even after his marriage, became ever more frivolous and decadent, and Alexandra, abandoned as a wife, turned to fashion to distract herself, and could rarely be accused of frugality and practicality in dress in later decades. Still, I love the idea of Queen Victoria being wooed by a little practical dress!
Here are a few of my favourite historical separates to get you inspired:
Gerard Ter Borch’s Dutch genre paintings of the mid 17th century are full of beautiful separates, with skirts and bodice paired in different combinations from painting to painting. I particularly love this rose red bodice and the white satin skirt it is paired with:
Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), The Concert, 1655, Gemäldegalerie
And, of course, we all adore the pretty chocolatier and her charmingly un-matched jacket and skirt:
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789), La Belle Chocolatière (The Chocolate Girl), 1743 until 1745
The later 18th century is a fantastic time for separates, and the ultimate might be the quilted petticoat, which, based on paintings, could be paired with just about anything, in this case, a caracao jacket:
Caraco circa 1780, quilted Petticoat circa 1770-1780, Mint Museum
Regency menswear is all about mixing and matching, with the 3 piece coordinating suit of the 18th century abandoned in favour of unmatched breeches, waistcoat and jacket:
Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1801
I adore 1860s separates: the blouses and skirts are the earliest inklings of our modern T-shirts and jeans wardrobe.
Circa 1863, via US National Archives
The 19th century counterpart of Liotard’s La Belle Chocolatier is obviously Manet’s Suson at the Folies-Bergère. I’ve made one version of this outfit, and while I’m still happy with it, I’ve learned a lot since I made it, and would love to have another go at her black jacket and steel blue skirt – and perhaps another skirt to go with it!
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet, 1882
Going back to the idea of T-shirts, the 1890s saw the introduction of knit tops. I want to learn to knit just so I can make something like this:
Burgundy wool sweater, mid-1890s. DAR
This 1930s outfit is a full ensemble, but it would be so easy to pair the individual pieces with different items, and so practical in the midst of the Great Depression.
Juvenile ensemble pour la rue. 1935
And that’s really what this challenge is all about: practicality. Extend your historical wardrobe with an item that turns something you have into a second outfit, which is exactly what our forbearers would have done, whether they were peasants to princesses.
You may have guessed from Saturday’s post that I’m working on shoes. It was the first time that I’ve really tried to remake a pair of modern shoes into historical shoes, and it was an interesting process.
The shoes started like this: cute, but a bit daft:
I wanted them to look like these type of shoes:
Slippers, 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mine don’t come as high up in the toe and around the foot, but there are example of shoes from the 1780s & ’90s that are cut lower over the toe and the sides of the foot:
Shoe, leather, 1780s Museum of the City of New York
I liked the idea of being able to wear the shoes for anything from 1780 to 1800- more versatile.
To re-make mine, first I took off the silly trim and bow:
Then I cleaned the shoes.
The next step was to re-paint the heel, to get rid of the anachronistic metallic teal leather colour.
I first painted the heels pale blue, but it turned out too blue:
I repainted the heels lavender, which I’m not much happier with. I’ll repaint them again, attempting to match the colour of the ribbons I used, once I get the heel ends replaced – they are going to need it soon.
With the heels done, I hand-sewed 1cm wide rayon ribbons in pale blue to cover the centre back seams in my shoes:
And sewed the same ribbons over the front-side seams:
My front-side seams are placed a little further forward towards the toe than the seams on most period shoes, but it felt more accurate to actually cover the seams that were already in the shoe, than to fake a further back placement, and leave the original seam joins visible.
Shoes of spotted leather, 1790-1800 Whittaker Auctions
With the vertical ribbons in place, it was time to bind the edge of the shoe opening. Argh. What a major pain that was! It took me almost four hours, and cost me two broken needles. The leather lining was just too thick to go through easily.
Finally I sewed the trim over the toe. I couldn’t find a soft, narrow ribbon to match the shoes in order to replicate the effect on the Met shoes at the top of the post, and I didn’t like the look of a tassel on these shoes. Finally I found this pair of charming slippers. The box-pleated ribbon trim was just the thing
Shoes, 1790, Portugal, cream satin, trimmed with ribbon of green leather. Forefoot embroidered with sequins and chenille, forming floral motifs. Application of silk ribbon forming floral motifs. Museu Nacional do Traje e da Moda
Four tries later (getting those box pleats even was a headdache, and then when I finally did I accidentally cut one too short and had to re-pleat a set), my shoes were done:
Sure, they aren’t perfectly historical (the fabric is more than a bit anachronistic, and the lining is metallic teal), but they make me very happy, and give a reasonable overall 1790s look.
Also, look how perfectly they match my ‘Fur & Scales’ muff:
The same ribbon I used for the bow on the muff just happened to work perfectly for the toe decoration on the shoes. Happiness!
The Challenge: Flora & Fauna
Fabric: One pair of modern kitten heels, fabric with leather linings (NZ$8)
Pattern: Inspiration taken from extent 1780s & 90s shoes
Year: ca. 1790
Notions: 1m of 1cm wide pale blue rayon ribbon (50 NZcents), .5m of 2.5cm wide periwinkle blue rayon ribbon (25 NZcents), shoe paint (NZ$13, but I have enough left to paint 2 more pairs of shoes, or 9 more heels, so NZ$1.30)
How historically accurate is it? That’s a tricky one. I made a pair of modern kitten heels as accurate as you could, but there is only so much one can do, and the fabric is certainly a bit anachronistic. Say 35%
Hours to complete: 7. Way more than I anticipated! Mostly on binding the rim of the shoe, and re-pleating the trim
First worn: Not yet, but soon! These make me want to re-do my wardrobe in pastels so I can wear them with modern clothes too!
Total cost: NZ$10.05 more or less