Historical Sew Fortnightly

The HSF ’14: Challenge #18: Poetry in Motion

The Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #18 is Poetry in Motion: bring to life a garment inspired by a song or poem.

Here are few of my favourite poems and songs, and the garments they always make me think of:

The Elizabethan ‘Greensleeves‘ is simply dripping with clothes references, from the titular sleeves (which may have indicated a lack of virtue on the part of the wearer), to the many verses about the gifts that her unlucky suitor brought her:

I bought three kerchers to thy head,
that were wrought fine and gallantly:
I kept thee both boord and bed,
Which cost my purse wel fauouredly.

I bought thee peticotes of the best,
the cloth so fine as might be:
I gaue thee iewels for thy chest,
and all this cost I spent on thee.

Thy smock of silk, both faire and white,
with gold embrodered gorgeously:
Thy peticote of Sendall right:
and thus I bought thee gladly.

Thy smock of gold so crimson red,
with pearles bedecked sumptuously:
The like no other lasses had,
and yet thou wouldst not loue me,

Thy crimson stockings all of silk,
with golde all wrought aboue the knee,
Thy pumps as white as was the milk,
and yet thou wouldst not loue me.

Thy gown was of the grossie green,
thy sleeues of Satten hanging by:
Which made thee be our haruest Queen,
and yet thou wouldst not loue me.

Thy garters fringed with the golde,
And siluer aglets hanging by,
Which made thee blithe for to beholde,
And yet thou wouldst not loue me.

Musicians, Circle of Cornelis van Haarlem 1562-1638

Musicians, Circle of Cornelis van Haarlem 1562-1638

Robert Herrick’s 17th century ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

Young Lady by a Fountain, Nicolaes Maes 1664, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Young Lady by a Fountain, Nicolaes Maes 1664, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Alfred, Lord Tennyson beautifully evokes the flower-like appeal of 1850s ballgowns in Maud

Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls.To the flowers, and be their sun.

Ballgown, silk, 1854-56 (Collection?)

Ballgown, silk, 1854-56

Here is Yate’s 1899 ‘Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Ball gown, ca. 1908, American, silk, cotton, glass, metallic thread, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.326

Ball gown, ca. 1908, American, silk, cotton, glass, metallic thread, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.326

And Edna St Vincent Milay’s early 20th century ‘The Plaid Dress’ (which always anachronistically, but obviously, makes me think of mid-19th century plaid dresses in garish aniline dyes!):

Strong sun, that bleach
The curtains of my room, can you not render
Colourless this dress I wear?–
This violent plaid
Of purple angers and red shames; the yellow stripe
Of thin but valid treacheries; the flashy green of kind deeds done
Through indolence high judgments given here in haste;
The recurring checker of the serious breach of taste?

No more uncoloured than unmade,
I fear, can be this garment that I may not doff;
Confession does not strip it off,
To send me homeward eased and bare;

All through the formal, unoffending evening, under the clean
Bright hair,
Lining the subtle gown. . .it is not seen,
But it is there.

Day dress, silk, 1860s, sold at Christies

Day dress, silk, 1860s, sold at Christies

For more inspiration, there are a number of traditional UK and US folk songs that mention clothes, including the 18th century Mally Leigh  and The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies (which mentions finished silk gowns in some versions, and shoes of Spanish leather in others), the early 19th century  Jenny Jenkins, and the 19th century or earlier  Wedding Dress Song.  I’ve already blogged a rather silly, subversive poem about the 20th Century Girl which is full of fun costuming imagery.

And there are hundreds, if not thousands more songs and poems that mention garments, or could be interpreted as a design!  Happy creating!


  1. Ooh, I can’t wait for this challenge! I’m doing Hera’s veil from the Iliad.

    • Sometimes I wonder if poets/writers just put in words to fill up space and syllable requirements…

  2. My favorite poem, Whoso List to Hunt by Sir Thomas Wyatt, also has a great accessory reference–that of Anne Boleyn’s signature pearl necklace!

    “…And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
    There is written her fair neck round about,
    “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
    And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

  3. afolksongaday.comafolksongaday.comI have so many ideas..its more case of narrowing them down depending on what garment I need.
    Oh and if anyone is searching for ideas within folk song….this is a cool site

  4. Lynne says

    bartleby.combartleby.comyoutube.combartleby.combartleby.combartleby.comyoutube.combartleby.comWhen I came down to thinking about it, I could not come up with any extra poems! For shame. So I resorted to Google.

    http://www.bartleby.com/102/226.html – “The Tea-Gown” by Eugene Field

    http://www.bartleby.com/106/92.html – “The Poetry of Dress” by Robert Herrick

    Or how about “Alice Blue Gown”? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKt1ypeeBpM

    http://www.bartleby.com/246/246.html – “The Song of the Shirt” by Thomas Hood. How could I have forgotten?

  5. More contemporarily, a late 1930s bit from Louis MacNeice:

    “It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,
    All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
    Their knickers are made of crêpe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
    Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison…”

    And indeed MacNeice came up with one of my favourite designer references in ANY poem ever in Autumn Journal (1939)

    “Let the old Muse loosen her stays,
    Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders,
    And a smile like a cat,
    With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine,
    And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.”

    • Grace Darling says

      Gawd, just had a vision of a “pill-box hat” decorated with those weekly medicine pill box storage sorter containers.

      [Memo to Self: Halloween costume]

  6. I’m going to see if I can find any lace that is suitable for trimming a shirt with:

    “He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin, 
  A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
    They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh
    And he rode with a jewelled twinkle, His pistol butts a-twinkle,
    His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.”

  7. Elise says

    I was so looking forward to the comments. Despite an advanced language degree, I have trouble appreciating poetry–something I am trying to fix as I seek out poems apart from the ivory tower. Thanks for pointing these ones out!

Comments are closed.