Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A moment to breathe...

...then back to the grind. And what a grind it's been lately--this is the craziest time of year where I work, and class has been rather demanding lately, and each weekend has insisted on my attention to some happening out of town. Apologies for the lack of posting.

But--check one thing off the list--I took the GRE today and even though sitting in what must be the dingiest basement computer lab ever created is not my idea of a fun morning, it is done and I can cross one thing--studying math--off my list. Huzzah.

This weekend I escape to my favorite place in the world for the last reenactment of the year. And then I'll really have a chance to breathe (but in stays. So small breaths, ha!).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The 1930s Peacock Gown Steps Out

Last night the 1930s Peacock Gown made its debut. My husband is a relatively newly-minted naval officer, and the Navy celebrates its birthday each October with a ball. (History fact of the day: The US Navy is considered to have been "born" in 1775 after an act of the Continental Congress, which realized that, er, if it was going to fight the greatest navy in the world--Britain--it was going to need some boats.) So we got cleaned up and went to the Birthday Ball this year to celebrate the Navy's 235th.

We spent the afternoon and evening at a turn-of-the-century resort town in southern Indiana (previously written about after a visit this summer.)

A few photos, for kicks!

The lobby of the West Baden hotel, with mini-dome. The actual dome, which covers a huge interior atrium, was closed off for another event.

That's me, chilling in the library on a corner chair before getting dressed.


We spent some time wandering around the gardens. I love the Greco-Roman inspired architecture:

And the fountains, and the pared-down beauty of autumn mums replacing summer flowers:


The resorts are surrounded by national forest property; you can see the idyllic woodsyness in the background. While wandering up the hill, we spotted a doe and this year's fawn, now nearly grown.
Then--on to the ball! We took photos after the evening of dinner and dancing, so I was a little tired--the gown in repose:
Overlooking the main lobby at French Lick:


A pensive peacock:


He dresses up ok, I think :)



Thanks for staying with me on the adventures of this gown! I'm already plotting next year's historically-inspired piece.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Brief Complaint about Math

I am currently studying for the GRE. Mostly, I am studying math. I have not studied math in approximately eight years.

I admit that I'm not terrible at math, but there's a reason I majored in History and French. There's also a reason I spend my free time writing as opposed to working calculations. But the time spent writing is creating interesting side effects when working story problems.

Specifically, I'm just not buying the authors of these story problems. Where's the motivation? Where's the conflict pushing these people to action?

For instance, this one:

Jack has a bowl of marbles. Six are blue, five are green, seven are red, and two are yellow. What is the probability Jack will pull a green marble if he selects one from the bowl at random?

Do you see my problem? Why in the world is Jack picking a marble from a bowl? For kicks? What kind of loser just wanders aorund picking marbles out of bowls? Even worse are the problems in which someone's friend asks him or her to pick a marble--what a bizarre way to spend time together. "Hey, want to see if you get a red marble?" "Sure!" "I'm glad we're friends."

Come on, test question writers. You can do better.

How about:

Jack is abducted by an alien spacecraft, and must participate in a ritual to determine if he will be allowed to return to Earth or not. The aliens have a large bowl filled with marbles--59 are blue, 27 are green, and 5 are red. If Jack picks a red marble, he will be executed. If he picks green, he can return to Earth. A blue marble means he will remain with the aliens indefinitely. What is the probability he will not be executed?

See? There are stakes! There's a reason for Jack to spend his time picking a marble, and consider the likelihood of each outcome. As for why the aliens use a strange game of chance to determine the fate of their abductees, I couldn't tell you, but who am I to judge alien societies' cultural norms?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Peacock 1930s Gown--Nearly Finished!

In celebration of having a mere length of hem to stitch before it's complete, a quick glimpse at the 1930s peacock gown.

It also needs to be pressed. Clearly.


We didn't try very hard with these shots. My husband is not adept at photography, our living room is a less than ideal studio, and I'm trying to strike a pose that doesn't make me look like I have a pizza pooch (I had eaten a few slices moments before slipping into the dress--poor choice on my part). We will not be taking the fashion photography world by storm as a combo photographer-model team anytime soon.

I plan to take a bunch of photos at our destination this weekend--the gown and the turn-of-the-century architecture will pair nicely. I really, really hope I don't forget my camera.

But for now, a quick close-up at the bodice, which became my archnemesis during the construction of this gown. The muslin worked perfectly, but the charmeuse lacked the oomph to stand up to my...ah, frame. So not only was the drape all wrong, but I felt a touch exposed.

I solved my issue with some additional support and some artful draping. At least, I hope it's artful. And I'm particularly pleased with the asymetrical shoulder straps--the bitty one on the right is what the original pattern called for; the large drape on the left is the one I improvised to match the knots and loops of the front piece. And an improvisation it was--I put on the dress and just started pinning a tube of fabric to myself. Quite literally to myself at times. I have never more earnestly wished for a dress form.

The "new" bodice makes this piece far less 30s--which I'm ok with. The original pattern was, on top, almost too close to lingerie for me to pull off gracefully. The new twist, with the drapes, was really fun to experiment with, makes the dress more wearable for my shape, and modernizes the style a little without losing the 30s sweep and slink.

More to come :)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sublime Distraction

I was driving to my parents' house last weekend for a visit, and my timing was perfect--the fall leaves have bloomed like a million flame-colored flowers, the sky was that inordinate shade of blue reserved for midautumn, and the drive was just beautiful. I pulled some old CDs I hadn't listened to in a while...


...and somewhere on Interstate 31 heading north, surrounded by a whirlwind of falling leaves and harvested fields the color of flax, I got so completely distracted by a piece of music I hadn't heard in years that it's a good thing the Midwest is flat because I probably would have driven off the road otherwise.


It got me thinking about inspiration. We've talked about that before here, and many of you have, as well. But I realized--so much of inspiration is distraction. It's in the things that pull our attention when we "should" be doing something else, the little details that arrest our thoughts for a few minutes.


And clearly it was a long drive with little else to do besides look at beautiful autumn scenery and listen to music, because I began to scheme. Wouldn't it be fun, I thought, to try to distract you with something, and see how it inspires you. And even more fascinating--to see how different all the results of that inspiration are! And wouldn't it be even more fun to link all your responses, and have fun prizes or contests and other stuff.


So--let's give this a try. Sometime soon I will post a distraction--it might be a film clip, a piece of music, a painting, anything. I'll have Mr. Linky set up to collect your posts. And you can post anything you create in response to my attempt to distract you--writers can post a poem, a short narrative, a vignette; artists can post a sketch or photograph; history goofballs and seamstresses can post a design or creation.


And, since this is the first go, everyone who links gets a prize. Really. In the future maybe we'll do contests or the like, but this time--everyone is a winner :)

What do you think--sound like fun?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Other Side

I'm going to do something I seldom do around here--I'm going to comment on current events and (gasp) politics. But this article and the accompanying Anderson Cooper video really hit home for me, and upset me quite a bit.


In it, a Republican Congressional candidate is attacked for and defends his hobby--historical reenactment. He reenacts Civil War, WWI, and WWII. The issue? His WWII units portrays an elite German tank division--and the unit was part of the military arm of the Nazi party.


Now, I have no comment on this guy's politics because I frankly don't care and, even if I did, this isn't the place to try to espouse my political views. But this upset me as a fellow reenactor. I'm sorry, but if you're going to recreate the Revolution, you need the British. If you're going to reenact the Civil War, the Confederates are requisite. And if you're doing World War II living history, there are Nazis.


I get the stigma--really, I do. We recoil at certain things, like spiders, hydrochloric acid, and Nazis. But to say that this guy is a Nazi or is glorifying Nazis because he dresses as one to educate people about the war is as sensible as saying a Revolutionary War reenactor who portrays a redcoat is a monarchist. (I would say it's as silly as saying all Confederate reenactors are racist, but that's already a common misconception.) Dig deeper, and even on the "right" side of these conflicts, there are unfortunate mindsets and mores applently--racism, chauvinism, nationalism. Do we give a half-hearted narrative because part of the story is unsavory? No: We tell the whole story, even--in fact, especially--the parts that make people uncomfortable, because that's what we learn from.


I also wonder where to draw the line--yes, this fellow's unit in the Panzerdivision was part of the SS, which was the military arm of the Nazi party. But I question whether this issue would be raised if he was portraying Wermacht, the "regular" German army. I speculate that it would. Because, of course, anyone who fought for Hitler was a rabid Nazi, right? Easy-peasy. Nazis bad, Allies good, we're done.


Well...we know that's not the case. And it raises one of those uncomfortable points that living history can raise so well--participants in the past were people. I'm even going to go out on a limb and say something potentially offensive--Nazis were people. They were people who made choices. In some cases, they were people who were disenfranchised of their choices. Either way--we don't really learn from the past unless we understand that, and recognize how similar we are to those who committed the atrocities we condemn.


Regardless--we as reenactors want to give a full picture of the past, and that means that someone plays the other side. I've never in a lifetime of reenacting met someone who portrayed a unit because of personal political, moral, or ethical affiliations that connected with that unit's history or beliefs. Perhaps there are some goofballs who do live out crazy alternate histories by reenacting--but I've never come across a unit that would support that and permit Goofball to continue. Some people do get a kick out of playing the bad guy--but it's not because they agree with those mindsets. If anything it's often because they disagree so strongly they feel the need to make sure that part of history isn't forgotten.


Sorry for the rant--I just felt that Mr. Cooper and the writer of the article took something they did not understand and, without realizing it, attacked the entire living history community. What they don't get is that we are all in this together--after firing across a field at the British, we invite them to our camp for dinner. We're not enemies--we're united in presenting history.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Trianon Ballroom

I apologize for geeking out on the prose thing yesterday. Clearly, too much time on my hands. But today--another tidbit of 1940s December research. Much of this info is from a Chicago historical website devoted to the places and people of Jazz Age Chicago--much more great info there, check it out!

Dancing was a major social activity from the 1920s through the early 1950s, and Chicago supported its fair share of ballrooms. One that makes an appearance in December is the Trianon, a huge, state-of-the-art, beautifully appointed ballroom built in the 1920s on the south side of Chicago. The ballroom was designed to be stunning and elegant, with Louis XVI styled decor in the Grand Salon and a dance floor that could accomodate 3,000 dancers. It appealed to the rising middle class, who appreciated the sophisticated sensibilities and an admission charge they could afford. It drew its patrons from the burgeoning south side, but also from around Chicago with its placement near the L.

The urbane facade was maintained partially through exclusivity and imposement of upper-class ideals on the patrons. Though the motto of the Trianon was democracy--anyone who could pay could enjoy the ballroom--they actually had a whites-only policy and turned African-Americans away. The possibility of interracial dance partners would have, apparently, disrupted the elegant atmosphere. Only white bands were hired by the management. Additionally, the demure environment was enforced by "hosts and hostesses" who monitored the dance floor for "petting and spooning." Dancers were expected to refrain from the "hot" jitterbug styles of dance and to stick with more formal ballroom styles. Perhaps the most interesting rule involved smoking--men were permitted to smoke at the Trianon, but ladies were not. In keeping with traditional gender norms, this would have been considered crude for women.

I liked this little gem so much, and appreciated what it revealed about expectations of gendered behavoir, that it made it into a scene:

"Miss.” One of the tuxedoed hosts hovered next to their table. He stared at
Gloria, but she didn’t see him as she leaned in to hear a salacious joke of
Vince’s.
“Miss.” Repeated, louder, it caught her attention.
“Yes?” Gloria turned and gave him one of her coyest smiles.
“I am sorry, but ladies are not permitted to smoke in the Trianon.”
“Oh, but I’ve just started this one. I can finish, can’t I? Then I promise to be a good girl.” She giggled, but her joking didn’t work on the man, certainly a seasoned veteran of flippant women.
“Please put it out immediately, or I will have to ask you to leave.” His voice was gentle as honey, but Emily could see iron control in his face.
“Honestly, it’s ridiculous. The men can smoke all they like, who cares if
the ladies do, too?”
“The establishment. And our patrons prefer a finer atmosphere in which ladies refrain from vulgar behaviors.” As though to emphasize his point, he shifted to reveal a “No Jitterbugging” sign posted near the dance floor.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Language as Meaning and Music

Janet Reid, blogger and linker of all things enticing and of-the-moment in publishing, linked to this NY Times article by Michael Cunningham, the author of The Hours. Her point was much more about the second half of the piece--who do writers write for--than it was about the first part. But it was the first part that struck me. Says Cunningham,

Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound.

Writers are told to read aloud for a variety of reasons. We are told to read aloud for clunky sentences. To catch the grammar goofs that slip past the tired eye but not the alert ear. To pick up on nonsequitors and nonsense of all sorts. When was the last time you were told to read aloud for the sound only--not the meaning, just the sound?

Exactly. But that is where poetry lies. From the article: Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear.

To play with this idea, try scanning something in a different language...try this (Apollinaire, "Le Pont Mirabeau"--selections):

Sur le pont Mirabeau coule le Seine...
Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse...
...et l'esperance est violente.

It doesn't much matter what it means--the sounds have an enchanting quality. Especially, for me--les mains dans les mains restons face a face. There's actually a cadence there, a cadence that you can't avoid as a reader. Even if you don't speak French.

And how about this, in English, with a very familiar story (Tennyson, "The Day-Dream"):

A touch! A kiss! the charm was snapt.
There rose a noise of striking clocks, isn't it cool how you get the round sounds here--rOse a nOIse--followed by the hard clacks--striKing cloCKs? Stuff like that...ok, reading again...
And feet that ran, and doors that clapt,
And barking dogs, and crowing cocks;
A fuller light illumined all, love the use of lllls here...soft, like a full light.
A breeze thro’ all the garden swept,
A sudden hubbub shook the hall,
And sixty feet the fountain leapt.

It's not only the language but the sounds of the words that paint the picture here. By the way, anyone guess the familiar story here? It's Sleeping Beauty, at the moment the palace awakens. For a real study in how language can create a mood thorugh cadence and sound, read the whole poem. Yes, it's old-school. But the contrast between language in the scenes of the sleeping palace and the waking palace is stunning.

A confession from me--I have been so enraptured with plot and character and those details lately that I had started to forget why I love writing fiction in the first place--words. Beautiful, confusing, bramble-thick, simple words. Then I found some old scraps while cleaning out my old room at my parents' house this weekend--and words were the only things I cared for when writing those bits. They were, of course, useless for anyone besides myself, the pitfall Cunningham encourages the writer to avoid in the second half of the article. But still--they reminded me why I got into this messy business to begin with, and it isn't plot or even character, but language.

Despite the demand for lively pace and the importance of an arresting plot, I feel there is still a place for poetry in prose. Writing is meant for more than to deliver a reader from Plotpoint A to Plotpoint B. It's meant to transport, to enchant, to awaken--and plot doesn't do those things by itself.

Thoughts on the importance of language in fiction? Am I overstating the case? Is it equal parts meaning and music--or should it be more heavily swayed in one direction or the other?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Historical Inspiration Costume--The Polonaise Walking Gown

The first inspiration for this gown was the sale rack at Hobby Lobby. I was perusing the fabric when I found a gorgeous silk taffeta, woven with a fawn-gold stripe. Love at first sight, but it had to be too expensive, right?

Nope, it was marked down to $2.99 a yard.

It had to be a mistake. I casually sauntered over to the nearest salesperson and inquired about the pricing of the sale items. "Oh, whatever sticker has the lowest price."

I quickly retrieved the bolt and bought all eight remaining yards.

It soon became my eighteenth-century wedding dress, a simple robe a l'anglaise with very little trimming--I didn't have much time to complete it. But the dress isn't really the point, is it?


Our eighteenth-century ceremony was held at a historic house where we have a fall market fair encampment. (We had a modern wedding, as well, but who really cares about those clothes?)

But what to do after the big day? Keep wearing the dress, of course. Unfortunately, transitioning into a ballgown wasn't the most practical--most of my events are daytime events, and a full-on dress gown would be out of place.


Then I found this in the Kyoto Institute's online archives:


It's a walking gown, with the skirts "retrousee dans les poches"--which is French for, roughly, yanked through the pocket slits. In the late eighteenth century, walking as a pasttime became quite popular for the upper classes when the French picked up on the habit from the English. Gowns designed with shorter skirts and petticoats and featuring rucked-up skirts (the long part of the gown) became fashionable.

And the red color scheme with stripes made me think quickly of the red silk--my wedding gown had found new life.

A few key differences--I did not create a matching petticoat, but instead wear either a gold or fawn colored silk taffeta petticoat (I layer the other one underneath for extra swishiness when walking). Also, this gown is a saque--it has the wide back pleats of a robe a la francaise, and I prefer the fitted anglaise back. Finally, I didn't do a retrousee dans les poches style--rather, I chose to create a polonaise style. One creates these "bum poufs" as I call them by tucking the gowns' skirts under themselves--much like modern French bustles on wedding gowns.



Sadly, I have no pictures of myself actually walking in the gown--though I have taken many lovely strolls--but have some shots from a Christmas party and dance I attended. This is probably the best full-length shot--you can see the simple white engageante on the sleeve and the full, drapey bum pouf. I don't wear much jewelry--just a simple pair of paste earrings.


I have such well-dressed friends with whom to converse. A note on underthings--of course, the requisite shift and stays, and an additional petticoat (again, the swishiness!) I also wear a false rump to accentuate the polonaised back. I've added a kerchief around the neck here, though this is an evening event and kerchiefs were often ditched in the evening--but this gown is so low-cut that I prefer a little extra coverage. My hair is dressed, but I'm not wearing a cap, as it's evening.

More well-dressed friends. When I wear this gown for walking, I wear a shorter petticoat--my fawn-colored one, which hits my lower-midcalf. This would have been fashionable and completely acceptable for the period--though this has caused one of my most common "tourist" questions at events to be "Aren't your skirts too short?" I simply reply, "No, you have me confused with another era."

Aren't new uses for old things fun?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Historical Costume Inspiration Festival!

Check it out...
I'm hoping to post photos of the peacock gown tonight or tomorrow (crossing fingers) to participate in the festival. If I don't make it...there will be a post about my polonaise walking gown. Perhaps there will be one of both, because I'll think I won't finish the 30s gown and then I'll do something very foolish and stay up very late watching NCIS and stitching. Who knows? The day is young.

But until I post my gown pics--satiate your historic costuming cravings with the fabulous posts that are part of this festival, hosted by Story of a Seamstress!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Peacock 1930s Gown--Inspiration

The peacock gown is nearly finished. All the major seams have been completed, and all that's left is setting the zipper, hemming, and binding/finishing the neckline. The neckline is taking some tweaking; despite the muslin turning out perfectly, the drapey charmeuse is doing things that I hadn't expected around the bust and will need some extra reinforcement. And perhaps a decorative drape...with a peacock feather.

So, until the final unveil, the idea board for the gown:
Peacock 1930s Gown
A few notes--the ladies featured are Jean Harlow, who embodies the 1930s silky, sensual spirit so well, and Carole Lombard, who I happen to adore because she's a fellow Hoosier (and Clark Gable's self-reported one true love...despite his 8 marriages. Who can't admire that?)
The pattern is Vintage Vogue #2859. The silk is from (no, I'm not kidding) Happy Good Buy on ebay. It is, indeed, happy and good.
And the place? The location of the gown's debut, an early twentieth century resort in Indiana. Throughout the 1930s it was a fashionable retreat not only for Midwesterners but for politicians and Hollywood stars (including Clark and Carole). The ambience inspired me to create something vintage-esque and luxurious but also timeless.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Old College Try

My husband and I have been taking swing dance lessons this semester. To be fair, we've been dancing East Coast style for years together, so the beginnings of the lessons are a little slow. I've been spicing it up by taking the first part of the series as a lead instead of a follow--we needed extra leads, and it's fun to know how to dance either part. You can see photos from the 30s and 40s of dances in which girls are dancing with one another, so the willing-man shortage is nothing new. We're very much looking forward to what comes next--Lindy Hop. I've been bugging my husband to learn lindy for years, to have the option when a song is better suited to lindy than east coast.

All this dancing has made us look into other, perhaps lesser-known styles from the swing era. One of our favorite finds is the collegiate shag:



Now, the only downside to the dance is that you cannot, as my husband did, walk into a crowded coffee shop and loudly tell your companion "We should try the collegiate shag sometime." It means different things to the uninitiated.

Anyone else have any experience with historical dancing styles? Any favorites to pass along?

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Letter from the Camp--the Rose Garden

It's been a while since I wrote a letter from the camps--the eighteenth century regimental camps, that is. I was terribly busy after our last event and plum forgot. But I shall remedy that situation post haste.

For ease of reading--my eighteenth century persona is an officer's wife from Philadelphia who has joined her husband while he is encamped just outside her city.

Dear Mrs. S--,

I was quite disappointed that you were unable to join us when you passed near the encampment, but I can understand quite well why you would prefer to hasten home to your husband rather than fall in with our rough company! I do believe that, in all the maneuvers and machinations of putting this army in precisely the right spot (a topic of which I am gaining not a little understanding but still find quite bewildering) this is the finest ground upon which we've been fortunate enough to stake a tent. We have, as my husband the Lieutenant claims is the correct terminology, appropriated the estate of a fine gentleman with a brick house and expansive grounds. They use his lawn for a parade ground and his gardener's shed for an infirmary. It has, to be sure, angered the gardener, who had to move his tools into the kitchen, which angered the cook, but what is there to be done about that?

Yesterday perhaps produced the most frustration of any day thus far in my brief sojourn with the army. We were fortunate enough to receive a portion of a cow, also "appropriated" along with several chickens, and so planned to make a grand feast of it. But this meant that I had to spend nearly all day at cookery, and it was quite exhausting, which I would have been content to ignore had our dinner been a joyous occasion. It was, instead, quite unfortunate. Several of our men were ill and did not wish to eat, and several others such louts that they masticated their meat and disappeared. After this, there was an incident of rowdy drunkenness in camp which my husband the Lieutenant had to subdue. So I went to bed disappointed and discouraged.

This morning, however, dawned so bright and lovely that I could not remain unsettled. Instead, I stole away from the main camp and explored the gardens. With each step, my resentment seemed to melt away like the golden morning burning away the last of the dawn's haze.

I came first to a large pond ringed with flowers both decorative and useful, many beginning to fade in the face of autumn. The scent was deliciously sun-baked--bright herb and mellow water-flower scents mingling together.


After circling the pond I found the paths to the other gardens, all laid out in the most formal of fashions. Surely a masterful gardener designed this plan, for each segment of the garden was like a room in a beautifully appointed house, each having its own scheme of color and, even, personality.

I sat for quite some time in a boxwood garden surrounded by tall pines, intoxicated by the smell of damp loam and the evergreens before moving on.

It was then that I found the rose garden.


Such a rose garden, my dear Mrs. S--! Such an overflowing bounty of roses to which I have never seen an equal. I was walking along the lawn and I scented the place before I saw it--it was bordered by a long pergola on the side from which I approached, and so I saw the whole thing at once, like opening the door on the most beautiful room you have ever seen.

I wandered among the roses for what ought to have been hours for the number of petals I brushed and leaves I caught between thumb and finger, enjoying the waxen texture. And the scent! Oh, the scent was the most enchanting and bewildering enjoyment in the world. They are at their last, of course, the roses--and so their scent seems all the stronger as their swan song.

As I walked back to my canvas home, appointed with naught but a straw mattress and a worn-out rug, wearing a poor linen gown and a battered straw hat, I thought: This is the most civilized I have felt since leaving Philadelphia.