Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Talking Dirty : Should Your Impression be Unkempt?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see on how to better your impression for living history is "More dirt."  This is particularly true of military reenactment, where most women are assumed to be portraying campfollowers and most men are common soldiers.  "Put some deliberate tears in your clothes, or don't mend the ones that happen naturally."  "Get some dirt on your clothes and don't wash it off."  "Make sure your face is a little dirty." The logic goes that, without daily showers and our modern, comparatively inexhaustible wardrobes, we ought to look a bit bedraggled.

I question how bedraggled.

It's completely true that people in the 18th century (or earlier, or 19th...or, in fact, 20th up to a point) bathed less often than we did.  It's true as well that they had much smaller wardrobes on average.  And it's true as well that, in a military camp or on campaign, dirt and grime was unavoidable.

It's also, however, true that clothing was expensive.  Those smaller wardrobes had to last--and nothing is going to degrade clothing more quickly than not mending it.  I seriously doubt that, excepting extreme duress when mending would be impossible, that individuals in the 18th century didn't take the time to patch up holes and stitch down rips.  Perhaps a better way to add the realism of wear and tear on clothing is to spend time in camp mending something you own.

Even dirt can, over time, wear the fibers of clothing.  Remember that military camps employed laundresses--so laundry must have been done in some fashion.  As regularly as we do?  Certainly not.  As little as to have shirts that stand up on their own and clothing so black as to be unrecognizable?  Probably not that, either.  Laundering clothing isn't just a nicety--it's a way of protecting your fabric investment.  Of course, some items were made to get dirty--like aprons or fatigue shirts.  I say, use it properly and you won't need to "fake" the dirt!  Half a day of hauling cast iron and cooking and washing up, and my apron begins to show some extra color.  (Plus, it's also my napkin, and I want to save a few clean spots...)

Finally, soldiers were expected to look at least relatively clean and presentable while in garrison.  On campaign things may have gone south a little, but a soldier on the parade ground was not supposed to be unkempt.   So one must ask where one is intended to be located when deciding how dirty one should be.  In the midst of a forced march?  Perhaps a bit dirtier than at a relatively comfortable garrison.

But let's leave the speculations behind and take a look at what images from the time might have to say instead.  Apologies that these are so small!  However, both illustrate the range of "camp women" one could expect to find (both from English camps). 



This image shows a prostitute being drummed from camp.  The prostitute herself looks relatively bedraggled--I imagine she hasn't had the easiest last few hours of it.  However, the other women on he scene are not unkempt.  To the right, a camp follower seems to add her vocal displeasure to the scene, but does not appear to be very unclean or unmended.  Finally, the two women to the right are very well-dressed in high fashion.  What are *they* doing in camp?  Well, remember that not every woman in a military camp lived in a military camp.  Women would often pay visits to relatives or husbands while encamped--meaning that a lady wearing silks is not necessarily "wrong" in camp.



Here, a woman tidies up her children at the far right.  Neither she nor the kiddos look ragged--and note that she's taking time to get them ready and presentable in this morning scene.  Another woman looks to be washing up in the back left.  Her hair is neatly pulled back under a cap, and no dirt or tears to be seen.

(More great images online at Najecki Reproductions )


I do, by the way, assume that these images are not greatly idealized.  They seem to portray lifelike scenes in camp in a sketch format--not pastoral or imagined scenes that are typically idealized to some degree.


So, should we get dirty to accurately portray the past?  Maybe...and maybe not as dirty as we think we should.  Taking our recreated circumstances into consideration is key--whether *you* should be dirty may be a different story than whether *I* should be dirty, per our intended personas.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Gestational Stays

After much yammering about them, the stays!

I decided after researching gestational stays to use my trusty 1780 pattern and split the sides at a spot that made sense, rather than copying the Diderot or the pattern in Salen's book.  This was mostly as a potential time-saver--I needed to churn these out pretty quickly in order to make use of them when I needed them!

The green linen version I made earlier this year:


And the gestational version:



Spot the other difference?  Yeah, I ran out of time and skipped the straps.

The basics:  The innards are two layers of canvas-weight fabric with a layer of peach silk on the exterior.  To compensate for slightly flimsy silk, I used fusible web to give it some heft--not 18th century accurate, but neither is our modern flimsy silk.  The binding is cotton tape.

The concept is simple--it's the same pattern I've used before (based on Norah Waugh's 1780 stays), which I've discussed making twice already (for the green linen stays, in particular), except that the front piece is not attached to the side pieces except at the very top, and an additional set of lacing holes is added where the stays would normally attach.


Detail of the side lacing--this can lace closed or out far further than it is currently.  It can also, um, get those nasty metal grommets covered in pretty peach floss when I get around to it, too.


More like the back lacing:


In the classification of "fully boned," "half boned" and other definitions, I'd say that these fall in at "rather lightly boned end of half boned."  I was unsure how wearing stays while pregnant would go, so went easy on the boning.  Boning is all cable ties.

I did, however, include one little variation that I didn't see on any gestational stays but put my mind at ease about bridging the gap between keeping a nice silhouette but being able to go lighter-boned if comfort became an issue.  I made a fully-boned inset piece that's attached to the interior back--it can be clipped out easily if it becomes uncomfortable:


Interior shot, showing the individual pieces joined and the interior of the side-lacing:


And the stays in action on my dress form.  Clearly, on a person, they don't lie flat on the front, but, rather, the front "hovers" over the bump.


So far, wearing these is a dream!  I could have actually made them a smidge tighter--the back laces fully closed and I could stand to "cinch" a touch more for back support.  The side lacing makes them extremely flexible in this regard--you can maintain a more rigid silhouette and give yourself support at the back without putting any pressure on the front at all.

I can confidently say that I can see why women wouldn't have balked at wearing stays while pregnant--they're no more confining than modern maternity pants and give excellent back support.  Plus, they've allowed me to keep wearing my "normal" wardrobe and I'm approaching the third trimester--I would have had to abandon all my fitted gowns, caracos, and jackets before now had I gone unstayed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Gestational Stays: The Research

You would think, what with women spending so much of their time pregnant and with stays being such commonly preserved extant items (compared to, say, non-quilted petticoats), that finding images and extants would be, if not easy, not exactly difficult.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot out there to go on when it comes to researching how to make gestational stays.  There is, however, ample enough evidence to show that they existed.

First--there's really no good way you can wear clothes like this unless you're wearing some type of stays:

"The Man of Business" from the Lewis Walpole Library.  More on this print here.

The, ahem, busy gentleman on the left is of less interest here than the bevy of pregnant ladies on the right, all of whom are wearing gowns.  Aside from protruding bellies, the gowns have the characteristic 18th century shape--meaning the women must have been stayed to wear them.  Plus, to make your pre-pregnancy gown wearable, you need the back and sides to fit--which means wearing it over stays.  There were other options (see this fun article from Historical Williamsburg) but from what I've seen and what common sense tells me, continuing to wear stays for all or most of pregnancy was probably the norm.  The other options--for instance, quilted support garments--are interesting, but even less prevalent than gestational stays among images, written snippets, and extants for me to assume that they were common.

Then there are a few examples living out there of gestational stays.  First, the Kyoto museum used to have a great example of stays with side-lacing up, but it's since disappeared--and of course before I managed to swipe an image for my research file.  Second, there's a great image and breakdown of an extant garment in Jill Salen's Corsets.  I've been unable to find digital images to link to, but it's a pretty widely available book via library loan (and is also relatively inexpensive, and has tons of other great corsets to study/swoon over).  Basically--it's a c.1780 pair with some fun vertical and horizontal boning detail that has an additional set of lacing at either side.

Finally, there's the famous image from Diderot:
Figure Three shows "Bodies for pregnant women laced by the two sides at A"
So it's almost impossible to see in the dainty little illustration, but the stays are pretty much identical to Diderot's two other pages of stays variations, except that they have an additional lacing along the side.

What did all these examples have in common?  They seemed to take the predominant shape of the era they were made in (Salen's example is later than the Diderot) and split them at the sides with an additional set of lacing.  After much deliberation--do I try to model my stays after a particular example?--I decided to use my own pattern, but split them at a point that made sense.  This was, after all, pretty much what all the original examples seemed to do.


Let's also kick a misconception to the curb real quickly, too--despite medical doctors at the end of the 18th century decrying how awful stays were to a developing fetus, there is no reason to assume that most women were tight-lacing over pregnant bellies and putting their health and their babies at risk.  In fact, the way gestational stays are constructed makes them no more constricting than modern maternity jeans if worn correctly, and the support granted to the lower back is probably an advantage.  So why did doctors bring it up?  In my opinion they were either arguing against tight-lacing in general, or jumping on the "no stays is healthier" bandwagon that changed right along with fashion (and, ahem, didn't really change before...).

Next time: my gestational stays and how they're put together.