Friday, September 26, 2014

Girls (and Boys) in White Dresses with Blue (and Pink and Green) Sashes

One of my planned winter projects is pretty small--or, at least, it's for a small-sized person.  Baby E has become Toddler E and she'll need at least one new dress for next year.

Small-sized persons may use less fabric, but in this case, they require just as much research!  One interesting trend in 18th century children's clothing is the preponderance of white.

Interesting because, well, it's interesting.  But also "interesting" (insert sarcastic air quotes here) because my parental instinct is to avoid putting my child in white. Ever.  Or off-white.  Or light grey.  Even pale pink, really.

Toddlers are messy creatures.

Then I thought a little more about this.  Sure, the thought of putting my two year old in white silk or other un-launderable fabrics still gives me hives.  But white cotton or linen is eminently launderable.  After all, we discuss all the time how linens--as in ladies' and men's underthings, shifts and shirts--were laundered frequently and their fabric (as well as construction) lent itself to this kind of sudsy abuse?

And thus I could justify, practically speaking, the idea of putting my toddler in a quite justifiable, authentically-speaking, historical dress.

Now...what to do, exactly?

Tons of images exist of littles in white:

The Blunt Children, 1766–1770, by Johann Zoffany Birmingham Museums Trust

Elizabeth Davers (1730–1800), Countess of Bristol, and Her Daughter Lady Louisa Theodosia Hervey (1770–1821), Later Countess of Liverpool by Antonio de Bittio, c.1773

Francis Graham by Tilly Kettle, c. 1774

1775 Child's dress with green bows worn by Gustav of Sweden, via Royal Armoury Collection, Sweden.

Some are clearly silk (HIVES!I tell you) but others have the distinctive soft drape of a very fine linen or cotton.  Another element that I'm intrigued by is the sheer dual color effect.  Both the green-bowed extant dress and the portrait of Francis Graham show a white overdress with a colored layer showing, just barely, through the thin fabric.  Is this a petticoat?  Part of the dress itself, as a dual layer?  I want to know all the things.  Alas, I'm limited to images.

And of course the variations of the "white dress" raises some questions as to construction.  Check it out--the ivory silk piece (second from bottom) has a distinctive "gown" shape.  The Lady Harvey's little dress also has a distinctly fitted bodice--likely stiffened and/or boned.  The Swedish dress, as well as the clothing of Francis Graham, however, is cut with a non-stiffened rectangular (rather than shaped) bodice.  And the Blunt children--I can't quite tell.  A pair of merely well-fitted bodices or are they stiff?

What to do, what to do?  A little gown with a stiffened bodice?  Would this be appropriate in a washable fabric?  A dress with more "chemise" like features, and can--should?--this have the multi-layer effect with an additional color?

Much more research to do...fortunately, the subject matter is really, really cute.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When Does Historical Accuracy Matter?

I realize my post on the Outlander dress, and, in extension, authenticity in film costume as a whole may seem like fence-straddling.

I said I didn't think that the dress was an accurate representative of 18th century gownage.

I also said I thought that was ok and that the gown was beautiful.

What?  For most of my reenacting friends, authenticity is paramount.  Why bother doing anything, at all, if one can't do it right?

But just like creating accurate historical clothing, context is everything.  And I don't know if it's the crisp fall air fostering a "back to school" feeling or what, but in considering that context, I found myself practically writing a paper.

For those of us in educational pursuits, authenticity matters.  A lot.  This is because of our claims--we are claiming a position of authority and are representing the past as a vehicle for learning.  Reenactors claim a certain expertise in historical knowledge and most reenacting organizations claim that education is a primary goal.

Entertainment does not do this.  The concept of edutainement attempts to walk both sides of the line, and whether it's effective at either is another topic entirely.  Pure entertainment, however--and I'm considering anything, from highbrow to low, that doesn't claim education as a goal to be "pure" entertainment--doesn't wed itself to accuracy.  Instead, it aims to engage and entertain a contemporary audience and, in its best forms, to illustrate or comment on the "big questions" of humankind.

Throughout film history, costumes do a more accurate job commenting on aesthetic values of the time more than they do representing the past.  Outlander's costume designer, Terry Desbach, noted this in her comment to American Duchess' discussion of "the dress":

"Doing a period piece for television or film is especially challenging. There is much pressure placed on designers to make history “contemporary”. I am not even sure I understand the logic behind that premise. It defies the definition of history...
Any kind of structure that enlarges the hips, from panniers to bum rolls, were going to be an issue in an age [today] where ["ideal"]women’s hips are non existent. Fichus were also going to be a hill to climb as they cover the cleavage."
Glancing back over a century of 18th century costume in film, the goal of engaging a contemporary audience is quite apparent:

Orphans of the Storm, 1921

Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939

The Howards of Virginia, 1940

 The Scarlet Coat, 1955

Revolution, 1985

The Patriot, 2000

It's amazing how the "18th century" looks very different depending on the lens it's viewed through.  The aesthetic changes to speak to each audience.

While visuals--costume, hair and makeup, sets--are easy examples to use, storyline, character development, social mores, and cultural mannerisms are just as prone to re-honing for the purpose of engaging the audience.  Good entertainment is not always made of pure, unedited historical facts (though when it is--it's very good!).  In creating historically based characters, gaps exist that writers must fill--hopefully narrowing the gap with careful research, but likely extrapolating or even inventing in order to create a rounded character.  Same for plots--we may accept that gaps exist in the historical record, but audiences don't like holes in their storylines.

But doesn't accuracy still matter?  Instead of showing example of inaccurate portrayal in film as social commentary or fulfilling audience expectations, shouldn't I be arguing that it's just wrong and should be stopped or at least laughing at the inaccuracies?  

Well, no.  (Except the truly laughable.  Like 1955's hilarious boob-centered silhouette--I think Elizabeth Taylor wore that dress to the Oscars...)

I do acknowledge the inherent risk in presenting inaccuracies to the viewing public--people absorb, often not even consciously, what they see and hear and begin to build a picture of what is right based on those potentially inaccurate depictions.  Plenty of people have inaccurate understandings of plenty of historical contexts due in no small part to inaccurate film depictions.  (Corsets are torture and everyone wore white powdered wigs...right?)  But these people sought to be entertained by film, not educated.  If they sought education, they would look beyond film--and judging by the masses I encounter at many reenactment events, they do.  

Beyond entertainment alone, film is art, not pedantic academic research.  So is novel-writing.  They seek to do more than educate; they seek to edify, illuminate, and comment on the human condition, on the commonalities of life across cultures.  A "good movie" speaks to us.  A "good book" sticks with us and crops up from time to time to offer commentary as we live our lives or face difficult questions.  The goal was never complete authenticity, because the goal was to create something new.  Art is creation, not reproduction, and thereby not bound to the same rules as education is.

And to say that ALL creative work must adhere to a certain set of standards--the absolute highest stitch counting, hand-sewn, documentable standards--is to make a value judgment that I'm not prepared to make.  It says that authenticity matters MORE than aesthetic, MORE than literature, MORE than anything.  In film, novels, any form of fictionalized historical representation, I'm not prepared to believe that. Do I think some works could have done a better job striking a balance?  Of course.  Do I think some reenactors could do a better job situating their flawless material culture in a larger picture--a "narrative" if you will--to assist in audience understanding?  Yes.  (And plenty of reenactors could do a better job on authentic representation, too--myself included on some counts.  Working on it.  We all are.)

Perhaps an equally intriguing question is, "Why do we demand 'authenticity' out of creative fields when doing so merely opens a giant debate of 'how authentic is authentic enough?'"  I think much of the answer lies in the same impulse that drives us to buy the snacky granola bar that claims to be "All Natural" or "Healthy" despite what might be on the nutrition label.  There is an appeal to authenticity that drives us to seek it and drives producers and others to tout the value of their work based on it.  

In "When Fictionalized Fact Matter," author Susan Bordo notes that the allure of authenticity as selling point to an audience that she says has a hard time drawing the line between fact and film-created "texture" already.  She points out that Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, describes authenticity as a high priority for her and fervently defends the "bits" that she fills in to complete stories left incomplete by history alone--yet Bordo questions if this is in truth reflected in the novels themselves.  She notes as well the discrepancy between our interpretation of "high" and "low" representations--critics were quick to jump on the inaccuracies in The Tudors, but for the most part left similar inventions in literary writer Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall alone. This is a dangerous assumption, says Bordo:
Let's not imagine, however, that just because they belong to literature rather than pop culture, they are more historically accurate than the Anne and Cromwell of Thousand Days or The Tudors.
Is the inverse true as well--do film and written word alike seek the "authentic" moniker in order to appear more high-brow, to draw in a more sophisticated audience?  I think so.  But the irony is that the sophistication they seek should be able to tease invention from fact--yet they rely on audience inability to do so in "selling" their authenticity.

As a reference point, consider the openly inauthentic approach of 2006's Marie Antoinette.  Director Sofia Coppola never claimed historical authority, despite the often spot-on visual accuracy the film portrayed via costume design and its filming location in Versailles itself.  Instead, she left open the opportunity for artistically styled inaccuracy.  By not claiming accuracy as a goal, and by being open about the liberties she took with source material, Coppola in many ways absolved herself from criticism of the historical faux-facts and inauthentcities portrayed in the film:
"It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently."
Perhaps if we stop demanding authenticity of a medium that doesn't lend itself to it, fewer creators will claim authenticity that does not exist.

I'm not giving film or art or novels or, back to where we started, historical costuming a free pass, either.  If you're going to present historical fictions of any kind, I rather think they should at least be possible per the historic record, hopefully be highly plausible, and at best be documentable. Inauthenticies should ideally be openly discussed and even recognizable as such. Still, I do think that we need to stop judging art forms on the merits we hold educational forms to, and recognize that their value does not hinge on historical authenticity alone.

That said, it might be best not to watch any 18th century costume dramas with me...unless you like running commentary.

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Open Letter to Costume Designers for Screens Both Big and Small

I have enormous respect for what you do.

What you do is art.  Really.  Taking characters and plots and representing them in clothing is, in truth, creating wearable art and I applaud you for that.  You have technical understanding that is far beyond what I can even imagine.  Perhaps more than any other visual element of the screen, you capture characters and provide a visual touchstone for viewers.


Costume designers of historical and historically-inspired film and television: Please stop claiming that what you're doing is research-based or "authentic" if it's really not.

It's ok.  Your job is to create costumes, not museum reproductions.  Your work is for film and television, for entertainment, not for living history museums and reenactors and other educational outlets.

I admit, this is the piece that set me off:

but even more than the costume itself, the interview from and the claim that the piece "is based on lots and lots of research. We looked at a million pictures."

Outlander isn't intended to be a historically pristine piece of work--the premise alone veers it toward historical fantasy, and a lot of people are enjoying it for that.  And that's great.

But to give an interview discussing all the research you did--the "million" images you had pinned to your wall...well, I'm forced to ask...did you look at them?  I mean, really look?  Long enough to realize that no sleeves in 18th century gowns ever looked like they were ripped off of a gauze fairy dress (aside from, perhaps, "fancy dress" which is something very different from a wedding dress)?  Long enough to see that visible boning channels are rarely seen in 18th century outer garments, even though many do include boning?  Long enough to see how that boning is incorporated and what purpose it serves?  Long enough to understand how stomachers are typically constructed?  To see that, actually, sequins *could* have been used?

Apparently not.

And that's fine.  Really.  It's fine if you took inspiration from historical images and then said, "I'm not creating a reproduction here, I'm creating a costume."  Fine choice.  And I'd say that this costume does exactly what you wanted--it exudes a kind of roughspun opulence and I imagine that's precisely the aesthetic your viewership is enjoying in the show.

What's not fine is claiming a position of authority and discussing your "research" as though it yielded an example of correct 18th century clothing like this:

One example out of hundreds--as a comparison point.  This seems similar to the style the costume gown presented above appears to represent, which is why I chose it.

It did not.

It yielded a beautiful costume, a gown with elements of 17th century (the off-shoulder silhouette--I wonder if you encountered the fairly common portraits of individuals in older costume and attributed it to the wrong era?), 18th century (the embroidery, the "stomacher" and "open robe" effect), and Renaissance fantasy (those sleeves are truly beautiful!).

Here's the thing.  I don't make art.  I make researched clothing items for educational purposes.  I am, self-confessed here, boring.  But I don't claim that what I do is anything other than a handcraft, a historical presentation, and, on a good day, preserving a lifeway.  I don't claim that I'm making art.  So, maybe, let's each claim and be proud of what we do?  Leave historical representation to the anal retentive among us and stop making a claim that the art you produce is authentic recreation?

Unless you want to pursue historical authenticity.  Then please, dive in.  The waters are deep and, somehow, full of rabbit holes (when did rabbits learn to swim?).  The rewards are often evasive, as those who understand the effort you made to nail a few details are fewer than those who appreciate a beautiful costume.  And you have to give up some elements of creativity while embracing others--making glitter-thread out of mica is going to have to go by the wayside in favor of perfecting your spaced backstitch.  But I swear--it's fun.  It truly is.  And greatly rewarding in its own way.

I'm not going to claim that complete historical authenticity is the right path for every costume or every costumer.  That's not my place, nor do I truly believe it.  However, if you claim authenticity, produce it.  And if you don't produce it, don't claim it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Pink Caraco Steps Out

I had the plan to finish my pink caraco ensemble (caraco, white ruffled petticoat, and silk-covered hat) in time for our reenacting organization's biggest event this fall--a "birthday celebration" Grand Encampment.  Unfortunately, other people's mending needs (a pair of breeches with giant holes in the inseam and a completely destroyed shirt collar come to mind) precluded finishing the petticoat.  On the upside, I was able to borrow a similar white petticoat from my mother, which I had made as part of an ensemble for her years ago.

So the pink caraco stepped out for the first time on Sunday.

With all the photography that pours out of a weekend like this, I had expected that some of my friends would snap plenty of pictures of the group--and thereby of the outfit, too.  But we had barely any time to stop and take proper pictures, and so I had to content myself with waiting to see if any strangers happened to get a shot, post it to Facebook, and eventually make its way back to me via the magic of tagging (oh, technology!).

And this would be the first time I saw the full outfit--lacking a full-length mirror or any other nice homey touches in my tent (and having gotten dressed quite literally in bed as it was about 40 degrees when I woke up Sunday morning), I had no idea if the whole thing worked together.  As I'm sure you noticed from the dress form photos, it's a poor representation of what a garment will look like on a human body with proper underpinnings.

I'm lucky enough to have had two photos make their way to my viewing.  This is the first:

Ha! That's me in pink and white in the background.  The foreground are friends of mine from the artillery, lining up for opening formation.  It did give me a good enough view of the back to show me that I'm happy with the pleats in the skirts and the overall fit of the garment.

But then I found this one:

The Chicago Tribune posted some images from the event online, and of course they caught a shot of me screwing around with my fancy new walking stick and laughing my head off with a friend.  Despite the goofy expression on my face, I'm quite pleased with the overall ensemble!  The caraco fits as it should (fitted back and chest, arms aren't terribly tight and that's deliberate, full skirts over the hips and false rump).  And what a difference a false rump makes!  I can pick out exactly what needs to be fixed, too--addressing the closure and re-doing it with lacing will eliminate the bunching at the front (dressed in bed, remember?), and finishing out the trim will yield that final 18th century touch.  I also need to find a better way to tie my hat on so I don't end up with rumple-cap.

I'll add, because I think I'm allowed to brag--this was caught while I was walking to the "battle" field with the artillery, where I narrated the artillery demonstration.  I've done this before...but never for something in the neighborhood of a thousand people!  What I was proudest of, however, was that I was not at all nervous taking the microphone.  That's a pretty big accomplishment for me!

Oh, the challenges of historical clothing--actually seeing it on yourself can be difficult!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Faking 18th Century Pinking

In creating the Pink Caraco, I knew one thing for sure--I wanted pinked trim (yep, that's right--a Pinked Pink Caraco).  18th Century "pinking," like pinking today, means cutting a decorative edge into fabric.  Unlike modern seamstresses using pinking shears, however, 18th century seamstresses achieved the designs using a punch.

This makes for a look that's very different from a straight pinking-shear cut.

Detail of Robe a la Francaise from Met Museum, c 1760

Most punches are semi-circular in shape and have zig-zag shaped V's or scallops cut into the circle itself--so that the design produced by the punch is a scallop made out of mini scallops or zig-zags.

Using the punch involved a stable base and a mallet--one set the punch over the fabric and tapped the mallet on it to acheive the look.  Though I've heard that the fabric was folded to make one punch go through more than one layer of fabric, that doesn't appear to be the case for this woman, as illustrated by Diderot:

Quite the time-consuming process!

Of course, my first stop in trying to create pinked trim for myself was to try to find an antique punch.  These aren't that uncommon, and I quickly snagged one off ebay for about $12.  

Unfortunately, the piece is dull.  The edge actually appears to have been (unevenly) filed down, perhaps for leatherworking or another crafting process.  I'm still working on getting an edge put back on it, as our favorite sharpening service has been MIA at the farmer's market this month.

What to do in the meantime?

Unfortunately again, just waiting isn't an option.  The front of the caraco really does need that trim to "hide" the closure.  So I devised a stand-in that looks far closer to the original than a simple pinked edge.

You need:

Pinking Shears (SHARP ones that will cut through a few layers of fabric--paper craft scissors won't, ahem, cut it.)

Basically, use pinking shears to mimic the look of the punch by cutting even scallops.  To assist in making the scallops even, borrow a mindset from origami and fold the fabric before wielding your shears.  

I folded the fabric accordion-style to the width I wanted the scallop to be.  I only folded maybe 3-4 times so that the fabric wouldn't be too thick to cut easily, and pinned the layers into place.

I then folded the layers of folded fabric in half, and cut a gentle semi-circle using the pinking shears.


Is it perfect?  Nope, far from it.  Once my poor pinking punch is put back into tip-top shape, I plan to redo the trim on my caraco (and then go about punching All The Things, as well).  After looking at dozens and dozens of trimmed caracos and gowns, however, I concluded that anything but pinked edges on trim was highly unusual, NOT trimming a caraco would highly unusual, and modern straight pinking is a poor substitute for the scallops.  (Note: I found exactly one straight zig-zag edges, as pinking shears would produce, on 8th century clothing while looking into this, and the design was shallower than modern shears and added holes and other elements.)  So--if you're looking for a suitable stand-in until a "real" pinking punch presents itself, or you're in a costuming milieu that does not demand complete authenticity, give Faux-Pinking a try!