Tuesday, February 16, 2016

HSM # 2: Tucks & Pleating Petticoat

I knew just what I wanted to do for the Tucks and Pleating challenge.  I love pleating and tucks as decorative elements of a garment, but I love them even more when they form the basis for construction.  For example, the back of an 18th century gown:
Not only are the pleats gorgeous, but they allow a seamstress fit of the back of the gown, create the back bodice shape, AND create that lovely full skirt. It's like magic! I love pleats!
I did not have time to make a gown.

But I did have time to make a petticoat, and petticoats are maybe even cooler than gowns in the "pleats made it happen" department, because you know what a petticoat is without pleats?

Yeah, it's just a big rectangle of fabric.

What the item is: A basic wool petticoat.  Also the first piece in my planned riding habit.  (Ta-da! New project! Whee!) 
The Challenge: #2 Tucks & Pleating
Fabric/Materials: About three yards of wool. I happened to have an extremely large stash of this color of wool in my possession because it's the basis of our Continental Marine unit's regimental coat.  However, for some reason we have about three different kinds of it, so I chose the lightest weight, best-handed one--and it happened to be one that has just about the right amount to make the petticoat and jacket.  
I'll be honest--it's heaver wool than I would have liked.  In my ideal world, I'd be buying a lighter-weight melton than this, which is closer to a broadcloth-y feel.  However, free is free.  (The waistcoat will be leftover Hainsworth wool from my husband's officer's kit and nomnomnom it's delicious stuff.)  And that said, in looking at a bazillion images, there are habits that seem to be made of heavier and lighter wool.  (I'll probably post an embarrassing amount about habits in the next few months...)
Pattern: None.  It's two pleated rectangles and two little waistband rectangles.  Done.

Year: 1770-1780
Notions: Silk thread and tape ties.
How historically accurate is it? Pretty good--all handsewn, correct fabric (100% wool, I even burn tested, and that's a fun smell, isn't it?), correct thread, correct methods as far as I can ascertain.  The waistband is thicker than most (not all) extants, but I wanted to be sure the thicker wool would still lie flat under the waistcoat.  I'll give it 90% for my usual "I know I missed something."
Hours to complete: A weekend of off-and-on sewing.  Maybe four hours? I'm terrible at this.

Pleat details:

First worn: Not yet!
Total cost:  $0! This was a 100% stash-sourced project.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Always, Never, Usually, Rarely--Costuming, Reenacting, and Norms

Earlier this week, American Duchess posted a great piece on the trouble with the very common practice of using the terms "always" and "never" when describing historical clothing practices.  Her basic point, which I agree with, is that as soon as you go down the road of absolutes, there are examples to prove you wrong.  The piece and subsequent discussion are good, and I'm not going to spend too much time on the same points she and many commenters did, so go check it out!

It did, however, get me thinking about norms.  And our purpose in creating clothing for reenactment purposes.  In creating clothing for my 18th century portrayal, I am interested in attempting to re-create, to the best of my ability, representative clothing of the period for the impression I am portraying.  That means that, though I am not attempting to define "always" or "never," I am attempting to determine "usually" and "rarely."  This is different from, for instance, when I create early 20th century clothing for myself--in that case, I'm pretty much just interested in creating attractive, wearable pieces with little interest if they're representative or completely accurate. This may be a point of unique difference between reenactment and costuming, but that's a huge topic I don't have time to dig into here.

Suffice to say, reenactors are often interested in representing accurate clothing *norms*, not in re-creating *specific* costume pieces.

This gets into much stickier territory than simply finding an example of a singular time that something was done.  I want to review a wide range of sources to try to pin down what the norms and outliers were.  Simply finding one example of one item isn't good enough.  I want to know what's normal, not just what existed one time (or even a few times).  In fact, simply finding one *kind* of source isn't necessarily good enough.  I want to know how it was worn, and what it was called, and how common it was.

This means I usually want to find:

  1. Extant pieces, so that I understand construction.
  2. Images of women wearing the clothes, so that I understand how the piece should be worn.  For instance, a neck kerchief could theoretically be worn any number of ways.  How were women in the 18th century wearing theirs? What's the most common way for a woman of my station and age?  
  3. Textual examples in fashion plates (for high-end clothes) or runaway ads (for low-end clothes) so that I better understand terminology.  
  4. The numbers game--a combination of all of these so that I understand how common pieces of clothing were, what materials were commonly used, what colors were normal...you get the (very anal-retentive) picture. It gets tricky--what is most common in images may be less common in runaway ads.  Focusing on one only will yield an incomplete picture!

In fact, our common advice to "copy an extant" to create a correct period piece is in itself a little misleading--some extants are just plain weird.  First, they might be weird for the period--a piece that is just plain off-the wall and kooky and not at all representative of "normal."  An example that comes to mind here is the singular pastoral-figure-print toile gown that I've seen.  Yes, it counters the assertion that "they never made clothes out of pastoral-figure toile fabric, that was just for furnishings," but the singular example hardly makes it normal.  (I sometimes wonder if this was the original Scarlett O'Hara Curtain Dress....)

If you want to create a costume that simply could be from the period, neat.  This works. (Well, "works" might be an overstatement...when I say this example proves the rule, I mean I think that it's so flipping hideous that it shows us why no one else did it...) But if you want to represent a norm, you're no closer than you were before you found The Curtain Dress.

The question of "correct for my persona" doesn't end with oddball outliers.  A piece I find in a museum collection, portrait, or image might be from a culture that I'm not attempting to recreate--perhaps a folk costume or a court costume particular to a certain region.

The Sewing Workshop by Antoine Raspal

We luck out here--we know this artist, we know he lived and worked in Arles, France, and we can use some quick comparison and logic to determine that this is regional Arlesian costume.  But we're not always so lucky to have historical info like this for extant pieces.  Though museum professionals and book editors are usually on point, mistakes have been made in categorizing pieces.  Which gets even more complicated when you throw in that a piece could have been modified--is the trim on that 18th century gown original, or an addition for a 19th century costume ball?

Let's say for the point of argument, though, that the piece you're looking at is an unmodified, documented 18th century piece.  There is still that question of norms--you've proven that the item counters any "nevers" that might be thrown at it.  But it is a "usually?" Or a "rarely" that fits your persona well?

Coming back to the problem with "always" and "never," the mindset actually gets in the way of good historical research into clothing norms.  When we set the bar at "never," we invite people to find an outlier and use it to "prove" that what they are doing is correct to the period.  Unfortunately, "always" and "never" are much easier to enforce than "a wide range of possibilities that exist on a spectrum from rare to extremely common."  And given the extreme of research I'm suggesting above for determining norms, well...it's understandable if not everyone wants to invest that kind of time.  (Truly. We all like different things about living history--some of us love digging into research, and that's not a "better than" like.)  When we create clothing guidelines for organizations or events, we often have to set limits. (Here's a lovely, complete set of guidelines for a progressive Brit unit.) I've done it in my own unit--our guidelines include "please don't" for instances I know may be documentable--but I don't feel they're documentable *norms* for our purposes.  However, I make sure that this is transparent--I am not claiming that women never wore this garment, but that this garment does not accurately represent a norm for us.

So--always and never? Problematic on a few levels. Determining norms?  A much more complete historical picture, even if it's a pain in the rear.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Woman's Place

Gender and reenacting.

Well, that's done.

I recently read a trio of well-written pieces on this issue.  Discussing the upcoming Boston Massacre event, Our Girl History unpacked some of the problems of accurate portrayal of women (and lack of appropriate roles).  Kitty Calash posted a response, and pointed out our inherent bias in gravitating toward male-dominated historical events to begin with and the need for more focus on people in the margins.  Fife4Life posted an articulate response from a male perspective asking how we balance modern expectations with historical realities.

And still the questions remain....When recreating male-dominated events, should women be present at all? In strictly document-able numbers?  In what ways? Much of the history we work within is heavily male-oriented: battles, riots, signings of important documents.  What place does a woman have?

And when she doesn't have a place in the immediate vicinity of the event itself, should she be there at all?

The anal historical part of me aims toward the nitpicky.  Not right for the period, right out.  But the educator in me starts to ask some other questions, questions about the value of all the stuff that focusing on single events and momentous days leaves *out.* Let's be honest--the draw for a re-created military engagement is greater than the draw for Random Tuesday Afternoon in 1778 when it comes to events (which I am focusing on--not sites and museums, but specific recreated events).  We have limited opportunities to engage and educate, and part of me says "if people are going to show up to watch the Gun Show, then that's where we have to hit them with the other elements, as well."  We don't want to revise history, but what about editing it?

Because we're working with edited history, no matter what we do.

Hold on, don't get crabby.

First, we're working with edited timelines and edited spaces.  The spaces and timeframes available to us are seldom in precise alignment with the spaces and timelines historically.  For most events, we're compressing something that took much longer into a shorter timeframe--the battle lasted X hours, but the machinations of getting everyone there and the retreats and the mopping up and the skirmishes on the sidelines--we pick what to focus on, and that's editing.  The space--most events have camps and have fields of battle (and have restroom facilities over the hill and a parking lot for the tourists...).  These spaces are often compressed by necessity.  Two hundred years ago, there was nothing here, but the Gundersons five miles down the road didn't want anyone pitching a tent in their begonia patch and neither did the rest of their neighbors, so the camp is going to be a lot closer to the field than historically correct.  Even when we pick a precise moment in a precise place, like the Boston Massacre event.  Even if we time the elements of the event to correspond with the best research.  We won't be showing the treating of the wounded extending into the next week, will we? Or people venturing out to discuss with their neighbors the next morning?  Also editing.

Editing isn't a bad thing by nature--editing is just clipping and cropping for necessity's sake and for impact's sake.  I'm sure any bright reader would notice quickly that of course showing Timmy Smith succumbing to his infected wounds a week post-Monmouth isn't really in keeping with the concept of highlighting an "event" in history--even though Timmy's sad demise is certainly a part of the historical event known as The Battle of Monmouth.

Thing is, if we can acknowledge that we're editing regardless of our good intentions, we can acknowledge that what we choose to present to the public is often editing out women's contributions and stories.  (See, I brought it back to gender.)  No, there were no women on the field of battle (or, rather, very few), but there were women in military camps and in adjacent towns.  When we edit the scope to "The Battle of" we edit out women's stories that were happening simultaneously.  I tend to think that there is value in these stories.  So how to focus the lens to avoid editing them out--or revising history by introducing a cast of characters in roles they should play?

So often this comes back to tired arguments--should women be allowed to dress as men? What about women on the field in other ways? I'm not talking about those right now--they've been discussed quite a bit and suffice to say, I'm not trying to suggest here that inserting women into roles they didn't play is the sole solution to this editing issue.  (And even though I'm focusing on women here, you could probably come up with a laundry list of marginalized people who are usually edited out--civilians, especially the poor, plus enslaved men and women...this conversation might start around gender but it quickly balloons.)

Maybe that space and time constraint "problem" can come back to help us.  If we have to have the camp a quarter mile from the field anyway, then the women in those camps can certainly be telling their stories and we can embrace this element of engagement as a valid mode of education.  (Yes, I am accommodating mainstream reenacting preference for a "camp" camp and not focusing solely on a more progressive mode--but even if I were, space is still an element we deal with, right?)  Historically, there was a town over there with people trying to live their lives.  No, they didn't come to watch the battle...but neither did a crowd of modern spectators.  Can they be introduced into the space in a way that permits broadening the understanding of the event and the period?  I'm a huge fan of letting living historians in marginalized roles serve as tour guides and "answer people," thereby allowing them to share their own voices.  It shows the public that you don't need a musket to be a participant in history (while acknowledging that the public wants to see things go boom.  I get it--I like seeing things go boom sometimes, too).

And as for timelines, if we have to accelerate (or, more rarely, slow down) a single event for educational consumption (sorry, Timmy), we may create opportunities for precursor and reactionary events that happened earlier or later.  Perhaps I, as a lady of some quality, should quit the area before the riot breaks out.  That doesn't mean I can't be talking about it with spectators five minutes later down the road (even if I wouldn't be in that space and time historically--to be honest, neither would they).  Part of our work with the public is discussing and digesting, not just presenting.  There is room here for introducing elements that have traditionally been edited out.

Sometimes the time crunches and space constraints that seem at first glace to be obnoxious anachronisms are in fact opportunities.  As long as everyone is on the same page and clear with the public about changes made to accommodate a re-creation (which will *always* be made to some degree, however accurate we wish to be), we can broaden, in a sense, by accepting and working with the narrowing.  Even when it's imperfect, I do believe that the presence of women in many historical events is important for telling a story that *did* exist, even if it existed a mile or so over thataway.  We just have to be intelligent and honest about it, and consider how to do so respectfully.  

My view? Don't revise history, but work within the constraints to provide education and voices that would otherwise be edited out by space and time constraints.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Wintertime, and the Sewing is Easy: 1920s-1930s Tap Pants and Slip

Even though my "procrastination" project was a shift, the truth is, I've been procrastinating sewing a lot lately.  Which is sad--I enjoy sewing, from the process of choosing projects and fabrics to having a wearable finished garment.  So I decided to do some just-for-fun sewing--no event that demanded an outfit, no reenacting requirements or needs.

At the risk of overshare....I made undies.

Cute, 1920s/1930s tap pants and a slip (a step-in remains cut and ready to sew on my machine).

I used the Folkwear "Intimacies" patterns (purchased at Amazon Dry Goods)

This is the only picture of humans wearing the garments in this post, FYI.

I started with three yards of lovely blush pink charmeuse, and cut tap pants, a slip, and a step-in/teddy.  I started sewing with the tap pants.

Now, the tap pants are historically styled in the pattern and instructions with a side snap placket.  I made them up intending this, tried them on, and found the fit and feel...well, appropriately historical. Since I plan to use these for summertime jammies, I decided to remove the snap placket, open the side seams, and add in a knit panel so they're a little loungier.

So comfortable! If you want to make a similar adjustment, just leave both sides of the pants open to about halfway down the leg, and then cut a triangle of stretchy knit fabric and topstitch it in:

Then the slip!

The only fiddly bit on the pattern is that, like a lot of 1920s and 1930s pieces, if you've done others, there are lapped seams on the bust.  Not overly tricky, but definitely press your fabric, pin carefully, and sew slowly as these are very visible in the final piece.

Speaking of visible...since my hem and topstitching would be visible, I decided to make them pretty.  I used white cotton thread and picked a fancy vining stitch on my fancy computerized sewing machine (which I did not and would never have chosen for myself, but having this option was fun!)

A few more shots of the slip on my favorite model, Felicity the Dress Form:

I cheaped out and did machine overcast edges instead of French seams.

It felt really great to be sewing for fun again! And I have to say--both options are very comfortable and I can see myself wearing them often once spring warms things up around here (it's still flannel jammie season around here).  Looking forward to making the step-in...and to trying this in white cotton, too!