Category Archives: 1860s -1870s fashions

Cloth Bonnets for Sun or Indoors

A vintage sunbonnet, which shows signs of wear.

I know next to nothing about millinery. However, a recent conversation with Linda Rahner about sunbonnets reminded me that I photographed several from a collection that has since been sold. The same collection had Victorian cloth bonnets which may have been made to be worn alone indoors, or under a hat, and it seems logical that their construction would inspire the cloth bonnets used for sun protection. So here are a few sunbonnets and — perhaps — some of their antecedents.
[Tip: If you ever try to search for sunbonnets online, be sure to limit your search by adding “-sue -baby.” Otherwise, Sunbonnet Sue quilts will dominate your results…. ]

This American photo from the late twenties or early 1930’s shows a woman, on the left, wearing a sunbonnet; on the right, her daughter wears trousers.

It's the 1930s. The woman on far right is wearing trousers. Her mother, far left, wears a sunbonnet.

Trying to date vintage sunbonnets must be a nightmare, because sunbonnets are still being made and sold. The needs of re-enactors, docents at historic sites, and participants in local history days have resulted in many commercial patterns for sunbonnets.

I’m pretty sure this one is “the real thing,”  because it is almost worn out.

A threadbare sunbonnet in grayish brown cloth. Its brim is stiffened with padding and diagonal machine quilting and sticks out quite a way to shade the face.

A close up of the worn sunbonnet. Some white selvedge shows in the ruffle.

Back of the worn brownish sunbonnet. The neck cover is not very long. I have no idea about its date except that it’s machine stitched.

This checked gingham sunbonnet is in very good condition — which makes me wonder if it was really worn for working outdoors.

This sunbonnet is made from striking fabric, so perhaps a reader can identify when it was probably made. It does appear to have been worn more than once. It is stiffened with padding and parallel rows of stitches.

Even this blurred photo shows that it would give the back of your neck good protection.

The rickrack trim on this blue sunbonnet makes me think it may be from the 1930’s — but other opinions are welcome!

This crisp sunbonnet is made of blue chambray and trimmed with rickrack. Perhaps it was a gift — “too good to wear” for yardwork.

Little girls continued to wear variations on sunbonnets in the 1940s.

My friend’s collection also included some white bonnets, definitely vintage, which I am utterly unqualified to date. However, some have long back flaps (like sunbonnets;) some have been stiffened with parallel rows of cording or quilting; and the basic coif shape goes back a long, long way. If you recognize the period for any of these, feel free to share your knowledge:

The simplest white bonnet or house cap:

One piece of fabric forms the front; another is gathered into a back. The stripes are woven into the cloth. The seam between the front and back is piped.

The front has a single ruffle trimmed with lace framing the face.

A closer view of the lace and fabric. Is it machine lace?  The ruffle is actually pleated into place rather than gathered.

Here’s a close up of the fabric — badly mended in one spot:

The fabric looks like linen to me. A hole was badly mended.

There is a drawstring in the back casing (and a French seam.)

Like the front, the back is trimmed with a single ruffle.

A more complex cap or bonnet looks similar from the front:

The front of this bonnet or cap is very simple . . .

But from the side, it’s another story:

Parallel rows of cording stiffen this cap. It also has a long flap in back, pleated rather than gathered.

A closer view of the cording.

The cording appears to be hand stitched.

I just discovered that a similar bonnet was illustrated in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine in 1857.

Is a cap like that one the ancestor of those sunbonnets?

This one — perhaps a house cap? — is too elaborate for farm work:

Definitely meant to be seen, this bonnet has ruffles and cording everywhere — even running down its back.

The be-ruffled bonnet seen from the front. If it was intended to be starched, what a nightmare to iron!

This is the ruffled bonnet seen from the rear. It has a long neck flap, too.

For all I know, one or more of those is really a night-cap….

It’s not quite fair to judge this last masterpiece (and it is one!) without starch, but, since starch attracts insects, it was washed thoroughly before being put into storage. Try to imagine the hand-embroidered lace freshly ironed and standing crisply away from the face:

A front view. The ties are very long.

A closer look at the hand-embroidered cutwork lace.

The same hat viewed from above; in addition to the long ties that go under the chin, there are ties ending in a bow on top.

A close up of the quilting which stiffens the brim.

A very chic cap or bonnet in profile — I’ll go out on a limb and say “probably late 1830s.”

The voluminous crown suggests that it was made to be worn over a hairstyle like this one:

Fashion plate from La Mode, Sept. 1838. The Casey Collection.

Back view of a tulle bonnet trimmed with marabou, The Lady’s Magazine, Feb. 1837. Casey Collection.

An assortment of bonnets from World of Fashion, Nov. 1838. Casey Collection.

An earlier cloth bonnet or coif can be seen in The Bonnet Maker, Costumes d’ouvrieres parisiennes, by Galatine, 1824. (Zoom in to see the details of her embroidered bonnet, and the corded bonnets in her hand.)

I no longer own my Godey’s  or Harper’s fashion plate anthologies, so I present all these photos for the enjoyment of those who do. Happy hunting.

P.S. If you have never visited the Casey Collection of Fashion Plates, there’s a link in my “Sites with Great Information” sidebar.

 

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Mystery Dresses

This vintage dress has been altered and patched. It raises many questions.

The patches on this faded dress hint at a life of hardship. If I had photographed the back, dating it might be possible — but a poor woman might not have had access to current fashions. It’s a mystery to me.

Many collectors are interested in the beauty of vintage dresses. But the woman who collected these dresses saw them as windows into women’s lives. Sadly, neither dress had documentation, so we don’t know anything about the women who made them, wore them, patched them, and tried to make them last a few more months or years. I’m sharing them because such dresses rarely survive to be collected — they end in the rag bag, not a museum. I don’t have the expertise even to date them securely (and how I wish I had had time to take more pictures!) Comments and conjectures about them are very welcome.

A mystery dress circa 1930?

Back of red dotted dress with a puzzling insert at the waist.

Here’s the front again:

Is this a late twenties dress, lengthened as much as possible for the 1930s? Or is it a thirties dress, lengthened and altered for a new wearer?

It is very long, suggesting early 1930s. There’s no fading to mark a previously shorter hem line, but this hem is as skimpy as possible. Was it a hand-me-down from a shorter woman?

A tiny rolled hem.

This dress was home-made, and not by a very accomplished seamstress. Here’s the sheer collar:

The rolled hem on this collar is machine stitched, but quite uneven.

Maintaining even tension around the curve of a soft, sheer material isn’t easy.

Someone who worked on this dress didn’t cut perfectly on grain, so the skirt sags towards its right side. You can see that the vertical pattern of dots on the front of the dress lined up originally. Was there always a waist seam? It doesn’t look like it.

The slightest sag at the waist seam (the dots don’t line up evenly) affects the hang of the skirt. Did this happen originally, or when the wide piece was inserted? Was the front of this dress one piece from shoulder to hem before it was altered?

The pattern of dots isn’t straight because the skirt is off grain at the waist.

There are seams in the back of the dress:

Vertical back seams suggest that the dress always had a waist seam in back — or do they? I’m asking….

Again, this pattern matching is not the work of an experienced dressmaker. On the other hand, I once bought cheap  printed flannel plaid for a nightgown and discovered that it was printed off grain, so it was possible to make perfectly matched seams on one side but not on the other. Maybe it was hard to fold this material for cutting and make the dots line up.

Aside from the question of why this dress has a wide band inserted at the waist, it’s clear that the person doing the alterations had barely enough material for the band — not enough to match the dots and line them up inconspicuously. In fact, the stripes on the dress run vertically and those on the band run horizontally. It’s made from scraps.

Scraps were also needed for alterations to the armholes. Either they tore while the dress was being worn, or they had to be enlarged for a different wearer:

On each side, the armhole was made larger and a patch was placed underneath. The repairs to the sheer ruffle are not symmetrical. Did one side tear?

Presumably there wasn’t enough fabric to match the pattern — or the person making the alternations wasn’t skilled enough to try (these are very large patches, secured with another line of large hand stitches.

I’m not belittling the people who made and altered this dress. I’m suggesting that they did not have the luxury of perfectionism. They had to make do with what they had, and I think that whoever owned this dress, new or second-hand, had to wear it and hold her head high. Poverty limits choices.

Another mystery dress, probably 19th century (?)

The front of a long dress with fitted bodice and many patches.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this dress is that the patches accumulated over time. It appears to be patched with scraps of the original fabric, but the dress, the large patch, and the smaller patch are not faded equally. The fabric is lightweight, so the cream colored bodice lining contributes to the impression of fading there, but not on the sleeves.

How I wish I had had a mannequin available, and the time to photograph the back and the interior structure. The back seams would tell us something about the date when it was made. The waist seems to be cartridge pleated, but, again, I have no photo of the construction. The shoulders don’t look dropped, but it’s hard to tell on a big, padded coat hanger!

The neckline is crudely done, using fabric that matches the band on the skirt.

The hem is very worn, and the fabric at the shoulders is faded and worn through in one place.

It is possible to see two bust darts on the left side of the bodice (on its right, they are hidden by a patch.)

You can see characteristic Victorian bust darts which are not covered by the dark patch.

But the dress is a mystery as to date, especially because, if it was made and worn by a rural woman, she could have been using a much older dress as her only guide. Machine stitched or hand stitched? Or both? I don’t know.

Someone may recognize the fabric, or be able to date the dress from old photographs — for me, it’s a nagging mystery — and I wish I knew about the woman who wore it. To me, the dress says that she was strong and brave while enduring years of hardship.

 

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Fashion Plates (for Men and Women) from the Met Costume Institute

1921 fashion plate from the Metropolitan Museum collection. Click here to see it in larger versions.

1921 fashion plate from the Metropolitan Museum collection. Click here to see it in larger versions.

The Metropolitan Museum continues its generous policy of sharing images online; “Fashion plates from the collections of the Costume Institute and the Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art” are now available (and searchable) at http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15324coll12

Click here, and scroll down for a lengthy list of sub-collections of fashion plates: menswear, children, wedding, women, headgear, etc., organized by date or range of dates.

What really excited me is the large number of men’s fashion plates, many dated very precisely, like these tennis outfits from 1905-06.

Men's tennis outfits, 1905 1906; Metropolitan Museum Fashion Plates collection. Plate 029.

Men’s tennis outfits, 1905-1906; Metropolitan Museum Fashion Plates Collection. Plate 029. For full image, click here.

If you need to skim through a year or a decade of men’s fashion, this is a great place! It’s also going to be very helpful to collectors who are trying to date specific items of men’s clothing. Sometimes the date range given is very narrow (e.g., 1905-06) and sometimes it’s rather broad (e.g., 1896 to 1913) but menswear is neglected by many costume collections, so this is a terrific resource.

Vintage vests for men. Undated. Details like the lapels, the shape of the waist, the depth of the opening, the buttons, etc., will help to date them from reference materials

Vintage evening vests for men. Undated. Details like the lapels, the shape of the waist, the depth of the opening, the buttons, etc., will help the collector to date them from reference materials.

In addition to full outfits, like these evening clothes …

Evening dress for men, 1909-1910. Met Museum Costume Plate.

Evening dress for men, 1909-1910. Met Museum Costume Plate.

… individual items like vests can also be found:

Men's vests; fashion plate from the Met Museum fashion plate collection category "1900-1919 men"

Men’s vests; fashion plate from the Met Museum fashion plate collection category “1900-1919 men.” The vests on the left have five buttons.

Undated vintage vests. Both have high necklines, but one has seven buttons instead of six.

Undated vintage vests. Both have high necklines, but one has seven buttons and one has six. You could probably date them from the Met’s Fashion Plate Collection.

Men's vests 1896 to 1899. The red one reminds us that vests (aka weskits) sometimes had sleeves.

From “Men 1896 to 1899.” The red one reminds us that vests (aka weskits) sometimes had sleeves. The red one with vertical stripes may be a footman’s or other servant’s vest. This plate is dated February 1898.

Of course, fashion plates that have been separated from their descriptions in text are less useful than a complete magazine or catalog. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the chance to see these rare collections, especially because the men are not forgotten.

This delightful plate reminds me of an Edward Gorey vamp — like the ones dancing through the credits on Mystery on Public Television.

A long evening gown from the House of Worth, 1921. Met Museum Costume Collection Fashion Plate.

A long evening gown from the House of Worth, 1921. Met Museum Costume Institute Fashion Plate.

I’ll add a link to the collection to my “Sites with Great Information” sidebar. (There are other treasures to explore there….)

 

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Beauty Spots, Court Plasters, and Patches

A package of gummed black beauty spots, from Johnson and Johnson, circa 1915-1927.

A package of gummed black beauty spots, from Johnson and Johnson, between 1912 and 1927.

When I inherited my Aunt’s house, I found this little envelope, about three inches wide. It originally contained “100 Assorted Beauty Spots manufactured by Johnson and Johnson.”
There are quite are few left in the envelope.

Gummed beauty spots in the shape of circles, stars, crescent moons, triangles, etc.

Gummed beauty spots in the shape of circles, stars, crescent moons, squares,  triangles, etc.

According to the very helpful Kilmer House website, Johnson and Johnson first made this item in 1912, and continued to sell Beauty Spots until 1927. You can read a very good article from Kilmer House about court plasters, beauty spots, and their relationship to Band-Aids (TM) by clicking here.

Butterick pattern 4298 for a "Martha Washington" costume. February, 1924.

Butterick pattern 4298 for a “Martha Washington” costume. Delineator, February, 1924.

When I was writing about this vintage masquerade costume pattern a few days ago, I noticed that “Martha Washington” had beauty spots on her face, and remembered the little package that belonged to my Aunt Dot. (no pun intended.)

Pattern for an 18th century costume, from 1924. Accessories: a white wig, a small mask, and beauty spots.

Pattern for an 18th century costume, from 1924. Accessories: a white wig, a small mask, and beauty spots.

The satirists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, writing in their magazine, The Spectator in 1711, produced a much quoted satire on ladies wearing beauty spots (then called “patches.”) You can read it by clicking here. (It’s followed by a satire on the size of petticoats in 1709.)

The young man has a patch on his neck; the woman is wearing at least two patches. Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode, Plate III. From Engravings by Hogarth, Sean Shesgreen, Ed.

The young man has a patch on his neck; the woman is wearing at least two patches. Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode, Plate III, 1745. From Engravings by Hogarth, Sean Shesgreen, Ed.

These little black patches (called “mouches” in France) could be stuck to the face to draw attention to an attractive feature (like the natural mole near Cindy Crawford’s lips.) A small black star near the eye might give importance to that feature, while  distracting us from a missing tooth, or a pimple on the nose. In fact, Steele mentions a lady who used a patch to cover a pimple, which made people misjudge her political affiliation. (He says patches on the right or on the left cheek proclaimed a lady’s politics in 1711.)

There is a wonderful gallery of 17th and 18th century images featuring beauty marks and patches at Poor Little Rich Girl by Boudoir Queen. Click here to enjoy them.

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette, Costumed by Adrian in 1938. From Creating the Illusion, by Jorgenson and Scoggins,, p. 144.

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette, Costumed by Adrian in 1938. From Creating the Illusion, by Jorgenson and Scoggins, p. 144.

Here is 1930’s star Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette wearing beauty patches. Her costumes, by Adrian, were many yards over the top (and the movie was in black and white!)

Here is an Italian diagram for the placement of beauty spots.

Marilyn Monroe sometimes accented her mole, or beauty mark.

This Pictorial Review cover from 1927 shows a woman in an 18th century white wig and a beauty spot.

Men wore beauty patches, too.  According to The Encyclopedia of Fashion,

“Beginning in the late sixteenth century, fashionable men and women imitated this natural mark by sticking black beauty patches on their faces. These patches were eventually used to send signals to members of the opposite sex in flirtatious courtship rituals, but they had a practical use as well. Carefully shaped black patches could be applied to hide blemishes and scars on the face, especially the deep round scars left on those who survived the frequent outbreaks of smallpox.” Read more here.

The historical film spectacle Orphans of the Storm (the storm was the French Revolution) opened in 1921. Rudolf Valentino’s movie Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) may also have prompted some people to wear 18th century masquerade costumes in the twenties. In this poster,  both Valentino and his female co-star wear “patches.” Here is another view.

There  was even a language of patches, just as there was a language of fans and a language of flowers. With three patches you could day “I am married” but “I entertain propositions” and “I know how to keep a secret, ” among other things.

In novels of the early twentieth century, a small cut may be treated with a self-adhesive “court plaster,” which you cut to size as needed. Practical big sisters often carried court plasters in their pockets.  Kilmer House — the history division of Johnson and Johnson —  explains the name:

“Johnson & Johnson made Beauty Spots out of materials left over from making plasters.  Since 1887, Johnson & Johnson had been making Court Plasters, which had the same origins but were the more practical cousin to Beauty Spots.  To confuse matters, Beauty Spots were sometimes referred to as Court Plasters, a name that goes back to their origins in the royal courts of Europe.  They had been used by court women, who set the fashions in their day.  According to Fred Kilmer, Court Plasters started out as fashion statements, before being used by the masses to cover small cuts and scratches. “

Into the Gloss wrote a nice summary of attitudes toward moles and beauty marks over the years.

My Aunt Dot, sitting on a roof as a teenager in 1919. She like costume parties. I wonder when she bought that package of beauty spots.

My Aunt Dot, sitting on a roof as a teenager in 1919. She liked costume parties. I wonder when she bought that package of beauty spots, and how she used them.

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Victorian Era Maternity Clothing

A friend collected these vintage garments many years ago. She always had an interest in maternity fashions and other women’s issues, like active sports’ wear. I regret that I do not have better photos, but I suspect that these garments are not the kind that usually turn up in museums, so I’ll share what I have.

The one that I find most interesting is, sadly, the one with the worst photos.

Changeable taffeta basque bodice with fitted back and unfitted front, pagoda sleeves, Mid-Victorian. Private collection.

Changeable taffeta basque bodice with fitted back and unfitted front, pagoda sleeves, Mid-Victorian. Private collection. It this a maternity basque?

The changeable taffeta has tiny stripes, and photographs as brownish or bluish, depending on the angle.

For comparison, here is another Mid-Victorian basque from the same collection, also made of striped taffeta — but this one is definitely not suitable for maternity wear:

Mid-Victorian basque or bodice. The front closes in a V shape; the three-scalloped back is visible behind the V front as it lies on a table. Private collection.

Mid-Victorian basque or bodice. The front waist closes in a V shape decorated with ribbon; the three-scalloped back “tail” lined with self-fabric is visible behind the V front as it lies on a table. Private collection.

My friend believed the one with a very full front was a maternity basque, probably because there are two lines of hand stitching across its full front — once used to gather it in. You can see from the wrinkles in the taffeta that at one time it was gathered to a smaller size than it is now.

The "Maternity basque" has two lines of gathering threads, and the wrinkles show that it was gathered tightly at some point.

The “Maternity basque” has two lines of gathering threads across the front, and the wrinkles show that it was gathered tightly at some time.

Inside waist stitching of "maternity basque" -- it went through all layers. Here, the changeable taffeta on the outside appears blue.

Inside waist stitching of “maternity basque” — two lines of gathering went through all layers. Here, the changeable taffeta on the outside appears blue. The inside is cotton sateen, I think.

The hand-stitching it so tiny that only the occasional knot at the end of a thread betrays it.

The hand-stitching is so tiny that only the occasional knot at the end of a thread betrays it. This is quite different from the running-stitched gathers across the front.

The back lining, showing its tapered-to-the-waist fitted shape.

The back lining, showing its tapered-to-the-waist fitted shape.

Wrappers and Dressing Sacks, Late Victorian

Another option for the pregnant woman in a corseted, tight-waisted era was the wrapper. We would call it a robe, and the fancy versions for receiving callers were called “tea-gowns,” but they were made of many fabrics, from simple cotton prints to wool or luxurious silks. The cotton ones were often worn as house-dresses.

My friend probably bought this one because it might have been used by a pregnant woman. It is in the style of the 1890’s, with a black velvet yoke trimmed with black lace, a bow behind the high neck, and very full upper sleeves.

A lady's wrapper or house gown, late 1900's. This could be worn for breakfast, or for receiving visitors if necessary.

A lady’s wrapper or house gown, late 1800’s. This could be worn for breakfast, or for receiving visitors if necessary. It was so small it could not be buttoned on a size 2 mannequin.

I think the fabric is either wool challis or a wool-cotton blend. The back bodice is very fitted, the front very full.  Was it a maternity gown? I can’t be sure.

This is the way the garment would look on a tiny woman.

This is the way the garment would look when buttoned; it would only fit a tiny woman or adolescent girl.

Like many wrappers, it has a loose outer layer and a fitted inner bodice:

Under the loose, full front, there is a tightly fitted inner bodice.

Under the loose, full front, there is a tightly fitted inner bodice. The outer layer closes with hooks and eyes. The inner bodice held the back close to the body.

Wrappers from Sears (1900) were illustrated to show a similar inner lining — intended to take the place of a corset when breakfasting — or when you couldn’t wear a tight-waisted corset any more.

Wrappers from the Sears catalog, Spring 1900, show an inner bodice lining for support while not wearing a corset.

Wrappers from the Sears catalog, Spring 1900, show an inner bodice lining for support while not wearing a corset. Without the belt, the front would be loose and full.

The inner bodice seems to have adjustable lacing at the sides.

The inner bodice has lacing at the sides, for expansion as needed.

The inner bodice has lacing at the sides, for expansion as needed. The yoke probably fastens with hooks and eyes at one shoulder and armscye.

Of course, just because the hidden underbodice can be buttoned, that does not mean the wearer would have to button it completely. A woman could button just the outer yoke, or just the top buttons.

The tiny wrapper on a size 2 mannequin -- it won't close completely.

The tiny wrapper on a size 2 mannequin — it won’t close completely. When the yoke is closed, there is a great deal of fullness at center front.

A flannelette wrapper from Sears, 1896. This one has a Watteau back, a yoke, and characteristically huge 1895-6 sleeves.

A flannelette wrapper from Sears, 1896. This one has a full, Watteau back, a yoke, and huge Bishop sleeves. The waist [bodice] “is lined artistically.” The front yoke appears uninterrupted by an opening, so perhaps it lapped across and fastened at the shoulder like the one below.

This vintage wrapper is so worn that the velveteen yoke and collar are almost completely bald.

Late Victorian or ToC Wrapper, very worn.

Late Victorian Wrapper, very worn.

The fabric is heavy, and once went well with its rust red velveteen yoke, collar, and cuffs. This garment closes with hooks and eyes; possibly at the neck and shoulder under the yoke, and definitely under the back yoke. (I’m sorry I didn’t photograph it open; I have forgotten exactly how it worked.)

The yoke and collar wrap around to the back shoulder and close with hooks and eyes -- you would probably need help.

The yoke and collar wrap around to the back shoulder on one side and close with hooks and eyes — you would probably need help. The arrows point to bare patches on the fabric. There’s a narrow strip of rust-red plush neat the center arrow.

I love the fact that this shabby garment was collected, not for its beauty or condition, but because it is a record of an ordinary woman’s life.

Another possible maternity garment, in the days when middle-class women in an advanced stage of pregnancy remained at home, was the smock-like semi-robe known as a “dressing sack.” A descendant of the combing sacque, which was supposed to be worn while brushing or styling your hair, the one on the left is described as “made very loose at the waist. It is very comfortable and cooling.”

Two dressing sacks from Sears, Spring, 1900. The woman in the middle is showing the tight underbodice of her wrapper.

Two dressing sacks from Sears, Spring, 1900. The woman in the middle is showing the tight underbodice of her wrapper. “This wrapper is made with the celebrated corset waist [i.e., underbodice] as well as drawstrings around the waist. It s adjustable and can be fitted to any figure.” You can barely see the adjustable lacings.

Since, even in the 1930’s, maternity dresses were illustrated as if the women wearing them had no need for them, there is a lot of coded language in early descriptions. Perhaps the “celebrated corset waist” was merely a comfortable way to have breakfast before dressing for the day. But what about those expandable lacings, and that adjustable drawstring waist?

A wrapper style housedress with an internal corset and adjustable drawstring waist. Sears no. 63397, Spring 1900.

A wrapper style house dress with an internal corset and adjustable drawstring waist on the skirt lining. Sears No. 63397, Spring 1900.

 

 

 

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Watching But Not Enjoying: Downton Abbey & Mercy Street

I’m still watching one of these shows because of the costumes; I stopped watching the other because of the costumes. Prepare for nits to be picked.

Dinner party, Jan. 1924 Delneator.

Informal dinner party, Jan. 1924, Delineator. We know it’s informal, because the men are wearing tuxedos — aka “black tie.”

I’ve mentioned before that I watch Downton Abbey more from a sense of duty than with enthusiasm. There are many fine actors, and some beautiful clothes. But the more recent scripts make me empathize with the TV critic who said he’d watch the final season only to be sure they nailed the coffin shut.

Illustration by Dynevor Rhys, Feb. 1932. Delineator. Dinner.

Illustration by Dynevor Rhys, Feb. 1932. Delineator. Dining in emeralds.

I even watched a “making of” program in which the actors mentioned the instruction they get about period manners, posture, etc. — including the instruction that ladies wore opera-length gloves while eating dinner. I found that hard to swallow.

Dinner party, Woman's Home Companion, Nov. 1936.

Formal dinner party, Woman’s Home Companion, Nov. 1936. White tie on male guests, black vest on the butler.

Imagine my delight when I read “Miss Manners” in the SF Chronicle on Monday, January 25! (The article first appeared in the Washington Post in 2013.)
After explaining the proper use of British titles as applied to Diana, Princess of Wales (incorrectly called “Princess Diana,”) Miss Manners went on to explain that the daughters of the Earl of Grantham, on Downton Abbey, are given the courtesy title of “Lady,” but they are commoners and “could, if the series lasts long enough, stand for election to the House of Commons.”  Miss Manners added:

“No, that is not a spoiler. Miss Manners has no idea what is happening to these characters. She tuned out when she saw them wearing their gloves to dinner in their own house.”

Hostess with maids, Dec. 1937, Woman's Home Companion.

Hostess with maids, Dec. 1937, Woman’s Home Companion. The dinner is formal; the hostess is in evening dress and the young man is wearing white tie and tails.

If you don’t read Miss Manners, author of many delightful etiquette  books, I should explain that she won my heart decades ago, when a reader inquired, “What do you say when introduced to a gay couple?” Miss Manners replied that [as with all introductions] you say “How do you do?”

There’s a long interview with Miss Manners (the pen name of Judith Martin) at Smithsonian.com. It’s worth putting up with all the ads to see her response to claims of rudeness in Washington, D.C.

“I was born in Washington, and I’m not rude. You’re talking about people that you sent here. You’re talking about people you voted for and you sent to Washington. So if you have complaints, and when people do, they often say to me, well what can we do about it? I said the answer there is something called an election. That’s something you can do about it.”

Why Mercy Street Is Not My Cup of Costume Tea

Young ladies in a fashion plate from the Casey Collection, dated 1862.

Young women in a fashion plate from the Casey Collection, dated 1862. Frilly or simple, the clothes are supposed to fit like this. (Costumers often insert a gusset under the arms so a modern actor can do whatever the director asks….)

I stopped watching mid-way through episode two of Mercy Street. There was only one character I cared about, and the writing seemed almost as formulaic as Downton Abbey’s. But I might have stuck with it, if the women’s costumes fit better. I found them really distracting. [Notes in brackets like this mean I’m trying to be more reasonable….]

Mercy Street women's costumes, from an article in Alexandria Times.

Mercy Street women’s costumes, from an article in Alexandria Times.

I seriously wondered if the actress playing the nurse from the north (left, above) was a last-minute cast replacement, because some of her clothes were so obviously too big for her. (The solid grayish bodice she wears about 1 minute into this clip distracted me every time it came on screen.) Her real vintage jacket was baggy in back, too. I searched a bit online, and found the costume designer saying that her best source of research was a book of Civil War era photographs that had been colorized. Colorized? Ahem: why turn a primary source  into a secondary source? [Thinking that over, I realize it may have been the photo collection itself — which one could try to imagine without the color — that was the attraction. I hope.]

I also found an interview with a woman who had been hired to make a corset for the series — the original plan was for a spoon-busk corset, so it’s a good thing she noticed that an 1870’s corset would not be quite “the thing” for the early 1860’s.

Considering the really good, carefully researched corset patterns — and built corsets — that have been available for a very long time and are now easy to find online, what were the TV people thinking?

An elegant young woman in a dress that is very tight over the corset.

An elegant young woman in a dress that is very tight over the corset and bust. The shoulders and neckline fit perfectly. (Sorry: I can’t find the link to this photo marked Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.)

I am not a Civil War era historian or specialist, but I’ve seen enough period photographs (like Joan Severa’s books ) and real dresses to know that they were more often too tight than too loose.   This woman’s dress fits. Most of her bodice wrinkles are at the armscye. True, many poorer people were forced to wear second-hand clothing, which would excuse a poor fit, as would going without a corset [or food] or wearing the wrong corset, but the Mercy Street characters whose dresses wrinkled in the wrong places were middle class. (Unless, of course, that widowed baroness has a very interesting backstory of poverty which will be slowly revealed….)

I do like the suggestion of a soldier’s hashmarks on this authoritative woman’s dress [good design choice!], but the dress doesn’t quite fit the actress. [Perhaps it means the character has lost weight, which would be reasonable. I am trying to be sympathetic.]

Too loose in back (the dress), too low in front (the corseted bust, not the dress. Mercy Street. Photo fron Alexandria Times

The dress is too loose in back; the bust is too low in front. A British nurse on Mercy Street. Photo from Alexandria Times.

Here’s the thing about bust darts: in general, they are not supposed to continue up over the point of the bust. (Princess seams excepted.) These costumes look poorly fitted to me. Click here to get an enlarged view. I admit that some dresses on mannequins at the Metropolitan Museum do seem to have very long, over the bust, darts. Click here.

[EDIT added 2/2/16: I admit I was working from memory, because I long ago de-accessioned my copies of Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold, et al. I have seen more photos of 1860’s bodices with very long bust darts this week –but the bodices still fit smoothly over the bust.]

1863 dress in collection of Metropolitan Museum.

1863 dress in collection of Metropolitan Museum. It appears that some of the trim has been lost.

It may have something to do with the mannequin’s bust not bulging high above a corset as a woman’s bust often does. The shoulders and neck of this particular mannequin are not the same as those of the original wearer, either. Some wrinkles would have been hidden by her detachable lace collar, now lost.

As a costumer, I really do know what it’s like to struggle with an inadequate budget, and time constraints. I, too, have been forced to use a stiff, poly-blend modern fabric because we couldn’t afford real handkerchief linen or cotton lawn or pure wool or silk. But good cutting and some adjustment of your design can minimize the disaster. I’m thinking of the way-too-puffy yoke on this cream-colored costume. [OK, I do acknowledge the “Good? Fast? Cheap?” problem we always have.]

I realize I’m being hyper-critical; was I constantly thinking about how to make the dresses fit better because the script didn’t hold my interest? Or did I really get so distracted by the fit of costumes on important characters that I couldn’t “lose myself” in the show? Maybe someone who has extensively researched the 1860’s, and built more civil war era dresses than I have, can change my mind. I do love links to research. [This “whine train” has pulled into the station and I’m stepping off. Will go back to watching the 1971 Elizabeth I TV series starring Glenda Jackson to refresh my palate. ]

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Filed under 1860s -1870s fashions, Corsets, Costumes for the 19th century, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Uniforms and Work Clothes

CLOSED My January Celebration and Giveaway CLOSED

RESOLUTION: Husband: "Joan's just rung up -- wants us to dine there on Thursday." Wife: "Tell her I'm not eating anything this year."

RESOLUTION (from January, 1931): Husband: “Joan’s just rung up — wants us to dine there on Thursday.”
Wife: “Tell her I’m not eating anything this year.”

I’m celebrating two years as witness2fashion, and reaching over 200 subscribers. Thank you all for comments, expertise, and encouragement, and for sharing my peculiar obsession with what people wore!

I happen to have found an extra copy of one of my favorite books: The Way to Wear’em: 150 Years of Punch on Fashion, which is Christina Walkley’s wonderful history of 19th and 20th century costume as shown in English cartoons.

Title page of The Way to Wear'em, by Christina Walkley.

Title page of The Way to Wear’em, by Christina Walkley.

I keep recommending this book, not just because the cartoons are enjoyable, but because Walkley’s explanations and her many quotations from period sources are really informative.

A sample of text from Walkley's The Way to Wear'em. She gives background for the cartoons by drawing on many sources.

A sample of text from Walkley’s The Way to Wear’em. She gives background for the cartoons by drawing on many sources.

Every cartoon is dated, with month and year. Walkley includes exerpts from diaries and memoirs, and background information to explain the cartoons, when necessary.

Scholarship plus jokes! What could be better? (If only I didn’t need a magnifying glass to read some of the cartoon captions….)

Chapters include:
“Domestic Bliss,” which takes a humorous look at “the servant problem” and social class:

From the chapter on Domestic Bliss. The mistress does not want the maid wearing hoops while cleaning, since they lead to breakage. The maid says she would be ashamed to let the chimney sweep see her without them.

From the chapter on Domestic Bliss. The mistress does not want the maid wearing hoops while cleaning, since they lead to breakage. The maid says she would be ashamed to let the chimney sweep see her without them.

“The Venus of Milo,” chapter is about changing ideas of the “perfect figure.”
“Poetry in Motion,” has examples of highly impractical fashions (men’s wear included:)

Men's fashions in 1925: the trousers called "Oxford bags."

Men’s fashions in 1925: the super-wide trousers called “Oxford bags.”

“New Bits to Show,” is about changing erogenous zones:

1934: Mummy.... However do you manage to think of new bits to show?"

1934: Mummy…. However do you manage to think of new bits to show?”

“The Way to Wear’Em” chapter is about the reaction to women wearing traditionally male clothing; the book’s title comes from this 1899 cartoon:

Fair Cyclist: "Is this the way to Wareham, please?" Native: "Yes miss, yew seem to me to ha' got 'em on all right."

Fair Cyclist: “Is this the way to Wareham, please?” Native: “Yes miss, yew seem to me to ha’ got ’em on all right.”

“Trinity or Girton?” expands on perceptions of “masculine” and “feminine” clothing. These young ladies have adopted the Ulster coat, and are “mistaken” for men (1877); exchanging the large shawls of the 1860’s for a practical coat that keeps them warm and dry was seen as unwomanly.

In a cathedral,1877: "Don't you think those youths had better be told to take their hats off?"

In a cathedral, 1877: “Don’t you think those youths had better be told to take their hats off?”

“Seaside Costumes” [Speaking of the earliest two-piece bathing suits, this cartoon is from 1934:]

1934: "I'm sure your mother would be shocked if she saw you in that bathing costume." "I'm sure she would -- it's hers."

1934: “I’m sure your mother would be shocked if she saw you in that bathing costume.”
“I’m sure she would — it’s hers.”

“Protest Clothes” covers unconventional fashions into the late 20th century. These two extremes are from 1878:

"Aesthetic Young Geniuses" and "Gorgeous Young Swells" in 1878.

“Aesthetic Young Geniuses” and “Gorgeous Young Swells” in 1878.

Giveaway rules:  CLOSED If you would like a chance to own this book — a used but otherwise good copy — please add a comment to this post, including the words “Fashion Cartoons.” One entry per person, please.
I’ll pick a name from a hat and contact the winner. Contest closed at 9 p.m. PST, Friday, January 8th, 2016.

Happy New Year to all! (And yes, I do identify with the lady at the top of this post!)

NOTE:  Please do not copy any of these images; I have used them only to show why every clothing historian ought to have a copy of The Way to Wear’Em, by Christina Walkley.

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Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bathing Suits, Corsets, Costumes for the 19th century, Late Victorian fashions, Menswear, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Sportswear, Swimsuits, Uniforms and Work Clothes