Category Archives: Exhibitions & Museums

Remembering Costume Designer Willa Kim

Years ago, I was lucky to be a “fly on the wall” when Willa Kim was in town, designing dance costumes. I didn’t deal with her directly, but I watched her interacting with the costume shop, and I heard stories….

Willa Kim was so completely focused on her work that her age (80-ish) seemed irrelevant — except when you remembered that she won her first Tony award for Costume Design when she was in her sixties and her second, for Will Rogers Follies, in 1991 — ten years later. She was completely professional, she was funny, she loved dance and theatre and the people who worked there, and she really knew her stuff. (I heard that, when a lighting designer tried putting intense red light on dance costumes that were white, red and green, the metaphorical fur flew. Red light makes green appear black, and white appear red, which would have destroyed her designs; although petite, Willa could be very assertive when necessary!)

In fact, although I knew how famous she was, and had looked her up in Pecktal’s Costume Design: Techniques of Modern Masters, I learned a lot from reading her obituaries, because Willa Kim lived in the present — being much more interested in her current projects than in past glories. In 2003, Willa did a half-hour interview for the Women in Theater Project — in which she explains how she came to be the first costumer to make dance costumes out of Lycra stretch fabric, among other things. Click here to watch the interview, via Playbill magazine online. (And watch her reaction when asked about lighting design….)

Click here for her full obituary, as printed in The Seattle Times. She said her costume designs for the opera Turandot, at Santa Fe Opera (2005,) were the most interesting of her career. You can see a slide show of those, plus her deliciously witty design sketches for other projects, by clicking here, where there is a slide show from a curated exhibit honoring her work.

The book Designs of Willa Kim is available through Amazon.

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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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More Costume Research Online Resources

You can either read, preview, buy or download over 1500 publications, including museum catalogs, from the Metropolitan Museum! Many can be read for free.

Metropolitan Museum Publication: Haute Couture

Metropolitan Museum Publication: Haute Couture. Read it online.

Seriously! Click here for a preview. (Thank you, Eva at Dressful.com.)

Click here to go to the Met’s Publications website. (1556 results from all departments.) And “Thank You!” to the Met and all the other museums which are generously photographing and digitizing their collections.

American Ingenuity Sportswear online from Metropolitan Publications

American Ingenuity: Sportswear can be read online from Metropolitan Publications.

You can narrow your search at the Met Publications site; for instance, I got 55 results when I limited my search to The Costume Institute (click here), and 47 when I asked for Exhibition Catalogs and The Costume Institute. (Click here.) 25 of those catalogs can be read online.

Christian Dior exhibition catalog, available from MetPublications.

Christian Dior exhibition catalog, can be read online at MetPublications.

You may also want to limit your search by Format:  books that can be read online, or those that can be downloaded, or those that can be printed in pdf format. Some have to be purchased, but often you can read a generous preview.

Chanel, from Metropolitan Museum Publications, is still for sale.

Chanel, from Metropolitan Museum Publications. The Met will give you a link to libraries that have a copy.

When I hear about a great resource, I usually add it to the sidebar on the right under Sites With Great Information. (Scroll down till you see it.) If you hover over the name of a site, you’ll get a description of what you’ll find there. Then, click and go.

Thanks also to Cass from the Costumers’ Alliance for passing on this information. (Check out their links!) You can also find the Costumers’ Alliance on Facebook. That site led me to . . .

Plains Cree shirt, 1876, at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Plains Cree shirt, 1876, at the Royal Ontario Museum.

. . . An extensive listing of museum costume collections that have been digitized, from all over the world! The site is Demode: [with an accent aigu on each ‘e’] Historical Costume Projects and Research Resources, Specializing in the 18th Century. Thank you, Demode, for sharing all this work!

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Filed under 1700s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 17th Century, Exhibitions & Museums, Musings, Resources for Costumers

Museum Online: The Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg

Found via Two Nerdy History Girls:  The Online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg.

18th c. dress in the Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy.

18th c. dress #1975-340 in the Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy.

Williamsburg, Virginia, may be strongly associated with the American colonial era, but the museum has clothing from the 1600’s through the Victorian Era. Now, a sizeable portion of its collections has been photographed and put online.

The Online Collection gives us a chance to sample the Museum’s holdings without buying a plane ticket. The online collection is searchable: Click here:  http://emuseum.history.org/  You’ll find clothing and accessories, including shoes, fans, and children’s clothes; paintings, ceramics, silver and pewter; there are also quilts, furniture, “household necessaries,” etc.  — quite a treasure trove.

The online Costume Collection contains photos of 385 items — with excellent enlargements and alternate views in the Costume Collection, and the Costume Accessories Collection online shows 444 items: hats, shoes, gloves, buttons…. When you visit the site, you can enlarge the images to see details more clearly.

This man’s three piece suit from the colonial period has a vest with attached linen sleeves:

Man's suit, 18th c. from the Costume collection at Colonial Williamsburg, online. Please do not copy.

Man’s suit, 18th c. from the online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Search for # 1994-1862. Please do not copy. The breeches lace up the back, so their size is adjustable.

This child’s plaid Victorian dress can be seen more closely; search for # 1997-158.

Child's plaid Victorian dress, #1997-158 at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

Child’s plaid Victorian dress, #1997-158 at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

The Museum also has stays (a corset) for a child, circa 1740-1760. Search for #1964-405.

This roller printed dress is from the 1830’s:

Roller printed dress circa 1830s. Online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

Roller printed dress circa 1830s. # 1972-126. Online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

And this 1880’s bustle dress is # 1998-240.

1880's bustle dress, #1998-240, Colonial Williamsburg Costume Collection online. Please do not copy this image

1880’s bustle dress, #1998-240, Colonial Williamsburg Costume Collection online. Please do not copy this image

To see the collection, or any of these items in more detail, go to Costume Collection and search by the number.

Don’t forget to visit the Costume Accessories, like this pair of embroidered gloves dated 1630-1650.

Mid 17th c. gloves, # 1974-1101, in the Costume Accessories Collection at Colonial Williamsburg, online. Please do not copy this image.

Mid-17th c. gloves, # 1974-1101, in the Costume Accessories Collection at Colonial Williamsburg, online. Please do not copy this image.

 

 

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Patou’s Evening Gowns for Short and Tall, 1936

According to this article in The Woman’s Home Companion, January, 1936, couturier Jean Patou suggested that, rather than dressing to look taller (if you’re short) or more petite (if you’re tall), women should choose designs that take advantage of their size.

Woman's Home Companion, Jan. 1936. Designs and Advice from Patou

Woman’s Home Companion, Jan. 1936. Designs and Advice from Patou

As reported by Marjorie Howard, “Paris Fashion Correspondent,” here is Jean Patou’s advice for penny-wise shopping in the Depression.

WHC 1936 jan p 57 patou 500 top for tall and little text

Patou’s Advice for Tall Women

Patou evening gowns, Jan. 1936. WHC.

Patou evening gowns, Jan. 1936. WHC. The tall woman is on the left.

WHC 1936 jan p 57 patou 500 for tall and little text ctr tall woman

Patou’s Advice for Short Women

Patou for the short woman, Jan. 1936. WHC.

Patou for the short woman, Jan. 1936. WHC.

WHC 1936 jan p 57 patou 500 for tall and little text btm Little woman

I’ve broken the illustration up so the details are more visible:

Parou design for a tall woman (left) and for a short woman (right.) Jan., 1936.

Patou design for a tall woman (left) and for a short woman (right.) Jan., 1936.

These are both complex designs. What a shame that we can’t see color:  the belt in “dark turquoise leather.” The gown on the left, of  “antelope crepe — mat with a suede finish” has a back drape “because the long lines [of a tall figure] can afford it.” Anyone wishing to copy the bodice on the right, with silver lame bands that almost seem to be woven over and under, will find the stripes helpful in determining straight of grain and bias. That assumes a careful drawing, of course. “The top is made of line stripes in interlaced bands….” The text says that capes or sling drape designs in back are not suitable for short women, but some kind of dark lining (of a cape of drape?) seems to be visible under the model’s arm.

To tell the truth, I can’t be sure from this drawing exactly what is happening with the skirt on the left:

Patou, 1936.

Skirt details of two gowns by Patou, 1936.

The illustration by Clark Fay seems to show a side slit. The text says the train ends in two points, but as drawn, it looks like a recipe for a broken neck! do the tucks in the hip bands continue into the skirt on both side? Is it symmetrical? It’s definitely glamorous. The short woman on the right has a strange hemline “cut into uneven points.” The chevron accenting the center front seam is slenderizing; how nice that the two woman are not equally slim, but proportionate to their heights. By the standards of 1930’s fashion illustrations, the woman on the left is downright voluptuous.

Although Patou was known for his influential sportswear in the 1920’s, this gown, made of tulle covered with pink sequins, is a Patou from the early 1930’s, in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Jean Patou, sequinned evening gown, early 1930's in collection of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Jean Patou, sequinned evening gown, early 1930’s in collection of Victoria and Albert Museum.

It has a “cape or sling drapery” in back, and a contrasting belt, like the 1936 “little woman’s” gown illustrated in the Delineator.  Jean Patou died in 1936, but the House of Patou — and “Joy” perfume — continued.

Incidentally, around 1936-37, several couturiers began using zippers in fitted dresses. Zippers — finally light enough to be used with delicate fabrics — began to take the place of snap closings, making possible form-fitting gowns that didn’t gape open between the snaps. Zippers appeared in sportswear earlier than in Couture. Butterick pattern #2365, in December 1928, called for zippers at the neckline and pockets. It tied in with an ad for Talon. Madeleine Vionnet used a zipper in a blouse/step-in (what we would call a bodysuit) in 1929, and the design was copied by Butterick. Click here for a post about it, with pictures.  Robert Friedel’s book Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty mentions couture in the late 1930’s, but only briefly.

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Filed under 1930s, Exhibitions & Museums, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

The Evolution of the Shirt and Cut My Cote: Book Recommendation

I’v been wanting to recommend this little book, Cut My Cote, for a long time, and, since I showed some Victorian era men’s shirts in a recent post, this seems like a good time to share some things Cut My Cote taught me about the evolution of the shirt.

Shirt spun, woven and stitched by Elizabeth Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum.

Shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum Collection.

“This shirt was created, from the linen fiber to the finished garment, by the donor’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Wild Hitchings, for her husband Benjamin Hitchings, a sea captain, in 1816.”

Cut My Cote, by Dorothy K. Burnham, is more of a pamphlet than a book, but its 36 pages are packed with useful diagrams and thought provoking information. For me, it was one of those “whack on the side of the head” books, because I had simply never considered how precious cloth was in the pre-industrial age, or how garment construction was influenced by the size of the handwoven cloth available. Making clothes from Burnham’s diagrams is a real education.

This book expands on  some themes from Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber. Barber, an archeologist and a weaver, estimated that it takes a woman seven hours to hand spin enough thread to weave for one hour. For the woman spinning and weaving and sewing a linen shirt like the one above, every scrap would represent days of labor. You can understand why “zero waste” clothing is not a new idea.

Diagram of Man's shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how none of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Pleas do not copy this image.

Diagram of 16th c. man’s shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how not a single inch of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Please do not copy this image. The cloth was 27 inches wide.

In the shirt above, the sleeves (B) narrow from below the elbow to the wrist. The triangles of fabric (C) trimmed from the lower part of the sleeves are used to widen the upper part. The neckline is slit straight across, and gathered into the collar at front and back. This gives ease across the back. (Modern shirts have a center back pleat for the same reason.) Notice how similar it is to that shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings nearly three hundred years later.

“I shall cut my cote after my cloth.”

Burnham examines this proverb and finds it true:  “I shall cut my cote after my cloth.” ( Haywood’s Proverbs, published in 1546) You may have heard a variant of the proverb:

“You must cut your coat to fit your cloth.”

The size of the cloth often dictates the shape of the garment. Using her measurements of rare surviving garments, Burnham charts their cutting patterns. In examples that trace the development of the European shirt, for instance, you can see how reluctantly the cloth is cut at all, and how every inch is utilized.

The Loom and The Shirt

Burnham explains the various types of looms used from place to place, and how the physical requirements of the loom (width, portability, number of weavers) dictates the width of the cloth. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt [all slave-owning societies, as it happens] used very wide, vertical or horizontal looms; some needed two weavers passing the shuttle back and forth. The Greeks wove big, wide pieces of cloth, and wore them sideways, wrapped around the body with one selvage as a hem and the other at the top, usually pinning (rather than sewing) the garment at the shoulders. Excess length was controlled with belts, or by folding the top down, or both (below right.) It didn’t need cutting or sewing.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Nomadic societies had to use looms that were portable and easy to set up. Sometimes a waist strap (or back strap) loom was used (Click here to see one being used.) When fabrics began to be worn vertically, instead of having the selvage as a hem, their width was dictated by the weaver’s reach when passing the shuttle from one side of the loom to the other. Since shirts made from narrow cloth were also worn very long, added width was needed for walking, so the sides had to be open at the hem, or the front and back were slit and godets inserted, as below. The fabric for this 13th century shirt was only 22 inches wide. Fabric (C) left over from the sleeves (B), which narrow toward the wrist, is used for godets (C) to widen the bottom of the shirt.

Burnham's diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges (C) cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

This drawing of a medieval farm worker shows a similar garment, with tapered sleeves and a very full skirt.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300's c. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300’s. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Shirts for the 1700’s

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I have made late 18th century shirts like this one using Cut My Cote as one source, and, while perfectly authentic, they did not always behave well on sweaty actors and singers.  You can see that the shoulders of the shirt are much wider than the shoulders of the wearer, and in the diagram there is no shoulder seam. Even on a motionless mannequin, the shoulders fall forward, twisting the sleeves.

Also, when the neckline is cut as a straight line, like this one …

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

… it doesn’t take into account some facts about the human body. First, flat rectangles of cloth are relatively two dimensional; we are three dimensional. Second, we are not symmetrical when seen from the side.

Left, and illustration from Walt Reed's book The Figure; Right, an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jank Hamm.

Left, based on  an illustration from Walt Reed’s book The Figure; Right, based on an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm.

Our necks are lower on the body in front than in back. The measurement from the base of the neck to waist (CF measurement) is always shorter than our Center Back measurement (CB). If you cut your shirt’s neck opening in a straight horizontal line, the opening will be forced down in the front, and the shirt will twist on the body. The shoulders of the shirt will want to move forward, while the back rides up. (Actors will be more comfortable with a modern curved neckline on an otherwise “period” shirt.”)

Another problem that had to be solved was the trapezius — the muscle that connects your neck with your shoulder.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a more complex figure, bottom.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a stick figure adjusted to treat the neck and trapezius more realistically (bottom). Photo from Walt Reed’s book The Figure.

It took a long time for most shirt makers to solve these problems, although this woman’s smock from 1630 has a triangular gusset at the side of the neck; that was part of the solution.

This shirt, which belonged to British banker Thomas Coutts, has triangular pieces at the neck, either side of the collar.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

This 19th century shirt with a neck gusset was collected by a friend.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side. inserted in the straight, slit neckline.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius. It just didn’t go far enough.

The collar, hand sewn, of a finer fabric than the shirt's body.

The collar, hand sewn, is a finer fabric than the shirt’s body.

This shirt, from the same collection, has a shoulder yoke and a different way of using a triangular gusset:

Yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke.

19th century shirt with a yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke. Apparently the shirt body was cut straight across, but did not match the shape of the yoke without piecing. The neckline seems to be curved in front.

These collars with a wide gap between the wings were seen from the 1820s through the 1850s, persisting among older men. They could be starched and worn turned up, or worn turned down.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre's self portrait at age 79, 1859.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre’s self portrait at age 79, 1859.

This shirt, also owned by Thomas Coutts, has a yoke. So did the shirts worn by Mississippi boatmen in the 1840’s and 50’s, as painted by George Caleb Bingham; their shoulder seams drop far down the arm. (Shirts were one of the few ready-made garments available. But they were not sized to fit before the Civil War, when statistics that made standard sizing possible were collected.) The boatmen’s shirt size was probably dictated by the width of the cloth available.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1846.

The problem of the too-high-in-front neckline was solved by wearing the shirt unbuttoned at the throat. There are no other buttons, except at the wrists, and shirts were pulled on over the head.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Another problem for shirtmakers was that, if the sleeves were tight, it was hard to raise your arm.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby's book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this was difficult.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby’s book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this pulled your shirt up several inches.

Some cultures — like Japan — left the underarm seam open. Europeans wanting to wear tighter sleeves without losing the ability to raise a sword or a tool, wore a very full sleeved shirt underneath a tight outer sleeve that was attached only at the shoulder, or tied on just at the top.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lade by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400s.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lady by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400’s. Her sleeve is also open at the elbow, so she can bend her arm easily.

But the best solution was a square gusset (C), inserted in the underarm seams so that the bias stretch would accommodate movement.

Burnham's diagram of a 17th century shirt with underarm gussets. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram of an early 19th century shirt with underarm gussets (C) and neckline gussets (F). Please do not copy this image.

The shirt above, diagrammed by Burnham, was one of several owned by Thomas Coutts (d. 1822); the survival of his large wardrobe is a boon to historians.

Victorian era Shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt diagrammed.

Victorian era shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt Burnham diagrammed.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neglected Treasures

For the most part, shirts are not beautiful; they are not collected; they get worn out and used as cleaning rags; they get passed down to be worn as work clothes, instead of being wrapped in tissue and passed down as heirlooms. That is why very old shirts in very good condition are really, really rare! And a very old shirt with provenance can end up in a museum’s Costume Collection.

This wedding shirt from 1841 has a curved neckline; like a formal dress shirt, it opens down the back. It’s in the Victoria and Albert collection.

I’m not sure whether the dealer who bought my friend’s collection had any idea about how rare documented Victorian era shirts are. Here for example, is a lace embellished shirt that my friend was able to document, because it was made for a wedding and remained in one family.

A wedding shirt dated to 1871.

A wedding shirt of Davenfort Harrold, dated to 1871. The neckline curves and is deeper in front. A separate collar could be worn.

Eureka:  Shirts That Fit

I think the ultimate solution to making shirts that fit arrived along with the industrial revolution, when spinning and weaving became mechanized, lowering the price of cloth. Before that, as Dorothy Burnham says, “an extreme economy of material was practised in the cutting of traditional garments…. In ancient times, weaving far outstripped the techniques of cutting and sewing….”

Once people realized that cut cloth will not unravel after it’s been sewn, and that a certain amount of wastage is preferable to a poorly fitting shirt, the problems of the neck and trapezius fit were solved by a diagonally cut shoulder seam and a curved neckline that was cut deeper in front than in back. (The triangular neck gusset was, in a way, included in the new seam across the shoulders, which creates a triangle.) a seam across the shoulders

Using statistics collected for the manufacture of military uniforms, a range of sizes and a closer fit became possible.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor. It is essentially a modern shirt.

This heavy cotton flannel shirt, made in Sherborne, England, ended up in California. It is factory made, with a curved neckline, sloping shoulders, and a double layer of fabric for warmth. But its one-size-fits-many sleeve length had to be adjusted with a tuck. (Office workers could shorten their sleeves with a sleeve garter.) Also, like earlier shirts, this one pulls on over the head.

Vintage flannel factory made work shirt made in Sherborne, England.

Vintage flannel factory-made work shirt, probably from Sherborne, England. The label says “N. E. Strickland & Co., Shirt Specialists, Sherborne.” Strickland shirts are still being made, but not necessarily by the same company.

There is a good review of Cut My Cote at The Perfect Nose. (Click here). It shows several different illustrations from the book and encourages the stitcher to dive in and use them instead of patterns — “mark it onto your fabric in chalk/ marker and have at it with ruler and rotary tool.”

I have done this (using a #2 pencil and muslin), and I learned a lot about the evolution of the shirt from making smocks, blouses, and shirts from Cut My Cote. My old copy was covered with measurements in pencil! You can find used copies for about $15.00 — Click here. — Or you could buy it new from The Royal Ontario Museum, which has kept it in print since 1973! Cut My Cote at ROM– Click Here.

For serious research into 18th century and early 19th century shirts, follow the links at 18th Century Notebook. An entire list of links to shirts in museum collections can be found by clicking here.

The TwoNerdyHistoryGirls wrote about 18th century shirts (and why the hems were so long — ick!) here.

It’s easy to see why this 1630  embroidered smock at the V & A Museum didn’t end up as a dishrag. And its
gorgeous blackwork embroidery probably saved this going-on-500-year-old Tudor shirt, circa 1540. It’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Read more Here.

But spare a thought for the uncollected, hand spun, hand woven, hand stitched, everyday shirts that were made and worn and finally worn out.

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 17th Century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Early Victorian fashions, Exhibitions & Museums, Late Victorian fashions, Menswear, Resources for Costumers, Shirts and Blouses, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

Victorian Flounced Skirt and Pagoda-Sleeved Bodice, circa 1850’s (?)

Victorian era flounced skirt and jacket, circa 1856. Private collection.

Victorian era flounced skirt and jacket, circa 1856. Private collection. This is close to accurate color, a dark cherry red.

The fabric and fringe on this vintage outfit are really lovely, and the presence of what may be the original detachable inner sleeves and neckline fill made it memorable to me.

The sheer tulle or netting used for the neckline and the sleeves was not ironed or cleaned for these quick photos.

Bodice detail, black/ dark red changeable taffeta with black and dark red fringe. Circa 1856.

Bodice detail, black/ dark red changeable taffeta gown with black and dark red silk fringe. Circa 1856. Top button missing from white fill.

Netting and lace fill for the square necklne of the Victorian outfit. It would have been basted into place on the bodice, and removed for washing.

Netting and lace fill for the square neckline of the Victorian outfit. It would have been basted into place on the bodice, and removed for washing. It has a button placket down the center.

Sadly, this outfit showed signs of being reconstructed:   a modern grosgrain waistband on the skirt (visible in the photo above,) and small holes in the skirt where stitching was unpicked. Either the top flounce (and perhaps others) had been moved down to make the skirt longer, or the holes were left by the original cartridge-pleated waistline on the skirt, which may have been shorter in front than in back when it was made. The outfit also deserved a fuller crinoline to properly display the skirt, but these photos were purely for the purpose of inventory.

Illustration from Le Bon Ton, January 1 edition, 1859. From the Casey Collection of fashion plates at LA County Public Library.

Illustration from Le Bon Ton, January 1 edition, 1856. From the Casey Collection of fashion plates at LA County Public Library.

It’s possible that the top of the top flounce was originally hidden by the long, jacket-like bodice, as in the blue outfit above. (That’s a thin line of black ribbon trim on the flounce, not a seam.) The Casey Collection is a wonderful online resource, searchable by date. Click here to see more of it. The plates can be enlarged and magnified; the detail can be amazing. This gown, also from January 1856, is rather similar in color to the one I photographed.

Our changeable taffeta two piece dress bears a slight resemblance to this sketch by Ingres of Mademoiselle Cecile Panckoucke, which the artist dated 1856. However, we should never suppose that women only wore dresses in the height of fashion, or that dresses based on fashion plates were made within weeks of publication, so “our” dress may be later. I photographed it as part of a private collection in the U.S.

Portrait sketch of Mlle Cecile Panckoucke, Ingres, 1856.

Portrait sketch of Mlle Cecile Panckoucke, Ingres, 1856.

The painter Ingres sketched this dress, which seems to have a lower-cut jacket-like bodice, and signed his drawing in 1856.

The “peplum” of the dark cherry-red and black changeable taffeta dress is shaped to have a squarish section below the waist in front and a smaller one in back, but not at the sides; the patterned trim and fringe continues all the way around the bodice bottom.

Front detail of bodice showing long, square front and fringe trim.

Front detail of bodice showing long, square front and black and red fringe trim.

Back detail shoeing fringed waist trim and Center back long "tail."

Back detail showing fringed waist trim and a peplum-like “tail.”

The fringe alternates red and black. The ground fabric for the dress is changeable taffeta, with the warp and the weft different colors:  one is black and the other is dark cherry red. The flounces are the same mix, but have a jacquard pattern woven into them.

Close up of jaquard woven pattern in changeable taffeta. Probably1850s.

Close-up of jacquard woven pattern in changeable taffeta. Probably 1850’s.

Detail of the fabric's woven pattern on flounce and sleeve trim. Photo enhanced.

Detail of the fabric’s woven pattern on flounce and sleeve trim. Photo enhanced.

Strips of this patterned fabric trim the neckline and center front of the bodice, the bottoms of the sleeves, and the bottom of the bodice “peplum.” The trim may be the border of the fabric, not used on the flounces.

Cherry and black changeable taffeta sleeves, trimmed with strips of a coordinating jaquard woven pattern. The bodice is also trimmed with two kinds of silk fringe, both alternating black and red.

Cherry and black changeable taffeta sleeves, trimmed with strips of a coordinating jacquard woven pattern. The sleeves are trimmed with two kinds of silk fringe, both alternating black and red.

The fringe above the elbow, arranged in two layers for a checkerboard effect,  is shorter and thicker than the fringe used elsewhere. It is also less “curly” in texture.

Detail of two kinds of fringe used on 1850's changeable taffeta dress.

Detail of two kinds of fringe used on 1850’s changeable taffeta dress.

The pagoda sleeves are lined with cream silk, and finished with a matching, pleated cream self-trim:

Inside of pagoda sleeve, showing pleated trim on the lining. The inside of one sleeve was stained.

Inside of pagoda sleeve, showing pleated trim on the lining. The inside of this sleeve was stained.

You can see how sheer the detachable tulle inner sleeve is. I love the pleated detail on the lining, since the inside of a pagoda sleeve would be very visible when the wearer gestured, poured tea, etc.

This 1855 pagoda-sleeved plaid dress is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Pagoda sleeved dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital archives.

Pagoda sleeved dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital archives.

Plaid taffeta dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital collection.

Plaid taffeta dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital collection.

Click here for more views of this dress; unfortunately, none shows the insides of the sleeves. The “buttons” on the front are actually small silk tassels.

The use of coordinating fringe on silk dresses was not uncommon; I once rescued a fan-fronted bodice, entirely hand-stitched, from a Goodwill Halloween rack. The silk had “Granny Smith apple” green stripes on a cream background, accented with thin stripes of peacock (Prussian) blue. The pagoda sleeves were trimmed with a matching fringe, but it was purpose-made, not just the dress fabric with the weft unravelled, and the half-inch stripes in the fringe were mostly peacock blue and apple green.

This portrait of Madame Moitessier in a fringed dress, also painted by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, was finished in 1857.

Detail of Mme. Moitessier, by J.-A.-D. Ingres, circa 1857. From Portrait of Ingres: Image of an Epoque.

Detail of “Mme. Moitessier,” by J.-A.-D. Ingres, circa 1857. From Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoque.

Her dress shows a Rococo revival patterned silk that became popular around 1855, according to Gary Tinterow, writing in Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoque, p. 440. Her dress is trimmed with silk fringe made from the same colors as the dress fabric, plus coordinating ribbons.

It took Ingres a famously long time to complete this portrait, first commissioned in 1844. Around 1847, Mme Moitessier’s little daughter Caroline was in the picture, leaning her head on her mother’s lap. It isn’t true that Caroline had to be painted out of the picture because she kept growing, although by the time Ingres was adding the final touches, in 1857, Caroline had grown up. (She was three in 1847, and nearly fourteen when the picture was finally completed!) In fact, Ingres made many changes as the portrait progressed. Caroline was too young to hold long poses (Ingres called her “impossible” [insupportable] and wiped her out early in the process.) In 1852, he asked Madame to wear her “yellow dress” to a posing session — not this dress, so he apparently made changes later, to be sure that the finished painting [1857] showed her in an up-to-date fashion.

I wish I had taken interior photos of this dark cherry dress; I’m just glad I had these pictures to share.

Front and back views of a dark cherry red changeable taffeta dress, circa 1856. Private collection.

Front and back views of a dark cherry red changeable taffeta dress, circa 1856. Private collection. The color on the left is more accurate.

NOTE:  I did not examine this dress with a magnifying glass. Except for the stain in one sleeve, and the alterations to the skirt, it was in remarkably (almost suspiciously) good condition. Once I saw the alterations, I didn’t check for other machine stitching. I couldn’t ask the owner about it, so I can’t be sure if it is authentic, or a very elegant reproduction that fooled her, too. The dating is hypothetical and may be later than the 1850’s, for many reasons. Wherever this dress is now, a fabric test might be interesting.

Expert advice is always appreciated!

I’ve written about other Victorian Era dresses that I’ve met:

To see inside a brilliantly colored roller printed dress, Click here.

For a details of a lightweight, plaid fan-fronted dress, Click here.

For a bustle dress with beautiful buttons, Click here.

And, for the much less beautiful lives of Victorian Working Women, click here.

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Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 18th Century, Dresses, Early Victorian fashions, Exhibitions & Museums, Resources for Costumers, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing