Tag Archives: bodice wrinkles dress civil war era 1860s

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. ]


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