Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review: Stays and Corsets, by Mandy Barrington

I feel terrible that it took me so long to write a review of this book, seeing as I was sent a copy by Focal Press - but I promise it was only because I intended to use it to make a set of stays and/or corset first! And then, unfortunately, I did next to no sewing since receiving it, and so I'm reviewing from a more theoretical basis.

Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns Translated for the Modern Body is by Mandy Barrington, a senior lecturer in costume at Arts University Bournemouth. (She hasn't posted to Tumblr in a while, but you can see some great images of her work there!)

The book consists of thorough instructions on drafting corset patterns based on patterns of extant pieces and modern bodice slopers, similar to the system used in Creating Historical Clothes. (And, incidentally, it teaches you how to draft your own slopers from scratch.)

The patterns it contains are as follows:

- 1735-1750 sleeved stays (with stomacher; sleeves not included)

- 1776 half-boned stays (ie, the Didierot stays)

- 1785-1788 half-boned stays (I would probably date these later, ca. 1795 - they're pretty short and light)

- 1793 short stays (from Waugh's Corsets & Crinolines)

- 1820 white cotton corset

- 1860 solid-busk, corded corset (the red and black striped one from Jill Salen's Corsets)

- 1875 corded and quilted corset (black and yellow, also in Corsets)

- 1890 underbust riding corset

- 1890 corset

These cover the basic costuming epochs: Revolutionary War, Regency, American Civil War, and bustle periods (right? These seem like the most common genres to me), with a few extras to fill in the holes. So that is very satisfactory! Just in terms of being a kind of corsetry bible, I would like to see strapless 18th century stays, an 1840 corset, an Edwardian corset, early 1910s corset, and a solid 1920s brassiere - but it says on Ms. Barrington's bio page that she's working on a second book, which I suspect will contain most if not all of these.

Photo of one of the corsets made for the book, from Mandy Barrington's Tumblr
I take issue with some of the more interpretive text regarding historical corsetry, and it's important to take Cathy Hay's findings about the importance of hip and upper back ease in corsetmaking into consideration when you scale up these patterns: the book tells you to expect reduction across the board, but you'll be more comfortable and achieve more waist reduction if you plan to get bigger in the other places.

However, the system of drafting itself is very well explained and appears potentially adaptable to other patterns, such as those in Corsets and Corsets & Crinolines that don't appear here. This manual is probably best suited for people used to modern pattern drafting who need help shifting to historical silhouettes, and I'd also recommend it for people who don't know any way to make use of patterns from extant garments. If you fall into either of these categories, put this on your wish list!

Saturday, February 25, 2017


My latest project is a proposal for a book written specifically to help out costume designers and writers of historical fiction - a fashion history manual for 1700-1940 that focuses on visuals and on how the clothing works. The first chapter, on the early 18th century (1700-1739), is my sample, and it's making me realize how brushily we tend to deal with the period before the changes of the 1770s, and especially before the 1750s. I'm pinning down a lot of stylistic changes to at least halves of decades, but I'm finding stays surprisingly difficult.

Like a lot of other aspects of fashion I've had to work out, the issue's complicated by museum dates that seem overly broad or just plain wrong. And for stays, there are considerably fewer artistic representations than there are for gowns, caps, etc.!

I think I've been able to identify the differences between early-century and 1775-1795 stays - which was tricky, because a lot of earlier stays were dated later. Which is understandable, because they share some characteristics!

Stays, ca. 1730-140?; LACMA M.57.24.1

Stays, 1780-1795; Museum of London 49.91/1
These stays are characteristic of opposite ends of the century, but as you can see, they both have straps, come to a narrow point in front, curve out for a rounded chest, and use decorative front faux-lacing. The key differences:

- The point on the earlier stays stands out, with tabs placed on the sides, while the later stays have a plain, smooth point.

- The later stays' decorative lacing is narrow and placed only on the upper half of the center front; the earlier stays are trimmed like a stomacher.

- The earlier stays' boning is densely packed together, while the later stays make use of splayed boning channels in front.

- The tabs of the earlier stays are essentially cut into the body and bound, where the later stays' tabs have more shaping.

In very early cases, the neckline of the stays can be quite high and the straps angled out to the sides - in the 1680s-1700s, the neckline of the gown was wide and not very deep.

Of course, there are some stays that challenge categorization - for instance, these stays in the Boston MFA have the very long and narrow profile, parallel bones, and point-tabs of the earlier period, but the upper-center-front lacing of the 1780s. And what's happening with the thread eyes and eyelets near the bottom of the front? Mysterious.

Detail from Plate 3 of A Rake's Progress, William Hogarth, 1732-1735; Sir John Soames Museum
The next question is - what about the middle of the century? Strapless stays are overwhelmingly dated to this period (causing me to question the popular belief that they were mainly worn by working women for better arm movement), but there doesn't seem to be a system of dating based on stylistic elements. Broadly speaking, there are two types, although there is occasionally some crossover:

Linen stays, 1730-1750; National Museum of Scotland A.1905.983
One type of stays has the front pieces boned at an angle, running down to a point at the bottom.

Stays, 1725-1750; Philadelphia Museum of Art 1903-136
The other has vertical (or very nearly vertical) channels in front, and has a broad curve at the bottom. (This particular example does seem to lean earlier as it has a decorative front which might have been expected to be seen, but this one has family provenance via an early 19th century note to 1779.)

I suppose it's not too loosey-goosey to date both types to 1740-1770, considering how broadly the early and late ones are dated, but it feels wrong. There are enough that conform to one type or the other that sequencing makes more sense to me than simply the wearer's/maker's preference.

 Does anyone else have more information on the subject? Or on interpreting the high number of "working" strapless stays vs. other "ordinary clothing?

Reminder - especially if you live in the east or midwest US, please take the Midwest Historic Costume Conference survey! You can keep up with us on Facebook or Tumblr at this time.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Midwest Historic Costume Conference

Big news! Following Julie's success at managing the Ohio Regimental Military Ball, we've decided to attempt holding a Midwest Historic Costume Conference in 2018.

I'm so important, I got to sit at the President's Table! (Mrs. Lincoln, far left.)
To that end, we've put up a survey to gauge interest. We do have a bunch of plans, we just want to see what others think of various options before we solidify anything.

Follow the MHCC page on Facebook to keep up with the con, and please tell your friends!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Not moving, but not standing still

I've been in a reading/writing/sewing slump for a good handful of months now, due to a number of factors:

- The last dress I tried to make for myself ended up looking terrible, due to the fabric being too polyestery and stiff for the design, and to the fact that the cut of the bodice is really bad for someone this short-waisted.

- I've been gaining weight, slowly enough that I didn't really notice until suddenly it hit me that I was dissatisfied with all my clothes because they were just too tight to be comfortable or look good. I'm working on the weight issue, but I just can't gather the will to sew any new clothes for work.

- Cameo is deceptively difficult, at least in the Made to Fit custom sizing module. My pattern files keep becoming uneditable, which is obviously a problem if you're still in the working-draft stages!

- For a while, I was being really active in a few historical fashion Facebook groups, and the neverending fight to get good contributions taken seriously or to have a real discussion burned me out on historical fashion things online in general.

- I proposed a few projects to my editors, but due to the poor sales of Regency Women's Dress, they declined and gave me permission to take them to other publishers. The trouble is that I'm not really sure where to take 18th Century Women's Dress (pending better title) since I never found a publisher in the first round of queries. I also realize that I need more patterns - I would want to include more items of clothing outside gowns, petticoats, and jackets - and now live much, much farther away from all the museums with 18th century clothing. And it's clear that I need to figure out what to do about illustrations, because those in RWD were unsatisfactory to the public, and yet, as an independent researcher rather than an employee, I don't have the ability to set up a photo studio and dress mannequins as in Costume Close-up and 17th Century Women's Dress Patterns.

- Something I can't talk about yet, but just believe me, it's stressful and I'm breaking out over it.

So all together, I don't feel like sewing anything modern (by which I mean mid-20th century) to wear to work, I don't feel like sewing anything historical, and I can't think of any interesting topics to explore on my blog.

However, lately I have forced myself to start working on a new old project. A lavish reprinting of the Galerie des Modes, translated by moi, was one of the things that I proposed as a follow-up to Regency Women's Dress - but it's very expensive to license images from museums, and there are several hundred of them in the whole magazine. so it was turned down. Now I've decided to go directly to the museums. There are only two that own the plates from GdM, and I've inquired to see if either is interested in publishing it in-house. If not, I'm planning to edit the translation, improve my annotations, and run a Kickstarter to enable me to license the plates (they literally cost more than is in my bank account, even to publish only those first two volumes that have the original text extant). Hopefully I'll have more information on this soon!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: An Agreeable Tyrant

I ordered "An Agreeable Tyrant": Fashion after the Revolution the moment that Alden O'Brien posted about its availability on Facebook.

Full disclosure: I borrowed this picture of the cover from 2NHG but did not hotlink it
The eponymous exhibition opened this month at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C. and will run until April 2017: it focuses on American men's and women's dress from the end of the Revolutionary War to 1830. And you really want its catalogue! Not only does it have beautiful photography of the exhibition, it features a number of well-cited essays on the period that are great reading.

The book opens with "After the Revolution: Aspirations and Ambivalence," by the DAR Museum's curator of costume and textiles, Alden O'Brien, on the subject of Federal-period Americans' difficult feelings for fashion as they attempted to balance a desire for luxury with moral concerns (and also dealing with the myth of homespun). Then there is "An Elegant Assortment of Goods: Apparel Textiles of Federal-Era America," by Madelyn Shaw, which contains a lot of great information about period textiles and their manufacture. Then Ann Wass's "Regulating the Dresses of the Ladies: American Women's Fashion, 1780-1825" and Mark Hutter's "Coat Tales: Changes in the Fashion, Cut, and Construction of Men's Clothing, 1775-1830," about the transitions in fashion during this time. The essay section of the catalogue ends with "Economy with Elegance: Practices of Thrift in Fashion," by Carolyn Dowdell.

The photography of the garments in the exhibition is really stunning, and it's supplemented with patterns taken by Mackenzie Anderson Sholtz (of Fig Leaf Patterns), Carolyn Dowdell, Mark Hutter, Mike McCarty, and Ike Cech of both men's and women's garments, with a nice sampling through the earlier part of the period to demonstrate the variety of fashion at the time.

You can buy the catalogue in the DAR Museum's store. If you're in Canada, you should contact them directly to order it, as the automated shipping to Canada is higher than it needs to be.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Miner Street, Canton, in 1900

I can't believe I've been working on this exhibition since the spring. Well, technically, I spent quite a few months in between researching a walking tour of Main Street - originally my brother agreed to make an ambitious app for it, which was then scaled back into a page on our website, and then recently I found that The Clio Foundation is developing something to allow exactly the kind of tours I want to create, so that isn't available yet.

The exhibition itself went up very smoothly. As you can see, it's not large - just one short stretch of wall next to and running up the side of our narrow ramp. To the right is the intro text:
Imagine yourself back in Canton in the year 1900. Walking down the north side of Main Street from the Silas Wright House (at this time being used as a parsonage for the newly-rebuilt Universalist Church), you pass most of the same buildings that you know today with different occupants – the Remington Corner Clothing Store, Conkey’s Drug Store, Cleland Austin, Dezell’s – and see the American House and Jack & Kirkland’s bakery on the south side. Once you pass the Neo-Gothic splendor of the town hall, turn left onto calm, residential Miner Street.
The design is pretty simple. In the center (... the thematic center; it's actually off to the left) is a copy of the 1905 Sanborn Fire Map showing Miner Street

A narrow cotton tape connects each relevant house to its label, often accompanied by a photo of the house or one of its residents. As you can see from the photo at the top, most of the photos are on the right/east side of the street - the people who lived there were more affluent than those on the west side next to the river and had more opportunities for having their pictures taken, and/or had more photogenic houses. The two pictures on the left are of Nelson Brown, who worked in the fairly well-documented J. H. Rushton boat factory, and J. Stanley Ellsworth, a local retailer whose family was the one exception to the rule about affluence and street side.

When I first got started with this project, I hoped that it would be something easily replicable for other museums like us (focused on local history, no money for fancy exhibition installations, etc.). Unfortunately, I'm not sure whether it is. A number of things came together to make this work for me:

  • The block where the Remingtons and Sackriders (relatives from both sides of Frederic Remington's family) lived was at the top of the street, and it was clear that the census-taker had been working Main Street and then dipped down into Miner. It's not as clear which direction he was going in on some of the side streets.
  • A Sanford Fire Map existed that showed the street, and I had access to it, so I could figure out where the houses were around 1900, since they're all gone now.
  • The New York State Historic Newspapers digitization project began in the North Country, so our newspapers were very well represented and I was able to find a lot of information about these people. (Compare to my home county, where the only scanned paper is the Fort Edward Ledger, 1857-1865.)
There are other situations where this project could still work. If you have a street with homes mostly built before the time period of the census you're using - that will help. If you have a street that the census-taker clearly turned into from one end, or know a couple of the historic residents, that will also help.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Book Review: The Long Weekend, by Adrian Tinniswood

I picked out The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939 from NetGalley to review here as the country house has such a prominent place in classic and historical fiction - think of how many mysteries wouldn't exist without characters being cooped up together for a country weekend!

The book is exhaustive - Tinniswood goes through all the aspects of the country house itself, from architecture to interior decoration to sale to (royal, aristocratic, and common) owners, with detailed descriptions of how these went down at various specific estates. The social aspects, unfortunately, don't seem to get as much time as the others (or perhaps the architecture and interior design chapters simply seemed very, very long?). Country house parties are dealt with at the very beginning, and then at the end there's discussion of gay country house owners, hunting and fishing, the servants, politics, and the collapse of this culture during WWII.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how much it enriches the period-drama-fan's view of country house society beyond what you've absorbed from period novels and shows like Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey and the like - it confirms rather than enlightens, and gives specific context to generalizations you already knew. But if the reader is researching the period, all of this specific information is extremely helpful.