Sunday, February 26, 2012

For the love of costume

I’ve always loved costume!

Some of my earliest memories are of designing costumes for faerie princesses: gowns with silver spider-web bodices and hollyhock-petal skirts, bejeweled with the finest of dewdrops.

A young girl's dreams became a woman's passion: I began to create, in real-world fabrics, the gowns of my youthful imagination. Here are a few of my favorite projects.

In my late 20s, I toured the Fashion Museum at Bath and the costume collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I was smitten! I started sketching details of historic dresses and accessories wherever I could find them.

In the late 1980s I created my first ensemble: a reproduction of the 1895 walking dress in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 2 (p. 46). The epaulettes of the original proved too much for my fledgling skills, but I wore it proudly anyway. Its fabric was a cheap polyester, but I loved that dress so much that I remember wearing it to the grocery store, reveling in the stares I received.

Soon afterwards, I made this 1806-9 gown (Patterns of Fashion 1, p. 48) from a few yards of synthetic fabric left after making a square-dance dress. This gown was a favorite for many years, and lives on now, worn by a still-slender friend.

During the 1990s, I joined a historic dance troupe and began to sew reproductions of historic garments for myself and others. The patterns and materials were modified to permit easy care (frequent cleaning, for one thing!) and dance-abilty, but overall, were as accurate as limited budgets and available fabric choices would permit.

In 2006, I made my first corset—an early 19th-century style constructed from some drawings I found on the internet. Wish I had kept track of where I got the pattern from, so that I could give proper credit to the designer! That corset has served me well for many years now. Four or five years ago I made a mid-19th-century corset from the Dore pattern by Laughing Moon.

My lovely, gray 1810 gown has served me well. The cotton fabric for this dress is a historically appropriate print from the early 1800s. The design is my own, based on historical sources. Needing a garment to wear to the dance on a chilly night, I created a “pseudo-spencer” (shown in the photo at the top of this post) from an unlined velvet jacket. It does the trick, if one isn’t too picky about historical accuracy.

My 1860s ball gown is another garment designed to be worn for dance performances. Its pattern comes from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 2 (p. 22).

The lace butterflies that trimmed the original gown have been reproduced using a motif cut from nylon lace.

As I worked on this dress very late one evening, I suddenly "felt" the essence of the original garment: with its lightweight, floating taffeta, its wing-like, gathered upper sleeves, and its gossamer undersleeves, this dress becomes a butterfly. In a flash, it all made sense to me, and I could almost see the unknown designer smiling because someone, after all this time, understood the creation. One of these days I am going to re-make this garment out of such crisp, airy fabrics.

During the last few years, as my skills continue to develop, my efforts have branched out to include more fanciful dance costumes that incorporate decidedly un-historic (and sometimes barely manageable!) materials. Feathers, artificial flowers and florist’s wire, synthetic tulle and net, and even shed cicada wings became part of garments that were as much works of art as items of clothing.

"Keikimanu." This dance costume was designed to bring to mind a tropical forest bird, whose bright display plumage is hidden under dull-colored outer feathers.

Feathers and cicada wings!
Titania, Queen of the Fairies, was created for a Midsummer Night’s Ball. This costume was great fun to wear! The epaulettes and headpiece incorporated, among other things, real cicada wings. No sense wasting those lovely objects, once the cicadas were done with them! Each wing is carefully attached to the backing with two gentle but secure stitches over the main rib. Hours of work, but so worth the effort!

What I most value about the making and wearing of such fanciful costumes is the sense it gives me of getting outside my everyday life: Dressing in gauze, tulle, and besparkled organza brings a freedom of expression that's exhilarating and fun.

And more than just a sense of fun, wearing a corset or a hoopskirt provides insight into the lives of the women who wore such garments every day. Wearing a corset, you move differently, breathe differently, hold yourself differently. You embody a different way of life, one that our freedom-loving age cannot ordinarily experience. My respect for my foremothers has grown enormously.

And in the next post, join me on a journey back to 1843, where we’ll meet a young Quaker woman and some of her friends, and experience much more of what life was like for nineteenth-century women….

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