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Friday, September 20, 2013

Adventures in Historically Accurate Colonial Costuming

[With a nod to Laura Frantz's post "Dress, Shoes, and Stays - Oh My!"]

So ... I’ve always been a perfectionist. Painfully so, and one of the lessons I’ve had to learn as a mother of many is knowing when to let go of the Quest for the Perfect.

Here is one time when I just couldn’t, quite. :-)

A participant in the 2006 Parker's Ferry event
Several years ago, when I first began research on my Revolutionary War novel, Loyalty’s Cadence, I joined a Yahoo group for researchers and living historians, called 18cWoman (18th Century Woman). That list is no longer in existence, but its replacement, 18cLife, has been fairly active. Over the years, the kindly folk there have answered my story questions on everything from regulations about British campfollowing wives to Colonial Christmas traditions. I’ve also witnessed countless discussions about proper clothing for period reenactments and living history events. These people tend to be meticulous in their research and attention to detail, so when the idea of sewing a “real” eighteenth century outfit occurred to me, I brushed it aside. Again—and again. :-)

Okay, I finally thought, IF my historical ever sells. It would be cool to wear one to booksigning events. Then came my first contract for Defending Truth, and the project lurked in the back of my mind through the months of writing and revising the novella. As a challenge to my sewing skills, it would be as much a creative endeavor as the writing, and it was just as important to me to get the research right.

So, a quick overview of 18c (eighteenth century) women’s wear from the skin outward:

  • Shift: the equivalent of 18c underwear, made of pure linen for its availability and breathability. The quality of the linen was determined by one’s station and wealth. “Chemise” is the French word, more commonly in use in the nineteenth century.


    JP Ryan stays pattern
  • Stays: basically the predecessor of a corset, which again is the French word and not in use until later. Often referred to as a “pair” of stays, referring to the two halves, or “bodies,” which is where the word “bodice” comes from (“a pair of body’s”). In the 18c and before, as much of a support garment as for shaping, like an 18c lumbar belt. In use as early as the 16th century, and worn by babies and children as well as adult females. (That scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Elizabeth wears stays for the first time, is inaccurate in so many ways ... )
  • Pockets: a bag or two, sewn to a cloth tape and tied around the waist for access through side slits in the skirts. Often highly embroidered, and NOT worn on the outside to attract marriageable men ... 
  • Petticoat: essentially a skirt, at least one, more often two. These were often linen, quilted cotton, silk, or wool. Working women wouldn’t bother to match the petticoat to their jacket or gown, but dressy gowns often had a matching petticoat. 
  • Gown: an open-fronted garment with sleeves, more or less embellished. Fastened down the front with straight pins (yes! it’s true!), or hooks and eyes. The open skirts are sometimes hiked “a la polonaise.” Made of linen (striped or plain), wool, silk, or a block-printed cotton (see Debra’s recent post about fabrics). In lieu of a gown, women also wore jackets, shortgowns, or bedgowns (for undress/casual wear around the house).
  • Apron: also of linen, pinned and/or tied over everything to catch workaday dirt and grime.
  • Cap: a very fine linen, of varying ruffled styles, but NOT the “gathered circle mobcap” style so often seen in ‘70’s historical dramas.

Summer-weight worsted wool
So, when planning this, I had to consider a few things: time, place, cost. The first event I wanted to wear my gown to was the 2013 ACFW conference, held last weekend. The main event is a Revolutionary War reenactment in early November. More historical accuracy would be appreciated at the latter than the former, so I knew I had leeway with finishing and construction to begin with. Cost was a factor because, well, 100% fiber fabrics are usually not cheap, especially for period-appropriate gown fabrics. When inquiring on 18cLife, I was told that drapery-weight cottons were the thing, not quilting cottons (and I had to be careful of the print); linen, but be careful of stripes; wool, usually a summer-weight worsted suiting, and not a twill weave; or a silk print or brocade. Just the thought of trying to choose overwhelmed me. Then, a particular wool went on sale, only to be out of stock by the time I made a decision, so I was back at square one ....

[to be continued!!!]

24 comments:

  1. CLIFF HANGER? ugh! I want the whole story!

    The dress I'd planned to wear to ACFW would have been much more historically correct. I was close but the fabric was not silk, nor fine muslin and I want to make it by hand next time. (I made a number of dresses in August - I didn't have time to sew by hand).

    Shannon I only saw your dress from afar and in photos but I loved it and your devotion to authenticity. I can't wait to hear about your November event!

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    1. Word count, Debra! Word count. :-D I'll cover the rest during my slots in October and November.

      And ah, those little details make such a difference ... I machine sewed my interior seams (many of them were actually basted, since I'll have to adjust once my real stays are made) but most of the visible seams--shift and ruffle edging, for instance--were hand-sewed. But thank you! I was still working on it the morning conference opened, LOL!

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    2. I recall you saying you had sewing to do! ha ha. I intend to make my next 1812 era dress by hand. So I better start in the winter!

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    3. Yes, I was doing those sleeve flounces! I needed to finish the hooks and eyes on the front, too, but wound up pinning it instead. :-)

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  2. What dedication! And I saw the photos form conference. You were stunning. You would put to shame Martha W. and Dolly M. and Abigail A. :)

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    1. Psh, I doubt I'd put those venerable ladies to shame!! Mine will be but a middlin' impression. And I didn't have a cap yet. Scandalous!

      And dedication? Nah, I'm just that much of a nerd ...

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  3. I hear you on the work and expense to get it historically accurate! I worked in a costume shop all through college, and while it is not economically feasible to be 100% period accurate for most plays, I still cringe at blatant errors, especially the cut of a dress, which cannot be disguised over distance.

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    1. The hard thing--and this gets discussed a lot on reenactors' lists--is not to make those feel bad who haven't, or can't, achieved that accuracy. But ... yes. :-)

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  4. GREAT article and FABULOUS dress at ACFW conference. We should get some pics of that for your sequel to this article! Thanks, Shannon!

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    1. Thanks so much, Carrie dear! I already planned to use at least one of those. :-D

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  5. Loved your post, Shannon! I'm afraid I have that disease known as perfection, also! Looking forward to the pics of the dress you wore to ACFW!

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    1. Thanks so much! And it's hard to let go, isn't it??

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  6. I agree, I was enjoying the post & then - you tease!!! LOTS of pictures please we you continue.

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    1. LOL!!! Thanks, and oh, your book is on its way!

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  7. I really do enjoy reading these posts on this blog and this post is another great one! I'm looking forward to reading the next part. I will stay tuned!

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    1. Thank you! I was a little concerned, since it isn't quite as research heavy as others (well, yet ...), but yes! Third Friday in October ...

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  8. Word count should be suggested, not demanded. Some articles call to be a little longer. Waiting with bated breath for the sequels.

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    1. :-D You're so kind, Judith! I didn't want to overwhelm readers, you know?

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  9. Hello Shannon, where would I find an equal listing of clothing items for men of the period? Thank you for your help.

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    1. I'll be posting related websites (probably should have done that already!) but here's a good place to start:

      18th Century Notebook--Men's Clothing: http://larsdatter.com/18c/men.html

      La Couturiere Parisienne Costume History: http://marquise.de/en/1700/index.shtml (exhaustive articles on both men's and women's clothing--you might need to dig a little!)

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  10. Period clothing is my favorite part of research in my novels. I can't get enough and my Pinterest board runneth over! Great post.

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    1. Thanks, Karla! :-) Pinterest could be a serious addiction of mine ...

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  11. You were stunning, Shannon. I was very impressed by the dress. The fabric in the picture looks almost cherry red, and your dress, if I remember correctly, was more a burgundy. Is it the lighting or are you making another dress?

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    1. That was the lighting, Janet. It's an amazing color, isn't it? I bought it online--labeled there as "maroon," but as you said, it's more burgundy or cranberry. (I picture maroon as more brick-colored.) And--thank you!!

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