Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Louisa's Costume

As part of my research into 1880s fashion I was struggling to find exactly what I wanted for Louisa, especially sewing patterns for 1880s house dresses. I asked for advice from the Internationl Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA) who are experts in all things miniature and another member, Meg Wilcox kindly provided me with a whole host of historical information. Meg works as a costume historian so is definitely the person to go to for this sort of information! Meg suggested I try archive.org, a fantastic website which digitizes all sorts of vintage periodicals, an avenue of research that had never occurred to me before. The fact that there were plenty of fashion magazines in publication at the time and were vitally important to ladies at that time as most made their own clothes or got them made bespoke as there weren't off-the-shelf options in that period. The magazines did not always include colour plates but were very descriptive and included sewing patterns. 

Here is some of the information that Meg gave me :-

"Period ladies magazines, like Godeys, Petersons, Harper's Bazar, and others are our initial go-to when researching a specific costume. Many of these are available on archive.org. Fashion-plates only show the "ideal", but sometimes there are articles on every-day dresses, too. Then we search for photographs on-line, and check our reference books for pattern-making advice.

I could spend many hours losing myself on these websites. Not only do they contain all sorts of fashion pictures and articles but also pieces on needlecraft, knitting patterns, and little nuggets of useful information about how life was in the 1880s. I later found a site that lists all the Harpers Bazaar magazines by date:-

cornell library - List of Harpers Bazaar

and particular for pattern cutting, this one:-

national garment cutter

here is an example plate:-

More from Meg:-

"1879 is one of those interesting dates - bustles disappeared for a couple of years, and skirts became rather slim. 1888 is just coming out of the Second Bustle period, so you've got two transitional periods going"

I had come up with a couple of fabrics I thought might be suitable at the small scale i'm working with. One was a shiny, faintly lined brown coat lining and one was a brown more woolly pashmina fabric, but other opinions were against these so my original post to the IGMA had been to ask which fabrics would have been popular in that era. This produced a wealth of suggestions from the group:-

  • plain muslin (calico in the UK)
  • silk
  • thin flannel for a more wool look
  • quilt weight cotton (though might need to wash out the stiffening put into the cheaper fabrics)
  • threads per inch are a factor
  • Liberty ofLondon makes “cotton lawn” that is thinner. Old handkerchiefs are also a good source of thinner cotton (they were often starched, but it washes out)
  • the type of muslin used in cooking (its more like gauze, with an open weave).
  • Contact the Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Research Center in Carson City Nevada. You might be able to contact them online. The phone number is 775-687-6173. The curator is Jan Loverin and she works with vintage fabrics everyday.
  • Men’s cotton shirting fabric is often thinner than quilting fabric. Old men’s shirts in thrift stores are often good sources for fabric

I then had some advice from James Carrington, a doll artist from the UK who has taught in many countries and is seen as an expert in the group

James Carrington Dolls

"Natural fabric only pure silk or cotton. Brushed cotton will have a woollen effect, search charity (thrift) shops for old, washed shirts. If the fabric creases when you screw it its natural fabric. If its to move and flow avoid anything that that over stiffens but spray starch soaked into the garment when its on will help gravity. Important to let the wet garment fully dry before you touch it though. Once dry it's still flexible and a slight mist will help you rearrange the drape."

One last comment from Meg:-

"A serviceable, everyday wool or alpaca dress of the 1880s would likely be rather springy, smooth-textured, and slightly glossy, unlike any modern textile. A really fine cotton sateen might give a reasonable impression of the surface of such a fabric, and a good starching would help it to have the appropriate "spring", as well as making it easier to work with. Is Miss Allcott getting a bustle? Even some examples of work-dresses are obviously cut to go over a bustle in the 80s."

A long conversation with James later produced some great ideas for printing my own fabric... (see the next post).

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