When writing this post, I initially started writing about how a problem facing many historical costumers is carrying all of our bits and bobs when many dresses come without pockets, and how finding appropriately period purses can be difficult. And I was going to talk about how that’s what prompted me to want a chatelaine, which was basically a multi-tool for 19th century women… but then I had to admit to myself that my desire for a chatelaine really had nothing to do with needing to carry stuff with me, and everything to do with it just looking really cool.
So what is a chatelaine? Basically it’s a hook or pin that women would attach to their belt/waistband. It would have several chains hanging from it, and dangling from the chains would be an assortment of useful items– pencils, watches, perfume vials, buttonhooks, needle cases, notebooks, coin purses… basically anything a woman might want to have handy.
Of course, these items weren’t strictly utilitarian– many chatelaines were made of silver, gorgeously embellished, and just generally decorative. Here are some of my favorites, mostly from the 1880s-1890s:
So, with all of this beautiful inspiration, is it any wonder I wanted one for myself?
The problem, of course, is that antique chatelaines with any attachments at all tend to sell for no less than $200, and easily reaching $2,000 depending on condition and complexity. I wasn’t about to spend that much, so I had to improvise.
As you may recall, for me the costuming highlight of the past two years has been attending Costume College– not just for the opportunity to meet up with like-minded costumers and learn new things, but because it provides a venue/excuse for me to make and wear some fabulous costumes that would otherwise languish in my imagination. The Saturday night Gala, especially, is the pinnacle of the weekend costume-wise, and I’ve always had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to make and wear.
Not this year. The themes for 2020 have just been released– the Gala will be Titanic-themed– and I’m stuck. While I would have jumped at the chance back in high school when the Titanic movie first came out (and still think the costumes are lovely), in the intervening years it seems like everyone has already made their own versions of the costumes, so a reproduction of a movie outfit would be unoriginal at best. And while I could always just make something Edwardian in style and go with that, I just can’t seem to get excited about it without some kind of inspiration.
Looking back at my two previous Gala outfits (and many of my other favorite costumes), I tend towards very detailed reproductions of instantly recognizable but seldom-made gowns– heck, the Katniss dress was my first foray into blogging, and definitely fit the bill. I think that having a specific point of reference helps me stay on track in terms of figuring out what comes next in a complicated costume, and it’s nice to be able to feel that I’ve gotten things “right” at the end. On the other hand, I feel like I’d like to be able to break out of the box next year by making something original… I just don’t know if I like the Titanic theme enough to use it as my inspiration.
Complicating matters is the fact that I have a bunch of fabric in my stash that I really ought to get around to using, so I feel kind of compelled to at least try to make a Gala gown out of some of it… if only I could figure out exactly what I wanted to do with it!
So what say you, readers? Do I try to find some Edwardian inspiration to go with the Titanic theme after all? Do I dig into my stash (which really leans Victorian in terms of fabric) and try to be virtuous? Do I hold on and hope that a new film or TV series comes out with fabulous costumes I can reproduce in time for next year? Or do I sit here and waffle over what to do until it’s too late and I have to re-wear something from a previous Gala (not the worst fate in the world, but not nearly as much fun)?
Fabric: The original dress was made out of crocheted tinsel yarn, though I managed to find a decent approximation with what was listed as “crochet lace” (totally not crocheted, you can tell). In retrospect I think my fabric was just a bit heavy, but since my best alternative was much too light it was the best I could get. If you’re looking for something similar, you may want to try Aliexpress.com, where I saw some crochet lace with tiny sequins in it that might mimic the original tinsel better.
I lined the dress with cotton crinkle gauze because I wanted it to have some stretch to allow me to fit the bodice snugly without needing boning. It worked, but the gauze I used ended up feeling kind of thick overall– go for as light a gauze as you can, to avoid being too hot with all of the necessary layers.
Structure: Most of my decisions on structure were based on the desire to avoid the dress sagging/stretching downwards from the sheer weight of the skirt. The princess seams in the bodice were a good call, both to aid in shaping and minimize stretching, and they were hardly noticeable once the beetlewings were sewn on. I also definitely got it right with my idea for skirt structure– the extra support of the separate yoke really reassures me that this dress will not stretch out longer over time (like the My Fair Lady dress did), and on a similar note I’m glad that I underlined the crochet lace with tulle, which kept it from losing its shape as I sewed.
I will note that in the future I may opt to wear a corset under the dress for a properly hourglassy figure, even if Ellen Terry’s contemporaneous letters expressed joy about how she didn’t have to wear one under the dress onstage.
Beetlewings: All the write-ups of the original dress say that it used “1,000 beetlewings,” like that’s some sort of huge number. Don’t listen! I used more like 1700 and I could’ve added more to the skirt without it looking overdone. And since I’m fairly sure that the wings they used in the original dress were smaller than the ones I have now, I’m betting the original used at least that many as well. To save on cost, definitely buy them in bulk on Ebay from Thailand instead of trying to buy them in the U.S. And since you’ll have to drill extra holes in them yourself anyway and trim them to size, you may as well get them undrilled rather than spending the money on predrilled wings.
Sleeves: I know I got the sleeve shape right in terms of the elbow crook being at the underarm seam– it was clearly that way in the original– but honestly, I don’t like it. It makes the sleeves twist weirdly around your arms when you try to bend them, especially when you raise your arms in that iconic right-from-the-portrait pose, and it’s uncomfortable to wear. Really, the only way it works is when your arms are down by your sides. If I were doing this again I would move the curved seam to the top of the sleeve, relying on the crochet lace and beetlewings to disguise the seamline, historical accuracy be damned.
Trim: Despite my belated realization that I’d made my sleeve trim too wide and thereby messed up the proportions, I’m still at least 90% happy with it. If I could go back I might have purchased one more skein of gold cording to double up on the border lines (like in the original), but I don’t know if I’d have bothered to correct the trim width– couching that many gryphon motifs was difficult enough, I don’t even want to think about doing 30% more…
Belt: That being said, I do think I may redo the belt at some point. The links are just too big and they look costume-y, which I was trying to avoid (at least, as much as one can while wearing a giant wig and a dress sewn with shiny green beetlewings). And I’m considering getting some gold foil to glue over the links for a “real metal” look, rather than paint.
Wig: I’m definitely going to restyle the wig the next time I wear it– looking at the painting again, the gold ribbon was too wide and wasn’t wrapped as densely as it was in the picture. And I’ll probably get some diluted glue to smooth over the wig to avoid all the flyaways I ended up with by the end of the night. Or perhaps a bunch of hairnets?
Anyway, all in all this was a really fulfilling project– I was extremely happy with the final product and had a great time wearing it, and learned some new skills along the way!
So now that things have settled down a bit, I wanted to do a post about Costume College this year! As you may recall, I had a great time last year, so I’ve been excited to go back! You’ve already seen the making-of posts for the costumes I wore, and my favorite shots of the beetlewing gown, but here’s a summary of the rest of the weekend!
Before even arriving at the conference hotel, we stopped by the Fashion District to shop– and when I say “stopped by,” I mean “shopped for five hours straight.” I ended up with 17 yards of fabric, plus assorted other items, that (with luck) will be showing up in future posts!
I had a great time wearing this whole ensemble to the Costume College gala this year– it didn’t fit the theme (“The Opulent Streets of Venice”), but it was indisputably the most fabulous of my costumes, so I had to wear it!
We took a bunch of photos all around the hotel, but it was tough to find just the right dramatic background…
But then darkness fell, and the hotel lit up their outdoor fountain with FIRE! I started off just posing near it, even going so far as to step up against the wall (taking care to keep my long sleeves and wig well away from the flames):
But by the end of the night I’d decided to literally take the plunge, stepping into the fountain itself to get some fabulous photos!
The water in the center was actually a lot deeper than I’d expected– about knee-deep– so my dress got pretty soaked! I wrung it out afterwards before going back up to my room to blot it with towels before turning the hair dryer on it so it would dry out enough to completely dry by morning.
I’m kind of kicking myself, though, because I neglected to remember that the Sargent painting portrays Ellen Terry slightly turned away from the viewer, rather than head-on the way I posed in the photos above. I only have a single photo of me in that position, and I wasn’t careful enough with the placement of my arms!
I’m definitely going to have to put on the outfit again to get better full-length photos at some point. I may even, as I mentioned in my belt post, re-do the belt someday to make the links smaller the way they are in real life. But that may have to wait until next year’s Costume College!
The final touch for this costume was the crown, which Lady Macbeth is shown raising above her head in the Sargent painting.
That being said, the internet assures me that 1) this was supposed to be King Duncan’s crown, not hers, and 2) she never actually struck this pose in any of her performances of the play. But it’s still the most recognizable pose, so I had to make a crown to carry– and also to wear, since I wasn’t about to just carry it around all night.
Since I am not experienced in metalwork, I had three options: First, have a metal crown custom-made for me. That seemed awfully expensive for a prop. Second, make a fake metal crown out of craft foam and gold paint. That was definitely something I considered, but ultimately I wanted it to look really shiny and polished both inside and out, and I wasn’t confident I could do that in the time allotted. So I went with my last option, which was to find a reasonably decent-looking crown online and go with it.
The first event at Costume College every year is a pool party, and while almost no one actually goes in the pool, it’s a great chance to show off a more casual outfit that’s suitable for hot weather. I think I’d been at the party last year for about an hour (sweating the whole time) before deciding that I totally wanted to wear a set of 1930s-style beach pajamas next time– they seemed so loose and comfortable, as opposed to the foam-armored corset I’d laced myself into at the time.
When they announced that this year’s pool party theme was “Garments of the Galaxy,” I decided to make my beach pajamas out of navy blue net embellished with silver glitter stars. Not quite authentic to the 1930s, but I thought it would at least be glamorous and fun.
Although there are patterns out there for 1930s-style beach pajamas, I ended up picking out a modern Vogue pattern (Vogue 9321) for a wide-legged jumpsuit, as the silhouette looked right, I liked the tie-back detail, and it was a lot less expensive than the vintage-style patterns were. Plus, it uses elastic instead of a zipper at the waist, which would make it easier to fit and sew. And it has pockets!
I made a few alterations to the construction process, specifically to fully line the whole thing– the original pattern only lines the back bodice section, but with my sheer fabric that was clearly not an option. I lined it with navy blue rayon challis, which is flowy and breathable.
After doing a quick mockup of just the bottom section to check the fit over the hips, I cut out my actual fabrics and got to work. I will note that I didn’t bother to pre-wash the rayon, since I was never going to be able to wash the jumpsuit anyway due to the glittered net. For the record, the glitter started shedding the moment I unwrapped the fabric and hasn’t stopped since– I’m going to have to pack it in a plastic bag to keep it from contaminating the rest of my luggage!
The pattern is categorized as “Very Easy,” so I wasn’t surprised when it went together fairly quickly– I sewed everything but the elastic waist and the hem in one evening. I bag-lined the top pieces of the jumpsuit so I’d have finished edges and clean insides (topstitching the edges to keep things flat), but left the bottom lining completely separate from the outer fabric except at the waist and the pockets so it the pant legs would flow nicely.
Due to the scratchy glitter fabric I did have to alter the back waistband, adding a strip of rayon where the outer layer was turned to the inside to form the elastic casing– otherwise the glitter would’ve been against my skin, which would have been very uncomfortable.
I also tacked down the bodice where the two pieces overlap– otherwise the neckline gaped open too much for comfort. I just stitched the pieces together along the overlap line to about 1/2″ below the top edge to keep things closed. Due to the tie-back design, once the front was stitched together I was able to wear a regular bra without it showing beneath the bodice, which was a definite plus!
I didn’t bother to hem the net layer of the pant legs– it wasn’t going to fray anyway– but I did hem the lining layer with a small rolled hem. Finally, because the elastic waistband was a bit bunchy-looking for my taste, I made a quick sash out of a long piece of net– tied to the side with the ends loose, it defined the waist a little bit and added some extra drama to the look. I added a belt loop at the center back to keep the sash from riding up higher than the waistline of the pants.
For the hat, I bought a wide-brimmed hat in sheer navy blue, and stitched a strand of white LEDs to the brim to mimic stars. Here it is before the LEDs: