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.
So above the rounded neckline of the dress there’s a high ivory collar. It appears to be made of net, gathered for texture and sewn with lines of gold thread.
I actually had a bunch of ivory net in my stash, so I started off by cutting two layers. First, there’s a curved piece to serve as the base, then a top layer that’s cut larger and gathered down. It’s possible that the top layer was also a proportionally-cut curve that’s gathered to fit, but to make the process easier I just cut a big rectangle and relied on varied gathering to shape it into a curve.
I cut a base layer to fit around my actual neck rather than to match the curve of the dress neckline, which as you recall had a bit of a gap due to a previous error. I left plenty of room at the bottom, though, to ensure that I’d be able to stitch it to the dress with no pulling.
For the top layer, I made my piece about twice as long as the base to allow plenty of room for gathers. After pinning a hem in the top edge (so it would be caught by later seams) I ran six parallel lines of gathering stitches (machine-sewn for the tiniest gathers) along the length of the top layer and pulled up the threads until it fit the base. I know it should’ve been five layers, but I miscounted and figured it wouldn’t matter anyway.
To make a clean back closure I stitched the base and top layers together at the short ends, right sides together, then flipped them over and topstitched over the top gathering line to keep the two layers aligned.
The main accessory for the outfit is a fabulous rhinestone choker– it’s huge, it’s gorgeous, and it probably inspired my long-standing partiality for festoon-style necklaces. I’ve been drooling at the thought of getting to wear something similar, but it’s been quite a process getting to the finish line on this one…
I had a difficult time finding anything that was as elaborate as the choker in the movie– sadly, modern tastes don’t seem to trend towards festoon necklaces. Then I came across a gigantic necklace (billed as a shoulder chain) that had surprisingly familiar-looking elements…
For one of the accessories for this outfit I had to find an appropriate small tiara. It was actually harder than it sounds– while there are tiaras galore on eBay, most are much larger than the delicate piece Eliza Doolittle wears in her gigantic updo. The few smaller ones weren’t much better– they were usually too rounded and none had the tiny dangles you can see in the original. I finally came to the conclusion that I’d need to cobble one together myself. Luckily, after much searching I found this comb, which had the radiating tines decorated with rhinestones, even if it was in the wrong color. I removed the heart from the front and snipped off the extra tines so there were only seven, just like the movie version. I had to bend them into the correct position to make them look like they were radiating from a wider base, as well.
So as I was working on the dress, I thought I’d see how it looked with the rhinestone shoulder chain that had first inspired the project– by itself it looked reasonably good, but once I tried the choker on the dress form (more on that later) it was clear that the combination of the two was just too much. Too gaudy, too garish, not so much a replica of the original as an over-the-top version you might see on stage. Plus, it wasn’t quite long enough to drape properly over the shoulders, which (while fixable) just pushed it over the edge into “nope” territory.
So despite being initially inspired by the rhinestone shoulder chain, I decided that it had to go. (Luckily for me, since it had arrived broken I got an almost complete refund from the seller, so I only ended up paying $6 for it– not a huge waste of money) But what to replace it with?
I can never let well enough alone, it seems, and so while I had a perfectly serviceable tabard I knew I’d need something to make it more visually interesting– more “royal,” in other words. As usual, a simple idea (adding silver trim to the hems) quickly ballooned out of control with the idea of getting several different kinds of silver iron-on trims and constructing a faux chain of office to go across the chest, and it wasn’t until I discovered that my chosen trim was unavailable in silver AND realized that it was probably not a good idea to count on ironing velvet (risk of crushing), that I came back down to a relatively sensible level of planning and decided to just make a real chain of office for my husband to wear over his tabard.
Yeah, you read that right. For some reason I thought that constructing a chain of office– which would eventually require several dozen metal bits and pieces, rhinestones, epoxies, and a few different kinds of pliers– would be the more sensible route.
Going to Anime Boston this year reminded me that I haven’t told you all about my hat project. THE hat project. The big one. The mother of all projects. The project that spanned years, involved international commerce, and still has remnants floating around my house. And it all started with a single hat. Or, the lack of one.
A few years back, as the steampunk trend was just on the upswing, I decided to make myself a steampunk costume for Anime Boston. It would have a tweed skirt, a brocade bustier, some interesting leather doodads and brass thingies, and of course a miniature top hat. The problem was, I couldn’t find a hat that I liked– the pre-decorated ones were insanely expensive and the craft-store felt ones were really cheap looking, being more like flocked plastic than real felt and too small for what I had in mind. I did try to place an order for the largest available cheap felt hat from an online supply store, but they were out of stock. That, I think, was the turning point in the whole endeavor, because I had to think outside of the box. (why I didn’t just make a hat out of cardboard and cover it in fabric, I have no idea…)
As you know, if you do an in-depth search for an item on eBay the regular results eventually give way to hits for overseas wholesalers who will sell you bulk quantities of said item. While I personally had no need for huge numbers of tiny hats, it occurred to me that if I was having a problem locating a reasonably priced, decent-quality mini top hat, other people might be having the same problem. Pretty soon I had an email conversation going with a hat company in China that could ship me 150 black felt mini top hats for what worked out to be just under $4.00 a hat, including shipping (which was the most expensive part).
Sparing you the logistics, eventually I ended up with two giant cardboard boxes of hats and about 3 months in which to prepare them for sale at an Artist’s Alley table at Anime Boston.