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.
Okay, this isn’t an “I made this” post so much as an “I found this” post. It’s about eyeglasses. That is, reasonably historical-looking eyeglasses for those of us who are visually challenged but don’t want to wear contacts all the time. If you’re looking for an inexpensive source for glasses that look pretty decent for dates after 1800 or so, try these:
I found them at Zenni Optical, and after a lot of comparison shopping at similar discount-glasses sites I determined that they were the best-priced pair I could find. The basic prescription glasses, with standard coatings and thickness, cost me under $12 (plus another $5 in shipping). They come in gold and silver, as well as a few less historical-looking colors.
I also picked up this pair (which I don’t like as much on my face because they’re kind of big, but which would still work). They were only $3 more and also come in other colors.
(I will note that both of these pairs have plastic nosepads, which are not historically accurate, but in general this is about as close as you’re going to get without actually seeking out reproduction frames.)
Get some the next time you feel the urge to stare disapprovingly over your spectacles at someone!
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!
The theme for the Costume College afternoon tea this year is “The Haunted Mansion,” and I wanted something appropriately spooky to wear– but it couldn’t be too involved, since I already had tons of other work to do on my other costumes. After some brainstorming I decided to make a Victorian-ish black outfit with skeleton accents– in this case, a skeleton cameo brooch and a skeleton bodysuit worn under a sheer blouse, so the bones would (subtly) show through.
The brooch, blouse, and bodysuit were easily obtained, but I knew I needed a long, black skirt to complete the look. I considered finding a sheer black skirt to complete the “ghost” concept, but ultimately discarded that idea in favor of something more versatile– a black moiré skirt that I could re-use for other Victorian/early Edwardian ensembles.
I already had the perfect pattern in my stash– Truly Victorian 297, an 1898 flared skirt. I’d used it once before to make a tweed skirt for a steampunk outfit, so knew it was easy to put together.
Not a real progress post, just a brief update to let you know that I’m still plugging away at attaching the beetlewings to the Lady Macbeth dress. The skirt is taking forever– there’s just so much fabric to cover in the half-circle back panel alone, that even though the wings are spaced about 2″ apart it’s a serious undertaking.
So far I’ve been giving each individual piece of the dress a margin of 4″ or more without any wings at all to make it easier to stitch things together during construction, and I’ve done most of the lower sleeves, the entire front skirt panel, and about 80% of the back skirt panel.
I still need to do the bodice and the upper sleeves, which I intend to stitch with wings that have been clipped down to size rather than the full wings– the original dress had this feature as well, which allowed for closer spacing of the wing bits and a more dramatic look on the bodice.
This photo shows how they used partial wings on the bodice– they’ve been clipped to a much blunter shape than the original pointed wing shape:
And this one (unlike some others where the lighting’s softer) gives a really good look at the spacing of the wings on the bodice vs. the skirt:
Judging from this photo I’ve actually spaced the wings on my skirt and sleeves a bit more closely than the original, but I really wanted to up the “wow” factor for this costume. I think I’ll probably go through most if not all of my original 1,000 wings in finishing the back skirt panel, so once that’s done I’ll open up the second 1,000 and start clipping them to the smaller size so I can get to work on the bodice. So much to do!
Once I had my mockup, it was time to cut into my actual fabrics. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done. Due to the differing stretch of the fabrics along the vertical and horizontal axes I had to be careful to cut my pattern pieces in specific directions, which (given the size of some of my pieces) was tough and didn’t always allow me to maximize my use of the fabric’s area. Since my bodice pieces were the smallest of all, I resigned myself to fitting them in around the larger, more oddly-shaped pieces, which I cut out first.
I had 6 yards of my kelly green gauze (42″ wide after shrinking), and 7 yards of my dark green crochet lace (54″ wide). Sadly, while I ended up having just* enough crochet lace to cut out my dress (with judicious piecing of the two center back bodice panels), I did not have enough gauze to make my underskirt. After cutting the gigantic sleeves out there just wasn’t enough fabric to make the skirt flare properly, and since I’d decided in the interim to change my plans for the sleeve trim I needed extra for that as well. I’ve ordered more fabric to re-cut the underskirt and do the sleeve trim (4 yards to be extra safe) and I’ll have to try to dye it to match, which will be incredibly annoying, but not as annoying as if I’d had to match the crochet lace color. At least any slight color difference will be less obvious since it’ll be somewhat hidden by the extra folds of the overskirt.
That being said, I did manage to cut out everything from my crochet lace, and since I’d never worked with a full lace overlay before, much less fabric as weird as this one, I was a bit concerned that things could get ugly. I decided to take some precautions, underlining every single piece with tulle to minimize the lace pulling out of shape, and basting everything together as I went.
I cut my lining pieces first from the cotton gauze, and then laid out my crochet lace face down on the carpeted floor (the carpet really helped keep the fabric from slipping out of alignment), smoothing a layer of pale green tulle over it. Then I set my lining pieces on top of both layers of fabric and pinned them in place through all layers before cutting around them. Once they were cut I hand-basted around each piece to keep things from shifting.
For the bodice, I basted through all three layers since I’ll be assembling the panels into a bodice before adding the beetlewings– I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll try to stitch the wings just to the top two layers, or go through all three, but either way the pieces are small enough that I can work with the bodice as a single piece without too much trouble. For the sleeves and skirt, however, I’ll be adding the wings before assembly, so I need to keep the lining pieces separate.
* FYI, here’s a photo of all of my scraps from the crochet lace. This is out of a full seven yards of 54″ wide fabric– when I say I had “just enough,” I mean it!